J1, J2, J3 comments, stats and analysis

Hello Everyone,

Hisashiburi as they say in Japan, it’s been a while. I’ve not been very active publicly recently, but that certainly hasn’t been the case behind the scenes where I’ve been busy, beavering away looking at the top 3 tiers of Japanese men’s professional football. I thought it was high time I shared some of what I’ve been up to with you. Just as a quick aside, you’ll probably have noticed that I haven’t been doing much on Twitter in recent weeks and this has been no accident. I’ve met loads of good people and stumbled across lots of great sources of information on there so I’m certainly not about to lay into it, however, after 3 1/2 years of running a Gamba blog I’d become worn down by negativity and a lot of the general sludge which takes up the platform. I’ll no doubt gravitate back at some point, but I’ve been enjoying doing a bit of reading and getting out and about without the need for putting out weekly blog posts (if anyone is unfamiliar with my work, I am a self-confessed obsessive who can’t do things by half). Anyway, I am still officially a Gamba Osaka blog but this post is about the J League as a whole and there won’t be a single mention of what is and what isn’t a handball deserving of a penalty beyond this poor attempt at a joke.

Thanks again for reading, please check out some of my stats here, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labour.

J1 Stats and Team-By-Team Comments

Please Note: All numbers to the left of the penalties for and against stats are aggregate numbers, while those to the right are per 90 minutes. Regarding the penalty stats the number to the left is the amount scored or conceded and the number to the right is the total number of spot kicks for or against. For example in the case of Shonan Bellmare, it reads 2 2 0 1 which means they’ve scored 2 out of 2 penalties and the one spot kick that went against them wasn’t converted (I wonder which underperforming team missed that one?).

* Please note: Owing to Urawa Reds participation in the ACL (they may be rivals of Gamba, but big respect to Urawa, well done for winning it!) some teams have played fewer games than others and as these totals are aggregated figures that leaves the sides who’ve played less (Urawa, Hiroshima and Shonan) at a temporary disadvantage.

Now, here are my comments on each J1 team alphabetically…

Albirex Niigata

A bright start with 6 goals in their opening 3 games preceded a run of only 9 in their 11 most recent league outings. Excellent at completing passes and have benefited from spectacular long range strikes courtesy of Ito, Mito and Ota, but outside of that, in many ways they are one of the weakest 3 or 4 teams in the division.

Avispa Fukuoka

According to the numbers, they are the real deal in 2023. They’ve managed to shut down most opponents effectively in spite of a glut of injuries in defence and midfield, now to just get Sato and Tsuruno integrated into the attack more to relieve some of the goalscoring burden on Yamagishi. There’s no reason they can’t finish 6th this year.

Cerezo Osaka

I’m probably not the right messenger for this, but they are doing a lot of things wrong in my opinion, yet they still lie in 6th place, so what the hell do I know? Their stats have been poor all year and have been getting worse in recent weeks, an ageing starting lineup urgently needs some fresh, young talent and after making such a song and dance of getting rid of Lotina a few years ago they’ve essentially slid back into their old conservative habits. With that said, if they can play as badly as they have at times and remain in contention for 2nd, imagine how good they’ll be when things start to click properly.

FC Tokyo

It must be quite infuriating to be an FC Tokyo fan at times. Equally capable of looking like an ACL contender or bottom 3 candidate, the results of their games seem to hinge on which team scores first. One obvious area in need of an upgrade is their overseas contingent who are either, slightly past their peak (Diego and Adailton), constantly injured (Leandro) or not really up to task (Trevisan and Perotti). They should be in the hunt for the ACL, but with only 18th going down this year I think they’ll find themselves in mid-table purgatory for the majority of the campaign.

Gamba Osaka

Well, well, well, how to keep this brief? They are clearly not as bad as results suggest, even the unlikely ally that was Shinji Kagawa said so. However, there’s undoubtedly something very, very wrong in the air in Suita. Blaming referees and demanding the removal of coaches is the easy way out, it’s child’s play. It’s a complex matter and I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers, but a hatchet man or two (Inukai and Kazuki Nagasawa – Genta Miura and one of the Yamamoto’s exiting stage left in exchange?) wouldn’t go amiss.

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

One of my favourite J1 teams not called Gamba Osaka, they continue to entertain and frustrate in equal measure. Kaneko has stepped up to the next level and Asano has proven to be an inspired addition (if you remove Yuki Honda from the equation then he’s the biggest surprise to come out of the winter transfer market). There will continue to be ups and downs for sure and I quite fancy centre-back Daihachi Okamura to make the move to a more defensively friendly environment in the next 12-18 months (plus national team involvement for Asano is a real possibility, he’s called Asano and used to play for Sanfrecce after all lol).

Kashima Antlers

Not easy on the eye, but after a rough start they’re back in their regular spot near the top of the standings. Really difficult to break down, but often too easy for top sides to stifle which means they are not true title contenders in my book. A potential summer return for Gaku Shibasaki doesn’t seem like a wise use of resources to me and the J League must surely be plotting to make an example of someone with a 6 game ban in the wake of Suzuki’s recent spate of yankee behaviour following a period of relative calm.

Kashiwa Reysol

Hard to make any significant judgements given that they are only one game into new kantoku Masami Ihara’s reign. Their numbers suggest they should be comfortably mid-table and if they can get their attacking talents pulling in one direction and Hosoya doesn’t head to Europe this summer, that’s most likely where they’ll end up. A new centre-back to partner Taiyo Koga would be a nice upgrade for them too.

Kawasaki Frontale

Away losses at both Gamba and, most recently, Yokohama FC highlight just how far Frontale have fallen since the halcyon campaigns of 2020 and 2021. Capable of beating anyone on their day, they now appear equally vulnerable to horrendous no-shows. Over-valuing possession for possessions sake and unbalanced attacking options seem to be holding them back, how long this period of transition lasts for and whether all-conquering coach Toru Oniki is up to the re-building job remain questions in need of answering.

Kyoto Sanga

My tip for bottom spot this term had me eating my words with 9 points from their opening 5 fixtures before they subsequently slipped back . Sanga are presently on a run of 4 consecutive defeats and have just one win in their past 9 outings. In a normal season with 3 teams going down I think they’d be in a spot of bother, but as it is, they should be able to ride out the storm. Patric only has 9 more goals to get before he reaches 100, how close can he get this term?

Nagoya Grampus

Solid and generally unspectacular, I could probably finish my analysis there. As their match with Gamba perhaps highlighted, if there’s no Junker then this team isn’t much different to the one that crawled home in 8th 12 months ago. With the big Dane fit and firing, as he was against Hiroshima at the weekend, they remain a viable title contender. As Sam Robson said on J-Talk Podcast, young centre-back Haruya Fujii surely doesn’t have long left at the club before heading to the bright lights of Europe.

Sagan Tosu

I have a real soft spot for them, their underdog spirit, their stadium, their strips, but I have to say in many ways they’ve been one of the poorest teams in J1 this term. Every game I’ve seen them live, they’ve been absolutely battered, but here’s the crucial part, they’ve taken points from most of them. After being roasted 5-1 by Shonan on the opening day, they’ve really tightened up at the back which has allowed them to keep themselves in games rather than conceding 2 or 3 in quick succession like Gamba or Yokohama FC. Long term they need some of their significant investment in university talent to pay off, having highly-touted youth team product Yoshiki Narahara feature a bit more would surely help too.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

The absolute xG kings of the division, though unfortunately the crown of most profligate side also belongs to them. The loss of Mitsuta will hurt in the long term, even if it means Skibbe will now generally select actual wing-backs at wing-back. Pieros remains the key, at the moment the term ‘expensive flop’ rings true for him, if that remains the case come the end of the season then they’ll be thereabouts but definitely not there.

Shonan Bellmare

Formerly one of the least interesting sides to watch in the top flight, they’ve suddenly transformed into a strong attacking unit that also leaks goals left, right and centre. The summer loss of Shuto Machino coupled with a sudden upturn in fortunes at the far more well minted Gamba could prove disastrous for the Seasiders. On the plus side, I really like young forward Akito Suzuki, and although he’s not yet ready to accept the mantle of main man from Machino, he looks to have a bright future in the game.

Urawa Red Diamonds

Possessors of probably the strongest backline in J1, the only thing I can see stopping Reds from having a real crack at the title is their attack. They have depth in all positions and I really like Scholz and Atsuki Ito, but if their recent run of fixtures has shown anything, it’s that Urawa are far better playing on the counter and with the title of ‘Champions of Asia’ that means the likes of Tosu, Fukuoka and Gamba are going to expect you to come out and dictate terms to them, something that Reds haven’t always appeared comfortable doing in recent seasons.

Vissel Kobe

Muto and especially Osako have been freaking awesome this season, Saito has been an inspired pickup and the ability of the likes of Yamakawa and Osaki to occupy more than one position competently has helped them overcome a string of, what would normally be considered, potentially crippling injuries. Kantoku Yoshida has them playing a brand of football that sees them regularly posting fewer than 300 completed passes per game and less than 50% possession, statistics generally unheard of during the Iniesta era. Genuine title contenders unless Osako and or Muto succumb to injury.

Yokohama F. Marinos

This is not a vintage Marinos side of what I’ll call the ‘Australian era,’ but what they lack in finesse they make up for in mentality. They’re no longer the league’s most potent attacking unit and they certainly don’t have the best defence in the division, but kind of like how Real Madrid bundled and blustered their way to the 2022 Champions League trophy almost on aura, so Marinos have significantly out-performed their stats and out-psyched their rivals to remain a genuine title contender. A stand-in should anything happen to Anderson Lopes is surely the first order of business for Marinos this summer.

Yokohama FC

Written off by many, including myself, in the early weeks of the campaign, they’ve drawn the strength from somewhere to drag themselves out of the drop zone. They are not safe by any stretch of the imagination, but nor are they certainties for the drop which is a situation that I think all at the Mitsuzawa are happy to accept at this juncture.

J2 Stats and Team by Team Comments

Again I’ll tackle the comments alphabetically and (this has been written before I’ve actually started writing comments), I’ll try to be more brief than I was in J1…

Blaublitz Akita

I have to hold my hands up, after being raided mercilessly last winter, I had them in my bottom 3, but they’ve proven me wrong and then some. They’re in the top-half and crucially performing like a top-half outfit. Getting key central midfielder Morooka back to full fitness soon will surely help them as the season progresses, if only they could get someone like Nakashima in on loan from Sapporo or even an under-utilised talent from Sendai might help.

Fagiano Okayama

It just hasn’t clicked in the way it did last season for the Pheasants. The absences of key attackers Sano, Sakamoto and Tiago Alves for spells certainly hasn’t helped though hopefully for Takashi Kiyama’s troops, putting out a more settled lineup throughout the second half of the campaign and perhaps an addition or two in the summer will put them on the path to the playoffs.

Fujieda MYFC

The undoubted surprise packages of J2 this term, I’m sure they’re playing host to a multitude of scouts from across the country at their half-built stadium as the likes of Enomoto, Kubo, Yokoyama and Watanabe work their magic. Stats and instinct combine to say that the good times can’t last forever, but they should be able to see out their debut campaign in J2 comfortably outside the drop zone.

Iwaki FC

A tale of missed chances for Iwaki FC so far with squandered opportunities (Arita and Tanimura the chief culprits) seeing them struggle early on. Slightly worryingly their form has been on a downward trajectory in recent weeks, but I still believe they have enough about them to stay afloat. As you’ll see below in my look at university rookies, Iwaki have more than a few in their ranks and could therefore perhaps do with adding a touch of experience in the summer.

JEF United Chiba

JEF are going to JEF. They changed coaches in the off-season, but basically have the same group of players playing the same brand of football to slightly less success than before. The return of Komori from injury should help them, can Tomoya Miki regain his 2021 form or has he settled for a career as a big fish in a small pond in J2?

Júbilo Iwata

I felt a bit sorry for them in the wake of their transfer embargo and having to play Levain Cup as well as J2 in the opening months of the season, though I have to admit my patience is waring a tad thin with them seeming to get everything going from officials (goalkeepers clotheslining opponents neck first into the ground and not conceding a penalty anyone?). They may very well find themselves in the playoffs come the end of the year and, able to make transfers again, could they have a decent stab at J1 once more?

Machida Zelvia

I saw them host S-Pulse yesterday and it already had the feel of a J1 match, which it very well could be in 2024. Only Okuyama, Onaga and Takae remain as regulars from 12 months ago and I’ve been surprised by how quickly everything has gelled together. I’m a big fan of centre-back Jurato Ikeda who is reaping the rewards of years of yeomanry with Ehime and Akita.

Mito HollyHock

There’s plenty of pieces of the puzzle lying around at Mito, but they haven’t managed to find the right combination yet and have recently shown a rather worrying tendency to completely fall apart in games. Their goalkeeping situation certainly isn’t helping them, but like Kashiwa a division above, you have to feel that they have more than enough good attackers on their books to keep them competitive.

Montedio Yamagata

I’m not sure how much of their recent bounce back is down to new kantoku Susumu Watanabe and how much of it is simply a regression to the mean as, let’s be honest, this group of players should have been absolutely nowhere near the foot of the standings. Things went so badly wrong in the early part of the year that they’d have to consider a lower part of the top half finish as a success.

Oita Trinita

Recent 5-0 skelping at Yamagata aside, it’s been quite a pleasant start to 2023 for Trinita. A number of new talents have blossomed and even an old hand, in Naoki Nomura, has added some strings to his bow. If they could just bring in a consistent goal-scorer in the summer (sounds easy written that way, I know) then they could be serious candidates for automatic promotion.

Omiya Ardija

Another year of struggle and yet another mid-season managerial change, when will the tide turn for Omiya and their long suffering supporters? They should have just about enough to drag themselves out of trouble, but probably not by much and that has to be a real cause for concern. Wide man Shibayama hasn’t really kicked on from last season and they desperately need some of their more experienced names to step up to the plate.

Renofa Yamaguchi

They’ve been a staple in J2 for a few years now, but realistically for a club of their size that’s not going to last forever. I don’t see them escaping the bottom 6 and though I was quite hot on the signing of Seigo Kobayashi before the season kicked off, he’s been a disappointment thus far, Taiyo Igarashi less so, but it’s a lot to expect him to carry the side’s attack on his inexperienced shoulders.

Roasso Kumamoto

Fresh from a 3-0 pasting of Mito I’m feeling positive about Takeshi Oki’s side. Stripped to the bone last winter, Oki has relied upon 2nd year pros and a handful of recruits from his previous clubs to keep things steady in western Kyushu. I’ve been really impressed by Rei Hirakawa, surely a strong contender for the not-so-catchy title of ‘best J2 player not currently contracted to Machida or Shimizu.’

Shimizu S-Pulse

This club and group of players should never have found itself in J2 in the first place, but here they are battering almost every side on xG week in, week out, yet struggling to even cement a promotion playoff spot. While it’s all well and good slaughtering newly promoted outfits at home, disappointingly S-Pulse have come up short time and again when they’ve done battle with the top sides. Surely they’ll end up in the playoff places and I certainly won’t count them out of the automatic promotion race just yet, but they really need to get their skates on.

Thespakusatsu Gunma

In many ways they are the anti-JEF as they continue to hang around near the top end of the division while their numbers suggest they should be in their regular spot in the bottom 3 or 4. They have recruited well and don’t mess around with the ball at the back which helps make them competitive, though realistically we’ll see them steadily decline as the year progresses. With that said, they should be able to finish a good bit higher than they have in the past few years. I’ve been very interested in their young right-back Kazuma Okamoto, however, unfortunately he failed to take the opportunity to impress me last night vs Okayama, being clearly at fault for Tiago Alves’ early strike.

Tochigi SC

A real disappointment for me. I was surprised they got rid of Tasaka before last season kicked off, and although results didn’t improve under Tokisaki in 2022, he did make some decent modifications to their playing style. This term, however, they have been extremely shot-shy for the most part and although they are reasonably solid at the back, they’re going to keep struggling if they can’t create chances or score goals. A big summer transfer window awaits in Kita-Kanto.

Tokushima Vortis

Not a particularly smooth transition between Spanish coaches last winter and Vortis presently find themselves in the bottom 6, both in terms of stats and actual results. When Mori and Kakitani fire in attack they are like a different team, but I have my doubts about how well this team is suited to playing the kind of football their coach wants them to play.

Tokyo Verdy

Didn’t excite me in the least before the season started, but veteran kantoku Jofuku is a wily old fox and has slowly but surely made use of the new university talents recruited last winter, Tsunashima and Yamada chief among them. A long-term supplier of talent to J1 clubs, winger Byron Vasquez and full-back Daiki Fukazawa could be the next cabs off the rank.

V-Varen Nagasaki

A pleasant surprise as their off the field dealings often leave me scratching my head. You can only play 4 foreigners in one J2 game, yet with 7 already on the books they signed a new Serbian goalkeeper from the Serbian third tier. To quote Jon Steele ‘I’m sure that made sense to someone.’ Kantoku Carille has fashioned an excellent, well-balanced 11 out of what is a bit of a mish mash of a squad overall, there’s youth, experience and no shortage of talent. They’ve had a bit of a nosebleed in recent weeks after reaching the top 6, but I’m pretty confident they’ll be thereabouts come round 42.

Vegalta Sendai

17 games in, what’s their best starting 11? What’s their best formation? A lot of questions have been levelled at kantoku Ito, but I feel the front office must take it’s share of the blame for putting together such a bloated, uneven squad. Their stats are good and the talent is there, but the results, for now, are not.

Ventforet Kofu

The off-season coaching change has worked and after getting close to zero output from their overseas players and university recruits in 2022, Mancha and Utaka as well as Hayashida, Inoue and Miura have all put their hands up to bolster the Emperor’s Cup holders. How things play out with their ACL campaign beginning later in the year and the potential exposure that might give the likes of Hasegawa and Sugai remains to be seen.

Zweigen Kanazawa

They’ve been at the foot of my xG table almost since round 1 which is not good enough given all the off-season work they did. Junya Kato has been one of the unsung transfers of last winter, the same certainly doesn’t ring true for Jefferson Baiano. They appear to have become more solid defensively in recent weeks (thankfully they seem to have finally learned that 3 games in a week shouldn’t equal changing all 11 players), but that has come at the expense of some of their attacking prowess. Can they find a more effective way to balance the scales in the second half of the season?

J3 Stats and very brief comments

Basically you should follow ‘Magic’ Mike Innes on Twitter, the absolute oracle for all things J3. Imabari are the top dogs xG wise and Fukushima United have been propping up the standings for most of the year. FC Ryukyu’s attacking has been a disappointment and the differences between teams at this level of football seem to be smaller than higher up the pyramid leading, in theory, to more unpredictable outcomes like Nagano surrendering a 2 goal lead at home to Fukushima before absolutely plastering Morioka away the following matchday.

Some pictures from my recent trip to Hanazono Stadium to see FC Osaka vs Azul Claro Numazu.

A look at University Rookies in the top 2 divisions

This class certainly doesn’t seem to be up to the Mitoma, Hatate et al. vintage of 2020 with just 9 players completing more than 90 minutes in J1 to date and Hayashi and Kondo, at newly promoted Yokohama FC, the only 2 starting regularly. In fact 2024’s crop of, Manato Yoshida (Marinos), Hinata Yamauchi (Frontale), Ibuki Konno and Rin Mito (both Gamba), Ken Masui (Grampus), Naoya Takahashi (Shonan), Hayato Okuda (Cerezo) and Masato Shigemi (Avispa) already looks far more promising.

As we can see J2 is a far more comfortable step up for college players. Akita full-back Ryota Takada has played every minute of every game so far while 29 rookies have already featured in at least 90 minutes of action, with some such as Hiiro Komori (JEF Chiba), Yu Hirakawa (Machida) and Shimon Teranuma (Mito) really catching the eye. Just as a side point, as you can probably tell, there are some names which have been cut off at the bottom of the list, but they’ve all only played less than 30 minutes of league football this season.

A look at the goalkeepers of J1

I don’t want to say too much about this as it’s still quite early days. I’ve only really looked at ‘keepers who’ve played 10 full matches (900 minutes) and I’ve ranked them by save % which to me was the most logical way to do it, though I accept if others disagree with that. One interesting point to note is that only 6 of the 18 sides in J1 have kept the same goalie for all of their games. It’s also clear to see that Sagan Tosu would be in all kinds of trouble if it wasn’t for Park Il-gyu (one of the aforementioned 6) , who’s even managed to tone down the outside-the-box antics just a touch. Also for anyone wondering why Kosei Tani found himself dropped by Gamba recently, have a look at that save %.

That’s all for today, thanks again for reading!


J1 2023 Predicted Lineups

Hello Everyone,

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

The Guide

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

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

Biggest Loss – The opposite of best signing.

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

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

Predicted Lineups

A few caveats here,

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

Squad List

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

2021 and 2022 Stats

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

2023 Fixtures

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

2022 Appearance Data

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

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

The Teams

Yokohama F. Marinos

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

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

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

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

Kawasaki Frontale

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

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

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

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

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

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

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

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

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

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

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

Kashima Antlers

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

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

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

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

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

Cerezo Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

FC Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

Kashiwa Reysol

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

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

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

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

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

Nagoya Grampus

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

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

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

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

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

Urawa Red Diamonds

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

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

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

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

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

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

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

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

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

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

Sagan Tosu

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

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

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

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

Shonan Bellmare

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

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

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

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

Vissel Kobe

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

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

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

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

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

Avispa Fukuoka

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

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

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

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

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

Gamba Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

Kyoto Sanga

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

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

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

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

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

Albirex Niigata

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

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

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

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

Yokohama FC

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

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

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

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

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

—The End—


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

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

The New Kit

The first ever Hummel Gamba Osaka uniforms.

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

The Squad

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

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

Gamba News

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

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

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

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

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


2023 Gamba squad starting to take shape

Happy New Year everyone, all the best for 2023!

This is intended to be the penultimate entry in this pre-season series, with the final article being published after Gamba’s 2023 kick-off event which will take place on Monday 9 January at 18:00 (JST) and will be streamed live on the club’s official YouTube channel.

Once again I’d hoped to bring news of Riku Handa’s move from Montedio Yamagata, however, despite confirmation in the normally reliable Sports Hochi, there has still not been any official word from Gamba. Elsewhere, it seems that the Nerazzurri and Maccabi Haifa have yet to agree on a fee for Neta Lavi who scored quite the Golazo for his Israeli side in midweek. I’m sure we’ll get decisive answers to those pursuits and more in the coming days and hours. Below are the deals that have gone through in recent days, you can read my take on them and then I’ll be in touch next week. Thanks again for your support.

Gamba News

Out: Mitsuki Saito – The first piece of transfer news announced by Gamba in 2023 was the disappointing, though not particularly surprising departure of midfielder Mitsuki Saito. The diminutive ball-winning maestro spent last year on loan at the Nerazzurri from Shonan Bellmare and now moves a little further west to Hyogo where he’ll link up with Vissel Kobe. Saito proved to be a popular figure on and off the pitch in Suita thanks to his wholehearted performances and no-nonsense style of play. In total he scored twice and also bagged 2 assists in 26 J1 outings and he’ll likely be best remembered for providing a wonderful finish to a great team move as the Ao to Kuro opened the scoring in breathtaking fashion at home to Urawa last July. His next destination certainly isn’t one that many among the Gamba support would have chosen, however, after giving his all, and then some, to help keep the Nerazzurri in J1, it’s only right to say, thanks a lot Mitsuki and all the best for the future, you’re welcome back at Gamba anytime!

Saito on debut for Gamba at home to Kawasaki Frontale.

That goal against Reds.

In: Issam Jebali – Thursday 5 January marked the first day back at work for many Japanese people following on from the New Year holiday and Gamba supporters were given a welcome treat at 17:00 (JST) with the official announcement that Tunisian forward Issam Jebali had signed. The powerful attacker played in all 3 of his country’s matches at the recent FIFA World Cup in Qatar and possesses an international record of 13 caps and 2 goals, with both strikes coming on Japanese soil, against Chile at Noevir Stadium, Kobe and versus the Samurai Blue at Panasonic Stadium Suita no less. Having turned 31 on Christmas Day, it’s fair to say Jebali is no spring chicken, though that clearly didn’t deter Gamba and several outlets in Europe and Tunisia have reported that he’s inked a 3-year deal with the Nerazzurri believed to have paid Danish side OB somewhere in the region of €1 million to take him off their hands. Since leaving his homeland in 2015, Jebali, who is known to be a strong presser as well as someone who links up well with his fellow attackers, has played in Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia and Denmark. While his form during his time in Sweden and Denmark was generally excellent, he did have questionable short spells in Norway and Saudi Arabia in 2018 and 2019. The fact that Matthew Benham’s original Moneyball masters, FC Midtjylland, were credited with an interest in Jebali certainly fills me with confidence that the 186cm tall hitman who had 4 goals and 3 assists to his name from 13 Danish Superliga appearances in the 2022-23 season, will prove to be a worthy addition to the Ao to Kuro’s ranks. Seeing Gamba targeting players from countries such as Israel and Tunisia rather than going down the usual route of Brazilians and South Koreans is refreshing to say the least and Jebali will become the first African born player to pull on the blue and black shirt since Patrick Mboma in 1998. If he can become half as popular as his Cameroonian predecessor then kantoku Dani Poyatos and his charges will definitely be on to a winner.

Permanent Deal: Dawhan – A few hours prior to the big Jebali announcement, those of a blue and black persuasion received more welcome news in the shape of influential midfielder Dawhan converting his loan deal into a permanent move. I’m no expert on Brazilian football and would appreciate if someone could fill me in as to why Dawhan was contracted to SC Santa Rita, a team that my English language research suggests have been inactive since 2019, yet he has subsequently been loaned out to Brazilian Serie A outfit Juventude and then Gamba. Though, then again, an outsider looking at Japanese football would struggle to comprehend a number of the transfers that take place in the J. League during each window. Anyway, Dawhan quickly established himself as a fans’ favourite at Panasonic Stadium, as evidenced by the number of supporters who bought summer Expo jerseys with his name and number set on the back. Overall, he netted 3 times from 27 J1 appearances in his debut campaign for the Nerazzurri with his first effort, the equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Kyoto Sanga, winning J1 goal of the month for April. I’m happy to have him back on board for 2023 and I’m sure many of my fellow Gamba brethren are too.

Dawhan preparing for home bouts with Sapporo (left) and Kobe (right)

Dawhan (centre) ready to do battle with Shimizu S-Pulse in the 2022 Expo fixture. His number 23 uniform was a big hit with the fans.

And finally…former Gamba forward Akihiro Sato has hung up his boots after finishing his career where it started, at Tokushima Vortis. Sato turned out for the Nerazzurri between 2012 and 2014, bagging 11 goals in his debut campaign, though it wasn’t enough to stop the Ao to Kuro dropping down to J2 for the first time in their history. Owing to a serious knee injury picked up in the fall of 2012, Sato only returned at the end of the 2013 season where a late goal in the home rout of Roasso Kumamoto showed he still had his predatory instincts. He’ll perhaps be most fondly remembered by the Gamba faithful for his decisive opener in the round 32 victory away at Urawa Reds in 2014 that paved the way for the Nerazzurri to go on and win the J1 title that year. Enjoy your retirement Akihiro, and I wish you the best success with whatever the future holds for you.

Thanks again for reading and I’ll see you all again soon!


Comings and Goings: The build up to 2023

This blog entry comes to you a day later than I’d hoped with less than 36 hours of 2022 remaining at the time of publication in Japan. I’ve been busy lately and so have Gamba which is why things have been pushed back a touch. According to trustworthy sources, Tunisian forward Issam Jebali and Montedio Yamagata right-back Riku Handa should be unveiled at Panasonic Stadium within the coming days, heck we might even get a New Year’s Day surprise like we did last year with Dawhan and Kwon Kyung-won. Talks with Israeli international Neta Lavi seem to be progressing smoothly (touch wood), while we are still awaiting confirmation on Dawhan signing a permanent contract and whether or not Mitsuki Saito will join Vissel Kobe. I’m sure there will be announcements galore in the coming week or so as the Ao to Kuro finalise their squad for 2023. Below is an in-depth look at the players confirmed to have come and gone from Panasonic Stadium during the past week plus a summary of other important events in the Gamba-verse over the same time period. As always, I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labour.

Latest News

In: Yusei Egawa – V-Varen Nagasaki centre-back / sometime left-back Yusei Egawa has put pen to paper on a contract with the Nerazzurri in a deal that was announced on the afternoon of Wednesday 28 December here in Japan. Officially standing 175 cm, though he did claim to be 179cm in a video on Nagasaki’s official Instagram page (was this the truth or a cunning dating strategy?), the 22 year-old is Nagasaki born-and-bred and a product of V-Varen’s emerging youth system. His build-up play, heading and leadership abilities rank among his strong points and while he initially projects as Kwon Kyung-won’s backup, his versatility is likely to see him crack the starting 11 sooner or later. Boasting 3 goals and 4 assists in 79 J2 appearances for Nagasaki, Egawa would have got a taster of Dani Poyatos’ footballing philosophy when facing off against his Tokushima Vortis side on 2 occasions in 2022 and it’s a real fillip for Gamba to be able to attract a young player of his obvious talents to the club. If you want to read more about him and fellow winter recruit Naohiro Sugiyama, please check out my Scouting J2 2022 article here.

In: Kosei Tani – Just a couple of hours after the Egawa signing was made public, Nerazzurri supporters got more good news in the shape of the announcement that Kosei Tani would be returning from a 3-year loan spell at Shonan Bellmare. While stationed in southern Kanagawa between 2020 to 2022, Tani went from a relatively unknown Gamba youth product who’d impressed for the club’s U-23 side in J3 to an established J1 level starter who also represented his country at the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympics. Most Japanese football observers would probably agree that Tani had a stronger campaign in 2021 than 2022 and perhaps this is the right time for a change of scenery, though the million dollar question is, who will start versus Kashiwa on the opening day of J1 2023, Higashiguchi or Tani? Until we see what Dani Poyatos wants to do in pre-season, it’s a question with no definitive answer I’m afraid. On one side you could say Masaaki Higashiguchi was THE form goalkeeper in J1 during the second half of this year, but on the other hand one might argue, what’s the point of Gamba re-patriating Tani if they’re not going to play him. Either way, it’s set to be a fascinating battle for the gloves at Panasonic Stadium in the coming weeks and months.

Out: Isa Sakamoto – The impressive young forward will spend his second year as a pro out on loan at promotion chasing J2 outfit Fagiano Okayama under the tutelage of former Gamba caretaker boss Takashi Kiyama. Sakamoto scored once in 15 appearances in all competitions in 2022, the clincher in a crucial 2-0 home victory over Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and while those numbers might not sound all that impressive, he certainly passed the eye test and I’ll be watching on with interest to see how he fares at Fagiano in among their throng of loanees which is almost akin to Akiba-era Mito. I’m expecting to hear news in the coming days about Jiro Nakamura heading off to a J2 club on loan too. Harumi Minamino and Ryuta Takahashi will fill Sakamoto and Nakamura’s spots in the squad in 2023 then, barring a massive break out year for either Minamino or Takahashi, roles will be reversed the following season, such is the circle of Japanese footballing life.

If you want more information on Isa Sakamoto, you can read my J1 Rookie Review 2022 here.

Kit Supplier Shuffle – At 12:00PM sharp on Christmas Day, Gamba confirmed one of the worst kept secrets in Japanese football, that they’d be playing in Hummel kits from the 2023 season. Following on from a Twitter teaser on Christmas Eve, many fans had speculated we might get to see next year’s uniforms as a special Christmas present, but alas it was not to be and we’ll likely have to wait until the 2023 campaign kick-off event on 8 January before we can feast our eyes on Hummel’s first Gamba offering.

Gamba Osaka / Umbro commemorative t-shirt displaying every home league top from their twenty year partnership.

Fixture Update – The J. League announced each member club’s 2023 opening home fixture live on their official YouTube channel on Friday 23 December. Gamba will get their J1 campaign underway at Kashiwa Reysol on the weekend of 18/19 February before squaring off against Sagan Tosu at Panasonic Stadium on either 25 or 26 February. Two tough assignments to commence the Poyatos era for sure, but you’ve got to play these kind of games sometime, so why not slap bang at the beginning of the year? The full schedules for J1, J2 and J3 will be released on Friday 20 January, I look forward to perusing them and I’ve no doubt many of you do too.

Action from Gamba versus Kashiwa (left) and Tosu (right) from the 2020 season.

Coaching Reshuffle – Koichiro Yoshimichi, physical coach throughout the entirety of Kenta Hasegawa’s spells with Gamba and FC Tokyo (2013-2021) will step up from being the Nerazzurri’s academy’s conditioning coach, the position he worked in this year, to once again holding the reigns as first-team physical trainer in 2023. Elsewhere, Arata Kodama, who has been an Ao to Kuro top team coach since 2016 has essentially switched jobs with Gamba Junior Youth coach Kazumichi Takagi. Takagi has been in coaching for only 3 years, but brings a wealth of experience from a playing career which spanned 2000 to 2018. During that time, he played for Gamba from 2009-2011 and also won 5 caps for Japan between 2008 and 2009. It’s been speculated that Kodama’s apparent demotion is, in fact, an attempt to attract more Osaka talent into Gamba’s youth setup with 2022’s disastrous Prince Takamado Trophy showing highlighting the painful reality that perhaps right now, Cerezo, Vissel and several local high schools are seen as more attractive options for up-and-coming youngsters than the Nerazzurri.

Thanks again to everyone for reading, commenting on, liking and sharing this blog. This will unequivocally be my final blog post of 2022, it’s been a great year for Blog Gamba and I really appreciate all your support. Happy New Year and all the best for 2023!


Gamba gossip and tidbits while we wait for the main course

I’d hoped to bring you news of Gamba wrapping up deals for up-and-coming defenders, Yusei Egawa (Nagasaki) and Riku Handa (Yamagata) in this post, but it appears those transfers are still at the ‘in the oven’ stage. The club are confirmed to be in negotiations with Tunisian international forward Issam Jebali, and anyone that Moneyball maestros FC Midtjylland are also courting has to have something about them. I’m also expecting news of Kosei Tani’s return, Jiro Nakamura and Isa Sakamoto’s loan departures, plus Dawhan and Mitsuki Saito penning permanent contracts with the Ao to Kuro to hit my desk in the coming days. However, I have family commitments from tomorrow, so I’ll go to press with a collection of general stories from the Gamba universe. I hope once again you enjoy the fruits of my labours and please also look forward to an upcoming appearance on the J-Talk Podcast that should be with you in the next few days. Please take care of yourselves and enjoy the remainder of 2022.

2023 KICK OFF EVENT – Gamba will get their season up and running on Monday 9 January (18:00 JST) with their annual launch event where the new signings and hopefully the new uniform (Hummel still tbc) will be unveiled. It’s likely that we’ll be able to hear from Daniel Poyatos for the first time since taking over as Nerazzurri kantoku at the curtain-raiser which will be shown on the club’s official YouTube channel. Additionally, it’s also been revealed that Gamba will head to Okinawa for a two-week training camp between 16 and 31 January prior to the season starting on the weekend of 18/19 February. This will take the place of the usual two separate camps, presumably to cut down on the risk of a Coronavirus outbreak within the squad as they all fly together to and from Okinawa.

RETURN – Gamba announced on 16 December that 21 year old winger Dai Tsukamoto will return to Suita next season following an injury-hit loan spell with J2 outfit Zweigen Kanazawa. Having missed the whole of 2022 with a serious knee injury, it’s believed that Gamba Youth graduate Tsukamoto still has at least a year left on his Nerazzurri contract, making a return to his parent club to complete his rehabilitation inevitable. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him get some minutes in the Levain Cup before heading out on loan again in the summer, possibly back to Kanazawa.

MORE LOANEE UPDATES – Buried in among the avalanche of posts about the J.League format changes from 2024 was the news that Yota Sato would return to Gamba following a half-season loan spell with Vegalta Sendai, while former youth team prodigy Shoji Toyama saw his temporary contract with Mito HollyHock extended for another year. Sato turned out 15 times in J2 for Sendai in 2022, but couldn’t halt their slide down the table which ultimately led to them missing out on the play-offs altogether. His return has drawn a mixed reaction from the Nerazzurri faithful with some pointing out that he may have grown during his spell in Miyagi, while others have suggested he’s not compatible with Poyatos’ brand of football. As with most things in life, we’ll get our answer in good time. Toyama initially struggled to find his feet at Mito, but ended the season with quite a bang, bagging 5 goals in his final 6 appearances of the year, which saw him end up with final stats of 5 strikes in 16 games, a figure which is more impressive if you consider he only started on 5 occasions. HollyHock’s main forward Kosuke Kinoshita (12 goals in 38 outings) recently moved to Kyoto to vie it out with Patric and Kazunari Ichimi for a starting spot, meaning the opportunity now exists in Mito for Toyama to stake his claim for regular football, let’s hope he grabs his chance with both hands.

NATIONAL TEAM CALL-UP – Current Gamba Youth forward and soon-to-be 2023 first-team member Harumi Minamino has been selected in the Japan Under-18 squad for the upcoming Ibaraki Next Generation Cup. Games will be held against Under-20, Under-22 and full adult sides on 22, 24 and 25 December respectively. Good luck to him, and let’s hope he represents Gamba Youth in a similar way to how a certain Ritsu Doan did recently in Qatar.

A BIG SHOUT OUT TO – Rihito Yamamoto, who went back to his hometown of Sagamihara in Kanagawa to visit local sports club FC Bande Plus, where he distributed a number of Gamba goods, spoke highly of life with the Nerazzurri and even found time to have a kick-about with local youngsters. It’s great to see him spreading the gospel behind enemy lines and he’s apparently definitely going to be on-board for the Ao to Kuro’s 2023 campaign.

AND FINALLY – Heartbreak for a number of Gamba supporters as the club announced the wedding of popular full-back, Ko ‘Prince’ Yanagisawa on Sunday 18 December. Honestly, when I saw his picture appear on my Twitter feed, I felt sure the post would be about him joining a J2 side, but upon further inspection it turned out to be far happier news for the former Gifu and Mito defender. All the best to him and his new wife!


Gamba News Update: Sugiyama in, Shoji out…and more

Hello again everyone,

I hope you’ve all been enjoying watching the World Cup, where a number of the traditional big names have flexed their muscles while several of the supporting cast, including Japan, have demonstrated ample potential to become heavyweights in future competitions. However, I’m not here to discuss the ins and outs of Qatar 2022, instead I want to give a bit of a rundown on some of the most recent goings at Panasonic Stadium, home of Gamba Osaka.

Please enjoy the fruits of my labour and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas / End of Year / Holiday Season (whichever applies to you).

Nerazzurri News

OUT – Physical coach Ryo Yano has left Gamba after spending just a solitary season with the club. Brought in from FC Ryukyu as part of the Katanosaka revolution at the end of 2021, Yano out-lasted his kantoku by 3 months and he should be fondly remembered for his excellent work in reducing the casualty list at Panasonic Stadium to nearly zero in the final weeks of the year. Spaniard Carlos Soriano, who worked under Ricardo Rodríguez and Dani Poyatos at Tokushima, following a spell with Júbilo Iwata, has recently vacated his post at Vortis and is expected to rock up in Suita shortly to take over Yano’s position .

IN – On 7 December, impressive Roasso Kumamoto winger Naohiro Sugiyama became the Nerazzurri’s 3rd winter signing, following on from Harumi Minamino’s promotion from the youth setup and Ryuta Takahashi’s switch from Shizuoka Gakuen High School. Able to play on either wing as well as in the number 10 role, Fukuoka-born Sugiyama carried himself with a certain verve and swagger at times during Roasso’s miraculous run to 4th in J2 and a place in the playoff final, In Scotland we may refer to him as being ‘gallus,’ and Nerazzurri supporters will be hoping to see him deliver on a regular basis once he gets up to speed with life in Kansai. The former Ozu High School and Juntendo University star bagged 9 goals and 4 assists during his solitary campaign at J2 level and finished 2022 with 162 dribbles (2nd best in the division), 99 shots (also 2nd), 138 crosses (4th), 35 shots on target (6th), 66 chances created (7th) and 81 through balls (11th). That’s quite the repertoire and hopefully he can live up to the hype in Dani Poyatos’ new system.

OUT – Former Japan international Gen Shoji has returned to his old side Kashima following a 3 year spell with Gamba during which time he made 71 J1 appearances. A big character on and off the field, Shoji was a popular figure among supporters despite issues with injuries, form and managerial changes meaning that they never really got to see the best of him in a blue and black jersey. He’ll certainly be missed for the respect he commanded from referees, and Gamba, a side that have been far too easy for officials to give soft decisions against in recent years, will certainly need to find a Gary Neville-esque figure or two to fill that particular void. However, watching Japan vs Spain at an ungodly hour, I was struck by the Spanish centre-backs’ (Torres and Rodri) performances, where they were essentially auxiliary holding midfielders who combined with the midfield anchor, Busquets, to build La Roja’s many attacks. This is the essence of what Poyatos will seek to do in Suita, and Shoji, never the greatest passer in the world, doesn’t really fit into that kind of system (Kwon Kyung-won, on the other hand, looked pretty handy when he got game time against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, CR7 might not be the force he once was, but don’t tell me he wouldn’t have topped the J1 scoring charts this year). Therefore, with Shoji being such a big part of the squad, as well as one of the highest earners (rumoured to be on around ¥100 million per year), when a decent sized offer came in (somewhere in the region of ¥230 million, I’m led to believe – just under £1.4 million), I’m not quite going to say accepting it was a no-brainer, but I think it was the right move to make. A bit like in the book Moneyball where Billy Beane trades certain players so his head coach Art Howe must use the new guys he’s brought in, removing Patric and Shoji from the Gamba dressing room, no matter how painful in the short term, may be a necessary growing pain.

NEW CLUB – Patric has found fresh employment in the suburban Kyoto town of Kameoka where he’ll join up with Cho Kwi-jae’s Kyoto Sanga. It’s probably a good move for all concerned, even if the 35 year old’s 5 league goals in 2022 is just over half what the man he’s replacing, Peter Utaka, managed. Prior to last season kicking off, I stated on the J-Talk Podcast that Sanga would be ‘up the creak without a paddle’ if Utaka stopped scoring, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened in the second half of the year. Another Gamba OB, Kazunari Ichimi, has been brought in from Tokushima to try and assist Patric in steering the Royals to safety (the impressive Taiki Hirato too), and while I’m on the topic of Ichimi, it’s worth digressing to mention that he was a grade above Naohiro Sugiyama at Ozu High School in Kumamoto (Ao to Kuro full-back Ko Yanagisawa was 2 years ahead of Sugiyama at Juntendo University too, so he already has a ready-made senpai waiting for him in Suita).

GAMBA YOUTH RELEGATION – Long known for producing excellent young talent year after year, Gamba Youth’s relegation from the Prince Takamado Premier League West Division has come as quite the shock to all concerned. A draw away to Nagoya on the final day left them rock bottom of the standings and they must now compete in the Kansai League in 2023. Many fans have since questioned the almost exclusive hiring of club old boys in the coaching department (I’m reminded of Jennifer Taylor-Clarke berating David Brent in the UK office, ‘this is just one big boys club, isn’t it?’), which also seems to have extended to recruiting a rather high number of sons of former players too. Former top-team kantoku Hiroshi Matsuda was apparently offered a role in the youth setup, but opted to move to Tegevajaro Miyazaki instead. Personally, I’m hoping to see big changes in the way Gamba Youth is run, and I look forward to seeing them quickly bounce back into the top flight at the first time of asking.

Well, that’s all for now, thanks again for reading and hopefully I’ll be able to bring you some more in-depth Gamba news before the new season gets underway in February.


Gamba appoint Daniel Poyatos as new boss…plus general news roundup

Gamba announced on the afternoon of 23 November that Tokushima Vortis kantoku Daniel Poyatos would be taking over as Nerazzurri boss for the 2023 season in tandem with his assistant Marcel Sans. The Spaniard becomes only the third foreigner to hold the reigns in Suita in the past 2 decades and moves north-east from Shikoku following a mixed 2 year spell with Vortis. As this is something of a left-field appointment, I thought the best way to tackle it would be to, first lay out why Gamba have gone for this type of coach, before secondly assessing the pros and cons of Poyatos himself.

Why this type of coach?

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I largely put the failure of the Katanosaka era down to, in no particular order, differences of opinion between players and management regarding game strategy, injuries, Covid (plus the decision to carry out the 2022 pre-season training camp in Okinawa), mediocre recruitment, and rank bad luck with VAR. Although, admittedly, things were far more nuanced than boiling it down to just those factors suggests, they do provide a potted guide to the main issues. Hiroshi Matsuda came on-board as a firefighter in August and led the Nerazzurri to 4 wins and 15 points from his 10 games in charge which was good enough to haul the Ao to Kuro outside the drop-zone by a solitary point in the final shake-up. Seven clean sheets and just one goal conceded from open play in the last 6 fixtures of the year illustrate the no-nonsense, backs to the wall, defensive 442 system operated by the veteran coach. It sure as hell wasn’t pretty, but it was effective, meaning for Matsuda, he accomplished the mission he was tasked with, and thus can now happily ride off into the sunset. Though, search no further than Kenta Hasegawa and his Nagoya side, who earned few plaudits on the way to finishing 8th playing a dull, uninspiring brand of football, to see how this game-plan would be received at Panasonic Stadium over the course of a whole season. By way of contrast, let’s look at Shonan as an example, and in doing so I’m in no way trying to have a dig at them. After finishing 12th in the 2022 standings with their low block, counter attacking system that restricts opportunities for both themselves and opposition, there is absolutely no pressure on Satoshi Yamaguchi to change his modus operandi for next season as the Seasiders will be cock-a-hoop with a best J1 finish this side of the millennium. Gamba, on the other hand, with one of the biggest support bases in Japan and 11 top 4 finishes in the last 20 years, know that on the back of 13th and 15th place showings in the past 2 campaigns, results and performances need to improve, and they need to improve markedly. Promising youngsters such as Hiroto Yamami, Jiro Nakamura and Isa Sakamoto sitting in the stand throughout the Matsuda era was tolerated on the basis that it was a short-term fix designed to keep Gamba in J1 before a full rebuilding job could be undertaken in the winter. A coach comfortable with promoting youngsters into a team that play an attractive brand of winning football is what the Nerazzurri supporters and front-office crave, which leads me to the second part of my analysis.

Why Daniel Poyatos?

A very good question as I’ll be honest even before his appointment by Gamba, I’d long considered how I should evaluate him as a coach. He was apparently hand-picked by Ricardo Rodríguez to be his successor at Tokushima Vortis ahead of only their second ever season in Japan’s top flight in 2021. However, Covid-related visa issues delayed his arrival into Japan. It didn’t really seem to affect his side though as they started the year in decent fashion, picking up 14 points from their opening 10 outings. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last as a defensive hiccup or three, injuries, and limited resources saw them wind-up in a relegation scrap. A 4-2 home defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on the final day sealed their fate, though if I was to be fair to Poyatos and Vortis, realistically, going into round 38 with a genuine shot at staying up was probably a reasonable achievement on their part. Being the only of the four relegated sides to come anywhere close to surviving in the top flight, Tokushima were raided to a far greater extend than Oita, Sendai and Yokohama FC, and they saw; Naoto Kamifukumoto (Kyoto), Takeru Kishimoto (Shimizu), Shota Fukuoka (Gamba), Joel Chima Fujita (Marinos), Ken Iwao (Urawa), Tokuma Suzuki (Cerezo), Yuki Kakita and Taisei Miyashiro (both Tosu) all leave. Poyatos was left with an epic rebuilding job on his hands, and it was a task which wasn’t helped one iota by their involvement in the Levain Cup group stage. They drew ire from many observers for the record number of draws they accrued en-route to their ultimate 8th place finish in J2, and the inability to kill opponents off is definitely a stick with which to beat Poyatos. In his defence, and like with Shonan, I mean no offence to Tokushima here, despite Gamba finishing a poor 15th in J1 last term, the resources they have on and off the field simply dwarf those on the table in Naruto. For my money, Spanish ‘keeper José Aurelio Suárez and centre-forward Shota Fujio are the only Vortis players a J1 outfit, with top half ambitions, should be targeting. Goalkeeper is literally the last position where the Nerazzurri require an upgrade, while Fujio is on loan from Cerezo, so I don’t see either of them following their coaches to Gamba. A job, like the one on offer at Panasonic Stadium, was clearly a major motivating factor in Poyatos moving to Japan in the first place and while it’s true his Tokushima sides haven’t exactly lit the world on fire in an attacking sense, either in 2021’s 4-2-3-1 system or this year’s possession heavy 4-3-3 set-up, he’s never been able to field a lineup with the likes of Yuki Yamamoto, Takashi Usami and Juan Alano in it, so perhaps we should give him the time he deserves to prove himself with greater resources at his disposal in Suita (look at the uptick in his compatriot Albert Puig’s results after moving from Niigata to FC Tokyo). His 10+ years of youth team work with Espanyol and Real Madrid is not to be scoffed at and if (and it’s a big IF) the Gamba front office arm him with the weapons he needs, ball playing defenders (look at Shoji and Miura’s performances under Katanosaka versus those under Matsuda, are they really who you want in a Poyatos system?), midfielders capable of moving up and down the pitch in unison, plus a forward who’ll knock in double digit goal tallies on a yearly basis, then it could be the start of something special at Panasonic Stadium. Of course, that’s all very rose tinted, and if I’m brutally honest, I see this appointment going one of two ways, a roaring success with Poyatos a candidate for coach of the year next term, or for a 3rd time in the last 3 years, the Nerazzurri will be looking for an Allardyce-esque firefighter to come in and save the day mid-season. Which way will it turn out? We’ll get our answer in due course.

News Roundup

Since the conclusion of the 2022 J1 season, Gamba have announced the departures of 6 first-team players, with some names more surprising than others. They are; Taichi Kato, Kosuke Onose, Ren Shibamoto, Wellington Silva, Patric and Leandro Pereira. Additionally head coach Yoshitaka Yasuda, Tomohiro Katanosaka’s right-hand man who he brought along with him from Oita, has also left the club.

I’ve prepared a few short sentences on each of the players who’ve left below.

GK Taichi Kato – Brought in on loan from Ehime FC in March 2021 to cover an injury crisis and subsequently turned that deal into a permanent one last winter. Played once in J1 in addition to two appearances in both the Levain and Emperor’s Cups this season. Was only ever going to be backup at this level and hopefully he sees more game time wherever he ends up, in J2 or in J3.

MF Kosuke Onose – Possibly the biggest shock out of all the departures. The versatile Onose spent 4 ½ years in Suita and after starting off with a bang in his first eighteen months, his performance levels steadily dropped after that. A bright opening to 2022 was curtailed by concussion, Covid and appendicitis issues, so it’s a real shame for such a loyal servant and, judging by the reactions of his team-mates to this news, a genuine good guy, to have his final outing in a blue and black uniform marred by an appalling miss against Júbilo. Dwelling on his outstanding effort away to Urawa in his debut J1 campaign would make for a much more fitting farewell.

MF Ren Shibamoto – Gamba U-23’s record appearance maker with 105 outings between 2017 and 2020, Shibamoto, more recently, endured two difficult years out on loan, firstly at SC Sagamihara in J2 last season and more latterly at J3 surprise packages Fujieda MYFC. He was relegated in 2021 and promoted this term, but in truth, the deep-lying playmaker who I compared with Andrea Pirlo and Yasuhito Endo in the past (we all get it wrong sometimes), failed to make an impact in either Kanagawa or Shizuoka. His slight frame appears to be the main issue holding him back and like Gamba Youth predecessor Mizuki Ichimaru, despite being highly touted in his teens, unfortunately Shibamoto may spend the majority of his 20s in semi-professional football.

MF Wellington Silva – Things just didn’t click for Wellington Silva at Gamba. By the time he’d managed to get into the country in 2021, the man who wanted him, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, had one foot out the door and whenever he seemed to find some form, he’d get injured or produce some stupid shenanigans such as those seen away to Marinos at the end of last season. He didn’t make a start in the league this term and although he netted his first J1 goal at home to Vissel Kobe in Golden Week, he was never able to build on that, leading to an off-season release being the inevitable conclusion to his time with the Nerazzurri.

FW Patric – The hardest departure to stomach for me on a personal level. The big Brazilian and the Nerazzurri go way back. Although always a tad ungainly and not as prolific as he once was, as a member of the 2014 treble-winning side and the club’s top scorer for the past 3 years, as well as being a shining example of a foreign signing really adapting to Japanese life and embracing the culture, I’m sure Patric will be remembered in North Osaka for decades to come. His age (35), and the club’s desire to move away from long ball football are likely the main factors behind his release.

FW Leandro Pereira – I did a bit of a number on him in my preview of the Kashima Antlers game in round 34 and suffice to say I’m not a huge fan. Like Silva above, Pereira was brought in to play in a Miyamoto system that barely saw the light of day due to the club’s Covid outbreak early in 2021 and when the dust settled he only mustered 9 goals in 47 J1 outings across 2 seasons despite reportedly being the Nerazzurri’s highest earner. I saw an Urawa fan on Twitter mocking Gamba for getting rid of the 3 top scorers from last season, Patric (5), Pereira (4) and Onose (3), and while I’m sure this is all hilarious for supporters of rival teams, one good, well thought-out signing is all it takes to replace those 3 contributions in 2023.

The New Arrivals – As previously reported in this blog, youth team forward Harumi Minamino and Shizuoka Gakuen fantasista Ryuta Takahashi have already signed up for next season, while Hosei University left wing-back Ibuki Konno and versatile left-footed Kwansei Gakuin starlet Rin Mito have also committed and will join once they conclude their studies the following year. Haruta Yamaguchi, son of Gamba legend and current Shonan kantoku Satoshi has been training with the first team recently and could be set to become a rare example of a Gamba Youth defender earning his top team stripes. He’s still a high school second grader, so it’s 2024 at the earliest in terms of him turning pro. The transfer silly season has been in full swing on Twitter and Riku Handa, Montedio Yamagata’s prodigiously talented right-back, Shimizu centre-forward Thiago Santana, J1’s top scorer in 2022, and maybe Naohiro Sugiyama of Kumamoto (who you can read about more in my Scouting J2 2022 article), are the only rumoured targets whose potential moves I give any credence to at the moment (also, if you’re going to bash Gamba on Twitter about trying to steal your players, please don’t rely solely on posts from an account with no profile picture and a user name consisting of random letters and numbers). Needless to say, there will be a ton of competition for Handa, Santana and Sugiyama, and Gamba’s performances over the past couple of years don’t really stand them in good stead to be successful in their pursuit of any of that particular trio (perhaps targeting Takeru Kishimoto and Yuki Kakita, players who did well under Poyatos in 2021 may be a better strategy, but who am I to say.)

Harumi Minamino (front) and Haruta Yamaguchi (behind)

And finally…A largely second-string Gamba ended their season with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over touring German side Eintracht Frankfurt at Panasonic Stadium on 19 November (Miura, Alano and Usami were injured, while Kwon Kyung-won, Rihito Yamamoto and Isa Sakamoto were away on international duty). Tuta gave the visitors the lead at the interval, but a Hiroto Yamami penalty, followed by a Yuki Yamamoto thunderbolt (careful Yuki, don’t go alerting those European scouts now) in the last 10 minutes gave the Nerazzurri the win. The match was perhaps more significant for, first of all, the banner displayed by ultras behind the Curva Nord goal which chastised the club’s front office over the side’s poor performances across the past 2 years (a rough translation (with help from my Japanese friend) ‘Front Office, is it only the players who will take responsibility for the poor performances in recent years?’), and secondly, departed players Kosuke Onose and Taichi Kato taking to the field after the match to say goodbye to the supporters one last time. Onose’s lap of honour and message to the fans was particularly moving. Apparently the release took him by surprise and he’s now aiming to join another team in J1 with Shonan appearing to be in pole position at the moment. Good luck in the future Kosuke and Taichi!

Thanks for reading this little bonus article, I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you all again sometime.


Kashima Antlers vs Gamba Osaka 5 November 2022 Match Preview

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.

Gamba Osaka

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!

Team News

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

Kashima Antlers

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.

Team News

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.


Gamba Osaka vs Júbilo Iwata 29 October 2022 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Júbilo Iwata
2022 J1 Season Round 33
Saturday 29 October 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 15:00 (JST)

Seventeenth hosts eighteenth in the penultimate round of J1 2022 this weekend with both sides knowing that anything other than a win is simply not good enough. A 5th home victory of the year for second-to-last Gamba would likely see them head into the final day outside the automatic drop-zone, however, anything less leaves the Ao to Kuro relying on Shonan, Kyoto, Fukuoka and S-Pulse slipping up. Júbilo’s equation is crystal-clear, lose or draw and they are down. As if the prospect of all that wasn’t tantalising enough, you’ve also got Japanese footballing icon Yasuhito Endo returning to Suita for the first time since his move to Júbilo in mid-2020, to add fuel to the fire. The match itself is unlikely to be pretty and it’s certainly not going to be for the faint of heart, but if it’s drama, passion and sheer nail-biting tension you’re after then Panasonic Stadium Suita is the place to be this Saturday afternoon.

As a brief aside, I recently teamed up with the excellent @The94thMin to put out an article about Gamba’s past, present and future for his “The Club Scene” blog series, you can check it out here if you haven’t already. Last week I also wrote about 15 gifted rookies who’ve appeared in J1 this year while name-dropping some of the most exciting talents that will be joining top-tier professional sides in 2023. Please click on the link here to read that, it’s a long one, but hopefully a good one.

Tale of the Tape

I know it seems like the Marinos vs Gamba game happened months ago, but I took copious amounts of notes, so I guess I should make a brief attempt at summarising them here. Also, having now won 3 times in-a-row at Nissan Stadium, if I were running Gamba I’d be seriously considering contacting Marinos regarding a stadium share from next season, either that or Saitama Stadium, another venue where the blue and blacks get all the breaks. The Nerazzurri, to their credit, worked incredibly hard throughout their visit to Kanagawa and put up some good numbers against Marinos, outrunning their hosts by ½ a kilometre, as well as, rather surprisingly, outsprinting them by 26. As is often the case, people tend to want to overlook Marinos’ defensive flaws in favour of their tremendous attacking prowess. However, after giving away slack goals to Gamba in the opening 10 minutes of both fixtures this year plus maxing out their luck at Panasonic Stadium over the past few seasons, they’re getting little sympathy from me for taking nothing from this tussle. 702 completed passes without a goal to show for it (they followed that up with 683 in their home defeat to Júbilo a few days later) highlights how much side-to-side, non-threatening passing took place and despite outshooting their visitors by a ratio of 3:1, it was the Nerazzurri who had the higher xG per shot, and things could have gotten better for them had Rihito Yamamoto taken his golden opportunity to make it 3-0 late on, though even I would have to admit that such a scoreline would have severely flattered the men from north Osaka. With such a backs-to-the-wall display following Juan Alano’s early opener (it didn’t pass Gamba fans by that Eduardo, who turned down a move to Suita last winter, was guilty of playing everyone onside for both goals), there were naturally numerous defensive heroes. Inevitably ‘guardian deity’ (haven’t whipped that one out for a while) Masaaki Higashiguchi was chief among them with 8 saves to follow on from an equally impressive display at home to Kashiwa a week prior. The midfield four did an immense job of keeping their shape when Marinos were in possession, between them they won 4 out of 4 tackles attempted, made 22 clearances and 12 blocks as well as recovering possession on 21 occasions. Juan Alano, an absolute stud since his summer move from Antlers, made 8 blocks and 8 possession recoveries while compatriot Dawhan, recalled to the starting eleven in place of the suspended Mitsuki Saito was responsible for 13 clearances, 2 blocks and 3 possession recoveries as well as winning the 1 tackle he attempted. All of this allowed centre-backs Miura and Shoji to sit in the pocket and sweep up the loose ends, with that duo making a combined total of 19 clearances and 5 blocks between them. The triumvirate of Higashiguchi, Miura and Shoji looks to be much rejuvenated since Hiroshi Matsuda took charge and made focusing on defensive stability more of a priority than his predecessors did. Matsuda has been caretaker boss for 8 rounds and in that time Gamba have picked up 1.38 points per game, averaging one goal per match and conceding at a clip of 1.25 goals per 90 minutes which contrasts with the 0.88 points, 0.96 goals for and 1.46 goals against seen during Tomohiro Katanosaka’s 24 game reign. All in all, the Ao to Kuro’s 50.21xG against is the worst defensive total in J1 and their 32.62xG for is the second poorest attacking record, a mere 0.07 better than Shonan. To sum up, Matsuda has slowly but surely got things moving in the right direction, it’s also worth remembering for everyone claiming Marinos dominated and should have beaten Gamba comfortably that the Nerazzurri have the players to complete more passes and take more shots on goal than they did, but instead they opted to sit back and soak up pressure after getting the opening goal they so desperately craved. Marinos, on the other hand, could be more solid defensively, however, they generally tend to go for the jugular, focusing on themselves and not taking into account opposition tactics (publicly at least) which leaves them vulnerable to ambush from time to time, I guess you might say it’s the yin and the yang of football. Why am I talking about all of this? Well, Júbilo are clearly a completely different kettle of fish to Marinos and thus Matsuda will need to come up with an entirely new battle-plan for Saturday. He’s had plenty of time to do just that, now can his troops exorcise the ghosts of the past few years of harrowing home defeats and take a giant step towards avoiding automatic relegation to J2?

Before I get my teeth into some Júbilo stats, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way shall we? The club have been handed a transfer ban from FIFA which covers this winter and next summer’s windows. The ruling came as a result of alleged wrongdoing by Júbilo and their Colombian forward Fabián González in breaking his contract with a Thai side prior to moving to Japan last year. Iwata already have the oldest squad in J1, so being unable to bring in fresh talent from outside will surely hit them hard (I’ll look into this more in the ‘Júbilo Iwata’ section below). With that gut-punch dealt with, let’s get cracking with some stats, and spoiler alert, things aren’t about to get any rosier from a Júbilo perspective. Current kantoku Hiroki Shibuya stepped up from the role of head coach after previous incumbent Akira Ito was fired in the wake of a 6-0 home mauling at the hands of Urawa in mid-August. Maintaining the 3-4-2-1 shape used by several of his predecessors, Shibuya has overseen a run of 1 win, 2 losses and 4 draws in his 7 games in charge, which, while not terrible, certainly hasn’t been anywhere near enough to stop the rot and the Saxon Blues remain rooted to the foot of the J1 standings, a position they’ve occupied since their coaching change. While results have been nothing to write home about in general, away form has been particularly poor. Their recent shock win at table topping Yokohama F. Marinos was their first outside of Shizuoka since early March when they routed 10-man Kyoto 4-1. Young Yosuke Furukawa was the spark for improved outcomes away to Marinos and in last weekend’s derby at Shimizu, contributing a goal and an assist across the two games, as well as squandering a golden opportunity to grab a priceless winner at S-Pulse. With that said, it’s worth noting that Iwata netted only 3 times on the road in 11 fixtures during the 6 months encompassing April to September. On average Júbilo concede one more than they score every time they take to an opponent’s field of play, and this number has not been helped one iota by their large underperformance relative to their xG for tally. The Saxon Blues have scored 5.64 times less than expected based on the quality of chances they’ve created, while defensively actual goals conceded and xG against are relatively equal. Overall, Júbilo’s 55 goals given up is the worst in J1, 4 more than Sapporo, their nearest rivals in that category and that tally is 7.32 higher than their xG against figure for all 32 games played to date. Going forward, replacing the prolific Lukian with Kenyu Sugimoto, who only bagged his first league goal of the season, a penalty, a couple of weeks ago against Kashima, has been hugely costly and the fact that wing-back Yuto Suzuki is still their top scorer with 6, despite netting just once since mid-April, tells it’s own story. To sum up then, this is unequivocally Júbilo’s last chance, so from that perspective they’ve got nothing to lose and should throw the kitchen sink at Gamba. Alternatively, mindful of their hosts’ equal need for a positive outcome and also their pretty dreadful recent run of results at home, particularly against sides that sit off them, would it be more prudent for Shibuya to set-up his charges to play on the counter and sucker punch Gamba in the way that Tosu, Shimizu and Shonan have done this year?

First Match Recap

As with most recent meetings between these two, the round 4 clash at Yamaha Stadium back in March ended up being a draw. Just a week on from losing talismanic attacker Takashi Usami to long-term injury, Gamba were slow out of the blocks and a Nerazzurri old boy made them pay. Kotaro Omori’s low shot from the edge of the area in the 15th minute beat the despairing dive of Kei Ishikawa to round off a flowing move from the hosts. That was as good as it got for Júbilo though, as they were second best for most of the remainder of proceedings. With that said, despite Gamba huffing and puffing and almost winning a penalty when Yamami was felled, but a Patric handball in the lead up denied them a spot kick, they had to wait until the 88th minute before parity was restored. Genta Miura, of all people, popped up on the right wing and delivered an inch perfect cross which was met by a glancing header from Leandro Pereira to earn the Ao to Kuro a point, sending them back to Suita sitting 9th in the standings.

Gamba Osaka

More good news for 2024 – On October 12th, Gamba announced their second new signing for the 2024 season (NB: 2024 is not a typo) in the shape of Kwansei Gakuin University hotshot Rin Mito. Capable of operating as a left-sided midfielder or wing-back and also as a holding-midfielder, Mito, who played just behind Hiroto Yamami in Kwansei Gakuin’s loss to Gamba in last year’s Emperor’s Cup, is extremely highly thought of in varsity football circles. Nerazzurri supporters have been speculating that the captures of Mito and Hosei University left-back Ibuki Konno suggest that Gamba’s front office are looking to play in a 4-3-3 system in the coming years. Second grade high-school student Keita Izumi (also a left-back) has been making waves with Gamba Youth this term and could also join the top-team in 2024, giving whoever is the kantoku at that time plenty of options. Finally, just a quick note, I previously wrote that Kwansei Gakuin’s Ken Masui was a potential target for Gamba after it was rumoured the Ao to Kuro were chasing a midfielder from KGU. My speculation was wrong as Masui will go back to his old ‘nest’ Grampus and it’s his current team-mate Mito who will move to Suita.

Fan events back up and running – A couple of interesting pieces of fan-service related news from here in Osaka. A watch-along party took place in Umekita Sotoniwa Square, Umeda for the Marinos vs Gamba clash, with former club legends Akira Kaji and Hideo Hashimoto taking part, I’m sure a good time was had by all given the final outcome. Also, on October 12th, Gamba held their first completely open training session since the start of the pandemic. By completely open, I mean anyone could attend, not just fan club members who won a lottery. The fan club members weren’t forgotten about though as, Yuki Yamamoto, Keisuke Kurokawa, Isa Sakamoto, Hiroto Yamami and Jiro Nakamura participated in a signing event for lottery winners in the club’s Blu Spazio shop next to gate 1 at Panasonic Stadium. It appears these open sessions will continue to be a weekly event, I’m looking forward to one being scheduled on a Sunday or Monday so I can attend.

The Higashiguchi-Nishikawa bromance – They may keep goal for rival teams on the field, but following their years together with the Samurai Blue, it’s clear that there’s a tremendous amount of respect between Masaaki Higashiguchi and his Urawa Reds counterpart Shusaku Nishikawa. Nishikawa took to Twitter to comment on a video showing an excellent save from Higashiguchi in the second half of the 2-0 win at Marinos, simply stating ‘sasuga,’ or…[my translation] ’as you’d expect from a great ‘keeper like Higashiguchi.’ It came across as a really classy touch from the former Oita and Hiroshima custodian.

The Yamamoto conundrum – Following Rihito Yamamoto’s summer move from Tokyo Verdy, there were some moans from members of the Gamba support who had bought ’29 Yamamoto’ uniforms pre-season, only to see it changed to ’29 Y. Yamamoto’ half-way through the year, but for me it’s brought on a more pressing issue. Yukimoto and Rihimoto or Yukito and Rihito, how should I best shorten their names to make my life easier than constantly using Yuki Yamamoto and Rihito Yamamoto?

Attack-dog Alano – This may actually be the first recorded use of bad language in my blogging career, but I feel like Juan Alano has brought over just the right amount of ‘shithousery’ from masters of the dark arts Kashima. The combative Brazilian winger has made quite the impression on the Gamba support since his summer switch and recently told a Brazilian sports website that he felt he’d made the right move in joining the Nerazzurri. He, Kesiuke Kurokawa and Patric are all walking a suspension tight-rope, so that trio will have to be extremely cautious against Júbilo, not least Alano who’ll surely be hoping to make Antlers pay for their decision to let him go when Gamba head to the Kashima Soccer Stadium on the final day of the season .

‘Tis the season to be silly – In the wake of the Ienaga ‘rumour’ I mentioned last time, we’ve seen Yosuke Ideguchi and Ademilson linked with moves back to Panasta and fans suggesting the club try to re-patriate Hiroyuki Abe following his screamer and celebratory dance away to FC Tokyo the other week. Furthermore, Higashiguchi to Niigata has surfaced in the murky depths of Twitter, I’m not having any of that though as Albirex already have a fine young ‘keeper of their own, in the shape of Ryosuke Kojima. One story that may have a bit more truth to it is Shoji Toyama returning to Gamba after spending the past 18 months out on loan. A double in Mito’s last-gasp 3-2 win at Tochigi preceded comments suggesting that he preferred the Osaka Derby to it’s Kita-Kanto equivalent, if that’s not a come and get me plea then I don’t know what is.

The end of an era – On Monday 24 October, Gamba confirmed that they’d be ending their kit-supplier partnership with Umbro that first started in 2003. Sports Hochi reported the same day that Hummel would replace Umbro from next year, though the club themselves are still keeping schtum on that matter. Furthermore, a couple of commemorative t-shirts are now available from the Gamba online shop displaying each Umbro home and away jersey from the 2003-2022 run. I’ve ordered the black version which shows home tops only, I’m hoping it’ll be here for Christmas.

And finally….popular Japanese singer Fujii Kaze became the first person to appear in concert at Panasonic Stadium since it opened in 2016. The Okayama native performed on the evenings of October 15 and 16. Parts of the pitch have subsequently been re-laid and in theory the playing surface should be fine for Saturday, let’s hope that is in fact the case.

Team News

The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.

FW Patric – Missed training for two weeks after going off versus Marinos and having his leg strapped while he sat on the bench. Since returning, he’s been working through a separate menu to his team-mates as per Matsuda kantoku‘s comments on Tuesday 25 October. In theory he’s ready to play some part on Saturday, though how big a role remains to be seen.

Juan Alano, Shu Kurata, Keisuke Kurokawa, Kosuke Onose and Patric are all just a single caution shy of reaching the one-match ban threshold.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Júbilo Iwata

Considering they’ve just been slapped with a two window transfer ban, it seems likely that the summer signing of former S-Pulse full-back Ko Matsubara from Sint-Truidense in Belgium will be Iwata’s last senior acquisition until the winter of 2023/2024. What effect will this have on a club that’s already struggling to avoid falling into the yo-yo category? In the short-term, centre-forward Shu Morooka (Tokyo International University) is going to need to find a new team as his pre-contract deal is now off the table. Also in attack, Kenyu Sugimoto will have to return to his parent club Urawa, though given how he’s performed this season, it seems likely he’ll be loaned out again, perhaps to a Shonan, Kyoto or Fukuoka. The Saxon Blues have 7 players currently out on loan to lower league sides, but Chelsea they are not, and perhaps only centre-back Kaito Suzuki (Tochigi) is ready to return and make an immediate impact. Júbilo already have the oldest squad in J1, so another season of having to rely on the likes of Yasuhito Endo (42), Kentaro Oi (38), Hiroki Yamada and Kosuke Yamamoto (both 33) plus Yuki Otsu (32) may see them creak to the point of breaking. Hailing from Shizuoka, the cradle of Japanese football, Júbilo are able to attract and develop plenty of young talents of their own. 190cm high school second grader Keita Goto, scorer of 9 goals in this year’s Prince Takamado Under-18 competition, will be promoted to the top-team for 2023, something which is permitted despite the FIFA sanctions, the pain will be felt further down the chain as they won’t be able to register new players to their youth teams from now until the end of next year either. Iwata will need to hope Goto swims rather than sinks and combines with the aforementioned Furukawa (19) as well as Kensuke Fujiwara (18) and Mahiro Yoshinaga (20) to build a brighter tomorrow for Júbilo.

Team News

The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.

DF Daiki Ogawa – Has been absent for the most recent 6 J1 fixtures and last saw action in the 1-0 loss to Nagoya on 19 August.

DF Norimichi Yamamoto – Currently sitting on three yellow cards, one more here would see him miss the final day encounter with Kyoto.

MF Kotaro Omori – The former Gamba treble winner injured his thigh muscle in the 2-2 draw with Kashiwa Reysol on 3 September and is out for the season.

MF Rikiya Uehara – Suspended after picking up his 4th yellow card of the season in last week’s draw with Shimizu.

FW Fabián González – Suspended for 4 months due to what has been deemed to be an illegal transfer. It’s now in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) who may say otherwise and ultimately shorten his ban.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.