Yokohama F. Marinos vs Gamba Osaka 8 October 2022 Match Preview

Yokohama F. Marinos vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 32
Saturday 8 October 2022
Nissan Stadium
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.

Gamba Osaka

* 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’

Team News

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.

Team News

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.


Gamba Osaka vs Kashiwa Reysol 1 October 2022 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Kashiwa Reysol
2022 J1 Season Round 31
Saturday 1 October 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 16:00 (JST)

Gamba aren’t quite ready to order drinks at the last chance saloon, but they’re getting darn close in the wake of their controversial, gut-wrenching loss to near neighbours and fellow strugglers Vissel Kobe. As if to compound matters, their next fixture sees them welcome J1’s best away side, Kashiwa Reysol, to Panasonic Stadium as they seek to snap a run of 3 consecutive home games without scoring. The visiting Sunkings are 6th in the overall standings, 6 points off 3rd place and ACL qualification, despite a recent run of 6 outings without a win. Only a victory here can lift the Nerazzurri out of the drop-zone and with clashes against the likes of Marinos and Kashima looming large on the horizon, 3 points is really non-negotiable if they are serious about staying up. Reysol looked sharp and focused in their most recent game, a 1-1 home draw with defending champions Kawasaki and should they be able to re-produce that kind of performance then they’ll fancy their chances in this bout. The Ao to Kuro, on the other hand, must channel their frustration from the Kobe loss into an unwavering desire to defeat Kashiwa this Saturday, whatever the cost. It’s the first match at Panasonic Stadium with singing allowed for over 2 and a half years, could the home support perhaps nudge the VAR Gods into providing a dramatic plot twist and coming to Gamba’s aid, or is that just delving way too far into the realms of fantasy?

Tale of the Tape

Hiroshi Matsuda lined up in the opposite dugout from his former apprentice Takayuki Yoshida during the Hanshin Derby at the Noevir Stadium, how did he get on tactically? Generally pretty well in my book. It definitely wasn’t beautiful, free-flowing, attack-minded football, but until the intervention of referee Koei Koya in the final 10 minutes of the contest, it looked like Matsuda-ball was set to bring the Nerazzurri a priceless 1-0 victory which would have seen them move up to 13th in the standings, behind S-Pulse only on goal difference. Alas, it was not be and I’ll be honest as soon as Yuya Osako’s spot-kick hit the back of the net, his later injury-time winner became inevitable in the context of Gamba’s season. ‘The worst is yet to come’ was the thought running through my head as we entered second-half additional time and so it came to pass. I don’t even really blame the players as VAR overturning the no penalty decision without ‘clear and obvious’ evidence to do so (much more on that in the Gamba section below) simply crushed their spirits in the wake of the much publicised VAR inspired heavy losses against Kashima (h) and Kawasaki (a). Matsuda has got a wealth of experience developing promising youngsters on his CV, but he’s clearly been brought in with the sole remit of keeping Gamba in J1 no matter how ugly and defensively his side plays. Unfortunately that likely means no more Yamami, Nakamura or Sakamoto until next season with Brazilian giants Leandro Pereira and Patric leading the line, Musashi Suzuki coming off the bench hoping to use his pace to stretch tired defences and fellow gas-man Ryotaro Meshino being replaced for the final 15-20 minutes by returning talisman Takashi Usami. Under Matsuda’s tutelage, the players appear to know exactly what they are supposed to be doing, something which was absolutely not the case during the previous regime, so that’s one step in the right direction at least. Wait a minute, I’ve written about 20+ lines of text in this section and have barely mentioned a stat, so let’s finish off with some of them shall we? A few months back I said judge Tomohiro Katanosaka on Gamba’s xG difference and with 30 out of 34 fixtures now in the can, the Ao to Kuro’s figure is still sitting at -0.50xG per game, a number that hasn’t really budged much all season, and certainly suggests relegation is the most likely outcome for the club. More positively, across the past 5 matches of Matsuda’s ‘442 zone defence’ © DAZN, Gamba are giving up 12.6 (7.0 on target) shots per game to opponents which compares with 15.8 (9.2) overall, though at the other end of the field they’ve only been attempting 10 (5.4 on target) shots across that same run of fixtures versus 11.2 (6.2) when considering all 30 games to date. Four of Matsuda’s six matches in charge have seen an xG for total of less than 1 and all outings apart from the 2-0 win at Nagoya have been xG losses, granted the Fukuoka game was only by 0.02, so basically as close as you can get to an xG draw. There’s not much solace in the stats for Gamba fans, and this might not be what you were wanting or expecting to read at the conclusion of this section, but for me it’s down to pure luck from here on out. Opposition own goals, red cards, lack of effort due to having nothing other than pride to play for, they could all play a big role in whether the Nerazzurri sink or swim.

Kashiwa have certainly exceeded the expectations of most external observers this year, spending the entirety of the campaign in the top 6 when many expected them to be embroiled in a fight for survival similar to what their hosts this Saturday are currently enduring. They’ve been quite a streaky team in 2022, boasting runs of 3 and 4 wins in-a-row, as well as losing 3 on-the-bounce on two separate occasions. After opening up the year with 9 victories and 30 points from their first 17 games, they’ve since descended slightly from those dizzy heights, winning just 4 times and accumulating only 15 points from their most recent 13 outings, not bad, but it is form that has much more of a mid-table feel to it. The Sunkings have lost 8 of their last 10 matches on xG (they’ve won 1 and drawn 1 of the other 2), and the 4.13xG Reds put up against them in round 29 is the highest recorded in J1 since I started keeping data at the beginning of 2021. Six goals conceded from an xG of only 1.4 in the home bout with FC Tokyo was a bit more unfortunate, though kantoku Nelsinho will not be at all amused that his charges’ 40 goals conceded is the worst of everyone inside the top 10 and indeed is only 4 fewer that Gamba have let in. Other stats suggest that Reysol have had a knack of coming out on top in extremely tight contests this year as they are only outshooting their opponents by 0.3 (0.5 on target) efforts per game while registering 45.3% ball possession, down from 47.1% in 2021. They have upped the intensity of their work, however, recording 183.8 sprints per game (25.9 more than the Nerazzurri), which is an increase from 174.4 twelve months ago and this may have been a pivotal factor in their renaissance. Regarding individual players within their ranks, Matheus Savio was someone I highlighted prior to the match back in May and though things haven’t been going quite as swimmingly for the Brazilian lately with no goals or assists in his most recent 9 league outings as well as a potential bout of Covid in August, he’s enjoying a fine season overall nonetheless. Savio ranks first in J1 for through balls (115), chances created (78) and last passes (56), he’s also 8th for shots taken (58), 9th for shots on target (16) and 10th for dribbles (70). Defensively he’s put up some decent numbers too, sitting in the division’s top 15 for blocks, interceptions and possession recoveries. Ahead of Savio, young attacker Mao Hosoya has been a revelation and while his exertions with Japan U-21 in Europe over the past fortnight may necessitate a bench start on Saturday, he can be more than pleased with his season to date, registering 8 goals and 4 assists while listing 3rd in the J1 shots on target rankings with 22. His development has really come on in leaps and bounds this year, which will probably lead to an overseas move within the next 12 months. Hosoya is just in the embryonic stages of his professional career and while that statement certainly doesn’t ring true for Yuki Muto, the former Sendai and Urawa hitman has also been a key cog in the Reysol attacking wheel in recent months. The tag ‘super-sub’ most definitely applies to him as to date he’s bagged 7 goals and 2 assists from 15 appearances, with a grand total of only 4 starts (4 of his goals and 2 assists have come from sub appearances). I’m postulating that Muto might well partner Douglas in attack from the start on Saturday with Hosoya getting introduced in the second-half, the million dollar question is, what effect, if any, would that have on their forward play?

First Match Recap

Gamba’s 1-0 win away to Kashiwa in mid-May was one of those classic J.League results that defied any sort of rational analysis. Despite coming into the tie fresh off the back of a home victory over Vissel Kobe 6 days prior, the Nerazzurri had since been struck down with a Coronavirus cluster which, in addition to their lengthy injury list, left them with high school 3rd graders Harumi Minamino and Rikuto Kuwahara on the bench to make up the numbers. The Ao to Kuro had a go early doors with Hiroto Yamami’s lob as close as they came, unfortunately that strategy led to them being cut open on several occasions and in truth they were pretty lucky to go into half-time level. Things tightened up considerably in the second-half and Gamba were able to pick up a smash-and-grab victory courtesy of Dawhan’s close range effort after Reysol failed to clear a corner properly. Hiromu Mitsumaru’s header struck the frame of the Nerazzurri’s goal in the final minute of additional time meaning Gamba returned to Suita with all 3 points, a result that moved them up to 10th in the standings. How the Nerazzurri would love to get the rub of the green this Saturday afternoon in the same way they did on that late spring evening in Chiba.

Gamba Osaka

VAR Verdict – Hopefully this is the last time I write about refereeing and VAR this year, though I won’t hold my breath. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I was left extremely angry by Koei Koya’s decision to overturn his call of no penalty during the vital Vissel vs Gamba clash prior to the international break, angrier than it’s really healthy to be after a football game, something that I recognised in the aftermath and I actually ended up messaging an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, so at least some good came out of it. However, back to my point, I pose the question to you dear reader, what is the purpose of using VAR in football? If it’s to bring consistency and clarity to the decision making process while at the same time only fixing clear errors by the on-field officiating team then it has failed on every account since it was introduced into J1 full-time at the start of the 2021 season. When Patric was given a straight red card following Yuma Suzuki’s play-acting on the opening day of the 2022 campaign, the reasoning given as to why VAR couldn’t overturn the decision was because Patric acted aggressively towards Suzuki so it technically wasn’t the wrong call. However, the referee that day dismissed Patric because he thought he’d struck Suzuki in the face, an act of aggression probably scoring an 8 or 9 on a 10 point scale, while in reality he likely said something a little nasty and tickled his opponent’s tummy, which would rank as a 2 or 3 in terms of aggression. With that in mind, Koya’s initial decision was to give a foul against Kobe’s Yoshinori Muto for a high boot with studs up. The replays showed it wasn’t as bad as first thought, but just like the Patric decision, the original judgement wasn’t technically completely wrong. Additionally, Fukuda and Muto go for the ball and make contact with each other, at the VAR booth the referee chooses to only consider Fukuda hitting Muto marginally before Muto hits him, ignoring the position of Muto’s boot and also his potential initiation of the contact. It’s not clearly a penalty and not clearly not a penalty, therefore it falls into a grey area and with the initial decision being no penalty, the best Los Millonarios should have got was a drop ball in my view. I know this is a Gamba blog and I’m biased, but the likes of Shohei Ogura and former J1 official Masaaki Iemoto (not to mention fans of other J1 teams) have weighed in with similar opinions to mine and I’m yet to hear anyone say it was clearly or definitely a penalty to Kobe. If I was Gamba I’d contact the J. League and ask for a written explanation as to why the decision was overturned. Sure we’re not going to get the last 10 minutes replayed or anything, but it would be nice to make the league squirm as they try and wiggle their way out of the mess they’ve made for themselves. It was interesting to note that at the same time as Vissel vs Gamba, FC Tokyo were hosting Kyoto Sanga in the first ever J1 match officiated by a female, let’s hope that opening this role up to an additional 50% of the population leads to greater openness, consistency and clarity in decision making going forward. Rant over…and breathe.

Above is an artist’s impression of the Vissel vs Gamba game
The Ultimate Warrior = Gamba Osaka
Ravishing Rick Rude = Vissel Kobe
Bobby The Brain Heenan = Referee Koei Koya

**Note – Let me just add that I know Vissel had a poor decision go against them away at Shonan and Gamba are certainly not the only team in world football to fall victim to questionable officiating. Also, I personally bear Vissel Kobe no ill-will, Kobe is a beautiful city that I recommend you visit now that it’s been announced Japan will properly re-open it’s borders…woo-hoo!!**

Saito vs Dawhan – Of course after Yuya Osako’s controversial penalty levelled things up, the same player inevitably won the game in injury time (remember what I wrote about him in the match preview?) The fact it came from a counter attack, which wouldn’t have been happening with the score at 0-1, made it all the more infuriating for me (as did Osako’s voice in his post match interview, he sounded like a decent bloke and I was hunting for a scapegoat). Anyway, for a Gamba squad and support beaten down by a campaign of errors, poor performances, last gasp equalisers and winners given up and a succession of VAR decisions going against them, it was understandably all a bit too much. At the final whistle, Mitsuki Saito took aim at central midfield partner Dawhan for not taking one for the team and giving away a cynical foul in the lead up to Osako’s winner. Dawhan has previous for this in the build up to Leandro’s effort to give FC Tokyo a 2-0 lead at the Olympic Stadium and to defend the Brazilian slightly here, although referee Koya was praised in certain quarters for allowing an advantage, he would certainly have evened things up a touch had he blown prematurely for a free-kick 25-30 yards away from goal. Saito took to social media soon after the match to set the record straight that he and his team-mates have not given up and remain committed to avoiding the drop to J2. Dawhan, for his part, seems to have kissed and made up with Saito and was seen posting ‘interesting’ home training videos on Instagram. Stand-in captain Genta Miura also deserves credit for his role as peace-broker as well as getting properly stuck into Koya in the wake of the penalty decision, something he’s been accused of not doing enough in the past, particularly in the away game against Sapporo last season.

Gamba vs Vissel, Japan’s new Grudge Match? – Prior to this season most Gamba fans I’ve spoken to would answer ‘Urawa and Cerezo’ when asked who the Nerazzurri’s rivals were. This may just be me, but I’ve always detected greater passion in their voices when they speak about playing Urawa. As for Cerezo it seems to be more a case of, ‘people in other countries dislike teams from the same city as them so we should do it too,’ rather than something more organic, again though this is merely my personal opinion. Furthermore, although I refer to Gamba vs Kobe as the ‘Hanshin Derby’ and Gamba vs Kyoto as the ‘Keihan Derby,’ in reality I feel that fans of all sides view these clashes more as convenient away days rather than bona fide rivalries. Could the genuine ill-feeling that seems to have developed as a result of the contentious incidents and decisions that crept up during both 2022 league encounters between Gamba and Vissel be the spark which ignites a new ferocious rivalry between two of Kansai’s powerhouses?

Harumi Minamino – On 16 September Gamba announced their first signing for the 2023 season, the promotion of forward Harumi Minamino from their youth setup. Minamino, of course, has been training with the top-team this year on a type-2 amateur contract and has made 8 appearances in all competitions. Able to play as a central forward or just off a main striker, he’s not been seen since the summer additions of Suzuki, Meshino and Juan Alano as well as the restoration of Leandro Pereira to top-team action with the arrival of Hiroshi Matsuda, but he’s an exciting addition who has been talked about in hushed tones by Gamba supporters in recent years, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do once he becomes a pro. Good luck Harumi!

The Beast Awakens? – Speaking of young Gamba forwards, Shoji Toyama broke his 2022 scoring duck with a goal on his 20th birthday in Mito’s home loss to Tokyo Verdy on 21 September. He then followed that up with a fine headed equaliser away to Tokushima last Sunday. It’s been a frustrating loan spell for Toyama with just 12 league appearances in total and only 5 starts, hopefully his recent efforts are the catalyst for him to go on and become the finisher everyone at Panasonic Stadium hopes he can be.

Post-season clear-out – Regardless of which division Gamba occupy in 2023 there are likely to be big changes to the playing staff over the winter. The Higashiguchi vs Tani goalkeeper debate is probably worthy of it’s own segment in a future match preview, but in front of them, the Gen Shoji to Kashima rumours will likely re-surface while backups Ko Yanagisawa and Shota Fukuoka may seek fresh pastures, Keisuke Kurokawa is likely to attract interest from elsewhere and centre-back Yota Sato could return to Suita following his loan spell at Sendai. Speaking of such deals, midfielders Dawhan and Saito are only on loan and will probably leave, veterans Shu Kurata and Hiroki Fujiharu could end their long associations with the club and widemen Wellington Silva, Kosuke Onose and Hideki Ishige may well be wearing a different team’s colours next term. In attack, Leandro Pereira is reportedly the highest earner at Panasta and out of contract at the end of the season so I see him going elsewhere. As mentioned above Harumi Minamino has put pen to paper and he could be joined by versatile youth team captain Rikuto Kuwahara, while a move for a university graduate can’t be ruled out. At present I see the 2023 Gamba squad projecting something like this…

GK: Higashiguchi, Ichimori, Kato, Ishikawa
DF: Takao, Miura, Kwon Kyung-won, Kurokawa, Sato, Kuwahara
MF: Alano, Okuno, Y. Yamamoto, Meshino, Kurata, Fukuda, R. Yamamoto, Nakamura
FW: Suzuki, Usami, Patric, Sakamoto, Yamami, Minamino

* And finally…Gamba held their annual Fan Festa (Festival) at a sun-drenched Panasonic Stadium Suita on Sunday 25 September and it appeared that a good time was had by all in attendance. I was unable to go, but from what I saw and heard, Gen Shoji and Leandro Pereira did a skit together showing that they’ve buried the hatchet following their fiery on-field bust up in the Osaka Derby back in May. Also, even critics of stand-in kantoku Hiroshi Matsuda’s rather agricultural style of football would have to laugh at the players running around the field engaged in a spot of touch rugby!

Team News

A video released on the club’s official YouTube channel showing highlights of training from Wednesday 21 September appeared to indicate that 30 of the 31 contracted Gamba first-team players were in full training. Only Kwon Kyung-won, who was away with his national side did not take part in the session, while potential Covid case Jun Ichimori and long term absentees Takashi Usami and Rihito Yamamoto look ready to go if, and when, their kantoku calls on them. Long-term readers will know this clean bill of health marks quite the contrast with the 2 most recent campaigns and I feel that a good deal of credit should go to physical coach Ryo Yano who joined the club from FC Ryukyu last off season. Finally, Shu Kurata, Keisuke Kurokawa, Kosuke Onose, Patric and Mitsuki Saito are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Kashiwa Reysol

Last year I was one of a number of critics of legendary Reysol coach Nelsinho and it seemed that his days at the Kashiwadai were numbered, but to his eternal credit, he’s completely turned the tables this term and has to be a candidate for manager of the year. How long can the 72 year-old keep going for? Well, that remains to be seen and it’s shaping up to be an interesting off season at Kashiwa without doubt. Being one of only 2 senior clubs from the heavily populated Chiba prefecture, home to a number of the nation’s top footballing schools, it’s no surprise that Reysol invest heavily in youth each year. To that end, the Sunkings have already confirmed the capture of 5 new youngsters ahead of the 2023 campaign, 2 from university, 2 from their youth setup and 1 from a local high school. To name them, they are, current All Japan University representatives, midfielder / attacker Kazuki Kumasawa (Ryutsu Keizai University) and Riku Ochiai (Tokyo International University). Ochiai was previously a Kashiwa Under-18 player before joining VONDS Ichihara in the Kanto Soccer League and then deciding to enter college, so he’s actually a year older than most university rookies. Additionally, last week the club announced the promotion of Faruzan Sana Mohamado and Ota Yamamoto from their youth team as well as the signing of 187cm forward William Owie from Nippon Sports Science University Kashiwa High School (not the catchiest name for a school sure, but they possess a decent track record when it comes to youth development). These newcomers will hope to match the impact of some of the fresh-faced youngsters who have graced yellow and black Reysol uniforms this year. Although, save for young ‘keeper Masato Sasaki, and highly touted centre-back Hayato Tanaka, Nelsinho has largely reverted back to using tried-and-trusted seasoned pros as the year has progressed, midfielders Takuto Kato, Yugo Masukake, Takumi Tsuchiya and Yuto Yamada as well as forwards Hidetaka Maie and Kaito Mori have flashed signs of their potential and all are well worth watching moving into 2023 and beyond.

**Note – I’ve seen Faruzan Sana Mohamado written as Faruzansana Mohamado, Ota Yamamoto translated as Outa Yamamoto and William Owie as William Ouie. At this stage I can’t verify the proper Roman character spelling for any of these names, but I’ve done my best and please accept my apologies if any errors crop up.**

Team News

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

DF Wataru Iwashita – Broken foot, likely to miss the rest of the season

DF Naoki Kawaguchi – Has missed the last 2 league games. I know he’s not necessarily a first-teamer but Kitazume being selected ahead of him versus Frontale suggests to me he was unavailable.

DF Takuma Ominami – Missed the home draw with Kawasaki on 17 September because of suspension, but available for selection again ahead of this clash.

DF Yuji Takahashi – Went off injured in the home loss to FC Tokyo on 27 August and not seen since

DF Hayato Tanaka – Missed the last 2 matches due to his involvement with Japan’s Under-20 squad as they completed their AFC U20 Asian Cup qualifiers. Incidentally, he was a team-mate of Gamba’s Rikuto Kuwahara, Jiro Nakamura and Isa Sakamoto during that time.

Mao Hosoya, Takumi Kamijima, Hiromu Mitsumaru, Matheus Savio and Sachiro Toshima are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Scouting J2 2022

Hello Everyone,

There’s no Gamba game this coming weekend (probably just as well for the sake of my blood pressure) so I thought now would be a good time for a piece looking at who has been tearing it up in Japan’s second tier this season. As with last year’s Scouting J2 article which you can find here, I’ve set some parameters to help me whittle down the number of candidates,

* No current J1 loanees (Shota Fujio, Motohiko Nakajima, Teppei Yachida…)

* No previous J1 experience (Taiki Hirato, Ryoma Kida, Kosuke Kinoshita…)

* No players likely to be directly promoted with their club this season (no Niigata or Yokohama FC players)

* No-one who featured in last year’s article, but failed to earn a move (Kosuke Inose, Riku Handa, Sho Araki, Kaishu Sano, Tomoya Miki)

* No age limit – Where necessary (Shusuke Ota) when two players were competing for one spot in my eleven below I opted for the younger player and this article in general is focused on youngsters. However, as we know Japanese culture and society reveres age and experience to a greater extent than in the west, so this isn’t just a team full of teenagers.

Hopefully that was all clear enough and now below you’ll find eleven players I think have what it takes to step up to J1 within the next year or so. For reference, from my 2021 side, 4 players moved to J1 last winter (Seiya Maikuma, Rikito Inoue, Tetsuya Chinen and Hikaru Nakahara – I was clearly better at picking defenders than attackers last season), 1 (Shion Homma) headed to Europe and 1 (Yoshiki Fujimoto) signed for a bigger J2 club (Montedio Yamagata).


Louis Yamaguchi (Mito HollyHock)
Born: 28 May 1998 (24 years old)
Position: goalkeeper
History: FC Tokyo U-18, Lorient (France), Extremadura (Spain), Recreativo (Spain)
Transfermarkt Value: €175,000

Profile: Searching for a replacement for the departed Ayumi Niekawa last winter, Mito head coach Tadahiro Akiba made the slightly left-field decision to bring in French-Japanese ‘keeper Louis Yamaguchi. The move has paid dividends for all parties with Yamaguchi quickly establishing himself as the club’s number 1, making 29 J1 appearances to date. Standing 188cm tall, Yamaguchi, who spent his first year of high school in FC Tokyo’s youth ranks and boasts a wealth of Japan age-level experience, cuts an imposing figure and though he dropped something of a clanger for Niigata’s 2nd goal yesterday (18 September), he pulled off a string of fine saves throughout that game to keep the scoreline somewhat respectable and give any watching scouts a taste of what he can do.

Potential Suitors: As with last year, there weren’t really a whole host of ‘keepers vying for this place as Ryosuke Kojima (Niigata) and Svend Brodersen (Yokohama FC), for me the two best goalies in the division by a fair distance, are ineligible for selection as per my rules above. Why am I mentioning this? Well, Yamaguchi likely doesn’t project as a J1 starter in the next couple of years, but he could certainly be a good fit for say Kashima who aren’t settled on a first choice at the moment, Kashiwa, where he could provide backup to young Masato Sasaki or even his old side FC Tokyo should they send Go Hatano out on loan to get some more top team experience.


Seiya Baba (Tokyo Verdy)
Born: 24 October 2001 (20)
Position: centre-back / holding-midfielder / full-back
History: Tokyo Verdy Youth
Transfermarkt Value: €225,000

Profile: Versatile ball-playing defender Seiya Baba has really come on in leaps and bounds this year despite his club side, Tokyo Verdy, being mired in another season of mid-table mediocrity. Capable of playing in the middle of defence or midfield and even at right-back, Chiba-native Baba has racked up 27 J2 appearances this year which dwarves the 16 he’d accrued prior to the season kicking off back in February. Baba is currently a potential candidate for the Paris 2023 Olympic squad and this summer he turned out alongside former Verdy team-mates Joel Chima Fujita and Rihito Yamamoto for Japan Under-23 (Under-21 in reality) in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup. He’s also been selected as a member of the Under-21 side that will take on their Swiss, Italian and Spanish counterparts over in Europe later this month.

Potential Suitors: Given his versatility, ball-playing abilities, national youth team selections and the fact that Verdy basically run a production line of J1 ready players, I’d expect there will be a lot of interest in him in the coming months. He’d fit in well alongside the former Verdy trio of Shinnosuke Hatanaka, Kota Watanabe and the aforementioned Joel Chima Fujita at Marinos, that is if their move for Riku Handa, which I predicted last year, doesn’t come to fruition. Cerezo have shown themselves to be masters of the J2 market in recent years and completing his apprenticeship alongside Matej Jonjić at the back or next to Hiroaki Okuno in central-midfield could be the making of him, while Kashima don’t have their troubles to seek defensively and may look to Baba as a solution to some of those issues.

Yusei Egawa (V-Varen Nagasaki)
Born: 24 October 2000 (21)
Position: centre-back / full-back
History: V-Varen Nagasaki U-18
Transfermarkt Value: €500,000

Profile: Nagasaki born-and-bred, Egawa has been with V-Varen since entering high school and after overcoming a serious knee injury which destroyed his rookie season, he earned some game time as a left-back towards the end of 2020. However, it was under current Gamba caretaker boss Hiroshi Matsuda last season that he really started to make a name for himself as an up-and-coming centre-back. Standing just 175cm, I fear he may have the same issue current Kanazawa right-back Riku Matsuda had in J1, namely that big teams won’t choose sub-180cm central defenders in a back 4. With that said though, he has the talent and versatility to revert to full-back or more likely to play on the left hand side of a back 3.

Potential Suitors: Given what I said above, I’ve whittled down my search to teams who always / often operate with a back 3 system. Akito Fukumori hasn’t always been flavour of the month in Sapporo this season the way he was in previous years which certainly opens the door for someone like Egawa to move north to try and fix the Rossoneri’s leaky rearguard. Sho Sasaki isn’t getting any younger at Hiroshima and they’ve been known to target top J2 talents in the past, while Kashiwa could be another decent move for Egawa given how injury prone Yuji Takahashi is and Takumi Kamijima’s struggles trying to build on an impressive loan spell at Fukuoka and carve out a regular spot for himself in the Reysol backline.

Shunsuke Nishikubo (JEF United Chiba)
Born: 30 July 2003 (19)
Position: right-back / right wing-back
History: Mitsubishi Yowa SC Youth
Transfermarkt Value: €125,000

Profile: Hailing from the same youth team as former Gamba winger Keito Nakamura, currently starring in the Austrian Bundesliga, fellow wide-man Shunsuke Nishikubo may not be garnering the same headlines as his more illustrious senpai at the moment, but he’s enjoying a fine debut campaign nonetheless. Blessed with a wicked long throw and a deadly cross, soon-to-depart JEF Chiba kantoku Yoon Jong-hwan may look back on the part he played in Nishikubo’s development with great fondness in years to come. The youngster from Saitama can play either at right-back or as a wing-back just as he’s been doing for JEF this season. He’s already bagged 1 goal and 2 assists from 25 outings, including 18 starts, not bad for a 19 year old.

Potential Suitors: A move this season may be a little too soon for him, but should he continue his meteoric rise then expect to see a plethora of J1 clubs chasing him next summer or the following winter. I know there’s quite the rivalry between JEF and Kashiwa, but wing-back has been a weak area for Reysol this year. FC Tokyo operate a 4-3-3 system at the moment, but Yuto Nagatomo won’t keep playing forever and none of their other full-backs have shown any real consistency plus kantoku Albert Puig is one J1 boss who’ll certainly give youth it’s chance. Finally, rubbing shoulders with impressive Frontale loanee Shuto Tanabe could alert Kawasaki to his abilities, they’ve struggled to find an alternative to Miki Yamane and Nishikubo certainly has the ability to provide that in the coming years.

Hidehiro Sugai (Ventforet Kofu)
Born: 27 October 1998 (23)
Position: wide centre-back / full-back / wing-back
History: Hamamatsu Kaiseikan High School, Meiji University
Transfermarkt Value: €275,000

Profile: Kofu are having a poor season as they struggle to find their mojo in the post-Akira Ito era, yet still the names of a number of their players immediately sprang into my mind as I was compiling this list (Niki Urakami and Riku Yamada were unfortunate to miss out). Second year pro Hidehiro Sugai is someone who has shone in the gloom that’s surrounded the wonderfully named JIT Recycling Stadium this term. After forcing his way into the starting eleven in his favoured wing-back position towards the back end of 2021, new kantoku Tatsuma Yoshida’s strategy for getting Sugai, Sho Araki and Masahiro Sekiguchi into the same side has been to play Sugai as a wide centre-back, a position which sorely needed filled due to the departures of Mendes and Ryohei Arai as well as Renato Vischi’s lack of…well, I’m sorry Renato…ability. Sugai has missed just a solitary league game to date and has an outstanding 4 goals and 3 assists to his name despite spending the majority of his time in defence.

Potential Suitors: If I can still consider Gamba a J1 club, the Nerazzurri don’t appear to have much faith in Ko Yanagisawa so they need someone who can challenge Ryu Takao for a spot in the side, while should Shunta Tanaka (Sapporo) or Takuma Ominami (Kashiwa) seek fresh pastures this winter that would open up spots on their rosters for someone fitting Sugai’s profile.


Motoki Hasegawa (Ventforet Kofu)
Born: 10 December 1998 (23)
Position: shadow forward / number 10 / winger
History: Omiya Ardija U-18, Hosei University
Transfermarkt Value: €650,000

Profile: As I stated above in Hidehiro Sugai’s profile, Kofu as a team haven’t set the world alight this season, but several players certainly have put their hands up. One of those is former Omiya Youth and Hosei University attacker Motoki Hasegawa. Handed the club captaincy in the wake of Ryohei Arai’s marriage scam scandal, Hasegawa have repaid his coach’s faith in him with 3 goals and 8 assists in 35 appearances which has built upon an impressive debut campaign where he netted 7 times and picked up 6 assists in 36 outings to help Ventforet finish 3rd. Blessed with an excellent touch, great vision and a fine long range shot I suspected that Hasegawa, who helped knock Gamba out of the 2019 Emperor’s Cup during his student days, may have headed for J1 last winter. It was not to be, and despite his team’s struggles this term, I think his long-term career will be all the better for having played another season at this level rather than taking the leap to J1 prematurely. Just to underline his quality, he leads J2 in chances created (88), is second in terms of last passes (66), 5th for through balls (81) and 7th for shots taken (54).

Potential Suitors: There are likely to be many, Cerezo potentially chief among them as they seek a long-term replacement for Hiroshi Kiyotake. Elsewhere, if they can put an enticing enough financial package together then Sagan Tosu would be a solid destination for Hasegawa to continue his development, while the thought of he and Mateus playing off a returning Jakub Świerczok will surely get Nagoya fans salivating.

So Kawahara (Roasso Kumamoto)
Born: 13 March 1998 (24)
Position: holding midfielder
History: Ozu High School, Fukuoka University
Transfermarkt Value: €400,000

Profile: In his 3rd year as a pro, Kawahara is deep-lying playmaker who captains playoff chasing Kumamoto from the midfield anchor position in Takeshi Oki’s 3-1-3-3 formation. Prior to last weekend’s action, Kawahara led J2 in last passes (70 in 36 games), quite an achievement for someone positioned so deep on the field of play, though in fairness he does deliver a mean dead ball. Such proficiency from corners and free kicks has seen him pick up 8 assists to date, only 2 behind Ryotaro Ito of Niigata, the division’s top provider. If you need further proof of his quality, please take note of the fact that he ranks in the top 10 in J2 for chances created (2nd), possession recoveries (3rd), interceptions (4th), blocks (5th) and tackles (10th), so it’s been quite the all round performance from him this season.

Potential Suitors:
With João Schmidt not always seeing eye-to-eye with kantoku Toru Oniki and Kento Tachibanada possibly heading to Europe in the next 12 months, Kawahara could be just the player Frontale are looking for and hailing from the same high school as Shogo Taniguchi and Shintaro Kuramaya, I’m sure he’d fit in quite well. Elsewhere, Urawa will likely be in the market for a replacement for the ageing Ken Iwao and a Kawahara-Atsuki Ito partnership could work well, while Leo Silva at Nagoya isn’t getting any younger and Grampus are in need of a long-term contingency plan for his succession.

Naohiro Sugiyama (Roasso Kumamoto)
Born: 7 September 1998 (24)
Position: shadow forward / number 10 / winger
History: Ozu High School, Juntendo University
Transfermarkt Value: €350,000

Profile: Reo Hatate’s kōhai at Juntendo University is another member of Takeshi Oki’s impressive Kumamoto side who has made big waves in J2 this year. If you want an example of the finesse Sugiyama possesses then look no further than his brilliant doubles in the home wins over Zweigen Kanazawa (3-0) and Tochigi SC (2-0) which featured 3 excellent strikes from outside the box. Mostly found on the right-wing, Sugiyama is also competent on the opposite flank and can even slot into the number 10 role when required. Stats-wise, he’s got 6 goals and 4 assists from 35 J2 appearances this year, he also ranks 2nd for dribbles (137), 3rd for shots (69), 4th for crosses (118), 9th for through balls (67) and blocks (81) as well as 14th for chances created (52).

Potential Suitors: As a former Avispa U-15 player could he look to move back to his home prefecture next season to provide them with greater creativity than they currently possess? Or, how about a switch to Kawasaki where he could be the successor to Akihiro Ienaga while following in his old senpai Hatate’s footsteps?

Yudai Tanaka (Fagiano Okayama)
Born: 14 December 1999 (22)
Position: winger / wing-back / central-midfielder
History: Toko Gakuen High School, Waseda University
Transfermarkt Value: €250,000

Profile: Namesake of Akita’s impressive goalkeeper who himself might not be too far away from earning a J1 contract, Okayama’s Yudai Tanaka has been an excellent addition for the Pheasants this term and has certainly silenced the doubters (Jon Steele and myself) who suggested they wouldn’t make good on their promise of building a team ready to challenge for promotion in 2022. Capable of operating on the right-wing in both 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations as well as one of the two more advanced midfielders in the latter system and even a right wing-back if necessary, Tanaka is something of a Swiss Army knife in the Reo Hatate mold. In his rookie season out of Waseda University (current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s alma mater….oooh, posh!), Tanaka has racked up 5 goals and an assist from 35 appearances as well as ranking 20th in J2 for shots on target (14). The defensive side of his game isn’t too shabby either, his 72 blocks sees him place 15th in the division, he’s also recovered possession on 98 occasions (21st) and has attempted 61 tackles (22nd).

Potential Suitors: An all round combatant, Tanaka could be a decent pickup for a team like Kashima who will likely be looking to ‘level up’ following a disappointing fallaway in the second half of this campaign. Additionally, Nagoya are in need of some additional pace, work-rate and firepower and the same could be said for Vissel Kobe too.


Ryoga Sato (Tokyo Verdy)
Born: 20 February 1999 (23)
Position: centre-forward
History: Higashi Fukuoka High School, Meiji University
Transfermarkt Value: €700,000

Profile: Players, managers and scandals have all come and gone at Verdy over the course of the past 2 seasons, but one thing that has remained consistent is Ryoga Sato’s goals. Yuya Fukuda’s senpai at Higashi Fukuoka High School has netted 24 times in 76 J2 appearances and contributed 4 assists as well despite finding himself in and out of the starting eleven on the whim of whoever has been in charge of Verdy at any particular time. He has some rough edges to his game for sure, but a goal-getter like him will surely have caught the eye of teams at a higher level, particularly as Verdy have got to be the most consistently scouted J2 side out there.

Potential Suitors: Again excuse me for considering Gamba to be a J1 side, but next year Usami, Suzuki, Sakamoto, Minamino and potentially an ageing Patric will likely be their attacking options opening the door for someone of Sato’s ilk to come in and link up with his old high school team-mate Fukuda and university colleague Yota Sato. Additionally, Nagoya have been lacking a young goal-scorer for a while and Sagan Tosu could definitely benefit from a forward with a solid work ethic, good technique and a keen eye for goal.

Toshiki Takahashi (Roasso Kumamoto)
Born: 20 January 1998 (24)
Position: centre-forward
History: Saitama Sakae High School, Kokushikan University
Transfermarkt Value: €400,000

Profile: I’ve been a big fan of 182cm tall mobile centre-forward Toshiki Takahashi since I first saw him playing for Roasso against Gamba U-23 in J3 back in his rookie season of 2020. His goal return of 17 strikes in 55 outings in the third division wasn’t massively impressive, but he, like his team as a whole, has ascended to a whole new plane this term. He’s upped his goalscoring ratio a good deal in 2022 with 12 efforts in 34 appearances, though as Tiago Alves has shown at Okayama, you don’t have to be the greatest player in the world to score goals at this level. It’s more Takahashi’s incessant work-rate, movement and dedication to his team’s cause that have caught my eye, particularly his ability to drag defenders away from goal to allow the talented attacking midfield trio just behind him the space to work their magic.

Potential Suitors: I’m sure he’ll have no shortage of them and to be a bit lazy the first two I’ll suggest are fellow Kyushu-based sides Sagan Tosu and Avispa Fukuoka. Tosu’s main strikers, Taisei Miyashiro (Kawasaki) and Yuki Kakita (Kashima) are both on loan meaning Kenta Kawai will likely be on the lookout for a new forward for 2023 while Avispa are J1’s second lowest scorers and could also be in a position this winter where they’re seeking a replacement for top marksman Yuya Yamagishi. Shinzo Koroki’s move north to Sapporo hasn’t really worked out for either party this season and Takahashi could provide a useful boost to the Hokkaido outfit’s attack, and I could say similar things about Keita Yamashita at FC Tokyo, though while Saitama-native Takahashi may relish a move to the capital, I’m slightly of the mind that if the Gasmen couldn’t properly utilise Yamashita, then it might not really be the place for him to thrive.

Odds and Ends

A quick shout out to Masaya Shibayama (Omiya Ardija) and Kodai Sano (younger brother of 2021 list member Kaishu, Fagiano Okayama) who came very close to making my eleven, as did the aforementioned Shusuke Ota thanks to his 10 goals and 5 assists in 36 appearances for Machida Zelvia.

Finally, thanks again for reading this article and I’ll hopefully have some more non-match preview content coming up during the 3 week break Gamba have between 8-29 October, please keep your eyes peeled for that.


Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka 18 September 2022 Match Preview

Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 30
Sunday 18 September 2022
Noevir Stadium
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

The stakes couldn’t be any higher for Gamba Osaka or Vissel Kobe ahead of this Sunday night’s Hanshin Derby. Hosts Vissel currently occupy the promotion / relegation spot, but they are just a solitary point behind their visitors from nearby Osaka, with a game in hand, following a crucial 2-1 victory over FC Tokyo in midweek. Kobe are only ahead of 17th placed Fukuoka on goal difference, while both Kyoto and Shonan sit a mere point above the Nerazzurri and 2 ahead of Vissel meaning that the result of this fixture could have serious implications across the country. Gamba come into this tie on the back of an 8 day break since their disappointing 0-0 draw with FC Tokyo at Panasonic Stadium, an outcome that looked like a distinct possibility pre-match and not a whole lot happened during the 90 minutes to suggest that it was going to end any other way. Having failed to score in their last 3 home outings, caretaker boss Hiroshi Matsuda may relish the chance to take his charges on the road again as they search for a third win on the spin outside of Suita. The Ao to Kuro have teased a potential return for Takashi ‘The Kobe Killer’ Usami, while there have been murmurings from the Kobe camp that seasoned international Yuya Osako could launch his latest comeback from injury here too. However, with or without that star duo we’re likely in for tension, drama and potentially a good deal of fireworks in one of Japan’s most picturesque cities, what more could you want from your Sunday evening?

Tale of the Tape

Five matches into Hiroshi Matsuda’s reign as Gamba kantoku and the Nerazzurri have won twice, drawn once and lost twice, accumulating 7 points in the process, if they can repeat that over their remaining 5 fixtures then they should just about be able to avoid the bottom three. Of course there have been ups and downs, defensively 3 clean sheets have been kept in 5 games (compared with 5 in the previous 24), while 8 goals have been given up in the other 2 outings against Hiroshima and Tosu. However, if it’s just the odd game when every shot from the opposition ends up in the back of the net versus stability in the next few, that’s probably an acceptable bargain given the current situation. Speaking of shots against, since the horror show at the Edion Stadium when 5 goals were ceded from 27 attempts, Matsuda’s Gamba have averaged only 12.3 (6 on target) shots against per 90 minutes compared with 15.9 (9.1) overall. The DAZN commentators on Saturday seemed to be on commission for using the phrase ‘442 zone defence’ when describing Matsuda’s set-up (‘innerlap’ appeared to be their buzzword when discussing FC Tokyo) and the signs do seem to be pointing towards greater defensively stability at Panasonic Stadium, though how much this is thrown off by Genta Miura’s concussion and the potential upcoming suspension headache (Kurokawa and Saito) remains to be seen. Further forward, Gamba applied more of a high-press against FC Tokyo than had been seen under Matsuda previously, with the Brazilian duo of Patric and a seemingly rejuvenated Leandro Pereira leading the charge. The Nerazzurri harassed and harried their opponents in their own half throughout the 90 minutes, though the strategy proved to be most effective during the opening half hour. FC Tokyo did seem to be made-to-order opponents for the Nerazzurri as, unlike Tosu the previous week, who came to Suita chastened by a 4-0 hammering at Kawasaki, the Gasmen were fresh off the back of a couple of more-than-decent results and had a slight air of ‘we only have to turn up here to win’ about them, which I’m sure irritated kantoku Albert Puig and their supporters no end. Gamba won 20 of 25 tackles attempted on Saturday night, I don’t quite have the stats to back this up, but anecdotally I’m pretty sure that’s by far the best performance in that metric all season. While it’s fair to say based on league position that FC Tokyo are much stronger than Gamba in 2022 and equally the Nerazzurri’s need to win was far higher than their opponents on Saturday, the sad truth is that the home side were unable to translate that greater desire and fighting spirit into something more tangible, like a much needed home 3 pointer. The lack of a finishing touch again came back to haunt them and it’s worth re-stating that the Nerazzurri’s top scorers are still Dawhan, Onose, Patric and Pereira, who are all tied on just 3 goals apiece. Furthermore, it should also be noted that this was the 3rd home game in-a-row where Gamba have failed to score, so there’s still plenty of work for Matsuda and his coaching staff to do on the training ground. While that might all be a touch negative, one bright spark for those of a blue and black persuasion was the return to the starting eleven of Yuki Yamamoto for the first time since round 9. The schemer helped take some of the creative burden off Juan Alano’s shoulders and put in an impressive display on attack and defence, completing 46 of 53 passes and supplying 1 last pass as well as winning 3 of 4 tackles (usually his weak point), making 3 blocks and recovering possession twice. The Ao to Kuro faithful will be hoping his partnership with Mitsuki Saito can continue to bear fruit over the remaining 5 games of the 2022 campaign.

Frankly speaking, Vissel have followed up a historic high 3rd place league finish in 2021 with an absolute abomination of a season to date this year. They kicked off their campaign with a run of just 1 win and 8 points from their opening 15 league fixtures and though things have picked up since then with 6 wins and 20 points being accrued from the next 13 games, they still find themselves mired in the bottom 3. During their Annus mirabilis last term they outperformed their opposition in terms of xG by 0.13 per game, however, this time round it’s been much more even, 1.22xG for per 90 minutes versus 1.21xG against, a razor thin margin which has left them susceptible to the vagaries of luck. Coaching and formation changes as well as injuries to key attackers Osako and Muto haven’t helped, but over the course of their 28 J1 games to date they’ve scored 9.35 times less than they should have based on their accumulated xG for figure of 34.16. Defensively things match up pretty evenly, 35 actual goals conceded compared with 33.88xG against. Vissel started the year in a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond under Atsuhiro Miura and that has since morphed into a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2 and latterly a 4-3-3 / 4-1-2-3 for the home bout with FC Tokyo. I may have wrote kantoku Takayuki Yoshida off as another shining example of tall, handsome men being more likely to earn promotions than anyone else in society and just another Mikitani yes-man, but in fairness to the former Nagasaki boss, he’s managed to grind out results with 5 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats the league record so far during his tenure. Kobe are going at a clip of 2.13 points per game under Yoshida as opposed to 1.00 across the campaign as a whole, granted he did win his first 3 games in charge, before the ride became a bit more bumpy. The current set-up that Yoshida has implemented does seem to get the best out of Koya Yuruki and he’s really stepped up to the plate while his more experienced attacking colleagues have been on the treatment table, a double in the away win at Sapporo in addition to two assists versus FC Tokyo on Wednesday night are testament to that. However, Vissel just like their near neighbours Gamba have struggled to hit the back of the net with any kind of regularity, Yoshinori Muto is their top scorer with 5 strikes, closely followed by Osako and Yuruki on 4. Indeed, ex-Yamagata and Urawa winger Yuruki’s 7 direct goal involvements is the leading total at the club and it means he’s had a hand in nearly 30% of Kobe’s goals this year. Gamba have been well warned about where the danger is coming from in this Vissel side, will they be able to maintain their recent defensive stability, or will Yuruki, Muto and co. be able to expose some old familiar frailties?

First Match Recap

Gamba’s 2-0 stroll in the sunshine against Kobe at the end of Golden Week has, on reflection, probably been their season’s highlight to date. Granted, the early dismissal of Vissel centre-back Ryuho Kikuchi for a DOGSO offence certainly played it’s part, but there were plenty of signs prior to that which indicated the Nerazzurri were the more focused and driven side on the occasion and thus the likelier to come out on top regardless of how many players Kobe kept on the field. Jiro Nakamura smacked the crossbar, Ko Yanagisawa the left post and Kwon Kyung-won the right in a raucous first-half during which the aforementioned Kikuchi saw red for tripping Patric with the big Brazilian bearing down on goal. In fairness to Vissel they put their bodies on the line to prevent Gamba taking the lead in the second period and could even have gone ahead themselves when substitute Iniesta shimmied and jinked and played in Yoshinori Muto whose shot was well smothered by Jun Ichimori. However, the visitors were undone twice in the final ten minutes, Kwon Kyung-won headed home the opener after a corner was only partially cleared before Wellington Silva wrapped up the scoring with his first Gamba goal courtesy of a pretty large deflection. In the aftermath there were suggestions that the Ao to Kuro should have considered themselves fortunate to come out on top, but such diatribes failed to take into account the fact that Kikuchi was rightly ordered off, the Nerazzurri outshot their opponents 33-5, struck the woodwork three times and had shots blocked, deflected away, and saved on numerous occasions. The Kobe dam simply had to burst and fans like myself left Panasonic Stadium in buoyant mood with Gamba avoiding home defeat to Vissel for only the second time since the club moved to their new digs back in 2016.

Gamba Osaka

The run in – After this Sunday’s Hanshin Derby, there’s an international break which means Gamba aren’t back in action until their home bout with out-of-form Kashiwa Reysol on 1 October. The following week there’s a trip to Nissan Stadium to square off against title-chasing Yokohama F. Marinos, a side they’ve only lost away to once in their last 7 visits. Next, there’s a 3 week gap before the visit of Yasuhito Endo and Júbilo Iwata who could already be down by that point and then the league season finishes just as it began with a game against Kashima. Hopefully the round 34 tie in Ibaraki doesn’t feature any shenanigans from you-know-who in the Stags #40 jersey. A tough, but not insurmountable set of fixtures await, Gamba’s fate lies in their own hands, will they be good enough to haul themselves to safety or will they be sucked down to the depths of J2?

Keisuke Kurokawa – I’m a little late with this nugget of information due to my illness, but I thought it was worth sharing nonetheless. When questioned about Keisuke Kurokawa, Matsuda kantoku said he initially struggled to understand what type of player Kurokawa was and what his strengths and weaknesses were. This is likely the reason that he was absent for the 5-2 loss at Hiroshima, Matsuda’s first game in charge. However, upon further inspection on the training field, as well as perhaps observing that sadly Hiroki Fujiharu is no longer a J1 player (Gamba have 2 draws and 8 losses from the 10 J1 games Fujiharu has started this year), Matsuda realised what a quality player Kurokawa was and quickly re-called him to the starting lineup.

Rihito Yamamoto – With the on-field success of Yuki Yamamoto last weekend I thought this was a good chance to shine the spotlight on his midfield namesake, Rihito Yamamoto. With Meshino, Juan Alano and Musashi Suzuki all getting regular first-team minutes, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Gamba made a fourth summer signing in late July, that of Tokyo Verdy and Japan U-20 star Rihito Yamamoto. He actually joined with a small fracture in his foot and has been completing a rehabilitation program ever since, though with 5 matches remaining I’m somewhat doubtful that he’ll play at all this year. Through no fault of his own Yamamoto has become a pawn in Gamba’s transfer market madness. Take his position of central midfield, the Nerazzurri have basically played with two players in that role all season, yet on their books they have the 2 Yamamotos, Dawhan, Mitsuki Saito, Kohei Okuno and Shu Kurata who are all skilled in that area. What is the reason for amassing so many talented players, especially when all except Kurata are essentially only central-midfielders who can’t play effectively elsewhere? This is an issue that plagues the club in several positions around the field and in the wake of Tomohiro Katanosaka’s dismissal there was talk of bringing the front office and coaching departments closer together. In all honesty, the fact that this didn’t happen years ago is borne out in the club’s struggles in recent seasons. Those who don’t move with the times are destined to fail.

A word on referees – Last week against Tosu, referee Takafumi Mikuriya had a completely scattergun approach to what was and wasn’t a foul or booking. The somewhat infamous Yoshiro Imamura took charge of Gamba vs FC Tokyo and while he was more consistent, his strategy of don’t give anything in the first-half, but everything is a free-kick and yellow card after the break surely infuriated both sets of supporters in equal measure. There were definitely a few wild lunges going in from Gamba players as things got frantic towards the end, though once more I have to question how FC Tokyo’s Keigo Higashi managed to remain on the field for the full 90. After being rightly yellow carded for breaking up a dangerous counter attack, he then proceeded to grab the ball with his hands (a second yellow surely?) to prevent a quick re-start and then when Imamura had cleared away the scrum of players challenging for the ball, Higashi rolled over on his back and started blatantly wasting time by feigning injury (which should have been a third yellow in the space of a minute?). Anyway, I digress as it happened late on and wouldn’t really have made much difference to the final outcome. The other major incident during the match was Yasuki Kimoto’s challenge on Leandro Pereira as the striker bore down on goal in the 55th minute. At a first glance (and that’s all we got on DAZN, suspicious much?) I think it was a fair tackle by Kimoto, however, as fans we were left wondering, why no replays? Why no VAR check? They spend minute after minute analysing certain decisions in scientific detail, how could they have been so sure, so quickly that Kimoto hadn’t caught Pereira?

The battle of the Yuya’s, Fukuda vs Osako – 8 May 2020 Gamba Osaka are hosting Vissel Kobe at Panasonic Stadium, after 22 minutes Yuya Fukuda clumsily brings down Yuya Osako for a foul and receives a yellow card for his troubles. Veteran national team forward Osako is unimpressed with the challenge and seeks revenge. Four minutes later the opportunity presents itself, he trips Fukuda, but Gamba’s number 14 only stumbles so Osako properly kicks him to ensure he hits the ground. Osako levels up the yellow card count 1-1, but Fukuda falls awkwardly and dislocates his shoulder meaning he’ll miss almost 4 months of action. In the aftermath, young Jiro Nakamura gets into a scuffle with Osako and Gotoku Sakai over the forward’s refusal to check on the condition of his prone opponent, and in fairness to him he eventually did shuffle over for a token apology. Why am I going into so much detail about this? Well, it’s clear that while Osako in no way intended to injure Fukuda as badly as he did, his actions suggest he was trying to hurt a fellow professional to get even. Possibly because Fukuda is such a popular player among the Ao to Kuro faithful, I’ve heard opinions from Gamba supporters along the lines of, if Osako is in the Japan national team squad for the World Cup then I’ll only cheer for him grudgingly. So, should both Fukuda and Osako make it onto the Noevir Stadium turf on Sunday night I’m very interested to see what goes down.

Team News

The club announced one symptomatic Covid case on Tuesday 13 September, there were no close contacts within the squad. Other than that, the following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.

DF Genta Miura – Left the field with concussion against FC Tokyo last weekend following a clash of heads with Adailton. Was training separately from his team-mates as of Tuesday 13 September and must be a serious doubt for this fixture.

MF Rihito Yamamoto – Recovering from a minor fracture in his foot. He’s still just in light training, but should be good to go very soon, whether Matsuda chooses to utilise him is another issue entirely

FW Takashi Usami – The ‘Kobe Killer’ was seen in full training on Monday 12 September as he makes his way back from an achilles tendon rupture suffered in early March. He couldn’t return just in time to sink his old friends over in Hyogo again, could he?

Shu Kurata, Keisuke Kurokawa, Kosuke Onose and Mitsuki Saito are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Vissel Kobe

Transfer windows are usually a busy time around the Noevir Stadium and this summer was no exception with 4 arrivals and 3 departures. Sagan Tosu wing-back Nanasei Iino, who has generally played in a more advanced role since joining, classy Brazilian centre-back Matheus Thuler (Flamengo) and Montenegrin international goal-getter Stefan Mugoša (Incheon United), all get the BlogGamba seal of approval. Replacing the departed Kento Hashimoto with Yuki Kobayashi less so, as I can’t quite get away from a comment I saw from a Gamba fan on Twitter which compared that deal with the Nerazzurri’s decision to replace Yosuke Ideguchi with Shinya Yajima in 2018, ie a bona fide international who could feature in the upcoming World Cup, leaving for Europe and his place being taken by a run-of-the-mill J1 player. Other than those moves, young Brazilian forward Lincoln has returned to his homeland, joining Cruzeiro on loan after a disappointing 18 month spell in Hyogo where he found the back of the net just once in 21 league outings. Additionally, Mitsuki Hidaka, someone who I bigged up in my preview for the match at Panasonic Stadium, has departed for lower league Spanish outfit Atlético Paso on loan, a strange switch, but I think he was desperate for a move to Europe no matter how it came about, so good luck to him. Next season, regardless of whether or not they’re in J1 or J2 I expect to see a new face in the dugout, and it certainly will make for fascinating viewing if Vissel do grace the second tier for the first time since 2013, what effect, if any, would that have on the Mikitani Rakuten project? That’s a question I can’t answer, but what I can tell you is that the Port Town Boys have already acquired 4 new faces ahead of the 2023 campaign. Defender Shogo Terasaka, midfielder Shuto Adachi and forward Niina Tominaga will all move up from the club’s impressive Under-18 side which has produced the likes of Yuki Kobayashi (defender), Daiju Sasaki and Yutaro Oda in recent years. Another former youth team product, winger Toya Izumi, rounds out the new arrivals and he will move back to Kobe once he graduates from Biwako Seikei Sport College in Shiga (alma mater of Riku and Riki Matsuda among others).

Team News

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

MF Andrés Iniesta – Has missed the last 3 league games plus the ACL loss to Jeonbuk and the Emperor’s Cup defeat at the hands of Kashima

MF Sergi Samper – Likely out for the rest of the year with a cruciate knee ligament injury. Was back in Spain receiving treatment, though he has subsequently returned to Japan to continue his rehabilitation.

FW Bojan Krkić – Has been out for 2 months with a knee injury, expected back sometime in October

FW Stefan Mugoša – Has missed the last 4 games (3 league and 1 Emperor’s Cup)

FW Yutaro Oda – Has missed the last 3 games (2 league and 1 Emperor’s Cup)

FW Yuya Osako – Went off vs Yokohama F. Marinos in the ACL and has since missed the loss to Jeonbuk plus 3 league matches and 1 Emperor’s Cup tie. According to his coach’s rather cryptic comments he could return on Sunday.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


An Ode to Sagan Tosu

Gamba Osaka vs Sagan Tosu
2022 J1 Season Round 28
Saturday 3 September 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

Hi Everyone,

This is a special Blog Gamba article. As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I’ve been ill recently which meant no coverage of the 3-0 home loss to Sagan Tosu or the 0-0 draw with FC Tokyo…to deal with the elephant in the room, it was Covid-19, and it was not pleasant at all. Anyway, as I was gearing up for a busy week with Fukuoka (a) and Tosu (h) on the horizon, I’d started my preview for the Sagan game before I fell ill. I was in full flow and there was some decent stuff in there so I decided to just go ahead and publish what I had written (I guess this is a bit like bands putting out old session demos long after they’ve split up?). Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the fruits of my labour, I should be back to cover the remaining 5 league fixtures this season.

First Match Recap

Gamba’s 2-1 defeat away to Tosu at the back end of May was essentially a microcosm of their season as a whole, able to hold their own against top half opposition, but lacking the chutzpah to go grab the bull by the horns and earn the three points. Taichi Kato’s debut between the sticks for the Nerazzurri was the major talking point selection-wise and it probably came as much as a surprise to him as it did to anyone else, with previous incumbent, Jun Ichimori, dislocating 2 fingers in training the day before the game. Kato performed well overall, though he was left helpless as Yuki Horigome swept in the hosts’ opener in the 19th minute following good work down the right flank by Nanasei Iino. It remained 1-0 into the second-half, however, Gamba were quicker out of the blocks after the re-start and grabbed a deserved equaliser when a flowing move culminated in Mitsuki Saito’s inch-perfect cross being powered home at the back post by Hiroto Yamami, his 2nd headed goal in as many outings. We appeared to be drifting towards quite a tame draw for the next half hour or so with few clear openings created by either side, but, Sagan rallied late on to seal all three points and send their passionate fans home happy. Gamba conceded a needless free-kick in their own defensive third, Kentaro Moriya, who’d only come on as a substitute a minute prior, whipped in a delicious cross that was met by the head of Hwang Seok-ho for the winner, 2-1 Tosu the final score. For Gamba it was the second of what was to be four consecutive losses and one of the first real, powerful warning signs to kantoku Tomohiro Katanosaka that things weren’t going his way in Suita.

Sagan Tosu

Promoted to J1 back in 2012, Tosu initially found success, but then began a slow slide down the rankings in a slump that looked destined to end in eventual relegation. Not so fast however, as first Kim Myung-hwi, and now following his dismissal for power harassment, 41 year-old Kenta Kawai has taken over and once again has them sitting in the top half while bigger and better funded rivals (cough cough Gamba) continue to flounder. Hailing from one of Japan’s more slow-paced and rural areas, their ‘heavy metal’ football has brought the local community in Saga and the southern part of Fukuoka to life. After being ransacked last winter, few expected Tosu to do anything noteworthy, but new kantoku Kawai, fresh from a stint under the wing of Peter Cklamovski at Montedio Yamagata, but better known for his time with Ehime, has pulled numerous rabbits out of various hats personnel wise….be honest, who thought the likes of Akito Fukuta, Yuki Horigome or Kentaro Moriya would be playing and contributing for a top half J1 side in 2022? Granted, while I’m sure Kawai gets the hairdryer out from time to time and Tosu fans don’t like drawing or losing anymore than anyone else, the sheer size of clubs such as Gamba, Nagoya, Urawa etc. means the pressure is always on, no matter who you’re playing, so some Sagan results this season, such as blowing 3-0 and 3-1 leads at Kashima and Shimizu respectively, losing 3-1 to both newly promoted sides or being thrashed 4-0 by struggling Vissel Kobe, will provoke unrest among those who hold the club dear to their hearts, but simply not on the scale as would happen at one of the Kanto or Kansai powerhouses. I’m hoping that what I’ve just said didn’t come off too condescending, because deep down I’m massively impressed by Tosu this season, I mentioned these things more because I think it helps to explain why on one hand players like Yuta Higuchi, Tomoya Koyamatsu and Nanasei Iino can keep up their form after moving away to the bright lights in the east, they’re quality players after all, others such as Keiya Sento, Eduardo, Noriyoshi Sakai and Keita Yamashita struggle under the more intense glare they face outside the confines of the Ekimae Stadium as the spotlight from fans and media alike can be just that bit brigher, their flaws magnified that touch more, and as many of the aforementioned players have found, patience can be in short supply when results don’t arrive swiftly. Anyway, I’m rambling, this summer Sagan brought in Hiroshima’s Swiss pocket knife Yoichi Naganuma, who previously worked with Kawai at Ehime and he re-paid his former boss’ faith with a debut goal against Shimizu. Young South Korean defender Bak Keon-woo has also arrived on loan from Pohang Steelers in his home country, while centre-back Dai Hirase came in on a designated special player contract, he’ll sign a permanent deal once he finishes his studies at Waseda University next Spring. The club will be hoping he fares a bit better than a couple of centre-backs they’ve recruited from varsity football in recent years, Daisuke Matsumoto (Chuo University, 2021) and Taiga Son (Rissho University, 2022), who are both are currently on loan at Zweigen Kanazawa in J2. Indeed the Tosu departure lounge has been a busy place this summer with Son one of 8 players to leave Sagan in one capacity or another. Yuta Fujihara (Yamagata) and Kaisei Ishii (Yokohama FC) have stepped down to J2 on loan, Kyo Sato (Kyoto) and Tatsuya Morita (Kashiwa) have stayed in J1 thanks to rental agreements, Yoshihiro Nakano is off to Shonan permanently, Lebanese defender Joan Oumari got released after just 1 sub appearance in J1 while the aforementioned Iino was the headline departure with a well earned transfer to Kobe. Taichi Fukui, an 18 year old who has represented Japan at Under-20 level has been linked with Bayern which shows how highly rated the Tosu youth system is. Speaking of which, Sagan must be one of the most scouted clubs in the J. League and their boss Kenta Kawai is likely to find himself on the wish list of the likes of Gamba, Nagoya and Kashima this winter, however, he or whoever else is coaching the 2023 Sagan Tosu squad is likely to have far less of a rebuilding job on their hands than some of the previous incumbents of the position have faced. Taisei Miyashiro (Kawasaki), Yuki Kakita (Kashima) and Yuto Iwasaki (Sapporo) are all on loan and likely won’t return, but apart from them, maybe only young defender Shinya Nakano (19) and utility forward Fuchi Honda (21), now that he’s overcome his injuries, are the only others who may be snatched away from Tosu against their wishes. It’s been another season of hard work, graft and no little success for Sagan Tosu, of course I’m a Gamba supporter so I’m hoping for a home win on Saturday, but rest assured Tosu fans, I’m a big admirer of your club and wish you continued success over the coming years.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back on Thursday 15 September with a preview of the all-important Hanshin Derby between Gamba and Vissel Kobe.


Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka 31 August 2022 Match Preview

Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 24
Wednesday 31 August 2022
Best Denki Stadium
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

There’s no rest for the wicked as Avispa Fukuoka and Gamba Osaka lace up again this Wednesday to do battle in a match re-scheduled after the Wasps’ huge Covid outbreak at the beginning of the month. This clash absolutely fits the definition of a 6-pointer as a win for the hosts would put them 6 clear of the Nerazzurri, who currently occupy the promotion / relegation spot, with 7 games remaining, while a second away victory on the spin for the visitors will pull them level with Shigetoshi Hasebe’s side, albeit likely with an inferior goal difference. Gamba ended a run of 7 league outings without a win by seeing off a disappointing Nagoya Grampus 2-0 at the Toyota Stadium last Saturday night, their first triumph away to the Giallorossi since 2016. Goals right at the start and end of proceedings, courtesy of Patric and Musashi Suzuki sealed the deal and they sandwiched two extremely tight, but ultimately correct decisions to rule out strikes by Leandro Pereira. Fukuoka were in action 24 hours previously in a Kyushu Derby away to near neighbours Sagan Tosu. Belgian winger Jordy Croux’s effort after 26 minutes cancelled out Fuchi Honda’s early opener mere moments after Juanma Delgado’s strike had been rather (extremely?) controversially ruled to be offside and they had to settle for a share of the spoils. So, there you have it, the stage is set, there’s no easy way out, there’s no shortcut home, who will prevail in this most crucial of battles?

A quick reminder, I wrote a full preview for the originally scheduled match on 6 August which you can find here. I think a lot of what is said there is still pretty relevant to Wednesday night’s clash.

Tale of the Tape

Well, what, if anything, did we learn from the second outing of Matsuda-ball? The 4-4-2 with two big men up top, flanked by wingers is here to stay, though after the 5-2 pasting at Hiroshima, Dawhan, Kwon Kyung-won and Keisuke Kurokawa were restored to the starting eleven and the Nerazzurri were all the better for it. A barnstorming opening, starting with Patric’s second goal of the year which came about via what I noted as ‘probably the ugliest passage of play involving multiple Brazilians you’re ever likely to see’ was followed up with a Dawhan header just wide and Leandro Pereira having a goal disallowed after a very tight offside call as the Nerazzurri were seemingly able to cut through Grampus’ defensive lines at will. It appeared that during the first-half drinks break the instructions from Matsuda were clear, stop charging forward in search of a second, and start managing the game…and manage it a lot better than against Hiroshima. To that end, the Ao to Kuro completed 151 more passes than 7 days earlier (granted the relative quality of the opposition has to be factored in here) and Nagoya were only able to generate 0.58xG, just the 5th time this season Gamba have been able to hold their opponents under 1. Additionally 11 shots against is the blue and blacks’ 3rd best showing in 2022 (2nd best if you only include games where they faced 11 players for the whole 90), the aforementioned returns of Kwon and Kurokawa to the starting lineup were likely key to steadying the ship. South Korean international Kwon picked up a somewhat harsh yellow card for time wasting, I say harsh because Higashiguchi wasted approximately 30% of the 6 additional minutes taking goal kicks and Meshino was quite fortunate to escape a second caution late in the piece, why was Kwon singled out for such quick punishment by referee Hiroki Kasahara? I’ll let you be the judge of that. Right-back Ryu Takao looked a little shaky to me when watching live, but his stats hold up pretty well, he completed 31 of 35 passes (indeed passing accuracy was generally excellent across the board from Gamba), won 1 of 2 tackles, made 1 clearance, recovered possession 3 times and gave away just 1 foul. However, if 4-4-2 is going to be in vogue at Panasonic Stadium in the future then it’s an area the strengthening department will need to look at closely as Takao’s only real competition is Ko Yanagisawa with Onose, Fukuda, Miura and Okuno just being serviceable in emergencies. In attack, Gamba’s poor win % after scoring first had been in focus during the buildup to Saturday’s fixture and the 2-0 result means the Nerazzurri are now W6D3L4 after bagging a game’s opening goal, let’s put this down as a work in progress, though scoring first in 4 of the last 5 fixtures is definitely a step in the right direction. Two goals being scored in consecutive away games is definitely a plus (Gamba only scored multiple goals in 5 of Katanosaka’s 24 J1 matches in charge), however, the club’s top goalscorers are Dawhan, Kosuke Onose and Leandro Pereira with a mere 3 apiece. I remember producing a league-wide stats chart back in 2019 which showed relegated Matsumoto Yamaga’s leading marksmen as being Ryo Nagai, who netted only 3 times. Whoever it is, Patric, Suzuki, Pereira, someone has to go on a goalscoring run if the Ao to Kuro are to drag themselves out of the fire in 2022. Perhaps Masaaki Higashiguchi can help too as the Nerazzurri custodian bagged the first assist by a J1 goalkeeper this year in setting up Musashi Suzuki’s wonder-strike, well done to him! In actual fact, it was very much a team effort on Saturday as, to wander into the realm of clichés, Gamba simply wanted it more than their hosts and were first to second balls on more occasions than Grampus. The willingness to fight for the cause was greatly appreciated by the large travelling contingent of supporters, even if a persistent lack of on-field communication continues to hinder their progress. I’ve lost track of the amount of times the Nerazzurri have ceded possession in situations when a call from a team-mate would have alerted a player to oncoming danger and allowed them to make a better decision. Heck, deep into Saturday’s second half, after a seemingly harmless cross evaded everyone in the box Kurokawa nodded it out for a corner when a shout from Higashiguchi was all he needed to let him know he could leave it. At that point, having seen two goals disallowed by the thinnest of margins, I thought I knew what was coming from that corner, but ultimately the delivery was poor and Suzuki later produced the coup de grâce to give Gamba fans a night to savour. Make no mistake, the Nerazzurri are still knee deep in trouble, but they’ve eased the pressure on themselves just a touch and with upcoming bouts with mid-table Tosu (h) and FC Tokyo (h) plus struggling Vissel (a) to follow this clash, it really is crunch time.

As I mentioned previously, this game was originally scheduled for 6 August, but as a result of seemingly almost every player in the Avispa squad catching Coronavirus, that match was postponed. The reason I’m saying this again is that Fukuoka have had to battle gainfully across the past month with Covid affecting their past 4 league fixtures meaning we need to be careful when trying to identify patterns in their recent results, performances and stats. What then can we say about their season as a whole? Defence has once again been their strong point, conceding 1.04 times per game (compared with 0.97 in 2021) and their 27 goals against is the joint 3rd best record in J1. However, when we look at the Wasps’ attack things get a lot bleaker. Avispa have been involved in seven 0-0s to date this year and have incredibly failed to score in 14 of their 26 outings so far, including 2 runs of 3 games in-a-row without a goal and 1 run of 4 matches. When we factor in xG numbers it becomes clear that Fukuoka are creating enough chances, it’s just that they’re failing to convert what’s on offer. They’ve generated a total of 27.82xG this season, meaning their 19 actual goals scored represents an under-performance of 8.82 which contrasts starkly with things at the other end of the field where goals conceded and xG against are almost identical. Yuya Yamagishi has held up his end of the bargain, finding the back of the net on 7 occasions, but winter signings Lukian and Tatsuya Tanaka have underwhelmed, while Emil Salomonsson (6 assists in 2021) has been sorely missed down the right flank and on set pieces. Kantoku Shigetoshi Hasebe generally sets his side up to be hard to beat and to move the ball from back to front quickly while using their pacy wide players to generate the bulk of their chances. From that perspective it was notable that in the Avispa vs Gamba tie last season which finished 1-0 to the visitors (yappari Patric, and all that), Yamagishi had a goal disallowed for handball, however, the buildup came from a series of neat, intricate passes, quite at odds with their usual playing style and this had the Nerazzurri’s defence at sixes and sevens. In some ways Hasebe’s Avispa and Matsuda’s Gamba are stylistic bedfellows, so it’ll be interesting to see how they shape up against one another. Hasebe has dabbled with 3-4-2-1 when trying to get his 3 excellent centre-backs, Douglas Grolli, Tatsuki Nara and Daiki Miya into the same lineup or when there was no-one else available during the Covid outbreak, but with Miya suspended due to yellow card accumulation, we’re likely to see 4-4-2 on Wednesday. Fukuoka’s possession, running and pass completion stats are all low, but this was also the case last term when they ranked 20th in passes completed and distance covered as well as being 18th for possession %. Their number of passes completed per 90 minutes tally is up by a whopping 3 this time round, however, both possession and distance are down from 12 months ago. The match with Tosu last Friday saw the Hachi put out their strongest lineup of the month and with more players likely due back soon it’s entirely possible that they’ll put on an energetic display against Gamba which throws the form book and my stats tables out the window.

First Match Recap

**Note – this is the same text that appeared in the match preview for the originally scheduled game on 6 August.**

Gamba’s 3-2 loss at home to Avispa in mid-March was the first real warning sign that all was not well in the Nerazzurri camp this year, while at the same time it provided their visitors from Fukuoka with a maiden league win of the season at the fifth time of asking. Belgian winger Jordy Croux took advantage of some hesitancy in the Ao to Kuro backline to fire the Wasps ahead after only 10 minutes and it stayed that way up until the interval. Gamba started brightly after the break, but were caught out on the counter and former Nerazzurri wide-man Tatsuya Tanaka collected his usual goal against his old side. Then, with 9 minutes remaining, Ko Yanagisawa inadvertently swept a Takeshi Kanamori cross past Kei Ishikawa for an embarrassing own goal to make it 3-0 and just like Tanaka’s strike earlier in the half, it came about through the Hachi targeting the left-hand side of the home defence. The indignity of that moment as well as the lopsided nature of the scoreline seemed to shake Gamba out of their slumber and late efforts from Yuya Fukuda and Leandro Pereira brought more respectability to the result, though that was scant consolation for the Curva Nord faithful. Fukuoka, on the other hand, left Suita in buoyant mood after exorcising the ghosts of their first 4 league outings in which they had scored just once and accrued only 3 points despite putting in some decent performances.

Gamba Osaka

* Yappari Patric (It had to be Patric) – The phrase inspired by the DAZN commentator’s reaction to Patric’s winner in the corresponding fixture last year got me thinking about the similarities between the two games. In 2021 Gamba returned from ACL action sitting 17th in J1 having played at least 5 games fewer than almost everyone else. A trip to the Best Denki Stadium awaited and a nervy encounter was settled by Patric’s late header which started a run of 4 wins in 6 games that formed the backbone of the Nerazzurri’s points total for a large portion of the year. I’m sure all of a Gamba persuasion will be hoping for a similar outcome this Wednesday night.

* Matsuda’s Red Herrings – In his media briefing on Friday, Hiroshi Matsuda stated that Leandro Pereira was carrying a slight injury and that both Shu Kurata and Yuki Yamamoto were good ball-playing midfielders who he could rely on. Fast forward just over 24 hours and Pereira was in the starting line up, Yamamoto an unused sub and Kurata nowhere to be seen. Can we expect more of these diversionary tactics from Matsuda-san in the coming weeks?

* In further Matsuda related news, his attempts to convert Ryotaro Meshino into a fully fledged wide midfielder capable of contributing to both attack and defence have drawn comparisons with his efforts at a similar schtick with Yoshito Okubo during their time together at Vissel Kobe. Meshino is probably best suited to operating as an inside forward behind a central striker (this was the reason he was brought in during the Katanosaka era), and has been largely ineffective in his 2 outings under Matsuda thus far. The same can’t be said for fellow new recruit Juan Alano on the right flank. The former Kashima man has 2 assists from just 2 starts which means he’s already joint top of that metric at Gamba!

* Voice Support Areas – Not only will Wednesday night’s match see the rather awkwardly titled ‘voice support areas’ make an appearance, but singing will be allowed in Panasonic Stadium for the first time since February 2020 in both Gamba’s round 31 and 33 clashes. Kashiwa are the visitors on 1 October which makes for a nice, neat story as they were also Gamba’s opponents for a Levain Cup group stage game on 16 February 2020, the last occasion the Nerazzurri took to their home turf under ‘normal’ conditions. Round 33 sees a potentially extremely significant clash with Júbilo Iwata where both sides’ top flight status’ could be on the line and we’re likely to see Yasuhito Endo playing against the team he represented from 2001-2020. I’m sure that’ll be an emotional day and with Gamba needing all the help they can get, the return of singing certainly couldn’t have come at a better time.

* Tickets are now on sale for Gamba’s end of season friendly with Makoto Hasebe’s Eintracht Frankfurt, a match which will take place on Saturday 19 November at 14:00 (JST) and will be shown on Sky PefecTV! in Japan. It’s interesting to note that you can purchase tickets from the official J. League site and 7-11 just like a normal league fixture so they clearly aren’t expecting anything like the demand for this game that there was for the Paris Saint-Germain glamour tie in July. Granted, the general malaise around the club at the moment is no doubt doing a good job of dampening the enthusiasm of the Gamba faithful towards such an event.

Team News

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

DF Gen Shoji – Was absent from the matchday squad for the win at Nagoya, it’s unclear whether he was the asymptomatic Covid case announced by the club last Monday (22 August) or was just dropped due to some shaky performances at the back in recent weeks

MF Dawhan – Will serve a one-match suspension as a result of picking up 4 yellow cards in J1 this season

MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, still working his way through a rehabilitation program, as far as I know he hasn’t re-joined top team training yet

MF Shu Kurata – The player most likely to have been the asymptomatic Covid case announced by the club last week, though some Gamba fans have suggested he was just dropped due to poor form

MF Kosuke Onose – Not in the matchday squad for the past 2 fixtures, potentially the Covid case that was announced by the club on 19 August or possibly dropped due to patchy form this term and last

MF Rihito Yamamoto – Small fracture in instep of foot, has resumed light training, should be back in the next few weeks

FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season, resumed light jogging in training as per video posted on 19 August

Kwon Kyung-won, Shu Kurata and Kosuke Onose are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Avispa Fukuoka

The feel-good factor that should exist due to Avispa’s progress to the latter stages of both domestic cup competitions has been largely extinguished by a run of 5 games without a win in the league in conjunction with their well documented Covid struggles in recent weeks. The club haven’t made too many moves in the summer transfer market, opting as usual to go with a small squad of largely unheralded, but nevertheless effective players. The return of last season’s joint top scorer, John Mary (5 goals) has been the headline news, though given Hasebe was often reluctant to give him playing minutes during his previous loan spell, it seems a tad odd when viewed from afar. Central midfielder Yuto Hiratsuka has come in from the hotbed of talent that is Mito HollyHock and he takes the place of Takuya Shigehiro (unfortunately a fish out of water for Nagoya against Gamba on Saturday) as backup to Mae and Nakamura in the middle of the park. Other than that, centre-back / part-time centre-forward Kennedy Egbus Mikuni has returned from an up-and-down loan at Tochigi in J2, while winger Taro Sugimoto has headed for the exits and linked up with former club Tokushima Vortis. Not quite a new signing, but Hasebe has seen fit to select Takumi Nagaishi ahead of the highly-rated Masaaki Murakami between the sticks in recent weeks, the exact reasons why, and how it will turn out in the long run remain unknown. Looking ahead, attacker Reiju Tsuruno (Fukuoka University) who is currently on a designated special player contract will join full-time once he concludes his studies next year and that’s it for future recruitment at the time of writing. I guess more will be revealed if, and when, Avispa confirm their J1 status. A win here would go a long way to cementing their place in the top flight for a third consecutive season, a feat they’ve not achieved this century. And for a final @BlogGamba tip, watch out for Juanma Delgado. The Spaniard may not have the stats to get tongues wagging, though in a similar vein to Patric, what he brings to the table isn’t pretty, but it can be very effective and given Gamba’s defensive woes this season, expect to see Juanma subject the Ao to Kuro’s defence to a proper interrogation on Wednesday night.

Team News

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

DF Yuta Kumamoto – Last seen as a half-time replacement for Douglas Grolli in the 2-1 loss at Cerezo on July 30th, has subsequently been out of the squad for 3 J1 and 2 Levain Cup matches, likely as a result of Covid

DF Daiki Miya – Will serve a one-match suspension on Wednesday as a result of picking up 4 yellow cards in J1 this season

MF Shun Nakamura – Last featured on July 16th when he went the full 90 against former side Shonan. Has since missed 4 league and 2 Levain Cup ties, I’d normally credit this to the Covid outbreak in the squad, but due the length of the absence an injury is possible

FW Daiki Watari – Last seen in the 2-1 loss at Cerezo on July 30th, has subsequently been out of the squad for 3 J1 and 2 Levain Cup matches, likely as a result of Covid

Predicted Lineups and Stats

** Note – On Monday 29 August (a few hours after I originally published this article, Avispa Fukuoka announced they’d cancelled the loan contract of Takahiro Yanagi due to a drink driving offence.**

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


Nagoya Grampus vs Gamba Osaka 27 August 2022 Match Preview

Nagoya Grampus vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 27
Saturday 27 August 2022
Toyota Stadium
Kick Off: 18:00 (JST)

As the clock ticks ever closer to midnight on Gamba’s season they face the second of three away trips on the spin, this time at a Nagoya side who find themselves comfortably ensconced in mid-table. Could this be just the match Hiroshi Matsuda and his battered Nerazzurri troops are looking for, or does more heartbreak await at the Toyota Stadium? Gamba went down 5-2 at Sanfrecce Hiroshima last Saturday in a game that in some ways defies explanation and in others tells you everything you need to know about their 2022 campaign. Despite leading for half the contest, 4 goals in 16 breathtaking minutes from the Viola gave them an emphatic win that almost entirely erased the positive feeling built up during a dull, but largely effective opening 72 minutes from the Nerazzurri. That result leaves Gamba right where they started the matchday, 2nd bottom, only above Júbilo on goal difference and with just 9 fixtures remaining, including the next 3 within the space of 8 days, the blue and blacks have used up all of their lives and simply must start winning again following a barren run of 5 losses and 2 draws. Nagoya, coached by former Ao to Kuro treble-winning kantoku Kenta Hasegawa, have spent the bulk of the year floating just above the drop-zone without ever looking in serious danger and with last Friday night’s 1-0 victory over bottom side Júbilo Iwata safely in the bag they can surely begin planning for 2023 as they now find themselves almost equidistant, in terms of points, from the ACL places and the bottom 3. With that said, I’m sure the Grampus faithful will be expecting a professional display and a win, while Gamba, who will surely take a large following east to Aichi, know that victory at any cost is absolutely essential.

A quick reminder that I joined Sam on this week’s J-Talk Podcast where we discussed Gamba vs Sanfrecce and all the other games on the round 26 slate as well as looking ahead to the upcoming fixtures and commenting on developments in the Asian Champions League. Please check it out if you haven’t already, it’s available on all good podcast apps.

Tale of the Tape

There was absolutely nothing subtle or flashy about what Hiroshi Matsuda did tactics-wise against Hiroshima, 4-4-2, three banks of players set up to stifle Sanfrecce and their gegenpressing system, plus two ‘big men’ up-front with wingers on the flanks. Coming straight from the Sam Allardyce / Tony Pulis playbook as it did, one could argue for a club in Gamba’s predicament it was the most sensible option. Once Michael Skibbe and his coaching team saw the Nerazzurri lineup I’m sure there was little doubt in their minds how Gamba would play, yet still for the majority of the game, they struggled to deal with it. Rather prematurely I scribbled in my notes during the second-half drinks break, ‘2-1 Gamba, holding on quite comfortably.’ Famous last words though they were, I’m sure had you taken a sample poll of fans watching last Saturday’s tie then they’d likely have told you 2-2 or 3-1 Gamba were the most probable outcomes with 20 minutes to go. As I’m sure you’re well aware, Gamba didn’t return to Suita with the three points, instead they capitulated in the final 20 minutes. Well, I say capitulated, but in reality Sanfrecce won the game rather than Gamba losing it. While I can point the finger at Genta Miura for Nassim Ben Khalifa’s first or Gen Shoji’s weak effort at stopping Taishi Matsumoto’s fifth, Hiroshima players like Ben Khalifa, Gakuto Notsuda and Makoto Mitsuta stood up and produced the goods when it mattered and Gamba ultimately had no answer. Similar tactics likely await us going forward, even if Katanosaka-era signings such as Kwon Kyung-won, Dawhan and Musashi Suzuki do force their way into Matsuda’s plans over the coming weeks. The season low 113 completed passes and 29% possession (both marginally worse than Frontale away when it was 10 v 11 for 83 minutes) may owe something to weather conditions and the quality of the opposition, but are more likely harbingers of what’s to come. To combat this slight negativity on my part, Matsuda, or others, could rightly point out that while the Ao to Kuro were easier on the eye under Katanosaka compared to last year, that was fruitless as positive results didn’t follow. Additionally, Matsuda-ball did help Gamba engineer better chances than their more vaunted hosts on Saturday, generating an average of 0.092xG per attempt versus Sanfrecce’s 0.086xG. Small margins and clutching at straws, I know, I know, however, against a Grampus side that might not be quite as switched on, or as sharp as Hiroshima, it could, just could, make all the difference.

Although most associated with a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 setup, Kenta Hasegawa has shown that you can teach an old dog new tricks by, through a series of transitions, morphing Grampus into a 3-4-2-1 formation. Young Haruya Fujii has come to the fore this year, pouring scorn on claims that Hasegawa never gives youth a chance, playing in between the fit-again Yuichi Maruyama and Japan international Shinnosuke Nakatani, while another Samurai Blue, Yuki Soma, has found himself in the unfamiliar left wing-back role, ousting one of Massimo Ficcadenti’s favourites, Yutaka Yoshida, in the process. On the other flank, Ryoya Morishita has seen rather more action this season than he did under Hasegawa’s Italian predecessor and, in my book, Grampus are all the better for it. Further forward, Keiya Sento and Noriyoshi Sakai, who both joined from Sagan Tosu last winter, haven’t really lived up to expectations yet, meaning summer addition from Avispa Fukuoka, Takuya Shigehiro, has subsequently found himself in an unfamiliar attacking role and thus far become better known for head-scratchingly bad misses rather than good play (I’m sure that comment will come back to haunt me with Gamba’s record this year of everything that can possibly go wrong, going wrong).

Just two victories in their opening 12 league games had Nagoya and new kantoku Hasegawa under pressure earlier in the year, but a run of 6 wins, 4 draws and only 3 defeats over the subsequent 13 fixtures has steadied the ship. Defensively, naturally they’ve slipped back a touch from the halcyon days of Ficcadenti, but not as much as you might think. Grampus are still conceding at a clip of under a goal a game, 0.96 per 90 minutes this season compared with 0.79 in 2021 and 0.82 two years ago. Hasegawa’s greatest headache perhaps lies at the other end of the field. They’ve only hit the back of the net 8 times in their most recent 10 outings and Brazilian flyer Mateus has bagged 5 of those. The term ‘talisman’ feels like it doesn’t do him the justice he deserves, he’s not quite a one-man band, but he is so, so important to how the Giallorossi operate in the attacking third of the field. Grampus have scored 8.5 times fewer than we could reasonably expect based on their xG numbers and that under-performance is even more pronounced on home soil. Despite recording xG For totals of over 2 in 6 of their 12 matches at Toyota Stadium this season, that has only translated into 14 actual goals being scored, an under-performance of 4.84. With new attackers such as Kensuke Nagai, Leonardo and Shigehiro now on board, surely Nagoya will be aiming to reduce their reliance on Mateus while at the same time scoring more frequently in front of their own supporters.

First Match Recap

Gamba’s 3-1 triumph at home to Nagoya back in April was definitely one of the high points of their year and came at a vital time in the wake of a tame draw at Júbilo and a disappointing defeat to Fukuoka at Panasonic Stadium. After a slow-paced start the Nerazzurri picked up the momentum and in the aftermath of a Hiroto Yamami set-piece, Gen Shoji shot goalward and Patric was on hand to deflect in the opener after 26 minutes (just rewards after having a perfectly good effort ruled out against the same opposition at the back end of the 2021 season). Not long after, Australian ‘keeper Mitch Langerak denied the big Brazilian with a wonderful stop from point blank range, and then not a great deal of action took place up until the Ao to Kuro’s second, eight minutes into the second-half, and it was a tragic own-goal from a Grampus perspective. Yamami put in a speculative cross and right-back Kazuya Miyahara, who had a pretty grim afternoon all round, had the ball volleyed off him by team-mate Mateus, before it flew past the helpless Langerak in goal. Keisuke Kurokawa then sealed the deal with a fine run and shot, rewarding him with his first ever J1 goal. Three and easy for Gamba, well not quite, as with the game all but sewn up Shoji played a hospital pass to Ju Se-jong at the edge of his own area, Keiya Sento dispossessed the South Korean international and buried the ball past debutant Jun Ichimori for a late consolation. No more goals followed and Gamba saw out a comfortable 3-1 win which moved them up to 9th in the standings.

Gamba Osaka

* At a press conference held on the evening of 17 August, Gamba Osaka Chairman Mr. Ono confirmed that although Hiroshi Matsuda had taken over from Tomohiro Katanosaka in the hot-seat, this was only until the end of the current season. At present, who the coach will be in 2023 is ‘a blank slate,’ (that’s me trying to translate accurately) and there was also a vague reference to a more rigorous approach being taken to identifying the right candidate. If this helps avoid future episodes of, bringing in a kantoku, signing a bunch of players that suit their style of football and then firing them after lots of money has been spent, that would be much appreciated.

With all this in mind, I drew up the official @BlogGamba Managerial Shortlist;

* Kenta Kawai – Currently has cash-strapped Sagan Tosu sitting 7th in J1 playing an easy-on-the-eye brand of attacking football. Likely to be in such demand that he won’t countenance a move to Suita, especially not if the Nerazzurri are in J2 next year, but we can dream, right?

* Satoshi Yamaguchi – Club legend who remains a fan favourite from his time as a member of both the playing and coaching staff at Gamba. Moved to Shonan in 2021 having been assistant to Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and has overachieved on a shoestring there. However, as you may have noticed above, a lot of his background is similar to Katanosaka’s, possibly so much so that it’ll make the Gamba front office think twice about hiring him.

* Peter Cklamovski – As far as I can tell, Gamba haven’t had a decent foreign coach this side of the millennium, could the popular Australian be the man to alter that? Wasn’t given the resources to fully implement his methods at Shimizu in 2020 and currently meeting expectations, but little more at Yamagata. Is this a project that would appeal to him, and can Gamba sell themselves as a progressive enough outfit to attract such a coach?

* Takeshi Oki – Currently working wonders with Roasso Kumamoto. His revolutionary 3-3-1-3 Marcelo Bielsa-esque formation took Kumamoto up from J3 to J2 last year and now has them in playoff contention where they could end up bumping into Gamba. At 61, age isn’t on his side, but he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. It would certainly be a fascinating experiment if he took over at the helm in Suita.

* Akira Ito – This one is more if the worst comes to the worst and Gamba are playing J2 football in year. Ito steered Ventforet Kofu to 5th, 4th and 3rd placed finishes in 2019, 2020 and 2021 respectively, working on a much smaller budget than many of their rivals. They’ve dropped right off the pace this term without him in charge and despite recently getting the axe at Iwata, I see that job as a poisoned chalice that most coaches would have struggled with.

It will be very interesting to see how Gamba’s managerial search turns out. Stay tuned for future developments.

* Speaking of the future, on Monday 22 August Gamba announced the signing of Hosei University left-back Ibuki Konno who will join on a full-time deal from 2024, but has inked a designated special player contract for the rest of this season. This news has sent jitters through the Ao to Kuro fanbase as Keisuke Kurokawa was absent without explanation for the trip to Hiroshima last weekend and has been the subject of rumours linking him with a move to Europe. We’ll see what happens with that, but young Konno seems to come with good pedigree having played for Mitsubishi Yowa SC during high school, the same club that helped develop Keito Nakamura, before heading to Hosei, who of course knocked Gamba out of the 2019 Emperor’s Cup and boast the likes of Ayase Ueda among their alumni.

* On the evening of Monday 22 August, Sports Hochi’s Gamba beat reporter Mr. Kanagawa once again held a Twitter Spaces event with Mr. Uchida, his counterpart in Kashima. Interesting information to come out of that meeting was that apparently while members of the Gamba squad were wanting and expecting to play the same type of football that Katanosaka had served up in Oita, the boss himself opted to alter things and this lead to confusion and disagreements. Also, regarding Juan Alano’s recent move from Ibaraki to Suita, the two reporters stated that the move was instigated by Kashima as they were looking to free up space for new Nigerian signing Blessing Eleke. I realise that these stories might not be particularly earth-shattering to regular followers of the J. League, but I thought it would be good to share them nonetheless.

Team News

**Note – The club announced one asymptomatic case of Coronavirus among the playing staff on Monday 22 August. As is customary, the player in question’s identity is being kept under wraps.**

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

DF Keisuke Kurokawa – Not in the matchday squad for Hiroshima away last week, potentially the Covid case that was announced by the club on 19 August or could he be on his way overseas?

MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, potentially back in early September

MF Kosuke Onose – Not in the matchday squad for Hiroshima away, potentially the Covid case that was announced by the club on 19 August or possibly dropped due to patchy form this term and last

MF Rihito Yamamoto – Small fracture in instep of foot, has started running again, should be back in early September

FW Leandro Pereira – Substituted at half-time in the loss at Hiroshima. Was seen grimacing during the water break as if he was feeling the effects of an earlier challenge. It’s equally possible he was replaced as Suzuki offered more pace on the counter.

FW Isa Sakamoto – Attended a Japan U-19 training camp alongside Jiro Nakamura and Rikuto Kuwahara last midweek which may have been behind his absence at Hiroshima, alternatively Matsuda’s style and penchant for experience may limit his playing time until the end of the year

FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season, has started light sprinting in training as per a video posted on the club’s official Instagram on 19 August

FW Hiroto Yamami – Not in the squad for the past 2 matches, it’s unclear whether he is injured or has been left out possibly due to his bad miss late on against Kyoto

Dawhan, Shu Kurata and Kosuke Onose are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Nagoya Grampus

Nagoya are clearly not satisfied with a season of comfortable mid-table football after feasting on 3rd and 5th placed finishes under Massimo Ficcadenti in 2020 and 2021, meaning Toyota Stadium has been the site of a bounty of ins and outs this summer. The headline signing has been the return of prodigal son Kensuke Nagai who bagged 42 goals in 161 J1 appearances for the club between 2011 and 2016. The former FC Tokyo speedster gives an extra option in attack, but in the twilight of his career at 33, he certainly won’t help to bring down the average age of the squad which is getting a tad problematic. In fairness, neither will any of the other recent acquisitions, Brazilian forward Leonardo (29) from Chengdu in China, veteran schemer Ryota Nagaki (34) on loan from Shonan and Takuya Shigehiro, the youngest of the crew at 27, who arrived from Avispa Fukuoka where he’d served as backup to Hiroyuki Mae and Shun Nakamura. The Giallorossi have managed to unload some of their more ageing attackers with Hiroyuki Abe going to Shonan, Mu Kanazaki linking up with former side Oita and Manabu Saito heading overseas to join Suwon Samsung Bluewings in South Korea. Mitch Langerak (34), Yuichi Maruyama (33) and Leo Silva (36) plus Tiago, Yoichiro Kakitani and Yutaka Yoshida (all 32) are still on-board, but honestly I’d expect at least a couple of them to head to fresh pastures this coming winter. The club have yet to show their hand transfer-wise for 2023 and it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of Polish international Jakub Świerczok, currently serving a year-long suspension for a PED violation. It would also be fascinating to observe what someone like Kenta Kawai of Tosu could do if given the reigns at a side with the resources of Grampus, however, ultimately nothing dramatic enough to warrant a managerial change has really taken place this year therefore I don’t really rate it as likely in the up-coming off-season (granted I held a similar belief 12 months ago). All I can say for sure looking into the future is that Rissho University attacker Kyota Sakakibara, currently on a designated special player contract, will join full-time, though that won’t be until he graduates college in 2024. Sakakibara is a former Grampus Under-18 player where he was a team-mate of Kwansei Gakuin University’s Ken Masui, a talented youngster who has been linked with Gamba, but who could also choose to return to his nest. (another Japanese to English translation I love).

Team News

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

DF Yutaka Yoshida – hasn’t played since being sent off after coming on as a sub at home to S-Pulse on 10 July, I suspect he’s just been dropped by Hasegawa

MF Hidemasa Koda – knee muscle injury, hasn’t played since 18 May, expected back soon

MF Kazuki Nagasawa – knee injury, hasn’t played since 20 April, no date yet given for his comeback

FW Noriyoshi Sakai – Last played 11 June, he may be injured, but it’s probably more likely he’s just been dropped due to underwhelming displays since his winter arrival from Tosu

FW Jakub Świerczok – Currently serving a suspension for an unspecified period of time due to testing positive for a banned substance during last year’s Asian Champions League campaign

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Gamba Osaka 20 August 2022 Match Preview

Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 26
Saturday 20 August 2022
Edion Stadium Hiroshima
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

Obon has been and gone in Japan, and with little over 2 months of the 2022 J1 season remaining Sanfrecce Hiroshima against Gamba Osaka on Saturday night brings us a match with big implications at both ends of the table. Hosts Hiroshima lie in 5th place, but are just 2 points behind Kashima in 2nd, while at the foot of the standings, Gamba are 2nd last and only lead bottom club Júbilo on goal difference. A heart-breaking 2-0 loss at home to the Saxe Blues’ prefectural rivals Shimizu courtesy of late strikes on the counter from substitutes Benjamin Kololli and Carlinhos Junior left Gamba’s J1 hopes hanging by a thread and saw the curtain come down on the eight-month reign of Tomohiro Katanosaka. Contrastingly, Sanfrecce notched a 2nd consecutive victory away to top 6, Kanto-based opposition in their come-from-behind 3-2 triumph at Kashiwa Reysol. It was a 3-pointer that arrived hot on the heels of a 2-0 at Kashima the week before and they seem to have eased themselves out of their recent slump of just a solitary win in their 6 previous outings. Will Hiroshi Matsuda’s appointment give Gamba enough of a new boss bounce to help them upset the odds against an impressive Viola side? We’ll get our answer to that soon enough.

Tale of the Tape

Last Sunday’s 2-0 home defeat to Shimizu marked Gamba’s 2nd xG win in-a-row as well as the second time in succession that they’ve not been outshot by their opponents, you’ve got to take the small victories when they come to you, right?…right? Joking aside, in all honesty going into last weekend’s Expo game I fully expected to lose, but the performance and level of fight on display from the Gamba squad was better than I anticipated. The Nerazzurri took the game to their visitors and controlled large parts of it, though unfortunately that old, familiar foe ‘susceptibility to counter attacks’ reared it’s ugly head in conjunction with an inability to convert pressure into goals and it was that deadly duo that ultimately sunk the Nerazzurri. The Ao to Kuro have generally looked pretty decent in the middle part of the field this season, and indeed Dawhan, Kohei Okuno, Keisuke Kurokawa and Isa Sakamoto all got pass marks from me on Sunday, especially in the first-half. However, it is the lack of a clinical edge in the attacking third combined with careless errors at the back (see Gen Shoji’s in the build up to Carlinhos Junior’s clincher for S-Pulse), that have been the blue and blacks’ undoing in a season where little to nothing has gone right. Shimizu have now won 2-0 at FC Tokyo and Gamba in consecutive weeks and if you were to sit someone with limited knowledge of the J. League down and have them watch those two matches back-to-back, I’m sure they’d struggle to pick which team was 8th and which was 17th, FC Tokyo or Gamba. Alas, it’s scant consolation for the Nerazzurri and their supporters and I’m really clutching at straws in the positivity stakes this week as frankly we appear doomed with 10 fixtures remaining. Like I mentioned above, there were several bright sparks versus Shimizu, however, for each good point there was a negative to balance things out. Ryotaro Meshino was far too selfish in possession, constantly trying to be the hero, I’ve no idea why Hiroki Fujiharu is playing as a left-sided centre-back, Musashi Suzuki clearly wasn’t fit and the Ao to Kuro diminished as an attacking force when he replaced Sakamoto. Also, though it pains me to say it, it appears that Shu Kurata is only in the Gamba matchday squad these days on reputation and because he’s the club captain. Hiroshi Matsuda had just a few days of working with the players after coming in as an experienced pair of hands to help Katanosaka out last week, so it’s unclear how much of Sunday’s strategy came from each coach. What we did see was a more energetic performance than in recent outings, though understandably that was hard to maintain over 90 minutes played out in intense heat and humidity and Gamba’s subs simply didn’t match their Shimizu counterparts in terms of influence. There were a lot of long-range diagonal balls to bring high-sitting wing-backs, Kurokawa and Onose, into play, Sakamoto’s movement and drifting between the lines gave S-Pulse’s centre-backs plenty of food for thought, however, ultimately the overall team performance ended up being akin to a meal that tasted good at the time, but had little real substance inside to fill you up. Gamba have been keeping themselves in games this term, they’ve only lost by more than 2 goals once, and on that occasion they were playing 10v11 for 83 minutes (don’t worry, I’m not about to go down that rabbit hole again). They need to somehow stop the rot, keep their heads from dropping, pick up an unexpected result from somewhere and then build from that.

25 league games into their 2022 J1 campaign and there’s a remarkable synergy between Hiroshima’s xG figures and the number of actual goals they’ve scored and conceded, particularly at home (I don’t have anything to properly back this up, but anecdotally it appears J Stats’ xG model is more accurate this year compared with last season), and I feel this highlights the quietly effective way kantoku Michael Skibbe has got his side going about their business. This is the 3rd Gamba Osaka vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima match preview I’ve written this year as we’ve had one Covid-enforced postponement, I’ve been effusive in my praise for the Viola the past 2 times and nothing has really happened since then to make me alter my tune. One thing worth repeating is their impressive sprinting numbers which have increased by an average of 20.7 per game since last year, from 169.9 up to 190.6. Irrepressible wing-back Tomoya Fujii, scorer of the winner away to Kashiwa last weekend has led the charge with a J1 best 829 sprints so far in 2022, a staggering 323 more than his nearest team-mate in that metric, Makoto Mitsuta, who has 506. In spite of Nassim Ben Khalifa’s early strike against Reysol and the ageing and injury prone Douglas Vieira bagging 3 goals and an assist in just 5 sub appearances, there has been a general absence of fire-power from the centre-forward position, though thankfully attacking midfielders Tsukasa Morishima and Makoto Mitsuta have made up for that. After netting just 9 times in J1 during his first 6 seasons as a pro, Morishima has has almost doubled that tally in 2022, hitting 7, while partner-in-crime Mitsuta has 5 goals and 5 assists in a hugely impressive rookie year. New Cypriot international forward Pieros Sotiriou, signed from Bulgarian cracks Ludogorets on Monday, would appear to be the cherry on top of the cake as far as Viola fans are concerned. Midfield has probably been Sanfrecce’s area of greatest improvement compared with 2021 as Taishi Matsumoto has really started to fulfill his enormous potential alongside someone who is a candidate for comeback story of the year, Gakuto Notsuda. The Hiroshima youth product, who has been loaned out 4 times already in his career bagged assist numbers 6 and 7 versus Kashiwa and was also involved in Japan’s successful EAFF Cup campaign last month, quite the year so far for the 28 year-old and who would have predicted that when the season kicked off back in February? The Notsuda-Matsumoto partnership is the main change Skibbe has instigated at the Edion Stadium recently, evolving from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-2-1 setup. Tsukasa Shiotani will be out for around 6 weeks which leaves Sasaki, Araki and Nogami basically untouchable in the defensive positions, Takumu Kawamura’s return from injury allows the option of rotation in any of the slots in the middle 6 and star turns Morishima and Mitsuta will surely continue to provide the thrust and guile behind the main attacker, whoever they may be, Ben Khalifa, Douglas Vieira or Pieros Sotiriou.

First Match Recap

After the originally scheduled clash set for 25 May was postponed due to a Covid outbreak in the Sanfrecce squad, the re-arranged match took place a little over a month later on 29 June and it proved to be one of the high points of Gamba’s season to date. Following a slow opening that Hiroshima slightly shaded, Gamba struck decisively with 2 goals in the space of 4 first-half minutes. First, Keisuke Kurokawa drilled home an angled drive from just inside the Hiroshima penalty area. Soon after, neat build-up play saw Mitsuki Saito’s shot cannon back off the post, and from the resulting passage of play, the Nerazzurri worked the ball into the Viola box and it broke kindly for Isa Sakamoto to net his first J1 goal from close range. It was a poacher’s effort which drew comparisons with former Ao to Kuro forward and the leading scorer in J2 history, Masashi Oguro. Hiroshima had come into the game on the back of 4 consecutive victories, while Gamba had lost their previous 4 fixtures, however, there was to be no comeback after the break and the hosts ended up seeing things out rather comfortably to prove that no result is a foregone conclusion in the J. League.

Gamba Osaka

* The Katanosaka saga – A press release on the morning of 17 August confirmed what many had been suspecting for the preceding days, and weeks, that Tomohiro Katanosaka would no longer be kantoku of Gamba Osaka and former-Nagasaki boss Hiroshi Matsuda would be his successor. As a former assistant to Akira Nishino and Kenta Hasegawa during two of the Nerazzurri’s most successful spells in their history, Katanosaka, like predecessor Tsuneyasu Miyamoto leaves the club as an unsuccessful manager, but still someone who retains a special place in the hearts of the club’s supporters. Just 5 wins in 24 league games, 8 in 33 overall and with the team precariously positioned in 17th, only above Júbilo on goal difference at the bottom of the league standings, it’s difficult to make a case for Katanosaka to stay based on results. While injuries, specifically the one sustained by talisman Takashi Usami in round 3, stung badly, it’s important to note other clubs, such as Kawasaki, who were without Jesiel for the first half of the year, performed to a decent level without one of their top players, and others such as Urawa and Shimizu showed notable improvements once their stars became available for selection, that simply never happened at Gamba. A final thing worth considering is that almost every Japanese Gamba fan I’ve seen talking about this has said that the President and front office must be held accountable too. Anyone involved in paying big money to the likes of Ju Se-jong, Leandro Pereira and Wellington Silva and then firing Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, the man who wanted to bring them to the club, only 9 league games into the 2021 campaign, needs to take a long, hard look at themselves. Furthermore, it was essentially known that Katanosaka would be taking over from last August, yet no significant moves were made to bring in / move out players suitable / unsuitable for Katano-soccer last winter. As I said above, Katanosaka’s results have been poor, but one must wonder if he was set up to fail from the start. This is a dark chapter in the club’s history, there may be darker ones to follow, but make no mistake they’ll be back. It may take a year, it may take 5, it may take 10, but Gamba will return to the summit of Japanese football, mark my words.

* The turnout for Sunday’s Expo game stood at 27,662, Gamba’s highest (non PSG) attendance of the Covid-era, a mere 46 shy of the 2019 average, which of course was the best in the club’s history. However, it was almost 10,000 less than the 37,334 that watched the Ao to Kuro square off with Júbilo Iwata back in August 2019. Interestingly there were train and Wi-Fi issues on Sunday that weren’t in evidence when I attended the PSG friendly in July. Also, from my seat in the 8th row of the back stand, I observed pre kick-off that the referee, Yuichi Nishimura, had a quiet word with Gen Shoji and Takashi Inui separately. Everything appeared very cordial, but it seemed he specifically wanted to chat with those players about something. I’ve been critical of referees in recent weeks, however, on this occasion it appeared like it was a genuine attempt by the official to reach out to the players and try and deal with any potential problems at their source rather than waiting for them to flare up later on. I wonder if I’m just late to the game in spotting this, does anyone know, is this the sort of thing that happens often, or is it quite rare?

* Moflem (or Moh-foo-reh-moo in Japanese) is the name of Gamba’s new Sesame Street-esque mascot who was officially Christened prior to kick-off on Sunday night. The name has generally gone down well with Japanese Gamba fans, and as for me, all I’ll say is, at least it makes a break with the usual ….-kun J. League mascot names. In fairness to Moflem, it put in a decent performance on debut, it didn’t mess up the ceremonial kick-in, even if the players (Kosuke Onose excluded) did look a touch embarrassed holding their Moflem cuddly toys for the team photo. Perhaps it could be the answer to the Nerazzurri’s creativity issues in attack?

* The 2022 Expo Uniforms seemed to be a hit with everyone as both the field player and goalkeeper versions turned out really well. Judging by Gamba supporters’ posts on Twitter, Dawhan seems to have quickly acquired cult hero status among the Nerazzurri faithful as his #23 uniform was a popular seller. Unfortunately, he’s only on loan and I don’t imagine he’ll stick around for J2 football. From my, admittedly, minimal research, my #32 Sakamoto jersey seems to be the only one of it’s kind, and I found myself surprisingly rewarded by seeing the soon-to-be 19 year-old from Kumamoto make only his 5th J1 start where he gave a generally good account of himself for the 60 minutes he was on the field.

* While Shimizu fans inside Panasonic Stadium on Sunday night certainly played their part in making it a great occasion with their Samba drumming routines and orange lights, their supporters on Twitter aren’t half a chippy lot, are they? In the past they’ve been more than willing to chime in with unwanted and irrelevant chatter over issues like Gamba’s new emblem and the match against PSG, now a mere 5 minutes after leaving the J1 drop zone and you’d think they’d had the recent title success of Kawasaki. Forgive me if there’s some big ‘in’ joke that I’m not party to (and believe me, I’m well aware of the steaming mess that is the 2022 Gamba Osaka season), but I’m sure there’s someone in their fan base self-conscious enough to think ‘given our recent history, isn’t there a decent chance this bravado could boomerang back and smack us square in the face?’

Team News

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

DF Kwon Kyung-won – Pictured in training on Saturday 13 August, but then not in the squad for the match with Shimizu 24 hours later, did he pick up a late injury, was he the Covid case from the previous week, or was he just dropped?

MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, potentially back at the end of this month or early September

MF Rihito Yamamoto – Small fracture in instep of foot, currently working through a rehab program, should be back in early September

FW Musashi Suzuki – Katanosaka stated in an interview on 13 August that Suzuki was essentially a 50/50 for the Shimizu game, as it was, he came on as a second-half sub and didn’t look fit, so I expect him to start this match on the bench too

FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season

FW Hiroto Yamami – Not in the squad for the loss to S-Pulse, it’s unclear whether he was injured, was the Covid case announced the previous week, or was possibly left out due to his bad miss late on against Kyoto

Dawhan, Shu Kurata and Kosuke Onose are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

**Note – This will be the first matchday squad selected by new boss Hiroshi Matsuda, so expect changes.**

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

The big news out of the Hiroshima camp this week has been the signing of Cypriot international forward Pieros Sotiriou from Ludogorets in Bulgaria for a reported €2 million. That equates to a fairly hefty price tag in Japanese footballing circles, so the pressure will definitely be on him to deliver goals quickly and regularly. With 17 strikes in 25 outings in the Bulgarian First Division last year as well as over 50 caps for his country he certainly has the pedigree to succeed. On the way out is Junior Santos who was never able to recapture the form he showed briefly at Yokohama F. Marinos back in 2020 and could only muster 9 goals in 57 J1 appearances for the Viola. He joined Botafogo in his homeland on Tuesday 16 August, it’s initially a loan contract, but a permanent deal is likely if things go well for him there. From the outside it seems like a couple of shrewd pieces of business from Sanfrecce, even if the up-front fee for Sotiriou was a tad steep. He is a current international with European experience and more importantly is an out-and-out goal-scorer, which is exactly what the Viola require right now. Hiroshima are still fighting on three fronts domestically this year and after knocking Yokohama F. Marinos out of the Levain Cup at the quarter-final stage they next face Avispa Fukuoka in a two-legged semi-final in late September. Before that they have a tough looking Emperor’s Cup last 8 tie away to Cerezo Osaka early next month to negotiate. I guess the big question is, can Skibbe keep his squad suitably fresh and rotated in order to make it through a tough looking upcoming 6 weeks or so? Hiroshima’s 9 remaining league fixtures are something of a mixed bag, and a quick scan through them suggests there’s no reason for Sanfrecce not to continue to be in the running for a top 3 or 4 spot come the end of the season. Also, as I’ve just mentioned, they may even bag a cup or two as well which would put the Skibbe project ahead of schedule as he stated in his opening press conference that this year was about establishing stability before pressing on in 2023.

Team News

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

DF Tsukasa Shiotani – Injured his stomach playing in the Levain Cup on August 10, expected to miss around 6 weeks of action

MF Shunki Higashi – Suffered a leg injury in the recent defeat at home to FC Tokyo which will likely cause him to miss the rest of the season

FW Shun Ayukawa – Broke his foot in March, if his rehab has been going according to plan then he should be back soon

FW Pieros Sotiriou – The club announced his signing on Monday 15 August, in theory he should be ready to play on Saturday, but whether Skibbe risks him, or not, remains to be seen

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Gamba Osaka vs Shimizu S-Pulse 14 August 2022 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Shimizu S-Pulse
2022 J1 Season Round 25
Sunday 14 August 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

Gamba return to league duty for the first time in a fortnight following the Covid-enforced postponement of their clash with Fukuoka last weekend. And, what a return it’s set to be as the club hold their annual Summer Expo this Sunday night and rejuvenated fellow relegation battlers Shimizu S-Pulse are the visitors to Panasonic Stadium. The Nerazzurri will take the field looking resplendent in their special black, blue, white and gold kit and they’ll need a performance to match those dazzling jerseys if they are to see off their visitors from Shizuoka. While Gamba were inactive in round 24, S-Pulse took full advantage with powerful headers from Brazilian duo Carlinhos Junior and Thiago Santana seeing them past a disappointing FC Tokyo outfit as well as some highly dubious officiating (more on which later). That win moved them out of the bottom 3 and they currently sit 1 place and 2 points above the Ao to Kuro who, of course, have a game in hand. Defeat in this bout would be disastrous for Gamba and it’s worth remembering that a 2-1 home loss to Shimizu in the summer of 2018 led to the end of Levir Culpi’s short reign as Gamba kantoku. A Koya Kitagawa penalty and a header from a Brazilian attacker followed by a late Gamba resurgence that ultimately comes up short, it’s not to hard to imagine history repeating itself in 2022, is it? Can Katanosaka and his raft of new attacking signings breathe new life into the Nerazzurri’s stuttering campaign or will this prove to be the death knell for his team’s J1 survival hopes?

Tale of the Tape

I went over a few statistical points pertaining to Gamba in my Avispa Fukuoka preview, and ultimately that game ended up being postponed a few hours after I published it. In the light of that, I don’t have too much left to say in here, so I’ll just aim for just a brief summary aided by plenty of charts below. As this match is being played at Panasonic Stadium then I guess the main takeaway should be Gamba’s home form in 2022. They’ve accrued 13 points from 12 fixtures in Suita this year which makes up just shy of 60% of their overall total and is the 4th poorest home showing in J1. Most disappointing from a blue and black perspective is the fact that the Nerazzurri have scored first in 8 of their 12 home outings this campaign, but have only converted 3 of those leads into wins. The 7 points thrown away in the 90th minute or after against Kawasaki, Urawa, Cerezo and Kyoto continue to sting badly. Indeed, in their past 3 league games on home soil, the blue and blacks have ceded equalisers in the 92nd and 97th minutes as well as throwing away a point in the 90th minute of the Osaka Derby. I’ve little doubt this recent run has caused many a sleepless night for Tomohiro Katanosaka and those closely connected to the club, and it’s a run that needs to be halted immediately. With this year’s J1 being so tightly balanced, if I’m honest there’s probably not a whole lot of difference in quality between 7th and 18th, it’s unlikely that a team can keep dropping points from winning positions at such an alarming rate and remain in the top flight. Though, with that said, I would urge those licking their lips at the prospect of Gamba and Kobe both going down to J2 to remember the procession that was the 2013 season with both Kansai giants having the automatic promotion spots sewn up long before final day. Fast forward to 2022 and for Gamba it’s all about battling nerves and a lack of confidence and holding on to a lead for once. Shonan, Kyoto and Júbilo are, for me, the 3 weakest sides overall in the division, but Gamba, Kobe and Shimizu, despite having better squads on paper, are by no means above getting things horribly wrong and ending up in the bottom 3. Though it’s still early days, S-Pulse’s summer recruitment work looks to have had a positive effect on their fortunes, meaning they come into this tie as slight favourites. For Gamba, defeat on Sunday night is unthinkable, and should they come off second best then I’d upgrade?/downgrade? their relegation status from possible to probable, that’s how pivotal a game this is.

Shimizu kicked off 2022 with a run of just 2 wins in their opening 16 games which precipitated a 4th mid-season managerial change in as many years as Brazilian Zé Ricardo replaced Hiroaki Hiroaka in the dugout in early June. Things have improved slightly in recent matches with 3 wins, 2 draws and 3 losses across their past 8 fixtures and with the attacking additions of Koya Kitagawa, Takashi Inui and the wonderfully named Yago Pikachu aligning with the return to fitness and / or form of several stalwarts there have been some real signs of a brighter future in both the recent 3-3 draw with Tosu and 2-0 triumph at FC Tokyo. With S-Pulse it is often a case of how successfully their decent attack can bail out their ropey defence. Solidity at the back has been an issue for a number of years now and their 38 goals conceded in 24 games this season is 2nd worst in the division with only Sapporo (40) letting in more. At the other end their 31 goals scored is the best of all sides currently in the bottom half of the table, and comfortably so, as it’s 5 more than their nearest rivals, who are once again Sapporo. There’s also a clear personality split when it comes to home and away fixtures. Shimizu are the division’s worst team in their home stadium, however, they are also the 5th best side in J1 away from home with 2/3 of their season’s points coming on the road. Whether this has predominately been down to luck or skill remains up for debate as they’ve out-performed their xG For total by 1.92 goals in their 12 away fixtures to date while at the same time conceding 2.04 less than would be expected based on their xG Against numbers. That 3.96 swing in their favour compares with overall totals of, a 4.08 over-performance vs xG For and a 4.8xG under-performance versus xG against. So, clearly opponents are taking their chances more clinically at the Nihondaira than they are anywhere else across the archipelago. New Brazilian kantoku Zé Ricardo has inherited a talented, but unbalanced squad. He has stuck with his predecessor’s 4-4-2 system and has compensated for a lack of genuine pace in attack by operating a strategy involving quick passing interplay among his front 6 as well as encouraging his full-backs to charge into enemy territory to supply the bullets for his centre-forwards, as they did so effectively in the 2-0 win at FC Tokyo. Kaoru Mitoma’s kōhai at the University of Tsukuba, Reon Yamahara might have been a shoo-in for J1 Rookie of the Year if it weren’t for the existence of Hiroshima’s Makoto Mitsuta. Left-back Yamahara, a Tokyo-native, delivered the cross for Thiago Santana’s clincher at Ajinomoto Stadium and that made it 1 goal and 3 assists in his last 3 league outings for the 23 year-old. Very adept at going forward, Yamahara has 6 assists in total and his 32 chances created sees him rank 14th overall in J1, quite an achievement for a full-back in a team placed 15th on the ladder. With that said, the defensive side of his game still requires some polishing as highlighted by Yoichi Naganuma of Sagan Tosu giving him a torrid time during the first half of their recent encounter at the Nihondaira. Last, and most certainly not least, I wanted to shine a light on one of the most effective attackers in J1 this season, Thiago Santana. Despite missing the opening 7 rounds of the campaign due to injury, the Brazilian hitman has bounced back to net 9 times which makes him a genuine contender for this year’s Golden Boot. Worryingly for Gamba, he’s currently in the midst of a run of 6 goals and 3 assists in his last 8 games with his hold-up play and finishing dragging his side up by the coat tails and providing them with genuine hope that they can avoid the drop.

First Match Recap

Gamba’s trip to the Nihondaira Stadium to face Shimizu back in April was a rare case of the Nerazzurri gaining points in injury time as opposed to the recent trend of throwing them away. Hosts S-Pulse were well worthy of their lead when they finally went in front midway through the second-half through debutant Oh Se-hun. However, the side from Shizuoka, with the game all but won, opted to go into their defensive shell and began sitting deeper and deeper as the final whistle approached. Hindsight is always 20-20, and, with the benefit of it, we can say that Hiroaki Hiraoka’s decision to replace pacy attacker Yuito Suzuki with centre-back Yugo Tatsuta was decisive. The loss of Suzuki deprived Shimizu of an out-ball to relieve pressure, while at the back Tatsuta essentially provided an additional pair of arms to be struck as the ball flew dangerously around the home penalty area. Mercurial Brazilian Valdo conceded a needless foul on the edge of his own box deep into additional time, Yuki Yamamoto’s resulting free kick clearly struck the hand of an S-Pulse defender inside the penalty area (not for the first time during the match), and to save the officials from making a big call, Kosuke Onose’s follow up shot squirmed beneath Shuichi Gonda’s fingertips to earn Tomohiro Katanosaka’s troops a barely deserved, but warmly welcomed point with the final kick of the game.

Gamba Osaka

* It’s Expo Time – After a partial break during 2020 and 2021 when heavy crowd restrictions were in place due to Covid, Gamba’s Summer Expo returns in all it’s glory this Sunday. From 2017-2019 all supporters received a t-shirt bearing a strong resemblance to field uniform worn by the players, adorned with the number 12 on the back and front. However, in 2020 and 2021 the t-shirt handed out to the fans came with an extra ¥500 cost on top of the ticket fee and was completely different in design to the players’ uniform. Additionally Gamba wore their supposed one-off Expo shirts twice in both 2020 and 2021. This year, the ¥500 price remains, but we’re back to the fans and players wearing similar shirts and this being a one-off occasion. Images of my Expo Uniform with #32 Sakamoto on the back are below as well as my collection of shirts from 2018, 2019 and 2021, which one is your favourite?

* Mascot Mayhem – Another part of the Expo festivities will be the official naming of Gamba’s new mascot during the ‘Heat Up Time’ pre-game segment. The character, who bares a striking resemblance to something out of Sesame Street, so much so that in my head I already think of it as ‘Gamba Elmo,’ was originally unveiled to mixed reviews prior to the home clash with Sapporo (I initially typed Sesame Street here…it’s getting late!) in Golden Week, though he has certainly grown on the Gamba fanbase over time. Now, following a competition entered by more than 9,000 people, the result is finally ready to be revealed to the public.

* Transfer Round Up – It appears that barring a surprise deal going through Gamba’s summer comings and goings are over. Juan Alano (Kashima), Ryotaro Meshino (Manchester City), Musashi Suzuki (Beerschot) and Rihito Yamamoto (Tokyo Verdy) are the arrivals while, Ju Se-jong (Daejeon Citizen), Yota Sato (Vegalta Sendai) and Shin Won-ho (Suwon Samsung Bluewings) have all departed, Ju and Sato on loan, Shin permanently. Of the newcomers, Yamamoto is probably one for the future, and the potential front three of Alano, Meshino and Suzuki has enough about it to offer Nerazzurri fans something to cling onto. It’s been reported that Alano signed an 18-month contract and stated the project laid out to him by Gamba’s front office was an exciting one. Yota Sato has quickly become a starter at promotion chasing J2 side Vegalta Sendai, hopefully he can gain some valuable experience before returning to Suita in 2023 ready to challenge for regular minutes. Leandro Pereira was an unused sub against Kyoto in the Nerazzurri’s most recent fixture, but it seems that the club are having difficulty getting his large salary off the wage-bill. It appears likely that 3 more months of frustration await both Pereira and Gamba as he sees out the remainder of his contract.

* On Tuesday 9 August, Gamba announced that former Nagasaki, Kobe, Fukuoka and Tochigi SC boss Hiroshi Matsuda would be joining the coaching staff, ostensibly as an experienced pair of hands to help Katanosaka out. Matsuda and Katanosaka go back a long way having played together at Sanfrecce Hiroshima during their younger days and it’s hoped that Matsuda can have a similar impact to current Okayama kantoku Takashi Kiyama who provided invaluable assistance to Masanobu Matsunami 12 months ago. Speculation is mounting in Gamba supporter circles that Matsuda may push for 4-4-2 to be used on a regular basis, however, for now that remains to be seen. It’s also worth remembering that Matsuda’s time working with the first-team squad will be limited in the run up to this game so we’ll have to wait a few weeks to see the fruits of his labour. As per Sports Hochi reporter Kanagawa-san, the move to bring in Matsuda was instigated by the club, though it has Katanosaka’s stamp of approval. Where it leaves the former Oita boss’ long-term future in Suita, that’s anyone’s guess at the minute.

* Regular Referee Rant – I really wanted to put this issue to bed in the Fukuoka preview, but with no Gamba game to watch at the weekend I took in Cerezo vs Kobe (wanting Cerezo to win was a very weird experience for me lol) as well as FC Tokyo against Shimizu and this exposed me to some extremely questionable officiating. I don’t know how Kohei Okuno’s 7th minute yellow card against Kawasaki, which was upgraded to a red by VAR, Hirotaka Tameda’s high boot on the hour mark against Kobe and Keigo Higashi’s very similar kick just prior to half time in the FC Tokyo vs S-Pulse game, have all been categorised differently. Okuno a red, Higashi a yellow and Tameda nothing, not even after a VAR check, which at the time led me to suspect that had the referee given him a yellow then VAR would have made it a red, but that theory went out the window with the Higashi incident. However, come to think about it, the officiating team at Ajinomoto Stadium were pretty dreadful in general and also managed to miss serial taker of cheap shots against unsuspecting, defenseless opponents, Leandro, smacking Yusuke Goto in the face twice, which was frankly laughable. With all the rightful concern surrounding concussion and head injuries in sports these days, it still flummoxes me why hitting people in the face is so under-punished in football when compared with other instances of violent conduct. Anyway, I’ve gone completely off topic, to sum up, what do I (fans in general?) want from refereeing and VAR decisions? Consistency. Is there any logic to suspensions and punishments handed down by the league? Generally once you stray away from things such as DOGSO red cards and 4 yellows = a 1 match suspension, no. Plus, rarer offences (spitting, biting etc.) seem to be punished more harshly, and making deliberate contact with the head of an opponent is often under-punished, this needs to be rectified swiftly in my opinion. Just to finish off this meandering rant of pent-up frustration from a weekend of having no Gamba game, I haven’t heard too many comments lately that Cerezo were wrong to suspend, and later terminate the contract of Takashi Inui for public dissent and smashing up their shower room (allegedly). It may all be coincidental of course, but Akio Kogiku’s 3rd placed side look like they’ve gone from strength to strength since Inui got canned and there seems to be a real sense of unity, purpose and direction in the south part of Osaka these days, if only I could say the same about activities in Suita.

Team News

The club announced one Covid case on 2 August, though with the postponement of the match with Avispa Fukuoka, if that case was asymptomatic then the player involved should be good to go on Sunday. (to quote someone who shall remain anonymous, “antibodies are about the only things working well at Gamba at the moment.”)

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

GK Jun Ichimori – 2 dislocated fingers in right hand, expected back by the end of this month at the earliest

MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, potentially back later this month or early September

MF Rihito Yamamoto – Small fracture in instep of foot, should be back in early September

MF Yuki Yamamoto – Knee cartilage injury, returned to full training on 1 August, possibly fit enough to make the bench for this game

FW Isa Sakamoto – Sat out the friendly with PSG and then not in the squad for the match with Kyoto, presumably has a minor injury

FW Musashi Suzuki – not in the squad for the draw with Kyoto, only reason given was the extremely vague ‘poor physical condition,’ his status for this game remains unclear

FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season

Dawhan, Shu Kurata and Kosuke Onose are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Shimizu S-Pulse

I mentioned earlier that as relegation began lurking menacingly on the horizon, Shimizu made a coaching change back in June with former Vasco da Gama boss Zé Ricardo taking over at the wheel. That move precipitated a busy summer of transfer activity in Shizuoka with prodigal son Koya Kitagawa returning after an underwhelming 3 year spell in Austria with Rapid Vienna, Takashi Inui coming in following a period training with Fagiano Okayama in the wake of his acrimonious departure from Cerezo Osaka and every Pokémon fan’s favourite Brazilian winger, Yago Pikachu, arriving from Fortaleza in his home country. That has left Zé Ricardo with a large and rather unbalanced squad full of attacking talent and options in wide areas, but short on quality down the central spine, especially at centre-back. Yoshinori Suzuki, one of Katanosaka’s most trusted lieutenants at Oita, is a serviceable option, however, Yugo Tatsuta, Valdo and Akira Ibayashi are average at best, and it’s noticeable that without Suzuki and Gonda, because of Covid, things rapidly fell apart at the back against Sagan Tosu. Help is on it’s way though in the shape of centre-backs, Taketo Ochiai (Hosei University) and Takumu Kemmotsu (Waseda University), who, in addition to promising attacker Sena Saito (Ryutsu Keizai University), will turn pro in 2023. All those who support this iconic club will be hoping that Ochiai, Kemmotsu and Saito are J1 players next season. Since returning to the top flight in 2017 following a year long J2 sojourn, S-Pulse have only achieved one top-half finish (8th in 2018), but they’ve always managed to keep their heads just above water. Things will be tough over the next 10 games, though the green shoots of revival have started to sprout and there’s every reason to believe that Shimizu will live to fight another day once all is said and done at the end of this campaign.

Team News

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

GK Togo Umeda – Knee injury, which curtailed his promising loan spell at Fagiano Okayama, out for the season

MF Renato Augusto – Long term knee injury

MF Yuta Kamiya – Missed last week’s trip to FC Tokyo, no reason given, potentially a Covid case?

MF Katsuhiro Nakayama – Last saw competitive action scoring twice in the 8-0 rout of Shunan Public in the Emperor’s Cup on 1 June, unsure if injured or just dropped

MF Kenta Nishizawa – Fractured kneecap, expected back near the end of the season

FW Yuito Suzuki – Not seen since the AFC U-23 Championship at the end of June, believed to be injured

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka 6 August 2022 Match Preview

Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 24
Saturday 6 August 2022
Best Denki Stadium
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

**Disclaimer – the majority of this preview was written prior to Avispa Fukuoka’s Covid cluster being announced, so it may read a little strange in certain places. Unfortunately, as a full-time teacher and part-time blogger I had to get most of my comments and analysis done on Sunday and Monday. However, I hope there are still plenty of pithy insights to keep you entertained.**

Tomohiro Katanosaka labelled last Saturday’s match at home to Covid-ravaged Kyoto Sanga a 6-pointer. After only picking up a solitary point as a result of Genki Omae’s soul crushing 97th minute penalty kick cancelling out Ryotaro Meshino’s opener, what does that make this game away to Avispa Fukuoka? The Nerazzurri survived an early blitz from Sanga’s special designated player Yudai Kimura (Hiroto Yamami’s kōhai at Kwansei Gakuin University) before taking a grip on proceedings thanks to Ryotaro Meshino’s first strike since returning from a 3-year stint in Europe. It was a scrappy, scrappy goal that looked like it would lead to an ugly, but ultimately vital victory, especially in the wake of Daiki Kaneko being ordered off (35 minutes too late from a Gamba perspective). However, lady luck once again chose not to shine on the Ao to Kuro at their cursed home stadium. Yamami missed a glorious chance to wrap things up and after Kimura tumbled under Higashiguchi’s ill-advised lunge, Genki Omae had to first, fight off the distraction that was his irate team-mate Martinus, before coolly slotting home to earn a potentially priceless share of the spoils for the Royals. Avispa, like Kyoto, were in Osaka on league business last Saturday, and they were also weakened by a number of Covid cases in their camp. Unfortunately for them, Cerezo were in no mood to show any mercy and Matej Jonjić’s early header in addition to substitute Satoki Uejo’s clincher meant Fukuoka headed back to Kyushu on a run of just 2 wins from their last 9 league games with only 6 goals scored during that time. Due to other round 23 results going their way, Gamba were able to nudge their way out of the bottom 3, but they remain precariously perched just 1 point ahead of bottom club Shimizu, who they face in Suita next Sunday. Avispa sit in 10th, 5 points above the danger zone, and because of their anaemic attack and recent poor run of form they certainly can’t consider themselves safe just yet which makes for a fascinating contest this Saturday at the Best Denki Stadium.

Tale of the Tape

I went into Gamba’s numbers in great detail in last week’s preview, so I’ll try to brief in here as, in truth, the equation is quite simple for the Nerazzurri, start doubling one goal leads and the late heartbreaks will soon become a distant memory, sounds so easy written down like that, doesn’t it? Genki Omae’s additional time spot-kick added to the collection of points ceded during the dying embers of matches this season. It’s a list which also includes, Leandro Damião’s 95th minute equaliser for Frontale, Alexander Scholz’s last gasp penalty for Urawa a few weeks back, and also Jean Patric’s memorable winner for Cerezo in the Osaka Derby just before the EAFF Cup enforced break. I know the Nerazzurri snatched a late leveller of their own away to Shimizu in April, but even throwing that into the mix, it’s still 6 points given up right at the end of games, and with the tightness of the 2022 league table, those 6 points are currently the difference between a relegation scrap and mid-table. With last Saturday’s opponents Kyoto ravaged by Covid, so much so that they only had one recognised centre-back on the field, any in-depth look at the stats has too many caveats involved to really tell us much. Gamba’s 2.23xG For was only the second time that figure has been above 2 all year, though the other occasion was against a Vissel Kobe side that then sat bottom of the league and were reduced to 10 men for more than half the game. This was also the first time the Ao to Kuro had outshot their opposition since that bright and sunny day in early May (though they did achieve parity away to Sagan Tosu). I’ll get into things like new signings, injuries etc. in later sections, but the main conclusion anyone should take from this part of the preview is that Gamba are in a genuine battle for survival and all statistical indicators show that it’s exactly where they deserve to be based on on-field performances.

Fukuoka were something of a surprise package 12 months ago, finishing 8th and leaving teams such as FC Tokyo, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, both Osaka clubs and Kashiwa trailing in their wake. That success was built on a holy alliance of a rock-solid defence and an ability to take chances in the opposition penalty area when they came along. Fast forward to 2022 and Avispa find themselves 2 spots lower in the standings and possess the division’s best rearguard, giving up only 20 goals in 23 outings. At the other end of the field, things generally haven’t functioned as smoothly. Winter recruit from Júbilo Iwata, Lukian, has yet to catch fire, netting only 3 times in 23 appearances which has led to the Wasps propping up the J1 goals scored charts with just 17 in total. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Avispa have bagged 7 goals in 2 matches against FC Tokyo as well as netting 3 away to Gamba in March meaning that in their other 20 fixtures they’ve only scored a paltry 8 times, a figure which includes 13 matches in which they’ve failed to hit the back of the net. Their xG For numbers suggest they should have scored 24.94 goals up to this point and that 7.94 under-performance of goals scored vs xG for is probably the biggest factor behind their slight slip in the standings. As I alluded to above, they are relatively safe in mid-table at the moment, but lying only 5 points above the drop zone with 11 matches remaining, they can’t afford to get too complacent. I know they had Covid issues in the lead up to the game with Cerezo which may explain their xG For figure of just 0.28, but more worryingly that was part of a wider trend of just 2 goals scored from an xG of 2.15 across their past 4 outings and kantoku Shigetoshi Hasebe will surely be hoping the recent re-recruitment of Cameroonian forward John Mary can help remedy that issue. Speaking of Hasebe, his go to formation is 4-4-2, though he has tinkered on occasions and opted for a 3-4-2-1 set-up to try and give game-time to each of his 3 excellent centre-backs, Douglas Grolli, Daiki Miya and Tatsuki Nara. However, with Nara suspended for this tie, it’s likely we’ll see the Hachi take the field in their usual 4-4-2 system with their wingers hoping to inflict the same amount of damage that they did in the return fixture against Gamba in Suita.

First Match Recap

Gamba’s 3-2 loss at home to Avispa in mid-March was the first real warning sign that all was not well in the Nerazzurri camp this year, while at the same time it provided their visitors from Fukuoka with a maiden league win of the season at the fifth time of asking. Belgian winger Jordy Croux took advantage of some hesitancy in the Ao to Kuro backline to fire the Wasps ahead after only 10 minutes and it stayed that way up until the interval. Gamba started brightly after the break, but were caught out on the counter and former Nerazzurri wide-man Tatsuya Tanaka collected his usual goal against his old side. Then, with 9 minutes remaining, Ko Yanagisawa inadvertently swept a Takeshi Kanamori cross past Kei Ishikawa for an embarrassing own goal to make it 3-0 and just like Tanaka’s strike earlier in the half, it came about through the Hachi targeting the left-hand side of the home defence. The indignity of that moment as well as the lopsided nature of the scoreline seemed to shake Gamba out of their slumber and late efforts from Yuya Fukuda and Leandro Pereira brought more respectability to the result, though that was scant consolation for the Curva Nord faithful. Fukuoka, on the other hand, left Suita in buoyant mood after exorcising the ghosts of their first 4 league outings in which they had scored just once and accrued only 3 points despite putting in some decent performances.

Gamba Osaka

Mood in the camp – I guess the nervous performance, lacking in fluency for large spells seen at home to Kyoto tells the story really. With Ryotaro Meshino slightly out of position at centre-forward due to the absence of Suzuki, Patric and Sakamoto, the Nerazzurri struggled to keep the ball in the attacking third for sustained periods. When they were eventually able to get at Kyoto’s makeshift backline, they caused problems and eventually after a series of dangerous breaks early in the second-half the deadlock was breached. Unfortunately after that, the Ao to Kuro failed to kill the game off, began sitting deeper and deeper and to be honest I felt no surprise at all when a penalty was conceded right at the death. The Gamba support generally still bear a lot of goodwill to Katanosaka, the front office are, to their credit, making some big splashes in the transfer market, but will it all be enough to stave off relegation? Following a run of 5 consecutive road defeats, some more Yappari Patric magic is surely the order of the day to see off a stubborn Fukuoka side this Saturday and kick-start the Nerazzurri’s 2022 campaign.

Transfer Update – As if to deflect attention away from Saturday’s disappointing result against Kyoto, there was the announcement on Sunday 31 July that Kashima Antlers winger Juan Alano would join on a permanent deal. Even Sports Hochi’s Gamba beat reporter Mr. Kanagawa (essentially the Fabrizio Romano of north Osaka) admitted he didn’t know anything about the move until it was announced. Whether that’s a sign of more secrecy around the Gamba front office following the embarrassingly public failed pursuits of Yuta Higuchi, Eduardo and Yuya Yamagishi in recent months, or the panic button being pushed leading to a deal being concluded at break-neck speed, I’ll let you be the judge of that. Anyway, for now a front 3 of Alano on the right, Meshino on the left and Suzuki through the centre seems to be the house the Nerazzurri are building their survival hopes upon. Gamba club chairman, Mr. Ono made comments on 3 August suggesting that after the capture of Alano, the Nerazzurri’s summer business was now complete which hopefully means the Ao to Kuro are not one of the J1 sides reportedly competing for ex-Vissel and Cerezo stopper Dankler.

Brazilian forward Leandro Pereira was an unused substitute against Kyoto and information passed to me from people who were in Panasonic Stadium last Saturday night suggests that he left the bench midway through the second half, made his way down the tunnel and didn’t re-emerge to walk round the field with his team-mates after the final whistle. He then posted a cryptic message in his native Portuguese on Instagram which seemed to translate along the lines of ‘never give up when you face a struggle.’ Make of all of that what you will.

Regular Referee Rant – Readers of this blog and listeners to the J-Talk Podcast will be familiar (overly-familiar?) with my views on Kohei Okuno’s VAR-assisted red card against Kawasaki a few weeks back. Using that logic then yes, I think Saturday’s referee Hiroki Kasahara was absolutely correct to give Daiki Kaneko a final verbal warning just before the break for a foul that surely met all the criteria of a yellow card, which of course would have meant the already booked Kaneko would have been ordered off and his beleaguered team-mates would have had to play the remaining 45 minutes a player short. As it was, Kaneko did eventually receive his marching orders with 9 minutes left on the clock, prior to which Gamba had gone 1-0 up so you could argue his presence didn’t make a lot of difference and due to the Nerazzurri’s nervousness, handing them an even bigger advantage may actually have been counter-productive. However, rules are rules ands they need to be applied fairly, where is the line between human officials’ empathy based decision making and the logic-only approach of technology? My argument is, Okuno shouldn’t have seen red so early against Frontale and Kasahara handled things correctly with Kaneko on Saturday, but instead we have a situation where on one occasion technology overrides a referee’s prerogative to give a strong final warning and on the other there’s no outside intervention, I don’t think that’s right or fair. Rant Over.

Expo Excitement – On Wednesday 3 August, Gamba opened up their Expo pop-up store in the Lucua 1100 department store adjacent to JR Osaka Station. Rather surprisingly so many people turned up that fans had to be turned away on the opening day. It will remain in place until Tuesday 9 August and I’m hoping to make the trip there at some point over the weekend. If you spend ¥4500 or more and you get a free bag with your favourite player’s name and number on it, plus there are paint cans (not sure why?) full of goodies and inside one of them is a Gamba home shirt signed by none other than Mr. Takashi Usami.

Team News

**Note – The club announced on Tuesday 2 August that one player had tested positive for Coronavirus. As per the usual protocols the player’s identity remains a secret.**

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

GK Jun Ichimori – 2 dislocated fingers in right hand, expected back by the end of this month at the earliest

MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, he revealed that he was behind Yuki Yamamoto in terms of a return date, may be back at the end of this month at the earliest

MF Rihito Yamamoto – Fractured bone in foot, should be back in early September

MF Yuki Yamamoto – Sustained a knee cartilage injury, in May, but joined full training on Monday 1 August suggesting a comeback is not far away

FW Patric – not in squad for draw with Kyoto, Katanosaka said “due to poor physical condition” which is a catch-all phrase that could mean almost anything, was seen in training pictures and videos on 1 August

FW Isa Sakamoto – Sat out the friendly with PSG and then not in the squad for the match with Kyoto last Saturday, presumably has a minor injury

FW Musashi Suzuki – not in squad for draw with Kyoto, Katanosaka said “due to poor physical condition” which is a catch-all phrase that could mean almost anything

FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season

Dawhan, Shu Kurata and Kosuke Onose are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Avispa Fukuoka

I might as well get the ‘second year syndrome’ cliché out of the way right at the start of this section before aiming to finish things off on more of a high note. Although they are only 2 places below 2021’s excellent showing, viewed from the outside at least, it seems like the mood in and around the Best Denki Stadium is a few notches lower now than it was 12 months ago. In my pre-season preview I wrote about Avispa “I like what they’ve done in the transfer market, I like it a lot.” Unfortunately for the Wasps, when I looked into my crystal ball back in January it turned out I interpreted the data in an overly positive manner. I’ve already alluded to Lukian’s struggles above, Tatsuya Tanaka (1 goal and 1 assist, only 9 J1 starts) has also not really bedded in as well as expected and with the attack not firing for large parts of the first half of the year, the club made the rather strange move to bring back Cameroonian forward John Mary. I say strange because kantoku Shigetoshi Hasebe chose to start him only 5 times in J1 during his loan spell last season despite him impressing when given serious minutes on the park. Other than that, Yota Maejima (Yokohama FC) has been a solid addition when fit, though he hasn’t quite matched the levels of the departed Emil Salomonsson. Takumi Nagaishi turned his loan deal from Cerezo into a permanent one over the winter and has usurped J-Talk goalkeeper of the half season Masaaki Murakami from the starting lineup during the past 5 league matches while experienced defender Tatsuki Nara also spent 2021 on loan at Fukuoka before inking a full-time deal this term, and he’s continued to be his dependable self. Attack has been a source of concern for Hasebe all year, but one man who hasn’t let him down has been Yuya Yamagishi. Able to play as a central striker in a 4-4-2 or as a shadow-forward in a 3-4-2-1, Yamagishi turned down advances from Gamba this summer and to date he has 6 goals and an assist in 23 outings including 3 goals and one assist in his last 7 games as if to show the Nerazzurri just what they are missing. What I really like about the make-up of Avispa’s squad is that they’re not a particularly young team, however, the majority of the players are in the sweet-spot age bracket of 25-30 and, in my book at least, that’s a major factor behind why they are generally pretty solid and consistent. I feel they’ll be just about ok in the final shake up and obviously there is still time available to conduct more summer transfer business in addition to the arrivals of John Mary and MF Yuto Hiratsuka (Mito). However, for the moment I’d like to sum things up by saying, this does very much feel like a (perhaps necessary) season of treading water for the Wasps after the fireworks of 2020 and 2021, though having endured a lifetime of yo-yoing between J1 and J2, that might be just what the doctor ordered.

Team News

This section will be a bit different this week as Fukuoka have confirmed over 20 cases of Covid among first-team players and staff over the past week or so meaning any reasonable attempt at guessing their lineup for Saturday is futile. Only having 2 outfielders (backup ‘keeper Takumi Yamanoi even came on as an outfielder in second-half injury time!!) on the bench didn’t stop them from picking up a super-impressive 2-1 win at Kobe in their Levain Cup quarter-final first-leg on Wednesday, so Gamba have been well warned. Tatsuki Nara is suspended, Yuto Hiratsuka has joined from Mito HollyHock and his status is currently unclear. Juanma Delgado, John Mary, Daiki Miya and Shun Nakamura were all absent for the trip to Cerezo last weekend, presumably with Covid, but all 3, except Nakamura, returned against Vissel. My advice to any Sorare managers would be, don’t pick any Avispa players for this game week unless you can’t avoid it, there are too many unknowns.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Avispa Fukuoka vs Cerezo Osaka (a) J1, 30 July

Avispa Fukuoka vs Vissel Kobe (a) Levain Cup, 3 August

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