Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka 6 August 2022 Match Preview

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

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

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

Tale of the Tape

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

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

First Match Recap

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

Gamba Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

Team News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Avispa Fukuoka

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

Team News

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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

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

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


Oita Trinita vs Gamba Osaka 7 November 2021 Match Preview

Oita Trinita vs Gamba Osaka
2021 J1 Season Round 35
Showa Denko Dome Oita
Sunday 7 November 2021
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)

Sunday sees the final round of J1 fixtures prior to the upcoming international break and Gamba, fresh from a 1-0 triumph at Yokohama F. Marinos on Culture Day face their second road trip of the week, a journey west to Kyushu to do battle with Oita Trinita. A hot reception surely awaits in a region known for it’s onsen, but buyer beware, Trinita are the league’s lowest goalscorers and Gamba, the joint second lowest. However, it is the J.League, so maybe the recent rumours surrounding Tomohiro Katanosaka will bring both sides out of their respective shells…3-3 anyone?

I was present at the Nissan Stadium on Wednesday to see Gamba take three valuable points thanks to Shu Kurata’s 55th minute winner (I was wearing his uniform that day, coincidence?). I’ll get into some of the key takeaways from that game later on in the ‘Gamba Osaka’ section, but for now let me point out that a win against Oita will make the Nerazzurri mathematically safe and the 10 point gap currently in place between them and the drop zone means that it would take a miracle for either Tokushima or Oita to overhaul their total of 40 points even if they lose this weekend (Sendai and Yokohama FC are already too far back to overtake Gamba).

Oita’s Kyushu neighbours Avispa Fukuoka did them no favours on Wednesday, triumphing 1-0 thanks to a goal from Cameroon international John Mary. Trinita had entered that tussle with 11 points from their previous 6 outings, during which time they only conceded twice. Former Gamba player and assistant coach Tomohiro Katanosaka’s side currently sit 4 points behind Shonan and Shimizu (15th and 16th), but have a significantly worse goal difference. After facing Gamba they still have to go head-to-head with Kashima (a), Yokohama FC (h) and Kashiwa (a) meaning that their need for points is now beyond urgent and they simply must see off the Nerazzurri on Sunday.

I’d just like to take a moment to congratulate 2021 champions Kawasaki Frontale, another phenomenal performance from Toru Oniki’s side who continue to set a pace that others can’t live with. Hopefully your party will continue for the next few weeks and Gamba can take full advantage of some lethargy when we visit Todoroki on November 27th. But, more seriously, well done to all involved!

Tale of the Tape

It’s funny how things have a way of balancing themselves out in football and Gamba’s backs-to-the-wall triumph at Marinos is a case in point. The Nerazzurri recorded season lows for shots on goal, passes completed and possession as well as equalling the 24 shots against that also occurred in their previous away tie at Urawa, yet they ran out 1-0 victors. However, cast your minds back to early August when Gamba put up an xG For number of 3.38 and had 20 shots on goal with 14 on target yet lost 3-2. Throw in the two 50/50 red cards Marinos got away with versus the Wellington Silva nonsense on Wednesday and yadayadayada…I think you can see where I’m going with this…well hopefully!

Oita’s strong suit is most definitely their home form with 23 of their 28 points to date (82%, a league high) coming at the Showa Denko Dome. Gamba, by contrast have picked up 55% of their 40 points outside of Suita, though recent matches with Urawa and Marinos probably give little indication as to what lies in store in this game. Takashi Kiyama has Gamba’s backline better drilled than Matsunami and ever did and even with backup members starting regularly in recent weeks, they’ve been able to hold their shape and clear their lines effectively in the face heavy bombardments. Despite a recent upsurge in attacking numbers, especially in their trio of fixtures with Cerezo, Sendai and Tokushima, Emperor’s Cup semi finalists Trinita lack an out-and-out goal threat and their inability to even create chances, let alone take them has been one of their biggest hinderances all year.

Head to Head

Gamba came from behind to grab a priceless three points against Oita at Panasonic Stadium in July. The home side dominated, but found themselves a goal down courtesy of Henrique Trevisan’s scrappy effort on the hour mark, however, a fine Leandro Pereira shot from the edge of the area restored parity before Takashi Usami won the game with essentially the last kick of the match. Usami broke down in tears in his ‘Hero Interview’ after the match, likely due to a combination of the 2 week quarantine period all the players underwent following their return from the ACL group stage in Uzbekistan as well as reflecting on the magnitude of his goal which took Gamba out of the drop zone. That result was followed by road wins at Sapporo and Sendai, a run which forms the backbone of the Nerazzurri’s points collection to date.

Gamba did the double over Oita in 2020 (they also achieved this against Sapporo, Hiroshima, Kobe and Yokohama FC) thanks to a 2-1 win in Suita and a nervy 1-0 at the Showa Denko Dome. Daiki Watari headed Trinita into a surprise early lead at Panasonic Stadium, but Gamba were level almost immediately thanks to Takashi Usami’s spot kick, Ademilson then produced a fine strike early in the second period to wrap up the points. Tatsuya Tanaka had something to prove against his old club in the return fixture, but somehow didn’t find himself on the scoresheet despite having a couple of glorious opportunities to break the deadlock. A Masaaki Higashiguchi save and a last ditch Ryu Takao clearance off the line after Tanaka had rounded Higashiguchi kept Gamba in it, and they went on to deliver a brutal sucker punch as Patric nodded home Usami’s corner late on to seal the deal.

Gamba Osaka

Wednesday’s win took Gamba to 10 points from their last 5 outings, a run which included 3 fixtures against teams currently in the top 7 as well as that infamous 5-1 whipping at the hands of Sapporo. Should they continue in similar form, say by taking somewhere between 7 and 9 points from their remaining fixtures (Nagoya (h), Frontale (a) and Shonan (h) follow the international break), then a quiet optimism could start to form as we enter an important off season for a side that haven’t lifted a trophy since the 2015 Emperor’s Cup.

Next, I’ve laid out in bullet point form below a few key takeaways (good, bad and ugly) from the Marinos game,

* Stalwart / living legend Masaaki Higashiguchi celebrated his 350th J1 appearance by recording the 100th clean sheet of his career. I’ve ran out of superlatives for him, so won’t attempt any more here, I’ll just leave you to marvel at the stat above (he’s the 6th J.League goalkeeper to achieve the feat).

* Yota Sato has started to show the form that saw him rated as the best centre-back in Japanese varsity football last year. I only caught highlights of the Emperor’s Cup defeat at home to Urawa and he looked a little dicey, but he’s been assured in the last 2 away league outings at Reds and Marinos. It seems that playing centre-back (his natural position) and being given clear and coherent instructions by Kiyama has brought out an improvement in him…who’d have thunk it, right?

* Yosuke Ideguchi, so often a shadow of his former self this season, rolled back the years with a monstrous effort to put the breaks on Marinos on Wednesday. It was great to see and hopefully he can maintain that form through to the end of the year.

* Not something I really wanted to write, but come on Wellington Silva, what you did at the end of the game on Wednesday isn’t what being a Gamba player is about. You clearly have a load of talent which you showed when you were on the ball against Marinos and especially when you ripped through Sapporo in our away game in Hokkaido, you also seem like a pretty fun off the field, like how you warmly applauded the travelling supporters during and after the game at Nissan Stadium. But, please, please, cut the negative stuff out of your game and focus on dribbling past defenders and combining with Usami, Yamami and Patric next year to get us back into the ACL!!

Team News

Hiroki Fujiharu left the field clutching his ribs and back during the first half of the Marinos game, he could just have been badly winded, but I’d bank on him missing out here and possibly Yuya Fukuda, but more likely Keisuke Kurokawa will fill his spot. Fukuda seemed to take a kick to his problematic ankle just prior to being subbed off on Wednesday, but I think he should be ok to play here. Elsewhere, Kim Young-gwon was left out of the South Korea squad for the upcoming internationals after being stretchered off in Gamba’s 1-0 win over Sagan Tosu. No timeframe has been given for his return, but he won’t play here. Fellow centre-backs Genta Miura and Gen Shoji are back in full training and it remains to be seen whether they are fit enough to play against Oita or whether Matsunami/Kiyama will keep faith with the Suganuma/Sato partnership. I believe Leandro Pereira and Yuji Ono should be nearing full fitness and both could conceivably be options for this match, Pereira, in particular, would come in handy with Patric putting in a full 90 minute shift on Wednesday. Other than that, backup goalie Jun Ichimori (hamstring) is the only other confirmed absentee, though I’m also led to believe that Shinya Yajima is unavailable due to an, as of yet, undisclosed problem.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Oita Trinita

2021 may come to be seen as then end of an era at Oita with longstanding boss Katanosaka set to depart for either Gamba or Hiroshima and Trinita apparently destined to drop down to J2 for the first time since 2018. Katanosaka has been dealt a tough hand this year with club captain and Mr. Oita Yoshinori Suzuki moving to Shimizu and bright young talent Tomoki Iwata heading for Yokohama F. Marinos. Brazilian loanee Henrique Trevisan has done a decent job of filling the enormous gap left behind by Suzuki’s departure, but in Iwata’s place there has basically been a revolving cast of about 4 or 5 different players trying and failing to fill his enormous boots. Throw in Tatsuya Tanaka’s goals and creativity heading to Urawa to compound the losses in previous years of Noriaki Fujimoto and Ado Onaiwu and even the surprising tally of Yamato Machida can’t make up for the lack of goalscoring contributions from Isa, Nagasawa and Goya. Last season, they could cover their weak attack, to an extent, with a solid defence, but this time round there’s been nowhere to hide. Naoki Nomura’s injury troubles haven’t helped either, neither did poor winter recruitment, with wing-backs Kenta Fukumori (Kitakyushu) and Hayato Kurosaki (Tochigi) loaned back to their previous clubs mere months after making the step up from J2. Additionally, Oita may be a beautiful part of Japan, but it’s far from the bright lights of Kanto and Kansai and therefore difficult to attract foreign talent. They’ve struck gold with Henrique, but it seems that his fellow Brazilian, Matheus Sousa Pereira was signed more as a companion for him rather than a genuine starting option. Despite not knowing which division they’ll be playing in next year, Oita have announced a couple of additions already. Two forwards, Shinya Utsemoto from Miyazaki Sangyo Keiei University (alma mater of both Yoshinori Suzuki and Yushi Hasegawa) and youth team product Yusei Yashiki, who has already made 3 J1 appearances in 2021 while on a type-2 amateur contract, will come in with the goal of bolstering their flailing attack.

Team News

Star turn Yamato Machida was missing from the side that went down 1-0 to Fukuoka and I haven’t seen any confirmation why. Long-serving wing-back Rei Matsumoto was taken off injured against Sendai on October 17th and must be a doubt for this clash. Tidy midfielder Yushi Hasegawa and ex-Kyoto centre-back Katsunori Ueebisu haven’t been seen for the last 8 matchdays and summer recruit from Vissel Kobe, Asahi Masuyama has sat out the previous 3 games, I don’t have any further information on that trio.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Thanks again for reading and enjoy the game whoever you’re supporting.


Gamba Osaka vs Sagan Tosu 23 October 2021 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Sagan Tosu
2021 J1 Season Round 33
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Saturday 23 October 2021
Kick Off: 17:00 (JST)

Only six games remain in the 2021 edition of J1 and while it might be a slight stretch to call them six cup finals for Gamba, taking three points from this crucial encounter at home to Sagan Tosu could prove to be pivotal in their quest for survival. Fresh from a battling 1-1 draw away to fierce rivals Urawa, the Nerazzurri will be hoping to extend their impressive 3-1-0 record against Kyushu sides in 2021 this Saturday. Visitors Sagan Tosu currently occupy seventh spot on the ladder and remain well on course for a highest league placing since 2014 (5th) despite a recent wobble. Following a 4-0 home defeat by Yokohama F. Marinos, a scoreline quite flattering to Kevin Muscat’s men, Sagan have taken just 8 points from a pretty lenient run of 6 fixtures and from the outside, at least, it appears that perhaps the mid-season departures of Daiki Matsuoka and Daichi Hayashi, in addition to the ongoing ‘power harassment’ investigation into kantoku Kim Myung-hwi have taken their toll. It would certainly be natural if they had one eye on what will likely be an eventful off-season in one of Japan’s normally more sedate regions. Word of warning though, one might have been forgiven for saying similar things about Sapporo, the previous visitors to Panasonic Stadium, and we all saw how that game panned out.

As a result of the dramatic climax (© Yokohama F. Marinos…chortle, chortle) to the game away at Reds last Saturday, Gamba were able to preserve their six point cushion to 17th place Shonan, occupants of the uppermost spot in the drop zone. I believe I mentioned in a previous article that Satoshi Yamaguchi’s men travel to Suita on the final day of the season, and at present have a goal difference 7 better than the Ao to Kuro. Perhaps more worrying is the general upsurge in form shown by the bottom 5 in recent weeks, Yokohama FC in particular. Gamba may be left relying on those excellent showings against Kyushu-based sides I pointed out earlier as they still have to travel to Oita in round 35. However, at this stage of the year it’s always tough to compare the relative difficulty of different fixtures as, for instance, should Kawasaki wrap up the J1 title with several games to spare, then Gamba’s trip to the Todoroki Stadium in the penultimate matchday will become that bit less daunting. What is clear though is that the Nerazzurri have much more riding on this clash than their opponents and from a blue and black perspective hopefully this can bring about a 5th home league win of 2021.

Tale of the Tape

Saturday afternoon saw Gamba make it four straight games with over 20 shots faced and following his heroics to keep Urawa at bay, Masaaki Higashiguchi is averaging a league high 3.5 saves per match. Indeed, his display at the Saitama Stadium surely put to bed any lingering suspicions that Kosei Tani would return to Suita in 2022 to challenge for the number one jersey. At Panasonic Stadium, the Nerazzurri really need to bridge the gap between actual goals scored and xG For, it’s also worth noting that their last 6 league goals (home and away) have all come from set pieces, a figure that includes 3 penalties. Set plays were a weak point earlier in the year, but now that they are bearing fruit, other sources of goals have dried up. At the other end of the park, the 5-1 humbling at the hands of Sapporo brought goals conceded and xG Against much closer to equilibrium. The Ao to Kuro are clearly far more comfortable set up on the back foot ready to soak up pressure on road trips rather than playing it out from defence in the face of an intense high press at home. I’ll get into tactics and the composition of the starting eleven in greater detail in the ‘Gamba Osaka’ section later on, but it really doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that if the Masanobu Matsunami / Takashi Kiyama double act is to steer the ship to safety then the midfield have to start providing their backline with a level of protection they haven’t had in recent weeks, and they must start doing it from the opening whistle this Saturday.

Tosu may not be the richest side in J1 or have the most illustrious names on their books, but that doesn’t mean they can’t outwork their opponents and to that end they lead the league in distance covered per game, averaging 9.5 km more than Gamba for every match played. The team from Saga Prefecture are having an excellent year on the field, vastly exceeding the expectations of the majority of the wider J League fan community and probably even themselves. If I had to identify one achilles heel for them, then it would be their away form. They’ve lost just twice in the league at the Ekimae Real Estate Stadium in 2021, 1-0 in the reverse fixture with Gamba and 4-0 against Marinos, which leaves them averaging 2 points per game in Saga versus only 1.25 on their travels and a glance at the first stats table just below reveals that all but one of their key performance indicators are down when it comes to away fixtures in comparison with their overall total. So, we have a team who struggle to be as effective when separated from the comforts of home taking on a side that have suffered time and again in front of their own fans this season, something has to give.

Head to Head

Takashi Usami scored Gamba’s first league goal at the fifth time of asking in the Nerazzurri’s 1-0 win at Tosu back in April. His angled drive from the edge of the box ended a 428 minute goal drought to settle a dull encounter where Gamba’s 0.29 xG For was a season low while at the same time being the best defensive performance of the year from their hosts, which I’m sure provided scant consolation to them given the final outcome.

Last year, veteran Kazuma Watanabe’s 99th and 100th J1 goals in the first half of Gamba’s visit to Saga earned his side the three points in spite of Renzo Lopez’s late, late effort for Tosu. At the other end of the career spectrum, young Ryunosuke Sagara found the back of a J1 net for the first time in the reverse fixture before Patric buried a deserved equaliser past Park Il-gyu in the second half and Shoji Toyama spurned a couple of late chances to win it for the hosts.

I have some fond memories of games between these two down the years as I took in Gamba’s final ever senior game at the old Expo 70’ Commemorative Stadium, a 3-1 victory over Tosu in an Emperor’s Cup quarter-final back in 2015, a competition the Nerazzurri, of course, went on to win. After a spell living in Kanto, I returned to Kansai in 2018 and my first J1 game at Panasonic Stadium was a 3-0 triumph for Levir Culpi’s Gamba over Sagan. A cagey affair was lit up by Shu Kurata’s spectacular effort in the 68th minute with Hwang Ui-jo and Matheus Jesus adding gloss to the scoreline late on (that turned out to be the much maligned and long forgotten Matheus Jesus’ only goal in the blue and black of Gamba).

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Nerazzurri haven’t lost a home league game to Kyushu opposition since 2013 (2-1 vs V-Varen Nagasaki in J2). How their supporters would love a repeat of that 2018 result against Tosu to keep their run of fine form against visitors from the most westerly of the Japanese home islands going.

Gamba Osaka

It was quite the finale against Urawa, right? The look on Shunya Suganuma’s face when the referee pointed to the spot, after a VAR delay spanning several minutes, screamed this is the kind of thing that happens to teams who go down. However, agony soon turned to delight when Takuya Iwanami (a man who’ll surely never have to pay for a pint in north Osaka again) decided to even things up and allow Patric the chance to bury his 9th league goal of the year and 19th in all competitions. I have a few observations and comments from that game which I’ll lay out in bullet point fashion below.

* There was far more fight in the team than in previous outings. Reds came out all guns blazing, especially in the opening quarter, but Gamba stood firm and played some decent stuff at times.

* The back 4 and Higashiguchi (especially) did what they needed to do, but were not helped out by those ahead of them. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt a tad nervous upon hearing that Sato and Suganuma had been named as the starting centre-backs, however, this was balanced out by the absence of Kasper Junker and his replacement Takahiro Akimoto’s first-half injury. When called upon the back five were generally solid, but Gamba’s midfield quartet were regularly bypassed and overrun by their Reds counterparts. Shu Kurata on the right-wing, normally very astute when it comes to protecting his full-back was pulled out of position time and time again allowing Koya Yuruki and Ryosuke Yamanaka to double team Ryu Takao. And while we’re critiquing Gamba’s midfield, have a quick look at my predicted lineups for both teams down below and see the difference in goal contributions from the respective midfields, it’s night and day.

* My penultimate point on Saturday’s game is the surprise (shock?) inclusion of Haruto Shirai in the starting eleven. Although he spent several seasons being labelled exclusively as a centre-forward in the yearly meikan, I think I watched Shirai play right wing about 15 times before ever seeing him up front and frankly, in my opinion he never showed anything with the U23s to suggest that he was a J1 level player. Yet there he was, thrown into the starting lineup on Saturday following a year out of the game because of knee surgery. It was reported he was selected ahead of Patric and Tsukamoto on merit, not due to injury, most likely for a) the element of surprise, b) his pace should have proven useful in closing down Reds defenders as they knocked the ball around at the back and c) Urawa’s ace centre-back Alexander Scholz would probably have preferred to face the more direct and physical Patric than the trickier, pacier Shirai. The experiment ended at half-time and it’ll be interesting to see if the Gamba power brokers give it another go this weekend.

* Finally, one real bright spark for the Nerazzurri on Saturday was the return of heart-throb / pretty handy footballer when he’s fit, Yuya Fukuda, after 3 months on the sidelines. Replacing Wellington Silva midway through the second period, he had me on my feet in the 84th minute when I thought his low shot had crept inside Shusaku Nishikawa’s near post, it wasn’t to be, but he was a ray of sunshine amidst the Saitama gloom. Fukuda did an interview with Yahoo News that was published on Sunday (17 October) in which he stated that the hamstring injury he picked up during the ACL group stage wasn’t too serious, but he suffers from chronic pain in his left ankle and that delayed his return. Surgery is an option down the line, however, for the time being he and the club will try and manage the situation. It was great to see him back on the field once more and let’s hope it’s onwards and upwards from here.

Team News

A bit quieter in here than usual which is good news for all of a Gamba persuasion. As reported last week Genta Miura, Yuji Ono and Leandro Pereira are working through personalised training programs and it’s as yet unknown when they’ll re-join full training (pictorial evidence from training on Tuesday suggests Pereira might have re-joined already). Theoretically any, or all, of the trio could make the matchday squad on Saturday, though more likely as a substitute rather than a starter. Gen Shoji is still missing for reasons only given as ‘poor physical condition’ [that’s a translation] and reserve goalie Jun Ichimori’s year is done after undergoing hamstring surgery. Elsewhere, I’m unsure whether Tiago Alves has been injured or not, though I’m inclined to believe he had a small problem. Significantly he was spotted alongside his fellow Brazilians in training on Tuesday so he should be good to go if called upon…and that’s a wrap for an unusually brief ‘Gamba Team News’ section…phew!

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Sagan Tosu

Coming off a creditable 13th place finish in 2020 and without a whole lot of cash in their coffers, Tosu were widely considered to be more of a relegation candidate than an ACL contender prior to this season commencing. However, Kim Myung-hwi’s side have taken everyone by surprise, not only because of their results, but also due to the quality of play they’ve produced at times. A solid rearguard superbly marshalled for most of the year (I’m ignoring recent tomfoolery) by Park Il-gyu and Eduardo has laid the foundation for attacking talents such as Yuta Higuchi and Keiya Sento to flourish further forward. Although ostensibly a 3-5-2 team, Tosu can generally be seen in a 5-3-2 system while defending and a 4-4-2, with the left centre-back shifting to left back and right wing back dropping to right back ,when they are in possession. Their on-field success has come at a price with Daiki Matsuoka (Shimizu) and Daichi Hayashi (Sint Truidense in Belgium) departing in the summer, architect of the current project, Kim Myung-hwi, may also be gone come 2022. I don’t want to comment too much regarding the ongoing power harassment investigation at the club, however, I will say that the J League coming in to run an independent inquiry feels a little bit like when one of your defenders accidentally handles the ball in the box and the referee doesn’t give a penalty initially, but then puts his finger to his ear for a prolonged period of time before sprinting over to the VAR monitor….where am I going with this long winded monologue? Well in both instances, you kind of know what the outcome is going to be well in advance of the final, official announcement. With all that in mind and not wanting to get caught on their heels, Tosu have been one of the quickest J1 teams out of the blocks when it comes to announcing new recruits for 2022. Five university rookies, centre-back Taiga Son (Rissho University), wing-backs Shunta Araki (Komazawa U) and Kyo Sato (Ryutsu Keizai U) as well as midfielder Taichi Kikuchi (also Ryutsu Keizai U) and forward Yukihito Kajiya (Kokushikan U) will call Saga home from next season, while goalkeeper Keisuke Fukaya will arrive (surely) as a backup from Kanto League side Shinagawa CC. With Sagan’s recent record of polishing hidden gems, expect at least a couple of that bunch to develop into pretty handy top tier talents.

Team News

Bright young thing Fuchi Honda is currently sidelined with a hamstring problem and it’s uncertain if he’ll make it back onto the field again this year while the scarcely used Yosuke Yuzawa is definitely done for the season after undergoing knee surgery. Summer recruit from Kashima Antlers, Kei Koizumi has missed the past 2 matches though I haven’t seen an injury reported anywhere.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Gamba Osaka vs Oita Trinita 27 July 2021 Mini Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Oita Trinita
2021 J1 Season Round 3
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Tuesday 27 July 2021
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

It may be just before the halfway stage of the season, but I’m calling this a relegation 6-pointer as statistically the worst away side in J1, Oita Trinita, visit Gamba Osaka, owners of the second weakest home record in the division.

Gamba came out comfortably second best to a fresh Kashima outfit on Saturday and will need to step things up considerably for this vital clash after looking visibly out on their feet for much of the second half of yesterday’s match which was played out in sweltering conditions. For this, the third of their home triple-header, they will look to Brazilian left-winger Wellington Silva, perhaps the only bright spark from the Antlers defeat, to provide the guile and deception to unlock one of J1’s leakier rearguards. Oita, in turn, will be boosted by the recent arrivals of, former Gamba forward Hiroto Goya from Kashiwa Reysol and veteran attacker Tsukasa Umesaki (Shonan Bellmare), who are both now available for selection.

Thanks again for all your support, I will be returning to work on Tuesday so this will be the last mini preview for a while. I’ll continue to put out Gamba predicted lineups and stats on Twitter ahead of upcoming games, please keep an eye out for that. I may be back with something a bit bigger in the Obon break. If you’d like me to do another Q and A session, let me know in the comments here or on Twitter.

Tale of the Tape

Dress it up anyway you like, but goals may be at a premium here and 1-0 either way might be your safest best. Oita are coming off a pretty impressive counter attacking display in their home win over Urawa on July 10, though a quick scroll through their season stats reveals they’ve actually outperformed their usual levels in both outings against the Saitama giants this year. Can they replicate those heights once again in this game?

For Gamba, although the 22 shots against in the loss to Kashima equalled their season high, it should be noted that Antlers are to shots on goal what Tokushima are to possession, lots of high numbers, but not much to show for it. In that respect Diego Pituca, probably my MVP on Saturday (so hold on Kashima fans, I’m not having too much of a dig), has fitted in well, firing high and wide on a number of occasions from the 25-30 yard range while under pressure.

Head to Head

It’s usually very difficult to use one year’s set of results to accurately forecast what’ll happen the following season in JLeague, but Gamba vs Oita may be the exception. The Nerazzurri ran out 2-1 winners in the corresponding fixture in Suita twelve months ago. A strong start from the hosts was disrupted by Daiki Watari’s powerful header from Tatsuya Tanaka’s cross. Trinita’s lead didn’t last long though, as Takashi Usami’s penalty levelled things up a couple of minutes later before a fine Ademilson shot won the game early in the second half. The return match in Kyushu was a similarly tight affair with Gamba surviving some nervy moments before Patric headed home from Usami’s corner to seal the win. The Nerazzurri faithful will be hoping for more of the same on Tuesday night.

Gamba Osaka

A quick piece of transfer news before looking at injury updates and my predicted starters for Tuesday. Today (25 July) Gamba announced the signing of former Juntendo University and FC Gifu full-back Ko Yanagisawa (Transfermarkt Value €300,000) from Mito HollyHock on a permanent deal. The 25 year-old Chiba native has played 11 times for Mito in J2 this year and is able to operate on either flank which will significantly reduce the burden on Onose and Kurokawa. His acquisition also puts the option of 4-4-2 back on the table.

According to FC Gifu supporter @sushi_football here is a rundown of Yanagisawa’s pros and cons,

* He looks the part – tall with decent pace
* Stable – he’s not going to go eccentric on you
* Both footed – but primarily his right

* lack of one defining quality – he does a lot of stuff ok – but nothing that stands out. In J2 & J3 he looked ok – sometimes quite good – but never like he was miles ahead of the opposition.
* He’s not a game influencer or someone opponents talk about in tactics meetings

Thanks to Stuart for that, and don’t forget to check out the excellent J Talk Extra Time Podcast he hosts…whisper it gently, supporters of both Gamba and Oita may have to pay attention to events in J2 a bit more closely in the near future.

As stated above, Gamba looked exhausted at times against Kashima on Saturday and there will again be plenty of rotation here. Constantly switching between Patric, who prefers long, aerial balls and Leandro Pereira, a player who deals better with the ball on the ground, is proving to be a challenge for the Nerazzurri’s attack, but I’m really excited to see what Wellington Silva can do in tandem with Patric following his cameo against Antlers.

Team News:
As far as I know, none of the players who missed Saturday’s game have returned to full fitness meaning the injury list currently reads, goalkeeper Jun Ichimori, full-back/wing-backs Ryu Takao, Hiroki Fujiharu, Yuya Fukuda, Shin Won-ho and Haruto Shirai, central midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi and attacking midfielders Yuji Ono and Dai Tsukamoto. I believe Ideguchi was one of the players to test positive for Covid on his return from the ACL in Uzbekistan, however, it was also reported he was asymptomatic, so in theory he could return very soon, though most likely not in this game. Centre-back Yota Sato has also been out of the matchday squad since the resumption of league fixtures, it’s possible he was the other player to test positive for Covid, if not, then he may partner Shoji and Kim in the back three. Likewise, if any of Takao, Fujiharu or Fukuda are fit then they could play in this match with Kurokawa currently running on fumes. Even Shuhei Kawasaki at left wing-back, where he started against Chaingrai United, is an option.

Milestones: Shinya Yajima will make his 100th J1 appearance should he appear in this game. The first ever JLeague game I watched was a 2-2 draw between Cerezo Osaka and Urawa (I went on to become a Gamba fan, I know, I know!) and playing for Reds that day was a 19 year-old Yajima. It’s interesting to note that his slightly meandering career has seen him take 8 years to reach 100 J1 matches. Anyway, here’s to 100 more Shinya!

Predicted Lineup and Stats

Oita Trinita

I went deep on Oita and their style of play in this article earlier in the year, please check it out if you’d like a refresher course. Brazilian centre-back Henrique Trevisan has come in since then and seems to have added a calmness at the heart of the defence that had been missing since club legend Yoshinori Suzuki’s departure for Shimizu last winter. ‘Adult baby’ (thanks to Scott McIntyre on the J Talk Podcast for that nickname) Yamato Machida has been a vital source of goals for Trinita this year, look for him and central midfielder Hokuto Shimoda (an off-season capture from Kawasaki) to probe dangerously throughout the 90 minutes.

Team News: Shadow forward Naoki Nomura has been injured for almost the entire campaign, which really sums up his time in Oita. Centre-back Keisuke Saka and experienced holding midfielder Yuki Kobayashi have both been absent from the matchday squad in recent weeks with no injury being officially reported.

Predicted Lineup and Stats

Thanks again for reading and please enjoy the game whoever you are supporting!


J1 League: Spotlight On Oita Trinita

As you are no doubt aware, Gamba are currently in the midst of a Covid cluster with a number of players and staff testing positive for the virus. With the status of upcoming fixtures in doubt I decided to change the style of this blog post somewhat. I’ve already talked about Gamba ad nauseum in the previews of the postponed matches against Nagoya and Kashima, so I thought I’d dedicate this entire post to a team who don’t enjoy a great deal of English language coverage….Wednesday’s potential opponents Oita Trinita.

If you like what I’ve done here, please send me a comment and tell me you want more of it. Conversely, if you can’t wait for normal previews to resume and want me to revert to that style as quickly as possible, get in touch and let me know. Thanks again for reading, I really appreciate everyone’s support, enjoy the article, stay safe and take care.

Last Time Out

Two goals inside the opening 11 minutes sent Oita on their way to a first win of 2021 at Yokohama’s Mitsuzawa Stadium last Saturday. Showing no ill-effects from making 5 changes to their lineup from the previous week’s 1-1 draw with Tokushima, Trinita raced out of the blocks and put themselves in the driving seat, albeit aided by some amateurish Yokohama FC defending. First left centre-back Yuto Misao ghosted into the opposition box to place Hokuto Shimoda’s centre past a rather limp-wristed Yuji Rokutan before Kento Inoue crossed from the opposite flank and his ball evaded a wayward swipe by the embarrassed Yutaro Hakamata which allowed Seigo Kobayashi, hoping to put long-term injury problems behind him, to bag his first goal in 2 years from near the penalty spot.

After that early charge, Oita sat back / were forced back (delete as appropriate) and the home side were soon granted a lifeline. Not long after Brazilian forward Kleber’s header had bounced onto Shun Takagi’s crossbar, Kosuke Saito hit the deck on the edge of the area and earned a free-kick. Though, to say the contact between he and Kohei Isa was minimal would be being very kind. Dead ball specialist Kohei Tezuka stepped up and curled home to set up an intriguing second half.

Although they spent most of the second period on the back foot, Oita were rarely under sustained pressure and only endured a few scares. Takagi made a neat double stop from Kleber early in the half before tricky left winger Yusuke Matsuo’s shot was cleared off the line at the end of a mazy run after he’d intercepted a pass from another one of my Gamba scouting targets, Yushi Hasegawa. The real drama came right at the end when Sho Ito thought he’d earned his new side a point only for the linesmen to correctly flag him for offside. 2-1 Oita at full-time, 4 points in 2 games, granted not against the strongest opposition, represents a decent start for Tomohiro Katanosaka and his men.

Tactical Notes

Now in his 6th year in charge at the Showa Denko Dome, Takahiro Katanosaka has settled on a 3-4-2-1 system which reverts to a 5-4-1 when defending. He likes the wide centre-backs to also be able to play full-back / wing-back, though he’s had to alter this slightly following the winter departure of the jewel in the Trinita crown, Tomoki Iwata, who moved to Yokohama F.Marinos. Speedster Hatyato Kurosaki, a man I tipped as a potential Gamba signing, has joined from Tochigi SC, but may require some fine-tuning before he’s ready to step into Iwata’s boots.

In 2019 and 2020 Oita’s centre-back line up generally consisted of, Mr. Trinita Yoshinori Suzuki in the middle flanked by Iwata (right) and Yuto Misao (left), however, with Misao then only one of the trio still on the books, I noticed a few chinks in their defensive armour in the match against Yokohama FC. On several occasions the gap between the wing-backs and centre-backs was too wide leaving space for a good side to work overlaps and fire crosses into the box. Additionally, both defensive and midfield lines weren’t as straight as they were in the previous campaigns offering up opportunities for quick balls cutting out the central midfielders and exposing the backline. Finally, Katanosaka likes his wide central defenders to push up if the ball enters their zone. In theory the middle defender, Keisuke Saka for most of Saturday’s match, should essentially play a sweeper role in that situation. However once again a good side will be able to engineer space and quickly play the ball over the advancing centre-back to leave an attacker one-on-one with the sweeper. At the other end of the field, Oita generally press very well. They seem adept at winning the ball back in the opponent’s half against all teams. However, they have been known to target certain sides who are prone to overplaying in their own defensive third. Their 1-1 draw at home to Vissel Kobe last season was a great example of this, Yokohama F.Marinos should also be aware.

Going forward Oita are known as a passing side who like to build things from the back. Last year they ranked 4th in J1 both in total number of passes attempted and also in completion %. They also made the least amount of dribbles of all teams in the top division. They prefer using the pace of their wing-backs allied with the intricate skills of their two shadow players to manufacture scoring opportunities. This works well in theory, but in practice things didn’t really go according to plan last season. Trinita had the 3rd weakest attack in J1 in 2020, netting just 35 times in 34 games, they also registered the 2nd lowest number of shots. Much-maligned former Gamba beanpole Shun Nagasawa has been brought in, but as the J-Talk Podcast guys broke down on their season preview, there are genuine questions about how he will fit in with the Kyushu side’s attacking game-plan. Last year the centre-forward role was usually occupied by either Kei Chinen, a link up player, or Kohei Isa, a workhorse, Nagasawa is clearly a target man and Oita are not a side who excel at crossing. Again referencing the 2020 data we can see that although they were 6th in total crosses delivered last year, Trinita completed a mere 21.9% meaning that much work will need to be done on the training field if Sam Robson’s favourite is to become a success down in Kyushu.

Just to round this section off, I thought I’d uncover some interesting stats that I haven’t really seen discussed much elsewhere. As mentioned earlier, Oita are currently unbeaten in J1 with 4 points from 2 games against teams likely to be battling against the drop. I actually have Trinita going down in my #jpred2021, so their start to the campaign will be crucial. They have proven to be an extremely streaky side since returning to Japan’s top flight 2 years ago. Of course, they shocked everyone back in 2019 when they took 24 points from their opening 12 games despite being a popular pick to return to J2 at the first time of asking. Predictably, they couldn’t match those early highs and earned only 23 more points across their remaining 22 matches. That malaise carried over into 2020 when after a disappointing haul of 12 points from 14 fixtures was accrued, they improved markedly after that and finished the year with 31 points from their final 20 contests. Taking full advantage of their good spells of form will clearly be very important for Oita as they bid to retain their status in the rarefied atmosphere of J1.

The Squad

As always it was a busy winter down in the hot spring mecca of Oita. Eight important squad members headed for fresh pastures while a number of replacements of varying degrees of ability arrived. The main loss was top scorer (despite being a wing-back / shadow player) Tatsuya Tanaka (to Urawa), while yeoman central midfielder Toshio Shimakawa made the short journey west to link up with Tosu after 30 J1 appearances in 2020. I already talked about the massive blow dealt to the club’s defensive stability by Yoshinori Suzuki’s move to Shimizu and Japan international Tomoki Iwata linking up with Ange Postecoglou at Marinos. Kei Chinen’s loan ended and he went back to Kawasaki, where he was re-united with 2019’s leading assist maker Kazuki Kozuka. On top of that, veteran shadow / centre-forward Kazushi Mitsuhira is now in J2 with Kofu and Daiki Watari is another off-season departure who’s still plying his trade in Kyushu, in his case, Avispa Fukuoka.

Brazilian duo, centre back Henrique Trevisan (Estoril Praia, Portugal) and holding midfielder Matheus Sousa Pereira are the two most exotic winter arrivals. Neither have yet been able to enter the country due to COVID era visa restrictions and it will be interesting to see how they bed in when they eventually do make it to Japan. I wouldn’t say Oita would be as easy as say somewhere in Kanto or Kansai for Brazilians to quickly settle in, but only time will tell. Other new arrivals I haven’t mentioned above include, Arata Watanabe, an attacking player whose signing would have been heralded more had he not missed the end of the last campaign with a broken foot, Hokuto Shimoda, the team’s new set piece taker, a title winner in 2020 with Kawasaki, varsity duo Kenta Inoue, a wing-back from Fukuoka University and Kazuki Fujimoto, a shadow player who showed some nice touches against Gamba in Suita last summer, from Kanoya National Institute for Sport in Kagoshima. At the back Keisuke Saka has come in from Shonan, Bellmare supporters seemed saddened by his loss, though in truth I’ve never really seen anything to write home from him. Giravanz Kitakyushu wing-back Kenta Fukumori, yet another player I urged Gamba to look at, has already found himself a spot in the side, and young holding midfielder Masaki Yumiba has been promoted from the club’s decent youth academy.

Injury Report

No major injury dramas to report from the Showa Denko Dome so far. Shadow player Naoki Nomura, who missed the first half of 2020 following his move from Tokushima sat out last Saturday’s win at his former side Yokohama FC for, as far as I know, unspecified reasons. Right wing-back Kenta Inoue left the field with a leg muscle problem in the second half of that game and must be considered a doubt while Arata Watanabe was repeatedly going down with cramp in the final 10 minutes, but should now be good to go. Centre-back / wing-back Yuta Koide, like Nomura, also played the round 1 contest against Tokushima before sitting out the Yokohama FC clash with no reason given for his absence while Yamato Machida was an unused sub in the opening match of the season, but was nowhere to be seen in the Levain Cup defeat to Kobe or the aforementioned win in Kanagawa.

Current Starting XI

The formation is set, but due to the high turnover between rounds 1 and 2 it is as yet unclear who the preferred starters are in several areas. If fit, Nomura and Inoue would certainly feature, while Yuki Kobayashi is an alternative to Shimoda in the middle of the park, Ueebisu and Koide could potentially unseat Haneda at the back and Nagasawa or Takazawa will provide competition for Isa in attack.

Season Prediction

In my #jpred2021 I had them in 16th, the final relegation spot, largely due to their lack of firepower up front. However, I can’t really see them going any lower and realistically they could end up as high as 10th/11th if things click.