Sagan Tosu vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 16
Sunday 29 May 2022
Ekimae Real Estate Stadium
Kick Off: 17:00 (JST)
Sunday brings us the final round of J1 action before a 3 week hiatus owing to the June international fixtures and following the epic bunch of matches witnessed on Wednesday night I’m sure there will be many mourning this break just as the league gets into top gear with battles raging at either end of the table. If I’m honest, after cranking out 16 of these match previews in just over 3 months, I’m looking forward to the rest and indeed Gamba themselves were afforded an unexpected midweek off following a Covid cluster in the Hiroshima camp which precipitated their bout being postponed at the last minute. Upcoming opponents Sagan Tosu, meanwhile, grabbed the headlines due to their epic 4-4 draw at title-chasing Kashima Antlers where a ding-dong battle culminated in 3 goals being scored in second-half additional time. Tosu raced out to a shock 3-0 lead inside the opening 50 minutes before finding themselves behind in the wake of Itsuki Someno’s 94th minute header. Perhaps as a sign of their unity and fighting spirit, they subsequently flew upfield and equalised through centre-back Masaya Tashiro’s low header with essentially the last play of the game. Sagan possessed J1’s meanest defence until they conceded 8 goals in their last 3 outings, can a relatively fresh Nerazzurri deliver a more dynamic display of attacking football than they did in the Osaka Derby to put the Kyushu side’s backline to the sword once more? All will be revealed from 5pm on Sunday, Japanese Time.
Tale of the Tape
The late cancellation of Gamba’s previous fixture at home to in-form Hiroshima leaves me without a whole lot to write about in here, so with the mini-break almost upon us I thought I might attempt a short review of what’s gone right and wrong for the Nerazzurri and new kantoku Tomohiro Katanosaka thus far. If we look at mitigating factors in his favour, we can say Covid outbreaks, injuries to key attacking stalwarts such as Usami and Kurata, plus the mess he took over due to the club being in a rudderless state having been under caretaker management for much of 2021. There is a solid base for him to work from with Higashiguchi or Ichimori in goal, an internationally decorated back 3 of Genta Miura, Gen Shoji and Kwon Kyung-won plus two midfield dynamos in the shape of Dawhan and Mitsuki Saito. Further forward, despite scoring at a far better clip than last season, xG has actually decreased, though only at a rate that indicates we’d expect to see the Ao to Kuro net 3-4 fewer goals across a whole season. For a Katanosaka system, experienced attackers Patric and Leandro Pereira will always be square pegs in round holes (I think that’s the first time I’ve whipped out one of my favourite clichés this year!) so viewed from that context it’s going to be interesting to see what Gamba do in the summer transfer window. Readers of my Osaka Derby preview will have gotten a reminder of my rather scathing opinion of the blue and black’s transfer work in recent years, so it goes without saying that I’ll be keeping a keen eye on who they bring in (Shuto Machino? Toshiki Takahashi?), and how well they fit into Katanosaka’s system. With no Levain Cup fixtures to play, the Nerazzurri’s schedule is pretty light going forward, game time for the likes of Yamami, Nakamura, Sakamoto and Minamino in attack early on this year has been a positive and hopefully that continues, but the big-name, high-earners haven’t done enough and their incompatibility with the present coach’s style of play is emblematic of the problems which have plagued the club in recent years as it has meandered from one mid-table finish to another. Stats-wise, from June onwards I want to see Katano-soccer take shape in the form of better ball retention, especially in opposition territory, scoring more frequently inside the opening 45 minutes and playing a brand of football that sees chances created on a regular basis without that necessarily leading to wide open spaces for the opposition to exploit at the other end. I know, I know, that’s quite a lengthy shopping list for 20 games, but as I said pre-season, this year is a free hit for Katanosaka in many ways and progress towards those lofty goals is all I’m looking for.
Following the disappointment of last weekend’s Osaka Derby defeat at Cerezo I consoled myself with the fact that the Nerazzurri’s 2 upcoming fixtures with Hiroshima and Tosu gave me the chance to take a deep dive on a pair of the league’s success stories. Following a strong 7th place showing in 2021, which led to first-team regulars Daichi Hayashi and Daiki Matsuoka (summer) plus, Eduardo, Yuta Higuchi, Tomoya Koyamatsu, Ayumu Ohata, Noriyoshi Sakai, Keiya Sento and Keita Yamashita (winter) all being poached by other clubs, not to mention long-seving kantoku Kim Myung-hwi being dismissed in the wake of a power-harassment scandal, little was expected of Tosu this year. New coach Kenta Kawai comes from a rather unheralded background having taken charge of Ehime FC from 2018-2020 and most recently served as Peter Cklamovski’s assistant at Montedio Yamagata, but he has made the many naysayers eat their words with his current charges sitting in 8th (just 3 points off 4th) as we approach the mid-way point of the campaign. It’s clear from the rather lengthy list of departures above that Sagan can’t compete financially with the big market clubs in J1, let alone those in Europe, but what they can do is out-work them, and this has been the bedrock of their success in recent years. Tosu have been a staple in J1 since earning promotion in 2011, however, after a bright start to life in the top flight, the seasons between 2018-2020 saw them circling the drop-zone looking like it was just a matter of time before they returned to the second tier. Under Kim last term they ranked 1st in distance covered with their 123.4 km per game being a full 3.1 km more than nearest challengers Yokohama F. Marinos (and 9.7 km more than Gamba). As we can see in the second table below, Kawai has remarkably been able to cajole an extra 400 m extra out of his troops every match while adding a whopping 54.8 extra sprints every time the team take to the field. Things may have waned a touch in other metrics, which is understandable due to the huge playing staff losses sustained across the last 12 months, but it is clear that Gamba, fresh from a midweek off, will have to match and deal with the intensity shown by Tosu this Sunday if they are to stand any chance of extending their recent winning record at the Ekimae Stadium.
Head to Head
Sagan Tosu were one of only two teams Gamba did the double over in 2021, the other being Katanosaka’s Oita Trinita. The first meeting between the sides at the Ekimae Stadium saw the Nerazzurri bag their first win and first goal of the campaign at the fifth time of asking. Takashi Usami’s angled shot from the edge of the area beat Park Il-gyu to spark wild celebrations among players and fans alike. Usami was again the difference maker in the return clash in late October, finishing off a swift counter which started from a poor Tosu corner and culminated in Yuki Yamamoto playing a lovely dinked cross-field ball into the path of Gamba’s #39 who swept across Park for what turned out to be the winner. The Nerazzurri would back up that 1-0 success with away victories at Yokohama F. Marinos and Oita Trinita in their next two fixtures to secure their status as a top flight club for the 2022 season.
Crowd trouble – Hopefully this is the last time I have to write about this, but Gamba announced on Tuesday (24 May) that two individuals identified as having thrown items in the direction of the players in the wake of last Saturday’s Osaka Derby defeat as well as the supporters group they belong to have been indefinitely banned from attending games. I fully support this swift and strong action as the behaviour of the minority has recently served to tarnish the reputation of the club as a whole. I know that a lot of my readership hail from outside Japan and it’s worth remembering that crowd trouble in Japan and crowd trouble in Europe or elsewhere are often 2 very different kettles of fish, which is absolutely not meant to serve as some sort of justification for the rowdy misdemeanours of certain misguided Gamba supporters groups. With the Shoji and Pereira on-field bust-up and the crowd unrest, Gamba served as an easy and deserving target for those with an axe to grind last weekend. If you want to have a go at dressing room disunity, lacklustre performances and poor supporter conduct, I agree with you fully, but criticising how long it took the club to take action (announcements of bans were made within 72 hours of the incident taking place) and suggesting Gamba won’t increase security at home games (which they stated they will do) with no evidence to back this up (as a point of note, on my recent visit to the National Stadium to watch FC Tokyo vs Gamba, no-one checked my bag upon entry, a practice that is always carried out at Panasonic Stadium) are the types of comments that should be generally ignored (although that could probably be said about lots of comments on Twitter lol). Anyway, I’m boring myself going on about this topic, so let’s move on to talk about 2 lesser known members of the Gamba squad.
Player Profile 1: Yota Sato – A highly-rated centre back who joined the club from Meiji University ahead of the 2021 season. It was always going to be hard for him to achieve much game time during his rookie campaign with Genta Miura, Gen Shoji and Kim Young-gwon locked in as starters and it’s fair to say he endured a rough ride on the occasions when he did play, facing off against Kaoru Mitoma while filling in out-of-position at right-back and receiving a straight red-card in the loss at bottom club Yokohama FC. Under Katanosaka he’s only really featured in the Levain Cup and has shown signs of improvement, he looks competent on the ball and his positioning, which still requires work, is steadily moving towards where it needs to be. A summer loan move to a decent J2 outfit such as Nagasaki or Kofu is just what the doctor ordered, I reckon.
Player Profile 2: Shin Won-ho – Signed straight out of Boin High School in South Korea, Shin is another player who’s endured a bit of a rocky ride since coming to the club in 2020. Injuries have severely curtailed his playing time, as has the abundance of decent left-backs / left wing-backs in the Gamba squad. Most recently he started on the left-side of the front 3 in the dead rubber Levain Cup tie with Kashima Antlers which may offer him a pathway into the starting lineup in the future. Despite the trickery and Cristiano Ronaldo stepovers, I feel regular J1 football is still some way off, so a loan switch to a J3 side for the second half of 2022 is the most logical step for his development.
* And finally…it was confirmed today (26 May) that Gamba will face off against Paris Saint-Germain as part of the French club’s 3 match tour of Japan which also includes games against Kawasaki and Urawa. The glamour fixture will be held on Monday 25 July at 19:00 (JST) and while tickets certainly don’t look cheap, I’m going to enter the lottery for one, so wish me luck!
The following players’ participation on Sunday is in some doubt.
GK Masaaki Higashiguchi – Back in training, expected to return in June
DF Shota Fukuoka – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play
DF Ryu Takao – Out of the squad since April 17, presumed injured
MF Yuya Fukuda – Had shoulder surgery on May 23, expected back mid-summer
MF Ju Se-jong – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play (likely to head back to South Korea this summer so may have played his last game for the club)
MF – Shu Kurata – Calf injury – expected back in June
MF – Jiro Nakamura – Japan U-19 commitments
MF – Kosuke Onose – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play
MF Mitsuki Saito – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play
MF Yuki Yamamoto – Injured leg April 17, no official confirmation from the club
FW Patric – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Shimizu rather comically made the mistake of announcing they’d signed Ulsan Hyudai instead of Oh Se-hun from Ulsan Hyundai earlier in the season which put the thought into my head, I wish Gamba could just sign the whole of Sagan Tosu as an entity. They did make efforts to bring in both Eduardo and Yuta Higuchi last winter, but were rebuffed on both occasions in favour of moves to Yokohama F. Marinos and Kashima Antlers respectively. And, the mention of that duo, a pair of the biggest names in Japanese football, leads me to my question, how do Sagan Tosu, a team that it many ways fit the profile of say, a Shonan Bellmare, manage to consistently duel it out in the upper echelons of the top flight? I don’t really have a definitive answer, but I will fall back on my comments on the J-Talk Podcast a couple of months ago when I compared them to pre-title winning Leicester City in England, who brought in then unknown, high-potential talents that bigger clubs wouldn’t touch such as Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante. Granted, Tosu don’t have anyone in the same category as that trio quality-wise, but Akito Fukuta (Niigata) and Yuki Horigome (Yamagata, on loan from JEF United Chiba) are examples of players who were going nowhere in J2 until Tosu picked them up and gave them a new lease of life. Not all their new signings have bedded in quite as smoothly however, and despite a goal against Kashima on Wednesday, Taisei Miyashiro hasn’t featured as much as he’d like, neither has fellow loanee Yuki Kakita. University recruitment is high on Sagan’s agenda with 6 players making the leap from varsity football last winter, forwards Taichi Kikuchi (Ryutsu Keizai University) and Shunta Araki (Komazawa University) have appeared the most thus far, though I think it’s best to judge them more in a year or so’s time once they’ve gained more experience at this level. Kawai has tweaked the 3-5-2 system operated by predecessor Kim into a 3-4-2-1 for most games this season, though significantly he went for more of a 3-5-1-1 against Antlers on Wednesday, potentially to combat the insane threat the Stags possess in attack and it’ll be interesting to see which formation he adopts at home to Gamba. With such intensity demanded each game, it’s highly possible significant changes will be made. One thing that will remain constant, however, is the importance of wing-backs to their system. On the right, Nanasei Iino has been a revelation since moving west from Gunma last year and he looks like he could go further in the game. Down the left flank is a real feel-good story in the shape of 23 year-old Yuto Iwasaki, a once highly-touted forward who has found scoring in the pros much more challenging than at age-group level. In 2022 he has been outstanding as a wing-back and sometime shadow forward for Kawai’s troops. It’s acquisitions like Iwasaki, Fukuta and Horigome that make Tosu perhaps the J.League team best placed to be compared to Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ Oakland A’s in my humble opinion.
The following players’ participation on Sunday is in some doubt.
DF Shinya Nakano – Japan U-19 commitments
MF Taichi Fukui – Japan U-19 commitments
MF Fuchi Honda – Out of squad since 14 May, no reason given
* FW Yuki Kakita is available again after missing the match versus parent club Kashima on Wednesday as per the terms of his loan agreement
**DF Masaya Tashiro and MF Kei Koizumi are one yellow card away from an automatic suspension
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.