Urawa Red Diamonds vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 2
Saturday 26 February 2022
Saitama Stadium 2022
Kick Off: 15:00 (JST)
Gamba travel to Saitama this Saturday for what will be their 1000th J. League match and this perennially feisty contest has taken on extra significance due to the sub-par starts both teams have made to their 2022 campaigns. The Nerazzurri were soundly beaten by an impressive Kashima last weekend in Suita (more on the controversy surrounding that later) before kicking off their Levain Cup group stage slate with a 3-2 home reverse against local rivals Cerezo. New Gamba kantoku Tomohiro Katanosaka had talked of turning Panasonic Stadium into a fortress, but with those words looking hollow at the moment, he’ll be hoping a trip to equally under pressure Urawa could be the catalyst for a turnaround in his side’s fortunes. Reds were, and still very much are, expected to duel it out for one of the top 3 spots this season, however, since lifting the Super Cup a fortnight ago they’ve dropped points against Kansai opposition in each of their opening 2 league fixtures. After slipping on the banana skin that was newly-promoted Kyoto Sanga away in round 1 they had to settle for a share of the spoils in their re-arranged round 9 encounter with Vissel Kobe on Wednesday, an outcome made all the more painful by the fact the Hyogo side’s equaliser came courtesy of recently departed Reds legend Tomoaki Makino.
The omicron variant of Covid-19 is still posing major challenges for Japanese society and J. League clubs certainly aren’t safe from it’s tentacles. However, touch wood, at the time of writing this game is set to go ahead and that’s something of a rarity in recent seasons. I started writing match previews in late 2019 and had full draughts ready to go for, Sendai (home) 2020 and Nagoya (away) 2021, Gamba’s second scheduled league match of the year, but coronavirus struck and the next time the Ao to Kuro took the field was weeks (2021) or months (2020) later. Fingers, toes and everything else crossed that this mouthwatering bout between these two fierce rivals goes ahead without a hitch.
Tale of the Tape
What to say about Gamba vs Kashima that hasn’t already been covered? 33 shots to 8 sure as hell ain’t pretty, but while Antlers could certainly be considered heavyweights in Japanese football circles, the events of Saturday 19th February were akin to Tyson Fury starting off a fight looking sharp and taking the centre of the ring before deliberately low-blowing his opponent and smacking him a couple of times for good measure while he was on the canvas. To run with this analogy a little longer, the ref sees all of this, doesn’t disqualify Fury and the heavyweight champion of the world then proceeds to dance around the ring looking amazing for the remainder of the bout. Does that sound like something you’d purchase on pay-per-view? No? Me, neither. For the record I have nothing against Fury and would, in fact, welcome a charity contest between him and Mr. Yakuza-wannabe Suzuki, maybe it could be arranged for the end of the season? I’ll conclude this long and winding rant with a reminder that I did call out my own player Wellington Silva, for similarly embarrassing and shameful conduct away to Yokohama F. Marinos last year, and would have no problem doing it again should another Gamba player step over the line. On that sunny November afternoon in Kanagawa, however, the officials did their job, booked Silva, told him in no uncertain terms to buck up his ideas and got on with things, in my view the way a referee should take charge of a game.
Speaking of Kanagawa, there may be some of you who might feel this has gone a bit too much the way of a Frontale Rabbit Blog post (sorry, I’m not trying to steal your thunder Neil, honest!), so here are some stats which I’m sure is what you all came for. As mentioned above, before I got sidetracked, not only did Kashima defeat Gamba 3-1, they also outshot their hosts by a whopping 33-8. That figure of 33 is a full 9 shots higher than last season’s poorest Gamba performance (24 vs Urawa and Marinos (both away) – as a side note from those combined 48 shots the Nerazzurri conceded just a solitary goal, a penalty from Ataru Esaka). Kashima’s 19 shots on target also beat the figure of 14 they mustered in their 3-1 home win over the Ao to Kuro last September, a number which was also a season worst for Gamba. However, as is often the way with Antlers, they rather milked the stats, averaging a mere 0.09xG per shot (compared with Gamba’s 0.07) and I’d be very interested to find out the combined xG total of Diego Pituca’s 7 efforts. I’m more than happy to make a case for the Brazilian being the best central midfielder in the league, however, if I was coaching him, his insistence on wasting good attacking opportunities by blasting the ball high and wide from 35 yards out would have me tearing out what little hair I have left. While we’re on the subject of Kashima midfielders, as if to rub salt into blue and black wounds, Yuta Higuchi, the man who turned down Gamba in favour of a move to Ibaraki, was outstanding and looked like he’d been playing in the dark red shirt for years.
Just to quickly wrap up this section from a Gamba perspective, I’d argue that last Saturday’s game could very well have ended up 3-1 or 4-2 to Antlers even without Patric’s contentious ordering off, but the stats would likely have been much, much closer had the officials correctly utilised the VAR system they had at their disposal. It’s just one game, there’ll be 33 more and those will help us gain a better understanding of the true Gamba, after all they only played 45 minutes with 10 men in the whole of last season and that was against Yokohama FC, who of course ended up going down. Saturday’s stats could mean everything, or they could mean nothing, we’ll find out soon enough.
Reds’ key performance indicators, like Gamba’s, are skewed by a lack of data points and also because they played part of one of their two fixtures to date with only 10 players. It’s important to note that by the end of May, Urawa will have contested 23 games, 16 in J1, 6 in the ACL and the aforementioned Super Cup triumph over Kawasaki, a sequence that will require some herculean feats from the Reds to squad to come out the other side unscathed. Kantoku Ricardo Rodríguez set them up in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 for the ill-fated visit to Kyoto before returning to type with a 4-2-3-1 system against Kobe. I’m leaning towards the Spaniard sticking with 4-2-3-1 here, not least due to the club apparently being without the services of a number of key players (more on that below). Rodríguez is in uncharted waters managing at the sharp end of J1 and he’ll require all of his nous and guile to steer the ship through the current choppy waters. He’ll be hoping to chart the right course on Saturday, though as we’ll see below, while Gamba might appear ripe for the picking, that certainly hasn’t been the case in contests between these two at Saitama Stadium in recent years.
Head to Head
Tomohiro Katanosaka takes his troops to the Saitama Stadium in search of his first win as Gamba boss safe in the knowledge that the Nerazzurri haven’t tasted defeat away to Reds since 2016, a 4-0 pasting which also featured some Yuma Suzuki-esque play acting from everyone’s favourite pantomime villain Tomoaki Makino.
The two sides battled it out in round 32 last October with Haruto Shirai a surprise starter for Gamba and a stronger defensive structure in place thanks to the recent arrival of Takashi Kiyama as “assistant” to Masanobu Matsunami. Reds dominated from the off, but couldn’t penetrate the make-shift backline of Sato and Suganuma while “guardian deity” (I love that Google translation) Masaaki Higashiguchi was in inspired form between the sticks for Gamba. All the drama that afternoon was consigned to injury time with Urawa being awarded a controversial spot-kick for handball against Shunya Suganuma, notably Ataru Esaka, the Reds player closest to the incident, an dispatcher of the subsequent spot-kick, barely questioned the original decision and the referee didn’t look particularly confident either as he moved gingerly away from the VAR booth to overturn his call. For those karma believers among you justice was served almost immediately from the re-start as Takuya Iwanami got caught out by an awkward bounce and handballed to allow Patric the chance to slam home the equaliser from the spot.
While Kiyama got things tactically spot on in the away match, Matsunami made an absolute hash of his strategy in the home clash in May, his first game since being appointed caretaker manager in the wake of Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s firing. Gamba went all out attack and Reds, like all good counter-punchers do, bided their time and waited for the chance to strike. And strike they did, with Kasper Junker and Tatsuya Tanaka running riot to have the visitors 3-0 up at the interval. There would be no further scoring in the second half in what was a chastening start to the Matsunami reign.
I thought I’d try something a little different this week, I’ve picked out some players and coaches and commented on each of them in turn, let me know what you think.
Tomohiro Katanosaka – What to make of Katano-soccer so far? The biggest talking point, for me, was his choice of Ryu Takao and Ko Yanagisawa as wide-centre backs against Kashima. This mirrors what he did with Tomoki Iwata and Yuto Misao at Oita, essentially using players previously thought of as full-backs or wing-backs more centrally. Where does that leave Genta Miura? It appears he’ll now be competing with Gen Shoji for the middle centre back slot and guiding some younger players along in the Levain Cup group stages.
A final point on Katanosaka, I like his blood and thunder attitude on the touchline, something that’s been missing since the departure of Kenta Hasegawa at the end of 2017. Indeed Hasegawa’s FC Tokyo (2020) and Tokushima Vortis last year are two examples that spring to mind of opposition benches out-shouting and out-influencing (is that a word? I mean putting more pressure on the officials) the Gamba dugout at Panasonic Stadium in recent seasons.
Hiroto Yamami – Came on as a second-half substitute in challenging circumstances against Antlers before starting and spurning a decent chance in the Osaka Derby on Wednesday. Some nice touches on display in both outings and he looks like someone to keep an eye out for in the coming weeks.
Ju Se-jong – A poor performance against Kashima and with Kohei Okuno fluffing his lines versus Cerezo, Gamba are in desperate need of Dawhan’s arrival and Mitsuki Saito and Yuki Yamamoto regaining full fitness. New signing Hideki Ishige finished the Osaka Derby in central midfield alongside Shu Kurata, is that something we could see more of?
Keisuke Kurokawa – Started at left wing-back, switched to left-back in the wake of Patric’s ordering off and played out the final 8 minutes at right-back following Yuya Fukuda’s entrance. I knew I’d seen him play on the right side for the U23s in J3 at some point, but had started to doubt myself and believe that it’d been some kind of optical illusion.
Shinya Yajima and Tiago Alves – Nice to see two Gamba old boys get off to a flyer in J2, I think Yajima’s issues in the top flight were more mental than physical while Alves has flattered to deceive at a number of J1 clubs so I don’t really feel any criticism is warranted over the Nerazzurri’s decision to let both leave last winter.
The Levain Cup – I know it’s not a person, but while it’s usually seen as a bit of an inconvenience, this year I think it could bring some real benefits to the club by giving Katanosaka the opportunity to try out players in different positions (Jiro Nakamura at right, then left wing-back for instance) and also build up the fitness of those struck down by Covid.
Patric, Gamba’s leading scorer last year with 13 J1 goals, will sit this one out after the J. League upheld his ban for a straight red in the much publicised game with Kashima. Judging from comments made by Katanosaka on February 22nd, both Masaaki Higashiguchi and Hiroki Fujiharu are injured and won’t play here. Club legend Higashiguchi saw his league leading run of 109 consecutive appearances, stretching back to 2018, come to an end last weekend though he did watch events unfold from the stand. His normal backup Jun Ichimori is also out as he continues his rehabilitation following hamstring surgery last year, however, Kei Ishikawa performed admirably against Antlers and Taichi Kato likewise in the Osaka Derby. It’s believed that both Wellington Silva and Yuki Yamamoto were among the 9 players who contracted Covid in pre-season, both started against Cerezo, but may be lacking the sharpness to start here. Mitsuki Saito hasn’t been seen yet this season and fellow new recruits Kwon Kyung-won and Dawhan are eagerly awaiting the Japanese border re-opening at the beginning of March, the talented duo will surely bring a lot to the side when they are finally allowed into the country.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Urawa Red Diamonds
I kind of covered a lot of the ground I wanted to here with my comments about Urawa in the ‘tale of the tape’ section above, but they are an intriguing prospect this term so let’s dig a little deeper. They brought in 12 new faces last winter, with the arrivals drawn from J1, J2, Japanese universities, Japanese high schools, and Europe (David Moberg Karlsson and potentially a new forward if rumours are to be believed), while it was only really squad players and veterans who headed for the exits. That kind of activity in addition to the steady progress they made under Ricardo Rodríguez in his first season with the club understandably has many punters, myself included, tipping them for big things in the next few years. However, the J. League can be a wild and unforgiving beast and the crazy schedule that faces Reds in the coming months really could be make or break time for the men from Saitama. As I mentioned in my most recent J-Talk podcast appearance, I find it easier to deliberate over known quantities such as Kawasaki or Kobe rather than teams who’ve undergone a pretty rapid overhaul, like Urawa have, but I guess that’s what makes this project all the more fascinating and that’s why they’re very much the talk of the town in J. League circles. Saturday’s match should be full of intrigue and I’m also fascinated to see how Reds are shaping up when they come to visit Suita Stadium in early July.
Some time left-back, some time forward Takahiro Akimoto will miss out after his red card against Vissel Kobe while Swedish winger David Moberg Karlsson, like Kwon and Dawhan above, is still awaiting clearance to enter the country. Elsewhere Danish forward Kasper Junker and wingers Yusuke Matsuo and Tomoaki Okubo are yet to feature in a matchday squad in 2022 and both Yuichi Hirano and Yuta Miyamoto were on the bench for the Super Cup clash with Kawasaki, but were absent for the Kyoto and Kobe matches. Reds did confirm corona cases a week or so ago, but I’m unsure whether any of the names above have been missing due to Covid, injury or just plain old non-selection.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.