Oita Trinita 0-1 Gamba Osaka Plus 2020 Squad Rundown

It wasn’t pretty, but Gamba scrapped their way to a 1-0 win at Oita yesterday which extended their unbeaten run to 8 games. Gen Shoji sat this one out as we wait for news on his ankle injury, while Hiroki Fujiharu was still not back from a concussion suffered in the first half of the match against Tosu 2 weeks ago. Tsuneyasu Miyamoto made 3 changes to the starting eleven for this, the 5th of 5 games inside a hectic 15 day period. Shunya Suganuma came in for the injured Shoji, while the forward pair was once again rotated, Ademilson and Kazuma Watanabe, the duo who tormented Tosu on the Nerazzurri’s previous trip to Kyushu started with Patric and Takashi Usami on the bench.

The first half was a rather forgettable affair, Gamba were understandably a little sluggish following their recent exertions while Trinita pressed and harassed the men from Suita well, forcing a series of turnovers, however, they were never able to put a series of good passages of play together. There were too many instances of poor control, aimless crossfield balls and inaccurate crosses to really build any sustained pressure on Masaaki Higashiguchi’s goal. Just after the water break Gamba sparked into life and nice play down the right involving Kosuke Onose and Ryu Takao saw the ball cut back, via several deflections, to Watanabe who in turn fed strike partner Ademilson. The Brazilian’s shot looked to be goalbound, but unfortunately struck the arm of his skipper Shu Kurata and hence was rightly disallowed. Although the correct decision was reached, this incident did seem to bring about a more cautious approach in Oita’s play as if they now recognised how dangerous Gamba could be. Ademilson stung the palms of home ‘keeper Kim Myung-gun, whose distribution was at times quite ropey in this game, with a shot on the turn from the edge of the area after a powerful Takao run, however, the referee was the star attraction of the second half of the first period. First, surely to Alan Gibson’s delight, he gave a foul throw against Oita on the half hour mark, he did balance things up though by bizarrely allowing a Trinita player to slide in and block a quickly taken Gamba free-kick from what surely must have been 3 yards away at most.

Patric came on for Watanabe at half-time and Oita seemed to go into full deer in the headlights mode at the thought of squaring off against a powerful foreigner, something Gamba are prone to do [Exhibit A: Olunga, Michael]. The big Brazilian’s introduction brought about a much more positive start to the half from the visitors, however, between the 55th and 65th minutes Trinita had their best spell of the game and really should have taken the lead from at least one of the three excellent chances they created. First, former Gamba-man Tatsuya Tanaka rounded Higashiguchi and had his effort cleared off the line after the referee’s assistant had initially caused confusion by incorrectly waving for offside. I didn’t really feel any sense of relief as I thought it wouldn’t have counted anyway, but when the referee awarded Oita a corner I saw how fortunate Gamba had been. Four minutes later, nice combination play between Kohei Isa and Kazushi Mitsuhira set up Tanaka but Higashiguchi came out well to smother his shot from 10 yards. Finally, four minutes after that, Trinita won three corners in a row with the third one headed wide by an unmarked Kento Haneda (surprisingly this was the only one of the 3 chances that made the DAZN highlights).

To use some J-Talk Podcast terminology, Oita were made to pay for their profligacy shortly after. Takashi Usami played a delicious through ball to the onrushing Takao, the EPL’s VAR would probably have flagged the full-back offside, but as it was he was free to put in a cross which was turned out for a corner by the home side’s captain Yoshinori Suzuki. Usami stepped up and put it on a plate for Patric, who outjumped Ryosuke Tone and Kento Haneda to power a header low into Mun’s bottom right corner, 1-0 Gamba and we know what happens when they take the lead in 2020, right?

Oita made a quadruple switch on 82 minutes with forwards, Kei Chinen, Yuya Takazawa, shadow player Naoki Nomura and holding midfielder Toshio Shimakawa entering the fray. In a similar vein to the match at home to Kashima a few weeks back, making a lot of changes in a short space of time hindered rather than helped our opponents. Chinen headed wide and Shimakawa volleyed into the side netting, but that was as close as Trinita came. Young Dai Tsukamoto made his J1 debut very late in proceedings and defeats for both Nagoya and FC Tokyo made this a very happy Sunday for all those connected with Gamba who are now up to 4th in the standings.

Gamba MVP

I know I bigged up Ryu Takao in the preview, but I was initially a bit disappointed with his display. Having watched the highlights and heard the views of others on Twitter I have changed my mind slightly. However, I’m going to choose Kim Young-gwon as I felt he was an absolute rock yesterday. Minus Genta Miura and Gen Shoji, the experienced Kim really stepped up and marshalled the defence brilliantly, his distribution, which has been shaky at times this year, was excellent, so I have no qualms about giving him this award.

Some inclement weather in Osaka today put the dampeners on my hiking trip, so I thought I’d take a look at how every member of Gamba’s squad has performed so far this season.

#1 Masaaki Higashiguchi – Shot-stopping has been superb all year, must be the form ‘keeper in J1 along with Mitch Langerak. His distribution is his weak point a times, but I’ve been more than happy with his performances.

#3 Gen Shoji – Has grown better and better since returning from injury, I rate him as our best centre-back. Hopefully his latest ankle problem won’t keep him out for too long.

#4 Hiroki Fujiharu – A little bit up and down from him this year and he now faces a real fight for his spot from Yuya Fukuda, 11 years his junior. Mistakes against Yokohama FC and FC Tokyo have been balanced out by a lot of good energetic performances down the left-flank in the draining summer heat.

#5 Genta Miura – Honestly he’s never been my favourite player to pull on a Gamba shirt, but he was generally quite competent before getting injured. I had him at 2 goals scored and 2.5 directly responsible for us conceding before he got injured during one of his best games, against Sapporo. Will be interesting to see where he fits into a 4-4-2 when everyone is fit.

#8 Kosuke Onose – After a wonderful year and half since joining from Yamaguchi, it’s gone a bit flat for him this term. He’s not been poor, rather he’s not really contributed in a way Gamba fans would have hoped, whether this is down to fatigue, a niggling injury, or something else, I don’t know.

#9 Ademilson – His goal and assist numbers are there, but he’s looked less sharp than last season. A couple of minor injuries in pre-season and just after the league’s re-start have perhaps hindered him and at the moment Patric and Usami seems to be our best strike partnership.

#10 Shu Kurata – A strange campaign from him, he’d actually lost his place to Yuji Ono before he got injured, but he’s now captaining the side in Miura’s absence. Beautiful goals away to Sendai and Hiroshima plus a couple of nice assists have been his highlights, but it looks like this year’s tough schedule has taken a toll on him.

#11 Yuji Ono – I didn’t expect much when we signed him, but he was a revelation in his midfield role before damaging knee ligaments. I hope he can come back strong again next year.

#13 Shunya Suganuma – Has only really played recently due to Miura and Shoji’s injuries plus the heavy schedule. Realistically shouldn’t be playing regularly for a top half J1 side, but he seems content to be a squad member and serves as useful backup.

#14 Yuya Fukuda – Finally getting a run in the team thanks to injuries elsewhere. He’s almost a victim of his own versatility as Miyamoto keeps switching his position. It was tough for him earlier in the campaign when he was only playing every 3rd/4th game, but now he’s getting more regular game time we can see his improvement.

#15 Yosuke Ideguchi – Has to be a strong contender for Gamba’s MVP this year. His work-rate, closing down and range of passing are immense. He’s started all but one J1 game in 2020 and of course banged in that memorable volley at home to Urawa.

#16 Jun Ichimori – Former Okayama number 1, signed to be our backup before dislocating his shoulder and finding himself in J3 as an overage player with the U23s. All this while our backup from last season Mizuki Hayashi is third choice at 19th in J2 Yamaguchi. The JLeague goalkeeping merry-go-round, eh?

#17 Ryo Shinzato – Signed on loan from Iwata to be back up to the back up centre-halves. I believe Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges put it better by saying, “you’re the guy who makes the tea for the guy who makes the coffee.” That said, I think he’s done alright the 2 times I’ve seen him play for the top team and once in J3.

#18 Patric – Has really come onto a game as the season has developed and offers something that none of our other forwards can provide. A pleasant surprise this campaign as I feared he may have been over-the-hill based on last year’s displays.

#19 Kim Young-gwon – A very consistent performer whose ability to defend is not in question. A big fan of the physical side of the game and some of the dark arts of defending which may make him unpopular with opponents (perhaps a Brazilian forward who has been vocal on Twitter lately lol). His distribution can be his greatest strength and also his biggest weakness, but overall I’m a fan.

#20 Daisuke Takagi – I think I can just lift my comments from last year’s player rundown about him… what was the purpose of his signing? He’s always had at least 2 better players ahead of him in any position he can play, he isn’t that young in footballing terms and aside from a lovely assist the other week, he hasn’t really stood out playing in J3.

#21 Shinya Yajima – A pretty decent season until his sprained ankle saw him lose his place to Yuki Yamamoto. Has gone a bit missing in some of the tougher games and will surely face more competition once Leo Takae returns from Machida, but a very useful player to have in the squad.

#24 Keisuke Kurokawa – Hasn’t featured much for the first team, but has definitely grown with the U23’s in J3. More of a left-back than Fukuda and I’d love to see him get a run in the J1 side at some point.

#25 Kei Ishikawa – Seems to have overtaken Ichimori to be Higashiguchi’s backup. Based on the couple of times I saw him play for the U23s, he looks like a good shot-stopper, but the thought of seeing his distribution in the J1 side gives me nightmares.

#26 Kohei Okuno – Central midfielder who sometimes gets punted to right-back or centre-back by the U23s when no-one else is available. Probably seen as a younger, better version of Takahiro Ko by the Gamba hierarchy.

#27 Ryu Takao – Surely the most improved player in the squad this year, either when played as a right-sided centre-back or in his favoured right-back role. Has outshone two similar players in Ryosuke Shindo and Tomoki Iwata already this season, are international honours in the near future totally out of the question?

#28 Jefferson Tabinas – Basically a Hail Mary loan signing from Kawasaki as we had no-one else to play centre-back in J3. He’s done better than expected, but I always judge him based on the fact he’s on loan from Frontale, as in reality he often looks more like a JFL player.

#29 Yuki Yamamoto – Takao’s former team-mate at Kwansei Gakuin who has come on in spades since breaking into the team due to Yajima’s injury. Now seems to be first choice alongside Ideguchi and has bagged a couple of nice goals too, which always helps.

#30 Dai Tsukamoto – The least famous of Gamba’s trident of prodigious youngsters along with Kawasaki and Toyama (is there also a city called Tsukamoto in Japan? – that would probably help with giving them a collective nickname). He’s really developed physically this year, though he will need to work on his end product if he wants to have a long J1 career, a bit like Fukuda he gets moved around too much due to his versatility.

#31 Haruki Saruta – Signed on loan from Kashiwa so we could loan our young goalies out. Got injured pre-lockdown, came back not fully fit and dropped a clanger against Sanuki on the opening day, disappeared for a bit after that, then came back and conceded five at YSCC and hasn’t been seen since.

#32 Ren Shibamoto – His next game in J3 will be his 100th, the first Gamba U23 player to reach that milestone. Was injured at the start of the year, but he’s improved the team so much since his return. I don’t know why he can’t get into the top team, he might be someone that @kanzawadreamin would like to have on loan at Zweigen next year.

#33 Takashi Usami – Excellent all round play, but did look exhausted at times prior to being given a rest. Often tasked with both scoring and setting up chances, the re-emergence of Patric has definitely helped him.

#34 Shuhei Kawasaki – I’m really happy with his development in his first year as a pro. He’s already too good to be playing in J3 and I liked what I saw the one time he was given extended playing time in J1, away to Tosu.

#35 Tatsuya Yamaguchi – A real work-horse for the U23s who despite his diminutive size spent the first half of the season as a left-sided centre-back. A really good player who will probably find himself crowded out by the traffic ahead of him at left-back, so could be an option for Renofa etc to look at for a loan next year (Yamaguchi sign Yamaguchi has a nice ring to it).

#36 Riku Matsuda – Broke his foot during the league’s layoff and came back not looking fully fit for the U23s. Got briefly promoted to the J1 side and was booked within a minute for clattering into the back of Iniesta, that’s certainly one to tell the grandkids about. Hasn’t looked as sharp as he did last year and the switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 doesn’t really help him, may go out on loan next season.

#37 Haruto Shirai – Extremely pacey player who has now had about 3 niggling injuries this season. Lacks the consistency to crack the J1 squad, but his speed, control and distribution should see him forge a decent lower league career.

#38 Shoji Toyama – Has kept banging them in for the U23s and also netted a brace against Shonan in the Levain Cup. Hopefully we can keep hold of him for a bit to allow him to develop before the inevitable move to Europe.

#39 Kazuma Watanabe – Another pleasant surprise this season and is actually the team’s top scorer. Now that he’s got his 100 J1 goals, I wonder if there’s a chance he might return to his native Nagasaki and join V-Varen next year, as despite being an excellent squad member, the emergence of Toyama and potential return of Ichimi could mean the writing is on the wall for him at Gamba.

#40 Shin Won-ho – Joined after graduating high school in Korea, but unable to get in the U23 side ahead of several Japanese high schoolers on type 2 contracts which can’t be a great sign.

#50 Lee Yunoh – Signed on loan to replace our injured on loan U23 ‘keeper Saruta, he himself got injured soon after (what are we doing in training? that’s 3 goalkeeping injuries this year!). Has played once so far where he basically dropped the ball in the net against Kataller Toyama and looked very shaky in everything else he did.

I hope you all enjoyed that, please remember to check out my match preview for the game with Kashiwa Reysol which should be live on Thursday.


Oita Trinita vs Gamba Osaka 18 October 2020 Match Preview

Oita Trinita vs Gamba Osaka
J1 2020 Round 23
Showa Denko Dome Oita
Sunday 18 October 14:00 (JST)

Last Time Out

Gamba were held to a 1-1 draw by Yokohama F.Marinos on Wednesday night, their first home tie of the year. It marked the end of a run of 6 straight wins, but does now mean they are currently 7 matches unbeaten. Results elsewhere saw the Nerazzurri drop down to 5th in the standings, behind Nagoya on goal difference, however, there were certainly plenty of positives to take from a strong display against last year’s champions.

Gamba kantoku Tsuneyasu Miyamoto opted for just a solitary change to the starting eleven from the match with FC Tokyo on Saturday. Kosuke Onose came in for Ademilson, a move that saw Takashi Usami return to his more familiar role as a centre-forward. The continuity in selection allowed Gamba to start well and their high press put Marinos under pressure early on, as it had done in the away fixture back in February. Despite this, around the 20 minute mark Yokohama started to look more and more dangerous. First, Masaaki Higashiguchi had to get down well to his right to divert a Marcos Junior header to safety before both Junior Santos and Erik saw goalbound shots blocked by desperate Gamba lunges. Up the other end Patric knocked down a Higashiguchi long-ball for strike-partner Usami who easily went past Makito Ito before Yuji Kajikawa in the away goal tipped his shot wide for a corner. A mere minute later, however, and the home side trailed after a rather unfortunate own goal. Erik dispossessed Yuki Yamamoto in midfield and the ball broke for his compatriot Marcos Junior, the duo exchanged passes before Marcos shot at Higashiguchi from close range. Gamba’s number one got a leg to it but couldn’t prevent the ball from flying up and onto the face of the back-tracking Kim Young-gwon and from there it landed in the back of the net. Gamba left with an uphill battle ahead against tough opposition.

The following quarter of an hour saw something of a lull in proceedings with decent play from both sides, but little in the way of chances. Gamba broke the drought in the 41st minute when Onose played in the onrushing Takao and his shot into the side-netting was somewhat surprisingly given as a corner. Usami’s set piece was powerfully met by Patric, but Kajikawa again produced an excellent stop to keep the home team at bay. Unfortunately for Kajikawa, his side wouldn’t hold onto their lead for long as in the final minute of the first half a long ball from Ideguchi found Usami who knocked the ball past the Marinos ‘keeper, I’m not sure how strong the contact was, but Usami was flying and Kajikawa threw an arm out that caught Gamba’s number 33 in the stomach, he fell and the referee pointed to the spot. The former Bayern man dusted himself off and sent Kajikawa the wrong way for his 5th goal of the year. This decision and a subsequent one to award Gamba a throw in on half way clearly angered Ange Postecoglou and he was a lucky man that the 4th official was not a native English speaker as the DAZN highlights caught him giving out a verbal volley that would surely have seen him sent to the stands in say the A League or the EPL.

No further goals followed in the second half, but a pretty decent football game broke out. I’d go as far to call this Gamba’s best second half display of 2020, they spent most of it on the front foot, though they did fail to create that one killer chance to win the game. A clearly exhausted Marinos stuck to their task gamefully and probably had the best chance of the half when Shinnosuke Hatanaka shot wide from 6 yards out after good build up play involving Marcos Junior, Ryuta Koike and Erik. Positives for Gamba would be the second half displays of full-backs Takao and Fukuda, plus Yamamoto in midfield, while there were concerns when Gen Shoji appeared to aggravate his long standing ankle problem on the hour mark, but he did manage to soldier on to the end. All in all 1-1 probably doesn’t really suit either side, but for Gamba, 4 points from 2 games this year against Marinos and only 2 goals conceded represents a serious improvement from last season.

Oita played out a 1-1 draw away to an under-strength Vissel Kobe on Wednesday night. This is the second time this year that the sides have been tied at one apiece and both matches have immediately preceded Trinita’s fixtures with Gamba. Former Oita hitman Noriaki Fujimoto beat Mun Kyung-gun with a looping header from Keijiro Ogawa’s chipped through ball in the 6th minute to give Vissel the lead, but Trinita earned a share of the spoils when Gotoku Sakai turned Tomoki Iwata’s cross into his own goal under pressure from Yuya Takazawa 4 minutes from the end of normal time.

The Lowdown

5th placed Gamba travel to Kyushu this weekend to face off against an Oita Trinita outfit who currently find themselves sitting in 12th place in the standings, 13 points behind their visitors with a game more played. The blue and black half of Osaka have enjoyed an outstanding run of away form this year with 26 points from 11 games giving them the 2nd best road record in J1 after champions-elect Kawasaki. This represents quite a turnaround for Gamba who collected 26 points in total from all 17 away games in 2017 and mustered a mere 34 points outside of Suita across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, they could conceivably beat that combined tally this year.

As noted in the Yokohama F.Marinos preview last week, a major factor in Gamba’s improvement has been their tighter defence. The Nerazzurri have only conceded a maximum of one goal per game across the last 8 matches while they’ve only let in more than one away from home twice in J1 this season (Nagoya 2-2 and Kashiwa 0-3). By way of contrast, Oita’s defence has lost some of it’s stability this year and that has been a key factor in them slipping from 9th in 2019 (behind Gamba only on goal difference) to 12th this campaign. Their attack has actually marginally improved year on year, averaging 1.13 goals per game this term versus 1.01 a year ago, but at the back their 34 goals against this campaign is only 1 shy of 2019’s total despite playing 11 fewer matches to date. Additionally, they only conceded more than twice on two occasions in 2019, both away from home (FC Tokyo and Kawasaki – both 1-3), however, this time round they’ve shipped over 2 goals in a game 4 times, including twice in their own Showa Denko Dome.

At home Trinita have taken 15 points from their 11 matches so far, a total that is only one short of Gamba with an identical number of games played. Their results have been something of a mixed bag with 4 wins, Tosu (2-0), Shimizu (2-1) Marinos and Yokohama FC (1-0), 3 draws Shonan (2-2), Kobe (1-1), Kashiwa (0-0), and 4 defeats Kashima (4-1), Nagoya (3-0), Hiroshima (2-0), FC Tokyo (1-0). The Kyushu-based side could technically catch Vissel Kobe ahead of them if they win their games in hand and they are in a better run of form now (17 points from the past 9 matches) than at the beginning of the year when they opened up by taking only 12 points from their first 14 games.

Oita have used 31 players so far this term as opposed to Gamba’s 24 and I have my doubts as to how much depth they really possess outside their first choice starting eleven, however, I have identified a few talents to look out for on Sunday night. Naturally first is Mr Trinita himself, captain and centre-back Yoshinori Suzuki, who was last missing from an Oita league starting lineup way back on 31st May 2015, a 2-1 away defeat to Giravanz Kitakyushu in J2 (thanks Transfermarkt!) To Suzuki’s right is Tomoki Iwata, a player similar in style to Ryu Takao, regular readers may remember I bigged him up ahead of the match at Panasonic Stadium, only for him to concede a penalty with a rash tackle. Further forward, versatile former Gamba man Tatsuya Tanaka is Trinita’s top scorer this year with 7 goals, he can play in either wing-back position or what I believe the Japanese commentators call the ‘shadow’ position just off the main striker.

For Gamba, Takashi Usami will be looking to score against Oita for the third match running and his good friend in midfield Yosuke Ideguchi has been in sparkling form this year, his closing down against Marinos on Wednesday was a joy to watch. Finally, it will be interesting to contrast the aforementioned Ryu Takao with his opposite number Tomoki Iwata. Takao, for me, has been the most improved player in Gamba’s squad this year and has already outshone Ryosuke Shindo of Sapporo, another player who could be considered similar in style, so I’m keenly anticipating comparing the performances of Takao and Iwata in this encounter.

Head to Head

Between 2010-2018 these two were in different divisions so we don’t have a whole lot to cover in this section. Gamba defeated Trinita 2-1 at Panasonic Stadium in round 5 back in July, a penalty from Takashi Usami and a fine finish by Ademilson overturned Daiki Watari’s powerful header against the run of play for the visitors. In the corresponding match last year a flowing Gamba move was finished expertly by Usami to give the Nerazzurri an early lead, but efforts from Kazushi Mitsuhira and Tomoki Iwata reversed things in the home side’s favour. That would turn out to be Gamba’s final league defeat of 2019 as they went on to see off Sendai (2-0), Matsumoto (4-1) and Urawa (3-2) in their remaining fixtures.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Gamba have a few concerns at the back with captain Genta Miura out with a thigh muscle injury and Gen Shoji looking to have aggravated his long-standing ankle problem against Marinos on Wednesday. Shoji received treatment on the hour mark and played on, but it remains to see if he will be selected for this clash, Shunya Suganuma and Ryo Shinzato stand ready to deputise if required. Left-back Hiroki Fujiharu has been out of the matchday squad for the past 2 games, though no injury has yet been reported, while Yuji Ono will miss the rest of 2020 after undergoing knee surgery.

Oita Trinita

Trinita have a number of players currently unavailable for selection, holding midfielder Ryosuke Maeda sprained his ankle against Hiroshima on September 23rd while wing-back Yuki Kagawa damaged his hamstring a week earlier. Experienced midfielder Yuki Kobayashi hasn’t featured since being subbed early in the second half of Oita’s 2-1 defeat by Gamba at Panasonic Stadium on July 18th and his namesake Seigo, more of a squad player, broke his foot at the end of September. Utility man Kaoru Takayama hasn’t been seen since the 2-0 defeat at home to Hiroshima last month with no injury yet reported and last year’s key assist maker Kazuki Kozuka has been in and out of the side in 2020, I’m assuming this is down to fitness concerns.

Predicted Line Ups

This is the last in a tough stretch of 5 games in 15 days before the schedule becomes noticeably more gentle in the coming weeks, so it’ll be interesting to see if Miyamoto tries to shake one last big performance out of the main starters or re-jigs things a little. I’ve assumed that Fujiharu will sit this one out and that Yamamoto is now above Yajima in the pecking order. As usual we’re most likely to see rotation in the forward line with any combination of Usami, Patric, Ademilson or Watanabe possible.

I have no doubts that Trinita will line up in their usual 3-4-2-1 formation and the back three of Iwata, Suzuki and Misao will be key for them as they lack sufficient depth in that position. Similar to Gamba, it is in the attacking areas where we may see some changes. Centre-forward Kei Chinen and ‘shadow’ players Daiki Watari, Kazuki Kozuka or Kazushi Mitsuhira could start and at wing-back it’s possible we’ll see either or both Rei Matsumoto or Yuji Hoshi come in to give someone a breather.

Match Prediction

Kyushu is not usually a happy hunting ground for Gamba, but their away form has been brilliant this year. The Nerazzurri have the clear goal of qualifying for both this year’s Emperor’s Cup and next campaign’s Asian Champions League to motivate them while Trinita merely have pride and contracts for next year to occupy their thoughts. As such, I’m going to continue with my positive predicting and say Gamba will run out 2-1 winners in a tightly fought contest.

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Oita Trinita Match Preview 18 July 2020

Gamba Osaka vs Oita Trinita
J1 2020 Round 5
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Saturday 18 July 19:00 (JST)

Round 5 of J1 2020 sees Gamba back in Osaka for the first of two home games in the space of five days. Oita Trinita are the visitors for the first J1 game in front of paying spectators in Suita this year. Hopefully this preview gives you all the information you’re looking for ahead of this intriguing clash.

Last Time Out

Super-sub Kazuma Watanabe was again the hero for Gamba away to Shimizu S-Pulse last Sunday as his beautiful 89th minute shot proved the difference between the two sides in a highly competitive encounter.

Head Coach Tsuneyasu Miyamoto kept personnel changes to a minimum with only the rested Hiroki Fujiharu and Shu Kurata coming back into the side for Yuya Fukuda and Yuji Ono, both of whom took up spots on the bench. However, the big alteration came tactically with Gamba reverting to a 4-4-2 system last used in April 2019 at home to Urawa.

S-Pulse put in what must be their strongest performance of the season with Carlinhos down the left, 18 year-old Yuito Suzuki through the middle and Shota Kaneko on the right caused Gamba’s defence real problems all night with their pace and movement. Shimizu got in behind a few times early doors and put fizzing crosses across Gamba’s six-yard box to no avail, they also had a few long range efforts, but nothing too damaging from a blue and black perspective.

At the other end of the field, it was Gamba who opened the scoring through a lovely team goal which was started by Kim Young-gwon inside his own half, the South Korean defender found Usami who played a lovely ball to the onrushing Fujiharu. Gamba’s left-back then attacked the box and centred for Ademilson who produced a lovely first touch pass into the path of Kosuke Onose who netted his first of the season low to Togo Umeda’s right. 1-0 Gamba at half time.

Gamba started the second half brightly, however, owing to some sloppiness in possession and strong S-Pulse forward play the Shizuoka side dominated from around the 50th-85th minutes. Their best chance came just before the hour mark when Kim Young-gwon was dispossessed following an ill-advised run out of defence, in the aftermath Carlinhos was denied by a great save from Higashiguchi, the ball then spun up for Shota Kaneko who was faced with placing his header past Ideguchi and Yajima on the line, a tough task, but somehow he managed to head the ball wide of the target.

Gamba couldn’t hold out forever and the equaliser inevitably came. A quickly taken free kick down the right by Yusuke Goto sent Keita Nakamura away and his pinpoint cross was met at the back post by the 191cm frame of Yugo Tatsuta. The centre-back bagged only the 2nd goal of his pro career with a powerful header.

At this point the momentum was all with S-Pulse and you would have banked on them going onto win the game. That’s not how things turned out as a mere four minutes later a Gamba attack down the left saw Ademilson put Fujiharu in behind the Shimizu defence, he cut the ball back for Watanabe who still had plenty to do, but the veteran ran past several defenders on the edge of the area before firing a delicious shot across Umeda and into the bottom corner. Full Time 2-1 Gamba, King Kazu the saviour once more.

Shimizu S-Pulse 1-2 Gamba Osaka
12 July 2020

My half time notes for Oita’s 1-1 home draw with Vissel Kobe read, “Kobe have the swagger of an Asian Champions League team, but they’d do well to remember they got there by winning a cup. They have no right to turn up at places like Oita against a team who got the same number of points as them last year, and just expect to win.”

This game was a real clash of styles as Vissel after getting what in boxing would be termed a flash knockdown through Kyogo Furuhashi’s superb volley inside the first twenty seconds then spent most of the remaining first 45 minutes being harassed by Oita’s high pressing system. It was therefore little surprise when the men from Kyushu drew level through Tomoki Iwata on 29 minutes. Iwata, the closest thing Trinita have to a star player, started the move by winning a duel just inside the Kobe half, deflecting the ball towards Tatsuya Tanaka whose brave header found centre-forward Kei Chinen who, with a beautifully weighted pass released Iwata past the despairing Leo Osaki, Oita’s number 29 then coolly finished low to Hiroki Iikura’s left.

In the second half Oita were largely content to soak up Kobe pressure and on the whole it worked as the men from Hyogo were unable to unlock the well organised Trinita backline, frequently being forced into hitting low percentage shots from outside the box. The final ten minutes and injury time, however, saw Vissel take advantage of a tiring Oita rearguard and youngsters, Yutaro Oda and Daiju Sasaki both had decent changes to win the game, but in the end this tactical chess match finished up a probably fair 1-1.

Oita Trinita 1-1 Vissel Kobe
11 July 2020

Recent History

Prior to last season, Gamba and Oita hadn’t met in J1 since 2009, as a result I’ll just focus this week’s history section on the two games from the 2019 campaign.

In April, Gamba earned their first home point of the year, at the fifth time of asking in a physical and somewhat scrappy game. Ado Onaiwu got a controversial opener for Trinita in the 25th minute, attacking Rei Matsumoto’s right wing cross with a high boot, his connection went straight at Gamba ‘keeper Masaaki Higashiguchi from point blank range, the ball then rebounded onto the forward’s arm and into the net. Despite Gamba protests, the goal stood and Oita took a one goal advantage into the break. After laying siege to the Trinita box for parts of the second period Gamba were finally rewarded in somewhat fortunate circumstances. 19 minutes from time some uncharacteristically poor Oita defending ended up with the ball falling to Yasuhito Endo on the edge of the box and his scuffed effort deflected off Trinita captain Yoshinori Suzuki past Shun Takagi and into the back of the net. Noriaki Fujimoto wasted a couple of injury time chances for Oita and ultimately both sides would have been reasonably happy to take a point.

The second clash of the season in round 31 last November saw Gamba come into the match in much better form than their hosts, so Oita’s 2-1 triumph may have come as a little bit of a surprise to some. The Nerrazzuri raced into an early lead through a beautifully crafted team goal started, like the opener against Shimizu last week, by Kim Young-gwon in his own half. Kim’s pass found Shinya Yajima who turned and played a lovely ball for Ademilson to run onto, the Brazilian then fed Usami who shot past Shun Takagi at his near post. Usami later hit the bar with a thunderous shot and Ademilson headed against the post when it seemed easier to score. Gamba were made to pay for their wastefulness as Trinita drew level six minutes before half time. A quickly taken free kick (there’s a theme here with comparisons to the S-Pulse game) was played to Ado Onaiwu who passed the ball wide to Tomoki Iwata storming down the right flank, his inch perfect cross was met by the toe of Kazushi Mitsuhira and the former Shonan and Kyoto man prodded the ball beyond Higashiguchi. Iwata was not finished with Gamba and 19 minutes into the second half he won the game, turning up unmarked at the back post to fire home Onaiwu’s flick on and earn three points for his side.

Tactical Notes

Due to the win against Shimizu last week I feel we’ll see Gamba once again use 4-4-2 against the more defensively minded Oita. My only concerns about the system are how well Fujiharu and Kurata (both 31) can cope with sustained opposition pressure. The duo were dynamite in days gone by, but Kurata in particular seems to have lost a yard of pace and may be better utilised in a more central, advanced role.

Yajima and Ideguchi were solid if unspectacular against S-Pulse and Miyamoto has a decision to make on whether or not to use Yasuhito Endo for this game. With the Sanfrecce encounter following so closely after it seems reasonable he’ll start one of these two to give either Yajima or Ideguchi a rest, and to me this match seems more likely. His range of passing will be needed to to thread the eye of the needle and unpick Oita’s defence, though how effective he will be against their dangerous counter attack remains to be seen.

Under the guidance of former Gamba player and assistant head-coach Tomohiro Katanosaka, now in his 5th season in charge, Oita are a well oiled machine who punch well above their weight in terms of resources. Katanosaka’s preferred formation is 3-4-2-1, though this quickly becomes 5-4-1 when the opposition are in possession. You could clearly see the benefits of continuity in management philosophy and player selection in Trinita’s game against Vissel Kobe. Each Oita player has a specific role and knows how to do it, the backline of five can be found in a straight line across the field making it hard to spring the offside trap, this contrasted with their opponents who constantly formed a staggered line across the back. Players only leave their defensive position to attack the ball in their zone and you can almost see the training drills these guys must do in order to perfect their actions on the field. Further up the park, the front three show that defence really does start from attack as they constantly harry their opposite numbers in a tactic I believe rugby aficionados call the rush defence.

I mentioned him above briefly, but Tomoki Iwata is Oita’s jewel in the crown, although officially a centre-back he can often be seen charging down the right like a wing-back while one of his central midfielders covers for him. This can bring great rewards as in the games against Kobe last week and Gamba in 2019, but it also presents a rare opportunity to get in behind Trinita’s defensive live.

In summary, this will be a tactical chess match, Gamba will probably look to win free kicks in dangerous positions and try to probe for weaknesses while Endo’s tactical passing and quick interchanges between the attackers will be crucial if they want to get shots on goal from decent areas. Oita, on the other hand, will be content to sit back and soak up pressure with the intent of countering Gamba swiftly. They will use their wide players to generate the majority of their attacks from deep while also aiming to win the ball back high up the field through applying pressure to Gamba’s defence.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Gen Shoji is once again a doubt and reserve goalkeeper Jun Ichimori will be back in a couple of months. Elsewhere there are no new injury concerns and if 4-4-2 is the formation of choice then the starting XI should look very similar to the one that lined up against S-Pulse. Kim Young-gwon will play his 100th J1 game if selected for this encounter (23 FC Tokyo, 40 Omiya Ardija and 36 games for Gamba to date).

Oita Trinita

Veteran wide-man Kaoru Takayama is out after foot surgery while Yuki Kagawa should be fit despite suffering a nasty cut to his head following a collision with So Fujitani’s boot in the game against Kobe. Elsewhere the picture is less clear, assist maker Kazuki Kozuka was one of Oita’s best players in 2019 so I’m assuming his continued absence is injury related. Off-season signing from Tokushima Vortis, Naoki Nomura as well as wide player Yuji Hoshi and central midfielder Kazuhiro Sato haven’t been seen in recent games and I’m not sure whether this is due to injury or non-selection.

Know Your Opponent Oita Trinita

Katanosaka’s Oita side has a definite formation and clear patterns in playing selection. They have two games in quick succession after this one, Nagoya at home and Shimizu away so we could see some rotation, but I’m banking on them putting out their strongest XI

GK – #1 Shun Takagi – After starting his professional career with Kawasaki Frontale, Takagi made the move to Kyushu in 2017 and has been first choice in each of the previous two campaigns, playing in every league game. He’s a solid option between the sticks and fancies himself as a bit of a sweeper keeper.

CB – #29 Tomoki Iwata – I’m a big fan of his as you can probably tell from above. The 23 year-old Oita native is a one club man so far, though how long he’ll remain at Trinita is up for debate. He made 2 appearances for an inexperienced Japan side in last year’s Copa America and if his career continues its current trajectory, he’s sure to add more caps in the coming years.

CB – #5 Yoshinori Suzuki © – Mr Oita, at 27 Suzuki is actually a bit younger than I thought he was. Incredibly he hasn’t missed a league game since 2015, although that run will surely end due to the crowded schedule this year. Trinita’s captain stayed with them through the dark days of J3 and is now reaping his rewards. Like Iwata, I’d be quite happy to see him in the blue and black of Gamba one day.

CB – #3 Yuto Misao – The older brother of Kashima’s Kento, he’s slowly re-established himself as a solid J1 player after a disappointing two-year spell with Antlers. He replaced Naoya Fukumori in the starting lineup early last year and built a strong partnership with Suzuki and Iwata. Similar to Iwata he likes to move forward a bit at times and have his central midfielders cover for him.

RWB – #7 Rei Matsumoto – Another long-term servant of the club, former Yokohama F.Marinos wide-man Matsumoto joined Oita in 2013 while they were still in J1 and has been on their roller coaster ride down the divisions and back up again. I expect him to start in the right-wing back position, but he’s equally adept on the opposite flank.

CM – #40 Yushi Hasegawa – A calm and composed figure in the middle of the park, Hasegawa is now in his second season as a professional after his move from Miyazaki Sangyo Keiei University (the same alma mater as his captain Suzuki). He impressed last year, making 19 appearances despite facing tough competition for a starting slot from Ryosuke Maeda, Thitipan and Toshio Shimakawa. This time around it seems the 23 year-old from Kagoshima has established himself as first-choice.

CM – #6 Yuki Kobayashi – Brought in midway through 2019 from Nagoya Grampus, the immensely experienced Kobayashi, who has 222 J1 appearances to his name adds solidity to the Trinita midfield. Not known for his goalscoring exploits, Kanagawa native Kobayashi who also counts Jubilo Iwata and Albirex Niigata among his former teams will be content to sit back and protect his backline.

LWB – #2 Yuki Kagawa – An off-season signing from fellow Kyushu outfit V-Varen Nagasaki, Kagawa has quickly nailed down a starting slot on the left-wing and already has two assists to his name in four J1 games. Assuming he overcomes a nasty looking cut to his head sustained against Kobe he’ll give Ryu Takao and Kosuke Onose a lot of problems on Saturday night.

AM – #16 Daiki Watari – After two goal ladden seasons with Tokushima in J2 where he netted 35 times in 83 games, Watari earned himself a move to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2018. The goals didn’t quite flow there and he was never able to string a run of performances together. He’s looked lively since joining Oita, but is yet to contribute any goals or assists this year, that will need to change if he wants to keep his place ahead of Kazushi Mitsuhira.

AM – #11 Tatsuya Tanaka – Persona non grata in Panasonic Stadium after leaving Gamba for Oita just a few months after joining from Roasso Kumamoto last year. Life is short and a footballer’s career is even shorter so I have no grudge against him, in terms of playing minutes his move made a lot of sense. He’s currently operating just off the main striker but can also do a job on either wing, making him an ideal fit for Oita. He’s already netted twice in J1 in 2020 including a header against Tosu, not bad for a 172cm winger.

CF – #9 Kei Chinen – An exciting loan signing from Kawasaki Frontale last winter, Okinawan Chinen has a big chance to shine this season in a relatively low pressure environment. His assist for Iwata’s goal against Kobe was his first goalscoring contribution of the year, but his hold up play and lay offs are vital to the way Trinita play and Gamba’s defence will need to be on their toes to deal with the threat he poses.

Other Options – Oita have a pretty settled line-up, but as we know 2020 is unlike any other season so rotation is always likely. The three centre-backs above are clearly the first choice, but Ryosuke Tone, who played against Vissel, plus two close-season additions, Yuta Koide (Ventforet Kofu) and rookie Kento Haneda (Kansai University) can fill in where necessary. Further forward in central midfield, Toshio Shimakawa and Ryosuke Maeda are holding players who both got minutes last weekend. Kenta Inoue, currently on a designated special player contract ahead of a 2021 move from Fukuoka University, can play as a right wing-back or attacking midfielder. One player I almost picked in the starting XI but who’s definitely in contention is long-term Oita servant Kazushi Mitsuhira, he could play just off the central striker, as could ex-JEF United Chiba man, Yamato Machida, a diminutive and mercurial talent. Finally if Katanosaka opts to rest Chinen, Kohei Isa, another player who experienced the J3 campaign and recent addition Yuya Takazawa, second top scorer in J3 last year with 17 strikes for Gainare Tottori and scorer of a crucial goal against Hiroshima, could come in.

Predicted Lineups



Match Prediction

This will be a bit of a tactical tussle and it will be interesting to see what difference, if any, the introduction of supporters has on Gamba’s home performance. Oita may not be flashy but they do the small things well, Gamba will need to be patient in attack while being vigilant defensively. I’ll say that a tight match will end in a 1-1 draw.

sport Uncategorized

J1 Recap June 2020

With the JLeague’s return almost upon us, I thought now would be a good time to take a refresher course on what’s been happening at each club over the previous few months.

Back in February I published a 2-part J1 preview, this article is intended to be a companion to that, so I’d like to take this chance to point you in the direction of those 2 previews (my most popular articles to date) if you’re in search of more reading material.

*All clubs are listed in the order they finished the 2019 season.

Yokohama F.Marinos

2019: 1st
Kantoku: Ange Postecoglou (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Marinos averaged exactly 2 goals per game in J1 last year (68 goals in 34 games)

Last season’s champions enjoyed a mixed start to 2020, recording impressive wins away to Jeonbuk (2-1) and home to Sydney FC (4-0) in the Asian Champions League. Domestically things weren’t so bright as they lost to Kobe in an infamously bad penalty shoot-out in the Super Cup before being beaten 2-1 on their own patch by Gamba in the first round of J1.

Squad Update:
Former captain Jun Amano (28 years old) has returned from a year-long loan at Belgian side Sporting Lokeren. Amano, with over 100 games already under his belt for Marinos will be re-united with Lokeren team-mate, former Renofa Yamaguchi and Kashiwa Reysol full-back, Ryota Koike, who has joined the champions on a permanent basis. Experienced Avispa Fukuoka centre-back Yuki Saneto has also moved east to Kanagawa to provide cover for the injured Thiago Martins. Youth team forward Takumi Tsukui has been promoted to the top team, while Kokoku High School trio, Shunsuke Hirai (DF), Ryunosuke Kabayama (MF) and Tomoki Tagawa (GK), have been registered on designated special player contracts ahead of full-time moves in 2021.
Despite ‘keeper Park Il-gyu being ruled out for the first 2 months of the re-start, the current squad looks stronger than last year and with no ACL return on the immediate horizon they should be there or thereabouts come the end of season.

Week 1:
vs Gamba Osaka (h) 1-2

FC Tokyo

2019: 2nd
Kantoku: Kenta Hasegawa (3rd year)
Quick Stat: FC Tokyo’s average attendance of 31,540 in 2019 was the highest in the club’s history.

Kenta Hasegawa’s men kicked off their year with a 2-0 triumph over Ceres from the Philippines in torrential rain to earn a spot in the Asian Champions League group stage. They backed that up with an impressive 1-1 draw at Ulsan before edging out Perth Glory 1-0 at home. Then, the newly formed Brazilian front trio of Diego Oliveira, Leandro and Adailton all scored late on to inspire them to a 3-1 win at Shimizu S-Pulse in round 1 of J1 2020.

Squad Update:
Korean winger Na Sang-ho’s loan departure for Seongnam FC in his homeland is the biggest piece of transfer news to come out of Ajinomoto Stadium during the break. The highly-touted 23 year-old had struggled to make an impression since his move from Gwangju at the beginning of last season so this wasn’t a major shock.
The other major story to report is that the club have scrapped their J3 Under-23 side citing a lack of available stadia, this meant that their one lockdown signing, 20 year-old Thai midfielder Chayathorn Tapsuvanavon, who joined on loan from Bangkok United at the start of March, returned to Thailand in late June having seen no competitive action.

Week 1:
vs Shimizu S-Pulse (a) 3-1

Kashima Antlers

2019: 3rd
Kantoku: Zago (new)
Quick Stat: Kashima are the most successful team in J1 history with 8 league titles.

After losing in the final of the Emperor’s Cup to Vissel Kobe on January 1st, perennial Japanese giants Kashima then replaced outgoing coach Go Oiwa with Brazilian Zago and made a host of new signings. The bedding in period was not smooth and the men from Ibaraki found themselves surprisingly eliminated in the Asian Champions League qualifiers just 4 weeks later, losing 1-0 at home to Melbourne Victory. They followed this up with 2 more defeats, 1-0 away to Nagoya in the Levain Cup and 3-0 at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in round 1 of J1. 3 games, 3 defeats, 0 goals scored, it was a nightmare start for Zago. Everyone at the Kashima Soccer Stadium will be hoping that the enforced shutdown has given him precious time to get his message across.

Squad Update:
Perhaps unsurprisingly given that 11 of their 31 squad members are new recruits for 2020, there have been no additional signings during the lockdown. The loss of Brazilian marksman Serginho to the Chinese second division (wonder if he’s having any regrets now) was a bitter blow for Kashima and how well his countrymen, Juan Alano (Internacional) and Everaldo (Queretaro, Mexico) settle in will be of utmost importance. Defender Bueno, who I suggested could be a weak link at the back in my February preview, has been loaned to Atletico Mineiro in his homeland.
With an eye on the future, Antlers announced in this month that Meiji University duo, Tomoki Hayakawa (GK) and Keigo Tsunemoto (DF) as well as Osaka Taiiku University defender Naoki Hayashi will join the club from next year.

Week 1:
vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima (a) 0-3

Kawasaki Frontale

2019: 4th
Kantoku: Toru Oniki (4th year)
Quick Stat: Kawasaki had the best away record in J1 last year, taking 36 points from 17 games.

Champions in 2017 and 2018, Kawasaki endured an indifferent 2019, missing out on Asian Champions League qualification, but managing to lift the Levain Cup following a penalty shoot-out win over Sapporo. This year promises to see a changing of the guard with a more youthful looking squad attempting to regain the Kanagawa bragging rights from neighbouring Yokohama F.Marinos. They kicked off 2020 with a bang, thumping S-Pulse 5-1 at Todoroki Stadium in the League Cup, but dropped the baton the following week in their League opener, drawing 0-0 at home to a Sagan Tosu side predicted by many to finish bottom of J1.

Squad Update:
Their only transfer of the lockdown was to sell backup ‘keeper Hiroki Mawatari to Fagiano Okayama, which brings them down to a more respectable 4 senior goalkeepers in their squad, while Kento Tachibanada a midfielder from Toin Yokohama University (my old workplace) was announced as a signing for next season. Elsewhere, the break will presumably have given new university recruits, Zain Issaka (another of the Toin OB network that also includes Miki Yamane), Kaoru Mitoma (Tsukuba), Kaito Kamiya (Tokai Gakuen) and Reo Hatate (Juntendo) time to adjust to life as a pro, Frontale supporters will be hoping these guys will form the backbone of the side for the coming years.

Week 1:
vs Sagan Tosu (h) 0-0

Cerezo Osaka

2019: 5th
Kantoku: Miguel Angel Lotina (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Cerezo had the best defensive record in J1 in 2019, conceding a mere 25 in 34 games (0.7 per game), they were also tied with Kashima for most clean sheets kept (15).

Under the tutelage of wily head-coach Miguel Angel Lotina, Cerezo played an often quite dull but extremely effective brand of football last time out. Built on a rock-solid defence which conceded just 25 goals, they were able to achieve the 6th top 5 finish in their history. All the main protagonists in last season’s defensive masterclass are still in place and they started 2020 in strong fashion, smashing J2 side Matsumoto 4-1 at Nagai Stadium in the League Cup and following that up with a 1-0 opening day League win over Oita Trinita at the same venue.

Squad Update:
Young forward Mizuki Ando’s loan move to Machida Zelvia was their only lockdown transfer activity, he followed another young striker, Hiroto Yamada (Sendai), on the loan trail, the latter leaving in early February. Brazilian midfielder Lucas Mineiro joined on loan from Chapecoense just before the season started to replace his compatriot Souza and made 2 substitute appearances before the COVID-19 enforced break. From the winter recruits, wide-man Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (Montedio Yamagata) and Japan Under-17 star, Jun Nishikawa (Toko Gakuen High School) will have a fair bit of expectation riding on their shoulders when the campaign resumes.

Week 1:
vs Oita Trinita (h) 1-0

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

2019: 6th
Kantoku: Hiroshi Jofuku (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Sanfrecce scored over 20% of their goals last year in just 2 games vs Vissel Kobe (6-2 home and 4-2 away)

After a roller-coaster 2018, Sanfrecce had a much more stable campaign in 2019, finishing a comfortable 6th in J1 as well as progressing from the Asian Champions League group stages before being bettered by Kashima. They had a pretty quiet off-season, but a number of younger talents are emerging, most notably assist-king, Tsukasa Morishima, an exciting attacking-midfielder. Buoyed by the news that plans to build a new stadium in downtown Hiroshima are afoot, Sanfrecce started 2020 in dominant fashion, seeing off J1 new boys Yokohama FC away in the League Cup before dismantling the newly assembled Kashima Antlers 3-0 at Edion Stadium in round 1 of J1. They currently top the standings, albeit after only one game week.

Squad Update:
There are no new transfers to report, although since my original preview was written, Ritsumeikan University midfielder Tomoya Fujii was signed on a pre-contract for 2021 and registered as a designated special player for 2020, he was on the bench for both games so far this year, playing once against Yokohama FC. Extending the loan deals of Brazilian duo Leandro Pereira and Rhayner was probably Hiroshima’s best work last winter, their compatriot, attacking midfielder Ezequiel, also joined on loan from Botafogo, while Yuya Asano (younger brother of Takuma) came in from Mito HollyHock, though the jury is very much still out on whether he’ll bring as much to the team as his elder sibling.

Week 1:
vs Kashima Antlers (h) 3-0

Gamba Osaka

2019: 7th
Kantoku: Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Yasuhito Endo will become the most experienced player in J1 history the next time he takes to the field. He’s currently tied on 631 appearances with legendary Nagoya ‘keeper Seigo Narazaki.

Gamba had a nightmare start to 2019 (as they did the year before), however, owing to a change in strategy – playing with 3 centre-backs, as well a change in philosophy – disbanding the ageing group of heroes from the treble winning 2014 squad and supplementing the new young guns with returning heroes like Ideguchi and Usami, Gamba were able to haul themselves up to an ultimately respectable 7th place. This year started with a 1-0 home reverse to Kashiwa Reysol in the League Cup which was eerily similar to some games from early on in the past 2 campaigns. They were able to make it count when it really mattered this time though, and produced the performance of round 1 of J1 2020, turning over defending champions Yokohama F.Marinos 2-1 at Nissan Stadium, Kurata and Yajima helping themselves to a goal and an assist each.

Squad Update:
Vegalta Sendai backup ‘keeper Lee Yunoh was brought in on loan at the beginning of March to take the place of another loanee, Haruki Saruta (Kashiwa), in the U-23 squad after Saruta suffered a knee injury in training. Meiji University centre-back Yota Sato signed a pre-contract for 2021 and has been registered as a designated special player this year. Additionally, Japanese international centre-back, Gen Shoji, joined on a bumper deal from French side Toulouse last winter, however, due to injury he was unable to play in the 2 games prior to the shutdown. Gamba fans will look forward to seeing him work in tandem with Genta Miura and Kim Young-gwon at the back.

Week 1:
vs Yokohama F.Marinos (a) 2-1

Vissel Kobe

2019: 8th
Kantoku: Thorsten Fink (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Kobe’s games last season produced a total of 120 goals (3.6 per game), a league high.

The Rakuten money finally seemed to pay off for Kobe as they lifted their first ever piece of silverware, the Emperor’s Cup, after a 2-0 win over Kashima at the new National Stadium in Tokyo on New Year’s Day. Like buses, their second trophy came soon after as they saw off J1 Champions Yokohama F.Marinos in the Super Cup in February.
A team which scored plenty and conceded loads gradually became more disciplined under German coach Thorsten Fink in the second half of last year and a more slimline squad started 2020 well. Their first ever Asian Champions League campaign began with a 5-1 trouncing of Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim and continued with a hugely impressive 1-0 win away to Suwon in Korea. In J1 they had to accept a share of the spoils when they met Yokohama FC in round 1 in a game played under bizarre circumstances with supporters allowed into the stadium, but told not to cheer.

Squad Update:
No ins or outs have been recorded during the league’s enforced absence which gives us a chance to look at their business from last winter. Douglas (14 goals, 5 assists for Shimizu in 2019) may be the signing of the close season and his partnership with Furuhashi guarantees goals. At the back, only Shonan and Shimizu conceded more than Kobe’s 59 last time out and to that end centre-backs, Ryuho Kikuchi (Renofa Yamaguchi) and Tetsushi Yamakawa (Tsukuba University) were brought in, though these signings appear to be more for the long term rather than right now.

Week 1:
vs Yokohama FC (h) 1-1

Oita Trinita

2019: 9th
Kantoku: Tomohiro Katanosaka (5th year)
Quick Stat: Now departed strikers, Noriaki Fujimoto (Kobe) and Ado Onaiwu (YFM) scored over 50% of Oita’s goals last year (18 out of 35)

Head coach Katanosaka has masterminded a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Kyushu side which saw them move up from J3 to J1 in the space of 3 years. Last season they started like a house on fire before inevitably hitting a bit of a slump, but they were still able to finish an excellent 9th with a squad mainly consisting of players from their 2018 J2 promotion campaign as well as sprinkling of veterans from their J3 days.
Oita had a disappointing start to 2020, going down 1-0 away from home in both of their games, at Shonan in the League Cup and Cerezo a week later in the League.

Squad Update:
Their only transfers of note during the lockdown have been the registrations of Fukuoka University midfielder Kenta Inoue and Kanoya Sports College forward Kazuki Fujimoto as designated special players for 2020. Owing to their small budget, Oita have largely had to try and replace departed stars like Ado Onaiwu and Noriaki Fujimoto with players who’ve performed well at lower levels. Retaining attacking-midfielder Kazuki Kozuka and centre-back Tomoki Iwata was a big boost for the club, though how long they can keep hold of them remains to be seen.

Week 1:
vs Cerezo Osaka (a) 0-1

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

2019: 10th
Kantoku: Mihailo Petrovic (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Last year was the first time since 2007 that Mihailo Petrovic has coached a team to a bottom half finish in J1.

Improving on 2018’s incredible 4th place finish was always going to be a tall order for Sapporo, and so it proved last year, however, 10th was still a decent showing from Mihailo Petrovic’s men. Although at times a little suspect at the back, they did have strong performers throughout the side, Akito Fukumori’s deadly set-pieces earned him 8 assists, while Chanathip continued to lay on goals for his attacking partners, Jay, Musashi Suzuki and Anderson Lopes. They would have considered themselves unfortunate to lose out to Kawasaki in the lottery of a penalty shoot-out in the League Cup final last year, and this defeat preceded a rather poor end to 2019 which saw them lose 4 of their last 6 league games.
Consadole started 2020 by coasting past Sagan Tosu, 3-0 away in the League Cup, but then went down 4-2 to Kashiwa Reysol in Chiba on the opening day of J1, these results suggest there’ll be plenty of goalmouth action at both ends this campaign.

Squad Update:
The big transfer news story to emerge out of Sapporo during the league’s break was that international goalkeeper Gu Sung-yun would return to his homeland to play for Daegu FC ahead of a 2-year stint in the Korean military. Consadole have already secured the services of Hosei University’s 2M tall stopper Kojiro Nakano for 2021, and have him on a designated special player contract for this year, but whether it is he, Thai international Kawin Thamsatchanan (a recent loan arrival from Leuven in Belgium) or the experienced Takanori Sugeno that takes over the starting spot is up for debate.

Week 1:
vs Kashiwa Reysol (a) 2-4

Vegalta Sendai

2019: 11th
Kantoku: Takashi Kiyama (new)
Quick Stat: New Kashima Antlers full-back Katsuya Nagato provided assists for 26% of Sendai’s goals in 2019.

Sendai secured their second consecutive 11th place finish in J1 last year, perhaps even more impressive than the previous campaign due to the fact that it was achieved with what, on paper at least, looked like a weaker squad. Still, that didn’t stop head coach Susumu Watanabe from losing his job, with Yamagata manager Takashi Kiyama coming in for his first stab at J1 level. Despite J1’s leading assist maker Katsuya Nagato departing for Kashima, off season recruitment had inspired confidence. However, that feel-good factor was only short-lived when it was announced that both Isaac Cuenca and Alexandre Guedes had gone down with injuries before the campaign had even begun. Sendai were thrashed 5-2 at Urawa in the League Cup before holding Nagoya to a 1-1 draw in the League. The break in fixtures has allowed their attacking talent to return, though the loss for the next 2 months of captain Simao Mate is a huge blow, and an extended period of playing in front of no spectators may undermine their impressive home record.

Squad Update:
Exciting news for Sendai is the return of former attacker Takuma Nishimura on loan from CSKA Moscow. He hit 11 goals in 24 games before his big money move to Russia in the summer of 2018 and Vegalta fans will be looking forward with relish to the partnership he can form with Cuenca, Guedes and Shuhei Akasaki. Elsewhere defenders, Hisashi Appiah Tawiah (Ryutsu Keizai University) and Takumi Mase (Hannan University) have both been brought in on designated special player contracts ahead of turning pro next year.
In terms of departures, defender Masato Tokida who played against Urawa in the League Cup has left for Matsumoto in a loan deal and as previously mentioned, backup goalie Lee Yunoh has joined Gamba U-23 on loan, he spent 2019 farmed out to Fukushima United.

Week 1:
vs Nagoya Grampus (h) 1-1

Shimizu S-Pulse

2019: 12th
Kantoku: Peter Cklamovski (new)
Quick Stat: Shimizu had the worst defensive record in J1 last season with 69 goals conceded in total (2.03 per game). They were also one of only two teams to do the double over champions Yokohama F.Marinos (the other was Cerezo Osaka).

One of the biggest stories of last winter was Shimizu’s appointment of Ange Postecoglou’s assistant at Yokohama F.Marinos, Peter Cklamovski. An avid disciple of Ange’s, it’ll be interesting to see how he shapes this S-Pulse side in his image. The JLeague’s no-relegation rule will definitely help with his experimentation which is bound to encounter teething problems. Shimizu had the leakiest back line in J1 last season conceding 69 times, including an 8-0 home reverse against Sapporo. This year it took them 2 games to concede 8 goals, being hammered 5-1 at Kawasaki in the League Cup then putting up a better showing at home to FC Tokyo in the League before ultimately going down 3-1.

Squad Update:
Nothing to report on the transfer front during the lockdown, although S-Pulse did hire a new coach and recruit a number of new players in the off-season. Additionally, midfielders, Yasufumi Nishimura (Okayama) and Kota Miyamoto (FC Gifu) have returned from loan spells, while wide-man Hideki Ishige made a welcome comeback from serious injury and now appears to be seen as an option at full-back. Despite the additions of Yusuke Goto (Oita), Teerasil (Muangthong United) and Carlinhos (Sion) it’s still hard to see anyone getting close to matching Douglas’ 14 league goals scored last year.

Week 1:
vs FC Tokyo (h) 1-3

Nagoya Grampus

2019: 13th
Kantoku: Massimo Ficcadenti (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Nagoya were second only to Sendai in terms of % of total points picked up at home (65% compared with Sendai’s nearly 76%) in 2019.

One of the biggest spenders in the league, Nagoya have flattered to deceive since returning to J1 in 2018. They have a team full of highly talented individuals who rarely add up to the sum of their parts. Italian Massimo Ficcadenti was a surprise choice to replace the much more attack minded Yahiro Kazama midway through last year, however, he was able to steer a side which had been in freefall into a relatively safe 13th spot in the standings. Grampus started 2020 unbeaten, seeing off Kashima Antlers 1-0 at home in the League Cup before having the better of a 1-1 draw away at Sendai in round 1 of J1.

Squad Update:
Former Japan international front-man Mu Kanazaki joined on loan from cash-strapped Tosu at the end of March and he will take the place of Jo, who returned to Corinthians in Brazil (in a deal that seems to have more to it than meets the eye) having only found the net 6 times last season, compared to 24 in the previous campaign. Kanazaki, however, was recently struck down with Covid-19 and passed the virus on to Australian goalkeeper Mitch Langerak. Both players have since recovered, however, the fallout was that the rest of the squad had to endure a period of training together using Zoom while their J1 rivals were all working on the training ground.
During the break, young full-back Yukinari Sugawara turned his loan move to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar into a permanent one after impressing in his first year in the Netherlands.

Week 1:
vs Vegalta Sendai (a) 1-1

Urawa Reds

2019: 14th
Kantoku: Tsuyoshi Otsuki (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Legendary striker Shinzo Koroki has hit double figures in his last 8 league campaigns.

Despite reaching the final of the Asian Champions League last season, finishing 14th in J1, their worst performance since 2011 was simply unacceptable for a club of this size. Thing surely must get better, a lot better, this year if head-coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki wants to remain in his current role. Their was a surprising lack of transfer activity last winter considering the average age and performance of the squad over the previous 12 months, however, Brazilian attacker, Leonardo who joined from Albirex Niigata could well challenge Kobe’s signing of Douglas as the best coup of the transfer window. The former J3 and J2 top scorer introduced himself to the Saitama Stadium supporters with a double on his debut, a 5-2 win at home to Sendai in the League Cup. The defensive frailties that were briefly on show in that game resurfaced a week later in their League opener, a 3-2 victory over a Shonan Bellmare side who are expected to find things tough this year. It looks like Urawa games will be a pretty exciting watch over the coming months.

Squad Update:
The lack of transfer activity from Reds does seem a little surprising viewed from afar, only Ryutsu Keizai midfielder Atsuki Ito has come in on a designated special player contract. However, they may be banking on some of their younger crop of players to develop more over the coming years. Right-sided defender Daiki Hashioka appears to be the pick of the bunch, though left winger Koya Yuroki could also become a key asset if he’s given more game time. Central-midfielder Hidetoshi Takeda joined the club from the cradle of footballing talent that is Aomori Yamada High School last winter, so we can expect good things from him, while Chuo University winger Tomoaki Okubo has again been registered as a designated special player ahead of turning pro with Reds next year. Youth team ‘keeper Zion Suzuki is on a Type-2 amateur contract which allowed him to appear on the bench against both Sendai and Shonan despite still being in high school (he’s already 189cm tall!)

Week 1:
vs Shonan Bellmare (a) 3-2

Sagan Tosu

2019: 15th
Kantoku: Kim Myung-hwi (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Tosu failed to score in 9 out of their first 10 league games in 2019.

If you’re interested enough in Japanese football to read my blog, I’m going to assume you know something about Tosu’s appalling financial situation, so I don’t want to dwell on it too much. The lack of relegation this year would appear to help them more than any other side given that most #jpred2020 entrants had them going down. A very weak squad on paper were humbled 3-0 at home by Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in the League Cup’s first group-stage match this February before gaining a creditable 0-0 draw away to Kawasaki Frontale on the League’s opening day. Much more of that battling spirit will be required in the coming months and years, I feel.

Squad Update:
Mu Kanazaki’s departure on loan to Nagoya may be the first of quite a few in the near future as the club looks to balance it’s books. In terms of arrivals, Chuo University defender Daisuke Matsumoto is in as a designated special player while Tosu U-18 forwards Reoto Kodama and Ryunosuke Sagara as well as defender Shinya Nakano have come in on Type-2 contracts. One intriguing move just before the league started back in February was the acquisition of right-sided Chinese player Wang Jianan from Guangzhou R&F. The current squad has a very youthful feel to it, with midfielders, Fuchi Honda and Daiki Matsuoka (both 19) as well as former Meiji University full-back Ryoya Morishita (23) expected to be key players.

Week 1:
vs Kawasaki Frontale (a) 0-0

Shonan Bellmare

2019: 16th
Kantoku: Bin Ukishima (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Shonan kept the fewest clean sheets in J1 last year (4).

The Cho Kwi-jae power harassment scandal rocked Shonan to the core last summer, sending them into a tail-spin that they were only able to pull out of thanks to a 1-1 draw at home to Tokushima in the play-offs (again the rights and wrongs of that system have been discussed in depth elsewhere so I’ll not go any further into it.) Bin Ukishima, the man who replaced the long serving Cho has been tasked with rebuilding the side and he’s brought in 12 new faces along with 2 players who’ve returned to Bellmare from loan spells. This sort of annual upheaval is not uncommon in these parts and Shonan are likely to be another side who are assisted by the league’s no-relegation rule. Bellmare started 2020 by edging out Oita 1-0 at home in the League Cup, before losing their J1 opener 3-2 to Urawa at the same venue with new Norwegian signing Tarik missing a penalty.

Squad Update:
After a busy winter, Shonan’s lockdown work has been largely focused on the future, 5 youth team players have been registered on Type-2 Contracts, including midfielder Satoshi Tanaka who’ll turn pro next year. Additionally, 20 year-old forward Ryo Nemoto of Kanoya Sports College in Kagoshima and Sho Hiramatsu from Rissho University have joined as a designated special players. The club also announced the capture of midfielder Taiyo Hiraoka from Riseisha High School for 2021, though he hasn’t yet been registered for this campaign. Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, there has still been no announcement from the club regarding the futures of 2 Brazilians, Crislan and Leleu, who were on the books last year, I assume neither will be back, but usually JLeague teams are good at keeping the fans informed about this sort of thing.

Week 1:
vs Urawa Reds (h) 2-3

Kashiwa Reysol

2019: 1st (J2)
Kantoku: Nelsinho (2nd year – current spell)
Quick Stat: The last time Kashiwa won J2, they went on to lift the J1 title the following year (2011). Current head coch Nelsinho was also in charge back then.

Under legendary manager Nelsinho, Kashiwa are back in the top flight following a one-year sojourn in J2. After a few bumps and bruises in the early rounds, Reysol’s class eventually told and they were worthy champions, their season of course ending with that memorable 13-1 rout of Kyoto Sanga. They’ve kept most of last year’s championship winning side intact and added a cast of 2019 J2 all stars, how will they do in J1 this year?
They got 2020 off to the best possible start with a 1-0 win away to Gamba in the rain in February’s League Cup clash, goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, left-back Taiyo Koga and inevitably the well-known attacking duo of Cristiano and Olunga were all in fine form. That victory was then backed up by a 4-2 triumph in a thrilling match at home to Sapporo in round 1 of J1 with both Esaka and Olunga notching doubles. They have more than enough attacking talent, but for me centre-back and centre-midfield are areas for concern. They’ll certainly be interesting to watch this year.

Squad Update:
Kashiwa’s only lockdown work has been to move youth product Keita Ide to Tochigi SC in what appears to be a full transfer, I say appears as he was only promoted to the top team last winter. There have been no ins during the break, though Reysol did recruit quite heavily in the off-season and have no doubt taken this opportunity to try and bring their ex-J2 players up to speed. I’m particularly excited by versatile 23 year-old midfielder Yuta Kamiya who spent 2019 with Ehime, on-loan from Shonan. Right-back Kengo Kitazume who joined from Yokohama FC looks a solid addition too, and I can see him taking over from Shunki Takahashi before much longer. Two other interesting coups were Hiroto Goya (Nagasaki – on loan from Gamba), who netted 22 goals in 36 J2 games last year and former youth team product Hayato Nakama (Okayama) who struck an impressive 15 times in 40 J2 matches from left midfield in 2019. These 2 undoubtedly possess the ability, but can they unseat one of the top dogs such as, Olunga, Cristiano, Esaka or Segawa, to nail down a starting berth?

Week 1:
vs Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo (h) 4-2

Yokohama FC

2019: 2nd (J2)
Kantoku: Takahiro Shimotaira (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Kazuyoshi Miura made his JLeague debut on 15 May 1993, over 8 years before team-mate Koki Saito was born.

Hear the name Yokohama FC and you probably instantly think of their famous veterans, Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura and Shunsuke Nakamura, then probably to a lesser extent, guys like Leandro Domingues, Ibba Laajab, Daisuke Matsui and Masahiko Inoha. However, bubbling under the surface are some of the hottest young talents in Japanese football, attacking trio, Koki Saito (18), Katsuhiro Nakayama (23) and Yusuke Matsuo (22) combined for 18 goals and 11 assists last season to help Yokohama FC achieve only the second season of top flight football in their history. Things will be tough for sure for this squad of ageing stars and up-and-comers, they started things off with a tame 2-0 loss at home to a wily Sanfrecce side in the League Cup, before holding Kobe to a respectable 1-1 draw in the League opener in Hyogo. Tatsuki Seko, another young gun who was recruited in the off-season from Meiji University netted Yokohama’s goal on his senior debut, he’s also one to look out for this year.

Squad Update:
A couple of pieces of transfer news to report from Yokohama during the lockdown, Hosei University defender Yuya Takagi was registered as a designated special player, he’ll turn pro when he’s finished with his studies next year. Full-back Yuta Fujii also made a permanent move to J2 outfit Avispa Fukuoka, he made a mere 5 appearances for Yokohama FC in 2019. Finally, a quick shout out to a name I didn’t mention above, left-back Takaaki Shichi (5 goals and 4 assists in 39 games for Mito HollyHock last year), his signing may have largely flown under the radar, but in my books it looks like a very shrewd move.

Week 1:
vs Vissel Kobe (a) 1-1