Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 21
Saturday 9 July 2022
Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)
Gamba face their 5th game in the space of a fortnight and just like last Saturday they’re up against a side who’ve had a free midweek, this time in the shape of defending champions Kawasaki Frontale. For the Nerazzurri it’s a 2nd trip to Kanagawa this week and they’ll be hoping for a better outcome on this occasion after meekly going down 1-0 to fellow basement battlers Shonan on Wednesday evening. That result leaves the Ao to Kuro just one place and two points above the promotion / relegation playoff spot, though because of the extremely tight nature of this year’s J1, they’re only 3 points behind Kyoto Sanga in 10th, so there’s still plenty to play for. Frontale currently lie 3rd in the standings, 9 points off prefectural rivals Yokohama F. Marinos’s blistering pace, albeit with a game in hand after their tie with Sagan Tosu, scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed due to a Covid outbreak in the Tosu camp. I’ll get into my thoughts on the J1 summer schedule later in this article, but all I’ll say for now is that regardless of their patchy recent form, the odds are certainly stacked in Frontale’s favour ahead of this clash.
Tale of the Tape
Bellmare Blues – Wednesday’s defeat at Shonan marked the 4th game in a row (and 5th time in the last 6) that Gamba have failed to score against the Seasiders. A fact made more remarkable / dismal [delete as appropriate] because Bellmare’s regular goalkeeper Kosei Tani has been unable to play in any of those matches and a succession of short-term replacements have been deployed. Once again Shonan’s low block lured Gamba into playing about the ball side-to-side along their backline rather than vertically to the danger men like Sakamoto, Yamami and Onose. Across the two 0-1s this season, the Ao to Kuro have averaged 409 completed passes, 85.5 above their yearly mean and it’s a similar story regarding possession, 58.5% when playing Satoshi Yamaguchi’s well disciplined side and 49% when all 20 J1 fixtures are taken into consideration. The final result wasn’t up to scratch and there isn’t a single Gamba player I could give pass marks to on the night so there was definitely plenty of food for thought for Tomohiro Katanosaka in that performance, particularly with the summer transfer window looming large on the horizon.
Away Day Malaise – After kicking off 2022 with 2 wins, 3 draws and just a solitary loss in their first 6 away games of the year, Gamba have subsequently slumped to 4 defeats on the spin. It’s not just the outcome of the tussles with Cerezo, Tosu, Sapporo and Shonan that’s concerning, but also the manner of the defeats. No xG For performance above 1 and only a single xG Against tally below 1. Things looked abject at the Sapporo Dome at the end of June, yet home performances, if not necessarily results, against Yokohama F. Marinos, Sanfrecce and Urawa, were promising. Home form, so long an achilles heel for Gamba appears to be slowly shifting in the right direction and Katanosaka’s dream of once again turning Panasonic Stadium into a fortress seems a bit closer to becoming a reality. However, these road trip no-shows need to stop sharpish or else the Nerazzurri will find themselves in a world of pain at the bottom of the table. I will extend the olive branch of the extreme humidity and packed schedule which probably accounted for the tired performance against Shonan (even the ever-reliable Masaaki Higashiguchi threw in a clanger for the game’s only goal) and that’s illustrated by the work-rate stats I collected, 111.8 km run as a team versus a seasonal average of 115.7 km and 160 sprints performed compared with their regular mean of 167.9 (they sprinted 204, 172 and 184 times respectively in the home bouts with Marinos, Hiroshima and Reds).
The nice thing about good teams and players is that even if you don’t particularly like them it’s still easy to find positive things to say due to their regular impressive results and title wins. I have no particular axe to grind with Kawasaki, but despite the Azzurro Nero having the kind of year the Nerazzurri can only dream of at the moment, because of their past 2 years of utter domination, anything they achieve in 2022 is bound to be overshadowed by the sheer awesomeness of their recent history and as a result the overall tone of this section will be more negative than it normally would be for a side in the top 3. One win and just 5 points from their last 6 outings in J1 is not something Toru Oniki and his troops have been accustomed to in the Covid-era and indeed their 5 defeats to date this season is equal to their total from 72 fixtures across 2020-2021. The biggest fallaway stats-wise has been in attack, though when you lose players of the quality of Hidemasa Morita, Ao Tanaka, Reo Hatate and, of course, Kaoru Mitoma over a 12-month period, some kind of regression is to be expected. Add in the ageing of key attackers such as Leandro Damião, Yu Kobayashi and ex-Gamba prodigy Akihiro Ienaga, Ryota Oshima’s never-ending injury worries and Chanathip’s bedding-in troubles, remembering of course that Takashi Usami was their first choice target last winter, and maybe it’s best for Frontale to use 2022 as a time to re-group and re-focus, rather than aim for a title three-peat. Of course, this is still a Kawasaki Frontale team, one that hasn’t finished outside the top 6 since 2012, so their attack is above par in terms of goals scored versus xG, but when your overall shots total is trending downwards while at the same time opposition efforts increase, there’s only so far good finishing and excellent goalkeeping can get you. In 2022, the Dolphins home and away results have been relatively even, though games at Todoroki Stadium have tended to contain more goals than those played on the road. Frontale score and concede more on home turf, but their home xG for figure is in actual fact 0.12 lower than the total number while xG against stands at 0.15 higher. Owing to Wednesday night’s fixture at home to Sagan Tosu being cancelled, I had a little more time to prepare this section so the second table below contains a comparison of their key performance indicators from their title winning 2021 campaign set against this year’s performance to date. I think the outcomes are pretty self explanatory and they also back up much of what @frontalerabbit has been saying in his blog, and he’s watched Kawasaki an awful lot more than me.
First Match Recap
How might those two dropped points come back to haunt Gamba? I’m sure that’s a thought that often runs through Nerazzurri third choice ‘keeper Kei Ishikawa’s mind when he closes his eyes at night. The Ao to Kuro led defending champions Kawasaki 2-1 going into the 95th minute at Panasonic Stadium, all that was required was for Ishikawa to boot the ball into the opposition half and the game would be won. However, wily Kawasaki attacker Yu Kobayashi had other ideas, sneaking up behind Ishikawa as he dropped the ball ahead of his clearance, the Frontale forward’s toe-poke found Leandro Damião and the 2021 J1 MVP rolled the ball into an unguarded net. As the drama was unfolding I was trying to get my phone out of my bag to check how long was left as there’s no additional time clock in the stadium and upon hearing wild excitement coming from the away supporters’ section I looked up in horror to see the ball seemingly take an age to find the back of the net. Watching the incident again on the train home things went much faster, but I still had a sickening sense of having being sucker-punched in the stomach. In terms of positives, the result did mean the Nerazzurri snapped a 6 game losing run against the Azzurro Nero in all competitions and Mitsuki Saito made an impressive league debut in the middle of the park, but they paid a heavy price with star forward Takashi Usami rupturing his achilles tendon in what was surely a massive turning point in Gamba’s season. Yuki Yamamoto, playing in an unfamiliar role down the left-wing, volleyed the Ao to Kuro into a half-time lead, however, substitute Ten Miyagi evened things up with quarter of an hour still to play after a lovely run and finish. Parity only lasted a mere 2 minutes before Kosuke Onose’s speculative drive was deflected and looped over Jung Sung-ryong to spark scenes of jubilation among the Gamba supporters. It was not to last though as Damião and Frontale had the final say and the points were shared.
I mentioned above that I had a bit to say about some of the scheduling that’s gone on this season in J1. First of all as a caveat for the league itself, they are under a lot of external pressures with their fixtures having to comply with Asian Champions League, EAFF Cup and World Cup demands (not to mention Covid), making getting things 100% right nigh on impossible and I’m sure they’ll do a thorough review of their performance once we reach December. However, I have to question why have Gamba been forced to play fixtures on June 26 and 29 then July 2, 6 and 9? Five games in 2 weeks, but then what lies ahead is 13 matches in 118 days until the end of the season with no more midweek fixtures scheduled and 3 completely free weekends! Of course, the Nerazzurri do face Kashima away next Wednesday in the Emperor’s Cup, so further progression in that competition would use up a little of that available space, however, it seems like the fixtures are set up to only suit teams who are battling it out in 4 competitions, something that simply doesn’t apply to the majority. This may come across as sour grapes, but I had this rant ready before the loss to Shonan and although it’s Gamba-centric, this situation surely affects other teams in the league as well, heck we’ve seen players getting subbed off with heat-stroke in recent weeks (Tsunoda at Marinos springs to mind). The ‘it wouldn’t happen like that in Europe’ crowd and I rarely see eye-to-eye, but we could perhaps agree on the need for managers to perhaps speak out on this issue, especially from a player welfare angle.
While I’m in the midst of ranting and raving in the aftermath of a stinging defeat and poor performance, why do referees (Yoshiro Imamura – who messed up royally in the Morioka vs Kofu game recently, but got away with it on a technicality – in this case) arbitrarily decide whether or not to follow the originally announced amount of additional time? I’ve seen games when the board says 3 minutes, but they end up playing 4 and a half despite nothing happening to warrant adding any extra time (other than one team being on the attack), whereas on Wednesday 8 minutes were awarded, there was a substitution and a yellow card for time wasting, yet only about 98 minutes and 3 seconds were played before Mr. Imamura decided it was time to hit his local Izakaya (and before anyone says anything, I know Gamba could probably have kept playing until midnight and still not have scored).
Finally to transfers….still nothing concrete about further inbound moves since Musashi Suzuki signed last Thursday (minutes after I published my Gamba vs Urawa preview). The most likely names to join him are Ryotaro Meshino, Ryoga Sato (10 goals for Tokyo Verdy in J2 this year, tied with Tiago Alves, yikes! Apparently Kashima are in the running for him too), midfielder and badly-needed dead-ball specialist Hokuto Shimoda as well as left-sided centre-back / left-back / left wing-back and brother of Kashima’s Kento, Yuto Misao. Both Shimoda and Misao played under Katanosaka last year with Oita, so while not being the most glamorous of captures they should be able to get up to speed quickly. If all of those 4 arrive in addition to Suzuki then we could call it a successful summer window in Suita, even more so if high-earners such as Leandro Pereira, Wellington Silva and Ju Se-jong can be shipped out as it’s clear they’re not good fits for Katano-soccer.
On Thursday Morning (July 7), the club confirmed that young centre-back Yota Sato would head to J2 promotion chasers Vegalta Sendai on a training-type loan until the end of the season. This seems like exactly the kind of move Sato needed and hopefully he gets a chance to show what he’s capable of, helps Sendai regain their top-flight status and returns to Suita more experienced and more confident. Good luck Yota!
The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.
GK Jun Ichimori – 2 dislocated fingers in right hand, expected back in August at the earliest
DF Kwon Kyung-won – Out of the squad for the loss at Shonan after going down with cramp at the end of the match with Urawa, I think this was just precautionary and he should hopefully be good to go on Saturday
MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, expected back in August at the earliest
MF Jiro Nakamura – Has been absent from the squad for the past 3 games, I initially thought it was just non-selection, but high-schooler Harumi Minamino’s appearance on the bench vs Shonan suggests he might have an injury
MF Yuki Yamamoto – Knee cartilage injury, don’t expect him back anytime soon
FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season
Predicted Lineups and Stats
**With so many games in such a short space of time, rotation is inevitable for Gamba, but I’ve done my best to make the lineup below as accurate as possible.**
When you win 4 league titles in your first 5 seasons as a coach and rack up 112 victories in 193 outings then even a slight slip in standards is likely to set tongues wagging, and this is the situation Kawasaki kantoku Toru Oniki currently finds himself in. It seems like the Frontale support are generally divided on his future with many willing to cut him a great deal of slack due to his outstanding past performance while others point out his tactical rigidity and poor record in cup competitions, especially the ACL, as blots on his record. If I throw in my tuppence worth, the Azzurro Nero are still genuine title contenders, but if I had to put money on it I’d say Marinos are more likely to lift the J1 crown come November. I think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of him being fired and Oniki walking away before the end of the season is only marginally less unlikely in my book. Would a potential post-World Cup opening for the position of Japan national team kantoku tempt him? Quite possibly yes, but he’s still a young coach so there’s no certainty it would. I’m a neutral in the Oniki debate so I can see both sides of the argument, he’s earned the right to stay as long as he wants vs he’s taken us as far as we can go, it may be best for all concerned if we move on. Whatever does end up happening, it’s going to make for fascinating viewing over the coming months. Oniki is still working with a 4-3-3 system and at the moment it has one holding midfielder with two players operating in slightly more advanced roles after a brief flirtation with the triangle set up the other way round. Kento Tachibanada, normally a defensive midfielder in the N’Golo Kante mold, has recently been starting at left-back with Ryota Oshima operating as a deep-lying playmaker and Chanathip slotting in just ahead of him to the left which appears to be a better use of his abilities rather than being on the left hand side of the front 3. The summer transfer window opens next week and there will be a lot of eyes on Kawasaki to see what they do. Of course, they have dominant centre-back Jesiel to return at some point in the hopefully not too distant future, and I can’t help but feel that another Brazilian in midfield or up-front wouldn’t go amiss if they do decide to spend a bit of cash. Being a club that loves to promote youth and recruit from universities, it should come as no surprise that they already have 4 confirmed new arrivals for 2023. Defenders Kota Takai (already standing 192cm) and Yuto Matsunagane, plus midfielder Yuto Ozeki will all step up from Kawasaki U-18, while Toin Yokohama University (they gave Sapporo an almighty run for their money in the Emperor’s Cup last month) forward Shin Yamada will join fellow alumni of that particular institute, Miki Yamane Kento Tachibanada and Yuki Hayasaka (plus Zain Issaka if he returns from his loan spell with Yokohama FC) in making the Todoroki Stadium his home. The future’s bright at Frontale, but what is the short and medium term forecast, and what role does Toru Oniki have to play in it?
The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.
DF Jesiel – Suffered a serious knee injury at the end of last season, went home to Brazil for treatment and has subsequently returned to Japan, it’s still unknown when he’ll be back playing again
DF Kyohei Noborizato – Injured thigh muscle in game vs Urawa on 2 March, expected back in the not too distant future, but doesn’t appear to have re-started training yet
FW Kei Chinen – Injured his leg in the game vs Sapporo on 18 June and hasn’t played since, no further information known at this stage
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.