FC Tokyo vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 10
Friday 29 April 2022
Japan National Stadium
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)
There’s Friday night football this week in J1 as the annual Golden Week holiday kicks off with FC Tokyo hosting Gamba Osaka at the recently rebuilt National Stadium located right in the heart of the country’s pulsing capital. While I’ve done my best to build the game up in the opening sentence, let me do something of a U-turn and try to level-off expectations just a touch. Hosts FC Tokyo, who are setting up HQ a good bit east of their regular basecamp at Ajinomoto Stadium, have drawn their past three league outings 0-0 while visitors Gamba, after hitting the ground running with at least one goal in their opening 12 contests this year, have since failed to hit the target in the last 2, conceding 1 at the other end in the process. None of this really points to a goal-fest, does it? But, I guess us football fans are a funny breed and tens of thousands will still descend on Shin-Kokuritsu Stadium on Friday evening with hope in their hearts. I’ll be among the thronging masses and with the number 37 of Hiroto Yamami adorning the back of my new away shirt, could it have the same effect as on my previous road trip, the 1-0 victory over Marinos at Nissan Stadium last November when Shu Kurata (the name on my 2021 alternate uniform) netted the winner?
Tale of the Tape
I’d like to start off this section by pointing you in the direction of the J-Talk Podcast (Episode 385) and Sam Robson’s analysis of Gamba vs Shonan as well as the task-list facing Tomohiro Katanosaka, I feel his neutral views should balance out my more Gamba-focused take on the same topics below. Nine games into the 2022 J1 campaign and the Nerazzurri’s average xG stands at 1 For and 1.39 Against per match which compares with 1.19 vs 1.62 last season. Quite clearly the defence has improved while the attack, despite scoring more frequently (1.33 per 90 in 2022 compared with 0.87 in 2021), has regressed in terms of chance creation. I could do my usual routine of whipping out a laundry list of excuses, the injury to Usami, Kwon Kyung-won and Dawhan’s late arrivals, the pre-season Covid cluster, but I don’t want this to turn into a pity party. Put simply, I’m desperate for the Ao to Kuro to snap out of the downward spiral of one rebuilding season after another, I’ve got faith in Katanosaka to sort things out, but it will take time. Currently Gamba’s xG difference is -0.39 per game, a very minor improvement from the dire -0.43 recorded 12 months ago and this is the metric I’ll be watching most closely going forward, the Nerazzurri won’t get much higher than 9th or 10th unless that stat is bettered sharpish. Another area in huge need of a shot-in-the-arm is Gamba’s ability to take the lead in games. In his comments prior to the Levain Cup tie with Cerezo last Saturday, veteran Hiroki Fujiharu pinpointed the Nerazzurri’s failure to really take the game to opponents early on as a weak point in their style. Gamba have only come from behind to win twice in their last 52 J1 outings, in both home and away fixtures with Katanosaka’s Oita last season, though it should be pointed out that over the same time period the reverse has only happened once, at home to Vissel Kobe last summer. So, you can almost take it to the bank that whichever team scores first in a Gamba match won’t lose, therefore an improvement in scoring first (opponents have struck first 30 times to the blue and blacks 16 over that 52 game time-frame) should lead to better results (if only life was that simple, eh?) To achieve this, a more direct approach is necessary, not the ‘Tonight Matthew we’re going to be Tokushima Vortis’ we saw in the first-half against Shonan. While possession % and pass completion stats were great, being outshot 7-1 in the second-half and recording an xG For figure of 0.6 at home to a side who sat bottom of the standings prior to kick off are huge worries. In fairness though, that game fitted in well with a matchday dominated by 0-0 draws. The combined xG total of 1.31 was the first time in a Gamba fixture this year that both team’s xG have been below 1 and that number (1.31) was also the lowest in 2022 to date, seeing off the 1.61 in the match with Kawasaki Frontale, where incidentally 4 goals were scored.
The biggest change at FC Tokyo this past off-season was the arrival of new kantoku Albert Puig and the Spaniard has switched things around a touch tactically, setting the side up in a 4-3-3 as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 utilised by his predecessor Kenta Hasegawa. There wasn’t a great deal of transfer activity at the Ajinomoto Stadium last winter meaning that a number of the grizzled veterans from the Hasegawa-era are still around in the top team, though it has been refreshing to see both Kuryu Matsuki and Kazuya Konno earn plenty of playing time while a plethora of youngsters have been blooded in the Levain Cup. Puig earned a reputation in J2 for putting out teams that played an extremely easy-on-the-eye brand of football, but it was a style that ultimately ran out of effectiveness as each season progressed. For evidence, Albirex won just 1 of their last 10 fixtures in 2020 to slip down from 4th to 11th in the standings, while the following year they came out of the traps flying and stayed unbeaten through the first 13 rounds accruing 33 points and scoring 31 goals (including a 7-0 hammering of FC Tokyo’s rivals Tokyo Verdy), however, this was followed by a run of 35 points and 30 goals from the remaining 29 games to leave them in a disappointing 6th spot. Considering he’s been hampered by an early season Covid cluster and the loss to injury of one of his main attacking weapons (Leandro), I’m inclined to give Puig strong pass marks over his opening 9 games as a J1 coach. The Gasmen sit 6th in the table, 5 points clear of Gamba, though only a mere 13 goals have been scored in total between them and their opponents so far (compared with 25 in Gamba games). Their xG For total of 1.04 is slightly above Friday night’s opponents, though well down on the 1.2 registered under Hasegawa last term. Also of concern is the fact that despite having better xG stats than the Nerazzurri, they’ve scored 4 fewer actual goals and they’ve also achieved an xG For figure over 1 just twice in their last 6 J1 outings. At the other end of the field, they are still pretty sound with this year’s xG Against sitting at 1.16 per game, almost identical to the 1.2 posted in 2021, so it appears that the improvement most urgently required from Puig’s charges is a significant upping of their chance creation stats, and Leandro’s imminent return should certainly help in that regard. In terms of ball retention, one would have expected more from a Puig side than 48.7% possession (46.5% in 2021) and 326.3 completed passes per game (Gamba’s 2022 figure is 330.3, while FC Tokyo’s was 313 last season), but again I add the caveats that Puig is new to the role and has also had to deal with Covid and injury issues.
Head to Head
This is the third and, thankfully, final installment in a run of three consecutive fixtures that produced an extremely limited amount of goalmouth action in the head to heads lasts season (don’t worry there will be goals aplenty next time when I discuss Gamba vs Sapporo, but unfortunately for me, there’ll be lots of Sapporo ones!) The first 2021 meeting between Gamba and FC Tokyo came in Masanobu Matsunami’s second game as caretaker boss in late May and fresh from a 3-0 hiding at home to Urawa the previous week, the Nerazzurri got off to the worst possible start in the capital as the Gasmen raced into a first minute lead courtesy of Diego Oliveira’s close-range effort. The Brazilian’s goal turned out to be the winner, though the game itself was a touch more interesting than the scoreline suggests as Gamba lived dangerously at times before enjoying a good spell prior to half-time with youngster Dai Tsukamoto, in particular, impressing. However, the second-half really petered out and there were no more goals, a trend which would continue through to the clash at Panasonic Stadium 3 months later. I’ll admit that in the aftermath of my first Covid vaccination I really struggled to keep focused on the action, though in truth it didn’t appear that there was a whole lot to get excited about. The Ao to Kuro wore their very snazzy Expo Uniforms (important note: Gamba generally perform poorly in limited edition kits [Gamba generally perform poorly in their normal kits I hear you cry opposition fans lol] and there will be more about that in my next match preview too!), however, the game itself didn’t live up to the billing in any way, shape or form. A cagey affair never really caught fire, Gamba’s midfield and Leandro Pereira were on different wavelengths and the only genuine bright spark came from substitute Hiroto Yamami who showed great pace on the counter a couple of times. The contest’s defining moment arrived right at the end as things got stretched and visiting forward Kyosuke Tagawa found himself well placed to bury the ball past Masaaki Higashiguchi, but he fluffed his lines and shot into Row Z thus allowing the Nerazzurri to record their 5th 0-0 draw of the year.
* Gamba were officially eliminated from this year’s Levain Cup at the group stage following a tame 0-0 away to neighbours Cerezo Osaka on Saturday. Surprisingly this was first ever scoreless draw in the history of the fixture. I don’t have a whole lot to say about the match itself, but I will add that while celebrity fans are great and I’m sure Roland is a hard working and decent bloke, shouldn’t he step aside and let someone else walk out with the players and conduct the coin toss? I’m certain there are loads of Cerezo supporting kids who’d love to meet Kiyotake, Jonjić, Kim Jin-hyeon and co….it did appear that both Kiyotake and Gamba skipper Genta Miura enjoyed the experience though as they had gone to the special effort of bleaching their hair blonde ahead of meeting the talento.
* An open training session was held for a small selection of fans and journalists last Wednesday (April 20). As well as allowing supporters to see who was injured and who was out of the team due to Katanosaka’s preferences, we were also given a rare glimpse into the dynamics of the Gamba dressing room. ‘Players’ Chairman’ Gen Shoji (how is this role different from club captain?) greeted the fans and media rather than official stand-in captain Genta Miura, is he just much better on the mic? And why does he not captain the team on the field in Kurata’s absence? He certainly seems to have the respect of his team-mates as a simple shout of ‘Kosuke daijoubu’ was enough to stop Onose shoving Shonan’s Naoki Yamada during a water break shortly after the Bellmare man’s ‘forward’s challenge’ moments earlier.
* One player not in training on Wednesday was Yuki Yamamoto (more on that in the section below), but the schemer really blew his chance to shine during Mitsuki Saito’s enforced absence versus parent club Shonan. Unfortunately Yamamoto was a turnstile on defence, paling in comparison with Saito’s terrier-like displays thus far and he rarely showcased his playmaking abilities at the other end of the field meaning that Saito and Dawhan are likely to be the volante duo moving forward and Yamamoto will need to look to add some new strings to his bow if he’s going to crack the first eleven again any time soon.
* On the subject of midfielders who came in for criticism in the wake of the home loss to Shonan, being a Gamba Youth product didn’t protect Kohei Okuno from a wave of negative online comments following his 20 minute cameo. In his defence, the tide had already very much turned in Bellmare’s favour before he was introduced and their goal came when the Nerazzurri were temporarily down to 10 men with his central midfield partner Dawhan off the field receiving treatment. However, it was the lack of urgency in his play and his slowness in getting back to defend counter attacks, in particular, which angered some of the Curva Nord faithful. He was an unused sub in the 0-0 with Cerezo so let’s hope for a return to form should he get his usual 15-20 minutes at the end of this match.
* Now to finish on a positive, the people behind the big screen stats at Panasonic Stadium this season deserve a round of applause for really upping their game. Particularly impressive, for me anyway, has been the breakdown of how far players ran in the previous match and a comparison with a local landmark…ie ‘this is the equivalent of running to Shin-Osaka Station.’ The FIFA 2022 ratings and those wagon wheels where it’s good to have a big number for some metrics (ie goals scored) and it’s better to have a smaller one for others (ie clearances) I can take or leave, but the distance covered graphics are a game changer in my book.
Takashi Usami (achilles) and Masaaki Higashiguchi (knee) are both definitely out of this game, though Higashiguchi is currently nearing the end of his rehabilitation process and is said to be re-starting full training next month. Captain Shu Kurata is struggling with a calf problem, though he’s not expected to miss too many games, the same goes for reserve centre-back Shota Fukuoka who has an unspecified issue. In more worrying news, Yuya Fukuda sustained a head injury in the match with Cerezo last weekend, it is the third time in his career that this has happened so he may need to take an extended break to recover. Finally, as alluded to above, Yuki Yamamoto has been absent from training and it appeared that he damaged his leg when taking a free kick in the home loss to Shonan, no details have yet been given on his scheduled return date.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
I covered quite a lot of the ground I wanted to go over in the ‘Tale of the Tape’ section above so I’ll aim to be relatively brief in here. Resilience is a word I’d use to describe FC Tokyo in recent seasons, they endured a marathon run of away fixtures owing to Rugby World Cup matches taking place at Ajinomoto Stadium in 2019, and yet they still finished in their highest ever league position, second. The following year was tough for all clubs, but especially for the 3 ACL qualifiers, Yokohama F. Marinos, Vissel Kobe and FC Tokyo, and which of that trio performed best domestically…the Gasmen of course, coasting home 10 points ahead of Marinos and a whopping 19 better off than Vissel, not to mention the fact they lifted the Levain Cup that season too. This year they suffered an early season outbreak of Covid, however, that initially had little ill-effect on their results and indeed prompted a number of comments of praise and wonder from Gamba supporters mindful of their own struggles in front of goal last term. As noted above, FC Tokyo are currently 294 minutes without a goal in J1, but does that mean they’ll take to the Olympic Stadium turf like a caged beast set free on Friday? Recent history suggests they do play better when their backs are to the wall.
Now to move onto the playing squad as there are a couple of individuals I’d like to draw attention to, and they might not be the ones you’d expect. Long term readers will know of my admiration for Brazilian hitman Diego Oliveira, but his understudy Keita Yamashita is the first player I’d like to talk about. I’ve been a fan of him since his days with Renofa Yamaguchi back in 2019 and since then he’s taken a long and winding journey to the nation’s capital via JEF United and Sagan Tosu, but he’s finally reached the bright lights of the big city nonetheless. I’ve seen and heard several comments from FC Tokyo supporters that suggested they viewed him as something of a mediocre acquisition, but I would point out that in 2021 he played regularly for a team that finished comfortably above both the Gasmen and Nerazzurri and only the aforementioned Oliveira plus Patric scored more J1 goals than Yamashita last season from those 3 sides. He’s yet to find the target this time round, having seen VAR take a goal away from him at the end of the 3-1 home win over Kobe a few weeks back, but if he does break his duck in this fixture, it’ll come as no surprise to this particular observer. The other player I wanted to highlight faces stiff competition from the experienced Kensuke Nagai for a spot in the starting lineup on Friday (potentially the fit again Leandro too) and that player is Kazuya Konno. Nerazzurri supporters will be familiar with the tricky winger as he was part of the Hosei University side that ended Gamba’s Emperor’s Cup dreams in the summer of 2019 and despite suffering a serious knee injury early into his pro career it appears that he’s bounced back with aplomb. Previous FC Tokyo managers may not have given someone like Konno much of a chance, but Puig seems keen to let him off the leash and speaking as an opposition supporter I’d be happier if Nagai starts over Konno on Friday as I feel Ayase Ueda’s former supplier in varsity football is more likely to give the Gamba defence a collective headache.
Precious little to report in here at the moment with Leandro returning to training on Monday (25 April) having been out with a calf problem since the round 1 defeat at Kawasaki. That leaves just veteran ‘keeper Akihiro Hayashi, a long term knee-injury victim, as the sole absentee in the FC Tokyo ranks.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.