J1 2023 Predicted Lineups

Hello Everyone,

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

The Guide

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

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

Biggest Loss – The opposite of best signing.

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

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

Predicted Lineups

A few caveats here,

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

Squad List

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

2021 and 2022 Stats

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

2023 Fixtures

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

2022 Appearance Data

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

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

The Teams

Yokohama F. Marinos

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

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

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

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

Kawasaki Frontale

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

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

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

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

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

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

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

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

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

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

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

Kashima Antlers

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

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

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

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

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

Cerezo Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

FC Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

Kashiwa Reysol

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

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

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

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

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

Nagoya Grampus

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

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

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

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

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

Urawa Red Diamonds

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

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

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

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

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

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

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

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

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

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

Sagan Tosu

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

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

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

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

Shonan Bellmare

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

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

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

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

Vissel Kobe

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

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

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

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

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

Avispa Fukuoka

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

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

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

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

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

Gamba Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

Kyoto Sanga

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

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

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

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

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

Albirex Niigata

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

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

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

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

Yokohama FC

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

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

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

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

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

—The End—


Gamba Osaka vs Kyoto Sanga 30 July 2022 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Kyoto Sanga
2022 J1 Season Round 23
Saturday 30 July 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

This Saturday marks the first of 12 remaining ‘cup ties’ for Gamba as they bid to save themselves from an inglorious drop down to the second tier. Covid-ravaged opponents Kyoto would appear to be made-to-order for Tomohiro Katanosaka’s beleaguered troops, but as we all know too well, if it’s predictability you’re after then Japanese football probably isn’t for you. The Nerazzurri last saw league action a fortnight ago in a gut-wrenching 2-1 home loss to prefectural rivals Cerezo, a game which marked the second time this year the Cherry Blossoms have come from behind to defeat their more well-decorated northern neighbours. Kyoto, on the other hand, earned a valuable point against fellow purple kit-wearers Hiroshima. Veteran forward Genki Omae was on hand to head home after Sanfrecce ‘keeper Keisuke Osako had misjudged a rather innocuous looking cross and that strike cancelled out Tsukasa Morishima’s opener for the visitors. The Royals did ride their luck though, when the referee chose not to overturn his decision of no penalty for Takuya Ogiwara’s apparent trip on Tomoya Fujii, despite being summoned over to the VAR booth for a second look. Since the round 22 fixtures took place there has been a 2 week hiatus in league action during which time Gamba have fitted in a glamour friendly against a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain side while Sanga have been laid low with Coronavirus, 11 players and 7 staff members being affected which led to team activities being halted from July 18th-24th. A home win here could possibly see the Ao to Kuro ease out of the bottom 3 and release some of the pressure that’s steadily been building around Katanosaka following a run of 1 win in 9 J1 matches. Meanwhile for Kyoto kantoku Cho Kwi-jae, after the tumultuous couple of weeks his side have endured, any positive result will surely suffice.

Tale of the Tape

Jean Patric’s last gasp winner in the Osaka Derby really was a dagger into the hearts of the Gamba-nation and was eerily reminiscent of Takuma Nishimura’s strike to earn Sendai a 3-2 victory at Panasonic Stadium last year and to a lesser extent Shoma Doi’s run and finish for Kashima in Ibaraki 12 months ago. Critics of Tomohiro Katanosaka will say that he’s done nothing to fix the Nerazzurri’s susceptibility to counter attacks during his tenure, and they’d have a point. Late fallaways in games have also hurt the Ao to Kuro badly, particularly during their hectic summer run. They’ve taken the lead in each of their past 4 home J1 fixtures against Yokohama F. Marinos, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Urawa Reds and Cerezo, but have emerged victorious on just one occasion. Gamba got a second soon after their opener against Sanfrecce and that killed the game off, had they bagged football’s most important goal, the one that takes the score from 1-0 to 2-0, against Urawa or Cerezo then neither of those two would have come back in my opinion, though you could argue that Marinos may have been able to eke out a draw. The Nerazzurri and their supporters must be hoping the two week break in league fixtures brings with it a change of luck in the wake of Kohei Okuno’s 7th minute ordering off versus Kawasaki and Jean Patric’s 0.05xG winner for the pink half of Osaka, incidents that are very much the kind of things that happen to teams in trouble. Looking in a more positive direction for a moment, Gamba answered my criticism over poor set-plays by netting their first goal from a corner all year against Cerezo. Ryuya Nishio and whoever is responsible for setting up the Cherry Blossoms’ zonal marking system certainly won’t want to see either Kwon Kyung-won’s initial effort which deflected off the bar or his powerful header from the resulting Hideki Ishige’s corner that sent the Curva Nord faithful into raptures, but this does neatly lead on to my point about the South Korean international’s effectiveness. During the former Seongnam stopper’s 876 minutes on the field in J1 this season, Gamba have conceded just 10 times (once every 87.6 minutes), but that number shoots up to a goal every 52.6 minutes when he’s not playing. The Nerazzurri simply can’t afford to lose him to injury again if they want to maintain their status as a J1 club in 2023. Kwon put in a generally solid display in the Osaka Derby, he went off with cramp prior to Cerezo’s late winner, however, he and Genta Miura both pushed up to play offside while Keisuke Kurokawa and Shota Fukuoka stayed back allowing Hiroto Yamada to slip through for the Cherry Blossoms’ equaliser. This conceded goal was disappointing from a Gamba perspective for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was nearly a carbon copy of Yokohama F. Marinos’ winner a few weeks back with the only difference being, on that occasion Hiroki Fujiharu was the sole culprit. This situation has come about due to the constant tinkering between a back 3 and back 4, something I’ve highlighted time and again in this blog. Vissel Kobe used to irritate me by doing that sort of thing and Yuji Ono’s opener for Gamba at the Noevir Stadium in 2020 should be sought out on YouTube if you’re looking for further evidence of the perils of messing around with your defensive shape on an almost weekly basis. All 4 goalkeepers used by Gamba this season have had a tough time trying to mop up the mess left in front of them and I’ve included a table below that compares some key stats between senior custodians Masaaki Higashiguchi and Jun Ichimori, I won’t say too much about it, I’d prefer to let you draw your own conclusions. At the moment, going forward things aren’t much better from a blue and black perspective. After 22 league games, the Nerazzurri’s joint top scorers are midfielders Dawhan and Kosuke Onose with just 3 goals apiece while Hideki Ishige and Leandro Pereira are the leading assist makers with 2 (Ishige has 2 in the last 2 home games). At present Hiroto Yamami’s 2.98 shots per 90 minutes is the highest figure among everyone at the club who has played 90 minutes or more, Musashi Suzuki, on debut, managed 3 attempts against Cerezo (4 if you include his wild shank in the first half that was incorrectly ruled offside) which is definitely a positive sign. Yamami was rested for the Osaka Derby with the double arrival of Suzuki and Ryotaro Meshino allowing him to take a night off following half a year of leading the Gamba attack. His 25 last passes is the best at the club, while his 32 shots on goal ties with Kosuke Onose as the top effort from a Gamba attacker.

Kyoto kantoku Cho Kwi-jae appears to strongly consider what he expects opponents to do prior to deciding his tactics and selecting his starting eleven for each match. However, with that said, up until their last outing at home to Sanfrecce, Kyoto had always kicked off in a 4-1-2-3 system (4-3-3 if you prefer) before attempting to match their highly-talented visitors from Hiroshima by lining up in a 3-4-2-1 shape. With Gamba constantly shifting between a back 3 and back 4 (much to the chagrin of me and many others), I’d bank on Cho reverting to the system he knows best in the face of such uncertainty, with only the personnel to fit the attacking midfield and wing roles up for debate (this sentence was written prior to news of Kyoto’s Covid outbreak reaching me, but once that passes it’ll still ring true, so I’ve left it in here). In a similar vein to Cho’s previous side, Shonan, Kyoto, as one of the smaller fish in the J1 pond, must make up for the absence of premium quality in their ranks with sheer grit and determination, and to that end they are currently averaging 35.7 more sprints per game than Gamba. Right-back Kosuke Shirai (a backup for most of their 2021 promotion campaign) leads the way with 606, which is a staggering 234 more than his nearest team-mate (perhaps not surprisingly left-back Takuya Ogiwara). Sanga’s xG for stats are generally on par in terms of number of goals scored, a phenomenon I’m tempted to christen, ‘the Utaka effect,’ but at the other end of the pitch they have massively overperformed defensively, which must be a worry for their coaching staff and fans alike. Taking all 22 fixtures into account, Sanga have conceded 7 times fewer than expected and a big chunk of that number (4.62) comes solely from opponents’ squandered opportunities in Royals’ away games. Should some of those chickens come home to roost on Saturday night then Gamba will be the gleeful recipients of a much needed change in fortunes. Any discussion about Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without mention of the man, the myth, the legend himself, Mr. Peter Utaka. I’m a mere 4 months younger than the 38 year-old goal machine and I get tired just watching games during the Japanese summer, yet Utaka put in three 90 minute appearances in the space of a week earlier this month, his stamina and endurance are frankly staggering. Currently lying 2nd in the J1 Golden Boot race, one strike behind man-of-the-moment Léo Ceará (Marinos) and the recently departed for Europe, Ayase Ueda (Kashima), it would be a fantastic story if he were to finish the campaign as top scorer (he was joint top in 2016). However, the downside to all of this is that perhaps the Royals depend on him a bit too much and any loss of form or fitness could bite them badly. His tally of 9 makes up 42.9% of Sanga’s yearly total, a percentage that sat at 35.6 last year, so if there is any spare cash floating around in Kameoka this summer then it might be wise to use it on a Utaka insurance policy. Away from the age defying veteran in attack, there are a plethora of young talents in this Kyoto squad and the two I’d briefly like to shine a light on are, holding midfielder Sota Kawasaki and centre-back / makeshift full-back Shogo Asada. Kawasaki is arguably the most talked about player in the team not called Utaka and despite a couple of niggling injuries he still sits in the top 10 in the division for tackles (51, 9th) and interceptions (6, 10th) which gives you a flavour of the defensive side of his game, though he is more than adept at going forward and linking up with his front 3, one goal plus 2 assists this campaign attest to that. The 27 fouls he’s given away in 17 appearances suggest plenty of youthful enthusiasm that I’m sure will be tamed over the coming years. Long term Twitter followers of mine will know I picked Shogo Asada out as a person of interest during Kyoto’s time in J2 and he’s made the step up with relative ease. He’s ranked 7th in the top flight for aerial battles won (61) and 9th for blocks made (53). As pointed out above, he started the season at left-back, before switching to his best position of centre-back, and it’s that spell out wide that likely accounts for his club leading 208.7 km distance covered as well as 363 sprints (that sees him rank 3rd behind his aforementioned team-mates Shirai and Ogiwara).

First Match Recap

April’s draw at Sanga Stadium by Kyocera saw both Kyoto and Gamba leaving with a point, but probably feeling like they could, and should, have gotten more. Fresh from an impressive 3-1 home win over Nagoya the previous weekend, the Nerazzurri were the brighter of the two teams early doors, but couldn’t make their dominance pay and were punished by Sanga talisman Peter Utaka right at the end of the first-half. They needn’t have worried too much though, as the home team’s lead lasted just 13 minutes before Dawhan’s powerful low volley squared things up. It was the Brazilian’s first strike for his new club and it went on to win J1’s April Goal of the Month Competition. Youngsters Isa Sakamoto and Jiro Nakamura were introduced during the second period, and Sakamoto almost had a dream J1 debut as his lovely weighted pass put Kosuke Onose clean through on Naoto Kamifukumoto’s goal, however, with the Sanga ‘keeper bearing down on him Onose poked the ball just wide. After that the home side rallied and the Ao to Kuro were left holding on for dear life during a final ten minute siege that culminated with substitute Mendes firing off target with the goal at his mercy in stoppage time. It finished 1-1 and both sides will have a sense of unfinished business as we approach the return fixture.

Gamba Osaka

Gamba went down 6-2 to Paris Saint-Germain in their friendly match played out in sweltering conditions at Panasonic Stadium on Monday night. The visitors sauntered into the break 4-1 up courtesy of goals from Pablo Sarabia, Nuno Mendes, Lionel Messi and a hugely controversial Neymar spot kick. Keisuke Kurokawa grabbed the Nerazzurri’s consolation and potentially alerted European scouts to his abilities with a decent first-half showing while guardian deity Masaaki Higashiguchi played like a man possessed to prevent an even more one-sided outcome. The 38,251 fans in attendance were treated to a generally slower paced second period which began with the home side making 7 changes with 1 ½ eyes on the important match against Kyoto this Saturday. Neymar made it 5-1 on the hour mark before Hiroto Yamami pulled one back from close range 10 minutes later. Substitute Kylian Mbappé (not a bad player to have on the bench, is he?) wrapped up the scoring from penalty spot near the end after being clearly upended by Ryu Takao. I’m recording a Patreon exclusive podcast with Jon Steele this Friday (29 July) where we’ll discuss PSG’s Japan tour in detail, look out for that next week!

It has now been confirmed that 2021/2022 Europa League champions Eintracht Frankfurt will come to Japan for a short tour in November just prior to the FIFA Men’s World Cup kicking off in Qatar. Makoto Hasebe is a legend at both Frankfurt and Urawa making the Saitama side a natural opponent (on November 16) while Daichi Kamada spent time in Gamba’s youth set-up which may explain why they’ve been chosen above the likes of Cerezo and Vissel for the West Japan leg of the tour. The match against the Nerazzurri will take place at Panasonic Stadium on Saturday 19 November.

A word on attendances – It was interesting to note that in the midst of Japan’s 7th Corona wave the turnout for the Panasonic Stadium leg of the Osaka Derby was just 22,531. This compares with 35,861 back in 2019, the last time it was played under normal circumstances. The Hanshin Derby against Vissel Kobe in Golden Week brought in just under 4,000 more paying spectators and the 26,490 attendance that day is the Nerazzurri’s best Covid-era figure. Unlike previous Osaka Derbies, steps taken by both clubs served to kill off any particularly bad behaviour, much to the disappointment of those who’d have been delighted had there been any hint of crowd trouble.

Transfer Round Up – On 24 July Gamba announced the capture of impressive young Japan U-23 international Rihito Yamamoto from Tokyo Verdy for a reported fee of €700,000. Yamamoto can play either as the anchor in a midfield 3 or in a double-volante system as he did successfully alongside former Verdy team-mate Joel Chima Fujita at the recent AFC Under-23 Cup. To date he has 104 J2 appearance and 3 goals to his name and of the midfielders currently on the books in Suita, his playing style most closely resembles that of Kohei Okuno. There had been strong rumours linking Gen Shoji with a return to his former side Kashima and these grew stronger after Shoji was the featured face on the starting eleven graphic for the game with Paris Saint-Germain as well as being the only Gamba player to go the full 90 against the French giants. However, the following day (26 July) speculation began to mount over an Antlers move for Vissel Kobe’s versatile defender Leo Osaki which, if true, would likely render any Shoji deal dead in the water. Leandro Pereira’s future in Suita remains up for debate with Júbilo Iwata suggested as a possible destination. Recalled to the enlarged 23 man matchday squad on Monday, Pereira cut a disinterested figure in the pre-game warm up, but gave a decent account of himself after replacing Musashi Suzuki at half-time. Other than that there’s not a whole lot to report other than Sports Hochi journalists Kanagawa and Uchida held a Twitter Spaces chat on Tuesday (26 July) and it was revealed there that Gamba are still pursuing new targets, but talks are not far enough advanced to publish the names of the players involved.

Random application of how much time to add on at the end of a game rant no. 328 – I’ve had a week off so I went back and did the maths, Jean Patric’s Osaka Derby winner came with 89:45 on the clock, it was followed by 1 minute 25 seconds of Cerezo celebrating and then making a time wasting substitution, absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. However, referee Ryuji Sato only added on a whopping 5 seconds to the initially awarded 5 minutes to make up for the break in play. Again, just as in the 1-0 loss to Shonan, there’s little doubt in my mind that Gamba would still have failed to score even if the extra time was played out, so my point is merely that I’d just rather we got a fairer application of the rules.

Any Gamba fans waking up to an Osaka Derby induced bout of nausea on Sunday 17 July were given some light relief in the shape of the club’s Under 18’s romping past Cerezo 3-0 in their Prince Takamado Cup West Division clash. A double from high school second-grader Renko Hikasa after Harumi Minamino’s early opener sent the Ao to Kuro on their way to only a second win of the campaign. After being struck down with Covid issues earlier in the year, Gamba Youth, like their senior counterparts face an uphill battle to remain in their division, but this result will give them a huge boost. Also of note was the presence in the matchday squad of Futa Endo, son of Yasuhito, as well as Haruta Yamaguchi, son of current Shonan boss Satoshi.

Team News

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 in August at the earliest

DF Kwon Kyung-won – Played 180 minutes for South Korea during the EAFF Cup including the whole game in the 3-0 loss to Japan on Wednesday. He has been struggling with cramp in recent outings and may not be risked as a result.

MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, shown jogging on the club’s official YouTube channel on 8 July, potentially back in August

MF Rihito Yamamoto – It was announced today (28 July) that he had fractured his foot in a league match against FC Ryukyu at the beginning of July. He was seen walking unaided at the PSG game so it can’t be too serious and the club have said it will take about a month for him to recover.

MF Yuki Yamamoto – Knee cartilage injury, shown jogging with Fukuda on the club’s official YouTube channel so the problem may not be as bad as first feared

FW Isa Sakamoto – Sat out the match with PSG on Monday, presumably with a minor injury

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

Kyoto Sanga

After what the majority of observers labelled a mediocre winter transfer window, it’s fair to say that not a whole lot was expected from Kyoto prior to the commencement of the 2022 campaign, mere survival in their first year back in Japan’s top flight since 2010 would surely be treated as a success, many thought. However, as newly promoted sides tend to do, they made a bright start to life in J1, earning 4 wins and picking up 15 points from their opening 10 fixtures. Though, from that point onwards they’ve found things pretty tough, going on a run of 2 wins, 3 draws and 7 losses across their subsequent 12 outings in which they failed to score 5 times and kept just a solitary clean sheet. With only 12 matchdays remaining, Kyoto really need a spark from somewhere to lift them out of their present rut or they’re soon going to find themselves mired in the relegation dogfight. It has to be said that their trip to Júbilo Iwata in round 34 already has all the hallmarks of a rather tasty bout filled with last day drama. To put a more positive spin on proceedings, Cho is an excellent manager to have in this kind of situation, he’s been there before with Shonan and he knows what he’s doing. I’ve no doubt he’ll have his players organised, motivated and ready to do battle until the last minute of the last game of the season. Sitting 4 points above Gamba, who presently occupy the promotion / relegation playoff spot, the match situation is clear, the Nerazzurri need a win, Sanga only really require to avoid defeat. Will Cho stick or twist? I’d say he’ll follow the template of former club Shonan, who’ve already notched up 1-0 home and away victories over the Ao to Kuro thanks to a strategy aimed at frustrating Gamba early doors and knocking them out of their stride before striking decisively on the break. Perhaps Genki Omae is the man for that decisive strike, he certainly was in their previous match against Hiroshima, and he was one of 11 new additions prior to the start of the season. However, almost 2/3 of the way through the campaign I’d argue that only really, ‘keeper Naoto Kamifukumoto has equalled or exceeded expectations. Rikito Inoue, someone who I picked out in my Scouting J2 article last autumn can’t seem to dislodge Hisashi Appiah Tawiah from the starting centre-back role for reasons known only to Cho. Appiah Tawiah has picked up 7 yellow cards in 17 J1 appearances in 2022 and now has a disciplinary record of 16 cautions and 1 red in 52 J1 outings, the Japanese Richardson? Elsewhere, Daiki Kaneko and Kiwi ‘keeper Michael Woud are maybe the only additions who haven’t quite done as well as I thought they might, which is to say, I didn’t think much of their winter business was that great in the first place. I feel like I’m being a bit negative and Kyoto’s a lovely place, especially Arashiyama, a few train stops down the track from Sanga’s wonderful new stadium, so let’s finish this section on something of a high note by name-dropping a couple of promising youngsters. Wingers Fuki Yamada (a Japan U-23 representative) and 19 year-old Keita Nakano offer a glimpse into a bright future for the Royals, but for the next 3 ½ months at least, it’s shaping up to be squeaky bum time in Kameoka.

Team News

**Note – 11 players were struck down with Covid and club activities were shut down from 18-24 July so basically expect the unexpected from Kyoto. As we don’t know who was and wasn’t infected I’ve just gone for their strongest eleven, but that’s likely to differ a fair bit from their actual starting lineup on Saturday night.**

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

MF Alan Carius – Joined the club on a permanent deal from Saudi Arabian side Al-Adalah on Tuesday (26 July), but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to feature on Saturday.

MF Naoto Misawa – Achilles tendon rupture similar to Usami, likely to miss the majority of the season

MF Fuki Yamada – Went off in 2nd half of Emperor’s Cup win away to Tochigi SC on 13 July and was missing from the matchday squad for the 1-1 draw with Hiroshima on 17 July

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Kyoto Sanga vs Gamba Osaka 6 April 2022 Match Preview

Kyoto Sanga vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 7
Wednesday 6 April 2022
Sanga Stadium by KYOCERA
Kick Off: 18:30 (JST)

The first full midweek J1 card of 2022 sees Gamba make the short trip north to Kameoka for a Keihan Derby with near neighbours Kyoto Sanga. This will be the first league meeting between these two in nine years and both sides come into the fixture buoyed by impressive 3-1 victories at the weekend. The Nerazzurri needed a positive result and performance at home to Nagoya on Saturday, and got both, while Sanga inflicted further pain and punishment on struggling Kobe with a come-from-behind victory at the Noevir Stadium. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for Cho Kwi-jae and their supporters would be the fact that the goals were shared around and none came from talisman Peter Utaka. Gamba may have the more illustrious history of the two teams, but they enter this tie on a level footing with the Royals as both currently sit on 8 points courtesy of 2 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. The Ao to Kuro travel to Shizuoka on Sunday a few hours prior to Sanga hosting Tosu, so it’s not inconceivable that either Kansai club could make it through this tough week unbeaten therefore they’ll undoubtedly be going flat out for a positive outcome here.

Tale of the Tape

There’s an old saying in America that ‘offense wins games, but defense wins championships’ and while there’s certainly a case to be made that Gamba currently possess neither a strong attack nor a particularly reliable backline, baby steps are being made in both regards. The Nerazzurri’s 10 goals in their opening 6 J1 outings (from an xG of 6.14) is joint 3rd best in the division, however, at the other end of the field, the 10 goals conceded across the same time-span (8.83xG Against) ranks 4th worst. With only 6 games played there aren’t a whole lot of data points to work with, but we can still see a clear contrast between rounds 1-3, Kashima, Urawa, Kawasaki and the 3 most recent clashes with Iwata, Fukuoka and Nagoya. Going forward, the accrued xG For figure was just 1.95 for the first 3 fixtures compared with 4.19 in the next trio, while defensively, xG Against stood at 5.56 after the 2-2 draw with Frontale, but since then it’s amounted to a mere 3.27 across 3 games. A work in progress for sure, though importantly progress does appear to be getting made. Finally, and briefly, in my preview for the Grampus game I predicted Gamba might see a lot of the ball and would have to be wary of Nagoya counter attacks, in this case I was proven to be dead wrong. The Ao to Kuro secured their first home win of the year in rather comfortable fashion (the first time they’ve won at home in J1 by a 2 goal margin since the 2-0 triumph over Yokohama FC last May) despite only completing 286 passes to their opponent’s 420 and having just 45% possession. This was a complete reversal of what happened in both clashes with the Giallorossi in 2021 and from a blue and black perspective, the result was all the better for it.

Goals have been raining in at either end consistently in Gamba games, however, in Kyoto’s case once you remove the 4-1 home defeat to Iwata and 3-1 victory at Kobe from the equation, you’re left with a more sedate 6 goals from the other 4 matches. Interestingly their xG For total of 6.16 is almost identical to the Nerazzurri’s, though 11.06xG Against must be something of a worry for kantoku Cho Kwi-jae and perhaps suggests why he chose to shake things up a touch for the Vissel encounter. Cho is a wily campaigner and has generally opted to set Sanga up to sit back and soak up opposition pressure. Again with the caveat of having a small sample size, Kyoto average 266 completed passes per game with a season high of just 301 which came in the home loss to Júbilo Iwata, this compares with Gamba’s 327 per match and the Nerazzurri also recorded their season best versus Iwata (505). After getting my match style prediction so wrong last time round I am a tad nervous about committing my thoughts to print again, but here were go. I think Gamba will seek to seize the initiative, control possession and take the game to Sanga, however, the Royals, who’ve clocked up over 200 sprints per game in all but 1 J1 fixture to date this season will look to press and harry Gamba’s players when they have the ball with the aim of creating counter attacking opportunities for themselves, something they did particularly well in the 2nd half of their match in Hyogo at the weekend.

Head to Head

This will be the first competitive match between these two since 2013 and in fact it’s been 12 years since they last duelled it out in J1. The 3-3 draw at the old Expo ‘70 Commemorative Stadium in the opening round of the 2013 J2 campaign should have been my first ever Gamba match, but as a newbie to Japan at that time I foolishly assumed I could just buy tickets on the day, not foreseeing that the Keihan Derby would sell out well in advance. As it was, I watched the drama unfold in Hub in Umeda, and what drama it was. Two goals in the space of three second half minutes through, first Hiroyuki Abe, and then a penalty from Leandro (no, not the FC Tokyo one) were sandwiched by efforts from Kyoto’s Jun Ando and Koji Yamase before future Japan international Yuya Kubo fired Sanga into the lead in injury time. However, the Nerazzurri were not to be denied in Kenta Hasegawa’s first game in charge and earned another spot kick which consequently led to the dismissal of Royals’ Serbian defender Miloš Bajalica. Yasuhito Endo stepped up and coolly slotted home to earn his side a share of the spoils in what was to be the first of 5 draws within the opening 7 rounds as the Ao to Kuro initially struggled to come terms with life as a J2 club.

The return fixture in matchday 40 saw Gamba all but wrap up the J2 title with a comfortable 2-0 win in the rain at the old Nishikyogoku Stadium. Yasuyuki Konno set the blue and blacks on their way in the first half before Kotaro Omori settled things with 4 minutes of normal time remaining, netting his first ever J.League goal at an absolutely crucial moment. The Nerazzurri secured promotion back to the top flight the following week with a 3-2 triumph at home to Montedio Yamagata and we all know what happened in 2014.

Gamba Osaka

* Needless to say an 18:30 kick off on a non-national holiday Wednesday hasn’t gone down well with travelling Gamba supporters, many of whom were hoping to visit Sanga Stadium for the first time. Their frustrations wouldn’t have been helped by the scheduled pre-season fixture between these two being postponed due to the Nerazzurri’s Covid-cluster, still there’s always next season, well, fingers crossed.

* Dogs of War – Dawhan made his long awaited J1 debut alongside Mitsuki Saito in the Gamba engine room last Saturday and, apart from a rather shaky opening 10-15 minutes, he was a revelation. The Ao to Kuro recorded a season high 171 sprints versus Grampus and a good number of these can surely be put down to the relentless Dawhan and Saito who never gave their opponents a moment’s rest. Nagoya captain Sho Inagaki was hooked at half-time while Leo Silva used all of his nous to earn a number of free-kicks, but was constantly overwhelmed in the middle of the park, being fed weak, aimless passes and then left facing 2, or even 3 on-rushing blue and black jerseys which very much made him look like the 36 year-old battle-worn veteran he is. The Dawhan and Saito double act is certainly something to keep your eyes on in the coming days and months.

* Rotation, rotation, rotation – 3 games in the space of 8 days means all J1 teams are likely to be tweaking their lineups this week which has made my team selections below a little trickier than normal. This is the first time Gamba have played 3 league fixtures in such a short space of time under Katanosaka so I had no real evidence to fall back on when making my picks. I’ve gone conservative (if it works for Hajime Moriyasu, why not?), but don’t be surprised if there are more changes to the lineup in reality, though I hope at least the same 4-4-2 system that was successful against Grampus is utilised again here.

* Renaissance man Kurokawa – Basically the embodiment of Gamba across the last 2 league outings, had a bit of a ‘mare versus Fukuoka before bouncing back in surprising and impressive fashion against Nagoya. My long-term followers will be well aware of my admiration of Takashi Usami and there’s no other way to spin his injury than as a huge loss for the club, but, it does seem to have inspired others, Yuya Fukuda late on in the Avispa bout and Kurokawa here to plough forward and have a shot whereas in the past giving the ball to Usami and having him direct operations from there on might have been the safer option.

* At the scene of every crime there’s Hiroto Yamami – The circumstantial evidence is piling up…no goals or assists again, but he was heavily involved in all 3 of Gamba’s goals as they breezed past Grampus in the Suita City sunshine. His excellent free kick in the first half eventually broke to Gen Shoji whose shot was then, of course, deflected home by Patric for the opener. In the second stanza, number 37 played provider once more, supplying the ammunition for Mateus and Kazuya Miyahara to combine for a comedic own goal (comedic if you don’t support Nagoya that is), before occupying space and defenders with an intelligent run that allowed Kurokawa to cut inside and slam the clincher past the despairing dive of Mitch Langerak. Two assists away to Oita in the Levain Cup, the final touch, but not assist, to set up Fukuda’s winner at Reds and now his performance here, things are starting to click for the diminutive forward. With a trip to the scene of his biggest heist to date, the Nihondaira Stadium in Shimizu, on the horizon, what might he produce to whet the appetite in the northern suburbs of Kyoto this Wednesday?

* It’s not often I get the chance to praise Gamba for being ahead of the game when it comes to innovative social media work, so I’m going to milk this opportunity for all it’s worth. Allowing dressing room mood-maker Shota Fukuoka to ‘hijack’ the club’s official Twitter account on April Fool’s Day was a masterstroke and a cut above the usual ‘we’ve signed Messi ha ha ha’ posts. Well done to all involved …even if I’ve heard complaints about a lack of shirtless Yuya Fukuda pictures!

Team News

Takashi Usami (achilles) and Masaaki Higashiguchi (knee) are the two definite absentees for Gamba with Usami likely to miss most, if not all, of the campaign and Higashiguchi due back in mid-to-late May should his rehabilitation go according to plan. Ryu Takao left the field on a stretcher on Saturday, but he appeared to have no more than cramp, while Ko Yanagisawa, Yuya Fukuda, Yuki Yamamoto and Hiroki Fujiharu were all surprisingly missing from the matchday squad last weekend. No updates have been forthcoming from the club to date so if I was to speculate I’d say, being saved for this game (Yanagisawa and Fujiharu), chronic ankle problem flaring up again (Fukuda) and not fitting in with Katanosaka’s system (Yamamoto) are possible reasons to explain their non-selection, but it is very much a case of wait and see.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Kyoto Sanga

In their first season back in Japan’s top flight since 2010, taking eight points from their opening six fixtures represents a decent start for Sanga. From the outside it appears that Cho Kwi-jae is the ideal kantoku to steer them to safety and expectations in Kameoka seem to be realistic. It’s apparently very much in vogue now (was it ever out of vogue?) for clubs / national teams to have a few positive results, or even a good year, and then conveniently forget how out of place that run of form was compared with how they’ve fared for the majority / entirety [delete as appropriate] of their history. That doesn’t seem to be the case at Sanga and I’m sure retaining their status as a J1 club for 2023 will be seen as a success. Veteran forward Peter Utaka, at the ripe old age of 38 is their goalscoring lifeline and I know it is very much a tired cliché, but he’s ageing like a fine wine. With that said, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a team full of grizzled veterans, midfield dynamo Sota Kawasaki, a product of the club’s under-rated youth system has shone brightly early doors this season, in fact so much so that he must be on a number of fellow J1 sides’ radars by now. In all honesty, I think Kyoto might struggle to escape the bottom 4 or 5 places this season, but I am on record as saying the ingredients are there to be ‘this year’s Fukuoka’ if everything clicks. However, unlike Avispa, in addition to Kawasaki (20), other young guns such as centre-back Shogo Asada (23), attacking midfielder Shimpei Fukuoka (21) and on-loan left-back Takuya Ogiwara (22) would likely head to fresh pastures should the Royals hit the dizzy heights of 8th this year leaving Cho with a big rebuilding job on his hands. Still, I’m getting way, way ahead of myself, of more immediate concern to Cho is fixing a backline that was actually the least porous in J2 last term (giving up just 31 goals in 42 games). Dutchman Jordy Buijs has since headed to Fagiano Okayama with Rikito Inoue moving the other way to take his place. Inoue and the aforementioned Asada did well against Kobe at the weekend and hopefully that means the ill-advised Mendes-Appiah Tawiah experiment will be brought to an end, now just to restore Takahiro Iida to first choice right back and they’re all set.

Team News

Playmaker Naoto Misawa suffered an achilles injury in pre-season, similar to the one later sustained by Takashi Usami and won’t be back until September at the earliest. Two winter additions, Martinus (unused sub) and Genki Omae (second half replacement) haven’t featured in a league or cup squad since the opening day victory over Urawa, I presume this is injury related. Winger Kosuke Taketomi who has struggled for fitness in recent years was taken off after 24 minutes on Saturday and his status is currently unclear. Elsewhere, Covid cases have been reported by the club and key central midfielder Shohei Takeda was a prominent omission from the matchday squad versus Kobe. Keeper Tomoya Wakahara, utility player Daigo Araki and forward Yuta Toyokawa also dropped out having being selected for the previous round, though in their cases I’m uncertain if this was due to injury, Covid or non-selection.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


J1 2022 Predicted Lineups

Happy New Year everyone! This is my first post of 2022 and following on from the previous two seasons I’ve decided to put together a J1 predicted lineups article to get the ball rolling. Hope you all enjoy the fruits of my labour.

Also a quick reminder that you can find the 2022 squad lists screenshotted below in this Excel document.

And, be sure to check out @Michael_Master on Twitter if you haven’t already, the one and only account you need to follow to keep up to date with J. League transfers.

The Guide

Teams are listed below in the order they finished the 2021 campaign and each club’s mini-section contains the following information.

Best Signing – This won’t necessarily be objectively the best player the team have signed over the winter, more the one I feel addresses the most pressing need in the squad, for example, spoiler alert, I selected Kim Min-tae over both Yuta Higuchi and Yuma Suzuki in this category at Kashima.

Biggest Loss – Basically the opposite of best signing.

One to Watch – Again it might not be the best player in the squad or the one most likely to join a European club in the summer, rather someone whose good, bad or up-and-down form will set the tone for his team’s entire campaign.

Doubtful – Players who due to either injuries carried over from 2021, immigration issues or, in the case of a certain Polish striker at Nagoya, potential doping violations, might not be available for selection in the opening months of 2022.

Notes – Me trying to work out what direction the team is heading in this year.

Predicted Lineups

A few caveats here,

* For simplicity’s sake I’ve assumed every contracted player to be fit and available for selection when choosing these best elevens.
* These are not meant to be seen as the predicted starting lineup for round 1, think of them more as the players who will feature most across the course of the year (obviously new signings will be made in the summer, but unfortunately I’m not in possession of a crystal ball to make forecasts that far in advance).
* In cases where numerous players may see significant minutes in a certain position I’ve listed alternatives below the main choice (players may appear as alternatives for more than one role, see Satoshi Tanaka or Takuro Kaneko for examples). I also hope this illustrates where certain clubs have perhaps overstocked in one area of the field while neglecting others. Where two alternatives are listed, the name on the left is the one I consider to be higher on the team’s depth chart.
* I think I said this last year, but I’ll repeat myself anyway, expect the lineups for teams that have kept the same coach and most of the same playing staff as 2021 (Kawasaki) to be more accurate than those that have seen multiple changes in management and on-field personnel (Tosu).
* I have done a great deal of research to get these lineups as accurate as I can to the best of my knowledge, but full disclosure, I’ve also acted on some hunches and taken a punt on some lesser known talents (I guess there wouldn’t be much point reading this article if I just stated the obvious). Players coming from university sides directly into professional starting elevens is one of the unique selling points of football in this part of the world versus, say Europe, and it can be immensely tricky trying to project how each year’s batch of fresh-faced graduates will do, especially when data about their positions and skill-sets is hard to come by and the little information you can find seems to show them playing in a position that doesn’t appear to exist at the club they are joining (for example a wide midfielder in a university side that plays 4-4-2 moving to a J1 team that operates a 3-4-2-1, will they be a wing-back or inside forward?). I’m guessing these are the kind of choices that might generate the greatest debate, so please cut me some slack, I like to use data, but several players below have made the grade based largely on gut instinct developed over a decade watching the J. League.

Well, with all that out the way let’s move on and take a look at each of the 2022 J1 sides one by one, shall we? Again I look forward to hearing feedback (good natured I hope) from fans of all teams, followers of the league in general or just casual passers by, you’re all welcome. While I’m confident you’ll agree with some of the points below, I’m also sure there will be many choices and opinions that people will disagree with, and that’s all fine, it’s why we love the beautiful game so much, right?

Kawasaki Frontale

Best Signing: Chanathip – Had plateaued a little up in Sapporo, but a move to the champions should work out well for him and Frontale.
Biggest Loss: Reo Hatate – Basically by default as he was the only top teamer to leave. Perhaps the most frightening thing for the rest of the league is the amount of depth Kawasaki still have in midfield despite losing Hatate, Mitoma, Morita and Tanaka in the last 12 months.
One to Watch: Leandro Damião – Imperious in 2021 and the deserved recipient of the league’s MVP award, could a slight slip back from those grandiose heights offer a glimmer of hope to the chasing pack?
Doubtful: Jesiel (injury)
Notes: It’s Toru Oniki’s 6th campaign at the helm and once again Frontale start as the team to beat. Assuming Jesiel’s injury or the ageing of the forward line doesn’t adversely affect them too much, they are extremely well placed to fight off challenges from Marinos, Kobe, Kashima and Urawa to three-peat for the first time in their history.

Yokohama F. Marinos

Best Signing: Katsuya Nagato – By no means the most glamorous transfer of the winter, but Nagato who, don’t forget, led the league for assists with Sendai back in 2019 looks like he could thrive in Marinos’ system and help their fans quickly get over the loss of Theerathon.
Biggest Loss: Daizen Maeda – Only joined Celtic on an initial six-month loan deal, I don’t really see this happening, but if things turn sour in Glasgow, a sharp return to Yokohama in the summer would do wonders for Marinos’ title aspirations.
One to Watch: Marcos Junior – Goals-wise he’s dropped year-on-year since coming into the league in 2019, but he still remains pivotal to Marinos’ hopes and how well he adapts to Muscat’s game plan will be of critical importance to the team’s chances this season.
Doubtful: Shinnosuke Hatanaka (injury)
Notes: It’s all about Muscat for me, his appointment struck me as slightly strange at the time and even more so now that I’ve had time to digest it. Was he the best person to carry on Ange-ball? No (that guy is coaching Yamagata at the moment). If a desire to carry on the Ange-ball system wasn’t a pre-requisite for getting the job was he the best available candidate? Again, probably not. Despite that, I’m open minded as to what he can achieve given the time and space to put his own mark on the team. I’d argue that this squad is slightly weaker than 12 months ago, however, there is still plenty of talent onboard and top 4 should be a minimum expectation.

Additional Note: Anderson Lopes has been heavily linked with a move to Marinos. I’m unsure about his visa status or who would win out in a duel between him and Léo Ceará to be the main centre-forward.

Vissel Kobe

Best Signing: Tomoaki Makino – Vissel need an experienced head at the back to guide Kikuchi and Kobayashi along and although I’m sure it’ll seem strange at first seeing him in a darker shade of red, he should prove valuable on and off the field in the port city.
Biggest Loss: Thomas Vermaelen – Played more than I expected him to across his 2 ½ years in the league and no doubt passed on a trick or three to his younger protégés.
One to Watch: Yoshinori Muto – Was the dominant partner as he and Yuya Osako amassed a combined 9 goals and 11 assists in 23 appearances at the back end of 2021. More of that this term and Vissel will very much be in the title conversation.
Doubtful: Bojan Krkić (injury)
Notes: Things have never looked better in Kobe, a balanced and settled squad, a competent manager and Hiroshi Mikitani largely leaving the football decisions to football people. We may see some tinkering with the midfield shape, but regardless of what system Miura adopts there’s no reason to suggest Vissel won’t be there or thereabouts at the business end of the year.

Kashima Antlers

Best Signing: Kim Min-tae – Three of last year’s back four have moved on and Kim’s star is burning brightly following an impressive spell filling in for the injured Yuichi Maruyama at Nagoya. His experience alongside the talented, but erratic, Ikuma Sekigawa will be invaluable.
Biggest Loss: Koki Machida – Perhaps not much of a shock as he’d been linked with European clubs in the previous 2-3 windows so Antlers should have planned his succession accordingly.
One to Watch: Diego Pituca – A shining light once he was finally allowed into the country last year, the box-to-box midfielder should be a genuine J1 Best Eleven contender this term.
Doubtful: Shintaro Nago (injury), Kantoku René Weiler (Visa)
Notes: New kantoku René Weiler has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal in attack and must be relishing the prospect of moulding them into a cohesive unit once he eventually makes it to the land of the rising sun. At the back the situation is a little less rosy, but should the attack-minded Weiler get things to gel, the Ibaraki side are not hindered by ACL involvement like their rivals and this could set them on a course towards a first title since 2016.

Nagoya Grampus

Best Signing: Keiya Sento – Played in a role for Tosu that doesn’t really exist in the current Grampus set-up, but to me he projects as Naoki Maeda’s replacement and should prove to be a gem of a signing.
Biggest Loss: Takuji Yonemoto – One of the surprise moves of the winter in my book, he left FC Tokyo after one season of working with Kenta Hasegawa, did they have prior beef?
One to Watch: Mateus Castro – Those of a Grampus persuasion will hope that the enigmatic Brazilian has gotten over the slump in form he experienced in the second half of 2021, as well as those Kawasaki transfer rumours, and will bounce back ready to lead the charge towards an ACL place.
Doubtful: Jakub Świerczok (PED Violation)
Notes: If I was a Nagoya fan would I have wanted to wake up to the news that Kenta Hasegawa was replacing Massimo Ficcadenti? No, but I’ll add that he’s nowhere near as bad as some FC Tokyo fans might have you believe. After winning silverware in each of his first 3 years at Gamba, he took an FC Tokyo side that had only achieved a single top 6 J1 finish in the 8 years prior to his appointment to 3 consecutive top 6 placings. Granted, the wheels came off spectacularly in his final seasons at both clubs, but I still maintain he’s a reasonably safe pair of hands until the Grampus hierarchy decide which direction they want the club to take next.

Urawa Red Diamonds

Best Signing: David Moberg Karlsson – Possibly the only player in the history of football to represent both Kilmarnock and Urawa which means that everything inside me should want him to fail, but I actually think this could be quite an astute piece of business by Reds.
Biggest Loss: Tomoaki Makino – Kind of wins this by default as Urawa didn’t lose any real nailed-on 2021 starters in the off-season, only Yuruki and Tanaka ran him close for this award.
One to Watch: Kasper Junker – 7 goals in his first 6 J1 appearances and just 2 in 11 after that as injuries struck. If a full pre-season schedule gets him back up to speed then J1 look out.
Doubtful: Ayumu Ohata (injury), David Moberg Karlsson (Visa)
Notes: When I wrote my Scouting J1 and Scouting J2 articles last autumn I never envisaged that Urawa and Cerezo would be the 2 teams to sign the most players from those lists, but there you go, hats off to both clubs. Reds have added a dizzying array of stars to an already strong looking squad and if they can find a way to get everyone pulling in the same direction then they appear well set to challenge domestically and in Asia.

Sagan Tosu

Best Signing: Naoyuki Fujita – Still very much good enough to play for Cerezo, but probably rightly moved on due to the ageing issues at the club. A return to his first pro side seems a logical next step and he’ll have a big part to play assisting the development of the bountiful young talent on the books at Tosu.
Biggest Loss: Yuta Higuchi – Plenty of competition for this award, but I’m still drowning my sorrows over Higuchi rejecting Gamba for Kashima and have to nominate him here.
One to Watch: Yuki Kakita – Finished 2021 with something of a bang, netting 5 times in 8 outings for a Tokushima side that struggled to create clear-cut openings. Has his old Vortis team-mate Miyashiro with him too and looks to be the ideal replacement for Keita Yamashita.
Notes: Let’s focus on the positives, the goalkeeper, defence and wing-backs are basically unchanged from 2021 (Ayumu Ohata excluded) and in attack, if I can quote Moneyball, they’ve realised they can’t directly replace departed stars like Higuchi, Sento, Koyamatsu and Yamashita, but they can re-create them in the aggregate. If the injury-prone Yuji Ono, high school wizzkids turned pro-level letdowns Jun Nishikawa and Yuto Iwasaki or any of their 6 recruits from varsity football enjoy a standout year then a mid-table finish isn’t out of the question.

Avispa Fukuoka

Best Signing: Lukian – This deal came as something of a bolt from the blue to me and the addition of J2’s top scorer from 2021 adds real impetus to an Avispa attack that will be looking to move up through the gears this year.
Biggest Loss: Emil Salomonsson – Will be a big loss both on and off the field. He must have found it tough with basically 2/3 of his time in Japan falling during the Coronavirus pandemic so it’s hard to begrudge him a move back home.
One to Watch: Tatsuya Tanaka – Back in his native Kyushu, big things will be expected of the versatile wide-man. This was an area where Avispa needed an upgrade and it looks like they’ve found one in the former Gamba, Oita and Urawa speedster.
Notes: I like what they’ve done in the transfer window, I like it a lot. There’s not one signing they’ve made that I haven’t liked, keeping Hasebe and Mae on board is massive too. After all those niceties I will add the qualifier that although on paper this year’s squad looks stronger than last year’s by a bigger margin than last year’s did than 2020’s (still with me?), it might not necessarily translate into them finishing any higher up in the standings. Though I guess having spent so much of their recent history in J2, the Avispa faithful won’t complain about another upper mid-table placing in 2022.

FC Tokyo

Best Signing: Jakub Słowik – Most J1 transfers have some sort of doubt hanging over them, player stepping up a level, poor previous season, injury prone, might not fit the system etc…none of these apply to Słowik, a clear upgrade on what was there before and questions marks over his distribution should only form a minor concern given the quality of the rest of his game.
Biggest Loss: Joan Oumari – Despite apparently only re-signing to cover until Bruno Uvini could get into the country, the Lebanese international had a decent second year in the capital.
One to Watch: Leandro – He and Hasegawa didn’t see eye to eye, that much is clear, if he and Puig butt heads then I’m not sure he’ll have too many backers left in the FC Tokyo support. A brilliant match-winner on his day, we all know what he can be when it’s not, for FC Tokyo and the league’s sake let’s hope the former, not the latter version rocks up in 2022.
Doubtful: Kashif Bangnagande, Sodai Hasukawa, Akihiro Hayashi (injury)
Notes: Far more change off the field than on it with Mixi taking over as the majority shareholder and Albert Puig moving into the managerial hotseat following a 2-year spell with Niigata. From the outside it appears that any kind of on-field improvement will need to be driven by a kantoku who has a beautiful philosophy on how the game should be played, but never really managed to translate that into meaningful results at Albirex, save for a magical 13 game run at the start of last season. A transitional campaign, give the manager time, yikes I’m using up all the clichés I had saved for the Gamba section several entries below.

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

Best Signing: Gabriel Xavier – An unexpected, but potentially excellent ready-made replacement for Chanathip…as long as his performances don’t go on to show that Massimo Ficcadenti knows rather more about football management than all of us armchair pundits.
Biggest Loss: Chanathip – 2021 was another injury-hit campaign for the Thai superstar, though he did bow out on a high with 3 assists in his last 2 matches. Things had gone a touch stale for him in Sapporo, but he’ll surely be fondly remembered in those parts for years to come.
One to Watch: Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa – I’ll admit I’m highly sceptical of the €700,000 move to Hearts rumours, but the pacy forward has certainly caught the eye of national team coach Hajime Moriyasu and in his second year as a pro will be expected to shoulder a greater burden of Consadole’s attacking hopes.
Doubtful: Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa (injury)
Notes: The winds of change haven’t been blowing too strongly up in Sapporo with minimal transfer business being conducted. GX10 (will he change his name to GX18?) and Koroki are the only 2 senior signings, but given how they’ve worked the varsity market in recent years, I wouldn’t bet against Sora Igawa (Tsukuba Univ.) and Hiromu Tanaka (Rissho Univ.) turning out to be pretty handy.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Best Signing: Taishi Semba – The Ryutsu Keizai University graduate says he’s looked up to Toshihiro Aoyama for a number of years and if all goes according to plan he could well be the one to take over the legendary Sanfrecce midfield maestro’s spot in the not too distant future.
Biggest Loss: Kodai Dohi – Failed to build on a promising 2020 due to a succession of injuries, but a loan spell with Mito is absolutely the right move to resuscitate his career.
One to Watch: Junior Santos – If the 2020 Yokohama F. Marinos version of Junior Santos turns up this year then it’ll be as good as a new signing for the three arrows.
Doubtful: Tsukasa Morishima, Yoichi Naganuma, Douglas Vieira (injury), Kantoku Michael Skibbe (Visa)
Notes: After pleading poverty for much of last year, the additions of Tsukasa Shiotani and Michael Skibbe following spells in the Middle East indicate that there is money available if they choose to use it. Skibbe’s delayed arrival has thrown an unwelcome spanner in the works, though he is fortunate to have a settled squad at his disposal, albeit one that largely underperformed relative to their game-by-game stats in 2021.

Cerezo Osaka

Best Signing: Jean Patric – I must admit I don’t know a whole lot about him, but he appears to have a decent pedigree and fills a spot that really needed an upgrade as a result of the person I’ll talk about below departing.
Biggest Loss: Tatsuhiro Sakamoto – A fine player who slightly lost his way in what was a disappointing 2021 campaign overall for the Cherry Blossoms. Still, as a result of his 2020 form and the performances he put in at the start of last year, he’s done more than enough to merit his move.
One to Watch: Takashi Inui – I wasn’t a big fan of his return when it was initially announced due to Cerezo having a plethora of 30-somethings already on their books, but given the way this year’s squad is shaping up I feel he’ll have a vital role to play as an impact sub and dressing room leader.
Doubtful: Takashi Inui, Hinata Kida, Adam Taggart, Đặng Văn Lâm (injury), Jean Patric (Visa)
Notes: I like their winter transfer work a whole lot more than I did last year (see what I said about them in the Urawa section above), especially the acquisition of Nagasaki’s jewel-in-the-crown Seiya Maikuma (sorry for telling everyone how good he was Daniel!) The permanent appointment of Akio Kogiku who, according to Transfermarkt, has been at the club in one capacity or another since 1998 could be a masterstroke as he’s surely amassed the clout that will allow him to tap a few shoulders and break the news to several veterans that they’re no longer the automatic choices they once were.

Additional Note: Croatian defender Matej Jonjić is rumoured to be returning in the coming days. If that move happens he’ll be the main centre-back upon his arrival in the country with Nishio and Shindo battling it out to partner him. He’d also overtake Jean Patric as my choice for ‘best signing.’

Gamba Osaka

Best Signing: Mitsuki Saito – Not a signing I really expected going into the transfer window, but a more than welcome addition to the Nerazzurri’s midfield ranks
Biggest Loss: Kim Young-gwon / Yosuke Ideguchi – Neither were at their best in 2021 (a comment which could pretty much be applied to the majority of the squad), but both will be missed dearly by the Ao to Kuro faithful.
One to Watch: Hiroto Yamami – I should probably have chosen him in the ‘best signing’ category, but thought he’d fit better here instead. Hopefully that worldy against Shimizu was just a taste of what’s to come as he’s set himself the target of scoring double digits this year.
Doubtful: Jun Ichimori, Leandro Pereira (injury), Dawhan, Kwon Kyung-won (Visa)
Notes: As close to a free-hit of a season as you’ll ever get as Gamba kantoku awaits Tomohiro Katanosaka, though that didn’t stop him heaping pressure on himself by setting 3rd as the target for this year. Gamba fans I’ve talked to say that top 8 is more realistic, especially with Kawasaki, Marinos, Kobe, Kashima and Urawa all looking particularly strong. To quote Celtic supporters, “trust the process,” Katanosaka is a man with a plan and that’s something that was sorely missing for the majority of 2021.

Shimizu S-Pulse

Best Signing: Takeru Kishimoto – A surprisingly difficult choice this one, as though regular readers will remember I picked out Kishimoto as someone to keep an eye on in my Scouting J1 article last autumn, I can’t help but feel there were more logical moves for both him and Shimizu to make. Granted the S-Pulse front office and I never appear to be on the same frequency when it comes to ideas on how to take the club forward.
Biggest Loss: Hideki Ishige – I know he was at Okayama on loan at the end of last season, but his departure sums up, for me at least, the malaise at the Nihondaira. A once mighty powerhouse born out of the cradle of Japanese football now reduced to letting long-serving youth academy graduates leave for rival clubs while the powers-that-be continue to blindly spin the roulette wheel, trying in hope, more than expectation to find the coaches and players necessary to bring back the glory days.
One to Watch: Yuito Suzuki – I’m sure you’ve all seen his wonder strike against Shonan, however, unfortunately that was one of only two goals he’s amassed in 63 J1 outings since turning pro in 2020. Imagine the heights regular contributions from him, in addition to Thiago Santana’s steady stream of goals, could take S-Pulse to.
Doubtful: Renato Augusto, Akira Ibayashi, Takumi Kato, Kenta Nishizawa (injury)
Notes: I realise I’ve been a bit harsh on S-Pulse above and it’s absolutely nothing personal as they’re an iconic and extremely likeable club, I just struggle to be overly positive when their front office keeps making baffling decisions. The Peter Cklamovski experiment was ditched in favour of the ultra-defensive Lotina brand of football and now they’ve opted for the man who came in to temporarily do a spot of firefighting at the end of both 2020 and 2021, the particularly tricky to say regardless if you go Japanese or western style, Hiroaki Hiraoka (or Hiraoka Hiroaki if you prefer). There’s loads of depth on the flanks, but any injury or departure down the central spine of the team (Gonda, Yoshinori Suzuki, Matsuoka and Thiago Santana) would sting badly.

Additional Notes: Reports out of South Korea suggest that S-Pulse have tabled a large bid for Ulsan Hyundai’s tall forward Oh Se-hun. On Paper the highly-rated 23 year old would be a quality addition, but it would also leave Shimizu with 7 foreign talents on their books. Do they never get the memo from the J. League about only being allowed 5 in your matchday squad?

Kashiwa Reysol

Best Signing: Tomoya Koyamatsu – Big shoes to fill in attack, he’s coming off the back of a decent couple of seasons with Tosu and should quickly become a fan favourite at the Hitachidai.
Biggest Loss: Cristiano – The now 35-year old club legend departs after 7 years with the Sunkings. Sure he may be past his prime, but having seen him perform in the flesh last year, he’s very much still got it and I’m certain he’ll tear up J2 with Nagasaki.
One to Watch: Douglas – With the fearsome foursome of Olunga, Cristiano, Esaka and Segawa all gone, the goalscoring burden falls on the previously prolific, but perhaps slightly over-the-hill Douglas. Is there still enough fire there for one final hurrah before he rides off into the sunset?
Notes: I believe it was Gabriele Anello who pointed out that 2021 saw the most managerial changes in J. League history, a good number of them appeared harsh when viewed from afar, but on the flip side of the coin, Kashiwa’s stubborn dedication to keeping Nelsinho in the hotseat continues to puzzle me. Of course the Brazilian is a legend in Kashiwa circles, however, he had 38 J1 games last season to work out his best eleven and formation, and never managed it. If he doesn’t know, then how am I supposed to? I’ve gone 4-2-3-1 below, but 3-4-2-1, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 are all possible. I’m not saying it’ll actually happen, but they’ll surely be a popular pick for big team who could go down this year.

Shonan Bellmare

Best Signing: Ryota Nagaki – The return of the prodigal son was an easy choice here, he’ll bring skill and more importantly a wealth of experience to help shepherd along Bellmare’s exciting crop of youngsters.
Biggest Loss: Mitsuki Saito – I know that selecting both Ishige and Saito as the biggest loss for their respective clubs may come across as extreme Gamba bias (especially given Saito was on loan at Rubin Kazan in 2021), but hear me out, how often do Shonan come through a winter transfer window with all their prized assets still in place? Hata, Tanaka and Hiraoka are still there, leaving me with the rare predicament of struggling to find a departed player Shonan will really miss this year.
One to Watch: Satoshi Tanaka – When I saw that Takuji Yonemoto had moved to Shonan on loan and Tanaka still hadn’t been confirmed as a Bellmare player for 2022, I felt sure we were less than 24 hours away from witnessing his unveiling at the Toyota Stadium, but alas it was not to be and he’ll continue developing down on the Shonan coast, for now at least, whether that’s as a holding midfielder or centre-back remains to be seen.
Notes: This is Satoshi Yamaguchi’s first full campaign at the helm and it’ll be interesting to observe what tactical alterations, if any, he makes. As you can see below, there are a number of players of similar abilities competing for spots across the field which can be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. I’ve tried my hardest to cram Tanaka, Nagaki and Yonemoto into the same lineup, Yamaguchi may have other ideas. They were the best defensive team in the bottom half last year and with the business they’ve done since should be even stronger now. My concerns are at the other end, they accrued a league high 16 draws last season and joint top scorers Wellington and Naoki Yamada only managed 5 apiece, there’s nothing to suggest they’ll be any more prolific in 2022.

Júbilo Iwata

Best Signing: Ricardo Graça – Again, hands up, I don’t know a whole lot about him, but the rest of Júbilo’s transfer business hasn’t been much to write home about and although Kentaro Oi has given the club years of good service, promotion back to J1 should very much be the signal to put him out to pasture, the capture of Graça allows the club to do just that.
Biggest Loss: Lukian – A huge blow to the side’s attack and also their collective psyche to lose such an important player to a team, in Fukuoka, that despite far out-performing Júbilo on the field in 2021, would have been viewed as a step-down for the majority of the clubs’ respective histories.
One to Watch: Yasuhito Endo – Gamba let Endo go in mid-2020 as despite his passing and vision still being top drawer, the veteran (who’s the same age as Steven Gerrard and Xavi, don’t forget) couldn’t get around the park like he used to. We’ll have an answer on how right or wrong that decision was very soon.
Doubtful: Dudu, Ricardo Graça (Visa)
Notes: An extremely impressive promotion campaign followed up by the appointment of highly-rated Kofu boss Akira Ito had things looking rather spritely for a time in Iwata. However, the club don’t really appear to have backed the new kantoku enough in the transfer market. Kenyu Sugimoto could work, but I wouldn’t bet on it, there are question marks surrounding when their 2 new marquee Brazilians can get into the country and long-standing issues related to a chronic lack of pace throughout the squad haven’t been sufficiently addressed over the winter.

Additional Note: Brazilian forward Vinícius Araújo, now a free agent after failing to agree terms on a new deal with Yamagata, is a possible addition before the season begins. He’d take over the centre-forward berth from Sugimoto should he decide to make the Yamaha Stadium his home for 2022.

Kyoto Sanga

Best Signing: Rikito Inoue – Despite the club making a number of winter signings, few of them are clearly better than the options already in place. Inoue, who’s moved east from Okayama with Dutchman Jordy Buijs travelling in the opposite direction, is the pick of the bunch for me. Readers of my Scouting J2 article will know I’m a big fan of his and with Shogo Asada still onboard, Sanga have two of the top centre-backs from J2 2021 in their ranks, albeit neither of them has a single minute of J1 action to their name.
Biggest Loss: Jordy Buijs – His departure came as something of a surprise and I’ve no doubt that he’ll continue to prove himself to be one of the best defenders in J2 with Fagiano this season.
One to Watch: Peter Utaka – 38 years young when the season kicks off, if he can keep banging them in then Kyoto could (could, not will – please remember) be this year’s Fukuoka.
Doubtful: Naoto Misawa, Tomoya Wakahara (injury), Michael Woud (injury/Visa)
Notes: Reasons to be cheerful; they’ve got a coach who knows what it takes to survive in J1 and a squad with a decent sprinkling of top tier experience, especially when compared with other recent newly promoted sides. Reasons to be fearful; the murky goalkeeping situation, a lack of J1 experience at centre-back and central midfield and a host of Hail Mary signings that could all fall flat. The rather unorthodox Genki Omae may be the most likely to deliver from a list of names which also includes Mendes, Hisashi Appiah Tawiah, Martinus, Ryogo Yamasaki and Yuta Toyokawa.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you and congratulations! I hope this guide has been useful for you, look out for plenty more posts from me throughout the year and enjoy the 2022 J1 season whoever you support!