Gamba Osaka vs Kawasaki Frontale
2022 J1 Season Round 3
Sunday 6 March 2022
Kick Off: 15:00 (JST)
Gamba’s first Sunday fixture of the year pits them against a Kawasaki side, who just like them, are fresh from a hard fought victory over Urawa. The Nerazzurri notched the first win of the Katanosaka era in the club’s 1000th league match thanks to Yuya Fukuda’s late deflected strike shortly after Reds’ midfielder Ken Iwao’s ordering off for a second bookable offence. Frontale, facing the Saitama giants at home, did as great champions so often do, turned a half-time deficit into 3 points while being outshone for long periods. Ominously for the rest of the league, after an extremely brief early season wobble, Wednesday’s triumph saw them regain top spot and they now sit clear of fellow ACL qualifiers Marinos, Kobe and Urawa by two, seven and eight points respectively as they seek to become only the second J1 champions, after Kashima 2007-2009, to three-peat. The league standings also make pleasant reading for Gamba supporters at the moment with the Ao to Kuro back in the rarefied air of the top half for the first time since the conclusion of the 2020 season when, of course, they finished as runners up to this weekend’s opponents.
I managed to snap up a ticket for this one and am looking forward to what should be a decent game played out in the right spirit, as these clashes generally tend to be (fingers crossed for no more red cards).
Tale of the Tape
There might be a slight feeling of vindication washing over the Gamba support at the moment with the tough schedule endured by the 4 ACL participants at the beginning of this season illustrating just how difficult it is to play 3 matches a week while trying to rotate a squad depleted by injuries, Covid cases and suspensions. Those of a blue and black persuasion certainly know all about the challenges involved with that from our torrid 2021 campaign. Speaking of last year, the Nerazzurri’s visit to Saitama Stadium on Saturday played out in quite a similar fashion to their previous trip. The home side were dominant for the opening half hour with Takahiro Sekine causing all manner of problems for the Gamba defence, they should have been at least a goal to the good, but weren’t and then the ideas all but dried up. Reds racked up 9 shots with an xG total of almost 1.2 in the first 30 minutes, but a mere 4 (2 of which were free kicks) after that which amassed only 0.24xG. By way of comparison, following Urawa’s opening onslaught, the Nerazzurri outshot them by a ratio of 2:1 and generated an xG figure almost 4 times higher (0.91 vs 0.24). Further encouragement for new Gamba kantoku Tomohiro Katanosaka comes with the knowledge that in last year’s 1-1 draw, Reds had 24 attempts on Masaaki Higashiguchi’s goal, but only mustered 13 on Saturday, meaning that 3rd choice ‘keeper Kei Ishikawa, who put in another solid showing, found himself protected to a far greater extent than his more illustrious team-mate did 5 months prior. Katanosaka’s strategy seemed straight from his playbook of how to take on Frontale and Reds in last season’s Emperor’s Cup and Gamba themselves have adopted an almost identical set of tactics in their wins at Marinos in 2020 and 2021, so while not in the least bit pretty, it’s something that has proven to be effective. Next point on the Katanosaka agenda…home form.
Time for a slight meander off topic, I’d argue that with Sakai, Shibato, Moberg Karlsson, Matsuo, Akimoto and Junker (Reds) as well as Higashiguchi, Kwon, Fujiharu, Yamamoto, Saito, Dawhan, Patric and Wellington Silva (Gamba) all missing from their respective side’s starting elevens for one reason or another, Saturday’s contest almost had the feel of a Levain Cup tie which leads mean to the main crux of my argument. This might seem like an obvious point, but it deserves repeating, if you’re selling tickets for an event, it’s vital that the people buying those tickets have faith that the event will take place at the time and date advertised and also in relatively the same format as expected. I say this with my Gamba supporters hat on, but I feel it applies to all J1 clubs, in the wake of what’s gone on all around us in 2020 and 2021, why would you buy a season ticket for 2022 when you’re well within your rights to have doubts that the fixtures will go ahead as scheduled, or if they do that your side will be understrength for a good chunk of them? In fairness, I believe the J. League have handled the Covid pandemic as well as could reasonably be expected, but getting over the final hurdles back to normality may prove to be their stiffest challenge to date. I’m watching on with interest.
Now to have a brief look at Sunday’s opponents, Kawasaki Frontale. It’s still early days so I’m not going to take a particularly deep dive into the stats from their 4 games to date, but there are a couple of quick points I’d like to make. With a remarkable figure of just 28 goals conceded in 38 league matches in 2021, it’s no surprise that Frontale had J1’s meanest defence last season, letting in 2 less than nearest challengers Nagoya who had clean-sheet record breaker Mitch Langerak between the sticks for them. This term there have been signs of vulnerability that weren’t quite so evident across the past 2 years, possibly brought on by a spate of injuries at the back, or perhaps by other factors that may become clearer as time progresses. The key to not conceding many goals is not giving up many shots on your goal and in 2021 Kawasaki placed 2nd, behind Kashima, for shots against and shots against on target (those numbers stood at 9.4 and 5.6 per 90 minutes respectively). Their opening games this season have been tough, there’s no two ways about that, but they have exceeded the average for both of those metrics in 3 of their 4 league fixtures so far. Also, interestingly for a team who ranked 3rd in J1 for possession in 2021 (averaging 55.1% of the ball per game), they kicked off 2022 recording less than 50% possession in each of their opening 3 encounters vs FC Tokyo, Yokohama F. Marinos and Kashima, though I should balance that out by saying the Gasmen and Marinos will probably be near the top of the possession league table come the end of the year and Frontale were 2-0 up away to Antlers after only 17 minutes so had little need to press on after that, still it’s a stat to keep an eye on moving forward (I wrote this section prior to their Wednesday match with Urawa where they had 51% of the ball against a side who generally dominate their opponents in that respect, so perhaps the opening 3 games were just something of a blip).
Head to Head
This fixture has certainly not made pretty viewing for those of a Gamba persuasion during the Covid era with Frontale winning all 4 league games across 2020 and 2021 (the only team to achieve this) by a combined score of 12-1. Throw the 2020 Emperor’s Cup and 2021 Super Cup defeats into the equation and any Nerazzurri supporters not in the stadium on Sunday would be forgiven for watching this match from behind their sofas. Incidentally, prior to 2020 Kawasaki had never swept Gamba in any of the previous 14 occasions that the two clubs had occupied the same division.
The 2021 Japanese football season kicked off with the Super Cup at the National Stadium in Tokyo on February 20th. Kaoru Mitoma’s first-half double had Frontale on easy street before a spirited fightback in the second period saw Gamba draw level thanks to Shinya Yajima’s close range effort and a spot kick from Patric. Just when it appeared we were destined for penalties, Kawasaki talisman Yu Kobayashi broke clear to clinch the tie with essentially the last kick of the ball. In between that clash and the first league game between these two just after Golden Week, Gamba went through their Covid cluster crisis and by the time the defending champions rolled into town Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s job was hanging by a thread as a result of just 7 points being accrued from the opening 8 matches and only 2 goals (including one penalty) being scored in that period. As it was, Gamba defended in numbers, but were caught on the counter 4 minutes before the break with Leandro Damião slotting home the opener. The Ao to Kuro had their moments in the second stanza before Kaoru Mitoma (that man again) made the game safe late on, leaving the out of position Yota Sato for dead and then firing past Masaaki Higashiguchi. The curtain came down on the Miyamoto era less than a week later as a result of a 2-1 reversal at Panasonic Stadium courtesy of Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
The stakes were much lower for the return match in round 37 and Frontale ran out winners at Todoroki by a scoreline of 4 goals to 1, which I’d argue was rather flattering. There was some joy for the travelling contingent though, with Takashi Usami dancing his way merrily through the Kawasaki defence to make it 1-2 after just 17 minutes, but unfortunately early and late flurries from the already crowned champions proved far too high a hurdle for the Nerazzurri to overcome.
As an aside, Tomohiro Katanosaka’s Oita teams have caused Kawasaki several problems down the years, notably putting their J1 title celebrations on ice for a few days with a 1-0 win back in 2020 (Frontale of course routed 2nd placed Gamba 5-0 in their next outing to sew up the championship with 4 games to spare) and also famously knocking them out of the Emperor’s Cup on penalties last December following an epic backs-to-the-wall showing. Piecing together the evidence from that Tennohai semi-final, plus Gamba’s tactics, both in their home game with the Azzurro Nero last May, and also in turning over Urawa yet again on their own turf last weekend, it would be wise to assume that we’ll see a similarly defensive strategy employed here.
Since the start of the 2020 season Gamba have recorded 20 away victories and just 13 at home, an unacceptable record that Katanosaka has sought to remedy quickly, granted kicking off your maiden campaign in charge with home fixtures against Kashima and Kawasaki isn’t exactly making things easy. Honestly when the schedule was announced I’d have taken 3 points from the opening trio of games so from that perspective the Nerazzurri are playing with house money at the moment. Fans like myself are now looking for some evidence of a more open, expansive game-plan at Panasonic Stadium which allows the team to score multiple goals regularly while also keeping things relatively tight at the back and not leaving the defence wide open to counter attacks like happened time, and time again last season. However, as mentioned above, much as this is something I’d love to see on Sunday, I think we might be parking the bus as much as the Curva Nord faithful’s patience will allow.
* Player Focus 1 Kei Ishikawa – From what I’ve seen in J3, cup competitions and briefly in J1, Ishikawa is a more than competent shot-stopper, though that really should be a minimum requirement for a goalkeeper with a professional contract at a top flight club. His distribution is definitely his weak point, but you wouldn’t really know that from last Saturday’s performance as he was rarely called upon to do anything with his feet, a trend I’d expect to see continue if he’s selected on Sunday.
* Player Focus 2 Yuya Fukuda – As if Gamba’s resident heartthrob couldn’t get any more popular with the Nerazzurri fanbase, he goes and scores away to Urawa again. 2 of his 3 J1 goals to date have come at Saitama Stadium and, in fact, save for a spectacular strike for Gamba U23 vs Akita in 2018 and the clincher against Tokushima in the 2020 Emperor’s Cup semi-final he’s never found the back of the net in front of his adoring supporters. What better opposition to break his J1 home duck against than Japanese football’s dominant force over the past half decade? One final point on Yuya-kun, he replaced Takashi Usami last week and slotted in on the left side of the front 3 (alongside Yamami and Ishige at that stage) meaning that he’s now basically played every position at Gamba with the exception of goalkeeper, centre-back and centre-forward.
* Katanosaka watch – I’ve been enjoying his use of substitutes at half time and on the hour mark. I’m fully aware that there may be fans of other clubs who’d love to see a bit more spontaneity with their changes, but after last season’s coaching car crash I’m quite happy to see someone on the sidelines appearing to be disciplined and in control of his battleplan. It was also interesting to see him deviate from his usual 3-4-2-1 and start 4-2-3-1 against his old team Oita with Yuki Yamamoto named captain and assigned to the Marcos Junior role in the hole between the double-volante and lone striker Isa Sakamoto.
* Levain Cup wrap – Shun Nagasawa (predictably) came back to haunt his former side with a double as a much changed Gamba could only pick up a solitary point from their visit to Oita on Wednesday. The 2-2 draw leaves the Ao to Kuro’s hopes of progressing to the knockout stages hanging by a thread, but the competition has so far proven to be useful for getting players valuable game time, Mitsuki Saito and Yuki Yamamoto to name but two from this match, and also for blooding youngsters, Jiro Nakamura versus Cerezo and Isa Sakamoto here. I’d love to see new type 2 acquisitions Harumi Minamino (FW) and Yuki Yoshihara (DF) see some action in the remaining 4 fixtures too.
Patric returns from his one-match ban no doubt buoyed by his goal away to Trinita in midweek. The fact that neither Masaaki Higashiguchi or Kei Ishikawa were involved on Wednesday night suggests to me that Higashiguchi is still not fit and Ishikawa will start on Sunday. Nominal 2nd choice keeper Jun Ichimori, though he’s been absent for so long I can’t be confident that’s still his place in the pecking order, returned on the bench against Oita, but I still feel he’s some way off challenging for regular minutes. Elsewhere, it appears Hiroki Fujiharu is still out having not been seen yet this year, South Korean international Kwon Kyung-won and Brazilian Serie A regular Dawhan should hopefully be able to arrive in Japan shortly, but the date is still to be confirmed and Mitsuki Saito, Yuki Yamamoto, Leandro Pereira and Wellington Silva are all at various stages of their comebacks, though I’m not sure any of that quartet will make the eleven here.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
4 J1 titles in the past 5 seasons coupled with triumphs in the 2019 Levain Cup and 2020 Emperor’s Cup have transformed Kawasaki from perennial bridesmaids into one of the most dominant sides in the 30 year history of the J. League, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about their rise is how they’ve managed to build an absolute juggernaut of a squad without really breaking the bank. Of their 31 registered players for 2022 (30 professionals and 1 type-2 amateur, centre back Yota Takai), 10 came directly from universities (2 of those, MF Yasuto Wakizaka and backup GK Yuki Hayasaka were involved with the club’s youth setup previously), 8 from other J1 clubs, 4 apiece arrived from overseas teams and Japanese high schools, 3 were promoted from Frontale’s youth academy, while Koki Tsukagawa was signed from then J2 Matsumoto Yamaga and Daiya Tono was a surprise pickup from cup-shock masters Honda FC in the JFL and spent his first season of senior football on loan with Fukuoka in the second tier. I’d argue that former South Korean international goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong (Suwon Samsung Bluewings), Thai schemer Chanathip (Sapporo) and 2021 J1 MVP Leandro Damião (Santos) are the only examples that readily spring to mind of players brought in off-the-shelf primed to perform at a high level from the word go for whom a premium price was paid, either in terms of transfer fee or salary, certainly a very different approach to what you see in Europe with the likes of PSG, Manchester City Real Madrid et al. Of course such success has come at a cost with Hidemasa Morita, Ao Tanaka, Kaoru Mitoma and Reo Hatate all heading overseas in the past year or so, but with their reputation as a talent-enhancing hub firmly entrenched they’ve had no problems attracting high-quality replacements. Step forward Asahi Sasaki, their new left-back, freshly graduated from Ryutsu Keizai University and a player whom Frontale reportedly beat off interest from Gamba to acquire. Sasaki was rated the best full-back in Japanese varsity football in 2021 and after a promising cameo in the defeat at Marinos he nabbed his first J1 goal in the 2-0 victory over Kashima last week which brought words of praise from none other than current Samurai Blue kantoku Hajime Moriyasu. He’s given Toru Oniki another viable option at full-back and will be someone to keep an eye on here should he see off veteran Osaka-native Kyohei Noborizato to earn a starting berth.
Frontale certainly don’t have their injury troubles to seek in the early part of 2022, especially at the back. Jesiel, for my money the best centre-back in the division, is a long term casualty after undergoing knee surgery, his replacement Shintaro Kurumaya dislocated his shoulder against FC Tokyo in round 1 and is out for 6 weeks while left-back Kyohei Noborizato was stretchered off in the first-half of the match with Urawa and his participation here is in serious doubt. Further forward, injury prone midfield dynamo Ryota Oshima has been missing from the squad for the games with Antlers and Reds, mercurial Brazilian winger Marcinho hasn’t been seen since the FC Tokyo encounter and Japan U-22 captain Renji Matsui is yet to surface this season. Thai midfielder Chanathip is walking a suspension tightrope as a result of picking up 3 yellow cards in his first 4 league outings in a Frontale shirt.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.