J1 2023 Predicted Lineups

Hello Everyone,

Happy New Year and all the best to you and your team in 2023! This is my fourth year in a row putting out a J1 starting lineups preview post and the response I’ve received to the previous 3 editions continues to blow me away. The 2023 version follows a pattern that those of you familiar with my work will recognise, but I’ve also thrown in a couple of additions that will hopefully enhance your reading experience. Anyway, no matter whether this is your first time hearing about this blog or your 100th visit, thanks so much for supporting my work and I hope you enjoy what lies ahead. Let’s start with a quick rundown of the general layout of this post.

The Guide

Teams are listed below in the order they finished the 2022 campaign and each club’s mini-section contains the following information.

Best Signing – This won’t necessarily be objectively the best player the team have signed over the winter, more the one I feel will have the greatest impact in 2023.

Biggest Loss – The opposite of best signing.

One to Watch – Again, this might not be the best player in the squad or the one most likely to attract European scouts, rather someone whose good, bad or inconsistent form will heavily affect the outcome of his team’s campaign.

Notes – Me trying to add some colour commentary to the graphs and tables contained in the next section of the guide.

Predicted Lineups

A few caveats here,

* For simplicity’s sake I’ve assumed every contracted player to be fit and available for selection when choosing these best elevens.
* These are not meant to be seen as the predicted starting lineups for round 1, think of them more as the players who will feature most across the course of the year. Obviously new signings will be made in the summer, but unfortunately I’m not in possession of a crystal ball to make forecasts that far in advance.
* In cases where numerous players may see significant minutes in a certain position I’ve listed alternatives below the main choice (players may appear as alternatives for more than one role). I also hope this illustrates where certain clubs have perhaps overstocked in one area of the field while neglecting others. Where two alternatives are listed, the name on the left is the one I consider to be higher on the team’s depth chart.
* I think I say this every year, but I’ll repeat myself anyway, expect the lineups for teams that have kept the same coach and most of the same playing staff as the previous campaign to be more accurate than those that have seen multiple changes in management and on-field personnel.
* I have done a great deal of research to get these lineups as accurate as I can to the best of my knowledge, but full disclosure, I’ve also acted on a few hunches and taken a punt on some lesser known talents (I guess there wouldn’t be much point reading this article if I just stated the obvious). Players coming from university sides directly into professional starting elevens is one of the unique selling points of football in this part of the world versus, say Europe, and it can be immensely tricky trying to project how each year’s batch of fresh-faced graduates will do, especially when data about their positions and skill-sets is hard to come by and the little information you can find seems to show them playing in a position that doesn’t appear to exist at the club they are joining (for example a wide midfielder in a university side that plays 4-4-2 moving to a J1 team that operates a 3-4-2-1, will they be a wing-back or inside forward?). I’m guessing these are the kind of choices that might generate the greatest debate, so please cut me some slack, I like to use stats, but several players below have made the grade based largely on gut instinct developed over a decade watching the J. League.

Squad List

You will see a screenshot of each club’s current squad as of the day of going to press (29 January 2023), but just a quick reminder, you can check out the up to date version by clicking on the link to this Google Sheets document.

2021 and 2022 Stats

Key performance indicators I’ve collected over the past 2 years and how those numbers stack up against fellow J1 sides. This is a new feature in the pre-season post, but versions of it have been a staple of my Gamba match previews for several years. Please note the figures in the ‘#’ column are per 90 minutes with the exception of xG for and against per shot.

2023 Fixtures

Another new feature for 2023, this one is very much as it says on the tin, an at-a-glance look at your favourite side’s schedule for the upcoming year.

2022 Appearance Data

This shows another table that long-term readers will be familiar with and the colour code to assist you in understanding it can be seen below. Basically, it illustrates who played, scored, assisted etc., and how often, during the 2022 league campaign. How good a guide the past is for predicting the future, I’ll let you make up your own minds on that one.

Still with me? Yes? Great!
Well, with all that said and done, let’s move on and take a look at each of the 2023 J1 sides one by one, shall we? Again I look forward to hearing feedback (good natured, I hope) from fans of all teams, followers of the league in general or just casual passers by, you’re all welcome. While I’m confident you’ll agree with some of the points below, I’m also sure there will be many choices and opinions that people will disagree with, and that’s all fine, it’s why we love the beautiful game so much, right?

The Teams

Yokohama F. Marinos

Best Signing: Kenta Inoue – Right-sided player, solid defensively and comfortable in midfield, transferred from Oita to Marinos, remind you of anyone? Inoue first caught the eye with Trinita back in 2021 and has since experienced relegation from J1, in addition to Emperor’s Cup and promotion playoff heartache, so he most definitely arrives at the Nissan Stadium battle hardened. He’ll get playing time in Kevin Muscat’s rotation system and there are plenty of other big names around to let him develop in relative anonymity. A smart piece of business yet again from Marinos methinks.

Biggest Loss: Tomoki Iwata – Hands up who had him down to win J1 MVP when the 2022 season kicked off? Not many I’m sure, but he was majestic whether selected in the Marinos engine room or at the back and thoroughly deserves his big move to Europe. The Tricolore replaced him in bulk as they simply couldn’t find a replica and it’ll be fascinating to see how Takumi Kamijima (Kashiwa) and Takuto Kimura (Meiji University) get on under the bright glare of the spotlight at Nissan Stadium.

One to Watch: Takuma Nishimura – From unheralded arrival to genuine league MVP contender in the space of less than 12 months, 2022 was quite the ride for Takuma Nishimura. Marcos Junior is still nipping away at his heels for a starting berth and chances to play centre-forward may lie ahead in the wake of Léo Ceará’s departure. Whatever happens, Nishimura will certainly have to go some way to top the year just passed.

Notes: While expected to be competitive 12 months ago, few were bold enough to predict a second title in four seasons. However, they got there relatively comfortably in the end thanks to Kevin Muscat’s squad management keeping everyone fit and on their toes while delivering some, at times, dazzling attacking football and generally standing firm at the back. If Muscat can keep the ship sailing in the right direction, bank on them being there or thereabouts come the business end once again.

Kawasaki Frontale

Best Signing: Yusuke Segawa – His overall numbers for Shonan last season may not be that impressive at first glance, but it’s worth considering that Segawa recorded a higher xG total than 13 goal team-mate Shuto Machino. If he re-discovers his shooting boots in the more attacker friendly surrounds of the Todoroki Stadium then Frontale fans could be in for a real treat.

Biggest Loss: Shogo Taniguchi – A surprising departure, but ultimately a move to the Middle East represents a well earned payday for Taniguchi in the wake of his impressive World Cup showings. He’ll be missed by the Frontale fans, their marketing team and DOGSO loving refs alike, but after winning 4 J1 titles, 1 Emperor’s Cup and 1 Levain Cup in 9 seasons in Kawasaki, it’s hard to begrudge him moving on.

One to Watch: Yasuto Wakizaka – With plenty of changes in defence and attack, there’ll be a lot of responsibility on Frontale’s dynamic midfield trio in the season ahead. Ryota Oshima unfortunately seems to be getting struck down by injury on a more and more regular basis meaning the onus will once again be on Yasuto Wakizaka to be creator in chief for his side. 5 goals and 8 assists in 2022, Toru Oniki will be looking for more of the same this term.

Notes: How they manage the changing of the guard in attack and defence will surely determine their fate in 2023. Toru Oniki is still around to oversee the project and he’ll have to contend with Leandro Damião and Yu Kobayashi missing the start of the campaign, while winger Akihiro Ienaga certainly isn’t getting any younger. Will Taisei Miyashiro and Shin Yamada hit the ground running right from the off and is Takuma Ominami about to silence the naysayers by stepping into Taniguchi’s enormous boots with aplomb? More questions than usual down Frontale way this year, does Oniki have the answers?

Comments: Kobayashi likely isn’t really an option on the right-wing, I moved him there to help illustrate that Miyashiro and Yamada will vie for the starting centre-forward spot in the early months of the season.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Best Signing: Shuto Nakano – Captained Toin Yokohama to success in the All Japan University Football Championship on New Year’s Day and arrives at Hiroshima primed to start from the very first matchday. Nakano debuted at right wing-back as a special designated player in the 0-0 draw with Tosu in round 1 last season, though he can also operate as as centre-back, which is where he and fellow varsity recruit Taichi Yamasaki (Juntendo University) may ultimately end up as Michael Skibbe seeks to reduce some of the burden on the ageing Sho Sasaki and Tsukasa Shiotani.

Biggest Loss: Tomoya Fujii – J1’s sprint king revelled in new German kantoku Skibbe’s gegenpressing system before injury curtailed his season. Hiroshima still have options out wide, but none quite as dynamic or relentless as the Gifu Express.

One to Watch: Pieros Sotiriou – With Morishima and Mitsuta riding shotgun either side of him, is Sotiriou destined to be the angel upon the Christmas tree for Skibbe as he seeks to deliver a first J1 title to the Edion Stadium since 2015? The Cypriot was the hero in Sanfrecce’s Levain Cup triumph last October, though he struggled to make much of an impact in the league following a summer switch from Europe. Completely rested and with a full pre-season under his belt, he seems primed to take Japan’s top flight by storm in 2023.

Notes: Going by the goals he set out when he first joined the club, the Skibbe project is running well ahead of schedule. What then will 2023 bring? The German has at his disposal a talented squad, slightly lacking in numbers, which leaves the Viola’s chances of success balancing on the proverbial knife-edge. Is a slip back from the heights of last season inevitable or do they have a realistic shot of moving a couple of rungs up the ladder?

Comments: Expect a fair bit of chopping and changing at wing-back early in the year. It’s also possible for Skibbe to set up with Notsuda holding in midfield, Morishima and Mitsuta further forward and Sotiriou partnered by Ben Khalifa in attack.

Kashima Antlers

Best Signing: Tomoya Fujii – I’m breaking one of my unwritten rules here by including Fujii in one team’s best signing and another’s biggest loss categories, but his pace and work-ethic are manna from heaven for an Antlers outfit for whom the moniker ‘sluggish’ would often have been appropriate throughout the second half of 2023.

Biggest Loss: Ryuji Izumi – The Swiss army knife’s departure will be felt more keenly than Kashima may have expected when they chose to let him return to former side Nagoya, who in turn will get a bigger shot in the arm than his rather unheralded unveiling would suggest.

One to Watch: Yuma Suzuki – Love him or loathe him, you have to admit that he is box office. Shot out of the blocks 12 months ago with 6 goals and 6 assists in the opening 15 games, but could only follow that up with 1+3 in the remainder of the campaign. His side need him to make headlines for the right reasons in 2023.

Notes: Current kantoku Daiki Iwamasa was an Antlers legend as a player, but doubts persist as to whether he has the mettle to cut it as a boss. His Kashima side were able to meander to 4th last season despite seemingly being out of form for a good chunk of the campaign. If they’re able to find any sort of rhythm this time round then surely the most successful club in J League history have to be considered genuine contenders for a 9th J1 crown.

Comments: A midfield diamond with Sano at the base, Pituca and Higuchi wide and Araki at the tip is an option too. In that case, Fujii becomes a candidate for a full-back berth.

Cerezo Osaka

Best Signing: Jordy Croux – Think back to Léo Ceará’s headed equaliser in the 2-2 draw between Cerezo and Marinos last term, now close your eyes and imagine the Brazilian in a pink jersey and that it’s Jordy Croux, not Tomoki Iwata, supplying the delicious cross. It’s not that hard to do, and indeed it appears that the Cerezo front office have turned that dream into a reality this off-season by bringing the duo to the Yodoko Sakura Stadium. Is the partnership destined to become the stuff of legends or ultimately prove to be nothing more than a mirage? Either way, it’s going to be fun finding out.

Biggest Loss: Jean Patric – Not a whole lot of competition for this category to be honest, which surely stands Cerezo in good stead for the upcoming campaign. Jean Patric was the Cherry Blossoms’ hero with his brilliant last minute winner away to Gamba in the Osaka Derby last summer, but in reality, and I swear this isn’t sour grapes, given he was a regular in Portugal’s top flight prior to heading to Osaka, his overall contribution could be viewed as underwhelming. Certainly, if replacement Capixaba impresses early doors then Jean Patric may find himself quickly forgotten about in South Osaka.

One to Watch: Léo Ceará – I’m prepared to take flak for this and also willing to walk it back if I turn out to be bang wrong. First of all, I don’t think you have to be a particularly brilliant finisher to score in the region of 10 goals per season for Marinos, you just need on-field minutes. Secondly, if Marinos really wanted Ceará, he’d still be there. Does the 28 year-old Brazilian have enough fire in his belly to prove people like me wrong? Is the aforementioned combination with Croux about to become the Jordan and Pippen of the J League? All will be revealed in due course.

Notes: Cerezo enter 2023 with a settled, well-balanced squad, both in terms of age and ability, and are coached by a man who knows the club like the back of his hand. The Cherry Blossoms have never won J1, I’m not saying this is going to be their year, but their fans absolutely have the right to expect them to improve upon last season’s 5th placed showing.

Comments: If the rumours linking Shinji Kagawa with a return to Cerezo are true then I’d expect them to sometimes operate in a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 system with Kagawa playing just behind the main forward. It’s also highly possible that the majority of the veteran’s appearances could come from the bench, in which case he may feature on either wing.

FC Tokyo

Best Signing: Kei Koizumi – Having stood in admirably at right-back for Kashima, Koziumi re-ignited his career with an excellent season alongside Akito Fukuta in the Sagan Tosu engine room as the Kyushu side exceeded expectations with a comfortable 11th place finish in 2022. His work-rate and passing abilities should be able to shine through in what is a midfield stacked with talent at the Ajinomoto Stadium, though failing that they could always re-patriate him to full-back, an area of the field where they’re not quite so well covered.

Biggest Loss: Kazuya Konno – Just like Cerezo above, the Gasmen didn’t suffer a lot of key departures in the winter, meaning I’m left choosing a player who saw injuries and experienced competition get in the way of him making a greater impact during his 2 years with the club. Konno’s screamer against future employers Fukuoka last July clearly got their attention and served notice of just how deadly he can be given time and space to operate.

One to Watch: Kuryu Matsuki – FC Tokyo are a team that have relied on moments of individual, usually Brazilian, brilliance to get them over the line for a few years now. With the Puig-era in full swing and the average age of the lineup getting lower, it’s high-time some of their young guns displayed a bit of x-factor of their own. Enter Kuryu Matsuki, a player who has made the tough step-up from high school football to the senior game look simple and is currently surely one of the most scouted talents in J1.

Notes: Albert Puig is about to begin his second season at the helm, and after a solid, if unspectacular 2022, what can we realistically expect in the coming months? Probably more of the same to be honest. Puig has a deep, talented squad to work with, but, for me anyway, it lacks enough of the genuine stars necessary for a title push. Though the Gasmen are certainly more than capable of another top 6 finish should things go according to plan.

Comments: Everyone I’ve listed on the right wing is also capable of playing on the left so Nishido and Arai may have to bide their time and prove themselves in the Levain Cup.

Kashiwa Reysol

Best Signing: Kota Yamada – following a couple of years under the tutelage of Peter Cklamovski at Montedio Yamagata, ex-Marinos starlet Yamada is primed and ready for a return to the big time. While 13 goals and 10 assists during 2 seasons spent in the fantasista position speak highly of his abilities, his 114 through balls played in 2022 (2nd most in J2) give an even better indicator of the type of talent the Sunkings now have on their hands.

Biggest Loss: Yuji Takahashi – With the departures of fellow defenders, Takumi Kamijima (Marinos) and Takuma Ominami (Kawasaki) eating up many column inches, Yuji Takahashi taking the plunge down to J2 along with new employers Shimizu may have passed many observers by. S-Pulse’s 191cm centre-back Yugo Tatsuta moves in the opposite direction and while he’s younger and outdoes Takahashi in height and physicality, a large part of me senses that it’s the Shizuoka side who’ve got the better half of that particular trade.

One to Watch: Matheus Savio – the effervescent Brazilian looked like he’d become the player Sunkings supporters had long dreamed he would, with his 6 goals and 3 assists in the first half of 2022 proving the catalyst for Reysol’s surprise bid for a top 4 spot. Unfortunately for Kashiwa, he mustered a solitary assist after that as they failed to win in their final 10 outings. Greater consistency from the former Flamengo man is required this year to ensure the good times are a rolling at the Hitachidai.

Notes: Under-achievers in 2021, over-achievers last year, somewhere between 7th and 15th seems about right in 2023, though the J League never operates in anything like a predictable manner, so best not all rush to back Reysol for 11th just yet. Plenty of changes over the winter, some fresh talents are on-board, but holes exist in the squad too which leads me to conclude that they aren’t genuine ACL contenders nor a relegation candidate, will that be enough to appease their passionate band of followers?

Comments: 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 with Shiihashi partnering Takamine in the middle and Mitsumaru dropping out of the above eleven is also a possibility. Additionally, I’d bank on them adding an attacking player from overseas before the season kicks off.

Nagoya Grampus

Best Signing: Kasper Junker – Since returning to the top flight in 2018, both of Grampus’ previous expensive foreign centre-forwards, Jô and Jakub Świerczok, have enjoyed explosive starts to life in Nagoya before disaster struck. In Danish dazzler Kasper Junker is it a case of third time lucky? 7 goals in his first 6 J1 games back in 2021 had opposition defences cowering in fear, but his career in Saitama never really went according to script in the 18 months that followed. An epic hat-trick in the 3-3 tie at home to Marinos last term was a clear highlight, though only being able to start 14 league games all year must be a concern for Grampus. Future club legend, or the latest in a line of overseas attackers to promise heaven and earth, then ultimately fail to deliver?

Biggest Loss: Leo Silva – Nagoya got good mileage out of the veteran last term leaving many a fan to lament his departure. Just how deep that feeling continues to run very much depends on how Yonemoto, Nagasawa and Yamada do in plugging the Silva shaped whole at the heart of the Grampus engine room.

One to Watch: Mateus Castro – He was almost like a one-man band at times last year, contributing 8 goals and 5 assists including a wonder-strike at home to Iwata. How will he do with a stronger supporting cast surrounding him in 2023?

Notes: 8th place in 2022 under Hasegawa earned them few plaudits or awards for artistic merit. With a rock-solid defensive line, the versatile Izumi back on board and their own version of O Tridente in attack, anything other than a genuine assault on the top 4 will, and should be, treated as a failure by the Giallorossi faithful.

Comments: If Nogami starts ahead of Maruyama, he’ll be on the right and Nakatani and Fujii will both switch one place to the left. The midfield may be set up with Inagaki sitting and 2 players ahead of him and a front 2 rather than the 3 illustrated above.

Urawa Red Diamonds

Best Signing: Marius Høibråten – Alex Scholz’s previous centre-back partner Takuya Iwanami never fully managed to endear himself to the Reds faithful during his 5 year spell in Saitama, meaning that for many, it’s high time he moved on to fresh pastures. As for his replacement? Step forward left-footed Norwegian Marius Høibråten who’ll form what could well be the J. League’s first ever all-Scandinavian centre-back pairing with the aforementioned Scholz. Should Høibråten settle in as quickly as his Danish counterpart then we can expect to see a robust Reds rearguard in 2023.

Biggest Loss: Ataru Esaka – After a bright and breezy opening to his career at the Saitama Stadium through the back end of the 2021 campaign, Esaka failed to reach those heights again in his sophomore year and has now opted to take what is becoming a more and more well trodden path from the J League to the K League. There may be exciting replacements in attack for Reds, but there must also surely be a number of their fans lamenting the loss of a maverick such as Esaka.

One to Watch: Atsuki Ito – Fast becoming Mr. Urawa, Ito has improved year on year since turning pro and with doubts surrounding how well suited fellow midfielders Ken Iwao, Kai Shibato or Yuichi Hirano are to a title challenge, a lot of pressure will come to rest on his young shoulders as he seeks to provide a reliable link between Urawa’s extremely impressive back and forward lines.

Notes: New coach Maciej Skorża is on board for 2023 and has an accomplished looking group of talent under his wings. Statistically Reds should have been title contenders last season, but ended up in mid-table. If their new Polish coach can find the formula to convert spreadsheet success into tangible on-field results, then they’ll be right up there. A good start in the league and lifting the ACL in the spring should make the rest of the year so much smoother.

Comments: Should Giorgos Giakoumakis (or any other reputable foreign forward) put pen to paper in the coming days then I’d expect him to partner Linssen in attack and Koizumi and Okubo would then battle it out for a spot on the wing in more of a 4-4-2 set-up.

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

Best Signing: Seiya Baba – Comfortable on the ball and capable of playing centrally or out wide in defence or midfield, Japan Under-21 international Baba is made to order for Mischa Petrović’s side.

Biggest Loss: Tomoki Takamine – He said he wanted to become an international footballer and was leaving childhood club Consadole in order to achieve his lofty goal. Fair enough. Though if you’re a Sapporo fan, the fact Takamine has headed to a divisional rival that finished a mere 3 places above you in J1 last season must sting a fair bit.

One to Watch: Takuro Kaneko – After a real breakthrough season in 2021, Kaneko seemed to plateau a touch last term, though in retrospect he did provide a career-high 5 assists. A pacy, skillful and clever player, Consadole supporters and fans of the league in general are well within their rights to expect more from Kaneko in the months that lie ahead.

Notes: Mired in mid-table since 2019, it seems prudent to predict more of the same at Sapporo once again. Goalkeeping giant Gu Sung-yun is back from military service and they’ve acquired some intriguing young Japanese talent, though they’re likely going to have to find a way to successfully integrate Supachok and Kim Gun-hee into their starting eleven if they’re to stand any chance of throwing off the mid-table shackles.

Sagan Tosu

Best Signing: So Kawahara – After blasting through J3 and J2 with Takeshi Oki’s impressive Roasso Kumamoto side, So Kawahara is now ready to take J1 by storm. As you might expect from a statistical stud like Kawahara, who dominated both J2 offensive and defensive numbers last term, he’s made the smart move of beginning his ascent to the summit of Japan’s top flight with perennially under the radar Tosu, giving him room to breathe as he finds his feet in the rarefied air of J1.

Biggest Loss: Taisei Miyashiro – His return to parent club Kawasaki should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Japanese football, and the success, or otherwise, of the man I’m about to talk about below will determine whereabouts between big loss and catastrophic departure Miyashiro and his 11 goals + assists from 22 appearances fits on the pain chart for Tosu.

One to Watch: Cayman Togashi – I labelled Togashi a non-scoring centre-forward prior to him promptly silencing me with a double in Sendai’s crucial 3-2 win over Gamba at Panasonic Stadium back in 2021. He’s since followed that up with a decent return of 11 strikes for Vegalta in J2 last time out. Can he and the supporting ensemble contribute enough goals to keep the feel-good factor alive and kicking down Tosu way?

Notes: Kenta Kawai is back for a second season in charge no doubt thrilled to bits that his Sagan side haven’t been asset-stripped quite as much as in recent years. That’s not to say they won’t miss the likes of Diego, Koizumi and Miyashiro, and they’ll definitely need an unheralded signing or two to come through to replace them. Unearthing another gem from their much vaunted youth academy wouldn’t go amiss either as they seek to build on 11th place last time round.

Shonan Bellmare

Best Signing: Song Bum-keun – Surprising and welcome in equal measure, the transfer of World Cup 2022 squad member Song from South Korean powerhouse Jeonbuk to suburban Shonan has certainly raised a few eyebrows in East Asian football circles. Kosei Tani may be gone after 3 generally excellent years down on the Kanagawa coast, but in Song, the Seasiders have as good a replacement as they realistically could have wished for.

Biggest Loss: Yusuke Segawa – While he blew a few key chances at critical points last season, Segawa’s link up play and movement proved to be crucial, not only in his team’s relative success, but also in aiding the goalscoring exploits of team-mate Machino. That he’s moved on to neighbouring juggernaut Kawasaki speaks volumes of his abilities, and the likes of Hiroyuki Abe and Kosuke Onose have big shoes to fill in the wake of his departure.

One to Watch: Shuto Machino – Having bagged the highest tally of goals for a Bellmare player in J1 since 1998, some speculated Machino would head back to his former side Yokohama F. Marinos, yet here he is ready to spearhead the Shonan attack once again. His 13 efforts in 2022 incredibly saw him finish just 1 behind the league’s overall top scorer, though it was a large overperformance versus his xG tally. Can he continue to bury chances for fun, or is he due a slip up some time?

Notes: With a highest J1 placing this side of the millennium in the bank, their coach and the bulk of last season’s squad still in tow and only one relegation spot to be avoided in 2023, it’s easy to be optimistic about Bellmare’s chances. However, as we all know, Japanese football has a habit of turning round and biting you just when you least expect it, so please forgive my unease at feeling so positive about Shonan. On paper avoiding 18th should be a relatively simple task, will it prove to be that way in reality?

Vissel Kobe

Best Signing: Matheus Thuler – I’ve cheated here slightly as Thuler has turned his loan move from Flamengo into a permanent deal after turning out 7 times for Vissel in J1 last season. Calm and composed on the ball with a keen eye for a pass, measuring up at 185cm, 83kg, he’s more than able to mix it up physically also. Thuler’s capture represents an extremely shrewd piece of business by Kobe.

Biggest Loss: Yuki Kobayashi (defender → Celtic) – One of two Yuki Kobayashis to leave the Noevir Stadium in the winter, with the midfield version venturing north to Sapporo. Ball playing, youth product Yuki Kobayashi was often a figure of stability at the back for Vissel during the early part of 2022 when it seemed that all around him was burning to the ground. Sure, it must be nice for fans to see one of their own head for the bright lights of Europe, but his absence also leaves a void that will be hard to completely fill.

One to Watch: Koya Yuruki – Having started his Vissel career as a winger in a team that didn’t play with any wingers, a system change midway through 2022 afforded him an opportunity that he grasped with both hands. That meant that at the age of 27, after a number of years of threatening to do so, Koya Yuruki finally made his breakthrough as a bona fide star in Japan’s top flight. There will be a bit more weight and expectation on his shoulders this term, plus he’s got some stiff competition to deal with in the shape of Jean Patric and Shuhei Kawasaki. I’m forecasting big things from him and international honours may not be out of the question in the not too distant future.

Notes: Vissel supporters have a right to feel a tad puzzled by their club’s recent transfer strategy. Without a senior addition of note as 2022 turned to 2023, Kobe found their backs against the wall and largely forced to chase overseas talent or overpay for domestic based stars. There is still a very skilful, if ageing, starting eleven to be crafted from their squad, however, is the depth there to challenge at the top end of the table and can off-field stability be maintained long enough to allow Yoshida and his players the opportunity to succeed on the pitch?

Comments: Approaching 39, Andrés Iniesta may be relegated to bench duty more often than not, meaning the side could set up in a 4-3-3 system.

Avispa Fukuoka

Best Signing: Ryoga Sato – After two consistent goalscoring seasons amidst all the off-field turmoil that engulfed Tokyo Verdy at times, Fukuoka native and Higashi Fukuoka High School Old Boy Ryoga Sato has earned his shot at the big time with hometown club Avispa. Finding the back of the net has been an issue for the Wasps since they returned to the top flight in 2021, so credit to the front office for pulling off quite the coup by re-patriating the highly touted Sato amid stiff competition. Here’s hoping, for their sake, that the move pays dividends.

Biggest Loss: Takaaki Shichi – Following a stuttering start to his professional career, Shichi has been on a sharp upward trajectory throughout the past 4 seasons. Avispa can be glad that they got 2 solid campaigns out of the left-sided defender and must now pin their hopes on returning hero Masashi Kamekawa having enough remaining in the tank to fill the Shichi-shaped gap on the flank.

One to Watch: Yuya Yamagishi – A double digit goalscoring season for a team not known for their attacking prowess saw the likes of Gamba and Kashima reportedly knocking on Yamagishi’s door. He has commendably opted to remain with Avispa, but after a meandering career largely spent in J2 where he averaged a goal every 6 games, is it realistic to expect more heroics from him this term?

Notes: A solid defence, a settled playing staff, a clear modus operandi and a couple of exciting attacking additions, 2023 should, in theory, see Fukuoka steer well clear of the dreaded drop zone. I was quite bullish about their chances twelve months back and they rather underwhelmed. Still, I’m reasonably confident that the spine of their team is armed with the talent, nous and J1 experience to shift up the rankings ever so slightly.

Comments: 4-4-2 is generally Hasebe’s go-to formation, but playing that would involve dropping one of their star centre-backs for a winger. Does he opt for the best eleven players, or the system he’s more comfortable with? Additionally Murakami vs Nagaishi for the starter’s gloves is a toss up at the moment.

Gamba Osaka

Best Signing: Riku Handa – With the team’s reputation taking something of a hit from two torrid seasons in the bottom half, Gamba have been forced to shift focus and look to young talents that fall into the low-risk, high-reward category. In 21 year-old Montedio Yamagata and Japan Under-21 right back Riku Handa, it appears they’ve struck gold. While Ryu Takao has proven to be a solid gatekeeper, Handa’s pace, energy and attacking prowess give the Ao to Kuro an added edge down the right flank which will surely compliment Keisuke Kurokawa on the left nicely.

Biggest Loss: Patric – Binning your top goal-scorer of the past 3 seasons may not seem like the brightest thing in the world to do, especially when you’re a team that’s been struggling to break opponents down. However, in removing Patric from the equation, Gamba’s front office have made it clear that long ball is a thing of the past and possession based football is the way ahead. Fans may lament his loss and reminisce about the good times, but it’s hard to argue against the notion that the Brazilian’s best days are behind him.

One to Watch: Takashi Usami – Losing Usami to an achilles injury in round 3 last term ripped the heart out of Gamba, while his return, though unspectacular, had a real soothing affect on those around him. Seemingly more focused on assists than scoring himself these days, mature enough to don the captain’s armband and enough of a club legend already to become the successor to Yasuhito Endo in the number 7 shirt, Nerazzurri fans can’t wait to see Usami link up with Issam Jebali, Juan Alano, Naohiro Sugiyama and the host of other attacking options at the club.

Notes: After a couple of dismal years by their standards, Gamba seek to rise again under the guidance of former Tokushima boss Dani Poyatos. There are a few eye-catching signings from J2 and overseas to throw into the mix, how quickly can they all adapt to their Spanish kantoku’s possession based style of football? How the Nerazzurri start 2023 is key and will likely define whether top 6 or bottom 6 awaits them.

Comments: There are still a number of unknowns at Gamba and several of the players listed as wide forwards could conceivably play as as one of the more advanced central midfielders and operate in a sort of hybrid number 10 role. Also, who prevails in the Higashiguchi vs Tani battle is still anyone’s guess.

Kyoto Sanga

Best Signing: Taiki Hirato – A class act for Machida in recent years, Hirato gets a well deserved second shot at the limelight after rather surprisingly not seeing much playing time at Kashima, the club that raised him. Able to operate on either flank or in the number 10 role, he delivered an impressive 80 goals + assists in 203 J2 appearances across 2 stints with Zelvia and if Sanga get anything like that kind of return then they’ll have a real gem on their hands.

Biggest Loss: Naoto Kamifukumoto – Unfortunately from a Sanga perspective there was some pretty stiff competition for this title. Peter Utaka would have been the hands down winner any time up until late summer last year, while Takuya Ogiwara, now back with parent club Urawa, will also be a hard act to follow. However, I plumped for Kamifukumoto, one of the pleasant surprises of 2022 following an indifferent previous campaign with Tokushima. He’ll now continue his much travelled career with Kanagawa giants Kawasaki, can he oust Frontale’s long-standing custodian Jung Sung-ryong?

One to Watch: Paulinho – A seemingly spur-of-the-moment loan pickup from Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv, out of match practice, the Brazilian didn’t feature a whole lot in Kyoto’s nervy run-in last season. This year though he should be fully up to speed and ready to deliver performances befitting a player who, with the greatest respect to Sanga, had global geopolitics turned out differently, would have been strutting his stuff at a higher level.

Notes: If the bottom 3 all had to contend with relegation in 2023 then Kyoto would be a team with a fair bit to worry about. With that said, I don’t feel this is the weakest group of players in the division and coached by the wily, experienced Cho Kwi-jae they ought to have just about enough finesse to remain in the top flight. They’ve stocked their attack largely with quantity rather than quality, which, in fairness, is a criticism that can also be levelled at a number of their rivals. If they can find some razzmatazz up front, then allied to a solid backline they may surprise a few people, though realistically we’re unlikely to see them threaten the dizzy heights of the top half.

Comments: New defenders Misao and Iyoha have both operated on the left side of back threes in recent years so Cho could, in theory, use the 3-4-2-1 formation that served him well during his time with Shonan. Yamasaki is another centre-forward option, but he might not start a lot.

Albirex Niigata

Best Signing: Shusuke Ota – Fresh off a couple of excellent seasons with Machida Zelvia, livewire attacker Ota brings even greater potency to what is already one of the most dynamic areas of Albirex’s squad. 20 goals and 12 assists during his time in the Tokyo suburbs mean he’s more than earned a crack at the big time and the ability to slot in anywhere across Niigata’s front 4 means playing minutes won’t be hard to come by. One to watch for sure.

Biggest Loss: Ippey Shinozuka – I feel a little bit like a broken record with some of these teams, but once again there wasn’t much competition for this prize. Shinozuka saw a shoulder injury restrict him to just 14 appearances during his loan spell from Kashiwa. A stand out for Omiya in 2019, his performances have meandered downwards since. He’ll be hoping to use this upcoming year to reverse the sense of ‘what might have been’ that surrounds his career.

One to Watch: Ryotaro Ito – A J2 MVP contender in 2022, now at the age of 25 it seems like Ryotaro Ito is finally ready to stamp his authority on the top table of Japanese football. Unable to quite make the grade in the cut-throat atmosphere of Urawa’s top team, a loan spell with Mito got his career back on the right path before 9 goals and 11 assists in his debut campaign at the Big Swan marked him out as a danger man of some repute.

Notes: A suspiciously quiet winter in northern Hokuriku sees an extremely settled squad gearing up for Albirex’s first J1 season since 2017. Truth be told, while there are a number of talented youngsters in their ranks who’ll surely have visiting scouts purring, a lack of depth at centre-back and centre-forward allied to a general dearth of top flight experience across the board could prove to be their achilles heel.

Yokohama FC

Best Signing: Mizuki Arai – Defeating a whole battalion of rivals to land this gong is Mizuki Arai who is the latest player to make his way along the well-trodden path from Tokyo Verdy to Yokohama FC, albeit via a brief loan spell in Portugal. Any fans of the excellent Japanese website Football Lab will be aware that Arai was the king of their ‘Chance Building Point’ metric in early 2022, delivering numbers that were frankly off the charts for someone not starting every week. Speaking of which, super-sub is the role I see him playing at the Mitsuzawa, and just how super he is may be the decisive factor in the Fulie’s survival bid.

Biggest Loss: Masashi Kamekawa – Barely edging out Montedio Yamagata recruit Zain Issaka owing to his greater versatility and the fact that he strengthens a rival (Fukuoka), Kamekawa spent a solitary season with YFC, but made a pretty big impression. Able to play as an orthodox left wing-back or as a wide centre-back in Shuhei Yomoda’s ‘Diet Petrović’ 3-4-2-1, competent defensively and useful in attack, this is one hole the Fulie could have done without having to cover.

One to Watch: Koki Ogawa – It couldn’t be anyone else could it? An incredible 26 goals last season helped fire the Cyan Blues to promotion and got Koki Ogawa’s spluttering career back on track, earning him J2 MVP honours to boot. His deadly double at home to JEF Chiba last summer drew comparisons with Ayase Ueda and I’m honestly surprised a side like Kashima didn’t move for Ogawa in the off-season. Does he take to his second spell in J1 like a duck to water and if so, how long can Yokohama FC keep him at the Mitsuzawa? The answers to these questions will go a long way to defining the Fulie’s year.

Notes: I might as well spit it out right away, a total of 20 new faces drawn from J1, J2, varsity football, high schools, Brazil, Vietnam and South Korea gives me strong Matsumoto Yamaga vibes (for those of you new to Japanese football, they dropped from J1 to J3 in the space of 3 years on the back of similar scattergun recruitment). Now, let me balance out that rather provocative negative comment by saying, there is an absolute ton of talent throughout this side. Should kantoku Yomoda be able to find the right blend then they may turn a few heads and shoot up the table. The odds on the reverse happening are a tad more likely though, I’m afraid.

You made it this far? Wow! Give yourself a medal. Seriously, thanks very much for your support and enjoy J1 2023.

—The End—


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