2023 Season Kick-off Event sees squad named, new Hummel kit revealed

Welcome to the final installment of this little mini-series analysing all of Gamba’s moves during the 2022-23 off-season. Monday 9 January is Coming of Age Day here in Japan which means a national holiday, and this year from 18:00 (JST) we were able to witness Gamba’s 2023 season kick-off event, complete with the new kit unveiling and of course the squad announcement. We’re still awaiting official word on what’s happening with Israeli international midfielder Neta Lavi, though my understanding is that it’s essentially a done deal with the haggling being over when he actually leaves his current side Maccabi Haifa (the story does seem to be changing every 5 minutes, so take this with a pinch of salt). Anyway, regardless of whether the Nerazzurri enter the new campaign with or without Lavi, you can read my comments on the current state of the squad below, as well transfer updates and a little bit of good natured ribbing of our Kansai rivals. I hope you enjoy all of that, thanks for your support throughout this fanzine-esque series of posts. You’ll be able to catch me in various guises in the build up to the J1 season and after that, well, I’m not sure, I’m still trying to figure out the path I want the blog to take. If you’ve got any ideas, I’d love to hear them!

The New Kit

The first ever Hummel Gamba Osaka uniforms.

My initial reaction was, it’s too conservative and not as nice as some of the concept kits I’d seen created by fans on Twitter, plus it was a bit too similar to the 2022 edition (this is the home uniform I’m talking about). On further reflection, it’s an absolutely beauty regardless of what you make of the ‘interesting’ placement of a QR code on it. Further tidbits include the fact that from 2023 Gamba are allowing the use of given names on the back of the shirts, for example 5 Genta instead of 5 Miura, and they’ve also embraced the new league rule of allowing squad numbers above 50 (I don’t like it, but I’m a grumpy old man with no rationale behind my dislike of it other than I’m a grumpy old man) by assigning the number 99 to returnee ‘keeper Kosei Tani.

The Squad

A couple of key takeaways from Monday’s big kick-off event (some of this is relying on my Japanese so bear with me). First was Takashi Usami moving from number 39 to number 7 with the Scot in me loving the fact I can save some money with him now having one less number on the back of his shirt. Usami revealed he’d asked club legend Yasuhito Endo directly over a dinner of yakiniku (grilled barbecue meat) if it was ok to inherit his long held number (Twitter pictures suggest Masaaki Higashiguchi was also present). Endo replied in typical blunt fashion with a simple ‘ii yo’ (no problem) and the deal was done. Secondly, new acquisitions Harumi Minamino (Gamba Youth) and Ryuta Takahashi (Shizuoka Gakuen High School) will spend their debut professional season out on loan at a destination(s) yet to be confirmed (if I were to guess, I’d say FC Osaka or Nara Club in J3). Aside from that, the table below should give you a run down of everything else you need to know at the moment. Finally, if I understood correctly, bigger screens are getting installed at Panasonic Stadium, which is a God-send for people like me who still haven’t learned how to wear a mask and glasses together without the glasses steaming up. Oh, and ‘Be the Heat, Be the Heart’ will again be the club slogan in 2023, thus we’ve managed to successfully use English and haven’t embarrassed ourselves with any accidental eroticism.

When asked about what formation he favours, new kantoku Dani Poyatos (looking resplendent in a suit) said something along the lines of, I work the formation around the players I have available. I’m going on the assumption that he’ll opt for 4-3-3, though 4-2-3-1 is also possible. Higashiguchi vs Tani will be an epic battle for the starting spot between the sticks and it wouldn’t massively shock me if Jun Ichimori ended up at Kobe to do battle with Daiya Maekawa should Vissel’s pursuit of Brazilian ‘keeper Hugo Souza hit the rocks. In defence, Handa will likely take Takao’s starting spot and Egawa provides good cover at left centre-back and left-back, Yanagisawa, Fukuoka, Sato and Fujiharu are all probably going to be gone within the next 12 months, I’d wager. Midfield is already stacked and should Lavi or Ideguchi arrive then there will be way too much talent on board for those 3 spots. Bear in mind that the Nerazzurri used a midfield 3 for much of 2020 and the likes of Kurata, Fukuda, Ishige, Nakamura, Yamami, Usami and Juan Alano could all, in theory, take one of the more attacking roles with 2 of Dawhan, Rihito Yamamoto, Yuki Yamamoto, Kohei Okuno, Neta Lavi and Yosuke Ideguchi along side them and it’s easy to see why I’m predicting several midfield departures over the coming months. In attack, I’m slightly concerned about centre forward depth given Sakamoto and Minamino are both out on loan, though I believe they’re on training type deals which means they can be recalled anytime. The same can’t be said for the wide forward positions which are brimming with talent. I’m especially excited about seeing Naohiro Sugiyama (a strong contender for name and number on my away top) in the blue and black, his set-piece deliveries should be a real weapon for the Ao to Kuro in 2023.

Gamba News

In: Riku Handa – On Sunday 8 January Gamba finally announced the capture of Montedio Yamagata’s 21 year-old right-back Riku Handa. Hailing from Yamagata and working his way up through Montedio’s youth set-up before making his top-team debut at the tender age of just 17, Handa went on to bag 3 goals and 9 assists from a grand total of 92 J2 appearances during his time in his home prefecture. His roving runs and general attacking prowess are considered to be his strong points, though it should be noted his best stats in 2022 were, 96 blocks made, which saw him rank 8th in J2 and 93 completed tackles (10th in the division), so he’s a bit of an all rounder it seems, even able to operate as a wide central defender in a back 3, if required. Gamba aren’t the only ones who’ve been impressed by Handa’s abilities as he’s been involved with the Samurai Blue set-up at every level from Under-15 to Under-21 and is a genuine candidate to go to the Paris Olympics in 2024 and potentially even to rival Miki Yamane and Nanasei Iino for a spot in the 2026 World Cup squad, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m getting way, way ahead of myself here. The bottom line is, this is an extremely exciting signing from a Gamba perspective as, in addition to the summer capture of Rihito Yamamoto (who seems to be on good terms with Handa), it shows that the Nerazzurri are not content with just developing players in their own youth system plus picking up some rough diamonds from Kansai based universities, they are now aggressively pursuing J2 talents they see becoming future national team stars. The poor league showings across the past few years have meant the Ao to Kuro simply aren’t in a position to compete with other J1 sides for the services of more established names, and sadly the list of those who’ve turned Gamba down in recent years is embarrassingly long (Eduardo, Higuchi, Nara, Yamagishi…and that’s just off the top of my head). Current right-back incumbent Ryu Takao may have good reason to fear this signing, but for everyone else involved with the Nerazzurri, it’s something to celebrate.

Out (Permanent Deal): Ju Se-jong – The South Korean international has turned his loan move to Daejeon Hana Citizen in his homeland into a permanent one after helping them gain promotion to K League 1 for the 2023 season. The playmaker, who famously dispossessed Manuel Neuer to set up Son Heung-min’s goal in the Taeguk Warriors memorable 2-0 triumph over Germany at the 2018 World Cup, endured a disappointing 18 months in Suita prior to his return home last summer. Brought in at the request of then boss Tsuneyasu Miyamoto prior to the 2021 campaign, Covid and the departure of Miyamoto early in the year put paid to what had been a promising opening chapter to his career in a blue and black jersey and he ended up starting just 14 J1 contests throughout his stint with Gamba. Hopefully lessons have been learned from all sides as to why this partnership didn’t bear fruit, and despite only spending a short time at Panasonic Stadium, I wish Ju Se-jong all the best for the remaining years of his career.

Hyogo based football team seeking genuine rivalry – Less than 24 hours after the news Vissel had signed Cerezo winger Jean Patric (yes, he of last minute Osaka Derby Golazo only to follow it up with half a season of shots threatening corner flags and spectators behind the goal in equal measure) despite him having 2 years to run on his contract with the Cherry Blossoms, the Ushi announced that they’d snapped up former Gamba youth product Shuhei Kawasaki on loan from Portuguese outfit Portimonense. Kawasaki was dynamite for Gamba U-23 in J3 alongside fellow members of O Tridente, Shoji Toyama and Dai Tsukamoto, throughout the 2019 and 2020 campaigns. He then made it to the Nerazzurri top team where his progress stalled, save for a hat-trick in an 8-1 rout of a dismal Tampines Rovers side in the ACL which rather went to his and his agent’s heads, I feel. Following 18 months largely spent with Portimonense’s Under-23 side, Kawasaki is now linking up with Vissel. Is the Noevir Stadium the venue, and is Takayuki Yoshida the coach to draw out the talent we all know is there? More to the point, are Kobe trying to antagonise both Osaka sides to such an extent that the Hanshin Derby becomes a real thing and not just a couple of meaningless words thrown together on blogs like this?

**In case this passes over anyone’s head, the above is largely meant to be tongue-in-cheek humour.**

Shuhei Kawasaki doing a ‘Hero Interview’ following his MVP performance vs SC Sagamihara in 2019.


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