An Ode to Sagan Tosu

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

Hi Everyone,

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

First Match Recap

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

Sagan Tosu

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

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


Sagan Tosu vs Gamba Osaka 29 May 2022 Match Preview

Sagan Tosu vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 16
Sunday 29 May 2022
Ekimae Real Estate Stadium
Kick Off: 17:00 (JST)

Sunday brings us the final round of J1 action before a 3 week hiatus owing to the June international fixtures and following the epic bunch of matches witnessed on Wednesday night I’m sure there will be many mourning this break just as the league gets into top gear with battles raging at either end of the table. If I’m honest, after cranking out 16 of these match previews in just over 3 months, I’m looking forward to the rest and indeed Gamba themselves were afforded an unexpected midweek off following a Covid cluster in the Hiroshima camp which precipitated their bout being postponed at the last minute. Upcoming opponents Sagan Tosu, meanwhile, grabbed the headlines due to their epic 4-4 draw at title-chasing Kashima Antlers where a ding-dong battle culminated in 3 goals being scored in second-half additional time. Tosu raced out to a shock 3-0 lead inside the opening 50 minutes before finding themselves behind in the wake of Itsuki Someno’s 94th minute header. Perhaps as a sign of their unity and fighting spirit, they subsequently flew upfield and equalised through centre-back Masaya Tashiro’s low header with essentially the last play of the game. Sagan possessed J1’s meanest defence until they conceded 8 goals in their last 3 outings, can a relatively fresh Nerazzurri deliver a more dynamic display of attacking football than they did in the Osaka Derby to put the Kyushu side’s backline to the sword once more? All will be revealed from 5pm on Sunday, Japanese Time.

Tale of the Tape

The late cancellation of Gamba’s previous fixture at home to in-form Hiroshima leaves me without a whole lot to write about in here, so with the mini-break almost upon us I thought I might attempt a short review of what’s gone right and wrong for the Nerazzurri and new kantoku Tomohiro Katanosaka thus far. If we look at mitigating factors in his favour, we can say Covid outbreaks, injuries to key attacking stalwarts such as Usami and Kurata, plus the mess he took over due to the club being in a rudderless state having been under caretaker management for much of 2021. There is a solid base for him to work from with Higashiguchi or Ichimori in goal, an internationally decorated back 3 of Genta Miura, Gen Shoji and Kwon Kyung-won plus two midfield dynamos in the shape of Dawhan and Mitsuki Saito. Further forward, despite scoring at a far better clip than last season, xG has actually decreased, though only at a rate that indicates we’d expect to see the Ao to Kuro net 3-4 fewer goals across a whole season. For a Katanosaka system, experienced attackers Patric and Leandro Pereira will always be square pegs in round holes (I think that’s the first time I’ve whipped out one of my favourite clichés this year!) so viewed from that context it’s going to be interesting to see what Gamba do in the summer transfer window. Readers of my Osaka Derby preview will have gotten a reminder of my rather scathing opinion of the blue and black’s transfer work in recent years, so it goes without saying that I’ll be keeping a keen eye on who they bring in (Shuto Machino? Toshiki Takahashi?), and how well they fit into Katanosaka’s system. With no Levain Cup fixtures to play, the Nerazzurri’s schedule is pretty light going forward, game time for the likes of Yamami, Nakamura, Sakamoto and Minamino in attack early on this year has been a positive and hopefully that continues, but the big-name, high-earners haven’t done enough and their incompatibility with the present coach’s style of play is emblematic of the problems which have plagued the club in recent years as it has meandered from one mid-table finish to another. Stats-wise, from June onwards I want to see Katano-soccer take shape in the form of better ball retention, especially in opposition territory, scoring more frequently inside the opening 45 minutes and playing a brand of football that sees chances created on a regular basis without that necessarily leading to wide open spaces for the opposition to exploit at the other end. I know, I know, that’s quite a lengthy shopping list for 20 games, but as I said pre-season, this year is a free hit for Katanosaka in many ways and progress towards those lofty goals is all I’m looking for.

Following the disappointment of last weekend’s Osaka Derby defeat at Cerezo I consoled myself with the fact that the Nerazzurri’s 2 upcoming fixtures with Hiroshima and Tosu gave me the chance to take a deep dive on a pair of the league’s success stories. Following a strong 7th place showing in 2021, which led to first-team regulars Daichi Hayashi and Daiki Matsuoka (summer) plus, Eduardo, Yuta Higuchi, Tomoya Koyamatsu, Ayumu Ohata, Noriyoshi Sakai, Keiya Sento and Keita Yamashita (winter) all being poached by other clubs, not to mention long-seving kantoku Kim Myung-hwi being dismissed in the wake of a power-harassment scandal, little was expected of Tosu this year. New coach Kenta Kawai comes from a rather unheralded background having taken charge of Ehime FC from 2018-2020 and most recently served as Peter Cklamovski’s assistant at Montedio Yamagata, but he has made the many naysayers eat their words with his current charges sitting in 8th (just 3 points off 4th) as we approach the mid-way point of the campaign. It’s clear from the rather lengthy list of departures above that Sagan can’t compete financially with the big market clubs in J1, let alone those in Europe, but what they can do is out-work them, and this has been the bedrock of their success in recent years. Tosu have been a staple in J1 since earning promotion in 2011, however, after a bright start to life in the top flight, the seasons between 2018-2020 saw them circling the drop-zone looking like it was just a matter of time before they returned to the second tier. Under Kim last term they ranked 1st in distance covered with their 123.4 km per game being a full 3.1 km more than nearest challengers Yokohama F. Marinos (and 9.7 km more than Gamba). As we can see in the second table below, Kawai has remarkably been able to cajole an extra 400 m extra out of his troops every match while adding a whopping 54.8 extra sprints every time the team take to the field. Things may have waned a touch in other metrics, which is understandable due to the huge playing staff losses sustained across the last 12 months, but it is clear that Gamba, fresh from a midweek off, will have to match and deal with the intensity shown by Tosu this Sunday if they are to stand any chance of extending their recent winning record at the Ekimae Stadium.

Head to Head

Sagan Tosu were one of only two teams Gamba did the double over in 2021, the other being Katanosaka’s Oita Trinita. The first meeting between the sides at the Ekimae Stadium saw the Nerazzurri bag their first win and first goal of the campaign at the fifth time of asking. Takashi Usami’s angled shot from the edge of the area beat Park Il-gyu to spark wild celebrations among players and fans alike. Usami was again the difference maker in the return clash in late October, finishing off a swift counter which started from a poor Tosu corner and culminated in Yuki Yamamoto playing a lovely dinked cross-field ball into the path of Gamba’s #39 who swept across Park for what turned out to be the winner. The Nerazzurri would back up that 1-0 success with away victories at Yokohama F. Marinos and Oita Trinita in their next two fixtures to secure their status as a top flight club for the 2022 season.

Gamba Osaka

Crowd trouble – Hopefully this is the last time I have to write about this, but Gamba announced on Tuesday (24 May) that two individuals identified as having thrown items in the direction of the players in the wake of last Saturday’s Osaka Derby defeat as well as the supporters group they belong to have been indefinitely banned from attending games. I fully support this swift and strong action as the behaviour of the minority has recently served to tarnish the reputation of the club as a whole. I know that a lot of my readership hail from outside Japan and it’s worth remembering that crowd trouble in Japan and crowd trouble in Europe or elsewhere are often 2 very different kettles of fish, which is absolutely not meant to serve as some sort of justification for the rowdy misdemeanours of certain misguided Gamba supporters groups. With the Shoji and Pereira on-field bust-up and the crowd unrest, Gamba served as an easy and deserving target for those with an axe to grind last weekend. If you want to have a go at dressing room disunity, lacklustre performances and poor supporter conduct, I agree with you fully, but criticising how long it took the club to take action (announcements of bans were made within 72 hours of the incident taking place) and suggesting Gamba won’t increase security at home games (which they stated they will do) with no evidence to back this up (as a point of note, on my recent visit to the National Stadium to watch FC Tokyo vs Gamba, no-one checked my bag upon entry, a practice that is always carried out at Panasonic Stadium) are the types of comments that should be generally ignored (although that could probably be said about lots of comments on Twitter lol). Anyway, I’m boring myself going on about this topic, so let’s move on to talk about 2 lesser known members of the Gamba squad.

Player Profile 1: Yota Sato – A highly-rated centre back who joined the club from Meiji University ahead of the 2021 season. It was always going to be hard for him to achieve much game time during his rookie campaign with Genta Miura, Gen Shoji and Kim Young-gwon locked in as starters and it’s fair to say he endured a rough ride on the occasions when he did play, facing off against Kaoru Mitoma while filling in out-of-position at right-back and receiving a straight red-card in the loss at bottom club Yokohama FC. Under Katanosaka he’s only really featured in the Levain Cup and has shown signs of improvement, he looks competent on the ball and his positioning, which still requires work, is steadily moving towards where it needs to be. A summer loan move to a decent J2 outfit such as Nagasaki or Kofu is just what the doctor ordered, I reckon.

Player Profile 2: Shin Won-ho – Signed straight out of Boin High School in South Korea, Shin is another player who’s endured a bit of a rocky ride since coming to the club in 2020. Injuries have severely curtailed his playing time, as has the abundance of decent left-backs / left wing-backs in the Gamba squad. Most recently he started on the left-side of the front 3 in the dead rubber Levain Cup tie with Kashima Antlers which may offer him a pathway into the starting lineup in the future. Despite the trickery and Cristiano Ronaldo stepovers, I feel regular J1 football is still some way off, so a loan switch to a J3 side for the second half of 2022 is the most logical step for his development.

* And finally…it was confirmed today (26 May) that Gamba will face off against Paris Saint-Germain as part of the French club’s 3 match tour of Japan which also includes games against Kawasaki and Urawa. The glamour fixture will be held on Monday 25 July at 19:00 (JST) and while tickets certainly don’t look cheap, I’m going to enter the lottery for one, so wish me luck!

Team News

The following players’ participation on Sunday is in some doubt.

GK Masaaki Higashiguchi – Back in training, expected to return in June
DF Shota Fukuoka – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play
DF Ryu Takao – Out of the squad since April 17, presumed injured
MF Yuya Fukuda – Had shoulder surgery on May 23, expected back mid-summer
MF Ju Se-jong – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play (likely to head back to South Korea this summer so may have played his last game for the club)
MF – Shu Kurata – Calf injury – expected back in June
MF – Jiro Nakamura – Japan U-19 commitments
MF – Kosuke Onose – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play
MF Mitsuki Saito – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play
MF Yuki Yamamoto – Injured leg April 17, no official confirmation from the club
FW Patric – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic should be able to play

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Sagan Tosu

Shimizu rather comically made the mistake of announcing they’d signed Ulsan Hyudai instead of Oh Se-hun from Ulsan Hyundai earlier in the season which put the thought into my head, I wish Gamba could just sign the whole of Sagan Tosu as an entity. They did make efforts to bring in both Eduardo and Yuta Higuchi last winter, but were rebuffed on both occasions in favour of moves to Yokohama F. Marinos and Kashima Antlers respectively. And, the mention of that duo, a pair of the biggest names in Japanese football, leads me to my question, how do Sagan Tosu, a team that it many ways fit the profile of say, a Shonan Bellmare, manage to consistently duel it out in the upper echelons of the top flight? I don’t really have a definitive answer, but I will fall back on my comments on the J-Talk Podcast a couple of months ago when I compared them to pre-title winning Leicester City in England, who brought in then unknown, high-potential talents that bigger clubs wouldn’t touch such as Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante. Granted, Tosu don’t have anyone in the same category as that trio quality-wise, but Akito Fukuta (Niigata) and Yuki Horigome (Yamagata, on loan from JEF United Chiba) are examples of players who were going nowhere in J2 until Tosu picked them up and gave them a new lease of life. Not all their new signings have bedded in quite as smoothly however, and despite a goal against Kashima on Wednesday, Taisei Miyashiro hasn’t featured as much as he’d like, neither has fellow loanee Yuki Kakita. University recruitment is high on Sagan’s agenda with 6 players making the leap from varsity football last winter, forwards Taichi Kikuchi (Ryutsu Keizai University) and Shunta Araki (Komazawa University) have appeared the most thus far, though I think it’s best to judge them more in a year or so’s time once they’ve gained more experience at this level. Kawai has tweaked the 3-5-2 system operated by predecessor Kim into a 3-4-2-1 for most games this season, though significantly he went for more of a 3-5-1-1 against Antlers on Wednesday, potentially to combat the insane threat the Stags possess in attack and it’ll be interesting to see which formation he adopts at home to Gamba. With such intensity demanded each game, it’s highly possible significant changes will be made. One thing that will remain constant, however, is the importance of wing-backs to their system. On the right, Nanasei Iino has been a revelation since moving west from Gunma last year and he looks like he could go further in the game. Down the left flank is a real feel-good story in the shape of 23 year-old Yuto Iwasaki, a once highly-touted forward who has found scoring in the pros much more challenging than at age-group level. In 2022 he has been outstanding as a wing-back and sometime shadow forward for Kawai’s troops. It’s acquisitions like Iwasaki, Fukuta and Horigome that make Tosu perhaps the J.League team best placed to be compared to Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ Oakland A’s in my humble opinion.

Team News

The following players’ participation on Sunday is in some doubt.

DF Shinya Nakano – Japan U-19 commitments
MF Taichi Fukui – Japan U-19 commitments
MF Fuchi Honda – Out of squad since 14 May, no reason given

* FW Yuki Kakita is available again after missing the match versus parent club Kashima on Wednesday as per the terms of his loan agreement
**DF Masaya Tashiro and MF Kei Koizumi are one yellow card away from an automatic suspension

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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