Gamba Osaka vs Vissel Kobe
2022 J1 Season Round 12
Sunday 8 May 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)
It’s Hanshin Derby time this weekend at Panasonic Stadium and while it might be a bit premature to attach the ‘relegation six-pointer’ tag to this fixture, it’s safe to say both Gamba and Vissel need to buck up their ideas sharpish. Jun Ichimori was the hero for the Nerazzurri on Wednesday as his penalty save from Gabriel Xavier on the stroke of half-time combined with poor Consadole finishing and sheer luck to earn the Ao to Kuro a share of the spoils and move them up to 13th in the standings. Sunday’s match marks Vissel’s return to J1 action after a 4 week hiatus while they played out their ACL Group Stage games in Thailand. It was a case of job done as they overcame Kitchee SC and Chiangrai United (who caused Gamba all sorts of trouble 12 months ago) to qualify for the knock-out rounds, but now new kantoku Miguel Ángel Lotina and his charges need to focus all their collective energies on bridging the 11 point gap that lies between themselves and safety.
Tale of the Tape
The stats suggest that Gamba should feel aggrieved not to have drawn their recent games with Shonan and FC Tokyo, and also by way of contrast a 3-1 defeat would have been a much fairer outcome versus Sapporo on Wednesday, but hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Walking down the steps of Panasonic Stadium at full-time after the Consadole match the thought crossed my mind, “I bet you Sapporo had fewer shots and a lower xG when they won 5-1 here last season” and lo-and-behold they racked up 20 (12 on target) shots amounting to an xG figure of 2.13 (Gamba’s was 1.98) in 2021 which compares with the 26 (17) efforts and xG For of 3.47 (2.72 not including their missed penalty) in the 0-0. I know this is meant to be the stats part, but let me digress just a touch. Before I came to Japan to work I knew I was going to be located either in Osaka or Sapporo. I was sent to Toyonaka (one of Gamba’s official hometowns) and the rest is history. However, sometimes I watch Consadole games and think about what they would have done to my blood pressure if I’d ended up making my home there and adopting them as my local team. With that trip down memory lane out of the way, let me get back to my favourite topic, expected goals. Sapporo’s xG total of 2.72 from open play lists 2nd in Gamba’s worst xG Against performance of 2022 rankings, only behind the opening day 3-1 loss at home to Kashima, who, of course, had 52 minutes of wrongly playing 11v10 to wrack up impressive numbers. At the other end of the field, the Nerazzurri are still struggling to click with no goals in their last 4 outings in all competitions, however, they have recorded xG For tallies in excess of 1 in 6 of their previous 8 J1 games (plus one 0.99). I feel both Katanosaka and I (if I may put the two of us together in the same sentence) have identified the same issues of the attackers in the squad not matching their new kantoku’s style and the injuries to Usami and Kurata are exacerbating this problem. I reckon it’s going to be a matter of nursing this wounded beast through to the summer transfer window before some corrective surgery is performed to hopefully get the show on the road once more.
Fresh from a best ever J1 finish of 3rd in 2021 (4 places above their previous highest), I wrote the following about Kobe in my 2022 J1 season preview “Things have never looked better in Kobe…there’s no reason to suggest Vissel won’t be there or thereabouts at the business end of the year,” well the less said about that particular piece of ‘analysis’ the better. Joking aside, the Noevir Stadium club have clearly underperformed markedly compared with what armchair pundits like myself and also many genuine experts felt was possible. Vissel are currently bottom of the standings having played 10 matches and possess the weakest attack (a mere 5 goals scored to date) plus the second most porous defence (16). Those numbers are a tad misleading as the non-ACL clubs all had games on Tuesday or Wednesday while Kobe were travelling home from the ACL, however, on Monday when everyone was on an even keel, the Men in Maroon were equal with Shonan and Fukuoka in terms of least goals scored (they’ve got quite a way to go to catch Avispa now) and were on their own with the worst defensive record in J1. They’ll be hopeful that defensive-minded Spanish coach Miguel Ángel Lotina, formerly of Tokyo Verdy, Cerezo and Shimizu is the man to fix their leaky rearguard while the return of Yoshinori Muto, who’s missed the bulk of the campaign to date with injury, should bolster their attacking options (though from a Gamba perspective, preferably not as quickly as Leandro’s return helped FC Tokyo last week). Well then, what has Señor Lotina let himself in for? As I mentioned above, 3rd in 2021 was Vissel’s highest ever placing in Japan’s top flight and while plenty of players shone brightly and results were good, a brief look through their performance data casts doubt on how sustainable last year’s run really was. Kobe’s best numbers unsurprisingly came in areas related to ball retention, completed passes per game sat at 459.1 (3rd in J1) and their average possession % figure of 54.9 saw them rank 4th in the division, however, in all of the other key metrics I use they came in somewhere between 5th and 11th. Further digging also reveals that they were the 2nd biggest overperformer in terms of xG For, netting 62 times in 38 outings from a combined xG of 47.46 (Gamba scored just 33 goals from a very similar xG, 45.26) while also ranking 5th in the xG Against overperformance charts, conceding 36 times despite opponents chalking up 42.51xG over the course of the season. It’s still relatively early days in the 2022 campaign, but perhaps, as was the case for Gamba post-2020, a few chickens are now coming home to roost. Vissel games this year to date have been more open than 12 months ago, their average xG score is 1.34-1.31 versus 1.25-1.12 in 2021 while Shots For Per game (on target) has increased from 10.9 (6.8) to 13.5 (8.3), but worryingly at the other end it’s gone from 10.8 (6.3) to 13.3 (8.6). Ball retention stats continue to be good with 471.2 passes being completed per match and the possession % figure sitting at 58.4. Lotina is a slightly (very?) puzzling appointment as he’s a coach with a philosophy and style of play that really doesn’t match what Vissel and Mr. Mikitani want at all, at least as far as I can see. In fairness, one of the criticisms I’ve seen levelled at previous kantoku Miura from Kobe supporters was that he had no plan A let alone a plan B, so let’s see what the wily Spaniard can do. I’m guessing his side are not going to come out quite as gung-ho as Sapporo did on Wednesday, though as you can see from my quote above, I’ve been wrong before.
Head to Head
“It’s a funny old game” is a clichéd expression often banded about British footballing circles and it perfectly encapsulates the past 2 seasons of Gamba vs Vissel matches. The Nerazzurri did the double over the Ushi in 2020 before being swept by their western neighbours last term, though in truth there wasn’t an awful lot separating the sides in any of those 4 encounters. Week 1 of the 2021 J1 campaign saw the duo battle it out at the Noevir Stadium and a cagey affair was settled by a lovely Kyogo Furuhashi dink from the edge of the box following a delicious through ball supplied by ex-Cerezo star Hotaru Yamaguchi. Gamba would have had a right to feel a touch non-plussed as they slightly shaded proceedings in Hyogo and they’d definitely have felt aggrieved to also taste defeat at the hands of Atsuhiro Miura’s troops in Suita in late July. Vissel became the first, and only, team to come from behind to see off the Ao to Kuro in J1 2021 thanks to two goals in the space of five first-half minutes from Douglas and Junya Tanaka which cancelled out Patric’s 19th minute opener. Gamba huffed and puffed as they went in search of an equaliser, but Kobe’s defence, superbly marshalled by Ryuho Kikuchi, stood firm to secure a 5th league win in 6 visits to Panasonic Stadium.
* A lucky escape, two points dropped by Sapporo….cliché, cliché, cliché…yes, Wednesday wasn’t a great performance or a particularly impressive result, though psychologically it was important as Gamba had temporarily slipped into the bottom 3 owing to playing a day later than 12 of their fellow J1 sides. Perhaps inspired by spending a bit too much time in the sun today (Wednesday), I’d like to cover a couple of things I thought were worth sharing. First, not unsurprisingly, is the weather. I’m not sure just how well the DAZN pictures conveyed the deluge the players played through on Friday night and naturally TV isn’t really a medium built for letting you experience temperatures, but let me tell you it was warm on Wednesday and the game was contested at a break-neck speed for much of the 90 minutes, so in both fixtures the weather dictated the quality of the play to a certain extent. Secondly, I know we all watch a lot of football and want the best for our teams, but I think it’s important to try and remember that J1 clubs haven’t reached the standard of your average European Champions league contender, so it’s unfair to treat them like one. Gamba are missing key players in attack like Usami and Kurata, and injuries etc. affect other clubs too, whether it be defensively like Kawasaki (Jesiel, Noborizato), FC Tokyo (Morishige, Trevisan) or in attack such as Kobe (Muto), Urawa (Junker, Matsuo, Moberg). There’s no Middle Eastern royal family money lying around waiting to propel Japanese clubs into the stratosphere or a Pep Guardiola on hand to create the ultimate game-plan, however, the J League is beautiful too. Sure, it can be frustrating at times and players, coaches and clubs often do things that are unfathomable to many of us, but if every game was perfect, we’d have nothing to talk about, right?
* While I’m off setting the world to rights, here is an apology addressed to a Mr. Jun Ichimori….Hi Jun, I’m not sure if you’re a fan of the blog, but your performance against Sapporo was outstanding after I moaned about you wandering all over the place at the National Stadium. If Kwon Kyung-won can get a nickname like ‘Diego’, how about we call you ‘Bruce’ after old spaghetti-legs himself Bruce Grobbelaar.
* The GX18 penalty miss / Ichimori save – I’m a Gabriel Xavier fan so I’m not having a dig at him personally, but it is always just that touch more pleasing when a missed penalty comes about as a result of a player running, stopping, shimmying, shuffling, then finally running a bit more and shooting, isn’t it?
* Attacking conundrum – Gamba started against Sapporo with Jiro Nakamura playing off Leandro Pereira and Kosuke Onose (right) and Yuya Fukuda (left) flanking that duo. Pereira got hooked at half-time for Yamami as Katanosaka looked to operate almost as the away team for a bit and try to expose Consadole’s long-standing vulnerability to quick counter attacks. That experiment was binned after just 13 minutes when Patric replaced the tiring Nakamura and we were back to route one, which to be fair, worked best with Yanagisawa (twice), the aforementioned Patric and Wellington Silva squandering presentable openings. What will we see on Sunday? Honestly, I’m not really sure. I’ve had a stab below, but have pretty low confidence in my ability to read the mind of Katanosaka at the moment.
* In my last preview I mentioned a potential move for Ryotaro Meshino in the summer, but that got me thinking, despite having European experience, Meshino is by no means the finished article and would likely suffer from the same inconsistencies as Yamami, Nakamura, Fukuda etc. While Kurata’s return will help things, the Nerazzurri should also be looking for someone (potentially short-term) with good mileage on their tyres, realistically I’m talking about a Hiroyuki Abe or Manabu Saito from Nagoya… though if I can step into the realms of fantasy for a moment, how about a loan move for either Shoma Doi (Kashima) or Daiya Tono (Kawasaki)?
* Finally to some proper transfer news and looking resplendent in his suit on Wednesday it appears that long serving club mascot ‘Gamba Boy’ is moving upstairs, potentially to become ‘Director of Mascots’ or some other such fancy title. In his place comes a new, as yet, un-named character that if I’m honest looks like it should be on Sesame Street. As a 37 year old, I don’t think I’m particularly well placed to judge the quality of such things, but I’ve heard children describe it with words such as ‘kimoi’ (that’s not a Japanese word you want to hear if you’ve designed something with the purpose of it being popular with the public) and ‘Cookie Monster.’ However, as with many things in life once you get used to something, your feeling about it changes over time, so I’m sure that’ll be the case here too.
Influential trio Masaaki Higashiguchi (knee), Takashi Usami (achilles) and skipper Shu Kurata (calf) are all definite absentees for this clash. Higashiguchi could return at the end of this month, but it’s more likely he’ll be back for the match with Yokohama F. Marinos on June 18th which is also when we’re likely to see Kurata re-take the armband. Elsewhere, it appears both Yuki Yamamoto and Ryu Takao have injury problems, Yamamoto damaged something in his leg taking a free-kick versus Shonan on April 17 and Takao, a mainstay on the right-hand side of the defence in the early part of the campaign, hasn’t played seen since going off 12 minutes from the end of the 1-1 draw with Shimizu on April 10, though he was an unused sub the following week. In my last preview I said there had been speculation attacking midfielder Hideki Ishige had been dropped, however, it now appears he’s actually carrying an injury, though the nature of it hasn’t been disclosed yet.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
After a near 2 year period of relative stability in the port city of Kobe, Hiroshi Mikitani swung his axe abruptly to end the reign of one of his previously most trusted lieutenants Atsuhiro Miura, the man who had taken Vissel to their highest ever J1 placing of 3rd a matter of months before. I’ll acknowledge that as my xG stats in the ‘Tale of the Tape’ section above indicate, things did very much go their way in 2021, but I’d also argue it is far too simplistic to dismiss Miura as a poor coach or completely tactically inept. I have a soft spot for Kobe which is probably why I feel the need to be so critical about the decision to fire the most successful boss in their history 7 games after helping them finish 3rd. It seems the Ushi, or more specifically Mr. Mikitani, fell into the trap so many teams do of mistaking one good run of results, or one good season for being the new normal, when in fact it could just as easily be an aberration. Nevertheless, despite my ranting, Miura is gone and Miguel Ángel Lotina, who led Cerezo to 5th and 4th place finishes in 2019 and 2020 respectively before being released (clubs getting rid of coaches who achieve good results, but don’t play an aesthetically pleasing style of football is another genre of dismissal I may rant about in a future preview), so he clearly knows what he’s doing if he’s fully backed and allowed to implement his own style and ideas. Lotina mainly used 4-2-3-1 in the ACL which contrasted with the 4-4-2 diamond midfield system operated by Miura. With the likes of Hashimoto, Iniesta and Muto becoming available in the next few weeks it’ll be interesting to see how Vissel operate going forward, particularly because, as you can hear Sam and I discuss on Episode 408 of the J-Talk Podcast, some of their winter recruits (Yuruki and Ohgihara) aren’t well suited to a diamond set-up, though King of the Hill Iniesta definitely is. Kobe’s first item on the agenda upon returning from the ACL is quite simple and that is, like Gamba after their Covid shutdown 12 months ago, just by hook or by crook they need to get themselves out of the drop-zone as quickly as possible and build from that. Both these clubs were relegated together in 2012 and promoted back to the top flight a year later, neither want to repeat that experience anytime soon (though to be perfectly honest if that were to mean Gamba winning the treble in 2024 I’d have to consider it).
Finally, I’d like to shine a light on one of the lesser known talents in this Vissel Kobe squad and that is 18 year-old holding midfielder Mitsuki Hidaka. Signed on April 1st this year, I initially thought this was an April Fool’s joke, but sure enough the Aioi Gakuin High School graduate is a Vissel player. making his debut as a sub against Kitchee in the ACL and going on to play 134 minutes in total during the competition (1 start, 2 sub appearances). The youngster who cites his work-rate and ability to win the ball back as his strengths actually played for Gamba Juniors as an elementary school kid, but freely admits he grew up in Sakai (south Osaka) supporting Cerezo, so perhaps having Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ohgihara on the books (in addition to Iniesta, of course), helped Kobe secure his services. Further interesting information about Hidaka (well for me anyway), he is the first ever Aioi Gakuin graduate to sign for a J1 club (though his former team-mate Haruki Yamasaki is now with Alemannia Aachen U19 in Germany, a deal reportedly brokered by none other than Gert Engels who has been helping the sports program at Aioi get off the ground), the reason why being that their football program is a relatively new one run in conjunction with Kamimura Gakuen in Kagoshima. Apparently there have been a number of teething problems, but with the likes of Hidaka, Yamasaki and Eugene Fukui (Sanuki) earning pro deals this year, we can surely expect to see more future starlets come out of that particular institution over the next few seasons.
There are a few injuries of note to worry coach Lotina going into this clash. Andrés Iniesta didn’t travel with the squad to Thailand for the ACL and the reasons for his absence weren’t disclosed, but according to pictures posted on the club’s official Twitter account on 4 and 5 May he’s back training with team-mates and along with fellow returnee Yoshinori Muto should be good to go from the start on Sunday. Other than that, fan of the blog Sergi Samper is out with a long-term knee injury, rising star Daiju Sasaki has a hamstring complaint that’s likely to sideline him until next month and Noriaki Fujimoto has suffered an achilles injury similar to Usami and his season is probably done and dusted.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.