Gamba Osaka vs Avispa Fukuoka
2022 J1 Season Round 5
Saturday 19 March 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)
It seems like the new season kicked off just yesterday, but here we are already at round 5 with a pivotal clash for both Gamba Osaka and Avispa Fukuoka. A first three-pointer on home turf this term for the Nerazzurri would put the Katanosaka revolution firmly on the right track whereas a win for the visitors would lift them out of the drop zone in the embryonic standings, above Gamba and into the mid-table mix.
Gamba, like Avispa in the opening round, were held to a frustrating 1-1 draw by a stuffy Júbilo Iwata side, at Yamaha Stadium last Saturday. The return to the match day squad, and indeed the scoresheet, of Leandro Pereira, another rottweiler-esque performance in the middle of the park from Mitsuki Saito and the link up play between Takao, Ishige and Onose down Gamba’s right flank were the main bright sparks for the Ao to Kuro. However, further evidence of the long-standing vulnerability to counter attacks, even against opponents as devoid of genuine pace as Iwata, is definitely something that will concern Tomohiro Katanosaka, as will a mounting list of injury casualties.
Conceding last gasp equalisers, squandering golden opportunities and missing penalties have hindered Avispa’s start to 2022, but it’s worth noting that they currently sit just 1 point shy of their total after 4 games last season, so Shigetoshi Hasebe and his troops certainly won’t be reaching for the panic button just yet, and with decent showings so far this campaign, albeit ones that haven’t yet translated into positive outcomes, they should be reasonably confident of leaving Panasonic Stadium with something this Saturday. A tight, nervy affair without too many goals likely lies in store for us, but it’s sure to be an intriguing battle nonetheless.
Tale of the Tape
Although the first game since the devastating Usami injury news was always going to be a tough one, I still found myself a touch disappointed as Júbilo appear to be one of the weaker sides in the division this year and that 4-1 rout of 10-man Kyoto is a bit of red herring methinks. Despite such negative talk, Yamaha Stadium was, in fact, the scene of Gamba’s maiden xG win this season and also the first occasion in 2022 for both an xG For total above 1 and an xG Against figure below 1. Iwata’s 0.49xG For was last bettered in the opening matchday of 2021 away at Kobe (0.4), while their 8 shots equalled the second lowest figure the Nerazzurri recorded last year, in both home and away fixtures with Kobe and the home loss against Nagoya (incidentally the 24 shots across those 3 games resulted in 6 goals being scored, contrast that with the 48 shots accrued by Urawa and Marinos in their home contests with the Nerazzurri which ended up producing just a solitary goal from the penalty spot). As we know with stats, they can at times be misleading, especially small data sets, and the number of times Kenyu Sugumoto (Iwata) and, in particular, Patric had chances on Saturday, but were subsequently pulled back for offside illustrates how tight the margins can be and though a brief look at the data from the game shows a relatively low number of shots, in truth there was actually a fair amount of goalmouth action, just not the kind that jumps out of an at-a-glance stats box. Finally, the Nerazzurri racked up 505 successful passes and also over 50% possession for the first time in 2022, though it is perhaps a tad unfair to compare newly promoted Júbilo with the behemoths of Kashima, Urawa and Kawasaki. The only reason I mention these two numbers is that they are likely to be around the same level in this week’s bout with Fukuoka who I’m going to talk about in the very next paragraph.
Avispa out-performed even their own supporters’ expectations in 2021 with their mean defence ceding only a small number of generally low quality opportunities to the opposition each game and indeed their xG Against figure ended up standing at a meagre 1.05 xG per 90 minutes which saw them rank 4th in J1 for that particular metric. On the flip side of the coin, as freshly promoted sides often tend to find, goals are not particularly easy to come by at a higher level, but the 42 strikes they recorded in 38 games (the lowest in the top 12), in tandem with their rock solid backline, was enough to propel them up to 8th in the final table. With xG For and Against figures finishing exactly the same to two decimal places it’s clear that for 2021’s high levels of attainment to be maintained then their strikers will have to be as clinical as they were last time round. We’re only 4 matches into the 2022 campaign, but that has been far from the case to date with just a solitary goal scored from an xG For of 7.16. Defensively, things have been as tight as ever with only 2 goals given up from an xG Against of 2.82, but the stark contrast in these figures make it abundantly clear where the issues lie. It is still very, very early in the season and if the Wasps continue to generate close to 2 xG For per game then it’s only a matter of time before they start charging back up the table. Will things click this Saturday? Quite possibly. Avispa ranked last for passes completed and distance covered per game as well as being 3rd bottom of the possession % rankings in 2021 which highlights their direct style of play. They like to move the ball from back to front quickly, often using their talented array of wingers and full-backs to good effect in order to supply the ammunition for their strikers. Emil Salomonsson (6 assists in 2021) may be gone, but they still have wide defenders Masato Yuzawa, Yota Maejima and Takaaki Shichi plus Jordy Croux, Tatsuya Tanaka, Takeshi Kanamori and Taro Sugimoto as competent wing options further forward. Once Lukian gets up and running, and I think it’s a case of when, not if, that happens, then the Hachi should be much more like their old selves.
Head to Head
There haven’t been many matches or goals between these two in recent years so I’ll be mercifully brief in here. The first meeting last season was a drab 0-0 played out at Panasonic Stadium and was the Nerazzurri’s 3rd league outing of 2021, and just their 2nd since returning from their Covid-enforced shutdown. Leandro Pereira and Tiago Alves both fluffed their lines when clean through on goal, stuttering and stumbling before ultimately not managing to get a shot away as the home side failed to hit the back of the net for the 3rd consecutive game. For Avispa, centre back Carlos Gutiérrez, now of Tochigi in J2, peppered Masaaki Higashiguchi’s goal with a series of long range efforts, but their much rotated lineup rarely threatened apart from that. The return fixture in July marked the first match of Gamba’s epic summer slog and ended in a vital 1-0 victory. After Fukuoka had a goal contentiously ruled out by VAR, Patric nodded home the winner from a deflected cross with 5 minutes remaining to inspire the now legendary “Yappari Patric” exclamation from the commentator.
* Genta Miura strolling forward from centre-back to deliver a pinpoint cross for Leandro Pereira’s late equaliser on Saturday was Katano-soccer at it’s finest. I watched the first-half live and then the second on-demand so I was already aware that Miura had assisted Pereira, but had simply assumed that it must have come as a result of some sort of melee following a corner or free-kick, instead I found myself pleasantly surprised by the precision and quality of Miura’s delivery.
* It’s also been nice to see that Katanosaka can be flexible and does have a plan B up his sleeve. While there were plenty of pretty passing moves in the first half and opening 20 minutes of the second period, the former Oita kantoku opted to go more direct when it became clear things were turning stale. Enter Leandro Pereira, who, it seems, turns into a completely different animal once he scores. From a Gamba perspective, hopefully he can stay fit, enjoy an extended run in the side and start firing them in regularly to help ease the burden caused by Usami’s prolonged absence.
* I’ve long lamented the fact that it’s far easier for me to predict opponents’ starting lineups than Gamba’s and had naively assumed that Katanosaka’s arrival would remedy that. Not so fast, with Covid, injuries and late arrivals from overseas all playing havoc with Katanosaka’s game-plan. I believe 3-4-2-1 will be the go to once Kwon gets up to speed, probably after the World Cup qualifiers at the end of the month, but until then 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 will remain possibilities.
* After the forgettable ending to the match with Frontale, Kei Ishikawa would have been delighted to find himself largely a spectator for huge chunks of the Júbilo tussle. Indeed, perhaps his most challenging moment came when Kotaro Omori did some Yu Kobayashi inspired lurking behind him in the first half, thankfully Ishikawa had his wits about him on this occasion.
* Player Focus 1 Mitsuki Saito – The pocket pit-bull had another impressive display in the heart of Gamba’s midfield on Saturday, harrying and hounding his opponents into submission. Tantalisingly for the Ao to Kuro faithful, following his uneventful 45 minute cameo against Oita in the Levain Cup he’s now clocked 56 and 71 minutes versus Kawasaki and Iwata respectively as he works his way back to full fitness. He is on record stating that his goal is to help Gamba achieve their targets this season before heading back to Europe. As a decent English speaker and one of the more impressive central midfielders in the league in the early stages of this campaign it may unfortunately be a case of enjoy him while you can for the Curva Nord faithful.
* Player Focus 2 Kosuke Onose – It’s been great to witness his renaissance in the opening rounds of 2022 where he’s been spotted at right-back, wing-back and shadow forward and has already helped himself to 2 goals (as many as he managed in the previous 2 campaigns combined). As noted above, he was a real thorn in Júbilo’s side last weekend giving Riku Morioka and Masaya Matsumoto a torrid time and for Gamba it’s a matter of upmost importance that he retains his current performance levels. He can be a big player for the blue and blacks as they look to fill the giant Usami shaped hole in attack.
Quick Comment 1 – Deep into the second half Shota Fukuoka booted the ball straight off team-mate Kohei Okuno twice, ultimately leading to a Júbilo corner. Please leave those ricochet related shenanigans in Tokushima will ya Shota.
Quick Comment 2 – And finally, the Ayr United inspired white shirts / black shorts / black socks combination worn against Iwata was definitely a winner for me, let’s see more of that going forward.
There’s been plenty of concrete information available this week which makes a welcome change from the usual wild goose chase. The club announced on Tuesday (15 March) that Masaaki Higashiguchi had undergone surgery to fix a problem with the medial meniscus in his right knee. According to my brief Google research that should rule him out for somewhere in the region of 3-6 months. In his absence I’d expect Kei Ishikawa to hold onto the gloves unless his form drops and Jun Ichimori returns to full fitness. It’s also likely that a new backup to the backup will be brought in, probably from J2, I’m looking at you Eisuke Fujishima (Yamagata) and Yuma Obata (Sendai). Gen Shoji stated in his Reibola column that he missed the Júbilo game due to heavy bruising picked up in training, he didn’t say when exactly he’ll be back, but he was spotted training on Tuesday. Dawhan and Kwon ‘Diego’ Kyung-won joined top-team training on Tuesday thus theoretically could feature here. Kwon will leave to join up with the South Korean national side after this fixture so may be involved, while Dawhan might be saved for the Levain Cup tie with Kashima the following week as there are plenty of other volante options available. Shota Fukuoka’s Instagram story showed Hiroki Fujiharu working out in the gym and looking pretty spritely too. He was later sighted along with Gen Shoji in Kwon Kyung-won’s player introduction video shot on the training ground, I’m unsure when exactly he’ll make his return to the field of play, but it’s a step in the right direction anyway. Finally, Takashi Usami is up and about on crutches after having an operation to repair his ruptured achilles tendon on 7 March, he’s not expected to play again this season and it’s currently unclear whether the reason for Wellington Silva’s absence recently has been injury or non-selection.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Last season was the first time Avispa had survived a J1 campaign since 2000 and they absolutely coasted home in 8th leaving more illustrious rivals such as Gamba, Cerezo, FC Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kashiwa trailing in their wake. Shigetoshi Hasebe turned down the Kobe job before the campaign got underway and with a team expertly marshalled by his on-field eyes and ears Hiroyuki Mae and inspired by the flair of popular Swede Emil Salomonsson down the right wing they blew many a #JPred out of the water. It might be tough to expect them to be quite as strong this time round, but I’d be confident in predicting that they’ll move away from the relegation zone sharpish and once more find themselves comfortably ensconced in mid-table. Hasebe generally favours a 4-4-2 though he has been known to dabble with a 3-4-2-1 (including in the 0-0 at home to Sapporo in round 3), but owing to some injury concerns at the back I feel it’s likely he’ll stick with his tried-and-trusted system here.
On the player front, Yuta Kumamoto was a somewhat unheralded arrival from Montedio Yamagata last winter, however, for me he was one of the better centre-backs in J2 prior to Peter Cklamovski’s arrival at the club and his subsequent banishment to the bench. Sure playing it out from the back might not really be his thing, but that shouldn’t really be an issue with Avispa. It’s rumoured that he turned Gamba down prior to the 2020 season with the Nerazzurri bringing in Ryo Shinzato instead, though given how little the current Omiya stopper played in Suita, Kumamoto was probably justified in biding his time waiting for a more suitable J1 club. Another ‘new’ face last off-season was local boy Tatsuya Tanaka who, of course, was a Gamba player for the first half of 2019. The pacy winger scored for Urawa in their 3-0 rout at Panasonic Stadium last term and will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Kotaro Omori and Shun Nagasawa in recent matches by adding to the already worryingly extensive list of players to find the back of the net against their former employers this year. Another achilles heel for the Nerazzurri in the past has been tall foreign strikers so Lukian should be aiming to banish the painful memories of his previous trip to Panasonic Stadium in 2019, when he was sent off for two bookable offences inside the opening 15 minutes, by netting his first goal for his new club.
Fukuoka’s fitness issues all lie at the back with star central defender Douglas Grolli missing out on the 1-0 loss at Kashiwa for an, as of yet, unspecified problem, while his regular partner-in-crime (and serial rejecter of Gamba offers) Tatsuki Nara hasn’t been sighted all year. Right-back Yota Maejima was subbed off just 12 minutes into the 0-0 draw away to Kobe on February 12th, how my suggested winter signing of Takeru Kishimoto would have helped to fill that gap, instead he’s wasting away on the bench at Shimizu, but that’s another story for another day.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.
Gamba Osaka vs Avispa Fukuoka