Kashima Antlers vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 34
Saturday 5 November 2022
Kashima Soccer Stadium
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)
The 2022 J1 season finishes just the way it started for both Kashima and Gamba with a clash against one another. This will be the fifth meeting of the two this calendar year and Antlers currently boast a perfect record of played 4, won 4. The Stags can still mathematically end up 3rd on the ladder after doing Gamba a massive favour in seeing off Shimuzu at the Nihondaira last weekend, their first win in the league since mid-August. The Nerazzurri meanwhile also defeated Shizuoka-based opponents last Saturday, relegating troubled Júbilo Iwata after a 2-0 home victory which came courtesy of second-half strikes from substitutes Ryotaro Meshino and Patric. All in all, the round 33 results went as well as could realistically have been expected from a Gamba perspective, though they are by no means out of the woods yet. Victory at the Kashima Soccer Stadium for the first time since 2016 secures J1 football for 2023, anything less leaves them anxiously looking over their shoulders hoping for Kyoto and S-Pulse to slip up. So, there you have it, the final week of the season promises to be dramatic at both ends of the table, which one of these two traditional heavyweights will have their hand raised in victory at the end of this titanic tussle?
Tale of the Tape
Last Saturday saw the first home win of the Matsuda-era and the first at Panasonic Stadium since another 2-0, against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, way back on 29 June. The interceding run of 7 games saw 3 draws and 4 defeats with the late, late points ceded to Cerezo, Urawa and Kyoto really hurting the Nerazzurri right now. Gamba are W4D2L3 under Matsuda, giving them an average of 1.56 points per game which, if projected over the course of a whole season, would see them currently tied with Saturday’s opponents Kashima and prefectural rivals Cerezo on 51 (I know, I know, it’s only been just under a 1/3 of a season and many opposition teams have been in cruise control, but it’s a stat that deserves to be commended nonetheless). The win over Júbilo was the Ao to Kuro’s 2nd 2-0 victory on the spin and also their 2nd time in a row recording an xG for total of over 1. It’s worth noting that at the other end there’s only been 1 sub xG against figure during the Matsuda-era (at Nagoya) while 3 matches have seen opponents record tallies over 2. Despite this, the Nerazzurri have kept 6 clean sheets in Matsuda’s 9 games in charge and are presently on a run of only conceding 1 goal from open play in their last 5 outings, with that coming in the hugely controversial VAR-inspired shambles at Kobe, so make of that what you will. In Matsuda’s case (and more on this later in the ‘Gamba Osaka’ section), is it better to be a lucky manager than a good one (think about Yasuhito Endo’s miss early in the second half on Saturday if you require further food for thought)?
Takashi Usami’s return has certainly sparked Gamba’s attack in recent weeks in conjunction with Yuki Yamamoto coming back from injury and the inspired acquisition of Juan Alano in the summer. Brazilian volante Dawhan had fallen away after a bright start to his Nerazzurri career, but he has been a colossus in the past 2 games, completing 44 of 55 passes attempted against Júbilo, including 1 last pass, while central-midfield partner Yamamoto made 42 of 58 with 2 last passes that brought him 1 assist (Meshino’s opener). At the other end, ‘guardian deity’ Masaaki Higashiguchi wasn’t nearly as busy as in the previous 2 games, and was actually almost the architect of the Nerazzurri’s downfall with an uncharacteristic first-half error that he redeemed in typical fashion. He made 5 saves in total, including decent blocks from Kenyu Sugimoto and Shota Kaneko late on to preserve Gamba’s 2 goal advantage. As I near the end of this section I just want to dwell on that phrase ‘2 goal advantage.’ Meshino and Patric both struck within the space of 7 second-half minutes to put the Ao to Kuro on easy street and crush Jubilo’s spirit, however, they were unable to double their lead against Urawa, Kyoto and Cerezo and paid a dear, dear price for that. They simply can’t afford to let a side as steely as Kashima off the hook, and they know it. To that end, we’ll likely see a return to the game-plan that worked to a tee against Marinos, a fully fit Patric should be restored to the starting eleven and fellow goal-scorer last Saturday, Ryotaro Meshino, could take the place of Kosuke Onose whose first-half miss versus Iwata has to be seen to be believed while his performance as a whole was underwhelming to say the least. Gamba are yet to win 3 in-a-row in 2022, on the back of 2 vastly different 2-0 triumphs, can they do it when it matters most this Saturday?
Kashima raced out of the blocks this year, picking up 9 wins and 29 points from their opening 13 league fixtures which had myself and many others putting them on a pedestal alongside title challengers Marinos and Frontale. Subsequently their form has taken something of a nose-dive and they’ve tasted victory on just 4 occasions in a little under 6 months since those halcyon early season days. A rather shocking, from their point of view, 12 failures to record an xG for total over 1 in their most recent 20 outings in the wake of Ayase Ueda’s departure for Europe has damaged their ACL aspirations badly, though thanks to others’ inconsistencies over the course of the season, they still enter the final matchday in 5th, trailing 3rd placed Hiroshima by 3 points and Cerezo in 4th by only goal difference. The most telling stat I could dig up about Antlers is that their xG difference per 90 minutes has dropped by a whopping 0.67 since 2021 (from +0.57 to -0.10). They’ve managed to avoid the worst effects that such a collapse could precipitate by out-performing their attacking xG number by 9.05 goals this term, while at the back xG against and actual goals conceded were relatively consistent. Though it seems like they’ve been out of form for ages, and a cursory glance through results and statistical performances show that to indeed have been the case, some decent showings from several of their attackers have helped them keep their heads not just above water, but swimming in the general direction of the ACL spots. Forever controversial, and also highly effective, Yuma Suzuki has marked his return to Japanese football with 7 goals and 9 assists in J1 while under-utilised Brazilian Arthur Caike (who I’d love to see follow Juan Alano on the trail from Ibaraki to Suita) has bagged 9 goals and 3 assists to relieve some of the burden of Ueda’s mid-season departure and Everaldo’s ongoing struggle to recapture his 2020 form. Further back, the one who got away (from a Gamba perspective), Yuta Higuchi sits on 2 goals and a career-high 8 assists for the year, and as if to rub salt into the Nerazzurri’s gaping wounds, provided 4 assists in one game during a Levain Cup group stage tie between Antlers and the Ao to Kuro. Former defensive stalwart Daiki Iwamasa is the current incumbent of the hottest of hot seats at the Kashima Soccer Stadium and though the Stags are generally thought of as a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 side, he has experimented at times this campaign. I fancy him to stick with the 4-3-3 that was successful at S-Pulse last week and allows the holy trinity of Kento Misao, Diego Pituca and Yuta Higuchi to form a formidable midfield trio, something that hasn’t happened nearly enough in 2022 in this writer’s humble opinion.
First Match Recap
All hell broke loose when these two met at a rainy Panasonic Stadium back in round 1. Still reeling from their pre-season Covid outbreak, Gamba’s backline had a makeshift feel to it and Ayase Ueda made them pay in the 20th minute, racing onto a through ball and burying his shot past Nerazzurri 3rd choice ‘keeper Kei Ishikawa. The visitors’ lead lasted a mere 6 minutes before they failed to properly deal with a corner and Kosuke Onose fired in a fine half-volley. However, Antlers were back in front on the half-hour mark with Yuma Suzuki punishing slack Gamba passing in their own defensive third. It would not be Suzuki’s last significant contribution of the afternoon though, as less than 10 minutes later he and Patric clashed while contesting a loose ball and Kashima’s number 40 fell to the ground clutching his face. The referee immediately brandished a red-card and despite replays clearly showing Patric and Suzuki were both worthy of yellow cards, and a red was certainly not warranted in the Brazilian’s case, a technicality in VAR (which needs to be ironed out before the 2023 season kicks off) meant that the Nerazzurri had to play out the rest of the match down to 10 men. Shots rained in from the Stags in the wake of that hugely controversial decision and the woodwork was struck on several occasions while Ishikawa acquitted himself well in trying circumstances and the Ao to Kuro even briefly threatened an equaliser through Usami and Kurata. It was simply not Gamba’s afternoon and lovely Kashima passing and movement led up to Ayase Ueda’s clincher midway through the second half. It appeared back then in February as if Ryotaro Araki was set to continue where he left off in 2021, unfortunately it was not to be for the youngster. On the day, it certainly was to be for his Antlers side though as they ran out 3-1 winners and, social media scrutiny of Suzuki’s shenanigans not withstanding, got their campaign off to the perfect start.
Mood in the camp – It’s certainly lighter than it’s been in recent weeks, but there’s a strong sense that any kind of slip up in what is an extremely tough final day fixture at Kashima could see the house of cards come crashing down. Gamba have transformed from a team that finished top 4 in J1 10 times between 2002 and 2016 to a side that, from 2017 onwards, has spent a considerable amount of time each year being amongst the worst performers in the league (2020 excluded). It’s been said on plenty of occasions about a team like Shonan, or in the past Niigata, Kofu or Omiya, you can only get away with circling the bowl for so long, one of these times you’re going to get swept away with the tide. I’ll be honest, since the 2-0 home loss to Shimizu in August, I’ve been convinced this year was going to end in relegation, I hope to be proven wrong come 4pm on Saturday afternoon.
Managerial matters – As I discussed above, Hiroshi Matsuda has generally achieved the required results in trying circumstances and the table below highlights the 3 key tenets of his reign, namely, a 442 formation, consistent player selection and an increase in yellow cards (that Alano-inspired shithousery I mentioned last week). However, with all of that said, I see him as more of a Sam Allardyce-esque firefighter than the forward-thinking kantoku the club needs to move them out of the bottom third of J1. I certainly wouldn’t like to ditch Matsuda altogether and surely we can find a spot for him either in the front office or in the youth department (Gamba Youth got tanked 9-1 by their Júbilo counterparts last weekend and look set to be relegated from the Prince Takamado Trophy West Division Premier League, so something there is most definitely broken and in need of urgent fixing). Names like Lotina and Ficcadenti have been banded about Gamba supporter circles with Tadahiro Akiba, formerly of Mito, an outside bet. However, throwing those names into the equation, when all is said and done, Matsuda is, in reality, probably the most likely person to be kantoku at the start of next season, be that in J1 or J2.
Leandro Pereira – The Brazilian striker spoke to the media recently about his earliest experiences in Japan and complained of not having a great relationship with Matsumoto kantoku Yasuharu Sorimachi which precipitated his loan move to Sanfrecce midway through the 2019 season. There has also been speculation that he won’t be offered a new deal at Gamba and he appears ready and willing to return to his native Brazil. He won’t be missed. I know you can argue that Gamba probably haven’t delivered on promises made to him on the footballing side, though they’ve certainly come through financially, as he’s believed to be the club’s highest earner, however, I’d make the point that the player himself has to take a long hard look in the mirror. His on-field bust up with Gen Shoji during the Osaka Derby was embarrassing, but it’s likely that Shoji merely stated what the majority of his team-mates and supporters have thought at one time or another. Pereira isn’t a superstar, or frankly anything close, yet from the outside it appears that he’s only willing to put in the effort when it suits him and that’s frankly the kind of prima-donna, blame everyone other than yourself behaviour the Nerazzurri can ill-afford to put up with anymore. In my book he’ll go down as a colossal waste of club resources and a horrible reflection on the archaic scouting system and front office decision making processes that have scarred Gamba over the past few years.
Endo standing ovation – To finish this section on something of a high note, it was extremely moving to see Yasuhito Endo be the last one to leave the Panasonic Stadium field last Saturday after receiving a standing ovation from everyone in the ground. I, for one, (I’m sure @GolazoGamba agrees) would love to have him back as a Gamba player for 2023…don’t let that be the last time we see him play in Suita, please!
For the first time in my 3+ years of writing these previews, I have nothing to say in here, everyone on 3 yellow cards escaped censure against Iwata and there are no fresh injury concerns. Congratulations to the current coaching staff for seemingly curing Gamba’s long-standing fitness curse.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
At present, it appears that Daiki Iwamasa will be the man to lead Kashima into the 2023 season with the club’s chairman saying that the former Japan international defender’s footballing vision is aligned with that of the front office. This is the same chairman who criticised his own front office in his statement announcing the firing of Swiss kantoku René Weiler earlier this year. Reading between the lines, moves such as acquiring central midfielder Yuta Higuchi from Tosu when Misao and Pituca were already on the books and signing centre-back Eduardo instead would have made more logical sense, appeared to have been the trigger for the chairman’s anger. Further to that point, while it’s common for opposition fans to goad Kashima with jibes about them being located in the countryside and their stadium being impossible to reach, it seems that in reality it’s actually not so easy for them to attract top talent to deepest, darkest Ibaraki anymore. Sports Hochi’s Gamba beat reporter Mr. Kanagawa and his Kashima counterpart Mr. Uchida have chatted a couple of times on Twitter and during their talks it was revealed that with Antlers no longer being THE team in Japanese football, it’s becoming harder and harder for them to bring in genuine, proven quality either domestically or from overseas. Although they are the most successful side in the history of the J. League, Kashima boast only one J1 title in the last 12 seasons (soon to be 13) and 2023 will mark their 4th year in succession without ACL football. Is Iwamasa the man to right these wrongs? Personally, I’m sceptical, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Whatever happens this winter, he will definitely have two new promising youngsters on-board to help him navigate the choppy waters that likely lie ahead. Centre-back Keisuke Tsukui from Shohei High School in Saitama and Kashima Youth central midfielder Yoshihiro Shimoda will both make the step up to the professional ranks in 2023. Shimoda is presently with the Japan Under-18 squad on their short tour of Spain, where he is a team-mate of Gamba’s Harumi Minamino, so clearly he has some decent pedigree, and I wrote about Tsukui in my J1 Rookie Review article that you can find here.
The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.
DF Koki Anzai – Dislocated his right shoulder away at Shimizu last week and definitely won’t play on Saturday.
FW Shoma Doi – Has sat out the past 2 league games with a groin injury and seems set to miss this encounter as well.
DF Rikuto Hirose and MF Yuta Higuchi are available for selection again having been suspended for the win away to Shimizu last week.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.