Gamba appoint Daniel Poyatos as new boss…plus general news roundup

Gamba announced on the afternoon of 23 November that Tokushima Vortis kantoku Daniel Poyatos would be taking over as Nerazzurri boss for the 2023 season in tandem with his assistant Marcel Sans. The Spaniard becomes only the third foreigner to hold the reigns in Suita in the past 2 decades and moves north-east from Shikoku following a mixed 2 year spell with Vortis. As this is something of a left-field appointment, I thought the best way to tackle it would be to, first lay out why Gamba have gone for this type of coach, before secondly assessing the pros and cons of Poyatos himself.

Why this type of coach?

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I largely put the failure of the Katanosaka era down to, in no particular order, differences of opinion between players and management regarding game strategy, injuries, Covid (plus the decision to carry out the 2022 pre-season training camp in Okinawa), mediocre recruitment, and rank bad luck with VAR. Although, admittedly, things were far more nuanced than boiling it down to just those factors suggests, they do provide a potted guide to the main issues. Hiroshi Matsuda came on-board as a firefighter in August and led the Nerazzurri to 4 wins and 15 points from his 10 games in charge which was good enough to haul the Ao to Kuro outside the drop-zone by a solitary point in the final shake-up. Seven clean sheets and just one goal conceded from open play in the last 6 fixtures of the year illustrate the no-nonsense, backs to the wall, defensive 442 system operated by the veteran coach. It sure as hell wasn’t pretty, but it was effective, meaning for Matsuda, he accomplished the mission he was tasked with, and thus can now happily ride off into the sunset. Though, search no further than Kenta Hasegawa and his Nagoya side, who earned few plaudits on the way to finishing 8th playing a dull, uninspiring brand of football, to see how this game-plan would be received at Panasonic Stadium over the course of a whole season. By way of contrast, let’s look at Shonan as an example, and in doing so I’m in no way trying to have a dig at them. After finishing 12th in the 2022 standings with their low block, counter attacking system that restricts opportunities for both themselves and opposition, there is absolutely no pressure on Satoshi Yamaguchi to change his modus operandi for next season as the Seasiders will be cock-a-hoop with a best J1 finish this side of the millennium. Gamba, on the other hand, with one of the biggest support bases in Japan and 11 top 4 finishes in the last 20 years, know that on the back of 13th and 15th place showings in the past 2 campaigns, results and performances need to improve, and they need to improve markedly. Promising youngsters such as Hiroto Yamami, Jiro Nakamura and Isa Sakamoto sitting in the stand throughout the Matsuda era was tolerated on the basis that it was a short-term fix designed to keep Gamba in J1 before a full rebuilding job could be undertaken in the winter. A coach comfortable with promoting youngsters into a team that play an attractive brand of winning football is what the Nerazzurri supporters and front-office crave, which leads me to the second part of my analysis.

Why Daniel Poyatos?

A very good question as I’ll be honest even before his appointment by Gamba, I’d long considered how I should evaluate him as a coach. He was apparently hand-picked by Ricardo Rodríguez to be his successor at Tokushima Vortis ahead of only their second ever season in Japan’s top flight in 2021. However, Covid-related visa issues delayed his arrival into Japan. It didn’t really seem to affect his side though as they started the year in decent fashion, picking up 14 points from their opening 10 outings. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last as a defensive hiccup or three, injuries, and limited resources saw them wind-up in a relegation scrap. A 4-2 home defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on the final day sealed their fate, though if I was to be fair to Poyatos and Vortis, realistically, going into round 38 with a genuine shot at staying up was probably a reasonable achievement on their part. Being the only of the four relegated sides to come anywhere close to surviving in the top flight, Tokushima were raided to a far greater extend than Oita, Sendai and Yokohama FC, and they saw; Naoto Kamifukumoto (Kyoto), Takeru Kishimoto (Shimizu), Shota Fukuoka (Gamba), Joel Chima Fujita (Marinos), Ken Iwao (Urawa), Tokuma Suzuki (Cerezo), Yuki Kakita and Taisei Miyashiro (both Tosu) all leave. Poyatos was left with an epic rebuilding job on his hands, and it was a task which wasn’t helped one iota by their involvement in the Levain Cup group stage. They drew ire from many observers for the record number of draws they accrued en-route to their ultimate 8th place finish in J2, and the inability to kill opponents off is definitely a stick with which to beat Poyatos. In his defence, and like with Shonan, I mean no offence to Tokushima here, despite Gamba finishing a poor 15th in J1 last term, the resources they have on and off the field simply dwarf those on the table in Naruto. For my money, Spanish ‘keeper José Aurelio Suárez and centre-forward Shota Fujio are the only Vortis players a J1 outfit, with top half ambitions, should be targeting. Goalkeeper is literally the last position where the Nerazzurri require an upgrade, while Fujio is on loan from Cerezo, so I don’t see either of them following their coaches to Gamba. A job, like the one on offer at Panasonic Stadium, was clearly a major motivating factor in Poyatos moving to Japan in the first place and while it’s true his Tokushima sides haven’t exactly lit the world on fire in an attacking sense, either in 2021’s 4-2-3-1 system or this year’s possession heavy 4-3-3 set-up, he’s never been able to field a lineup with the likes of Yuki Yamamoto, Takashi Usami and Juan Alano in it, so perhaps we should give him the time he deserves to prove himself with greater resources at his disposal in Suita (look at the uptick in his compatriot Albert Puig’s results after moving from Niigata to FC Tokyo). His 10+ years of youth team work with Espanyol and Real Madrid is not to be scoffed at and if (and it’s a big IF) the Gamba front office arm him with the weapons he needs, ball playing defenders (look at Shoji and Miura’s performances under Katanosaka versus those under Matsuda, are they really who you want in a Poyatos system?), midfielders capable of moving up and down the pitch in unison, plus a forward who’ll knock in double digit goal tallies on a yearly basis, then it could be the start of something special at Panasonic Stadium. Of course, that’s all very rose tinted, and if I’m brutally honest, I see this appointment going one of two ways, a roaring success with Poyatos a candidate for coach of the year next term, or for a 3rd time in the last 3 years, the Nerazzurri will be looking for an Allardyce-esque firefighter to come in and save the day mid-season. Which way will it turn out? We’ll get our answer in due course.

News Roundup

Since the conclusion of the 2022 J1 season, Gamba have announced the departures of 6 first-team players, with some names more surprising than others. They are; Taichi Kato, Kosuke Onose, Ren Shibamoto, Wellington Silva, Patric and Leandro Pereira. Additionally head coach Yoshitaka Yasuda, Tomohiro Katanosaka’s right-hand man who he brought along with him from Oita, has also left the club.

I’ve prepared a few short sentences on each of the players who’ve left below.

GK Taichi Kato – Brought in on loan from Ehime FC in March 2021 to cover an injury crisis and subsequently turned that deal into a permanent one last winter. Played once in J1 in addition to two appearances in both the Levain and Emperor’s Cups this season. Was only ever going to be backup at this level and hopefully he sees more game time wherever he ends up, in J2 or in J3.

MF Kosuke Onose – Possibly the biggest shock out of all the departures. The versatile Onose spent 4 ½ years in Suita and after starting off with a bang in his first eighteen months, his performance levels steadily dropped after that. A bright opening to 2022 was curtailed by concussion, Covid and appendicitis issues, so it’s a real shame for such a loyal servant and, judging by the reactions of his team-mates to this news, a genuine good guy, to have his final outing in a blue and black uniform marred by an appalling miss against Júbilo. Dwelling on his outstanding effort away to Urawa in his debut J1 campaign would make for a much more fitting farewell.

MF Ren Shibamoto – Gamba U-23’s record appearance maker with 105 outings between 2017 and 2020, Shibamoto, more recently, endured two difficult years out on loan, firstly at SC Sagamihara in J2 last season and more latterly at J3 surprise packages Fujieda MYFC. He was relegated in 2021 and promoted this term, but in truth, the deep-lying playmaker who I compared with Andrea Pirlo and Yasuhito Endo in the past (we all get it wrong sometimes), failed to make an impact in either Kanagawa or Shizuoka. His slight frame appears to be the main issue holding him back and like Gamba Youth predecessor Mizuki Ichimaru, despite being highly touted in his teens, unfortunately Shibamoto may spend the majority of his 20s in semi-professional football.

MF Wellington Silva – Things just didn’t click for Wellington Silva at Gamba. By the time he’d managed to get into the country in 2021, the man who wanted him, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, had one foot out the door and whenever he seemed to find some form, he’d get injured or produce some stupid shenanigans such as those seen away to Marinos at the end of last season. He didn’t make a start in the league this term and although he netted his first J1 goal at home to Vissel Kobe in Golden Week, he was never able to build on that, leading to an off-season release being the inevitable conclusion to his time with the Nerazzurri.

FW Patric – The hardest departure to stomach for me on a personal level. The big Brazilian and the Nerazzurri go way back. Although always a tad ungainly and not as prolific as he once was, as a member of the 2014 treble-winning side and the club’s top scorer for the past 3 years, as well as being a shining example of a foreign signing really adapting to Japanese life and embracing the culture, I’m sure Patric will be remembered in North Osaka for decades to come. His age (35), and the club’s desire to move away from long ball football are likely the main factors behind his release.

FW Leandro Pereira – I did a bit of a number on him in my preview of the Kashima Antlers game in round 34 and suffice to say I’m not a huge fan. Like Silva above, Pereira was brought in to play in a Miyamoto system that barely saw the light of day due to the club’s Covid outbreak early in 2021 and when the dust settled he only mustered 9 goals in 47 J1 outings across 2 seasons despite reportedly being the Nerazzurri’s highest earner. I saw an Urawa fan on Twitter mocking Gamba for getting rid of the 3 top scorers from last season, Patric (5), Pereira (4) and Onose (3), and while I’m sure this is all hilarious for supporters of rival teams, one good, well thought-out signing is all it takes to replace those 3 contributions in 2023.

The New Arrivals – As previously reported in this blog, youth team forward Harumi Minamino and Shizuoka Gakuen fantasista Ryuta Takahashi have already signed up for next season, while Hosei University left wing-back Ibuki Konno and versatile left-footed Kwansei Gakuin starlet Rin Mito have also committed and will join once they conclude their studies the following year. Haruta Yamaguchi, son of Gamba legend and current Shonan kantoku Satoshi has been training with the first team recently and could be set to become a rare example of a Gamba Youth defender earning his top team stripes. He’s still a high school second grader, so it’s 2024 at the earliest in terms of him turning pro. The transfer silly season has been in full swing on Twitter and Riku Handa, Montedio Yamagata’s prodigiously talented right-back, Shimizu centre-forward Thiago Santana, J1’s top scorer in 2022, and maybe Naohiro Sugiyama of Kumamoto (who you can read about more in my Scouting J2 2022 article), are the only rumoured targets whose potential moves I give any credence to at the moment (also, if you’re going to bash Gamba on Twitter about trying to steal your players, please don’t rely solely on posts from an account with no profile picture and a user name consisting of random letters and numbers). Needless to say, there will be a ton of competition for Handa, Santana and Sugiyama, and Gamba’s performances over the past couple of years don’t really stand them in good stead to be successful in their pursuit of any of that particular trio (perhaps targeting Takeru Kishimoto and Yuki Kakita, players who did well under Poyatos in 2021 may be a better strategy, but who am I to say.)

Harumi Minamino (front) and Haruta Yamaguchi (behind)

And finally…A largely second-string Gamba ended their season with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over touring German side Eintracht Frankfurt at Panasonic Stadium on 19 November (Miura, Alano and Usami were injured, while Kwon Kyung-won, Rihito Yamamoto and Isa Sakamoto were away on international duty). Tuta gave the visitors the lead at the interval, but a Hiroto Yamami penalty, followed by a Yuki Yamamoto thunderbolt (careful Yuki, don’t go alerting those European scouts now) in the last 10 minutes gave the Nerazzurri the win. The match was perhaps more significant for, first of all, the banner displayed by ultras behind the Curva Nord goal which chastised the club’s front office over the side’s poor performances across the past 2 years (a rough translation (with help from my Japanese friend) ‘Front Office, is it only the players who will take responsibility for the poor performances in recent years?’), and secondly, departed players Kosuke Onose and Taichi Kato taking to the field after the match to say goodbye to the supporters one last time. Onose’s lap of honour and message to the fans was particularly moving. Apparently the release took him by surprise and he’s now aiming to join another team in J1 with Shonan appearing to be in pole position at the moment. Good luck in the future Kosuke and Taichi!

Thanks for reading this little bonus article, I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you all again sometime.


Kashima Antlers vs Gamba Osaka 5 November 2022 Match Preview

Kashima Antlers vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 34
Saturday 5 November 2022
Kashima Soccer Stadium
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)

The 2022 J1 season finishes just the way it started for both Kashima and Gamba with a clash against one another. This will be the fifth meeting of the two this calendar year and Antlers currently boast a perfect record of played 4, won 4. The Stags can still mathematically end up 3rd on the ladder after doing Gamba a massive favour in seeing off Shimuzu at the Nihondaira last weekend, their first win in the league since mid-August. The Nerazzurri meanwhile also defeated Shizuoka-based opponents last Saturday, relegating troubled Júbilo Iwata after a 2-0 home victory which came courtesy of second-half strikes from substitutes Ryotaro Meshino and Patric. All in all, the round 33 results went as well as could realistically have been expected from a Gamba perspective, though they are by no means out of the woods yet. Victory at the Kashima Soccer Stadium for the first time since 2016 secures J1 football for 2023, anything less leaves them anxiously looking over their shoulders hoping for Kyoto and S-Pulse to slip up. So, there you have it, the final week of the season promises to be dramatic at both ends of the table, which one of these two traditional heavyweights will have their hand raised in victory at the end of this titanic tussle?

Tale of the Tape

Last Saturday saw the first home win of the Matsuda-era and the first at Panasonic Stadium since another 2-0, against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, way back on 29 June. The interceding run of 7 games saw 3 draws and 4 defeats with the late, late points ceded to Cerezo, Urawa and Kyoto really hurting the Nerazzurri right now. Gamba are W4D2L3 under Matsuda, giving them an average of 1.56 points per game which, if projected over the course of a whole season, would see them currently tied with Saturday’s opponents Kashima and prefectural rivals Cerezo on 51 (I know, I know, it’s only been just under a 1/3 of a season and many opposition teams have been in cruise control, but it’s a stat that deserves to be commended nonetheless). The win over Júbilo was the Ao to Kuro’s 2nd 2-0 victory on the spin and also their 2nd time in a row recording an xG for total of over 1. It’s worth noting that at the other end there’s only been 1 sub xG against figure during the Matsuda-era (at Nagoya) while 3 matches have seen opponents record tallies over 2. Despite this, the Nerazzurri have kept 6 clean sheets in Matsuda’s 9 games in charge and are presently on a run of only conceding 1 goal from open play in their last 5 outings, with that coming in the hugely controversial VAR-inspired shambles at Kobe, so make of that what you will. In Matsuda’s case (and more on this later in the ‘Gamba Osaka’ section), is it better to be a lucky manager than a good one (think about Yasuhito Endo’s miss early in the second half on Saturday if you require further food for thought)?

Takashi Usami’s return has certainly sparked Gamba’s attack in recent weeks in conjunction with Yuki Yamamoto coming back from injury and the inspired acquisition of Juan Alano in the summer. Brazilian volante Dawhan had fallen away after a bright start to his Nerazzurri career, but he has been a colossus in the past 2 games, completing 44 of 55 passes attempted against Júbilo, including 1 last pass, while central-midfield partner Yamamoto made 42 of 58 with 2 last passes that brought him 1 assist (Meshino’s opener). At the other end, ‘guardian deity’ Masaaki Higashiguchi wasn’t nearly as busy as in the previous 2 games, and was actually almost the architect of the Nerazzurri’s downfall with an uncharacteristic first-half error that he redeemed in typical fashion. He made 5 saves in total, including decent blocks from Kenyu Sugimoto and Shota Kaneko late on to preserve Gamba’s 2 goal advantage. As I near the end of this section I just want to dwell on that phrase ‘2 goal advantage.’ Meshino and Patric both struck within the space of 7 second-half minutes to put the Ao to Kuro on easy street and crush Jubilo’s spirit, however, they were unable to double their lead against Urawa, Kyoto and Cerezo and paid a dear, dear price for that. They simply can’t afford to let a side as steely as Kashima off the hook, and they know it. To that end, we’ll likely see a return to the game-plan that worked to a tee against Marinos, a fully fit Patric should be restored to the starting eleven and fellow goal-scorer last Saturday, Ryotaro Meshino, could take the place of Kosuke Onose whose first-half miss versus Iwata has to be seen to be believed while his performance as a whole was underwhelming to say the least. Gamba are yet to win 3 in-a-row in 2022, on the back of 2 vastly different 2-0 triumphs, can they do it when it matters most this Saturday?

Kashima raced out of the blocks this year, picking up 9 wins and 29 points from their opening 13 league fixtures which had myself and many others putting them on a pedestal alongside title challengers Marinos and Frontale. Subsequently their form has taken something of a nose-dive and they’ve tasted victory on just 4 occasions in a little under 6 months since those halcyon early season days. A rather shocking, from their point of view, 12 failures to record an xG for total over 1 in their most recent 20 outings in the wake of Ayase Ueda’s departure for Europe has damaged their ACL aspirations badly, though thanks to others’ inconsistencies over the course of the season, they still enter the final matchday in 5th, trailing 3rd placed Hiroshima by 3 points and Cerezo in 4th by only goal difference. The most telling stat I could dig up about Antlers is that their xG difference per 90 minutes has dropped by a whopping 0.67 since 2021 (from +0.57 to -0.10). They’ve managed to avoid the worst effects that such a collapse could precipitate by out-performing their attacking xG number by 9.05 goals this term, while at the back xG against and actual goals conceded were relatively consistent. Though it seems like they’ve been out of form for ages, and a cursory glance through results and statistical performances show that to indeed have been the case, some decent showings from several of their attackers have helped them keep their heads not just above water, but swimming in the general direction of the ACL spots. Forever controversial, and also highly effective, Yuma Suzuki has marked his return to Japanese football with 7 goals and 9 assists in J1 while under-utilised Brazilian Arthur Caike (who I’d love to see follow Juan Alano on the trail from Ibaraki to Suita) has bagged 9 goals and 3 assists to relieve some of the burden of Ueda’s mid-season departure and Everaldo’s ongoing struggle to recapture his 2020 form. Further back, the one who got away (from a Gamba perspective), Yuta Higuchi sits on 2 goals and a career-high 8 assists for the year, and as if to rub salt into the Nerazzurri’s gaping wounds, provided 4 assists in one game during a Levain Cup group stage tie between Antlers and the Ao to Kuro. Former defensive stalwart Daiki Iwamasa is the current incumbent of the hottest of hot seats at the Kashima Soccer Stadium and though the Stags are generally thought of as a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 side, he has experimented at times this campaign. I fancy him to stick with the 4-3-3 that was successful at S-Pulse last week and allows the holy trinity of Kento Misao, Diego Pituca and Yuta Higuchi to form a formidable midfield trio, something that hasn’t happened nearly enough in 2022 in this writer’s humble opinion.

First Match Recap

All hell broke loose when these two met at a rainy Panasonic Stadium back in round 1. Still reeling from their pre-season Covid outbreak, Gamba’s backline had a makeshift feel to it and Ayase Ueda made them pay in the 20th minute, racing onto a through ball and burying his shot past Nerazzurri 3rd choice ‘keeper Kei Ishikawa. The visitors’ lead lasted a mere 6 minutes before they failed to properly deal with a corner and Kosuke Onose fired in a fine half-volley. However, Antlers were back in front on the half-hour mark with Yuma Suzuki punishing slack Gamba passing in their own defensive third. It would not be Suzuki’s last significant contribution of the afternoon though, as less than 10 minutes later he and Patric clashed while contesting a loose ball and Kashima’s number 40 fell to the ground clutching his face. The referee immediately brandished a red-card and despite replays clearly showing Patric and Suzuki were both worthy of yellow cards, and a red was certainly not warranted in the Brazilian’s case, a technicality in VAR (which needs to be ironed out before the 2023 season kicks off) meant that the Nerazzurri had to play out the rest of the match down to 10 men. Shots rained in from the Stags in the wake of that hugely controversial decision and the woodwork was struck on several occasions while Ishikawa acquitted himself well in trying circumstances and the Ao to Kuro even briefly threatened an equaliser through Usami and Kurata. It was simply not Gamba’s afternoon and lovely Kashima passing and movement led up to Ayase Ueda’s clincher midway through the second half. It appeared back then in February as if Ryotaro Araki was set to continue where he left off in 2021, unfortunately it was not to be for the youngster. On the day, it certainly was to be for his Antlers side though as they ran out 3-1 winners and, social media scrutiny of Suzuki’s shenanigans not withstanding, got their campaign off to the perfect start.

Gamba Osaka

Mood in the camp – It’s certainly lighter than it’s been in recent weeks, but there’s a strong sense that any kind of slip up in what is an extremely tough final day fixture at Kashima could see the house of cards come crashing down. Gamba have transformed from a team that finished top 4 in J1 10 times between 2002 and 2016 to a side that, from 2017 onwards, has spent a considerable amount of time each year being amongst the worst performers in the league (2020 excluded). It’s been said on plenty of occasions about a team like Shonan, or in the past Niigata, Kofu or Omiya, you can only get away with circling the bowl for so long, one of these times you’re going to get swept away with the tide. I’ll be honest, since the 2-0 home loss to Shimizu in August, I’ve been convinced this year was going to end in relegation, I hope to be proven wrong come 4pm on Saturday afternoon.

Managerial matters – As I discussed above, Hiroshi Matsuda has generally achieved the required results in trying circumstances and the table below highlights the 3 key tenets of his reign, namely, a 442 formation, consistent player selection and an increase in yellow cards (that Alano-inspired shithousery I mentioned last week). However, with all of that said, I see him as more of a Sam Allardyce-esque firefighter than the forward-thinking kantoku the club needs to move them out of the bottom third of J1. I certainly wouldn’t like to ditch Matsuda altogether and surely we can find a spot for him either in the front office or in the youth department (Gamba Youth got tanked 9-1 by their Júbilo counterparts last weekend and look set to be relegated from the Prince Takamado Trophy West Division Premier League, so something there is most definitely broken and in need of urgent fixing). Names like Lotina and Ficcadenti have been banded about Gamba supporter circles with Tadahiro Akiba, formerly of Mito, an outside bet. However, throwing those names into the equation, when all is said and done, Matsuda is, in reality, probably the most likely person to be kantoku at the start of next season, be that in J1 or J2.

Leandro Pereira – The Brazilian striker spoke to the media recently about his earliest experiences in Japan and complained of not having a great relationship with Matsumoto kantoku Yasuharu Sorimachi which precipitated his loan move to Sanfrecce midway through the 2019 season. There has also been speculation that he won’t be offered a new deal at Gamba and he appears ready and willing to return to his native Brazil. He won’t be missed. I know you can argue that Gamba probably haven’t delivered on promises made to him on the footballing side, though they’ve certainly come through financially, as he’s believed to be the club’s highest earner, however, I’d make the point that the player himself has to take a long hard look in the mirror. His on-field bust up with Gen Shoji during the Osaka Derby was embarrassing, but it’s likely that Shoji merely stated what the majority of his team-mates and supporters have thought at one time or another. Pereira isn’t a superstar, or frankly anything close, yet from the outside it appears that he’s only willing to put in the effort when it suits him and that’s frankly the kind of prima-donna, blame everyone other than yourself behaviour the Nerazzurri can ill-afford to put up with anymore. In my book he’ll go down as a colossal waste of club resources and a horrible reflection on the archaic scouting system and front office decision making processes that have scarred Gamba over the past few years.

Endo standing ovation – To finish this section on something of a high note, it was extremely moving to see Yasuhito Endo be the last one to leave the Panasonic Stadium field last Saturday after receiving a standing ovation from everyone in the ground. I, for one, (I’m sure @GolazoGamba agrees) would love to have him back as a Gamba player for 2023…don’t let that be the last time we see him play in Suita, please!

Team News

For the first time in my 3+ years of writing these previews, I have nothing to say in here, everyone on 3 yellow cards escaped censure against Iwata and there are no fresh injury concerns. Congratulations to the current coaching staff for seemingly curing Gamba’s long-standing fitness curse.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Kashima Antlers

At present, it appears that Daiki Iwamasa will be the man to lead Kashima into the 2023 season with the club’s chairman saying that the former Japan international defender’s footballing vision is aligned with that of the front office. This is the same chairman who criticised his own front office in his statement announcing the firing of Swiss kantoku René Weiler earlier this year. Reading between the lines, moves such as acquiring central midfielder Yuta Higuchi from Tosu when Misao and Pituca were already on the books and signing centre-back Eduardo instead would have made more logical sense, appeared to have been the trigger for the chairman’s anger. Further to that point, while it’s common for opposition fans to goad Kashima with jibes about them being located in the countryside and their stadium being impossible to reach, it seems that in reality it’s actually not so easy for them to attract top talent to deepest, darkest Ibaraki anymore. Sports Hochi’s Gamba beat reporter Mr. Kanagawa and his Kashima counterpart Mr. Uchida have chatted a couple of times on Twitter and during their talks it was revealed that with Antlers no longer being THE team in Japanese football, it’s becoming harder and harder for them to bring in genuine, proven quality either domestically or from overseas. Although they are the most successful side in the history of the J. League, Kashima boast only one J1 title in the last 12 seasons (soon to be 13) and 2023 will mark their 4th year in succession without ACL football. Is Iwamasa the man to right these wrongs? Personally, I’m sceptical, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Whatever happens this winter, he will definitely have two new promising youngsters on-board to help him navigate the choppy waters that likely lie ahead. Centre-back Keisuke Tsukui from Shohei High School in Saitama and Kashima Youth central midfielder Yoshihiro Shimoda will both make the step up to the professional ranks in 2023. Shimoda is presently with the Japan Under-18 squad on their short tour of Spain, where he is a team-mate of Gamba’s Harumi Minamino, so clearly he has some decent pedigree, and I wrote about Tsukui in my J1 Rookie Review article that you can find here.

Team News

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

DF Koki Anzai – Dislocated his right shoulder away at Shimizu last week and definitely won’t play on Saturday.

FW Shoma Doi – Has sat out the past 2 league games with a groin injury and seems set to miss this encounter as well.

DF Rikuto Hirose and MF Yuta Higuchi are available for selection again having been suspended for the win away to Shimizu last week.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Gamba Osaka vs Júbilo Iwata 29 October 2022 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Júbilo Iwata
2022 J1 Season Round 33
Saturday 29 October 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 15:00 (JST)

Seventeenth hosts eighteenth in the penultimate round of J1 2022 this weekend with both sides knowing that anything other than a win is simply not good enough. A 5th home victory of the year for second-to-last Gamba would likely see them head into the final day outside the automatic drop-zone, however, anything less leaves the Ao to Kuro relying on Shonan, Kyoto, Fukuoka and S-Pulse slipping up. Júbilo’s equation is crystal-clear, lose or draw and they are down. As if the prospect of all that wasn’t tantalising enough, you’ve also got Japanese footballing icon Yasuhito Endo returning to Suita for the first time since his move to Júbilo in mid-2020, to add fuel to the fire. The match itself is unlikely to be pretty and it’s certainly not going to be for the faint of heart, but if it’s drama, passion and sheer nail-biting tension you’re after then Panasonic Stadium Suita is the place to be this Saturday afternoon.

As a brief aside, I recently teamed up with the excellent @The94thMin to put out an article about Gamba’s past, present and future for his “The Club Scene” blog series, you can check it out here if you haven’t already. Last week I also wrote about 15 gifted rookies who’ve appeared in J1 this year while name-dropping some of the most exciting talents that will be joining top-tier professional sides in 2023. Please click on the link here to read that, it’s a long one, but hopefully a good one.

Tale of the Tape

I know it seems like the Marinos vs Gamba game happened months ago, but I took copious amounts of notes, so I guess I should make a brief attempt at summarising them here. Also, having now won 3 times in-a-row at Nissan Stadium, if I were running Gamba I’d be seriously considering contacting Marinos regarding a stadium share from next season, either that or Saitama Stadium, another venue where the blue and blacks get all the breaks. The Nerazzurri, to their credit, worked incredibly hard throughout their visit to Kanagawa and put up some good numbers against Marinos, outrunning their hosts by ½ a kilometre, as well as, rather surprisingly, outsprinting them by 26. As is often the case, people tend to want to overlook Marinos’ defensive flaws in favour of their tremendous attacking prowess. However, after giving away slack goals to Gamba in the opening 10 minutes of both fixtures this year plus maxing out their luck at Panasonic Stadium over the past few seasons, they’re getting little sympathy from me for taking nothing from this tussle. 702 completed passes without a goal to show for it (they followed that up with 683 in their home defeat to Júbilo a few days later) highlights how much side-to-side, non-threatening passing took place and despite outshooting their visitors by a ratio of 3:1, it was the Nerazzurri who had the higher xG per shot, and things could have gotten better for them had Rihito Yamamoto taken his golden opportunity to make it 3-0 late on, though even I would have to admit that such a scoreline would have severely flattered the men from north Osaka. With such a backs-to-the-wall display following Juan Alano’s early opener (it didn’t pass Gamba fans by that Eduardo, who turned down a move to Suita last winter, was guilty of playing everyone onside for both goals), there were naturally numerous defensive heroes. Inevitably ‘guardian deity’ (haven’t whipped that one out for a while) Masaaki Higashiguchi was chief among them with 8 saves to follow on from an equally impressive display at home to Kashiwa a week prior. The midfield four did an immense job of keeping their shape when Marinos were in possession, between them they won 4 out of 4 tackles attempted, made 22 clearances and 12 blocks as well as recovering possession on 21 occasions. Juan Alano, an absolute stud since his summer move from Antlers, made 8 blocks and 8 possession recoveries while compatriot Dawhan, recalled to the starting eleven in place of the suspended Mitsuki Saito was responsible for 13 clearances, 2 blocks and 3 possession recoveries as well as winning the 1 tackle he attempted. All of this allowed centre-backs Miura and Shoji to sit in the pocket and sweep up the loose ends, with that duo making a combined total of 19 clearances and 5 blocks between them. The triumvirate of Higashiguchi, Miura and Shoji looks to be much rejuvenated since Hiroshi Matsuda took charge and made focusing on defensive stability more of a priority than his predecessors did. Matsuda has been caretaker boss for 8 rounds and in that time Gamba have picked up 1.38 points per game, averaging one goal per match and conceding at a clip of 1.25 goals per 90 minutes which contrasts with the 0.88 points, 0.96 goals for and 1.46 goals against seen during Tomohiro Katanosaka’s 24 game reign. All in all, the Ao to Kuro’s 50.21xG against is the worst defensive total in J1 and their 32.62xG for is the second poorest attacking record, a mere 0.07 better than Shonan. To sum up, Matsuda has slowly but surely got things moving in the right direction, it’s also worth remembering for everyone claiming Marinos dominated and should have beaten Gamba comfortably that the Nerazzurri have the players to complete more passes and take more shots on goal than they did, but instead they opted to sit back and soak up pressure after getting the opening goal they so desperately craved. Marinos, on the other hand, could be more solid defensively, however, they generally tend to go for the jugular, focusing on themselves and not taking into account opposition tactics (publicly at least) which leaves them vulnerable to ambush from time to time, I guess you might say it’s the yin and the yang of football. Why am I talking about all of this? Well, Júbilo are clearly a completely different kettle of fish to Marinos and thus Matsuda will need to come up with an entirely new battle-plan for Saturday. He’s had plenty of time to do just that, now can his troops exorcise the ghosts of the past few years of harrowing home defeats and take a giant step towards avoiding automatic relegation to J2?

Before I get my teeth into some Júbilo stats, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way shall we? The club have been handed a transfer ban from FIFA which covers this winter and next summer’s windows. The ruling came as a result of alleged wrongdoing by Júbilo and their Colombian forward Fabián González in breaking his contract with a Thai side prior to moving to Japan last year. Iwata already have the oldest squad in J1, so being unable to bring in fresh talent from outside will surely hit them hard (I’ll look into this more in the ‘Júbilo Iwata’ section below). With that gut-punch dealt with, let’s get cracking with some stats, and spoiler alert, things aren’t about to get any rosier from a Júbilo perspective. Current kantoku Hiroki Shibuya stepped up from the role of head coach after previous incumbent Akira Ito was fired in the wake of a 6-0 home mauling at the hands of Urawa in mid-August. Maintaining the 3-4-2-1 shape used by several of his predecessors, Shibuya has overseen a run of 1 win, 2 losses and 4 draws in his 7 games in charge, which, while not terrible, certainly hasn’t been anywhere near enough to stop the rot and the Saxon Blues remain rooted to the foot of the J1 standings, a position they’ve occupied since their coaching change. While results have been nothing to write home about in general, away form has been particularly poor. Their recent shock win at table topping Yokohama F. Marinos was their first outside of Shizuoka since early March when they routed 10-man Kyoto 4-1. Young Yosuke Furukawa was the spark for improved outcomes away to Marinos and in last weekend’s derby at Shimizu, contributing a goal and an assist across the two games, as well as squandering a golden opportunity to grab a priceless winner at S-Pulse. With that said, it’s worth noting that Iwata netted only 3 times on the road in 11 fixtures during the 6 months encompassing April to September. On average Júbilo concede one more than they score every time they take to an opponent’s field of play, and this number has not been helped one iota by their large underperformance relative to their xG for tally. The Saxon Blues have scored 5.64 times less than expected based on the quality of chances they’ve created, while defensively actual goals conceded and xG against are relatively equal. Overall, Júbilo’s 55 goals given up is the worst in J1, 4 more than Sapporo, their nearest rivals in that category and that tally is 7.32 higher than their xG against figure for all 32 games played to date. Going forward, replacing the prolific Lukian with Kenyu Sugimoto, who only bagged his first league goal of the season, a penalty, a couple of weeks ago against Kashima, has been hugely costly and the fact that wing-back Yuto Suzuki is still their top scorer with 6, despite netting just once since mid-April, tells it’s own story. To sum up then, this is unequivocally Júbilo’s last chance, so from that perspective they’ve got nothing to lose and should throw the kitchen sink at Gamba. Alternatively, mindful of their hosts’ equal need for a positive outcome and also their pretty dreadful recent run of results at home, particularly against sides that sit off them, would it be more prudent for Shibuya to set-up his charges to play on the counter and sucker punch Gamba in the way that Tosu, Shimizu and Shonan have done this year?

First Match Recap

As with most recent meetings between these two, the round 4 clash at Yamaha Stadium back in March ended up being a draw. Just a week on from losing talismanic attacker Takashi Usami to long-term injury, Gamba were slow out of the blocks and a Nerazzurri old boy made them pay. Kotaro Omori’s low shot from the edge of the area in the 15th minute beat the despairing dive of Kei Ishikawa to round off a flowing move from the hosts. That was as good as it got for Júbilo though, as they were second best for most of the remainder of proceedings. With that said, despite Gamba huffing and puffing and almost winning a penalty when Yamami was felled, but a Patric handball in the lead up denied them a spot kick, they had to wait until the 88th minute before parity was restored. Genta Miura, of all people, popped up on the right wing and delivered an inch perfect cross which was met by a glancing header from Leandro Pereira to earn the Ao to Kuro a point, sending them back to Suita sitting 9th in the standings.

Gamba Osaka

More good news for 2024 – On October 12th, Gamba announced their second new signing for the 2024 season (NB: 2024 is not a typo) in the shape of Kwansei Gakuin University hotshot Rin Mito. Capable of operating as a left-sided midfielder or wing-back and also as a holding-midfielder, Mito, who played just behind Hiroto Yamami in Kwansei Gakuin’s loss to Gamba in last year’s Emperor’s Cup, is extremely highly thought of in varsity football circles. Nerazzurri supporters have been speculating that the captures of Mito and Hosei University left-back Ibuki Konno suggest that Gamba’s front office are looking to play in a 4-3-3 system in the coming years. Second grade high-school student Keita Izumi (also a left-back) has been making waves with Gamba Youth this term and could also join the top-team in 2024, giving whoever is the kantoku at that time plenty of options. Finally, just a quick note, I previously wrote that Kwansei Gakuin’s Ken Masui was a potential target for Gamba after it was rumoured the Ao to Kuro were chasing a midfielder from KGU. My speculation was wrong as Masui will go back to his old ‘nest’ Grampus and it’s his current team-mate Mito who will move to Suita.

Fan events back up and running – A couple of interesting pieces of fan-service related news from here in Osaka. A watch-along party took place in Umekita Sotoniwa Square, Umeda for the Marinos vs Gamba clash, with former club legends Akira Kaji and Hideo Hashimoto taking part, I’m sure a good time was had by all given the final outcome. Also, on October 12th, Gamba held their first completely open training session since the start of the pandemic. By completely open, I mean anyone could attend, not just fan club members who won a lottery. The fan club members weren’t forgotten about though as, Yuki Yamamoto, Keisuke Kurokawa, Isa Sakamoto, Hiroto Yamami and Jiro Nakamura participated in a signing event for lottery winners in the club’s Blu Spazio shop next to gate 1 at Panasonic Stadium. It appears these open sessions will continue to be a weekly event, I’m looking forward to one being scheduled on a Sunday or Monday so I can attend.

The Higashiguchi-Nishikawa bromance – They may keep goal for rival teams on the field, but following their years together with the Samurai Blue, it’s clear that there’s a tremendous amount of respect between Masaaki Higashiguchi and his Urawa Reds counterpart Shusaku Nishikawa. Nishikawa took to Twitter to comment on a video showing an excellent save from Higashiguchi in the second half of the 2-0 win at Marinos, simply stating ‘sasuga,’ or…[my translation] ’as you’d expect from a great ‘keeper like Higashiguchi.’ It came across as a really classy touch from the former Oita and Hiroshima custodian.

The Yamamoto conundrum – Following Rihito Yamamoto’s summer move from Tokyo Verdy, there were some moans from members of the Gamba support who had bought ’29 Yamamoto’ uniforms pre-season, only to see it changed to ’29 Y. Yamamoto’ half-way through the year, but for me it’s brought on a more pressing issue. Yukimoto and Rihimoto or Yukito and Rihito, how should I best shorten their names to make my life easier than constantly using Yuki Yamamoto and Rihito Yamamoto?

Attack-dog Alano – This may actually be the first recorded use of bad language in my blogging career, but I feel like Juan Alano has brought over just the right amount of ‘shithousery’ from masters of the dark arts Kashima. The combative Brazilian winger has made quite the impression on the Gamba support since his summer switch and recently told a Brazilian sports website that he felt he’d made the right move in joining the Nerazzurri. He, Kesiuke Kurokawa and Patric are all walking a suspension tight-rope, so that trio will have to be extremely cautious against Júbilo, not least Alano who’ll surely be hoping to make Antlers pay for their decision to let him go when Gamba head to the Kashima Soccer Stadium on the final day of the season .

‘Tis the season to be silly – In the wake of the Ienaga ‘rumour’ I mentioned last time, we’ve seen Yosuke Ideguchi and Ademilson linked with moves back to Panasta and fans suggesting the club try to re-patriate Hiroyuki Abe following his screamer and celebratory dance away to FC Tokyo the other week. Furthermore, Higashiguchi to Niigata has surfaced in the murky depths of Twitter, I’m not having any of that though as Albirex already have a fine young ‘keeper of their own, in the shape of Ryosuke Kojima. One story that may have a bit more truth to it is Shoji Toyama returning to Gamba after spending the past 18 months out on loan. A double in Mito’s last-gasp 3-2 win at Tochigi preceded comments suggesting that he preferred the Osaka Derby to it’s Kita-Kanto equivalent, if that’s not a come and get me plea then I don’t know what is.

The end of an era – On Monday 24 October, Gamba confirmed that they’d be ending their kit-supplier partnership with Umbro that first started in 2003. Sports Hochi reported the same day that Hummel would replace Umbro from next year, though the club themselves are still keeping schtum on that matter. Furthermore, a couple of commemorative t-shirts are now available from the Gamba online shop displaying each Umbro home and away jersey from the 2003-2022 run. I’ve ordered the black version which shows home tops only, I’m hoping it’ll be here for Christmas.

And finally….popular Japanese singer Fujii Kaze became the first person to appear in concert at Panasonic Stadium since it opened in 2016. The Okayama native performed on the evenings of October 15 and 16. Parts of the pitch have subsequently been re-laid and in theory the playing surface should be fine for Saturday, let’s hope that is in fact the case.

Team News

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

FW Patric – Missed training for two weeks after going off versus Marinos and having his leg strapped while he sat on the bench. Since returning, he’s been working through a separate menu to his team-mates as per Matsuda kantoku‘s comments on Tuesday 25 October. In theory he’s ready to play some part on Saturday, though how big a role remains to be seen.

Juan Alano, Shu Kurata, Keisuke Kurokawa, Kosuke Onose and Patric are all just a single caution shy of reaching the one-match ban threshold.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Júbilo Iwata

Considering they’ve just been slapped with a two window transfer ban, it seems likely that the summer signing of former S-Pulse full-back Ko Matsubara from Sint-Truidense in Belgium will be Iwata’s last senior acquisition until the winter of 2023/2024. What effect will this have on a club that’s already struggling to avoid falling into the yo-yo category? In the short-term, centre-forward Shu Morooka (Tokyo International University) is going to need to find a new team as his pre-contract deal is now off the table. Also in attack, Kenyu Sugimoto will have to return to his parent club Urawa, though given how he’s performed this season, it seems likely he’ll be loaned out again, perhaps to a Shonan, Kyoto or Fukuoka. The Saxon Blues have 7 players currently out on loan to lower league sides, but Chelsea they are not, and perhaps only centre-back Kaito Suzuki (Tochigi) is ready to return and make an immediate impact. Júbilo already have the oldest squad in J1, so another season of having to rely on the likes of Yasuhito Endo (42), Kentaro Oi (38), Hiroki Yamada and Kosuke Yamamoto (both 33) plus Yuki Otsu (32) may see them creak to the point of breaking. Hailing from Shizuoka, the cradle of Japanese football, Júbilo are able to attract and develop plenty of young talents of their own. 190cm high school second grader Keita Goto, scorer of 9 goals in this year’s Prince Takamado Under-18 competition, will be promoted to the top-team for 2023, something which is permitted despite the FIFA sanctions, the pain will be felt further down the chain as they won’t be able to register new players to their youth teams from now until the end of next year either. Iwata will need to hope Goto swims rather than sinks and combines with the aforementioned Furukawa (19) as well as Kensuke Fujiwara (18) and Mahiro Yoshinaga (20) to build a brighter tomorrow for Júbilo.

Team News

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

DF Daiki Ogawa – Has been absent for the most recent 6 J1 fixtures and last saw action in the 1-0 loss to Nagoya on 19 August.

DF Norimichi Yamamoto – Currently sitting on three yellow cards, one more here would see him miss the final day encounter with Kyoto.

MF Kotaro Omori – The former Gamba treble winner injured his thigh muscle in the 2-2 draw with Kashiwa Reysol on 3 September and is out for the season.

MF Rikiya Uehara – Suspended after picking up his 4th yellow card of the season in last week’s draw with Shimizu.

FW Fabián González – Suspended for 4 months due to what has been deemed to be an illegal transfer. It’s now in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) who may say otherwise and ultimately shorten his ban.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


J1 Rookie Review 2022

With just 2 rounds of J1 action remaining this season and the league currently on a mini-hiatus, I thought now was the appropriate time for this article which is a look at some of the top performing rookies in Japan’s top flight in 2022. I’ve divided the players into 3 categories, university rookies, high school rookies and youth team rookies, highlighting the three different ways players gravitate directly from amateur, age-level football to the senior ranks. There’s also a bonus section at the bottom where I stare into my crystal ball and name-drop some of the most exciting talents who’ll be linking up with J1 clubs next season.

Thanks again to everyone who has supported my work over the past 3 years, it really means the world to me. This article isn’t about Gamba, but I guess it’s probably as good a place as any to make this announcement. From 2023 I will be stopping doing my weekly (sometimes twice a week) Gamba match previews. I know these definitely fit into the niche category, so I’m beyond flattered that they have become as popular as they have. Honestly, I think I’ve run into a creative dead-end and the toll writing them has taken on me across the past few years exceeds what my body is currently ready to give towards a hobby that ultimately doesn’t pay the bills. With that said, this is not the end of the @BlogGamba Twitter handle or indeed this blog and I’m looking to re-focus my efforts into something new, possibly articles similar to the one you’re about to read in addition to my regular pre-season predicted lineups post. What form exactly the blog takes from here, I don’t know yet, but rest assured the Kashima vs Gamba match preview won’t be the last you hear from me. I’ll continue writing about topics I believe to be interesting, you’ll likely still be able to listen to me on the J-Talk Podcast from time to time and I may collaborate with other J. League related creators in the future too. Deep breath…anyway, with that out of the way, I hope you enjoy this article and my upcoming J1 round 33 and 34 previews and I’ll see you in some shape or form in 2023.


J1 2022 Top 5 University Rookies

Just as a quick preface to this section, it’s probably worth noting that the 2022 university rookie class is quite shallow compared to it’s predecessors with just 2 real stand-outs (Mitsuta and Yamahara) and, in fact, only 10 players eligible for this category actually started any J1 games this season. Consider for a moment that 2020 brought us, Kaoru Mitoma and Reo Hatate (Kawasaki), Daichi Hayashi and Ryoya Morishita (Tosu), Shunta Tanaka, Tomoki Takamine and Takuro Kaneko (Sapporo), Yusuke Matsuo and Tatsuki Seko (Yokohama FC), Shuto Abe and Kazuya Konno (FC Tokyo) and Yuki Yamamoto (Gamba) among others, while 2021 delivered, Kento Tachibanada (Kawasaki), Tomoya Fujii (Hiroshima), Atsuki Ito and Tomoaki Okubo (Urawa) as well as Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa (Sapporo), and it’s easy to see the 2022 crop as largely being something of a disappointment. Oh, and one final thing, 4 of the 5 players selected below are graduates from Ryutsu Keizai University, I’m in no way affiliated with that institution, it’s just a reflection of the good work they are clearly doing there!

Hiroto Yamami narrowly missed out on selection

Name: Taichi Kikuchi
Club: Sagan Tosu
Born: 7 May 1999 (23 years old)
Position(s): shadow forward / winger / centre-forward
History: Ryutsu Keizai University Kashiwa High School, Ryutsu Keizai University
Transfermarkt Value: €250,000
2022 Stats: 31 apppearances in all competitions, 0 goals, 0 assists

Profile: Sagan Tosu clearly anticipated the coming storm of all their best players being taken off their hands at the end of the 2021 season and pro-actively went about acquiring 6 talented youngsters from various universities prior to the conclusion of the campaign. Rather disappointingly, only two of that cohort started in the league this term, with 3 of them parked out on loan in J2 by mid-season. The only player to make more than 2 starts in J1 has been versatile attacker Taichi Kikuchi, who’s become something of a favourite of Kenta Kawai’s due to his intelligent passing and movement, work-rate, and tenacity. While that is yet to translate into tangible attacking outcomes, in the shape of goals or assists, those will surely arrive in a matter of time if the former Urawa Junior Youth attacker keeps up his present endeavours (he currently ranks 14th in J1 for through balls).

Predicted Career Path: With Kawai confirmed as being on-board for 2023 it’s unlikely we’ll see Kikuchi doing anything other than pulling on a Tosu jersey. He’s performed well in his debut season for a solid top-half team and if he can add a consistent end product to his game then higher ranked sides will surely take note, but as for now, he’s good where he is.

Name: Makoto Mitsuta
Club: Sanfrecce Hiroshima
Born: 20 July 1999 (23)
Position(s): shadow forward / attacking midfielder / wing-back
History: Sanfrecce Hiroshima Youth, Ryutsu Keizai University
Transfermarkt Value: €450,000
2022 Stats: 43 appearances in all competitions, 11 goals, 13 assists

Profile: Hiroshima fans may not want to be reminded of last weekend’s Emperor’s Cup final, but the fact that just minutes after seeing a late spot-kick, that would surely have won his side the trophy, saved, Makoto Mitsuta was once again stood over the penalty spot, this time making no mistake when a miss would have seen Kofu crowned Tennohai champions. Ultimately it made no difference to the eventual outcome, but I think it speaks volumes for his character, which is why I’m mentioning it here. Without doubt the breakout star of J1 2022, Mitsuta’s trickery, link up play and emphatic finishing have lit up the division and propelled Sanfre to a likely top 3 finish, something that was pretty much unthinkable 12 months ago.

Predicted Career Path: If he starts next season anything like he did this one then he’ll surely be on the plane to Europe come summer time. I’m working on the Kaoru Mitoma 18 months in J1 scale as Mitsuta is clearly the most promising university graduate to enter the league since the current Brighton and Samurai Blue left winger. For Viola supporters all I can say is, hopefully the club and kantoku Michael Skibbe have a decent replacement lined up.

Name: Yuta Miyamoto
Club: Urawa Red Diamonds
Born: 15 December 1999 (22)
Position(s): right-back
History: Ryutsu Keizai University Kashiwa High School, Ryutsu Keizai University
Transfermarkt Value: €150,000
2022 Stats: 21 appearances in all competitions, 1 assist

Profile: Prior to turning pro, all the information I had on Miyamoto suggested that he was a holding midfielder. However, instead he’s enjoyed a steady, if unspectacular, debut season deputising on occasion for Hiroki Sakai on the right-hand side of Reds’ generally solid backline. Injuries aplenty in the early and mid part of the year saw Miyamoto pick up numerous minutes and grow into his role, before the return of Sakai in recent months curtailed his playing time, meaning that at the time of writing he hasn’t been on the field since Urawa’s 1-0 home reversal to Cerezo back on 14 September.

Predicted Career Path: Sakai is not getting any younger, though a potential international retirement after Qatar 2022 may help prolong his club career. While that may not aid Miyamoto in his quest to get the additional game time I’m sure he craves, at least he’s got a couple of excellent defensive role models to learn from in the shape of Sakai and Alexander Scholz. I can actually see him featuring a fair bit next season, though if he struggles to build on the foundations laid this term then a loan move to a promotion chasing J2 side could be in the offing.

Name: Asahi Sasaki
Club: Kawasaki Frontale
Born: 26 January 2000 (22)
Position(s): full-back (mainly left-back)
History: Saitama Heisei High School, Ryutsu Keizai University
Transfermarkt Value: €275,000
2022 Stats: 27 appearances in all competitions, 1 goal, 2 assists

Profile: I was perhaps a tad harsh on Sasaki when I said Mitsuta and Yamahara were the 2 stand-outs in this category as he has featured regularly this term for a genuine title contender. Frontale reportedly beat Gamba, Tosu and others to the signature of the man labelled the best full-back in the university class of 2022. I’m guessing his greater defensive solidity when compared to Reon Yamahara is what won the judges over. Perhaps his versatility too, as although he’s spent most of the year ably covering for the injured Kyohei Noborizato at left-back, he’s filled in on the opposite flank in the absence of Miki Yamane on a couple of occasions as well. Overall, he’s suited up far more in his debut season than a number of recent Frontale recruits from university and high school and can look back on this campaign pretty favourably, regardless of whether or not his side go on to three-peat.

Predicted Career Path: With Noborizato ageing and injury-prone, Kurumaya seemingly preferring to play at centre-back and Frontale head-scratchingly reluctant to sign defenders, all signs point to plenty more game time for Sasaki in 2023. The next entry on this list appears to have overtaken him to be the number one young left-back in the country and reclaiming that crown would be a good personal goal for next term. Firmly establishing himself on the left-side of Kawasaki’s back four and helping them win more silverware will also potentially help to put him in the frame for national team selection and onto that well trodden path to European football.

Name: Reon Yamahara
Club: Shimizu S-Pulse
Born: 8 June 1999 (23)
Position(s): left-back (can play right-back if required)
History: JFA Academy Fukushima Under-18, University of Tsukuba
Transfermarkt Value: €300,000
2022 Stats: 37 appearances in all competitions, 2 goals, 10 assists

Profile: After initially being something of a quiet revelation at left-back for an under-performing Shimizu side this year, Reon Yamahara is starting to make quite a bit of noise towards the back end of the campaign with his penetrating forward runs and deadly crosses, both from open play and set pieces. Having rubbed shoulders with the aforementioned Mitoma, Takamine and Yamakawa during his time at the University of Tsukuba, Yamahara was able to turn out 5 times while on a designated special contract with S-Pulse last term, and gave us the briefest of glimpses as to what lay ahead. Quickly forming a hotline with Brazilian hitman Thiago Santana, Kyoto native Yamahara, who spent his secondary school years honing his skills at the JFA Academy Fukushima, has been a light among the gloom for Shimizu supporters in 2022 and they’ll be hoping that the Yamahara-Santana partnership has enough gas left in the tank to steer them to survival.

Predicted Career Path: Excelling in a position where Japan have historically not been strong, there’s been talk of Yamahara becoming part of the Samurai Blue set-up in the post World Cup landscape. That may very well depend on who’s coaching the team after Qatar 2022, however, for now I think we may see Yamahara stay with S-Pulse for another season in J1 or J2, and if he can repeat his outstanding displays from this year then expect the Jupiler Pro League to come calling.

xG for and against values per shot in J1 2022, correct to 19 October 2022.

J1 2022 Top 5 High School Rookies

Name: Yosuke Furukawa
Club: Júbilo Iwata
Born: 16 July 2003 (19 years old)
Position(s): shadow forward
History: Kyoto Sanga Under-15, Shizuoka Gakuen High School
Transfermarkt Value: €50,000
2022 Stats: 11 appearances, 2 goals in all competitions

Profile: He was on my list prior to his winner at Nissan Stadium last week (honestly!) Júbilo supporters’ newest hero Furukawa is actually yet to start a game for the Saxon Blues, but he has already found the back of the net on two occasions, his previously mentioned effort versus Marinos, in addition to a goal against Matsumoto in the early rounds of the Emperor’s Cup. Originally from Shiga, Furukawa sharpened his skills during his three years at the renowned Shizuoka Gakuen High School before opting to remain in the prefecture and sign for Júbilo. How sensible choosing them as his first professional club was will be borne out in the coming years.

Predicted Career Path: Júbilo still have a chance of being a J1 club next season, but if I were a betting man, I’d have my money on them going down. Such a scenario would surely bring heartbreak for their supporters, but could ultimately benefit youngsters such as Furukawa, Kensuke Fujiwara and Kaito Suzuki (currently on loan at Tochigi SC) in the form of increased game-time. Furukawa seems to possess the skill-set to become a regular in a title challenging J2 side as long as he doesn’t allow the magnitude of his strike away to Marinos last week weigh him down.

Name: Rei Kihara
Club: Urawa Red Diamonds
Born: 4 June 2003 (19)
Position(s): centre-forward
History: Cerezo Osaka Under-15, Kyoto Tachibana High School
Transfermarkt Value: €50,000
2022 Stats: 1 appearance in all competitions

Profile: A few eyebrows may have been raised by my selection of a player who’s mustered a mere 28 minutes of senior competitive action this season, but please hear me out. Urawa have a star-studded forward line with the likes of Junker, Moberg, Linssen, Schalk, Esaka, Koizumi and Matsuo on their books, so, young Rei Kihara would certainly have been exceeding expectations had he played more than that brief ACL outing against Shandong Taishan back in May. He arrived in Saitama highly rated out of Kyoto Tachibana High School, and it was reported that Reds had to fend off a number of teams, including Gamba, to secure his signature. They’ve invested in his future, will the master’s degree course he’s received on the training pitch this season bear fruit in the coming years?

Predicted Career Path: I’ll be honest, the majority of talented high school students move onto university before entering the professional ranks, making it tricky to come up with 5 legitimate names to fill out this category, otherwise someone possessing clear talent, but few on-field minutes like Kihara probably wouldn’t have made the cut. With Reds likely to remain stacked in attack for the foreseeable future, a couple of productive loan spells, perhaps first to a J2 side such as Mito before leapfrogging to hometown club Kyoto or maybe Sagan Tosu might serve as his best option in order to secure regular playing time at the Saitama Stadium somewhere down the line.

Name: Kuryu Matsuki
Club: FC Tokyo
Born: 30 April 2003 (19)
Position(s): central-midfielder
History: Aomori Yamada Junior High School, Aomori Yamada High School
Transfermarkt Value: €400,000
2022 Stats: 29 appearances in all competitions, 2 goals, 3 assists

Profile: The winner of this category hands-down, Matsuki has made the step up from the Prince Takamado Under-18 trophy to J1 without hardly skipping a beat. After winning the All Japan High School Soccer Tournament in January, the same day as FC Tokyo held their 2022 season kick off event, Matsuki made the transition to professional footballer so swiftly that he was able to play a starring role for the Gasmen in their opening night trip to defending champions Kawasaki 6 weeks later. A slew of age-level international call ups have surely depleted his energy resources as the year has worn on and he will undoubtedly benefit from the extended winter break due to the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.

Predicted Career Path: He certainly has the right coach to bring out the best in him and perhaps more importantly give him serious playing time as an advanced midfielder in FC Tokyo’s central triangle, but realistically how long can the capital club hang on to such an outstanding, well-rounded talent? Should he come back refreshed and raring to go following his winter hibernation, then a Kuryu Matsuki ready to build upon the solid foundations of 2022 is likely to be attracting serious attention from Germany, Holland, Portugal etc as early as next summer. I know it’s not what FC Tokyo supporters will want to read, but it’s the reality of supporting a J. League side these days.

Name: Akito Suzuki
Club: Shonan Bellmare
Born: 30 July 2003 (19)
Position(s): centre-forward
History: Gamba Osaka Junior Youth, Hannan University High School
Transfermarkt Value: €50,000
2022 Stats: 7 appearances in all competitions, 1 goal

Profile: Like Daichi Kamada and Daichi Hayashi before him, Osaka born-and-bred Akito Suzuki spent time in Gamba’s Junior Youth Academy before completing his high school studies elsewhere. In his debut campaign for goal-shy Shonan, he’s been limited to substitute appearances, largely in the cups, netting once against Vertfee Yaita in the Tennohai. Suzuki, who was top goal-scorer in the National High School Championship during his time with Hannan, is best described as a powerful forward with a good dribbling technique and a keen eye for goal.

Predicted Career Path: Honestly, I thought he may have featured a little more this year given Bellmare’s paucity of goals. Should Shuto Machino head for the brighter lights of one of the Kanto giants or the Jupiler League then Suzuki would seemingly fit the profile of the kind of player Shonan will turn to in order to fill the void his 10 goals will leave behind. Though Wellington and Tarik’s best days may be firmly rooted in the past, hopefully Suzuki has found them useful mentors during his first season as a pro and can take the lessons learned on the training field into his second campaign, be that in J1 or J2.

Name: Takumi Tsuchiya
Club: Kashiwa Reysol
Born: 25 October 2003 (18)
Position(s): holding-midfielder / central-midfielder / centre-back
History: Wings SC, Nihon University Kashiwa High School
Transfermarkt Value: €50,000
2022 Stats: 5 appearances, 1 goal in all competitions

Profile: When I wrote my J1 predicted line-ups article way back in late January I felt the starting central midfield berths at Kashiwa were wide open. Subsequently, Keiya Shiihashi, Dodi and Matheus Savio all put their hands up and delivered when required, however, quietly in the background versatile youngster Takumi Tsuchiya has been honing his skills ready to take over in the coming years. Capable of slotting in either as a volante or a centre-back, Tsuchiya may have only played 5 times this year, but all his appearances came from the start and he even managed to notch a goal against Tokushima in the Emperor’s Cup. His adaptability and ability to be both a ball winner and a ball player should stand him in good stead going forward.

Predicted Career Path: He states in his 2022 Soccer Digest Meikan entry that the player he admires most is Wataru Endo and while he’ll have to go some way to match the Samurai Blue skipper’s accomplishments in the game, he’s not a bad role model to have. Reysol generally have a big squad so there will always be plenty of competition for starting spots in the engine room. In 2023 Tsuchiya should look to use the Levain Cup to establish himself worthy of regular game time in J1, failing that, a move to an up-and-coming J2 team might be the fillip his career needs.

Comparative performances of J1 goalkeepers in 2022

J1 2022 Top 5 Youth Team Rookies

Name: Yuki Kajiura
Club: FC Tokyo
Born: 2 January 2004 (18 years old)
Position(s): central-midfielder
History: FC Tokyo Under-15 Fukagawa, FC Tokyo Under-18
Transfermarkt Value: €50,000
2022 Stats: 8 appearances in all competitions, 1 goal

Profile: Another beneficiary of Spanish kantoku Albert Puig’s desire to lower the average age of the FC Tokyo squad, Yuki Kajiura has dropped hints that he could go on to become a decent contributor for the Gasmen in the coming years. Granted, with just three midfield spots available and plenty of competition, it’ll be tough for him to establish himself as first-choice just yet. He made 3 consecutive appearances in J1 in mid-July and although victories over Sapporo and Iwata would rank as positive experiences, getting taken off at half-time in the 3-0 loss at Urawa may have shown him just how much work is required to succeed at this level.

Predicted Career Path: Although Matsuki might leave at some point in the not too distant future, FC Tokyo have Tsubasa Terayama (Juntendo University) coming in and to be frank are quite over-stocked numbers-wise in central midfield. The Gasmen’s youth system is one of the most prolific in the country, but largely provides talent for clubs further down the spectrum. Kajiura may once again get chances in the cups early doors next season and could follow that up with a loan move to J2 in order to gain further experience.

Name: Sota Kitano
Club: Cerezo Osaka
Born: 13 August 2004 (18)
Position(s): winger / centre-forward
History: Arterivo Yuasa, Cerezo Osaka U-18
Transfermarkt Value: €200,000
2022 Stats: 26 appearances in all competitions, 3 goals, 1 assist

Profile: Sota Kitano started 2022 as a high school 2nd grader preparing for the upcoming Prince Takamado Cup campaign with his Cerezo Under-18 colleagues, and he’ll finish it a fully fledged pro who’s made close to 30 appearances for the Cherry Blossoms’ first team as well as a few for Japan Under-20. After standing out in pre-season, Kitano, who can play either as a central striker or on the right wing, was promoted to the top team by kantoku Akio Kogiku and has rarely looked back since. Kitano, and many of a Cerezo persuasion, must be wondering what could have been had he found the back of the net when clean through on goal versus Kyoto in round 2 back in February, however, he was unable to finish and decide that Kansai Derby in his side’s favour. Despite not yet breaking his duck in the league, he has been on target several times during the Cherry Blossoms’ run to the Levain Cup final and also against Algeria Under-23 during the Maurice Revello Tournament in late May.

Predicted Career Path: Having stepped up to the senior game a year early, one could argue that Kitano is already ahead of the competition, but I’m sure a quick scan through the history books would show that for every teenage wonderkid who goes on to great things, there are many more that fall by the wayside. Kitano has the tools in his locker to make the cut and once his body starts to properly fill out that will make him all the more attractive to European talent scouts. For me, he definitely falls into the category of ‘enjoy him while you can’ for Cerezo supporters and fans of the league as a whole.

Name: Isa Sakamoto
Club: Gamba Osaka
Born: 26 August 2003 (19)
Position(s): centre-forward / shadow-forward
History: JFA Academy Fukushima Under-15, Sorriso Kumamoto, Gamba Osaka Youth
Transfermarkt Value: €100,000
2022 Stats: 15 appearances in all competitions, 1 goal

Profile: The number 32 of Isa Sakamoto adorns the back of my 2022 Gamba Summer Expo uniform and although a solitary strike in 15 outings this year doesn’t appear all that impressive, Sakamoto has certainly served notice, albeit in small doses, of his enormous potential. His first touch, movement, composure and fearlessness all caught my eye and his stepovers and drag-backs have wooed the Panasonic Stadium faithful when he’s made it onto the pitch. After bagging the second in Gamba’s invaluable 2-0 win over Hiroshima back in June, Sakamoto enjoyed a productive summer for both the Nerazzurri and Japan Under-20, however, since Hiroshi Matsuda took the helm in the wake of Gamba’s home defeat to Shimizu in mid-August, Sakamoto hasn’t been sighted in a matchday squad and is hopefully busy at work in training, gearing up for 2023.

Predicted Career Path: With Gamba’s managerial situation and league status still very much up in the air, it’s really hard to say what will become of Sakamoto in the near future. Part of me thinks a loan move to his hometown club Roasso Kumamoto would be great for all parties involved, but also the blue and black side of me hopes Gamba stay up and Sakamoto, who has been compared to former Nerazzurri great Masashi Oguro, establishes himself as one of the team’s main attacking weapons next season.

Isa Sakamoto

Name: Hayato Tanaka
Club: Kashiwa Reysol
Born: 1 November 2003 (18)
Position(s): centre-back
History: Kashiwa Reysol Under-15, Kashiwa Reysol Under-18
Transfermarkt Value: €50,000
2022 Stats: 8 appearances in all competitions, 1 assist

Profile: Yet another graduate of the Reysol academy, which at the time of writing, has the most alumni currently contracted to a J. League club. A couple of weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Japan Under-20 international Tanaka already stands an imposing 188cm and though his side have exceeded expectations this season, defensively they’ve creaked at times, potentially opening up a path to regular minutes for him in 2023. His height and physical presence may be the most easily noticeable features of his game, but his passing range on his favoured left-boot shouldn’t be overlooked and he’s well suited to the back 3 system Nelsinho has operated for much of this year.

Predicted Career Path: After making 3 appearances in last year’s Levain Cup while on a type-2 amateur contract, Tanaka saw action in all 3 domestic competitions this term, including making 4 league starts. Yuji Takahashi remains injury prone and Takumi Kamijima hasn’t got rid of the simple errors that plague his game, which leads me to the belief that Tanaka stands a pretty good chance of being a regular in the Reysol starting eleven within the next 12-18 months.

Name: Riku Yamane
Club: Yokohama F. Marinos
Born: 17 August 2003 (19)
Position(s): centre-midfield
History: Yokohama F. Marinos Junior Youth, Yokohama F. Marinos Youth
Transfermarkt Value: €125,000
2022 Stats: 16 appearances in all competitions

Profile: Looking at Marinos squad from the outside in pre-season, I only expected Riku Yamane to make a couple of brief appearances in the domestic cups this season. I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss him, as the Marinos youth system has a long history of churning out extremely talented youngsters and Yamane appears to be the latest model off the production line. Although club captain Takuya Kida and former Verdy duo Joel Chima Fujita and Kota Watanabe are ahead of him in the pecking order for the 2 volante roles, Kevin Muscat’s rotation system has allowed Yamane to turn out 11 times in J1 and he’s now within touching distance of a league winner’s medal in his rookie season. A fine passer who has been able to hold his own in Marinos’ buccaneering system, he can look forward to a well-earned break at the end of the year, before charging out of the starting blocks in 2023.

Predicted Career Path: A youth international all the way up from Under-16 to Under-20 level with experience captaining his country, Yamane has clearly been on the path to stardom for a few years now and with Joel Chima Fujita seemingly on a similar trajectory, albeit a couple of years ahead, some of the traffic in front of him looks likely to clear shortly. I’d rate him as one of the players born in 2003 best equipped to make a big impact on the game in the coming years.

**A quick shout out to Hidemasa Koda (Nagoya) and Yugo Masukake (Kashiwa) who narrowly missed out on selection for this section.**

Many will be disappointed that Jiro Nakamura didn’t play enough to merit a place above.

J1 2023 Top 5 Rookies to Watch

Name: Yudai Kimura
2023 Club: Kyoto Sanga
Born: 28 February 2001 (21 years old)
Position(s): wide-forward / centre-forward
History: Osaka Toin High School, Kwansei Gakuin University

Profile: There will be a fair bit of expectation riding on Yudai Kimura’s young shoulders next year, regardless of what division Sanga occupy. Having made numerous appearances for the top team while on a designated special player contract this season which resulted in him being called up to the Japan U-21 squad in September, Kimura, who has mostly featured on the left of Kyoto’s front three, will possibly end up finding more of a permanent home as Peter Utaka’s long-term successor in the middle. Hiroto Yamami’s kōhai at Kwansei Gakuin University, Kimura debuted as a sub on the opening day of the 2022 campaign and perhaps made his biggest impression in the 1-1 draw away to Gamba in July, where he hit the post early on and won a late penalty for a Covid-ravaged Sanga, allowing them to earn a priceless point and more importantly take two points away from a relegation rival. Kimura appears to be the kind of precocious talent that doesn’t come along very often at the Sanga Stadium, therefore it may be a case of enjoy him while you can for Royals fans.

Name: Shuto Nakano
2023 Club: Sanfrecce Hiroshima
Born: 27 June 2000 (22)
Position(s): centre-back
History: Kiryu Daiichi High School, Toin University of Yokohama

Profile: Nakano is another player who’s already made his J1 debut while on a designated special player deal having come off the bench in Sanfrecce’s 0-0 draw with Sagan Tosu in round 1 of the 2022 campaign. He subsequently returned to Toin Yokohama University and captained them in their agonising 4-3 extra time loss away to Sapporo in the Emperor’s Cup in June. As a player capable of operating as a centre-back, defensive midfielder or even a wing-back, Nakano projects as Tsukasa Shiotani’s long-term replacement in my book and given Michael Skibbe’s record of developing promising, but inexperienced talents this year, I’m looking forward to seeing how Nakano and fellow 2023 rookie Taichi Yamasaki (Juntendo University) get on under the German’s tutelage.

Name: Tsubasa Terayama
2023 Club: FC Tokyo
Born: 10 April 2000 (22)
Position(s): central-midfield
History: FC Tokyo Under-18, Juntendo University

Profile: Terayama will return to FC Tokyo next season after completing his studies at Juntendo University. Supporters of the Gasmen may have some good and bad memories of the combative midfielder who came through the youth ranks at the Ajinomoto Stadium and played in their Under-23 side in J3 on 14 occasions across 2017 and 2018, but also helped knock them out of the 2021 Emperor’s Cup in humiliating fashion during his time as a student. Later that year he debuted for FC Tokyo in J1 as a substitute in the 0-0 draw with Avispa Fukuoka on the final day and the ball winning, box-to-box midfielder then went on to be selected for the Japan Universities side in 2022. Is he the man to finally oust Keigo Higashi from the FC Tokyo starting eleven? Or, will his arrival be the necessary kick up the backside that shakes Shuto Abe from his slumber? I, for one, will be watching on with interest.

Name: Keisuke Tsukui
2023 Club: Kashima Antlers
Born: 21 May 2004 (18)
Position(s): centre-back
History: FC Miyashiro Higashi FC, FC Lavida, Shohei High School

Profile: I’ll be honest, as he’s coming into the league directly from high school, I don’t know a whole lot about him, but there does seem to be a fair bit of buzz surrounding this deal so I though I’d include Keisuke Tsukui in here. Currently captaining Shohei High School, one of the top footballing schools in the country, in his native Saitama, 180cm tall, Under-17 Japan High School selection member Tsukui appears made-to-order for a Kashima side crying out for new defensive talent. With Koki Machida now in Europe, Ikuma Sekigawa still highly erratic and Kento Misao forced to fill in at centre-back, Tsukui, who is noted as a ball playing defender that excels in the areas of covering and positional play, may find himself on a rapid ascent into the Antlers top team should he impress in pre-season. Certainly, if the Stags adopt a similar game-plan to 2022 then those covering skills will be tested to the full.

Name: Shin Yamada
2023 Club: Kawasaki Frontale
Born: 30 May 2000 (22)
Position(s): centre-forward / wide-forward
History: Kawasaki Frontale Under-18, Toin University of Yokohama

Profile: It appears that the Frontale attack is on the cusp of a new era with legendary figures such as Leandro Damião, Yu Kobayashi and Akihiro Ienaga nearing the end of their careers and Marcinho potentially headed for fresh pastures. Taisei Miyashiro looks set for a return to his ‘nest’ after a series of successful loan spells and he will be joined by yet another graduate of the Frontale academy, Shin Yamada. Following the well-trodden path taken by the likes of Yamane, Tachibanada, Issaka and Hayakawa from Toin Yokohama University to Todoroki, Yamada should assimilate into the squad quickly and easily. Just how keen Toru Oniki is to throw him into the starting eleven remains up for question, particularly when young Takatora Einaga will also be eyeing further minutes in 2023.

**Note – Ryutsu Keizai University midfielder Kazuki Kumasawa (Kashiwa), Biwako Seikei Sport College winger Toya Izumi (Kobe) and new Shimizu centre-back pair, Takumu Kenmotsu (Waseda University) and Taketo Ochiai (Hosei University) are all worth keeping an eye on too in my humble opinion.**

If you’ve made it this far, thanks so much for reading all my ramblings, all the best and please take care of yourself!


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

Yokohama F. Marinos vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 32
Saturday 8 October 2022
Nissan Stadium
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)

There are no complicated equations ahead of Gamba’s trip to Nissan Stadium this weekend. Two wins from their four remaining fixtures is all Marinos need to be crowned J1 champions for the second time in four seasons regardless of what their rivals do, while their visitors are firmly ensconced at the wrong end of the table and know they simply must return to Suita with all three points in the bag. Despite having a fortnight to get over their VAR-inspired heartbreak at Vissel Kobe, Gamba could only scrape a 0-0 draw against a Kashiwa Reysol side that barely got out of second gear last Saturday. Talismanic forward Takashi Usami was back to captain the Nerazzurri following a 7 month, injury-enforced absence and the Curva Nord faithful were in full voice for the first time in over 2 and a half years, but even that double boost couldn’t jolt the Ao to Kuro attack into life and in the end Gamba were heavily indebted to ‘keeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, who made a string of fine saves to keep the Sunkings at bay. A fourth consecutive failure to find the back of the net in front of their own fans has left the Nerazzurri’s survival chances hanging by a thread and kantoku Hiroshi Matsuda must be hoping that Marinos’ attacking style is more conducive for his charges to exploit on the counter than Reysol’s low block. While Gamba were toiling at home to Kashiwa, Marinos were busy romping past Nagoya Grampus in Toyota last Saturday. A brace from Kota Mizanuma put them firmly in the driver’s seat, before late efforts from substitutes Léo Ceará and Joel Chima Fujita, the latter’s first for the club, added gloss to the scoreline and that 4-0 triumph, allied with Kawasaki’s dramatic late loss to Sapporo, has put Kevin Muscat’s troops within touching distance of the 2022 J1 title. A home victory seems like a no-brainer here, but remember Gamba have won this fixture in each of the past 2 seasons and have only tasted defeat once since 2015. The pressure is on both teams, who will cope with it best, and who will wilt in the autumn heat? Tune in this Saturday afternoon to find out.

Tale of the Tape

Well what to make of Saturday’s duel with Kashiwa that promised so much with Usami’s long-awaited comeback as well as the return of supporter chanting, but ultimately ended in an anti-climax. The stats show that Reysol edged proceedings, as you’d expect from a top 6 side boasting a fine away record. However, despite it ending up 14-8 to Kashiwa in the official J Stats shot count, DAZN had Gamba leading 9-8 on their graphic in the 68th minute with the Sunkings then asserting a modicum of dominance on the counter in the dying moments. Worryingly for the Nerazzurri, they could only muster a grand total of 2 shots on goal in the second 45 minutes with none coming after the 66th minute. The partnership of Patric and Leandro Pereira caught Hiroshima and Nagoya cold, but has absolutely zero guile or subtlety about it so defences have wisened-up sharpish and I’ve no idea why Musashi Suzuki only came on with 2 minutes remaining rather than taking Pereira’s place at the same time Patric took over from Usami. With Usami back in town, the shift away from relying almost entirely on Juan Alano for creativity has been completed. It started with Yuki Yamamoto’s return to the starting lineup and the central duo of Yamamoto and Usami were at the heart of everything positive the Nerazzurri did in an attacking sense, if only Usami would let Yamamoto take a few more of the set-plays, though it was his big day back at the office so he can be forgiven this time. Perhaps what can’t be written off so easily is the way that Gamba surrendered to their fate, a 0-0 draw against not particularly motivated opponents, while fellow dog-fighters Kyoto and Shonan showed the way with a 1-0 win at Tosu and a 96th minute equaliser away at Cerezo respectively. Once again, I’ve gone rant heavy and stat-lite in the early part of this section so let’s seek to redress the balance a touch. The Ao to Kuro’s 566 completed passes on Saturday dwarves their previous highest this year of 505 away to Júbilo Iwata in round 4, and the fact that Reysol made 444 passes of their own probably gives you a very good indication of the tepid type of game the 17,689 paying spectators witnessed. That’s something which becomes all the more surprising when you consider Gamba’s desperate need for a win and also that Reysol were still technically in the hunt for 3rd spot prior to kick-off. The 0-0 marked the Nerazzurri’s 3rd failure to score of the Matsuda era, though it was also the 4th clean sheet his 442 zone defence has kept in only 7 outings, now to just nudge the scales ever so slightly in favour of attacking verve. For individual players, there are three I’d like to highlight. First, Masaaki Higashiguchi who earned his side a share of the spoils with 8 saves including 6 from inside the box (Reysol’s Douglas, Hosoya and Muto will be ruing placing their efforts right down his throat – Douglas’ 2nd header excluded). The veteran stopper, who you can read more about in the Gamba Osaka section below, leads the league in saves per game with an average of 4 (2.7 from inside the area) and also possesses a decent save percentage (72.7%) as well as a sharp pass completion rate (76.6%). Returning hero Takashi Usami, while expected to be on the bench, instead found himself starting and captaining the Nerazzurri. During his 73 minutes on the field, he registered 2 shots on goal, including 1 on target, 1 last pass and also completed 24 of his 28 attempted passes, a bit more clinical-ness in front of goal from the old master is just what the doctor ordered. Finally, popular schemer Yuki Yamamoto was once again active on defence and attack. The Shiga-native mustered 1 shot, and made 62 of 70 attempted passes which included 1 last pass going forward, while defensively he continued his recent improvement, winning 5 of 7 tackles, executing 3 blocks and recovering possession on 4 occasions.

Champions-elect Yokohama F. Marinos are top of the pile for good reason having outscored everyone else in the division by at least 9 goals and following Urawa’s 4-1 trouncing at Hiroshima, they also boast J1’s best defence, conceding 30 times in 30 outings. While Marinos have outscored opponents by a ratio of more than 2:1, at the same time they’ve out-performed their xG for total by just shy of 10 goals and at the other end, they’ve let in 3.9 fewer than could be expected based on their opposition’s xG numbers. Furthermore, when we compare the Tricolor’s key performance indicators with last year we can see that the only areas where they’re doing better this season versus 2021 is xG against and shots for on target. Interestingly, they’re completing on average 67.5 passes fewer than 12 months ago, covering 2.5 km less per game and sprinting on 19.5 fewer occasions. None of that seems to have mattered as Kevin Muscat’s side have recovered from a slightly jittery opening to their campaign and are currently on a run of 11 wins, 4 draws and 1 defeat across their past 16 J1 games. The match prior to that run starting was a hugely disappointing 1-0 loss at Avispa Fukuoka and the 2-1 defeat at title rivals Kawasaki has been the only time they’ve been bettered since. It’s undoubtedly been a team effort as only 3 players (Yohei Takaoka, Tomoki Iwata and Élber have started more than 20 games) while 6 have scored on at least 5 occasions and 5 have a minimum of 4 assists. In my pre-season preview, I picked out Katsuya Nagato as Marinos’ best winter signing, and the former Sendai and Kashima full-back has done well with 4 assists to date, however, he has been usurped by Takuma Nishimura (I’m shocked he’s still only 25) who’s been a revelation with 9 goals and an assist in 23 appearances, even managing to edge Marcos Junior out of the starting eleven. Centre-back / holding midfielder Tomoki Iwata is another star deserving of having his praises sung here. He’s converted to a central role so well in recent seasons that it’s easy to forget that he made his name as a marauding right-sided centre-back in Tomohiro Katanosaka’s 3421 at Oita. Along with impressive Japan age-level dynamo, Joel Chima Fujita, Iwata is my tip as the Marinos player most likely to be the next to head over to Europe. Watch this space.

First Match Recap

Gamba’s 2-1 home defeat to Marinos back in June was the second of four gyakuten defeats they’ve suffered this year which have badly hindered their efforts to stay in the top flight. A poor Ken Matsubara back-pass in the 7th minute put his ‘keeper Yohei Takaoka in all kinds of trouble, allowing Patric to nick the ball away from him and tee up his compatriot Dawhan, who coolly slotted home the opener. Gamba stood firm until half-time, but came under sustained pressure after the break and efforts from Takuma Nishimura and Kota Mizanuma turned the game on it’s head. Ex-Cerezo winger Mizanuma would surely have enjoyed scoring the winner, while Nishimura also sunk the Nerazzurri at Panasta 12 months prior with a fine individual effort for Vegalta Sendai. The Ao to Kuro’s South Korean international centre-back Kwon Kyung-won saw red for a second yellow-card offence in additional time to cap off a miserable evening for Gamba who sunk to 15th in the standings on the back of 3 consecutive losses in what was the first J1 matchday following the June international break.

Gamba Osaka

* Saito replacement – On-loan Shonan Bellmare ace Mitsuki Saito has been a revelation since his restoration to the starting eleven after Hiroshi Matsuda took charge of top team affairs. However, the combative midfield maestro has made one rash challenge too many and is out of this weekend’s trip to Kanagawa, so who will take his place? Option A: Rihito Yamamoto, who made his debut off the bench last weekend, partnering Saito for the final 7 minutes of the draw with Kashiwa. It would be getting thrown in at the deep end for sure, but he appears to be in pole position and would surely relish doing battle with former Verdy team-mates Fujita and Watanabe. Option B: Kohei Okuno, well suited to the role and has partnered Yuki Yamamoto before, however he seems to have fallen out of favour in recent weeks, making him most likely a bench option here. Option C: Dawhan, currently on the naughty step after failing to stop Vissel Kobe’s winner a few weeks back, other naughty step occupiers such as Kwon Kyung-won and Hiroki Fujiharu are yet to return to the starting lineup and I don’t see Dawhan doing it either this Saturday. Option D: Club captain Shu Kurata, who has been completely sidelined during the Matsuda-era, and with Usami, Miura and Shoji providing the on-field leadership it’s extremely unlikely there will be space for Kurata to come in and score the winner like he did in the Nissan Stadium sun last November.

* Higashiguchi vs Tani – I teased it last week and after receiving a question on the topic I decided I should tackle the burning issue in this article. As you saw from his heroics on Saturday, Masaaki Higashiguchi shows no signs of ageing and the 36 year-old will most probably be the man between the sticks for the Nerazzurri regardless of what division they occupy in 2023. Where then does that leave Kosei Tani who has played alright for Shonan this year, but hasn’t really kicked on or shown anything he hadn’t in previous seasons. Should the Seasiders remain in J1 then I think Tani is most likely to stay there for 2023, failing that, a loan to a team like Kyoto could be on the cards. Vissel Kobe are the ‘big’ J1 side most obviously in need of a change between the sticks, but I feel they are much more likely to sign Suárez of Tokushima, who I somehow forgot about in my Scouting J2 2022 article, while Kashima could also be in the market for a new custodian and a move for Tani may be something to keep your eyes open for.
Tl;dr Higashiguchi is Gamba’s number 1 next season, Tani remains a J1 GK in 2023 though where exactly remains up for debate.

* Gamba fans vs VAR – Supporters in Japan may generally shy away from giving criticism as directly or aggressively as their counterparts in other parts of the world, but I think it’s still become patently clear that the relationship between the Gamba support and VAR is broken to the point of no repair. Last Saturday, Ryotaro Meshino’s 44th minute effort being ruled out for handball and DOGSO favourite Takumi Kamijima escaping censure for a last man pull on Leandro Pereira’s jersey were both correct decisions in my book, though as the feeling among the Nerazzurri faithful seems to be something along the lines of, we’ve given VAR our money, now we’re waiting for our change, both incidents drew the ire of many observers on Twitter. I am well aware that you can easily make the argument that Gamba only have themselves to blame for their current predicament with poor performances, a lack of clinical finishing and simple goals being given up left, right and centre. It’s also true that the Ao to Kuro have failed to balance out late, late goals given away such as those against Kawasaki (h), Kyoto (h), Urawa (h), Cerezo (h) and Vissel (a) with enough last-gasp strikes of their own, Shimizu (a) and Fukuoka (a) the only examples that readily spring to mind. Only 3 league games remain and if Gamba are to miraculously escape their current predicament then not only will performance levels need to go up several notches, but VAR is probably going to have to come to the Nerazzurri’s aid at some point too. I won’t hold my breath.

* More New Blood for 2023 – On Tuesday 4 October, Gamba announced their second signing for the 2023 campaign in the shape of 156cm tall Shizuoka Gakuen High School number 10 Ryuta Takahashi. Takahashi, who hails from Nagaokakyo in Kyoto just like Takashi Usami and Akihiro Ienaga, previously turned out alongside fellow 2023 new recruit Harumi Minamino for Gamba Junior Youth from the ages of 12-15 before heading east to Shizuoka. Several articles in the Japanese press have pointed out that he’s a two footed player who excels at dribbling and creating chances. I’m guessing the club see him as the long-term successor to Usami and I’ll be the first to slap the ‘Japanese Messi’ tag on him. No pressure then, eh?

* And finally….I caught my first sighting of the annual Akihiro Ienaga back to Gamba transfer rumour which allows me to bring up an extremely niche reference from my younger days of Scottish playmaker David Bingham being linked to my favourites Ayr United seemingly every summer while he was still playing and for several years after he retired as something of a running joke among the Honest Men’s support.

David Bingham, aka ‘the Scottish Ienaga’

Team News

Mitsuki Saito is suspended after picking up his fourth yellow card of the season in the home draw with Kashiwa Reysol while Shu Kurata, Keisuke Kurokawa, Kosuke Onose and Patric are all just a single caution shy of reaching the one-match ban threshold. Other than that it’s a clean bill of health for the rest of the Gamba squad.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Yokohama F. Marinos

Brazilian winger Yan Matheus from Moreirense in Portugal was the sole arrival at Nissan Stadium this summer with 3 youngsters leaving on loan deals, and the 24 year-old has already made his mark, scoring in the 3-0 home win over Shonan at the beginning of September. Looking ahead to this winter, after the glamour friendly with Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma is done and dusted, kantoku Kevin Muscat and the aforementioned duo of Iwata and Fujita could draw attention from Europe, I’m sure there are plenty who would relish a Muscat vs Postecoglou, Rangers vs Celtic battle…and probably quite a few who’d dread it too, to be fair. In the past, I’ve often praised Marinos’ City Football Group assisted overseas recruitment for giving them an edge over their rivals while at the same time I’ve questioned the methodology behind some of their domestic moves. However, the success of the likes of Iwata (ex-Oita) and Fujita (Tokushima), in addition to the captures of Takaoka (Tosu), Nagato (Kashima), Watanabe (Verdy) and Nishimura (Sendai) in recent years shows they’ve certainly learned from past mistakes. For 2023 they’ve taken a slightly unusual step, well for them in recent years anyway, and that is to sign 2 players from Kanto-based universities. Attacker Yuhi Murakami (Kanto Gakuin University) and midfielder / full-back Takuto Kimura (Meiji University, formerly of Marinos Youth), will join the squad ahead of what, I presume, will be the defence of their title. Also, there’s been no official announcement yet, but I’ve heard good things about Marinos Youth forward Kotaro Uchino and he’s on a type-2 amateur contract with the top team this year while Murakami and Kimura have designated special player deals, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Uchino, who’s been scoring for fun in the Prince Takamado Cup, makes the step up next season. As per usual, the Tricolor have a legion of loanees out at a variety of clubs across the archipelago and even over in South Korea (Jun Amano). They currently number 14 in total and in my book, winger Eitaro Matsuda looks to be the one most capable of breaking into the Marinos top team in the near future. With his current side Albirex Niigata only goal difference away from sealing a return to top flight, it may be expedient to leave him at the Big Swan for one more year to allow him to fully mature. With so many players under contract, it’s likely to be an extremely busy winter in and around the Nissan Stadium and should they be able to use the title ‘J1 Champions 2022’ to attract new talent then their rivals had better watch out.

Team News

Injury-prone winger Ryo Miyaichi is currently out with a serious knee ligament injury sustained on international duty in July and isn’t due back until next spring, while left-back Katsuya Nagato is just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4. Experienced full-back Ken Matsubara dropped out of the squad for the 4-0 rout of Nagoya last weekend, but I think that was just due to the return of Ryuta Koike and I have no reason to believe that he or any other members of the Marinos squad are presently unavailable.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Gamba Osaka vs Kashiwa Reysol 1 October 2022 Match Preview

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

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

Tale of the Tape

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

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

First Match Recap

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

Gamba Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team News

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Kashiwa Reysol

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

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

Team News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Scouting J2 2022

Hello Everyone,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Odds and Ends

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

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


Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka 18 September 2022 Match Preview

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

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

Tale of the Tape

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

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

First Match Recap

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

Gamba Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

Team News

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

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

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

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

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Vissel Kobe

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

Team News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


An Ode to Sagan Tosu

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

Hi Everyone,

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

First Match Recap

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

Sagan Tosu

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

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


Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka 31 August 2022 Match Preview

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

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

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

Tale of the Tape

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

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

First Match Recap

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

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

Gamba Osaka

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

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

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

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

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

Team News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Avispa Fukuoka

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

Team News

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

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

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

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

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

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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

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