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2020 J1 Preview Part 1… teams 1-9

This may be the only non Gamba specific article I do this year, but I thought I’d run down all 18 J1 teams and make some predictions for the year ahead. Teams are in order of where I think they’ll finish this year. In part 1 it’s the teams I think will place 1st-9th.

*The Key Players I’ve selected for each team are not necessarily the best players, more the ones whose good performances or lack of will influence their team the most.

Here we go…

1. Yokohama F.Marinos (last year:1st)
Director: Ange Postecoglou (3rd year)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Ado Onaiwu (Urawa) / Mateus (Nagoya)
Key Player: Marcos Junior
Lowdown: Last season’s champions have retained their manager and everyone in their first team with the exception of Mateus (who’s returned to Nagoya). The new signings seem more designed to add depth ahead of this season’s ACL campaign, however, Ado Onaiwu (10 J1 goals in 2019) and Kota Mizanuma (7 goals, 2 assists in 31 games) appear to be shrewd captures. Edigar Junio (11 goals in 16 games before injury last year) returns and could form a mouth watering front 3 alongside Erik (8 in 12) and last year’s J1 MVP Teruhito Nakagawa (15 goals, 10 assists in 33). They did have injuries in 2019 but the spine of the team; Thiago Martins, Hatanaka, Kida, Marcos Junior and Nakagawa all played at least 33 J1 games, will they be able to cope with the extra rotation that Champions League football will inevitably bring? Winning back-to-back titles will be tough but I don’t think any of their rivals have improved enough to overtake them, so as I see it, they’d need to regress / focus too much on ACL / have loads of injuries, if they’re to not lift the J1 crown again this year.
Predicted Starting XI:
Matsubara-Thiago Martins-Hatanaka-Theerathon
Marcos Junior

2. Kashima Antlers (3rd)
Director: Antonio Carlos Zago (new)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Ryotaro Araki (Higashi Fukuoka HS) / Serginho (Changchun Yatai)
Key Player: Shoma Doi
Lowdown: They seemed to run out of steam badly at the end of 2019, but in true Kashima fashion still finished 3rd and reached the final of the Emperor’s Cup. A surprise ACL exit in the qualifiers may actually play to their advantage domestically this year. I feel Brazilians hold the key to their 2020 campaign, Antonio Carlos Zago is the new head coach and he has a couple of his countrymen in Everaldo and Juan Alano joining him in Ibaraki. How well they combine to replace the departed Serginho (20 goals in 50 games in all competitions in 2019) will have a big impact on their title chances. The signings of Tatsuki Nara (who knocked Gamba back again), Daiki Sugioka, Katsuya Nagato and Rikuto Hirose should bring more stability at the back, however, if Bueno continues to play regularly then scrap my 2nd place prediction.
Predicted Starting XI:
Misao-Leo Silva
Juan Alano-Doi-Izumi

3. Kawasaki Frontale (4th)
Director: Toru Oniki (4th)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Zain Issaka (Toin Yokohama Univ.) / Hiroyuki Abe (Nagoya)
Key Player: Leandro Damiao
Lowdown: The 2017 and 2018 champions were well off the pace in a disappointing year for them last time out. Frontale seemed to shoot themselves in the foot by letting Elsinho join Shimizu (I’m still utterly baffled by this), refusing to play right-backs at right-back, signing foreigners but rarely using them and being unable to find a regular role for Leandro Damiao. That said, this is still one of the most talented squads in Japan and an infusion of youth in the form of recent university graduates, Issaka, Mitoma, Kamiya and Hatate, coupled with no ACL distractions, should see them bounce back this season. I’m also really looking forward to seeing how Yasuto Wakizaka develops as I was impressed by him last year plus young Ao Tanaka will surely only get better, how long can they keep hold of him?
Predicted Starting XI:

4. Cerezo Osaka (5th)
Director: Miguel Angel Lotina (2nd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (Yamagata) / Kota Mizanuma (YFM)
Key Player: Hiroshi Kiyotake
Lowdown: Probably not the most popular prediction I could have made on a Gamba blog, but here we are. They have a manager who knows the type of player he needs and the style of football he wants to play, plus a front office that works in tandem with him (something we could learn from in Suita). Souza was an excellent player, but Lotina didn’t fancy him so he’s been and gone, replaced by his more conservative compatriot, Lucas Mineiro (on loan from Chapecoense). Other than that only Mizanuma (Marinos) has left from last year’s starting XI, though his replacement Tatsuhiro Sakamoto from Montedio Yamagata looks a good capture. It’ll be interesting to see how much game time young Jun Nishikawa gets and also how much Ken Tokura has left in the locker after suffering a serious injury in 2019.
Predicted Starting XI:
Okuno-Bruno Mendes

5. Gamba Osaka (7th)
Director: Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (3rd / 2nd full season)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Gen Shoji (Toulouse) / Hiroto Goya (Kashiwa)
Key Player: Takashi Usami
Lowdown: Last year I said we’d come 6th and we ended up 7th, but in reality I never envisaged we’d start as horribly as we did, nor for that matter did I think Usami, Ideguchi and Patric would return. The same XI that finished last year strongly are still here, the Usami-Ademison partnership is blossoming, Onose, Kurata and Ideguchi will provide goals from midfield and there are youngsters emerging. Gen Shoji’s late arrival from Toulouse would appear to be the icing on the cake and could pave the way for a genuine ACL push this time out. The back 3 of Miura, Shiji and Kim give us a trio of current internationals, almost unheard of in the modern JLeague era where most national team players ply their trade abroad. My only doubts are over whether or not the 3-5-2 system gets the best out of the current squad, it could be argued that 4-4-2 with Ideguchi and Yajima sitting in front of the defence may offer a more solid base to build from. Anyway, the signing of Shoji has me in upbeat mood, here’s hoping for an entire campaign spent in the right half of the table!
Predicted Starting XI:

6. FC Tokyo (2nd)
Director: Kenta Hasegawa (3rd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Shuto Abe (Meiji Univ.) / Oh Jae-suk (Gamba)
Key Player: Diego Oliveira
Lowdown: Ex-Gamba head-coach Kenta Hasegawa has done excellent things in the capital over the past 2 years, culminating in a best ever 2nd place J1 finish last year. This season’s crop features largely the same starting members (we all know how much Kenta likes his favourites) and they’ve been bolstered by the addition of 2 Brazilians, Leandro (Kashima, loan – why would you loan someone to a divisional rival?) and Adailton (Iwata). I think hell may freeze over before Hasegawa plays both of them, Diego Oliveira and Kensuke Nagai in the same line-up, but they should add depth to what is already an excellent midfield / attack. At the back, Joan Oumari (ex-Kobe and Tosu) plus Hotaka Nakamura (Meiji University) have come in, but they seem quite short of experienced backup there. Also in attack, Adailton is similar to Nagai, but an injury to Diego Oliveira would open the door for Tagawa, Hara or Yajima, none of whom played much in 2019 or have a great deal of top flight experience in general. They once again have an epic road trip (this time owing to the Olympics), having dealt with it reasonably well in 2019, can they repeat the trick this time round?
Predicted Starting XI:

7. Vissel Kobe (8th)
Director: Thorsten Fink (2nd / 1st full)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Douglas (Shimizu) / David Villa (retired)
Key Player: Thomas Vermaelen
Lowdown: Kobe continue to baffle fans and pundits alike. If column inches were a predictor of success then they’d romp J1 every year, but as it stands, in the last 5 seasons (it doesn’t get any better if you look further back), they’ve finished 12th, 7th, 9th, 10th and 8th…as solidly mid-table as you could possibly be. After winning the Emperor’s Cup on January 1st they’ll compete in the ACL for the first time in their history, but with Japanese Super Cup commitments they had a very, very short off-season. A conservative estimate might say that they’ll play around 45 games in all competitions this year, realistically if Iniesta and Vermaelen could play 25 each they’ll be doing well, how they replace each of them in the 20 or so games they don’t feature in will go a long way to determining their fate. Douglas looks like an excellent replacement for David Villa and Furuhashi and Fujimoto bring goals too. At the back, the additions of Kikuchi and Yamakawa show an intent to fix a leaky rearguard, though the error-prone Hiroki Iikura is still between the sticks. Honestly, 7th is a pure guess, they could be champions or they could finish 12th and neither would really surprise me.
Predicted Starting XI:

8. Sanfrecce Hiroshima (6th)
Director: Hiroshi Jofuku (3rd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Leandro Pereira (Matsumoto – Loan Extension) / Sho Inagaki (Nagoya)
Key Player: Tsukasa Morishima
Lowdown: The money drawer appears to be empty in Hiroshima as there has been little in the way of transfer action this winter. There are, however, plenty of young players coming through, Osako, Araki (would like him at Gamba) and Morishima (3 goals, 7 assists in 24 games in 2019) all look good. Taishi and Hiroya Matsumoto plus Shunki Higashi look to be the next in line to make an impact on the first team. Brazilian midfielder Ezequiel is an intriguing signing from Botafogo while the extension of Leandro Pereira’s loan deal from Matsumoto should help to relieve the goal-scoring burden on Douglas Vieira (7 goals, 4 assists in 24 games in his first season of J1 football).
Predicted Starting XI:
Douglas Vieira

9. Kashiwa Reysol (J2 1st)
Director: Nelsinho (2nd / 8th in total)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Yuta Kamiya (Shonan) / So Nakagawa (Iwata)
Key Player: Cristiano
Lowdown: Last year’s J2 champions return to J1 after a year-long sabbatical and like Kobe, I’m really unsure where to place them. Cristiano, Olunga, Esaka, Segawa and Matheus Savio will score goals, so from that perspective, it’s largely irrelevant whether or not new boys Goya and Nakama turn out to be good signings or not. They’ve brought in a lot of J2 talent this winter, Yokohama FC right-back Kengo Kitazume and midfielder Yuta Kamiya (Shonan – on loan at Ehime in 2019) seem to be the pick of the bunch. My questions about Kashiwa are all at the back, the partnership of Yuji Takahashi and Takuma Ominami could be very solid or it could be an undisciplined car crash, this will largely determine whether Reysol end up in the ACL spots or mid-table.
Predicted Starting XI:


Site Introduction

Picture taken at Gamba vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima J1 game on 10 August 2019

I’m a Gamba Osaka supporter originally from Scotland. Due to work I only attend live games 3-5 times a year, but I enjoy following Gamba and JLeague in general via tv and social media. I’ll try to post as much as I can, but make no promises. All ideas and opinions on this site are my own unless otherwise stated.


J1 and J2 Appearance Data Spreadsheet Introduction

This may be by far my shortest ever post on here, but I’m allowing my followers on WordPress a peek at some of the J1 and J2 appearance data I’ve been collecting. Following on from my previous post, I’ve converted some J1 and J2 stats into a shareable Google spreadsheet that I can update regularly.

Please get in touch and let me know what you think….this won’t be posted on Twitter but my DM’s are open.

The link is here…

And this is the basic key…

I’m still working on a couple of things such as how to colour code players who are subbed off after coming on as a sub, let me know if you have any ideas or are confused by any of the data, it is still very much a work in progress.

And finally…

In my last post I recommended the Japanese site
As their stats are presented in Japanese, I decided to translate the main offensive and defensive numbers so they are easier to understand for non-Japanese speakers. I hope this helps.

Offensive Stats

Defensive Stats


J1 2021 Appearance Data and Statistics

Thanks again everyone for supporting my recent articles. As I posted on Twitter a few weeks back, currently other areas in my life have to take priority over my blog writing, and for 2021, at least, my Gamba match previews will need to stay on the backburner. In some ways I feel like I took them as far as I could last season and at the beginning of this year, I felt like I was rehashing old material, please let me know if you agree or disagree.

With all that out of the way, my latest post provides a rundown of all 20 J1 teams’ matchday selections for every league match so far in 2021, presented in an (hopefully) easy to understand, at a glance style. I’ve also tagged on some additional comments and basic team stats correct to 18 April 2021.

A big shout out to everyone who has gotten in touch with me recently across various mediums. Actually I never envisaged my blog would get so many comments and my Twitter notifications are not really built to handle the traffic I’ve been getting. I recently noticed some people had left me comments weeks ago and I’d missed them, I genuinely try to reply to everyone who asks clean questions, so if I haven’t responded to your question / comment, I’m truly sorry.

Finally, some people have asked where I get my data, so here are a few of the resources I use…
And of course my trusty Soccer Digest Yearbook…

Kawasaki Frontale

Comment: The juggernaut has continued steamrollering opponents just as it did last season. Surely the best side in the history of the JLeague.

Gamba Osaka

Comment: How to fix a problem like Gamba? A Nagoya-esque defence, but can’t buy a goal at the other end. What’s to blame, the Covid cluster, overperforming xG last year, an overly defensive mindset they can’t shake off? Answers on a postcard to Tsuneyasu Miyamoto please.

Nagoya Grampus

Comment: You thought they couldn’t defend any better than last season, you thought wrong. If I were a gambler I’d have plenty on Mitch Langerak and co. to beat their clean sheet record set last year. How much will missing out on Kasper Junker to Urawa haunt them with their current paucity of centre-forward options seemingly denying us a genuine tussle for the title between Grampus and Frontale.

Cerezo Osaka

Comments: They’ve surprised many by performing at a similar level to 2020. With Taggart and Tiago almost ready to play and Sakamoto and Harakawa due back soon, a push for the top 4 isn’t out of the question.

Kashima Antlers

Comments: Although an Antlers legend, the way Naoki Soma’s spell in charge of Machida ended up poses some serious questions about how adept he’ll be at replacing Zago in the Kashima hotseat. Goals from Everaldo and instant impacts from Pituca and Caike are badly needed.

FC Tokyo

Comments: Injuries, rumoured dressing room discontent and a series of patchy results don’t make for happy start to the campaign for the capital side. Bruno Uvini is the great hope to steady things at the back, but it should be remembered he hasn’t kicked a ball in anger in over 6 months.

Kashiwa Reysol

Comments: They seem to have course corrected slightly with hard fought 1-0s in their past 2 games and the Brazilian cavalry is due to arrive soon. Quite how they keep their 9 overseas players happy, and what effect their second Covid cluster in under a year will have on them is yet to be seen.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Comments: Look set to hover around upper mid-table just as they did last time round. Morishima and Kawabe have started the season well, but they lack top quality support in attack. Defensively, Yuta Imazu has been a decent find, though they still need to find themselves a pair of genuine full-backs.

Yokohama F.Marinos

Comments: Haven’t lost since the opening day, but a rather kind run of fixtures since round 3 means question marks remain over whether they are genuine ACL contenders of not.

Urawa Red Diamonds

Comments: Two poundings in the space of three games at the hands of Kanagawa heavyweights Frontale and Marinos threatened to scuttle the Rodriguez project before it had the chance to take off, but they’ve bounced back well. We may come to look on Reds’ 2021 the same way Marinos supporters think of Ange Postecoglou’s debut campaign in 2018.

Oita Trinita

Comments: Six defeats in a row with just a single goal scored in the process, I’m sure there’s a joke about a famous Tom Petty song here somewhere. They need to hope they’ve hit the jackpot with their two soon-to-arrive Brazilians.

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

Comments: Houston, we may have a problem. Dropping points like confetti and with 4 teams going down this year they’re rapidly finding themselves being drawn into a relegation dogfight.

Sagan Tosu

Comments: Prior to Sunday’s win at Grampus, some of the gloss was starting to come off their excellent start to the year with 4 failures to score in 5 outings. Kim Myung-hwi’s side are made of sterner stuff though, and while it’s likely they’ll regress a touch over the course of the season, a top ten finish remains a distinct possibility.

Vissel Kobe

Comments: A genuine ACL contender based on early season form. How they mesh the returning Iniesta and newly arrived duo of Lincoln and Masika with their current high performing starters will be key.

Yokohama FC

Comments: They tick all the boxes for a side about to take the drop, poor attack, woeful defence, no idea of best lineup, symbolic change of head-coach. I’m not usually so blunt, but take this to the bank, they’ll be in J2 next season.

Shimizu S-Pulse

Comments: Some had tipped them to finish in the top half this year, but as things stand it looks like the 3-1 win at Kashima on the opening day was something of a mirage. Thiago Santana has disappointed and Lotina has run into the same problem as a number of his predecessors, a complete lack of consistency amongst the players at his disposal.

Vegalta Sendai

Comments: Still haven’t won a home game since 2019 and that’s a stat they’ll have to alter fast if they want to avoid a return to J2 for the first time in 12 years.

Shonan Bellmare

Comments: Going under the radar a touch, but considering they finished bottom last year, their performances to date in 2021 have shown marked improvement. No defeats and 4 clean sheets in a tough looking run of 5 fixtures up to last weekend suggest they mean business and could defy the odds to remain in J1 next term.

Tokushima Vortis

Comments: The project looks to be running under budget and ahead of schedule. New head-coach Poyatos is now in the country and working with the players face-to-face and at present they appear set for a decent year. Having, The Alan Parsons Project’s Sirius and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on their pre-match playlist makes me enjoy their games that little bit more.

Avispa Fukuoka

Comments: The support inside the Best Denki Stadium is the thing that’s caught my eye most about Fukuoka this year. Their seems to be a genuine feel-good factor around the place which is helping to bring out performances that many, including myself, doubted they were capable of.


J1 Lineups Updated Version end of round 6

Thanks again to everyone who read, liked, shared and commented on my J1 and J2 Predicted Lineups posts that I put out about a month before the 2021 season started. The response to them was truly phenomenal and frankly blew me away, so much in fact, that I’ve been re-thinking how I should structure my blog (I’m always open to new ideas, so please tell me what you want!)

The J1 Predicted Lineups post is still getting a fair bit of traffic even though it is a bit out of date, so I thought I’d do some more research and update things a little. Included in this post is a short comment on teams’ performances in the opening month of the season, a list of currently unavailable players (as of 28 March 2021) and a full rundown of the lineups and formations used by each J1 side over their past 5 league fixtures.

A few qualifiers, the team comments don’t take into consideration this weekend’s Levain Cup games as personally I don’t think a whole lot can be read into them, for example if Tosu and Sapporo start to show the form they displayed yesterday in J1 matches, then I’ll revise my opinion of both sides. Secondly, regarding injuries, some of the players I’ve named as unavailable haven’t been officially confirmed as being injured. In certain instances I’ve assumed they are out due to being absent from the matchday squad for a prolonged period of time or being subbed off early in a game and missing subsequent fixtures.

Thanks again for your support and please enjoy!

Kawasaki Frontale

Comments: Have started the season in ominous form, only dropping points at much-improved Kobe. What’s more, Oshima and Noborizato are still to return and strengthen them while João Schmidt almost doesn’t feel like a new signing, he’s bedded in so quickly.
Unavailable: Kyohei Noborizato, Ryota Oshima (injured)

Gamba Osaka

Comments: Only one league match played so not much to discuss. Re-scheduling six fixtures later in the year may see the return of the more defensive 4-4-2 set-up used last season and hopefully the end of the Onose at right-back experiment with Takao returning to take his rightful place.
Unavailable: Jun Ichimori, Haruto Shirai, Yuji Ono (injured), Wellington Silva (Visa/quarantine)

Nagoya Grampus

Comments: Their defensive strength means they are Kawasaki’s closest challengers despite having no real goal-scorer. Yamasaki has done alright, but shouldn’t be starting for a title contender and Kakitani has shown nothing so far. Inagaki looks like an early MVP contender, Soma has improved, however Morishita seems to be 3rd choice right back at the moment, perhaps he’s too attack-minded for Ficcadenti, imagine how good Tosu would be if he was still there!
Unavilable: Mu Kanazaki (injured)

Cerezo Osaka

Comments: Higher up the league than many would have expected, but the fixture list has been pretty kind to them so far. Okubo’s goals have been a Godsend in the absence of Taggart while Nishio has slotted in well alongside Seko at the back. Recent injuries to Harakawa, Sakamoto and Takagi will really test their squad depth.
Unavailable: Riki Harakawa, Tatsuhiro Sakamoto, Ryuji Sawakami, Toshiyuki Takagi, Hirotaka Tameda, Koji Toriumi (injured), Adam Taggart (Visa/quarantine), Đặng Văn Lâm, Tiago (Visa/contract status unclear)

Kashima Antlers

Comments: The Ibaraki side have made their traditional slow start and will be desperate to get Brazilian midfield duo, Diego Pituca and Arthur Caike on the field as soon as possible. It’s at the back where most of the problems seem to lie, the full-back berths are still up for grabs and none of the centre-backs have covered themselves in glory.
Unavailable: Shoma Doi, Ryuji Izumi (injured), Arthur Caike, Diego Pituca (Visa/quarantine)

FC Tokyo

Comments: A roller-coaster start to the season from the capital club with, injuries, rotation and Covid-protocol violations preventing them from getting into any sort of groove. They’ve got points on the board early, but a chunk of them came in unimpressive home wins over last season’s bottom 2, Sendai and Shonan. They’ll need to hope Bruno Uvini is the man to shore up a rather leaky rearguard.
Unavailable: Akihiro Hayashi, Kazuya Konno, Manato Shinada (injured), Bruno Uvini (Visa/quarantine)

Kashiwa Reysol

Comments: Olunga, Olunga, where art thou Olunga? A very poor start to the season from Kashiwa and they desperately need the soon-to-arrive Brazilian quartet of, Emerson Santos, Dodi, Angelotti and Pedro Raúl to hit the ground running or the nightmares of 2018 could be lurking just around the corner.
Unavailable: Yuji Takahashi, Sachiro Toshima (injured), Angelotti, Dodi, Pedro Raúl, Emerson Santos (Visa/quarantine)

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Comments: A solid start, made all the more impressive by the fact they are still figuring out their new back four system and how best to set-up their attack. Junior Santos continues to cause intrigue as it appears he’s fighting young Shun Ayukawa to be Douglas Vieira’s backup rather than being the main man himself. Hayao Kawabe could partner former team-mate Sho Inagaki in the J1 Best Eleven if he keeps up his current form.
Unavailable: Akira Ibayashi, Rhayner (injured)

Yokohama F.Marinos

Comments: A rather harsh take on them might say that they’ve swatted aside bottom half teams while failing to take the three points against stiffer opposition, exactly as they did in 2020. That said, from what I’ve seen there is a bit more steel about them this time round. I’m re-evaluating Daizen Maeda now that he’s finally added goals to his game and though Élber seems to lack the attacking x-factor of Erik, having more solid, hard-workers than mercurial artists may suit them better in 2021.
Unavailable: Theerathon Bunmathan, Daizen Maeda (injured), Léo Ceará (Visa/quarantine)

Urawa Red Diamonds

Comments: Ricardo Rodriguez seems like a lovely bloke, so I’ll spare him any blame for now, but real questions must be getting asked about the financial situation at the club. I started to wonder when Brazilians, Mauricio and Fabricio weren’t replaced last season and now with Leonardo gone, Deng injured and Yuki Abe making a Lazarus like return from the retirement home, a sojourn to J2 next year isn’t entirely out of the reckoning.
Unavailable: Thomas Deng, Yudai Fujiwara (injured)

Oita Trinita

Comments: I picked them to fill the final relegation spot in pre-season and I haven’t seen anything yet to make me completely alter my opinion. The number of changes at the back made in the off-season has definitely unsettled them and Katanosaka is still searching for the right combinations in a number of places.
Unavailable: Naoki Nomura (injured), Matheus Pereira, Henrique Trevisan (Visa/quarantine)

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

Comments: I’m considering starting my own Patreon account so Sapporo fans can pay me to not watch them live. Last week’s horror show at home to Kobe was their 8th defeat on the spin with me tuning in on DAZN. Second year pros Kaneko and Tanaka have been solid (Tanaka’s assist for Furuhashi last week aside) and young Ogashiwa and Nakashima have looked bright in flashes. Failure to change their slightly archaic game-plan could result in an unwelcome flirtation with the relegation trapdoor.
Unavailable: Takuma Arano, Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa, Douglas Oliveira (injured), Jay Bothroyd, Gabriel Okechukwu (Visa/quarantine)

Sagan Tosu

Comments: An outstanding youth system and kantoku have their fans dreaming of ACL football next year. Didn’t score in their opening 4 J1 fixtures in 2020, haven’t conceded in their first 6 games this time round, it’s been quite the reversal of fortunes. How long can they sustain it? Will their new foreign strikers propel them to even greater heights? Will the vultures descend to brutally devour this team in a similar manner to what happened to fellow Kyushu-ites Giravanz last winter?
Unavailable: Ismael Dunga, Chico Ofoedu (Visa/quarantine)

Vissel Kobe

Comments: I saw them referred to as ‘Galacticos’ the other day, but that’s not really what they are anymore. They have a healthy crop of youngsters, many of whom have been raised in their academy, developing alongside a few seasoned heads, most notably Hotaru Yamaguchi, who’s been in sparkling form so far this season. There seems to be a real determination to make amends for 2020’s pitiful league performance and 3rd place doesn’t look impossible judging by their early showings.
Unavailable: Andrés Iniesta, Junya Tanaka (injured), Lincoln, Ayub Masika (Visa/quarantine)

Yokohama FC

Comments: Things seem to have completely fallen apart over the winter at Mitsuzawa. In my season preview I predicted goals at both ends, unfortunately that has only proven to be half correct and their veteran forwards haven’t hit it off as of yet. Talented midfielders Matsuo, Seko and Tezuka are struggling against the tide, but receiving little support and, although it’s early days, I think many already see them lining up in J2 next year.
Unavailable: Calvin Jong-a-Pin, Haruki Saruta, Hideto Takahashi, Eijiro Takeda (injured)

Shimizu S-Pulse

Comments: They’ve had just the kind of solid, unspectacular start many would have expected under Lotina. After conceding an avalanche of goals over the past 2 years, letting in just 7 in 6 games must have come as welcome relief to long suffering supporters in their picturesque stadium. Lotina’s reluctance to use assist kingpin Kenta Nishizawa may have rivals sending out the feelers regarding his future availability.
Unavailable: Hideki Ishige, Eiichi Katayama, Ibrahim Junior Kuribara (injured), William Matheus (Visa/quarantine)

Vegalta Sendai

Comments: Collectively this is one of the 4 weakest squads in the division. That doesn’t necessarily need to condemn them to relegation, but to stave off the drop, they will need to find a way to play to more than the sum of their parts. Passing the ball from their centre-backs to wing-backs, pushing the midfield forward to join the attack, then losing the ball and getting countered constantly, isn’t the way to achieve that.
Unavailable: Isaac Cuenca, Kunimitsu Sekiguchi (injured), Foguinho, Emmanuel Oti, Nedeljko Stojišić (Visa/quarantine)

Shonan Bellmare

Comments: I was sure they’d used up their nine lives last year, but they look a bit better than 2020, at least if the early rounds are anything to go by. Impressive youngster Taiga Hata still hasn’t featured, but playing on the left-wing for Shonan seems to bring out the best in players and Ryo Takahashi has been in fantastic form down that flank. They really need Wellington and Welinton Júnior to bring their shooting boots over from Brazil as a lack of firepower would be the most likely cause of a relegation this year.
Unavailable: Tarik Elyounoussi, Taiga Hata, Shun Nakamura, Tsukasa Umesaki (injured), Wellington, Welinton Júnior (Visa/quarantine)

Tokushima Vortis

Comments: They’ve probably done as well as could have been expected given that the squad haven’t met their new Spanish kantoku face-to-face yet and most of the players lack top tier experience. Poyatos (I assume he is choosing the team) has made a number of interesting selections with Abe, Fuke, Fujiwara and Kawakami all featuring regularly despite being out in the cold during the Rodriguez era.
Unavailable: Dušan Cvetinović, Kazuki Nishiya, Koki Sugimori, Kohei Uchida (injured), Cristian Battocchio, Cacá (Visa/quarantine)

Avispa Fukuoka

Comments: A decent start has them sitting comfortably in mid-table. Word of warning though, other newly promoted sides, namely Matsumoto and Nagasaki, have also begun top-flight campaigns reasonably well before fading away badly. Avispa need new foreign talents, Jordy Croux and, particularly, Biblically-named forward John Mary to deliver in order to maintain their top-flight status.
Unavailable: Juanma Delgado, Bruno Mendes, Taro Sugimoto (injured), Douglas Grolli (1 match suspension vs Sapporo 3 April), Jordy Croux, John Mary (Visa/quarantine)


J1 League: Spotlight on Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

Thanks to everyone who read my recent article on Oita Trinita, the feedback I got was extremely positive. With that in mind, and no light at the end of Gamba’s COVID tunnel at the moment, I decided to to turn my attention to the side the Nerazzurri were supposed to square off against this Saturday (March 13th), Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. There isn’t a whole lot of English content about them, but do give @IrishDosanko a follow as well as English forward @jaybothroyd if you want further insights into J1’s most northerly outfit.

Tactical Notes

I watched the whole of Sapporo’s 1-0 defeat away at Nagoya last weekend (March 6th) and a large part of this section is based on that game as well as the 6-7 times I saw them in action in 2020.

Regular followers of the JLeague will know that Consadole kantoku Mihailo ‘Mischa’ Petrovic only has one real footballing philosophy, ‘ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK.’ I could probably stop the article there, but I’m guessing that since you’ve clicked the link, you’re looking for something more thorough, so let’s take a deeper look.

The tables above showing Sapporo’s, defensive, offensive and building play from the back, set ups hopefully give you a flavour of the sort of style they operate. Their formation is generally shown as a nominal 3-4-2-1, but it is very common to see their two central midfielders as the two deepest lying players in the side while the wide centre-backs convert themselves into full-backs, or in the case of assist king Akito Fukumori (averaging 6 per year across the past 3 seasons), you will see him bombing past his left wing-back and left shadow attacker into the opposition final third. Captain and ‘Mr. Sapporo’ Hiroki Miyazawa is the heartbeat of the side and pops up everywhere. He can be thought of almost like a quarter-back, dropping deep to dictate the tempo and angle of attack, but his constant movement between the defensive and midfield lines can leave space for opponents to exploit. Although generally listed as a central midfielder, Miyazawa slots into a back 4 when the red and blacks are under pressure before rushing up with his offensive colleagues when the opportunity for a counter presents itself.

On attack, it’s common to see the wide centre-back, wing-back and shadow forward on either side position themselves in triangles around the corner of the opposition penalty area before attempting to use intricate passing moves that culminate in shots on goal or crosses into the centre-forward. Little of Consadole’s offensive play comes through the traditional central midfield area, there are lots of long cross-field diagonals and balls into channels from the deep lying, Miyazawa, Komai and Chanathip, amongst others. Generally when I’ve seen them in action, this has met with a low success rate, though it should be noted that against Nagoya, a side known for their excellent defensive core in the middle of the park, Sapporo had a degree of joy when firing quick balls into the less well guarded wider areas. Unfortunately in that match they were rather guilty of attempting one pass too many in the final third and frequently running the ball side-to-side along the 18-yard box without making any headway.

Since taking up the reins in Hokkaido ahead of the 2018 campaign, ex-Hiroshima and Urawa boss Petrovic has sought to overcome a lack of overall talent amongst his charges, at least when compared to the traditional heavyweights, by instilling a relentless work-ethic in the players, operating a high-press and attempting to overload the wide attacking areas. In essence, trying to bombard the opposition and keep them on the back foot to such an extent that they are unable to take advantage of the clear defensive frailties that come with the adoption of such a strategy. This style of football, while always pleasing on the eye to the neutral, has brought mixed results in Petrovic’s 3 years in the hot seat. It looks great when it comes off, ie the 5-1 home demolition of Yokohama FC on the opening day of this season, or when it had the element of surprise during the Austrian coach’s first year with the club, a stunning 4th place in 2018. However, it can also backfire spectacularly, see the 6-1 home loss to Kawasaki or the 4-0 drubbing at Vissel Kobe last year for evidence of that.

As we near the end of this section, I’d like to take a look at some team stats from 2020, just as I did with Oita. Sapporo were number one in J1 for attempted dribbles in 2020 and 2nd in terms of completion %, no doubt a number of these came in the wide areas of opposition territory. As alluded to above, they like to overload the wide attacking areas, so it’s no surprise to see they sent in the 3rd most crosses in the league in 2020 and their 23.4% success rate compares with a league average of 22.8%. Less impressive though was the fact that they ranked 5th in total number of shots, but had the 3rd worst on target percentage with the loss of Musashi Suzuki to Belgium early in the year really hurting them. Defensively, Consadole’s pressing and general intensity resulted in them giving away the most fouls in J1 last time round, but that work-rate didn’t seem to extend all the way towards the back of the side as they were last in number of clearances and 2nd last in blocks.

In order to try and arrest a slide in results that has seen them go from 4th to 10th to 12th over the past 3 years, Petrovic, still recovering from a fall in his homeland over the winter, has made a couple of minor tweaks while maintaining the overall aggressive strategy. Despite being the man opposition fans love to hate, Takuma Arano is actually an extremely talented footballer on his day, so his loss to a nasty looking ankle ligament tear has been keenly felt. Yoshiaki Komai, a solid performer with 4 goals and 5 assists in 33 J1 games in 2020 has shifted back from the right-shadow role he occupied for the majority of last season and is now often the only player to be seen in the central midfield. Pacy university rookie Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa has been operating in Komai’s old stomping ground and helped himself to 2 assists against Yokohama FC. Once-capped Japan international Daiki Suga has struggled to nail down a starting spot in the early part of this campaign with feisty Brazilian Lucas Fernandes switching from right to left wing-back and Takuro Kaneko, a youngster who enjoyed a bright rookie year, but bounced around a number of positions without making any his own, trying to claim the right wing-back slot. How these alterations work in the long run will be interesting to observe.

The Squad

Although you may note that Consadole play most of their games at the Sapporo Dome, a huge, modern, spaceship-like construction that they share with baseball team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, the football side are not particularly flush with cash themselves. As such, to try and breathe new life into a slightly stale looking squad they’ve turned to a selection of university, high school and youth team graduates to try and fill the void. I already mentioned that Takuro Kaneko (Nihon University) enjoyed a promising first year as a pro last season, star centre-back / holding midfielder Shunta Tanaka (Osaka Taiiku Uni.) and centre-back / centre-mid / shadow forward Tomoki Takamine (Tsukuba Uni.) also brought something to the party and it is upon that trio that a large chunk of the club’s future hopes rest.

Two metre tall goalkeeper Kojiro Nakano, well known to Gamba supporters from the Emperor’s Cup defeat to Hosei University in 2019 and the already mentioned Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa (Meiji Uni.) have converted special designated player deals into permanent ones and will be desperate to make a quick impact on the top team. Another exciting addition for the future is young forward Taika Nakashima (Kunimi High School in Nagasaki – Kazuma Watanabe’s alma mater) and he netted on his top-team debut in the Levain Cup win at Fukuoka. Centre-back Daihachi Okamura, (Thespakusatsu Gunma) should be nicknamed ‘Iron Man’ as he was the only outfield player to be on the field for every minute of every game in last year’s epic J2 campaign, and I feel it’s a matter of when, not if, he unseats Kim Min-tae from the starting eleven. Elsewhere, other new arrivals seem more designed to add depth to the squad, Takahiro Yanagi (FC Tokyo – on loan to Sendai in 2020) can play as a wide centre-back or wing-back, youth team product Toya Nakamura, a centre-back, has returned from a middling year-and-a-half loan in JFL with Honda FC, veteran Shinji Ono is back in town, apparently more to raise dressing room morale than for his on-field contributions, once highly-touted prospect Ryota Aoki can play on the wing or as a shadow attacker, Koki Otani will likely be 3rd choice ‘keeper and may get the odd League Cup start and giant Nigerian centre-forwad Gabriel Okechukwu (Wydad Casablanca) is a real wild-card signing.

More positively, after the losses of Gu Sung-yun and Musashi Suzuki hit them hard early last year, not too many more followed them through the exit door during the winter break. Ryosuke Shindo went to Cerezo, but truth be told he was off-form and injured for a good chunk of last season and Tanaka is a better long-term prospect in my eyes. Other than that, Riku Danzaki in on loan at Brisbane Roar in the A-League having failed to build on early promise, veterans Naoki Ishikawa and Ryota Hayasaka retired, the versatile Kosuke Shirai joined Kyoto on loan, Thai backup keeper Kawin returned to Belgium after his loan expired, Hugo Vieira was released after his short term deal didn’t produce anything noteworthy and Yuta Iwasaki, the poster child for why you shouldn’t overrate kids with impressive age level stats before they’ve done anything as a pro has joined the J2 side most likely to be duped by said stats, JEF United, on loan.

Injury Report

Midfield maestro Takuma Arano suffered a nasty looking leg injury in the 5-1 win over Shimizu last November and is yet to return. Veteran centre-forward Jay Bothroyd endured a bout of Coronavirus during his winter break in the UK and I’m unsure if he’s made it back to Japan yet, he certainly hasn’t featured so far. Nigerian striker Gabriel Okechukwu may benefit from professional sports sides potentially getting their new acquisitions to the front of the visa line after the state of emergency ends, but for now he’s out of the country and unavailable for selection. Utility midfielder Yoshihiro Nakano has been seen yet this campaign, though he is very much a back up player anyway, while Chanathip was a late withdrawal from the side to face Hiroshima on March 10th. Yoshiaki Komai, Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa, Ryota Aoki and Douglas Oliveira were all absent from that encounter too, though I believe that may have been more of a squad rotation issue.

Current Starting XI
A fit-again Chanathip would definitely be in this lineup with probably Ogashiwa alongside him, Kaneko at right wing-back and Lucas Fernandes on the left. Takamine is also a possibility in central midfield or as a shadow attacker while Fukai is another potential partner for Miyazawa despite falling out of favour over the past 12 months.

Season Prediction

I’d have them more likely to finish in the bottom 10 than the top half. Lower middle table in a similar vein to last season seems probable, though if the wheels really come off and they carry over last season’s habit of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory/draws then a relegation scrap isn’t entirely out of the question.


J1 League: Spotlight On Oita Trinita

As you are no doubt aware, Gamba are currently in the midst of a Covid cluster with a number of players and staff testing positive for the virus. With the status of upcoming fixtures in doubt I decided to change the style of this blog post somewhat. I’ve already talked about Gamba ad nauseum in the previews of the postponed matches against Nagoya and Kashima, so I thought I’d dedicate this entire post to a team who don’t enjoy a great deal of English language coverage….Wednesday’s potential opponents Oita Trinita.

If you like what I’ve done here, please send me a comment and tell me you want more of it. Conversely, if you can’t wait for normal previews to resume and want me to revert to that style as quickly as possible, get in touch and let me know. Thanks again for reading, I really appreciate everyone’s support, enjoy the article, stay safe and take care.

Last Time Out

Two goals inside the opening 11 minutes sent Oita on their way to a first win of 2021 at Yokohama’s Mitsuzawa Stadium last Saturday. Showing no ill-effects from making 5 changes to their lineup from the previous week’s 1-1 draw with Tokushima, Trinita raced out of the blocks and put themselves in the driving seat, albeit aided by some amateurish Yokohama FC defending. First left centre-back Yuto Misao ghosted into the opposition box to place Hokuto Shimoda’s centre past a rather limp-wristed Yuji Rokutan before Kento Inoue crossed from the opposite flank and his ball evaded a wayward swipe by the embarrassed Yutaro Hakamata which allowed Seigo Kobayashi, hoping to put long-term injury problems behind him, to bag his first goal in 2 years from near the penalty spot.

After that early charge, Oita sat back / were forced back (delete as appropriate) and the home side were soon granted a lifeline. Not long after Brazilian forward Kleber’s header had bounced onto Shun Takagi’s crossbar, Kosuke Saito hit the deck on the edge of the area and earned a free-kick. Though, to say the contact between he and Kohei Isa was minimal would be being very kind. Dead ball specialist Kohei Tezuka stepped up and curled home to set up an intriguing second half.

Although they spent most of the second period on the back foot, Oita were rarely under sustained pressure and only endured a few scares. Takagi made a neat double stop from Kleber early in the half before tricky left winger Yusuke Matsuo’s shot was cleared off the line at the end of a mazy run after he’d intercepted a pass from another one of my Gamba scouting targets, Yushi Hasegawa. The real drama came right at the end when Sho Ito thought he’d earned his new side a point only for the linesmen to correctly flag him for offside. 2-1 Oita at full-time, 4 points in 2 games, granted not against the strongest opposition, represents a decent start for Tomohiro Katanosaka and his men.

Tactical Notes

Now in his 6th year in charge at the Showa Denko Dome, Takahiro Katanosaka has settled on a 3-4-2-1 system which reverts to a 5-4-1 when defending. He likes the wide centre-backs to also be able to play full-back / wing-back, though he’s had to alter this slightly following the winter departure of the jewel in the Trinita crown, Tomoki Iwata, who moved to Yokohama F.Marinos. Speedster Hatyato Kurosaki, a man I tipped as a potential Gamba signing, has joined from Tochigi SC, but may require some fine-tuning before he’s ready to step into Iwata’s boots.

In 2019 and 2020 Oita’s centre-back line up generally consisted of, Mr. Trinita Yoshinori Suzuki in the middle flanked by Iwata (right) and Yuto Misao (left), however, with Misao then only one of the trio still on the books, I noticed a few chinks in their defensive armour in the match against Yokohama FC. On several occasions the gap between the wing-backs and centre-backs was too wide leaving space for a good side to work overlaps and fire crosses into the box. Additionally, both defensive and midfield lines weren’t as straight as they were in the previous campaigns offering up opportunities for quick balls cutting out the central midfielders and exposing the backline. Finally, Katanosaka likes his wide central defenders to push up if the ball enters their zone. In theory the middle defender, Keisuke Saka for most of Saturday’s match, should essentially play a sweeper role in that situation. However once again a good side will be able to engineer space and quickly play the ball over the advancing centre-back to leave an attacker one-on-one with the sweeper. At the other end of the field, Oita generally press very well. They seem adept at winning the ball back in the opponent’s half against all teams. However, they have been known to target certain sides who are prone to overplaying in their own defensive third. Their 1-1 draw at home to Vissel Kobe last season was a great example of this, Yokohama F.Marinos should also be aware.

Going forward Oita are known as a passing side who like to build things from the back. Last year they ranked 4th in J1 both in total number of passes attempted and also in completion %. They also made the least amount of dribbles of all teams in the top division. They prefer using the pace of their wing-backs allied with the intricate skills of their two shadow players to manufacture scoring opportunities. This works well in theory, but in practice things didn’t really go according to plan last season. Trinita had the 3rd weakest attack in J1 in 2020, netting just 35 times in 34 games, they also registered the 2nd lowest number of shots. Much-maligned former Gamba beanpole Shun Nagasawa has been brought in, but as the J-Talk Podcast guys broke down on their season preview, there are genuine questions about how he will fit in with the Kyushu side’s attacking game-plan. Last year the centre-forward role was usually occupied by either Kei Chinen, a link up player, or Kohei Isa, a workhorse, Nagasawa is clearly a target man and Oita are not a side who excel at crossing. Again referencing the 2020 data we can see that although they were 6th in total crosses delivered last year, Trinita completed a mere 21.9% meaning that much work will need to be done on the training field if Sam Robson’s favourite is to become a success down in Kyushu.

Just to round this section off, I thought I’d uncover some interesting stats that I haven’t really seen discussed much elsewhere. As mentioned earlier, Oita are currently unbeaten in J1 with 4 points from 2 games against teams likely to be battling against the drop. I actually have Trinita going down in my #jpred2021, so their start to the campaign will be crucial. They have proven to be an extremely streaky side since returning to Japan’s top flight 2 years ago. Of course, they shocked everyone back in 2019 when they took 24 points from their opening 12 games despite being a popular pick to return to J2 at the first time of asking. Predictably, they couldn’t match those early highs and earned only 23 more points across their remaining 22 matches. That malaise carried over into 2020 when after a disappointing haul of 12 points from 14 fixtures was accrued, they improved markedly after that and finished the year with 31 points from their final 20 contests. Taking full advantage of their good spells of form will clearly be very important for Oita as they bid to retain their status in the rarefied atmosphere of J1.

The Squad

As always it was a busy winter down in the hot spring mecca of Oita. Eight important squad members headed for fresh pastures while a number of replacements of varying degrees of ability arrived. The main loss was top scorer (despite being a wing-back / shadow player) Tatsuya Tanaka (to Urawa), while yeoman central midfielder Toshio Shimakawa made the short journey west to link up with Tosu after 30 J1 appearances in 2020. I already talked about the massive blow dealt to the club’s defensive stability by Yoshinori Suzuki’s move to Shimizu and Japan international Tomoki Iwata linking up with Ange Postecoglou at Marinos. Kei Chinen’s loan ended and he went back to Kawasaki, where he was re-united with 2019’s leading assist maker Kazuki Kozuka. On top of that, veteran shadow / centre-forward Kazushi Mitsuhira is now in J2 with Kofu and Daiki Watari is another off-season departure who’s still plying his trade in Kyushu, in his case, Avispa Fukuoka.

Brazilian duo, centre back Henrique Trevisan (Estoril Praia, Portugal) and holding midfielder Matheus Sousa Pereira are the two most exotic winter arrivals. Neither have yet been able to enter the country due to COVID era visa restrictions and it will be interesting to see how they bed in when they eventually do make it to Japan. I wouldn’t say Oita would be as easy as say somewhere in Kanto or Kansai for Brazilians to quickly settle in, but only time will tell. Other new arrivals I haven’t mentioned above include, Arata Watanabe, an attacking player whose signing would have been heralded more had he not missed the end of the last campaign with a broken foot, Hokuto Shimoda, the team’s new set piece taker, a title winner in 2020 with Kawasaki, varsity duo Kenta Inoue, a wing-back from Fukuoka University and Kazuki Fujimoto, a shadow player who showed some nice touches against Gamba in Suita last summer, from Kanoya National Institute for Sport in Kagoshima. At the back Keisuke Saka has come in from Shonan, Bellmare supporters seemed saddened by his loss, though in truth I’ve never really seen anything to write home from him. Giravanz Kitakyushu wing-back Kenta Fukumori, yet another player I urged Gamba to look at, has already found himself a spot in the side, and young holding midfielder Masaki Yumiba has been promoted from the club’s decent youth academy.

Injury Report

No major injury dramas to report from the Showa Denko Dome so far. Shadow player Naoki Nomura, who missed the first half of 2020 following his move from Tokushima sat out last Saturday’s win at his former side Yokohama FC for, as far as I know, unspecified reasons. Right wing-back Kenta Inoue left the field with a leg muscle problem in the second half of that game and must be considered a doubt while Arata Watanabe was repeatedly going down with cramp in the final 10 minutes, but should now be good to go. Centre-back / wing-back Yuta Koide, like Nomura, also played the round 1 contest against Tokushima before sitting out the Yokohama FC clash with no reason given for his absence while Yamato Machida was an unused sub in the opening match of the season, but was nowhere to be seen in the Levain Cup defeat to Kobe or the aforementioned win in Kanagawa.

Current Starting XI

The formation is set, but due to the high turnover between rounds 1 and 2 it is as yet unclear who the preferred starters are in several areas. If fit, Nomura and Inoue would certainly feature, while Yuki Kobayashi is an alternative to Shimoda in the middle of the park, Ueebisu and Koide could potentially unseat Haneda at the back and Nagasawa or Takazawa will provide competition for Isa in attack.

Season Prediction

In my #jpred2021 I had them in 16th, the final relegation spot, largely due to their lack of firepower up front. However, I can’t really see them going any lower and realistically they could end up as high as 10th/11th if things click.


Gamba Osaka vs Kashima Antlers J1 League 6 March 2021

2021 J1 League Round 2
Gamba Osaka vs Kashima Antlers
Saturday 6th March 2021, 16:00 (JST)
Panasonic Stadium Suita

As I’m sure most of you are aware, Gamba’s midweek match away to Nagoya Grampus was postponed as a result of 4 Nerazzurri players and 1 staff member testing positive for COVID-19, a further two players were identified as close contacts and are currently self isolating. The club announced that today (March 4th) 225 staff members were given PCR tests and 1 further player tested positive, the other 224 tests were negative. The JLeague have subsequently announced this Satueday’s game is off.

Owing to the intense schedule at the beginning of this year, I had already written a good chunk of text about Saturday’s potential opponents, Kashima Antlers, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. When I started this blog I honestly didn’t think I’d dedicate the bulk of a post writing about one of Gamba’s biggest rivals, but this is the world we live in now. As an aside, both of my previews of Gamba vs Kashima games were among my most popular posts in 2020, so there is definitely a market there for English language Antlers content. @atlrs_english is the club’s official English account and gives regular updates on scores, transfers and results, while @yukinho posts about Kashima in both English and Japanese. I encourage you to give both a follow.

Last Time Out
Regular slow starters Kashima put on a flat performance in their home opener against Shimizu S-Pulse last Saturday, going down 3-1. A largely uneventful opening 75 minutes was lit up only by Shoma Doi striking the frame of the goal twice for Antlers while Katsuhiro Nakayama shot wide with the visitors best opportunity. Second half sub Ryotaro Araki added verve and energy to Kashima and it was he who broke the deadlock, volleying home after Everaldo’s looping header from Katsuya Nagato’s corner had evaded Shuichi Gonda in the S-Pulse goal and bounced back off the crossbar. However, Antlers were then stunned by three Shimizu goals within the space of ten minutes. New Brazilian battering-ram Thiago Santana struck on his debut from close range before sub Yusuke Goto turned the match on it’s head with a wonderful diving header from fellow replacement Yosuke Kawai’s cross. Moments later Ayase Ueda sliced the ball into his own net from a Kawai corner and Antlers were left with no way back.

Antlers then saw off Sagan Tosu 3-0 in the Levain Cup on Wednesday night. On a chilly evening at the Kashima Soccer Stadium goals from Ryuji Izumi, Everaldo and substitute Itsuki Someno were enough to comprehensively dispatch a youthful Tosu outfit.

Tactical Notes

**If you read my match preview of the postponed fixture vs Nagoya Grampus then please skip to the Kashima section as below is just a copy and paste from that post.**

Saturday was my first look at the new 4-3-3 formation and although it’s early days yet, put me down as a sceptic. It seems like we’ve moved some ornaments around on the mantelpiece, but have fundamentally been left with the same pieces performing the same function in slightly different positions. It’s one thing to adopt Kawasaki’s formation, but quite another to acquire their mindset. Miyamoto appeared to send Gamba out to win 1-0 at Kobe, essentially the same strategy as last season. However, as I’m going to outline below, 4-3-3 is not the best option, in my book, to achieve results while maintaining a defensive frame of mind.
Issue 1 – lack of cover for the fullbacks – Takashi Usami (right wing) and Shuhei Kawasaki (left) are not naturally defensive players so a lot of responsibility falls on the midfield trio to protect the back 4. Due to the movement of Kobe’s attacking midfielders, they were able to work space down Gamba’s flanks and cause problems. The fact that impressive J1 debutant Shion Inoue and Samurai Blue international Gotoku Sakai found themselves up against newly converted right-back (more on that later) Kosuke Onose, merely exacerbated the problem. Second half sub Asahi Masuyama hugged the right touchline after coming on and found plenty of space to roam in that unguarded area.
Issue 2 – Space between the midfield and defensive lines – This was one of the reasons that 3-5-2 got canned midway through 2020. Yuki Yamamoto in the midfield anchor/quarterback position was arguably Gamba’s best player against Kobe, however, on a couple of occasions he stepped up to try and win possession, but didn’t succeed and neither Ideguchi nor Yajima moved back to cover, leaving a gaping hole in front of Miura and Shoji. Last year with the double volante system and Ideguchi playing alongside one of Yamamoto or Yajima, better protection was afforded to Gamba’s centre backs. Granted Ideguchi still looks a little rusty after his injury layoff and increased energy levels from him will also help in a 4-3-3.
Issue 3 – Usami on the wing – Whenever I see FC Tokyo play Diego Oliveira on the right flank, as an opposing fan I’m always relieved because a proven J1 goalscorer and penalty box threat is being moved away from his natural habitat. Ditto Usami, he can play wing for a few games or so, but I don’t want to see him stuck there for a whole season. It gives him defensive responsibilities he’s not good at and takes him away from the second striker position in the central attacking area where he thrives.

To round up this mini-rant up, I don’t feel either Onose or Yajima did enough last season to find themselves shoehorned into the side this time round. If there are fitness or other off-field concerns about Ryu Takao then I take this back, but he was one of the best right-backs in J1 last year, so why has he been replaced by a right winger? Still, at least by changing to 4-4-2 in the second half against Kawasaki and 4-2-3-1 near the end of the Kobe game, Miyamoto is showing a willingness to consider alternatives.

Briefly, to end this section on something of a high note, I have Vissel finishing 7th this year, and Gamba actually lost 3-0 to Kashiwa Reysol (7th in J1 2020) last season, so this may be a step in the right direction (clutching at straws?? lol) I also genuinely think the Nerazzurri put on a better overall performance on Saturday than they did in their 2-0 win at the same venue last summer, but hey, that’s football.

Now to our opponents on Saturday, Kashima Antlers, the most successful side in J1 history with 8 league titles, the last of which came in 2016. The fact that finishing 5th and missing out on ACL qualification by the width of the goal-frame was treated as a great failure gives you an understanding of the standards the team set for themselves year in year out. Under the tutelage of new Brazilian head coach Zago, Antlers started 2020 by taking only 4 points from their opening 7 games, a run which included 5 defeats and just a solitary goal in their first 4 matches. Things have come a long way since then and many JLeague observers, including myself, have them down as Kawasaki’s nearest challengers in 2021.

If you’re new to watching J1, you can expect a steady, no-frills game plan from Kashima. This year Zago has them set-up in an orthodox 4-4-2 with Ayase Ueda partnering Everaldo in attack, a slight adjustment to last season’s 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, though Zago enjoys tinkering with things when he utilises his substitutes, for instance they ended last week’s reverse against Shimizu in a 3-1-4-2 system. It is common to see both wide players, Juan Alano (right wing) and Shoma Doi (left) cut in to allow space for their full backs to overlap. Left back Katsuya Nagato (J1’s top assist maker with 10 for Vegalta Sendai in 2019, but only managed 2 in his debut season with Antlers) is particularly dangerous when given time to whip balls into the box, he’ll also take most of the Ibaraki side’s set pieces.

Looking at last season’s team stats we can see that crossing is Antlers real strength. They were 2nd in J1 for total crosses in 2020 and also 2nd in crossing accuracy, with a number of Everaldo’s 18 goals (2nd behind Michael Olunga (Kashiwa) 28) coming as a result of this tactic. However, on the flip side of the coin, Kashima took the 2nd most shots in J1 last time out (no shocks that Kawasaki were 1st), but had the worst conversion rate. Case in point, in their 2 matches against Gamba, they amassed 51 attempts on goal, of which 16 were on target and just 1 went into the back of Masaaki Higashiguchi’s net (unsurprisingly it was a header from a left-wing cross). Much to Neil Debnam’s amusement, I’m sure, Antlers committed the 3rd most fouls last season, though it should be noted, for me anyway, only Kawasaki were better at harassing and putting the opposition under pressure and this may have contributed to such a high number. I noticed a drop off in this facet of their play against S-Pulse and it could have been one of the reasons behind the rather surprising outcome.

Antlers enjoyed an interesting winter with Brazilians Diego Pituca (Santos) and Arthur Caike (Al Shabab, Saudi Arabia) the only senior additions. Their off-season, once again, saw them focus on bringing in youth in an attempt to build another dynasty at the summit of J1. With star players, Gaku Shibasaki, Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda, Yuma Suzuki and Hiroki Abe all departing for Europe within the space of 2-3 years and veterans such as Atsuto Uchida, Hitoshi Sogahata and legendary captain Mitsuo Ogasawara retiring, Zago, Zico and co clearly have a big job on their hands developing the next generation of Kashima stars.

Wide midfielder Ryotaro Araki, signed from Higashi Fukuoka High School in 2020, is the main attraction, while fellow teenagers, Yuta Matsumura and Itsuki Someno also made decent strides in their first year as professionals. At the back, I’d actually rate centre-half Ikuma Sekigawa (20) as a better prospect than the card-prone Koki Machida and 21 year-old former youth team goalkeeper Yuya Oki seems to have taken over the starting gloves from Kwoun Sun-tae on a permanent basis. Added to that mix of young talent came a new batch over the winter break, 3 university graduates, ‘keeper Tomoki Hayakawa and right-back Keigo Tsunemoto (both Meiji University) as well as centre-back Naoki Hayashi (Osaka Taiiku University), 2 high schoolers, central midfielder Yusuke Ogawa and wide player Naoki Sutoh (both Shohei High School in Saitama) plus Kashima Youth star Yu Funabashi (central midfield). It will be fascinating to see what impact they have this campaign and indeed how this young team begins to take shape over the coming seasons.

Head to Head

Kashima were the first ever league visitors to Panasonic Stadium Suita back in 2016 and left with all 3 points thanks to Yuma Suzuki’s second-half strike, the only goal of the game. However, Gamba are unbeaten in their previous 3 home encounters against Antlers, though last season’s 2-0 win courtesy of a Patric penalty and Kazuma Watanabe’s injury time tap-in was their only triumph on home soil since another 2-0 back in June 2015. Interestingly, the match during the 2015 season also featured a Gamba spot kick, converted on that occasion by Yasuhito Endo. His midfield partner in crime, Yasuyuki Konno, had earlier sent the Nerazzurri into the sheds a goal to the good.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Yuji Ono and Haruto Shirai (both recovering from knee surgery) are definitely out of this match. Kim Young-gwon and Yuya Fukuda are yet to feature this season and their status remains unclear. It hasn’t been revealed which players have tested positive for COVID and who has been identified as a close contact, so I’m unavailable to give any information on that. Should the game go ahead, Yosuke Ideguchi and Yuya Fukuda are in line to make their 100th and 50th Gamba / J1 appearances respectively.

Kashima Antlers

New Brazilian duo Arthur Caike and Diego Pituca are still unable to enter the country at the moment so are obviously unavailable for selection. Veteran central midfielder Leo Silva and winger Ryuji Izumi (a one time Gamba target) were both absent from the matchday squad against Shimizu, but played against Tosu in midweek. Theoretically they are fit and ready to go, though I believe Silva missed some of Antlers pre-season training camp because of quarantine regulations, so he could be short of match sharpness.

Predicted Line Ups

As mentioned above, it is still unclear which players have COVID and are thus unavailable so I’ve just used the same line up I predicted for the Nagoya game. Expect the same formation, but potentially different personnel in the starting eleven.

I’m confident that Zago will retain the 4-4-2 system used last week and the bulk of the starting eleven, despite the poor showing. I’ve gone for Hirose ahead of Koizumi at right-back as S-Pulse’s first 2 goals came from crosses originating in Koizumi’s defensive zone. Should Leo Silva be available for selection then he would likely replace Nagaki, while a fit Izumi could play wide left and allow Doi to slot in just behind Everaldo, alternatively Shirasaki could play in there with Doi on the left wing. After his goal last weekend, Araki must fancy his chances of a start, though I feel Zago may opt to use him as an impact sub once again. Young forward Ituski Someno could be in line for a slot on the pine after his late goal against Tosu on Wednesday.

Match Prediction

A thankless task this week as I have no idea what lineup Gamba will be able to field or if the game can even go ahead. In such circumstances I can’t be positive enough to go for a Gamba win, instead I’ll opt for a battling 1-0 loss.


Nagoya Grampus vs Gamba Osaka J1 League 3 March 2021

2021 J1 League Round 11
Nagoya Grampus vs Gamba Osaka
Wednesday 3rd March 2021, 19:00 (JST)
Toyota Stadium

Gamba and Grampus face a turnaround reminiscent of 2020 in this matchday 11 clash which has been re-scheduled due to both sides’ participation in the Asian Champions League. Just a quick update, the game will go ahead at it’s originally scheduled time of 19:00 (JST) as the state of emergency has been lifted in Aichi ahead of Nagoya’s home opener.

Also, before I get into things fully, a gentle reminder that I was on last week’s J-Talk Podcast and Ben, Sam and I looked at both Nagoya and Gamba in detail (I’d say our comments on Yoichiro Kakitani were pretty accurate given his debut on Sunday lol). If you haven’t already, please have a listen. It’s actually available on Spotify now which gives you even less excuse to miss out!

Owing to my work / Gamba’s schedule, I’ll probably be on Twitter less in the early part of this season, HOWEVER, I encourage you to give @GawainStifyns, @JsoccerMagazine, @lionelpiguet and @90thMinuteSub a follow for more opinions on Gamba and the other Kansai clubs. Also for our opponents, please check out GRAMFRECCE (@J_LEAGUE_ULTRA) for the Nagoya take on things, I know he’s looking to connect with more Grampus fans from around the globe, so don’t be shy.

Last Time Out

Gamba made a disappointing start to their 2021 campaign, going down 1-0 away at Vissel Kobe. Kyogo Furuhashi’s lob from Hotaru Yamaguchi’s through ball consigned the Nerazzurri to yet another opening day defeat, meaning last season’s 2-1 victory at Yokohama F.Marinos is their only round one win since 2011. Vissel began the brighter of the two and Gamba were left chasing shadows for the opening half hour or so, however, they began to take a grip on proceedings in the middle third of the game and Kobe had to be thankful to the quick reflexes of ‘keeper Daiya Maekawa on several occasions. The match shifted in the home side’s favour during the second-half water-break when the withdrawal of Patric and Usami disrupted the visitors momentum. Furuhashi sent a warning shot across the bows by rattling the Gamba crossbar shortly before opening his account for the year 11 minutes from time. This was Gamba’s first loss in a league match in Hyogo since 2016 and kantoku Tsuneyasu Miyamoto has work to do ahead of the upcoming encounter with Nagoya.

Nagoya came through a physical, and at times heated clash with J1 newboys Avispa Fukuoka, running out 2-1 winners in the end. Star winger Mateus scored near the start of both halves to leave Grampus in cruise control before left-back Yutaka Yoshida unfortunately lobbed the ball over his own ‘keeper Mitch Langerak under pressure from Avispa sub Takeshi Kanamori.

Tactical Notes


Saturday was my first look at the new 4-3-3 formation and although it’s early days yet, put me down as a sceptic. It seems like we’ve moved some ornaments around on the mantelpiece, but have fundamentally been left with the same pieces performing the same function in slightly different positions. It’s one thing to adopt Kawasaki’s formation, but quite another to acquire their mindset. Miyamoto appeared to send Gamba out to win 1-0 at Kobe, essentially the same strategy as last season. However, as I’m going to outline below, 4-3-3 is not the best option, in my book, to achieve results while maintaining a defensive frame of mind.
Issue 1 – lack of cover for the fullbacks – Takashi Usami (right wing) and Shuhei Kawasaki (left) are not naturally defensive players so a lot of responsibility falls on the midfield trio to protect the back 4. Due to the movement of Kobe’s attacking midfielders, they were able to work space down Gamba’s flanks and cause problems. The fact that impressive J1 debutant Shion Inoue and Samurai Blue international Gotoku Sakai found themselves up against newly converted right-back (more on that later) Kosuke Onose, merely exacerbated the problem. Second half sub Asahi Masuyama hugged the right touchline after coming on and found plenty of space to roam in that unguarded area.
Issue 2 – Space between the midfield and defensive lines – This was one of the reasons that 3-5-2 got canned midway through 2020. Yuki Yamamoto in the midfield anchor/quarterback position was arguably Gamba’s best player against Kobe, however, on a couple of occasions he stepped up to try and win possession, but didn’t succeed and neither Ideguchi nor Yajima moved back to cover, leaving a gaping hole in front of Miura and Shoji. Last year with the double volante system and Ideguchi playing alongside one of Yamamoto or Yajima, better protection was afforded to Gamba’s centre backs. Granted Ideguchi still looks a little rusty after his injury layoff and increased energy levels from him will also help in a 4-3-3.
Issue 3 – Usami on the wing – Whenever I see FC Tokyo play Diego Oliveira on the right flank, as an opposing fan I’m always relieved because a proven J1 goalscorer and penalty box threat is being moved away from his natural habitat. Ditto Usami, he can play wing for a few games or so, but I don’t want to see him stuck there for a whole season. It gives him defensive responsibilities he’s not good at and takes him away from the second striker position in the central attacking area where he thrives.

To round up this mini-rant up, I don’t feel either Onose or Yajima did enough last season to find themselves shoehorned into the side this time round. If there are fitness or other off-field concerns about Ryu Takao then I take this back, but he was one of the best right-backs in J1 last year, so why has he been replaced by a right winger? Still, at least by changing to 4-4-2 in the second half against Kawasaki and 4-2-3-1 near the end of the Kobe game, Miyamoto is showing a willingness to consider alternatives.

Briefly, to end this section on something of a high note, I have Vissel finishing 7th this year, and Gamba actually lost 3-0 to Kashiwa Reysol (7th in J1 2020) last season, so this may be a step in the right direction (clutching at straws?? lol) I also genuinely think the Nerazzurri put on a better overall performance on Saturday than they did in their 2-0 win at the same venue last summer, but hey, that’s football.


It seems like there won’t be many changes in terms of tactics or personnel for Nagoya Grampus this season. After taking the underachievers up from 13th in 2019 to 3rd last year, Italian kantoku Massimo Ficcadenti clearly has the backing of the power brokers at Toyota Stadium. Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo) was the only new face in the starting lineup against Fukuoka on Sunday. For those of you new to JLeague, Ficcadenti will set his side out in a defensively minded 4-2-3-1 formation with the key players at the back being Australian international ‘keeper Mitch Langerak (17 clean sheets in 2020), centre-backs, Yuichi Maruyama and Shinnosuke Nakatani and holding midfielder Sho Inagaki. Of that quartet, only Inagaki (missed 24 minutes) didn’t play every minute of every game last season, a quite phenomenal achievement all round.

Of course, as J1’s top ranked defence in 2020 (conceding just 0.82 goals per game), it is that part of the team that gets most of the headlines, but that’s not to say there’s no attacking flair on display. Brazilian right-winger Mateus, who scored against Gamba in this fixture last season, topped both Grampus’ goalscoring and assist rankings in 2020 with 9 and 8 respectively. His brace against newly-promoted Fukuoka on the opening day has already signalled his intentions. Look for him drifting all over the attacking third, he’ll also take most of Nagoya’s set plays.

For areas Gamba could look to attack, although Inagaki and Yonemoto cover acres of ground in the middle of the park, they do have the potential issue of a lack of cover for both full-backs with neither Mateus nor whoever plays on the left, Yuki Soma or Manabu Saito, being particularly adept at defensive support. Set plays will also play a key role with 2 of Gamba’s 4 goals against Grampus in 2020 coming from dead ball situations. Nagoya dealt well with the aerial attack from Emil Salomonsson’s crosses at the weekend, but Yamamoto and Usami will look to pose different problems on Wednesday night.

Head to Head

Grampus may have had the league’s strongest defence in 2020, but Gamba had no problems breaching it, notching 4 goals across their home and away games. Indeed they’ve scored exactly twice in each of their six league encounters with Nagoya since the Aichi side’s promotion back to J1 in 2018. Incredibly, you have to go back to August 14th 2014, a 1-0 home loss, for the last time the Nerazzurri netted less than two goals in a single match in this fixture.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Wingers Yuji Ono and Haruto Shirai (both recovering from knee surgery) are definitely out for Gamba. Kim Young-gwon and Yuya Fukuda have been absent from the matchday squad for both the Japanese Super Cup and last weekend’s defeat at Kobe. I believe Kim isn’t fully ready after missing a large part of the pre-season training camp in Okinawa and I haven’t heard anything regarding Fukuda. Central midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi will make his 100th Gamba and J1 appearance in this game. Fukuda will take his tally to 50 Gamba/J1 matches, should he play.

Nagoya Grampus

Ex-Japan international forward Mu Kanazaki is a long-term absentee after undergoing knee surgery towards the end of 2020. Neither, rampaging right-back Ryoya Morishita or former Gamba treble-winner Hiroyuki Abe were in the Grampus squad for the trip to Kyushu at the weekend, I haven’t heard any word as to whether that was down to injury/illness or just non selection.

Predicted Line Ups

Despite my reservations outlined above, it seems like 4-3-3 will remain in vogue for a while yet. With so many games in such a short space of time it’s inevitable some rotation will take place. I’ve selected Onose at right-back in the hope that if I put him there then Miyamoto may see sense and choose Takao instead. Other alternatives to the team below could be, Kawasaki and Patric keeping their places at left-wing and centre-forward respectively, and Ju Se-jong coming in for Shinya Yajima in the centre of the park (this would probably see him in the midfield anchor role with Ideguchi (right) and Yamamoto (left) just ahead of him). Should Kim Young-gwon or Yuya Fukuda regain full fitness then both would definitely make the matchday squad.

He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for blog writers like me Massimo Ficcadenti is a breath of fresh air with his lack of rotation and predictable starting elevens. I’ve gone for the same side that saw off Fukuoka on Sunday. However, if the Italian is feeling a bit racy then he may tweak his attack with Gabriel Xavier, Naoki Maeda or Manabu Saito coming in, while further back Yasuki Kimoto could be an option as it appeared Takuji Yonemoto took a bit of a knock against Avispa.

Match Prediction

Two teams with reasonably strong defences, so it may seem a little counter-intuitive to predict goals, but looking at the history of this fixture and considering the possibility of errors resulting from a mixture of rustiness and fatigue, I’ll go for 2-2.


Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka J1 League 27 February 2021

2021 J1 League Round 1
Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka
Saturday 27th February 2021, 17:00 (JST)
Noevir Stadium

After a 10 week break J1 is back with a bang this weekend and it’s a Kansai Derby away at Vissel Kobe to start the season for Gamba. I joined Ben and Sam on this week’s J-Talk Podcast to run the rule over both these teams as well as Nagoya, Cerezo and Hiroshima…don’t worry I found nice things to say about all of them….even Cerezo!

I was only able to catch highlights of Gamba’s 3-2 Super Cup loss to Kawasaki last Saturday as a result of work commitments and the game being shown on terrestrial TV here in Japan. By most accounts, Frontale were the dominant force in the first half and went into the interval with a 2-goal cushion courtesy of, who else but, Kaoru Mitoma. The Nerazzurri fought back gamely in the second stanza and did something they failed to do in 2020, breached the Kawasaki rearguard. Shinya Yajima’s close range effort and a powerful Patric penalty (his 7th goal in his last 14 games in all competitions) looked to have the match on course for spot-kicks before Frontale talisman Yu Kobayashi’s excellent shot in the 6th minute of additional time saw the Kanagawa side lift yet another domestic trophy.

Key talking points from a Gamba perspective were, the 4-3-3 formation adopted at the start of the match, and also the personnel selected to fill it. Regarding the set-up, Miyamoto seems to be looking to emulate the last two J1 champions, Marinos and Kawasaki, with a more attacking brand of football. However, Gamba kick off their league season with 10 games inside 43 days (only 1 free midweek) and this could see the Nerazzurri revert to the defensive mindset that worked well for them and fellow ACL qualifiers Nagoya and Cerezo during the condensed 2020 campaign. Though, with things set to ease off fixture-wise in the latter part of the year and a far less intense summer schedule awaiting then it’s possible to hypothesize that we’ll see a number of the top sides operating more expansive game-plans this time round.

Regarding the starting eleven from last week, thanks to many of you who got in touch via Twitter and WordPress with your questions. I’ll summarise injury concerns and reasons for my predicted line-up in later parts of this post, but I will say my gut feeling is that the hectic upcoming schedule and last year’s injury crisis played a large part in Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s selection on Saturday. It was interesting to note that pre-match, Gamba supporters on Twitter were struggling to fit the eleven names selected into a coherent formation, I saw Kawasaki, Ideguchi, Kurata, Yajima and Onose all listed to start there in various posts. In the end, Kosuke Onose filled the void, though going forward I expect he’ll play either on the right wing or in the advanced right central-midfield role and Saturday’s match was just seen as an opportunity to test him as an option there should Brazilian Wellington Silva come in and make the right-wing slot his own.

Now to this weekend’s hosts Vissel Kobe, the side from Hyogo should be desperate to bounce back from last season’s poor domestic showing which saw them end up a lowly 14th, largely as a result of focusing on the ACL. With the exception of young Brazilian attacker Lincoln, there have been no big-name buys this winter, but crucially, I feel, this side is now younger and hungrier than before. I think they could be one of the most upwardly mobile teams in the league this season, along with Shimizu.

Aside from the purchase of Lincoln from Flamengo, 4 other players have joined Vissel permanently since the end of the 2020 campaign. For me, Shion Inoue (Tokyo Verdy) is the pick of the bunch, a very tidy performer with a nice range of passing, he should fit in well as one of the more advanced central midfielders or on the wing. Elsewhere young midfielder Tatsunori Sakurai comes highly rated from Maebashi Ikuei High School in Gunma (ex Gamba U23 captain Riku Matsuda’s alma mater), but he, as well as backup goalie Ryotaro Hironaga (Hiroshima) and right sided full-back / wing-back Nagisa Sakurauchi (Iwata) are likely to provide depth to the squad rather than being regular members of the starting eleven.

Yuki Kobayashi is a centre-back who is comfortable with the ball at his feet and he returns to Hyogo for the first time in 18 months following decent loan spells with Machida (2019) and Yokohama FC (2020). Both he, and attacking midfielder / winger Asahi Masuyama, who is back in town after helping Fukuoka win promotion last season, could prove to be key figures for the men in maroon this time round. Yuta Goke (21 years old), Takuya Yasui (22), Daiju Sasaki (21), Tetsushi Yamakawa (23) and Yutaro Oda (19 ) all showed in spells last season that they could form the core of a good, vibrant side for years to come. If, and it is a big IF, Kobe’s front office and coaching staff back this group of youngsters appropriately, then regular ventures into the Asian Champions League might become more of a reality than the pipe dream it appears to be at the moment. Last season’s final table may suggest otherwise, but this is a Vissel Kobe side that Gamba would do well not to underestimate.

Vissel Kobe 2021 Squad

Head to Head

Gamba did the double over Kobe in 2020 without conceding a goal, though it should be noted that Vissel were no pushovers in either match and could make an argument for being worthy of a point both home and away. Takashi Usami isn’t nicknamed the ‘Kobe Killer’ for nothing and a 2021 repeat of his fierce long-range effort which sealed Gamba’s 2-0 win at the Noevir last summer would be welcomed by all of a blue and black persuasion.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Yuji Ono and Haruto Shirai (both recovering from knee operations) are definitely out of this match. Takashi Usami (knee) wasn’t in the squad for the Super Cup, I’m led to believe that it’s more a case of him being wrapped in cotton wool than having a serious problem. Kim Young-gwon and Yuya Fukuda were also absent from last weekend’s precedings, Kim missed most of the team’s pre-season camp due to quarantine regulations, and I haven’t seen any news of a Fukuda injury, so his condition remains a mystery. If fit and selected, Fukuda will make his 50th Gamba and J1 appearance in this match.

Vissel Kobe

Spanish legend Andrés Iniesta is expected back in April at the earliest after picking up a hamstring injury playing in the Asian Champions League last December. Brazilian newcomer Lincoln is still not in the country due to the ongoing state of emergency so won’t be featuring until next month, if not later.

Predicted Line Ups

Gamba began last week’s clash with Kawasaki in a 4-3-3 system before switching to 4-4-2 later on. I’d also guess that 3-5-2 remains an option, however, I’m going with the assumption that 4-3-3 will be the default formation in 2021 unless (until? lol) the wheels come off. I believe Takao’s benching and Kim and Usami’s non-selection against Frontale were all precautionary, so we should see a stronger starting eleven this week, on paper at least. With the intense schedule coming up in March, it’s expected the side will be rotated a lot, so it would be no surprise to see new Brazilian duo, Leandro Pereira and Tiago Alves crack a start on Saturday.

One of Kobe’s main downfalls during the Thorsten Fink era was the constant switching between a back 3 and a back 4, however, under Atsuhiro Miura they seem to have settled on a 4-man rearguard. Thomas Vermaelen’s fitness is a constant topic of speculation and, in reality, I found him the easiest centre-back to leave out as, at the moment, I’m unsure of what order Miura ranks Kikuchi, Osaki and Kobayashi, so having them all in the matchday squad put my mind at rest (is that a good enough justification?) It’s also possible that we see Goke in central midfield ahead of Yasui with Oda or Inoue starting right-wing, while at right-back Sakurauchi is an alternative to Yamakawa.

Match Prediction

It’s always difficult to know what to expect on the opening day, but Gamba generally have a good record away to Vissel and come into this bout battle hardened after duelling with Kawasaki last week. With all that in mind I’ve opted for a tight 2-1 away win to set the ball rolling in 2021.


Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka Japanese Super Cup 20 February 2021

Japanese Super Cup
Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka
Saturday 20th February 2021, 13:35 (JST)
Saitama Stadium 2002

Just over 7 weeks since their last match in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day, these two giants of Japanese football return to do battle in front of a limited crowd of 5,000 supporters in Saitama this Saturday afternoon.

In truth, there hasn’t been a great deal of change at Kawasaki since January 1st, meaning, in my eyes, at least, they are still very much the team to beat in 2021. With that said, despite 3 defeats and a grand total of 0 goals scored against Frontale last year, there are reasons for Gamba to be more confident ahead of this encounter which should provide an early acid test for both sides. While a repeat of the 3-3 draw we witnessed between Yokohama F.Marinos and Vissel Kobe in last season’s curtain raiser may be unlikely, we can surely expect more accurate penalty taking, should it come down to that. (chortle, chortle)

I appeared on the J-Talk Podcast ahead of the Emperor’s Cup Final and also did a companion mini-preview for that game, so I’m not going to go over old ground. Instead, let’s take a look at what both of these sides have done transfer-wise this off-season.

Gamba Osaka

Gamba, by most accounts, had one of the more accomplished winters of all J1 clubs, re-enforcing depleted areas while only losing one first-team regular, veteran forward Kazuma Watanabe (Yokohama FC). Midfield maestro Yosuke Ideguchi and injury-plagued Japan international central defender Gen Shoji are also both back and successfully came through the team’s training camp in Okinawa. As for the new arrivals, Leandro Pereira, J1’s 3rd top scorer with 15 strikes in 2020 is the headline signing, and Gamba fans will also be excited to see what role South Korean central midfielder Ju Se-jong (FC Seoul) occupies. As mentioned on numerous occasions last season, when Ideguchi was out, the Nerazzurri had no effective ball winner in the middle of the park, Ju should provide extra grunt and whether he is seen as an alternative to Ideguchi, or his partner in crime, will be revealed over time.

Elsewhere, centre-back Yota Sato comes highly rated from Meiji University (Yuichi Maruyama, Ryuji Izumi, Hirotaka Mita, Shuto Abe and Yusuke Segawa are just a few alumni from that particular institution) and his arrival surely gives Gamba the strongest group of central defenders in the division. Goalkeeper Mizuki Hayashi (Yamaguchi) and attacker Kazunari Ichimi (Kyoto 2019, Yokohama FC 2020) return from loan spells, but they, along with winger / central forward Tiago Alves (Tosu), are likely to be backup players for the majority of the campaign. Fluminense winger Wellington Silva is a rumoured target, but owing to current coronavirus restrictions, it’s unknown when he’d be able to enter the country if he did sign. His capture would help to provide competition for both Kosuke Onose and Shu Kurata and give the Nerazzurri an extra attacking dimension from the flanks which can only be seen as a good thing from a blue and black perspective.

Kantoku Tsuneyasu Miyamoto is known as someone who regularly challenges his ideas about how football should be played and isn’t wedded to any particular formation. Gamba’s relatively poor offensive showing in 2020 has him considering alternatives to the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 set-ups we saw for the bulk of the last campaign and 4-3-3 has been mooted as the way forward. Big names have come in and seasoned pros have returned from injury, but I’m still hopeful that Miyamoto will continue to give youth it’s chance and we will see the likes of, Keisuke Kurokawa (left back / left wing-back), Kohei Okuno (central midfield), Shuhei Kawasaki (left wing), Dai Tsukamoto (wing / forward) and 18 year-old prodigy Shoji Toyama (forward) get more opportunities to shine. Many eyes will also be on Yuki Yamamoto and Yuya Fukuda, with both expected to build on impressive showings last time out.

Current Squad

Kawasaki Frontale

Due to being runaway J1 champions in 2020, there was little real incentive for Kawasaki to go out and make wholesale changes to their squad over the winter. As someone raised watching European football, the fact that the double winners from the previous year can’t just hoover up all their rivals’ best players is one of the most refreshing things about the JLeague. Hidemasa Morita (Santa Clara) is the only regular starter from last season to have moved on, while Manabu Saito (Nagoya), Kengo Nakamura (retirement) and young Taisei Miyashiro (Tokushima – loan), have also left Todoroki Stadium. In their place come some interesting new additions who could thrive, or underwhelm.

Brazilian central midfielder João Schmidt has the ability to make an impact, but found his playing time curtailed last year with Nagoya as he wasn’t a good stylistic match with Massimo Ficcadenti’s system. It may seem harsh to point out flaws in someone who has won 3 J1 titles in 4 years, but, to date, Toru Oniki has struggled to get the best out of the foreign (mostly Brazilian) talent at his disposal. Granted, why one of Asia’s top club sides shop in the Brazilian second tier so regularly (Diogo Mateus, Maguinho, Caio César) is another question for another day. However, with Jesiel and Leandro Damião taking until their second year to really make strides, the accusation still stands largely unanswered at this point, and how Schmidt adapts to his new surroundings will be interesting to watch.

Kazuki Kozuka (attacking midfield – Oita) is another intriguing acquisition. Trinita’s leading assist maker in 2019 regularly failed to make the squad for the Kyushu side last time out despite having the same head-coach, using the same formation, and Naoki Nomura, an important player in a similar role, missing a large chunk of the campaign. There was no official injury report, and I’m interested to know the real reason for his absence. Did something go on behind the scenes after Frontale’s reported move for him ahead of the 2020 season? We may never know.

Koki Tsukagawa has come in from Matsumoto Yamaga after bagging 9 goals in 29 J2 outings in 2020, and from the outside it seems like he’ll fill the backup midfield role previously occupied by Hokuto Shimoda (now at Oita). In attack, Kei Chinen (Oita), Daiya Tono (Fukuoka) and Ten Miyagi (Toyama) are back from loan spells that brought varying degrees of success, they’ll provide cover for Damião and Kobayashi. Central midfielder Kento Tachibanada (Toin Yokohama University – my old stamping ground) joins fellow Toin alumni Zain Issaka and Miki Yamane in the squad, while defender Shuto Tanabe moves east from the football factory that is Shizuoka Gakuen High School. How much action either of these two will see in 2021 is up for debate.

I’ve discussed a similar topic with a few people on Twitter and I’m still not sure what metrics European clubs are using to determine that while the likes of Koki Saito and Daiki Hashioka are quickly snapped up, top talents such as Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma remain in Japan. Should Tanaka and Mitoma stay Frontale players for the whole season then I can only see a 4th league title in 5 years, but the overdue departure of one or both may throw a spanner in the works. My hunch is that one of the duo will probably move on in the summer with the other following next winter. Despite that, plus the ageing of veterans like Ienaga and Kobayashi, Kawasaki are still my favourites to be crowned champions, though possibly more in the manner of their 2017 or 2018 triumphs than last season’s landslide.

Current Squad

Super Cup History

Taking a look at the tables below, we can see that this will be Gamba’s 7th Super Cup appearance (putting them 3rd behind Kashima (10) and Urawa (9) in the rankings) and victory on Saturday will allow the Nerazzurri to lift the trophy for the 3rd time, which would pull them level with Júbilo Iwata in joint 5th position. Kawasaki, on the other hand, first appeared in the 2018 edition and are now preparing for their 3rd Super Cup match in 4 years. They have a 50% win record at the moment, going down 3-2 to Cerezo in their inaugural appearance in 2018 before seeing off Urawa a year later.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Yuji Ono and Haruto Shirai are both recovering from knee operations performed last year and are definitely out. Overseas trio, Kim Young-gwon, Leandro Pereira and Tiago Alves all missed the first half of Gamba’s Okinawa training camp due to quarantine restrictions, so at the moment it’s unclear how much of a role they will play on Saturday. Yosuke Ideguchi and Gen Shoji fully participated in the club’s pre-season program and should be ready to go the full 90 if required, while Takashi Usami took a knock to his knee a couple of weeks back, but I haven’t heard anything since that would indicate he’s a doubt.

Kawasaki Frontale

Left-back Kyohei Noborizato (collarbone fracture) missed the tail end of the 2020 season and is still out, while influential central midfielder Ryota Oshima appears to be highly doubtful having been absent from pre-season training.

Predicted Lineups

I’ve been pretty conservative with my predicted Gamba lineup, making only one change to the side that lost 1-0 in the Emperor’s Cup final. An alternative to this would be, Shoji partnering Miura at centre-back with Sato on the bench and Kim missing out due to a lack of sharpness. I also have Leandro Pereira as a sub due to missing a chunk of pre-season training, though in the long run I think he will overtake Patric as the main starter. Regarding the mooted change to 4-3-3, I was reluctant to opt for it as that would mean one of Kurata or Onose missing out, and I couldn’t decide who. A central midfield of Ideguchi, Yamamoto and Ju Se-jong does have a very strong feel to it and I can definitely understand Miyamoto’s mindset in considering such a formation.

The main source of debate regarding the Frontale starting lineup is the shape of the midfield triangle, will it be last season’s one holding midfielder and two players in more advanced roles or two holding and one ahead. With the likely absence of Ryota Oshima, I’ve opted for the latter. It’s been rumoured that left-back Shintaro Kurumaya will focus on playing centre-back this season, so we could see Reo Hatate or even young Kaito Kamiya slot in on the left side of defence in Noborizato’s absence. Kazuki Kozuka offers an alternative to Wakizaka in attacking midfield and I’ve gone for Damião ahead of Kobayashi up top as he started all 3 games vs Gamba in 2020.

Match Prediction

Some might say it’s a fool’s game making predictions for one-off season openers like this, but it feels like I’m contractually obliged to do so. I’ll say an Ideguchi inspired Gamba will grind out a 1-1 draw, taking the tie to penalties, and from there it really will be a lottery…


J2 2021 Predicted Lineups

**Important Update**Important Update**Important Update**

Please check out the link above to see who’s been playing and who hasn’t. I’ll keep it updated regularly.

They key is shown below.

Also for anyone using the site for data, here is a brief English translation.

**Important Update**Important Update**Important Update**

Following the phenomenal response I had to my J1 Predicted Lineups article, I thought I’d take on an even more daunting task….doing the same for J2. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labour. Once again please get in touch and tell me how right / wrong I am.

First up, some housekeeping rules,
* These lineups are not necessarily meant to be the ones that will start in the opening round, but more the players expected to feature most regularly over the course of the year.
* I’ve been a little more conservative in J2 with selecting university graduates and youth team rookies in lineups due to having less information on these players (for example, range of positions they can play) than their J1 counterparts.
* As with the J1 lineups, teams who performed reasonably well in 2020, kept the same manager and a bulk of their playing staff or who have dedicated English bloggers (V-Varen Nagasaki, FC Ryukyu) are easier to read than those who played poorly last season, changed coaches and had a large overhaul in personnel (both newly promoted sides were pretty tough too!)
* Teams are listed in the order they finished 2020, ages given are correct for the opening round of fixtures, (Y) = youth team product, and players with an injury cloud hanging over their head have not been included.

With that out of the way, here we go….

V-Varen Nagasaki

Brief Notes: Bridesmaids last year and despite the rather harsh parting of ways with Teguramori they look like the team to beat in 2021.

Ventforet Kofu

Brief Notes: The Scotland of J2 with no superstars, but their level doesn’t really go up or down regardless of who’s playing for them. They have a number of university rookies in their ranks who’ll probably feature more as the year progresses.

Giravanz Kitakyushu

Brief Notes: The vultures descended upon them over the winter and though the remaining carcass of last season’s 5th placed squad should see them to safety, they lack a proven goalscorer.

Júbilo Iwata

Brief Notes: The talent is there to go up, but, is their coach past his sell-by date? Can they find the right formation? And, is the squad motivated enough?

Montedio Yamagata

Brief Notes: With no playoffs they will most likely be thereabouts, rather than there, but this is a team worth keeping an eye on.

Kyoto Sanga

Brief Notes: With a new coach who knows his way out of the division and the outlay on new talent this winter, there are frankly no excuses for spending another year jostling for positions with teams with the budgets of (with the greatest of respect) Mito and Tochigi.

Mito HollyHock

Brief Notes: They won’t go up, and they won’t go down, but will surely play an attractive brand of football nonetheless and develop a few more youngsters on behalf of the powerhouses in J1.

Tochigi SC

Brief Notes: Like Kitakyushu, their 2020 overachievement has seen them ‘rewarded’ with several important players heading for fresh pastures. Should have enough to steer clear of the drop, but getting anywhere near last season’s form will be a tall ask.

Albirex Niigata

Brief Notes: The rather stagnant Covid-era transfer market had the trickle down effect of allowing them to keep Homma in Niigata. Could a potentially mouth-watering attack catapult them into the promotion spots?

Tokyo Verdy

Brief Notes: Twas forever thus, youngsters move on to spend their prime years away from Ajista, while others are promoted to take their place. Another year of solid mid-table football beckons.

Matsumoto Yamaga

Brief Notes: A lot of changes over the winter, but somehow on paper the pieces don’t seem to fit together as well as I thought they would. They’d surely be a playoff contender in a normal year, but top two seems a step too far this season, with, or without, Kazuma Yamaguchi.

JEF United Chiba

Brief Notes: Their starting eleven looks good in theory, and if new Brazilian Matheus Saldanha starts banging them in, they could go places. Any other side and I might say they were in the hunt for top 6, but this is JEF we’re talking about.

Omiya Ardija

Brief Notes: They surely can’t be as bad this year, Nakano and Yajima seem like solid additions in attack, and if they are able to keep everyone fit they should finish top half.

FC Ryukyu

Brief Notes: The squad seems to have the same imbalance as last year with a strong attack and leaky defence. This will probably lead to a similar end result, comfortably out of the drop zone, but not really threatening the top 10.

Fagiano Okayama

Brief Notes: As a disgruntled Scot, let me quote Alan Shearer from a BBC advert prior to some major tournament, “with expectations at an all-time low, we (England) might actually go on and win the thing.” That’s about the only positive thing I could think to say about Okayama after last season’s mediocrity and an underwhelming winter transfer market.

Zweigen Kanazawa

Brief Notes: There will be plenty of J1 scouts watching them this year due to the volume of talented youngsters in their ranks. If Niwa and Senuma can fill the Kato and Lucão shaped void in attack they could achieve a top-half finish.

Machida Zelvia

Brief Notes: You could make an argument that their entire midfield should be in J1 and with Chong Tese and Dudu in attack top 8 is an absolute minimum following 2 years of drudgery.

Thespakusatsu Gunma

Brief Notes: Ended 2020 pretty well and seemed to fly under the radar due to starting the season so poorly. Assuming their new defenders settle in quickly then they could surprise a few people with how high up the table they finish.

Ehime FC

Brief Notes: The return of several club legends over the winter gives them a more solid look than last year, however, it’s hard to see where the goals are coming from. Yoshiki Fujimoto will need to rediscover his 2019 form, and then some, if they’re to avoid risking being passed by prefectural neighbours Imabari.

Renofa Yamaguchi

Brief Notes: A team to watch as there will likely be goals, lots of them, at either end. Probably second to Machida in terms of sides who’ve upgraded the most over the winter.

Blaublitz Akita

Brief Notes: In a similar vein to what I said about Tokushima in the J1 article, Akita stormed to the title last season and kept the bulk of their stalwarts, but they don’t have a whole lot of experience in the league they’ll be playing in this year. J3 champions generally don’t go straight back down, but then again, there aren’t usually years when the bottom 4 all make the drop.

SC Sagamihara

Brief Notes: A solid, experienced outfit, and with Rômulo staying put, does that give them enough goals to stay afloat? Gamba loanee Ren Shibamoto is a gem of a signing in my book, keep an eye out for him.