Gamba Osaka vs Shonan Bellmare
2022 J1 Season Round 9
Sunday 17 April 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)
Sandwiched between a busy run of fixtures over the past fortnight and a hectic Golden Week ahead, round 9 of the 2022 J1 season may not have quite so many eyes on it with some big names involved in the ACL, however, Gamba vs Shonan is a vitally important clash for both sides nonetheless. The Nerazzurri have been the dictionary definition of a mid-table outfit with 2 victories, 4 draws and a pair of defeats to date while winless visitors Bellmare, led by former Gamba legend Satoshi Yamaguchi, currently prop up the standings and will be desperate to pick up a result of any sort at Panasonic Stadium on Sunday. This encounter sees one of the league’s leading attacking sides in Gamba (Takashi who?) face one of the weakest in Shonan, neither defence has been particularly water-tight and we’ve witnessed late drama in Nerazzurri fixtures on numerous occasions already in 2022, so keep your eyes peeled for excitement and goals here.
Tale of the Tape
Surprisingly, given the trials and tribulations in front of goal over the course of the past 2 seasons, Gamba are currently the 3rd highest scorers in J1 with 12 (xG 8.36) from their 8 games to date. Only the current top two Kawasaki (15/xG 10.78) and Yokohama F. Marinos (17/xG 15.72) have scored more, albeit that duo have completed two additional fixtures owing to their participation in this year’s ACL. Defensively, it’s a different kettle of fish for the Nerazzurri with just Kobe (16) conceding more than Gamba’s 12, and that tally also comes with the caveat of Vissel playing an extra two games. Although 8 of the 12 goals given up have come in just 3 fixtures (Kashima, Kawasaki and Fukuoka) with only 4 let in during the other 5 matches, consistently high xG Against figures will be of concern to kantoku Tomohiro Katanosaka. Going forward, the Ao to Kuro have recorded double digit shots on target numbers in each of their last 5 games, a run they achieved just once in 2021, but at the other end, only Júbilo have failed to muster at least 10 shots on Gamba’s goal and 4 instances of 10+ efforts on target being given up from just 8 games is something that must be rectified going forward. From a blue and black perspective, hopefully the blossoming double-volante partnership between Dawhan and Mitsuki Saito plus the addition of South Korean international stopper Kwon Kyung-wong can assist with that.
Just 4 goals scored (xG 6.5) in 8 J1 games so far in 2022 sees Shonan sit joint bottom of that particular metric alongside Avispa Fukuoka and additionally they’ve only exceeded 1xG For in a single fixture once, at home to 10-man Kyoto. The 11 goals conceded (xG 9.92) in that same time span is just one fewer than Gamba (xG 11.84) and while the recent Covid cluster in the first-team squad certainly hasn’t helped, it’s worth pointing out that Shonan’s fixtures to date haven’t been especially taxing so they really must buck up their ideas sharpish if they want to avoid dropping down to J2 for the first time since 2017. Finishing 16th and only narrowly avoiding the drop on the final day last season, Bellmare naturally put up some less than stellar stats. Sprints per game was their strong point, recording an average of 178.2 per 90 minutes (this has increased to 196.9 in 2022), however they were 2nd worst in the division for passes completed (280.3), 4th lowest in terms of possession % (46.1) and tied with Gamba in shots for on target (5.8) which saw them rank equal 17th in J1. Unfortunately for kantoku Satoshi Yamaguchi, while pass completion is up slightly, currently sitting at 292.0 (though bear in mind my comments about their fixtures to date when assessing that rise), they have been spending less time on the ball compared with last year (45.3%) and are still registering a meagre 5.8 shots on target per game, interestingly for comparison, Gamba, under Katanosaka, have increased their performance in that metric to 6.1.
Head to Head
After only having one goal to work with when discussing Gamba vs Shimizu’s head to heads from 2021 last week, we have a pair of 0-0 draws to look at this time round so buckle your seatbelts and get ready, no sorry, just kidding. While there wasn’t much drama on the field between the Nerazzurri and Shonan twelve months ago, there was plenty riding on both fixtures. Gamba travelled to the Lemon Gas Stadium in early June for what would be their final game before jetting out to Uzbekistan for the ACL group stage. Having steadied the ship with back-to-back home triumphs over Tokushima and Yokohama FC the previous week, the scoreless draw in Hiratsuka crucially lifted the Ao to Kuro out of the J1 drop-zone for the first time in 2021. The waters were much calmer for the blue and blacks when they hosted Satoshi Yamaguchi’s troops in their final league fixture in December, however, their visitors came into the tie knowing they had to match or better Tokushima’s result at home to mid-table Hiroshima. As a consequence, Shonan came out all guns blazing in the first half and the opening 45 minutes was essentially a microcosm of their season, lots of attacking endeavour, but no end product. Heading into the locker rooms, Bellmare were greeted with the news that Vortis were losing 3-0 to Sanfrecce and as such the second stanza was largely a procession, lit up only by Takashi Usami’s wonderful shot from 20 yards which cannoned off the underside of Daiki Tomii’s crossbar and rolled away to safety. Gamba ended the 2021 J1 season 13th, 3 places and 7 points better off than the Seasiders.
Sunday marked Gamba’s second 1-1 draw in Shizuoka this season and while they held the upper-hand for much of their bout with Júbilo, S-Pulse, on the other hand, looked the livelier side and more likely winners for the majority of last weekend’s tussle. I feel a bit hypocritical for saying this considering the amount of times I’ve called for consistency in the Gamba starting eleven, but the match with Shimizu seemed like one game too many for a number of the squad. Mitsuki Saito has spent a good chunk of the last 2 years injured and partner-in-crime Dawhan ended up playing 250 minutes in 9 days while still working his way back up to full speed following his delayed entry into Japan. As a result, Gamba were overrun in midfield and things only really improved in the wake of the belated introduction of the substitutes in the second half, Yuki Yamamoto and Leandro Pereira, in particular, impressing. Granted this was against an S-Pulse side seemingly hell-bent on pressing the self-destruct button after squandering chances to put the game to bed before then being forced into last ditch defending in the face of a late Gamba onslaught. Where the J.League giveth, the J.League also taketh away, and while I was left heartbroken by Kawasaki’s last gasp equaliser a few weeks ago, this result goes some way to balancing out that one. Having been in that situation before I can only say to Shimizu fans, I feel your pain, and I know there must have been a sickening inevitability to how the game ended. For the Nerazzurri, that’s now 6 of 12 league goals this season that have been scored after the 75th minute so Katanosaka and Gamba must start looking to get up to speed in games quicker and that ball needs to get rolling this Sunday at home to basement dwelling Shonan.
Sakamoto vs Pereira – With cameos against Kyoto and Shimizu where he’s had spells as both a second striker and right winger, it looks like Isa Sakamoto has usurped Gamba’s reported highest-earner Leandro Pereira in the attacking pecking order. His incessant running and higher work rate seem to have impressed Katanosaka more than Pereira’s, and it currently appears that the Brazilian is only being saved for occasions when the Nerazzurri urgently need a goal and the opposition are camped in their own defensive third desperately trying to prevent that from happening.
Kwon Kyung-won – I know in a World Cup year getting the core players together regularly is probably extremely important for a national team boss, but I have to question South Korea’s recent decision to select Kwon for their qualifiers with Iran and the UAE. He played a grand total of 4 minutes at the end of the 2-0 win over Iran and didn’t feature at all in the dead rubber in Dubai that he had fly around 8 hours to get to. Would it not have been in the better long-term interests of the Taeguk Warriors and Kwon for him to get proper game time in the Levain Cup rather than setting out water bottles on the training field with his national side? Granted he would have been up against Yuma Suzuki had he stayed in Japan, so who knows what kind of shenanigans he would have pulled!
Kwon did finally make his Gamba debut on Wednesday (13 April) and played the full 90 as the Nerazzurri kept only their second clean sheet of the year in a comfortable 2-0 Levain Cup win at home to Oita. However, it was the South Korean international’s fellow centre-back, Yota Sato, who stole the show with a wonderful raking cross-field ball in the lead up to Hiroki Fujiharu’s opener in the 13th minute, before netting himself 13 minutes into the second half, powering home a header from Yuki Yamamoto’s free-kick. The Ao to Kuro will still need to beat Cerezo (a) and Kashima (h) in their remaining two Group A fixtures to stand any chance of progressing to the knockout stages.
Finally in this section, a couple of pieces of content largely aimed at Sorare managers as I regularly receive a lot of questions on these topics.
Kurokawa vs Fujiharu – Hiroki Fujiharu played left-back for Gamba the first time I ever saw them live back in 2013, he’s been with the club since 2011, has won everything there is to win domestically during his time in Suita and is a club legend. In recent seasons, as he’s aged he’s become more and more injury prone so back in 2020 the Nerazzurri brought in promising Kansai University left-back Keisuke Kurokawa with the intention of grooming him to be first-choice moving forward. Kurokawa has shown potential in fits and spurts, but has also had the odd horror show along the way which puts a serious question mark over how long Gamba will stick with him, particularly if a new, shinier toy comes on the market. In all honesty before the 2022 season kicked off I expected it would be Kurokawa’s last with the Ao to Kuro as his 3-year contract (the length usually given to university graduates) should run out at the end of the year, but he has performed better than expected so will probably be kept on. To sum up, I think Fujiharu is the better player, but he’s ageing and injury prone, while Kurokawa is yet to fully live up to his initial promise so his shelf-life as first choice on the left-side of Gamba’s defence could be relatively short.
Masaaki Higashiguchi has made 354 J1 appearances, has 8 national team caps and was in the squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Domestically he’s won J1, the League Cup and Emperor’s Cup (twice) with Gamba and is the best ‘keeper in the club’s history. Prior to getting injured he showed no signs of his standards slipping, so much so that Gamba were happy for Kosei Tani to stay on loan at Shonan for another season.
Jun Ichimori had made 46 J3 and 120 J2 appearances prior to the start of 2022. He joined Gamba from Fagiano Okayama ahead of the commencement of the 2020 campaign, but suffered injuries that restricted his playing time greatly in both 2020 and 2021. During his days in J2 he built up a reputation as an excellent good shot stopper who was also relatively comfortable with the ball at his feet.
Kei Ishikawa – He is a 29 year-old career backup who since turning pro in 2011 has registered just a single season as a first choice at any level (2014 with Blaublitz Akita in J3). While he is a good shot-stopper, as one would expect from a professional goalkeeper contracted to one of the biggest sides in the country, his kicking is shoddy and he lacks the presence of Higashiguchi or Ichimori. He has never been considered anything more than 3rd choice by the club and there is a snowball’s chance in hell of him ever being selected ahead of Higashiguchi in J1 once he returns from injury.
There will be no Mitsuki Saito in the Gamba engine room this Sunday as he’s currently on loan from Shonan and can’t play as per the terms of his loan agreement. Masaaki Higashiguchi (knee) and Takashi Usami (achilles) definitely miss out too after undergoing surgery, other than that it’s basically a clean bill of health. Wellington Silva has been absent from the matchday squad in recent games and this may simply be down to him not having a place in Katanosaka’s plans. With 7 foreign players on the books, and 6 of them in with a genuine shout of game time, it’s possible Silva or Ju Se-jong could be headed for the Panasonic Stadium exit door in the not too distant future.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
If I were to sum up Satoshi Yamaguchi’s side in one word it would be ‘obdurate,’ Shonan rarely win or lose big and have been flirting dangerously with a return to J2 over the past few seasons. In 2021 former Gamba assistant kantoku Yamaguchi rather surprisingly replaced Bin Ukishima for the final 11 games and achieved his target of keeping Bellmare in the top flight. Their 36 goals in 38 outings was 3 better than Gamba, but off-season transfer work (more on which later), although decent on paper, didn’t really address the glaring lack of strike power in their ranks. At the back things were rather more positive as their 41 goals conceded in 2021 was the best tally of any side in the bottom half and with the exception of 11th placed Hiroshima (42) it was comfortably better than everyone else. The club play in an idyllic location down on the popular Shonan coast, however, unfortunately their close proximity to the big cities in the Kanto region means any promising youngsters are sitting ducks waiting to be picked off, in fact any players moving to FC Tokyo, Yokohama F. Marinos or Kawasaki Frontale wouldn’t even need to find new accommodation. This has left the Seasiders with a squad largely consisting of up-and-comers and grizzled veterans with little or nothing in between. Central midfielder / centre-back Satoshi Tanaka is the jewel-in-the-crown and I’d expect to see him wearing the shirt of one of those aforementioned J1 rivals in the not too distant future, potentially his national team’s jersey as well in the 2024 Paris Olympics. Forward Yusuke Segawa (Kashiwa) and midfielders Takuji Yonemoto (Nagoya) and Ryota Nagaki (Kashima) were the biggest arrivals at Shonan last winter and while all three have name value, Segawa and Yonemoto have been injury prone in the past and Nagaki’s best days have firmly been and gone, not to mention that Yonemoto, Nagaki and Tanaka are all a touch too similar for my liking. Yamaguchi always sets them up with a back 3, though the shape of the central midfielders and attackers does change from time to time. With no real stars and no out-and-out Peter Utaka-esque goalscorer in their ranks, the collective is much more important than the individual at Bellmare and they’ll require a strong team effort if they’re to extend their unbeaten league streak at Panasonic Stadium to 3 matches.
Just like Mitsuki Saito above, Kosei Tani will also miss this game as per his loan agreement with Gamba, however, in better news, young defender Hirokazu Ishihara is now free from suspension following his one match ban for a red card away to Nagoya. Repeat VAR victim Takuya Okamoto and fellow wing-back Taiga Hata (both knee) won’t play here, with Hata being closer to a return than Okamoto. Veteran Ryota Nagaki has missed the most recent 3 J1 fixtures and was last seen in action on 19 March while promising attacking midfielder Taiyo Hiraoka has been absent since the round 3 loss at Urawa on 6 March, I haven’t seen any official confirmation as to why the pair have been out of the matchday squad. As I alluded to earlier, Shonan had a Covid cluster in their ranks a few weeks back which caused Shuto Machino, Yusuke Segawa, Koki Tachi, Ryo Takahashi, Satoshi Tanaka and Wellington to sit some games out, however, all have now returned to the fold.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.