Yokohama F. Marinos vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 32
Saturday 8 October 2022
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)
There are no complicated equations ahead of Gamba’s trip to Nissan Stadium this weekend. Two wins from their four remaining fixtures is all Marinos need to be crowned J1 champions for the second time in four seasons regardless of what their rivals do, while their visitors are firmly ensconced at the wrong end of the table and know they simply must return to Suita with all three points in the bag. Despite having a fortnight to get over their VAR-inspired heartbreak at Vissel Kobe, Gamba could only scrape a 0-0 draw against a Kashiwa Reysol side that barely got out of second gear last Saturday. Talismanic forward Takashi Usami was back to captain the Nerazzurri following a 7 month, injury-enforced absence and the Curva Nord faithful were in full voice for the first time in over 2 and a half years, but even that double boost couldn’t jolt the Ao to Kuro attack into life and in the end Gamba were heavily indebted to ‘keeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, who made a string of fine saves to keep the Sunkings at bay. A fourth consecutive failure to find the back of the net in front of their own fans has left the Nerazzurri’s survival chances hanging by a thread and kantoku Hiroshi Matsuda must be hoping that Marinos’ attacking style is more conducive for his charges to exploit on the counter than Reysol’s low block. While Gamba were toiling at home to Kashiwa, Marinos were busy romping past Nagoya Grampus in Toyota last Saturday. A brace from Kota Mizanuma put them firmly in the driver’s seat, before late efforts from substitutes Léo Ceará and Joel Chima Fujita, the latter’s first for the club, added gloss to the scoreline and that 4-0 triumph, allied with Kawasaki’s dramatic late loss to Sapporo, has put Kevin Muscat’s troops within touching distance of the 2022 J1 title. A home victory seems like a no-brainer here, but remember Gamba have won this fixture in each of the past 2 seasons and have only tasted defeat once since 2015. The pressure is on both teams, who will cope with it best, and who will wilt in the autumn heat? Tune in this Saturday afternoon to find out.
Tale of the Tape
Well what to make of Saturday’s duel with Kashiwa that promised so much with Usami’s long-awaited comeback as well as the return of supporter chanting, but ultimately ended in an anti-climax. The stats show that Reysol edged proceedings, as you’d expect from a top 6 side boasting a fine away record. However, despite it ending up 14-8 to Kashiwa in the official J Stats shot count, DAZN had Gamba leading 9-8 on their graphic in the 68th minute with the Sunkings then asserting a modicum of dominance on the counter in the dying moments. Worryingly for the Nerazzurri, they could only muster a grand total of 2 shots on goal in the second 45 minutes with none coming after the 66th minute. The partnership of Patric and Leandro Pereira caught Hiroshima and Nagoya cold, but has absolutely zero guile or subtlety about it so defences have wisened-up sharpish and I’ve no idea why Musashi Suzuki only came on with 2 minutes remaining rather than taking Pereira’s place at the same time Patric took over from Usami. With Usami back in town, the shift away from relying almost entirely on Juan Alano for creativity has been completed. It started with Yuki Yamamoto’s return to the starting lineup and the central duo of Yamamoto and Usami were at the heart of everything positive the Nerazzurri did in an attacking sense, if only Usami would let Yamamoto take a few more of the set-plays, though it was his big day back at the office so he can be forgiven this time. Perhaps what can’t be written off so easily is the way that Gamba surrendered to their fate, a 0-0 draw against not particularly motivated opponents, while fellow dog-fighters Kyoto and Shonan showed the way with a 1-0 win at Tosu and a 96th minute equaliser away at Cerezo respectively. Once again, I’ve gone rant heavy and stat-lite in the early part of this section so let’s seek to redress the balance a touch. The Ao to Kuro’s 566 completed passes on Saturday dwarves their previous highest this year of 505 away to Júbilo Iwata in round 4, and the fact that Reysol made 444 passes of their own probably gives you a very good indication of the tepid type of game the 17,689 paying spectators witnessed. That’s something which becomes all the more surprising when you consider Gamba’s desperate need for a win and also that Reysol were still technically in the hunt for 3rd spot prior to kick-off. The 0-0 marked the Nerazzurri’s 3rd failure to score of the Matsuda era, though it was also the 4th clean sheet his 442 zone defence has kept in only 7 outings, now to just nudge the scales ever so slightly in favour of attacking verve. For individual players, there are three I’d like to highlight. First, Masaaki Higashiguchi who earned his side a share of the spoils with 8 saves including 6 from inside the box (Reysol’s Douglas, Hosoya and Muto will be ruing placing their efforts right down his throat – Douglas’ 2nd header excluded). The veteran stopper, who you can read more about in the Gamba Osaka section below, leads the league in saves per game with an average of 4 (2.7 from inside the area) and also possesses a decent save percentage (72.7%) as well as a sharp pass completion rate (76.6%). Returning hero Takashi Usami, while expected to be on the bench, instead found himself starting and captaining the Nerazzurri. During his 73 minutes on the field, he registered 2 shots on goal, including 1 on target, 1 last pass and also completed 24 of his 28 attempted passes, a bit more clinical-ness in front of goal from the old master is just what the doctor ordered. Finally, popular schemer Yuki Yamamoto was once again active on defence and attack. The Shiga-native mustered 1 shot, and made 62 of 70 attempted passes which included 1 last pass going forward, while defensively he continued his recent improvement, winning 5 of 7 tackles, executing 3 blocks and recovering possession on 4 occasions.
Champions-elect Yokohama F. Marinos are top of the pile for good reason having outscored everyone else in the division by at least 9 goals and following Urawa’s 4-1 trouncing at Hiroshima, they also boast J1’s best defence, conceding 30 times in 30 outings. While Marinos have outscored opponents by a ratio of more than 2:1, at the same time they’ve out-performed their xG for total by just shy of 10 goals and at the other end, they’ve let in 3.9 fewer than could be expected based on their opposition’s xG numbers. Furthermore, when we compare the Tricolor’s key performance indicators with last year we can see that the only areas where they’re doing better this season versus 2021 is xG against and shots for on target. Interestingly, they’re completing on average 67.5 passes fewer than 12 months ago, covering 2.5 km less per game and sprinting on 19.5 fewer occasions. None of that seems to have mattered as Kevin Muscat’s side have recovered from a slightly jittery opening to their campaign and are currently on a run of 11 wins, 4 draws and 1 defeat across their past 16 J1 games. The match prior to that run starting was a hugely disappointing 1-0 loss at Avispa Fukuoka and the 2-1 defeat at title rivals Kawasaki has been the only time they’ve been bettered since. It’s undoubtedly been a team effort as only 3 players (Yohei Takaoka, Tomoki Iwata and Élber have started more than 20 games) while 6 have scored on at least 5 occasions and 5 have a minimum of 4 assists. In my pre-season preview, I picked out Katsuya Nagato as Marinos’ best winter signing, and the former Sendai and Kashima full-back has done well with 4 assists to date, however, he has been usurped by Takuma Nishimura (I’m shocked he’s still only 25) who’s been a revelation with 9 goals and an assist in 23 appearances, even managing to edge Marcos Junior out of the starting eleven. Centre-back / holding midfielder Tomoki Iwata is another star deserving of having his praises sung here. He’s converted to a central role so well in recent seasons that it’s easy to forget that he made his name as a marauding right-sided centre-back in Tomohiro Katanosaka’s 3421 at Oita. Along with impressive Japan age-level dynamo, Joel Chima Fujita, Iwata is my tip as the Marinos player most likely to be the next to head over to Europe. Watch this space.
First Match Recap
Gamba’s 2-1 home defeat to Marinos back in June was the second of four gyakuten defeats they’ve suffered this year which have badly hindered their efforts to stay in the top flight. A poor Ken Matsubara back-pass in the 7th minute put his ‘keeper Yohei Takaoka in all kinds of trouble, allowing Patric to nick the ball away from him and tee up his compatriot Dawhan, who coolly slotted home the opener. Gamba stood firm until half-time, but came under sustained pressure after the break and efforts from Takuma Nishimura and Kota Mizanuma turned the game on it’s head. Ex-Cerezo winger Mizanuma would surely have enjoyed scoring the winner, while Nishimura also sunk the Nerazzurri at Panasta 12 months prior with a fine individual effort for Vegalta Sendai. The Ao to Kuro’s South Korean international centre-back Kwon Kyung-won saw red for a second yellow-card offence in additional time to cap off a miserable evening for Gamba who sunk to 15th in the standings on the back of 3 consecutive losses in what was the first J1 matchday following the June international break.
* Saito replacement – On-loan Shonan Bellmare ace Mitsuki Saito has been a revelation since his restoration to the starting eleven after Hiroshi Matsuda took charge of top team affairs. However, the combative midfield maestro has made one rash challenge too many and is out of this weekend’s trip to Kanagawa, so who will take his place? Option A: Rihito Yamamoto, who made his debut off the bench last weekend, partnering Saito for the final 7 minutes of the draw with Kashiwa. It would be getting thrown in at the deep end for sure, but he appears to be in pole position and would surely relish doing battle with former Verdy team-mates Fujita and Watanabe. Option B: Kohei Okuno, well suited to the role and has partnered Yuki Yamamoto before, however he seems to have fallen out of favour in recent weeks, making him most likely a bench option here. Option C: Dawhan, currently on the naughty step after failing to stop Vissel Kobe’s winner a few weeks back, other naughty step occupiers such as Kwon Kyung-won and Hiroki Fujiharu are yet to return to the starting lineup and I don’t see Dawhan doing it either this Saturday. Option D: Club captain Shu Kurata, who has been completely sidelined during the Matsuda-era, and with Usami, Miura and Shoji providing the on-field leadership it’s extremely unlikely there will be space for Kurata to come in and score the winner like he did in the Nissan Stadium sun last November.
* Higashiguchi vs Tani – I teased it last week and after receiving a question on the topic I decided I should tackle the burning issue in this article. As you saw from his heroics on Saturday, Masaaki Higashiguchi shows no signs of ageing and the 36 year-old will most probably be the man between the sticks for the Nerazzurri regardless of what division they occupy in 2023. Where then does that leave Kosei Tani who has played alright for Shonan this year, but hasn’t really kicked on or shown anything he hadn’t in previous seasons. Should the Seasiders remain in J1 then I think Tani is most likely to stay there for 2023, failing that, a loan to a team like Kyoto could be on the cards. Vissel Kobe are the ‘big’ J1 side most obviously in need of a change between the sticks, but I feel they are much more likely to sign Suárez of Tokushima, who I somehow forgot about in my Scouting J2 2022 article, while Kashima could also be in the market for a new custodian and a move for Tani may be something to keep your eyes open for.
Tl;dr Higashiguchi is Gamba’s number 1 next season, Tani remains a J1 GK in 2023 though where exactly remains up for debate.
* Gamba fans vs VAR – Supporters in Japan may generally shy away from giving criticism as directly or aggressively as their counterparts in other parts of the world, but I think it’s still become patently clear that the relationship between the Gamba support and VAR is broken to the point of no repair. Last Saturday, Ryotaro Meshino’s 44th minute effort being ruled out for handball and DOGSO favourite Takumi Kamijima escaping censure for a last man pull on Leandro Pereira’s jersey were both correct decisions in my book, though as the feeling among the Nerazzurri faithful seems to be something along the lines of, we’ve given VAR our money, now we’re waiting for our change, both incidents drew the ire of many observers on Twitter. I am well aware that you can easily make the argument that Gamba only have themselves to blame for their current predicament with poor performances, a lack of clinical finishing and simple goals being given up left, right and centre. It’s also true that the Ao to Kuro have failed to balance out late, late goals given away such as those against Kawasaki (h), Kyoto (h), Urawa (h), Cerezo (h) and Vissel (a) with enough last-gasp strikes of their own, Shimizu (a) and Fukuoka (a) the only examples that readily spring to mind. Only 3 league games remain and if Gamba are to miraculously escape their current predicament then not only will performance levels need to go up several notches, but VAR is probably going to have to come to the Nerazzurri’s aid at some point too. I won’t hold my breath.
* More New Blood for 2023 – On Tuesday 4 October, Gamba announced their second signing for the 2023 campaign in the shape of 156cm tall Shizuoka Gakuen High School number 10 Ryuta Takahashi. Takahashi, who hails from Nagaokakyo in Kyoto just like Takashi Usami and Akihiro Ienaga, previously turned out alongside fellow 2023 new recruit Harumi Minamino for Gamba Junior Youth from the ages of 12-15 before heading east to Shizuoka. Several articles in the Japanese press have pointed out that he’s a two footed player who excels at dribbling and creating chances. I’m guessing the club see him as the long-term successor to Usami and I’ll be the first to slap the ‘Japanese Messi’ tag on him. No pressure then, eh?
* And finally….I caught my first sighting of the annual Akihiro Ienaga back to Gamba transfer rumour which allows me to bring up an extremely niche reference from my younger days of Scottish playmaker David Bingham being linked to my favourites Ayr United seemingly every summer while he was still playing and for several years after he retired as something of a running joke among the Honest Men’s support.
David Bingham, aka ‘the Scottish Ienaga’
Mitsuki Saito is suspended after picking up his fourth yellow card of the season in the home draw with Kashiwa Reysol while Shu Kurata, Keisuke Kurokawa, Kosuke Onose and Patric are all just a single caution shy of reaching the one-match ban threshold. Other than that it’s a clean bill of health for the rest of the Gamba squad.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Yokohama F. Marinos
Brazilian winger Yan Matheus from Moreirense in Portugal was the sole arrival at Nissan Stadium this summer with 3 youngsters leaving on loan deals, and the 24 year-old has already made his mark, scoring in the 3-0 home win over Shonan at the beginning of September. Looking ahead to this winter, after the glamour friendly with Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma is done and dusted, kantoku Kevin Muscat and the aforementioned duo of Iwata and Fujita could draw attention from Europe, I’m sure there are plenty who would relish a Muscat vs Postecoglou, Rangers vs Celtic battle…and probably quite a few who’d dread it too, to be fair. In the past, I’ve often praised Marinos’ City Football Group assisted overseas recruitment for giving them an edge over their rivals while at the same time I’ve questioned the methodology behind some of their domestic moves. However, the success of the likes of Iwata (ex-Oita) and Fujita (Tokushima), in addition to the captures of Takaoka (Tosu), Nagato (Kashima), Watanabe (Verdy) and Nishimura (Sendai) in recent years shows they’ve certainly learned from past mistakes. For 2023 they’ve taken a slightly unusual step, well for them in recent years anyway, and that is to sign 2 players from Kanto-based universities. Attacker Yuhi Murakami (Kanto Gakuin University) and midfielder / full-back Takuto Kimura (Meiji University, formerly of Marinos Youth), will join the squad ahead of what, I presume, will be the defence of their title. Also, there’s been no official announcement yet, but I’ve heard good things about Marinos Youth forward Kotaro Uchino and he’s on a type-2 amateur contract with the top team this year while Murakami and Kimura have designated special player deals, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Uchino, who’s been scoring for fun in the Prince Takamado Cup, makes the step up next season. As per usual, the Tricolor have a legion of loanees out at a variety of clubs across the archipelago and even over in South Korea (Jun Amano). They currently number 14 in total and in my book, winger Eitaro Matsuda looks to be the one most capable of breaking into the Marinos top team in the near future. With his current side Albirex Niigata only goal difference away from sealing a return to top flight, it may be expedient to leave him at the Big Swan for one more year to allow him to fully mature. With so many players under contract, it’s likely to be an extremely busy winter in and around the Nissan Stadium and should they be able to use the title ‘J1 Champions 2022’ to attract new talent then their rivals had better watch out.
Injury-prone winger Ryo Miyaichi is currently out with a serious knee ligament injury sustained on international duty in July and isn’t due back until next spring, while left-back Katsuya Nagato is just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4. Experienced full-back Ken Matsubara dropped out of the squad for the 4-0 rout of Nagoya last weekend, but I think that was just due to the return of Ryuta Koike and I have no reason to believe that he or any other members of the Marinos squad are presently unavailable.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.