Hisashiburi as they say in Japan, it’s been a while. I’ve not been very active publicly recently, but that certainly hasn’t been the case behind the scenes where I’ve been busy, beavering away looking at the top 3 tiers of Japanese men’s professional football. I thought it was high time I shared some of what I’ve been up to with you. Just as a quick aside, you’ll probably have noticed that I haven’t been doing much on Twitter in recent weeks and this has been no accident. I’ve met loads of good people and stumbled across lots of great sources of information on there so I’m certainly not about to lay into it, however, after 3 1/2 years of running a Gamba blog I’d become worn down by negativity and a lot of the general sludge which takes up the platform. I’ll no doubt gravitate back at some point, but I’ve been enjoying doing a bit of reading and getting out and about without the need for putting out weekly blog posts (if anyone is unfamiliar with my work, I am a self-confessed obsessive who can’t do things by half). Anyway, I am still officially a Gamba Osaka blog but this post is about the J League as a whole and there won’t be a single mention of what is and what isn’t a handball deserving of a penalty beyond this poor attempt at a joke.
Thanks again for reading, please check out some of my stats here, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labour.
J1 Stats and Team-By-Team Comments
Please Note: All numbers to the left of the penalties for and against stats are aggregate numbers, while those to the right are per 90 minutes. Regarding the penalty stats the number to the left is the amount scored or conceded and the number to the right is the total number of spot kicks for or against. For example in the case of Shonan Bellmare, it reads 2 2 0 1 which means they’ve scored 2 out of 2 penalties and the one spot kick that went against them wasn’t converted (I wonder which underperforming team missed that one?).
* Please note: Owing to Urawa Reds participation in the ACL (they may be rivals of Gamba, but big respect to Urawa, well done for winning it!) some teams have played fewer games than others and as these totals are aggregated figures that leaves the sides who’ve played less (Urawa, Hiroshima and Shonan) at a temporary disadvantage.
Now, here are my comments on each J1 team alphabetically…
A bright start with 6 goals in their opening 3 games preceded a run of only 9 in their 11 most recent league outings. Excellent at completing passes and have benefited from spectacular long range strikes courtesy of Ito, Mito and Ota, but outside of that, in many ways they are one of the weakest 3 or 4 teams in the division.
According to the numbers, they are the real deal in 2023. They’ve managed to shut down most opponents effectively in spite of a glut of injuries in defence and midfield, now to just get Sato and Tsuruno integrated into the attack more to relieve some of the goalscoring burden on Yamagishi. There’s no reason they can’t finish 6th this year.
I’m probably not the right messenger for this, but they are doing a lot of things wrong in my opinion, yet they still lie in 6th place, so what the hell do I know? Their stats have been poor all year and have been getting worse in recent weeks, an ageing starting lineup urgently needs some fresh, young talent and after making such a song and dance of getting rid of Lotina a few years ago they’ve essentially slid back into their old conservative habits. With that said, if they can play as badly as they have at times and remain in contention for 2nd, imagine how good they’ll be when things start to click properly.
It must be quite infuriating to be an FC Tokyo fan at times. Equally capable of looking like an ACL contender or bottom 3 candidate, the results of their games seem to hinge on which team scores first. One obvious area in need of an upgrade is their overseas contingent who are either, slightly past their peak (Diego and Adailton), constantly injured (Leandro) or not really up to task (Trevisan and Perotti). They should be in the hunt for the ACL, but with only 18th going down this year I think they’ll find themselves in mid-table purgatory for the majority of the campaign.
Well, well, well, how to keep this brief? They are clearly not as bad as results suggest, even the unlikely ally that was Shinji Kagawa said so. However, there’s undoubtedly something very, very wrong in the air in Suita. Blaming referees and demanding the removal of coaches is the easy way out, it’s child’s play. It’s a complex matter and I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers, but a hatchet man or two (Inukai and Kazuki Nagasawa – Genta Miura and one of the Yamamoto’s exiting stage left in exchange?) wouldn’t go amiss.
Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo
One of my favourite J1 teams not called Gamba Osaka, they continue to entertain and frustrate in equal measure. Kaneko has stepped up to the next level and Asano has proven to be an inspired addition (if you remove Yuki Honda from the equation then he’s the biggest surprise to come out of the winter transfer market). There will continue to be ups and downs for sure and I quite fancy centre-back Daihachi Okamura to make the move to a more defensively friendly environment in the next 12-18 months (plus national team involvement for Asano is a real possibility, he’s called Asano and used to play for Sanfrecce after all lol).
Not easy on the eye, but after a rough start they’re back in their regular spot near the top of the standings. Really difficult to break down, but often too easy for top sides to stifle which means they are not true title contenders in my book. A potential summer return for Gaku Shibasaki doesn’t seem like a wise use of resources to me and the J League must surely be plotting to make an example of someone with a 6 game ban in the wake of Suzuki’s recent spate of yankee behaviour following a period of relative calm.
Hard to make any significant judgements given that they are only one game into new kantoku Masami Ihara’s reign. Their numbers suggest they should be comfortably mid-table and if they can get their attacking talents pulling in one direction and Hosoya doesn’t head to Europe this summer, that’s most likely where they’ll end up. A new centre-back to partner Taiyo Koga would be a nice upgrade for them too.
Away losses at both Gamba and, most recently, Yokohama FC highlight just how far Frontale have fallen since the halcyon campaigns of 2020 and 2021. Capable of beating anyone on their day, they now appear equally vulnerable to horrendous no-shows. Over-valuing possession for possessions sake and unbalanced attacking options seem to be holding them back, how long this period of transition lasts for and whether all-conquering coach Toru Oniki is up to the re-building job remain questions in need of answering.
My tip for bottom spot this term had me eating my words with 9 points from their opening 5 fixtures before they subsequently slipped back . Sanga are presently on a run of 4 consecutive defeats and have just one win in their past 9 outings. In a normal season with 3 teams going down I think they’d be in a spot of bother, but as it is, they should be able to ride out the storm. Patric only has 9 more goals to get before he reaches 100, how close can he get this term?
Solid and generally unspectacular, I could probably finish my analysis there. As their match with Gamba perhaps highlighted, if there’s no Junker then this team isn’t much different to the one that crawled home in 8th 12 months ago. With the big Dane fit and firing, as he was against Hiroshima at the weekend, they remain a viable title contender. As Sam Robson said on J-Talk Podcast, young centre-back Haruya Fujii surely doesn’t have long left at the club before heading to the bright lights of Europe.
I have a real soft spot for them, their underdog spirit, their stadium, their strips, but I have to say in many ways they’ve been one of the poorest teams in J1 this term. Every game I’ve seen them live, they’ve been absolutely battered, but here’s the crucial part, they’ve taken points from most of them. After being roasted 5-1 by Shonan on the opening day, they’ve really tightened up at the back which has allowed them to keep themselves in games rather than conceding 2 or 3 in quick succession like Gamba or Yokohama FC. Long term they need some of their significant investment in university talent to pay off, having highly-touted youth team product Yoshiki Narahara feature a bit more would surely help too.
The absolute xG kings of the division, though unfortunately the crown of most profligate side also belongs to them. The loss of Mitsuta will hurt in the long term, even if it means Skibbe will now generally select actual wing-backs at wing-back. Pieros remains the key, at the moment the term ‘expensive flop’ rings true for him, if that remains the case come the end of the season then they’ll be thereabouts but definitely not there.
Formerly one of the least interesting sides to watch in the top flight, they’ve suddenly transformed into a strong attacking unit that also leaks goals left, right and centre. The summer loss of Shuto Machino coupled with a sudden upturn in fortunes at the far more well minted Gamba could prove disastrous for the Seasiders. On the plus side, I really like young forward Akito Suzuki, and although he’s not yet ready to accept the mantle of main man from Machino, he looks to have a bright future in the game.
Urawa Red Diamonds
Possessors of probably the strongest backline in J1, the only thing I can see stopping Reds from having a real crack at the title is their attack. They have depth in all positions and I really like Scholz and Atsuki Ito, but if their recent run of fixtures has shown anything, it’s that Urawa are far better playing on the counter and with the title of ‘Champions of Asia’ that means the likes of Tosu, Fukuoka and Gamba are going to expect you to come out and dictate terms to them, something that Reds haven’t always appeared comfortable doing in recent seasons.
Muto and especially Osako have been freaking awesome this season, Saito has been an inspired pickup and the ability of the likes of Yamakawa and Osaki to occupy more than one position competently has helped them overcome a string of, what would normally be considered, potentially crippling injuries. Kantoku Yoshida has them playing a brand of football that sees them regularly posting fewer than 300 completed passes per game and less than 50% possession, statistics generally unheard of during the Iniesta era. Genuine title contenders unless Osako and or Muto succumb to injury.
Yokohama F. Marinos
This is not a vintage Marinos side of what I’ll call the ‘Australian era,’ but what they lack in finesse they make up for in mentality. They’re no longer the league’s most potent attacking unit and they certainly don’t have the best defence in the division, but kind of like how Real Madrid bundled and blustered their way to the 2022 Champions League trophy almost on aura, so Marinos have significantly out-performed their stats and out-psyched their rivals to remain a genuine title contender. A stand-in should anything happen to Anderson Lopes is surely the first order of business for Marinos this summer.
Written off by many, including myself, in the early weeks of the campaign, they’ve drawn the strength from somewhere to drag themselves out of the drop zone. They are not safe by any stretch of the imagination, but nor are they certainties for the drop which is a situation that I think all at the Mitsuzawa are happy to accept at this juncture.
J2 Stats and Team by Team Comments
Again I’ll tackle the comments alphabetically and (this has been written before I’ve actually started writing comments), I’ll try to be more brief than I was in J1…
I have to hold my hands up, after being raided mercilessly last winter, I had them in my bottom 3, but they’ve proven me wrong and then some. They’re in the top-half and crucially performing like a top-half outfit. Getting key central midfielder Morooka back to full fitness soon will surely help them as the season progresses, if only they could get someone like Nakashima in on loan from Sapporo or even an under-utilised talent from Sendai might help.
It just hasn’t clicked in the way it did last season for the Pheasants. The absences of key attackers Sano, Sakamoto and Tiago Alves for spells certainly hasn’t helped though hopefully for Takashi Kiyama’s troops, putting out a more settled lineup throughout the second half of the campaign and perhaps an addition or two in the summer will put them on the path to the playoffs.
The undoubted surprise packages of J2 this term, I’m sure they’re playing host to a multitude of scouts from across the country at their half-built stadium as the likes of Enomoto, Kubo, Yokoyama and Watanabe work their magic. Stats and instinct combine to say that the good times can’t last forever, but they should be able to see out their debut campaign in J2 comfortably outside the drop zone.
A tale of missed chances for Iwaki FC so far with squandered opportunities (Arita and Tanimura the chief culprits) seeing them struggle early on. Slightly worryingly their form has been on a downward trajectory in recent weeks, but I still believe they have enough about them to stay afloat. As you’ll see below in my look at university rookies, Iwaki have more than a few in their ranks and could therefore perhaps do with adding a touch of experience in the summer.
JEF United Chiba
JEF are going to JEF. They changed coaches in the off-season, but basically have the same group of players playing the same brand of football to slightly less success than before. The return of Komori from injury should help them, can Tomoya Miki regain his 2021 form or has he settled for a career as a big fish in a small pond in J2?
I felt a bit sorry for them in the wake of their transfer embargo and having to play Levain Cup as well as J2 in the opening months of the season, though I have to admit my patience is waring a tad thin with them seeming to get everything going from officials (goalkeepers clotheslining opponents neck first into the ground and not conceding a penalty anyone?). They may very well find themselves in the playoffs come the end of the year and, able to make transfers again, could they have a decent stab at J1 once more?
I saw them host S-Pulse yesterday and it already had the feel of a J1 match, which it very well could be in 2024. Only Okuyama, Onaga and Takae remain as regulars from 12 months ago and I’ve been surprised by how quickly everything has gelled together. I’m a big fan of centre-back Jurato Ikeda who is reaping the rewards of years of yeomanry with Ehime and Akita.
There’s plenty of pieces of the puzzle lying around at Mito, but they haven’t managed to find the right combination yet and have recently shown a rather worrying tendency to completely fall apart in games. Their goalkeeping situation certainly isn’t helping them, but like Kashiwa a division above, you have to feel that they have more than enough good attackers on their books to keep them competitive.
I’m not sure how much of their recent bounce back is down to new kantoku Susumu Watanabe and how much of it is simply a regression to the mean as, let’s be honest, this group of players should have been absolutely nowhere near the foot of the standings. Things went so badly wrong in the early part of the year that they’d have to consider a lower part of the top half finish as a success.
Recent 5-0 skelping at Yamagata aside, it’s been quite a pleasant start to 2023 for Trinita. A number of new talents have blossomed and even an old hand, in Naoki Nomura, has added some strings to his bow. If they could just bring in a consistent goal-scorer in the summer (sounds easy written that way, I know) then they could be serious candidates for automatic promotion.
Another year of struggle and yet another mid-season managerial change, when will the tide turn for Omiya and their long suffering supporters? They should have just about enough to drag themselves out of trouble, but probably not by much and that has to be a real cause for concern. Wide man Shibayama hasn’t really kicked on from last season and they desperately need some of their more experienced names to step up to the plate.
They’ve been a staple in J2 for a few years now, but realistically for a club of their size that’s not going to last forever. I don’t see them escaping the bottom 6 and though I was quite hot on the signing of Seigo Kobayashi before the season kicked off, he’s been a disappointment thus far, Taiyo Igarashi less so, but it’s a lot to expect him to carry the side’s attack on his inexperienced shoulders.
Fresh from a 3-0 pasting of Mito I’m feeling positive about Takeshi Oki’s side. Stripped to the bone last winter, Oki has relied upon 2nd year pros and a handful of recruits from his previous clubs to keep things steady in western Kyushu. I’ve been really impressed by Rei Hirakawa, surely a strong contender for the not-so-catchy title of ‘best J2 player not currently contracted to Machida or Shimizu.’
This club and group of players should never have found itself in J2 in the first place, but here they are battering almost every side on xG week in, week out, yet struggling to even cement a promotion playoff spot. While it’s all well and good slaughtering newly promoted outfits at home, disappointingly S-Pulse have come up short time and again when they’ve done battle with the top sides. Surely they’ll end up in the playoff places and I certainly won’t count them out of the automatic promotion race just yet, but they really need to get their skates on.
In many ways they are the anti-JEF as they continue to hang around near the top end of the division while their numbers suggest they should be in their regular spot in the bottom 3 or 4. They have recruited well and don’t mess around with the ball at the back which helps make them competitive, though realistically we’ll see them steadily decline as the year progresses. With that said, they should be able to finish a good bit higher than they have in the past few years. I’ve been very interested in their young right-back Kazuma Okamoto, however, unfortunately he failed to take the opportunity to impress me last night vs Okayama, being clearly at fault for Tiago Alves’ early strike.
A real disappointment for me. I was surprised they got rid of Tasaka before last season kicked off, and although results didn’t improve under Tokisaki in 2022, he did make some decent modifications to their playing style. This term, however, they have been extremely shot-shy for the most part and although they are reasonably solid at the back, they’re going to keep struggling if they can’t create chances or score goals. A big summer transfer window awaits in Kita-Kanto.
Not a particularly smooth transition between Spanish coaches last winter and Vortis presently find themselves in the bottom 6, both in terms of stats and actual results. When Mori and Kakitani fire in attack they are like a different team, but I have my doubts about how well this team is suited to playing the kind of football their coach wants them to play.
Didn’t excite me in the least before the season started, but veteran kantoku Jofuku is a wily old fox and has slowly but surely made use of the new university talents recruited last winter, Tsunashima and Yamada chief among them. A long-term supplier of talent to J1 clubs, winger Byron Vasquez and full-back Daiki Fukazawa could be the next cabs off the rank.
A pleasant surprise as their off the field dealings often leave me scratching my head. You can only play 4 foreigners in one J2 game, yet with 7 already on the books they signed a new Serbian goalkeeper from the Serbian third tier. To quote Jon Steele ‘I’m sure that made sense to someone.’ Kantoku Carille has fashioned an excellent, well-balanced 11 out of what is a bit of a mish mash of a squad overall, there’s youth, experience and no shortage of talent. They’ve had a bit of a nosebleed in recent weeks after reaching the top 6, but I’m pretty confident they’ll be thereabouts come round 42.
17 games in, what’s their best starting 11? What’s their best formation? A lot of questions have been levelled at kantoku Ito, but I feel the front office must take it’s share of the blame for putting together such a bloated, uneven squad. Their stats are good and the talent is there, but the results, for now, are not.
The off-season coaching change has worked and after getting close to zero output from their overseas players and university recruits in 2022, Mancha and Utaka as well as Hayashida, Inoue and Miura have all put their hands up to bolster the Emperor’s Cup holders. How things play out with their ACL campaign beginning later in the year and the potential exposure that might give the likes of Hasegawa and Sugai remains to be seen.
They’ve been at the foot of my xG table almost since round 1 which is not good enough given all the off-season work they did. Junya Kato has been one of the unsung transfers of last winter, the same certainly doesn’t ring true for Jefferson Baiano. They appear to have become more solid defensively in recent weeks (thankfully they seem to have finally learned that 3 games in a week shouldn’t equal changing all 11 players), but that has come at the expense of some of their attacking prowess. Can they find a more effective way to balance the scales in the second half of the season?
J3 Stats and very brief comments
Basically you should follow ‘Magic’ Mike Innes on Twitter, the absolute oracle for all things J3. Imabari are the top dogs xG wise and Fukushima United have been propping up the standings for most of the year. FC Ryukyu’s attacking has been a disappointment and the differences between teams at this level of football seem to be smaller than higher up the pyramid leading, in theory, to more unpredictable outcomes like Nagano surrendering a 2 goal lead at home to Fukushima before absolutely plastering Morioka away the following matchday.
Some pictures from my recent trip to Hanazono Stadium to see FC Osaka vs Azul Claro Numazu.
A look at University Rookies in the top 2 divisions
This class certainly doesn’t seem to be up to the Mitoma, Hatate et al. vintage of 2020 with just 9 players completing more than 90 minutes in J1 to date and Hayashi and Kondo, at newly promoted Yokohama FC, the only 2 starting regularly. In fact 2024’s crop of, Manato Yoshida (Marinos), Hinata Yamauchi (Frontale), Ibuki Konno and Rin Mito (both Gamba), Ken Masui (Grampus), Naoya Takahashi (Shonan), Hayato Okuda (Cerezo) and Masato Shigemi (Avispa) already looks far more promising.
As we can see J2 is a far more comfortable step up for college players. Akita full-back Ryota Takada has played every minute of every game so far while 29 rookies have already featured in at least 90 minutes of action, with some such as Hiiro Komori (JEF Chiba), Yu Hirakawa (Machida) and Shimon Teranuma (Mito) really catching the eye. Just as a side point, as you can probably tell, there are some names which have been cut off at the bottom of the list, but they’ve all only played less than 30 minutes of league football this season.
A look at the goalkeepers of J1
I don’t want to say too much about this as it’s still quite early days. I’ve only really looked at ‘keepers who’ve played 10 full matches (900 minutes) and I’ve ranked them by save % which to me was the most logical way to do it, though I accept if others disagree with that. One interesting point to note is that only 6 of the 18 sides in J1 have kept the same goalie for all of their games. It’s also clear to see that Sagan Tosu would be in all kinds of trouble if it wasn’t for Park Il-gyu (one of the aforementioned 6) , who’s even managed to tone down the outside-the-box antics just a touch. Also for anyone wondering why Kosei Tani found himself dropped by Gamba recently, have a look at that save %.
That’s all for today, thanks again for reading!