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5 factors that will define Gamba’s season

With Gamba midway through their first training camp in Okinawa and me now fully settled back in Japan after a Christmas break Down Under, I thought it would be a good time for my first blog post of 2020. Again any feedback, opinions and constructive criticism are always welcome on Twitter.

#1 The Usami-Ademilson partnership
We all know that Takashi Usami is a prolific scorer in J1, he currently has 52 goals in 132 games in the competition and netted 7 in 14 at the end of 2019 (including 6 in the final 7 league matches when he stopped dropping deep so much). Perhaps the most impressive feature of his return home was how quickly he and Ademilson rebuilt their strike partnership after 3 years apart. I have been quick to criticise the Brazilian, but as part of my 2020 New Year’s resolution, I’m going to try and do that less this year. He shut me up last season largely by netting double figures in J1 for the first time in his career and also contributing 7 assists (8 if you included Kim Jin-hyeon’s own goal in the away match at Cerezo). Like a pre-Liverpool Sadio Mane, however, if you break the numbers down, you will find wild inconsistencies. Ade netted 4 in the first 5 J1 games and then 4 in the last 7 (when he played alongside Usami), but, in between there is a glaring 22 game run spanning 6 months which produced just 2 goals. I am in confident mood ahead of 2020 and say that Usami and Ademilson will combine for at least 25 goals this season!

#2 Who will play in the midfield triangle?
At the tail end of 2019 with Gamba on their way to 5 wins and 16 points from their last 7 matches which would propel them to a flattering 7th spot in the final standings, these places were filled by; Yasuhito Endo in the anchor role, with Shinya Yajima playing just ahead to the right alongside Yosuke Ideguchi to his left. Endo, veteran of 630 J1 games and due to turn 40 on January 28 doesn’t have much gas left in the tank and could be in his final year as a pro. Rumours of a move for Korean international Ju Se-jong seem to have come to nothing with the 29 year-old seemingly opting to stay at FC Seoul and play ACL football in 2020. This leaves the likely midfield three to be; Yajima in the anchor role, providing an energetic presence in front of the back 3 that Endo is no longer able to give, Ideguchi and the now fully-fit Shu Kurata just ahead of him. Kurata was Gamba’s joint-second top league scorer in 2019 with 7 goals and with a full pre-season under his belt I’d expect Ideguchi to contribute 4-5 goals this campaign. All the foreigner spots seem to be locked down and I don’t see any new blood coming in, so a midfield triangle consisting of Yajima, Ideguchi and Kurata with Endo getting game time in matches where Gamba are expected to dominate seems to be the way things will go. New signing from Kwansei Gakuin, Yuki Yamamoto will also likely feature at some point, but initially, at least, it’ll probably be from the bench and in the cups.

#3 Who will win out in the battle of the wing-backs?
If shirt sales were a factor in selecting the starting line-up then it’d be no contest and we’d see Kosuke Onose down the right and Yuya Fukuda down the left. This may well be what’ll happen at certain times, but, in all honesty I think we’ll see Fukuda return to what is supposed to be his favoured position down the right where he’ll compete with Onose, now the blue eyed boy of the Gamba faithful after turning down Champions Yokohama F.Marinos this winter. Onose netted 7 times in 30 J1 games last time out and Fukuda will need to up his output of 1 goal and 2 assists in 17 games if he wants to compete. Both players are versatile and can potentially play attacking midfield roles if required by Director Miyamoto who seems to have a real thing for players who can fill a number of positions.
Down the left, while Fukuda can play well there, I expect to see the experienced Hiroki Fujiharu and Kansai University graduate Keisuke Kurokawa battle it out. Fujiharu is in possession of the jersey at the moment after recovering from an injury plagued 2019, while I don’t know much of Kurokawa, save for 1 J1 game and 2 League Cup appearances last year while a special designated player, he does come highly rated and Gamba have a decent record with university recruits.

#4 More of the same in the back 3, or will Miyamoto shake things up?
Captain Genta Miura has apparently spurned the advances of Belgian side Sint Truidense to remain at the club and as long as that remains true, he and Kim Young-gwon will be automatic picks at the back. Who plays alongside them is the interesting question. There appear to be 4 candidates at the moment; Shunya Suganuma, Ryo Shinzato, Oh Jae-suk and Ryu Takao, let’s look at each individually. Suganuma finished the season in the role, playing the last 5 games and making a total of 15 J1 appearances, I like him, but feel he has limitations and a club looking to qualify for the ACL should be looking at someone a little better. Shinzato is a new signing on loan from relegated Jubilo Iwata, he played 20 times in J1 in 2019, but new head coach Fernando Jubero didn’t seem to fancy him, so he spent the end of the campaign out of the team. I don’t know a lot about him, but a quick scan through his career history seems to suggest he’s at a similar level to Suganuma.
Thirdly there’s Oh Jae-suk who spent the 2nd half of 2019 with his old Gamba boss Kenta Hasegawa at FC Tokyo. Better known as a right or left full back in his previous spell in Suita, playing as a 3rd centre back as he did in a couple of League Cup games last year may be his best shot of cracking the starting eleven. Ryu Takao, essentially signed as an attacking right-back from Kwansei Gakuin a year ago, played 18 games as the 3rd centre half before losing his position to Suganuma after the 2-2 draw at home to Kawasaki in mid-October. He did ok considering it’s not really his position, but I’m not sure the experiment will continue this season.
So to sum up, I’d expect Suganuma to start the season alongside Kim and Genta, but Shinzato will push him hard and either he or Jae-suk could earn a starting role if they play well in the Levain Cup.

#5 Can Jun Ichimori mount a genuine challenge to Higashiguchi’s number one spot.
Short answer no. The former Okayama man comes highly rated and had a decent season with Fagiano, playing 34 times in J2, but Higashiguchi was in solid form in 2019 and was an ever-present in J1. Barring injury or a serious loss of form by Higashiguchi, I can only see Ichimori being a very solid backup who plays in the cups.
Another interesting goalkeeper related topic his how youngsters, Mizuki Hayashi and Kosei Tani do during their loan spells at Renofa Yamaguchi and Shonan Bellmare respectively. As you know, Tani is my tip to replace Higashiguchi long-term, and I guess he has a decent shot at starting for Shonan, otherwise why would Gamba loan him to another J1 team to sit on the bench when he could get regular game time in J3 while training with Higashiguchi on a daily basis if he stayed put. Hayashi, on the other hand, may have selected the wrong side to join, although there is a good relationship between Gamba and Renofa, he faces fierce competition for a starting berth from Daisuke Yoshimitsu and Genki Yamada, I feel Okayama, now devoid of Jun Ichimori, may have been the better choice for him.

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End of season review

After a pretty mediocre 2019 spent mostly in the bottom half of the table but ultimately ending in a 7th place finish, it’s time to look at the state of Gamba’s squad and make some predictions regarding player movements ahead of the 2020 season. I’ll go through each player one by one based on their number. All ages given are as of 1 January 2020.

#1 Masaaki Higashiguchi – goalkeeper – 33 (years old) – An excellent season between the sticks and at 33, he’s still got plenty of good years ahead of him. Only his age is preventing him from a national team recall at the moment.

#4 Hiroki Fujiharu – left-back – 31 = Plagued by injuries this year, he did however manage to break through the 200 J1 appearances barrier. Better as an orthodox left-back than a wing-back, in my opinion and it’ll be interesting to see the battle between him and Keisuke Kurokawa for a starting berth in 2020.

#5 Genta Miura – centre-back / occasional right-back – 24 – I was never his biggest fan, but he won me over with some solid displays which earned him a recall to the national team. Being dropped for a couple of games and then played at right-back during the early season slump seemed to shake him out of the complacency which had dogged him in 2018. Rumours circling that Jleague Champions Yokohama F.Marinos have bid for him, hopefully, despite them being able to offer Champions League football, he decides that he doesn’t want to battle Hatanaka and Thiago Martins for a starting position and instead stays to fight to bring ACL football back to Suita in 2021.

#7 Yasuhito Endo – centre-midfield / deep-lying playmaker – 39 – He’ll be 40 by the time the 2020 campaign kicks off, so this year will surely be the one where he starts to see his playing time become much more limited similar to Kengo Nakamura at Kawasaki Frontale this year (Gamba’s apparent overtures to FC Seoul midfielder Ju Se-jong appear to confirm this). Still he’ll be a great help to the crop of younger midfielders coming through.

#8 Kosuke Onose – right-winger / wing-back – 26 – Built on a promising end to 2018 by having a breakout season this year (7 J1 goals and 4 assists). He saw off competition from new signings Tanaka, Susaeta, Concha and Suzuki to remain the undisputed first choice in his position and I’d expect him to kick on further in 2020. Hopefully this will be with Gamba as his form has not gone unnoticed, FC Tokyo and Yokohama F.Marinos are credited with bids to lure him away from Osaka next year. Slightly surprising that he didn’t get a call up for the EAFF Cup this month.

#9 Ademilson – centre-forward – 25 – Started and finished the season on fire with 4 goals in the first 5 matches and 3 in the final 3, however in between there was a lot of mediocre play, so he’s clearly very much a confidence player. Still, his end of season stats look good, leading Gamba in both goals and assists, 10 and 8 respectively. His renewed partnership with Usami looks to be blossoming which could bode well for next year. Supposedly Urawa were interested in him, but he is rumoured to have penned a new deal with Gamba and hopefully he can beat his 2019 goal-scoring tally next year.

#10 Shu Kurata – attacking midfielder – 31 – Winner of the Mr.Gamba player of the year award after netting 7 times before a broken jaw against Kawasaki Frontale in October derailed his season somewhat. One of my favourite Gamba players, depending on the formation he can competently play 4 or 5 different positions (note to Gamba front office – please stop signing players in his position) although his main flaw is that he picks up too many bookings.

#11 David Concha – right / left-winger – 23 – No idea why he was signed, must have been due to Spanish players becoming the new Brazilians in Jleague teams’ eyes. Wasn’t even given a decent run with the U23 side to prove himself. Everything was wrong about this signing; the timing – just after the season started, the lack of any Spanish support staff / team-mates and his position – one Gamba were well covered in. I’m sure he’ll be back in Spain next year and will most likely go onto have a journeyman career.

#13 Shunya Suganuma – centre-back – 29 – Got a decent run alongside Miura and Kim in the last 5 games of the year and let nobody down. Still, for a team chasing the top 3, he is much better as a backup than a regular starter. The only Gamba Youth defender in the current squad, I expect him to stay, but I also expect him to return to the bench for 2020.

#14 Markel Susaeta – right-winger – 32 – He most definitely has the experience and pedigree to be a success, however signing him with only 9 league games left didn’t really give him much of a chance to bed in. Couple that with the fact that he plays in the same role as Onose, arguably Gamba’s 2019 player of the year, bringing him in could be seen as a big waste of money. However, given a good pre-season and time to settle into life in Japan I believe he could be a useful player and I’d like to see him stay.

#15 Yosuke Ideguchi – centre-midfield – 23 – Delighted to have him back, he didn’t quite hit the highs of his previous spell with the club, but this was understandable due to his injury problems while in Europe. I’ve no doubt that a fully-fit Ideguchi will go on to be a mainstay in Gamba’s midfield for the next decade. His 2 goals against Matsumoto gave a hint of what may be to come, with Kurata and Onose (if he stays) contributing 14 goals between them from midfield, another 5-6 from Ideguchi would compliment that nicely.

#17 Yuto Suzuki – right / left wing-back / winger – 26 – Brought in on loan mostly as injury cover he largely did what was expected of him. He played on the left a few times which really isn’t his position even though he’s listed as being able to play there. Honestly I don’t think he’s good enough to be anything more than backup for a team aiming to finish in the top half of J1. Had decent spells with Yamagata and Mito in J2, a move back to one of them would be good business for both parties.

#18 Patric – centre-forward – 32 – I’m not totally sure why he was pushed out of Sanfrecce in favour of Douglas Vieira, but I was happy to see him rejoin Gamba on loan mid-season. He started off well, but then fell behind the resurgent Watanabe in the pecking order for a while. It’s being reported that he’ll sign on permanently and he’d definitely be an excellent backup and potential mentor for young Kazunari Ichimi.

#19 Kim Young-gwon – centre-back – 29- A fairly solid season from him, 1 goal and 1 assist from 32 J1 games. This is the kind of signing I like to see Gamba make (along with Usami and Ideguchi), he’s fairly low risk and relatively high reward. My only slight concern is that a 76 times capped South Korean who’s played in 2 World Cups and captained his country on occasion should really be the best centre-back in Jleague, shouldn’t he? Yet although he performed competently throughout the year, I don’t see him anywhere near anyone’s team of the year….maybe I’m being a bit overcritical and I definitely hope he stays, Gamba have a good track record of signing Koreans and his presence makes it much easier to attract more of them.

#20 Daisuke Takagi – left-winger – 24 – Hopefully he was signed with 2020 in mind otherwise he can be filed under the category of pointless signings (he’ll have plenty of company in there). He plays in positions that were already well covered and as twitter video evidence showed in physical training he’s still not quite up to the rigours of J1 yet. Hopefully he can improve and become more of a regular next year, adding to his 2 J1 sub appearances in 4 months at the end of this season.

#21 Shinya Yajima – centre-midfield / deep-lying playmaker – 25 – A pleasant surprise for me this year, he bounced back well after a very disappointing 2018. With Endo likely to feature less next year I’d like to see him continue to form a good partnership in the midfield engine-room alongside Ideguchi. Got 4 assists and 1 goal (the winner at home to Shimizu) in 27 league games, comfortably the most J1 appearances he’s made in 1 year in his career to date, possibly the most improved player this year.

#23 Mizuki Hayashi – goalkeeper – 23 – Barely played last year as Higashiguchi had no injury worries. From what I’ve seen of him he’s a decent ‘keeper but he needs game time and that’s not going to come at Gamba in 2020 with Higashiguchi the established number one and young Tani breathing down his neck. Wouldn’t be surprised at all if he went out on loan to a J2 side to get much needed match practice.

#24 Keisuke Kurokawa (designated special player) – left-back / wing-back – 22 – Featured a couple of times this year but I didn’t see him play. He comes pretty highly rated and Gamba have had some decent success in recent seasons bringing in players from universities so I’ve got high hopes for him.

#26 Kohei Okuno – centre-midfield – 19 – He struggled in the first part of this year with injuries but went on to put in some solid performances in midfield for the U23s in J3. He seems similar in style to Takahiro Ko so I don’t see many opportunities for him in the first team at the moment. He was played as a full-back at times in J3 but that’s definitely not his position (though it seems to be in vogue at the moment for central-midfielders to play right-back). A whole-hearted performer and one of my favourite Gamba U23 players this year.

#27 Ryu Takao – right-sided centre-back / right-back – 23 – Another pleasant surprise this year, I watched him make his senior debut as a marauding full-back against Vanraure Hachinohe back in March and would never have guessed he’d go on to play over 20 games at centre-back in J1. Gamba should sign more players directly from university as they seem to be better at it than getting them from other J1 teams. He was brought in to play right-back, so I’d like to see him get a run in his favoured position at some point.

#28 Yuki Yamamoto (designated special player) – attacking-midfielder – 22 – From Kwansei Gakuin like Takao so hopefully he’ll make a similar impact. He plays in a position that’s well covered at the moment so he may need to be patient in the search for game-time.

#29 Leo Takae – central / attacking midfielder – 21 – I really like him as a player and he improved a good deal over the course of 2019. If he’s going to play in an attacking midfield role, he is going to have to add goals to his game or Yamamoto will quickly overtake him in the pecking order. A loan move to a good J2 side can’t be out of the question now that the U23 team is gone.

#30 Naoaki Aoyama – centre-back – 33 – Signed to be the backup to the backup centre-back, he did all that was expected of him. If he’s content at this stage of his career to play a handful of League Cup and Tennohai games a year then he’ll stay, otherwise I’m sure he could play more regularly in a middling J2 side.

#31 Ken Tajiri – goalkeeper – 26 – Returned this year after an 18-month loan spell at Kanazawa and spent most of the campaign covering for Tani in J3. If Hayashi goes out on loan I’d expect him to hang around but otherwise with no U23 team he faces the choice of being 4th choice ‘keeper or heading for a career with a much smaller club in J3 or JFL.

#32 Ren Shibamoto – deep-lying playmaker / centre-midfield – 20 – Really improved a lot as one of the senior players in the U23 side this year. Very much in the Andrea Pirlo role, he’s well positioned to become more of a regular in 2021 or 2022 whenever Endo eventually retires. I wouldn’t be averse to seeing him go out on loan next year, preferably to a J2 side who like to play attractive football,

#33 Takashi Usami – attacking-midfielder / centre-forward – 27 – Along with Endo, he’s my all-time favourite Gamba player and I’m really happy he came back. It took him a while to get going this year, but he still ended up with 7 goals in 14 games to be joint 2nd in the Gamba goalscoring charts. His partnership with Ademilson next year will be key, 25-30 goals between them would definitely put Gamba in with a shot of cracking the top three.

#34 Yuya Fukuda – left / right wing-back – 20 – I was very impressed with how he improved throughout the year and when he struggled with injuries in the latter part of the season, he was missed. If he improves on his output – goals and assists – then he could be the next young Gamba protege to head to Europe. Onose’s departure, should it happen, would be a blow, but it could also allow Fukuda to nail down a first team slot down his favoured right flank.

#35 Tatsuya Yamaguchi – left-back – 19 – He’s played a lot of league games for someone so young and is always a tireless performer. That said, I didn’t see a whole lot of improvement from him this year (although he had set the bar pretty high in 2018). At the moment he’s behind Fujiharu, Fukuda and Kurokawa in the pecking order (plus he has new Korean import Shin Won-ho for company) so he may well join a J3 side on loan in 2020.

#36 Riku Matsuda – centre-back / right-back – 20 – Made big improvements this year after being given the U23 captaincy and moving to centre-back. His height (175cm) may be an issue when it comes to playing centre-back in J1 but with Gamba U23 he improved his positioning and game-reading skills a lot which allowed him to mostly negate this. He was also able to talk Takahashi and Ono through games when he became the senior figure at the back after Noda’s loan move to Yamagata. I’d like to see him challenge for a starting slot next year and get some serious game time in the cups.

#37 Haruto Shirai – right-winger / centre-forward – 20 – He’s exclusively named as a centre-forward everywhere I’ve seen but the first 5-6 times I saw him play was on the right-wing and he only went up top when there was basically no-one else left to play there for the U23s. He’s very quick and tricky but needs to work on his goalscoring. I’m not sure if there are attitude / fitness issues with him as at times last year he was benched for high-school kids in J3 and was also often subbed with 30-35 minutes to go despite playing well. Sadly, I don’t see him making it at Gamba at the moment and a move to a J3 or JFL side may suit all parties.

#39 Kazuma Watanabe – centre-forward – 33 – I always thought he was slightly overrated when he was at Kobe but I definitely see the qualities he brings since he’s come to Gamba. He was backup for most of the year, but his winner against Tosu was invaluable and his goal against Sapporo a couple of weeks later showed what he’s all about. With Ichimi, Goya (maybe) and Takagi all due to come back after loan spells, I don’t see him playing anywhere near regularly with Gamba, and although I’d be happy for him to stay, he is a veteran with an eye for goal and any J2 side and even a few in J1 would benefit from his signature.

#41 Kosei Tani – goalkeeper – 19 – An injury hit 2019 still saw him earn a call-up to the Japan U22 squad in October. I really rate him and see him as the natural successor to Higashiguchi. If Hayashi goes out on loan next year, expect to see him move up to number 2 in the pecking order and get game-time in both cup competitions.

Kantoku – Tsuneyasu Miyamoto – 42 – A steep learning curve for him this year after everything going right for him in 2018. The horror start to the year (7 defeats in the first 11 games) could have seen the end of other managers, but to his credit he changed the formation and personnel and 39 points were gleamed from the remaining 23 league matches to earn a respectable 7th place finish. If the correct players are brought in and retained and ACL push and potentially +30,000 attendances will be expected.

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Gamba vs Matsumoto Yamaga Match Preview

Gamba Osaka (9th) vs Matsumoto Yamaga F.C. (17th)
2019 Meiji Yasuda J1 League Round 33

30 November 2019 at 14:00 JST
Panasonic Stadium Suita

It’s Gamba’s final home game of the season on Saturday as relegation strugglers Matsumoto Yamaga make their first ever league visit to Panasonic Stadium Suita. Second half strikes from attacking duo Takashi Usami and Ademilson saw Gamba overcome a dogged Vegalta Sendai at home last week while Yamaga went down 1-0 in Nagano against championship chasers Yokohama F.Marinos.

A win for Gamba could see them overtake 8th place Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo who currently sit just 2 points ahead of them in the standings and travel to Kyushu to face Sagan Tosu on Saturday. Matsumoto are in second last place on the ladder with 30 points from 32 games which puts them a mere 2 points ahead of bottom club Jubilo Iwata and 2 behind 16th place Shonan Bellmare who they face at home in their final league game on December 7th. Essentially they need to win this week and next to drag themselves into the relegation play-off spot and then take their chances in a one-off match at home to Omiya/Tokushima/Kofu/ Yamagata if they want to survive.

Gamba have upped their goalscoring output from 41 in 34 J1 games last year to 47 in just 32 so far this campaign. Additionally in 2018, Korean hitman Hwang Ui-jo netted 39% of Gamba’s league goals (16 of 41), while things have been much more evenly spread this time round with Ademilson in first place in the scoring charts, having found the back of the net 8 times in J1 (17%). There have also been strong midfield contributions from Shu Kurata (7 goals) and Kosuke Onose (6) as well as returning hero Takashi Usami scoring at a rate of one goal every two games (6 in 12) since coming back from Germany in the summer.

On the other hand, the main stats you need to know about Matsumoto are that they’ve scored just 19 times in 32 J1 matches (0.59 per game), the worst goalscoring record in the league by far (Jubilo are 17th with 26 goals) and their top scorer this year is forward Ryo Nagai who has just 3 league goals to his name in addition to 3 assists. Yamaga’s style of play under head-coach Yasuharu Sorimachi can certainly be described as ultra defensive, though it could also be argued that due to financial constraints he was unable to bring in the players necessary to play a more expansive brand of football. The men in green and white started the season promisingly, but have been near the foot of the table for the majority of the year. Their mid-season transfer dealings, which could have seen them aim for a push up the table instead seemed to have the opposite effect and this has greatly hindered their chances of survival. Both of their main attacking threats from the first part of the season departed, the pacy Daizen Maeda (Maritimo) and Brazilian giant Leandro Pereira (Sanfrecce Hiroshima on loan, in exchange for Hiroki Mizumoto). The second of the two transfers makes little sense in hindsight as Mizumoto, although doing well, essentially only strengthened an already decent defence whereas Pereira’s exit weakened an already weak attack. Other summer arrivals were J2 attacker Toyofumi Sakano from Montedio Yamagata (1 goal in 12 games), full-back / midfielder Masaki Yamamoto on loan from JEF United (1 sub appearance), left-back Toshiya Takagi from Kashiwa Reysol (1 sub appearance) and Portuguese/Guinea-Bissau striker Isma (a bit of a footballing nomad, he last played in Iran) who only managed his debut off the bench last week.

Gamba defeated Matsumoto 3-1 in the reverse fixture back in June with Hwang Ui-jo opening the scoring to send Gamba into the break ahead. Masaki Iida headed Yamaga level early in the second half before a fine Shu Kurata strike put Gamba back in front 3 minutes later and Hwang got his second of the game late on to seal the deal. Indeed the half-time score in this game could be crucial, Matsumoto are yet to lose when they’ve been ahead at half-time this year (6 games) while Gamba are yet to win when they’ve been behind (2 draws and 7 losses). It should also be noted that 8 of Gamba’s 10 wins so far in 2019 have come after they were level at the halfway point, so they panic button is unlikely to be pressed if they don’t find an early goal against Yamaga’s miserly defence.

Gamba’s win over Sendai last week improved their home league record to 24 points from 16 games and extended their home league unbeaten run to 12 matches (6 wins and 6 draws), they currently have the 8th best home league record in 2019. Matsumoto’s counter attacking style has had slightly more success on the road than in Nagano, 17 of their 30 points and 4 of their 6 wins this year have come away from home. They last won at home in the league on April 20 (1-0 against Sagan Tosu), but since then they have defeated Nagoya (1-0), Urawa (2-1) and most recently Sendai (1-0) on their travels. With all that said, they still only have the 15th best away record in J1 and unsurprisingly have scored the least amount of goals on opposition turf this season (10 in 16 games).

Team News:
Shu Kurata’s return from injury off the bench against Sendai last weekend means that Gamba have a fully fit squad to choose from for this encounter. Following the convincing second half display in the Vegalta game, changes are likely to be at a premium. I’d say the only possible switch would be Kurata returning to the starting line up at the expense of either Yajima or Endo. At almost 40, Gamba’s number 7 looked a bit leggy last week and may be in need of a break, so I’ll say he’ll be the one to make way allowing the younger Yajima to provide a bit more cover in front of a back 3 that was a little exposed at times during the first half of last week’s clash.

Matsumoto generally line up in the same 3-5-2 formation as Gamba (they did start the season playing 3-4-2-1) and have a core of about 15-16 players who play regularly. In goal will be the 191cm Tatsuya Morita, the man who replaced Masaaki Higashiguchi in Niigata. He will be behind a vastly experienced back 3 of; on-loan Sanfrecce Hiroshima veteran Hiroki Mizumoto (34 years old), the long-serving Masaki Iida (34), who scored in the home match against Gamba and the popular Yuya Hashiuchi (32). Former Nagoya and Shonan wide-man Ryo Takahashi will likely be at left wing-back having played 30 times already this season and last week saw veteran Hayuma Tanaka (37) play down the right side, he’ll make his 418th J1 appearance if selected for this one. In the midfield triangle, the diminutive Ibuki Fujita will sit at the base and it’s likely to be ex-Kashima Antlers attacking midfielder Taro Sugimoto, possessor of a fierce right-footed shot (that Cerezo know all about) and Yuzo Iwakami playing just ahead of him. Top scorer Ryo Nagai was partnered in attack last week by summer signing Toyofumi Sakano, although another mid-season acquisition, the Bissau-Guinean international Isma debuted off the bench and could earn himself a starting berth this week. Other possible options include; 30 year-old Brazilian defensive midfielder Paulinho and attacking midfielder Keiya Nakami, formerly of Sagan Tosu. Brazilians; attacker Serginho and defender Eduardo are currently sidelined through injury, as is former JEF United attacking midfielder Yamato Machida.

Gamba have nothing but pride to play for this week and Matsumoto are battling to save their J1 skins so it would be prudent to give them some shot at a positive result. However, I feel that the current Usami and Ideguchi inspired Gamba will have just a bit too much in the tank for the defensive Yamaga and will prevail in a tight game, winning 1-0 with Usami again netting the decisive goal that could potentially confine Matsumoto to J2 for 2020.

Predicted Gamba Line-up:
GK 1 Masaaki Higashiguchi (33 years old/32 J1 apps in 2019 / 0 goals / 1 assist)
CB 13 Shunya Suganuma (29/13/0/1)
CB 5 Genta Miura (C) (24/29/1/0)
CB 19 Kim Young-gwon (29/30/1/0)
RWB 8 Kosuke Onose (26/28/6/4)
LWB 4 Hiroki Fujiharu (31/15/2/3)
DM 21 Shinya Yajima (25/25/1/3)
CM 15 Yosuke Ideguchi (23/11/0/0)
CM 8 Shu Kurata (31/29/7/1)
CF 33 Ademilson (25/30/8/6)
CF 33 Takashi Usami (27/12/6/1)

Subs: 23 Mizuki Hayashi (GK/23/0/0/0), 27 Ryu Takao (CB/RWB/23/18/0/0), 34 Yuya Fukuda (RWB/LWB/20/15/0/0) 7 Yasuhito Endo (CM/39/26/1/5), 14 Markel Susaeta (RW/LW/AM/31/5/0/0), 18 Patric (CF/31/11/2/1), 39 Kazuma Watanabe (CF/33/17/3/0)

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5 players Gamba could sign this winter

Following on from my rant on Twitter the other day about the potential signing of Hayato Nakama from Fagiano Okayama (note to those who missed it, it’s nothing personal against the player who I think has had a brilliant season, more that like Ide, Tanaka, Concha, Susaeta and Takagi before him there’s no place for him to play), I decided to outline where I think the current Gamba squad can be improved and which players would be the best fit.

I am working on the understanding that next year will see a continuation of 3-5-2 with Higashiguchi in goal, a back three of Kim, Miura and Suganuma / Takao (this 3rd centre-back spot needs upgrading), Fujiharu and Onose as wing-backs with Fukuda and Kurokawa providing back-up (please no more wing backs unless someone leaves). A midfield triangle with Yajima at the base and Ideguchi and Kurata more advanced (Endo will probably see much less action next year), so we could potentially bring in someone to play just in front of the back 3. Finally Usami and Ademilson (if he stays) will play up front with Ichimi and Goya back from loan to give support, Patric and or Watanabe may leave for fresh pastures therefore possibly allowing for a new signing here.

With that in mind, here are my 5 suggestions;

#1 Yoshinori Suzuki – 27 (years old) – Oita Trinita – Centre-back – Captain and an ever present for Oita for the past 4 seasons. He has been a rock and source of dependability for the men from Kyushu as they’ve soared to 7th in J1 this season. Ideally I like to see Gamba build from within and just add the odd signing from smaller clubs, and with the greatest of respect to Oita, Suzuki fits the bill exactly. At 184cm he has the size to form a formidable defensive line along with Genta Miura and Kim Young-gwon. If we are looking for someone with a bit more pace at the back then see option #3.

#2 Ryuho Kikuchi – 23 – Renofa Yamaguchi FC – Centre-back – He’s just completed his first season of senior football following his graduation from Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences (the same one as Hiroki Fujiharu) and quickly established himself as a key part of Yamaguchi’s defence. Renofa did concede 70 times in 42 games, but Kikuchi himself largely steered clear of the blame and managed 3 goals and 1 assist in 35 J2 games. I’d see the 188cm centre-half as a back-up initially, similar to what Yokohama F.Marinos are doing with Makito Ito, before hopefully nailing down a starting spot in the future.

#3 Tomoki Iwata – 22 – Oita Trinita – Centre-back / right-back – This is very much an either / or with option #1, Iwata’s club captain Suzuki. I’ve put Iwata lower on the list as owing to his status as a Japanese international following his call up to this year’s Copa America squad and his ongoing involvement with the Japanese Olympic team, I feel he’d be harder to prize away from Oita and may have better options elsewhere. At 178cm he’s quite small for an elite centre-back, but he does play on the right-side of a back 3 in a system very similar to Gamba. In addition he’s more pacy than Suzuki and can also play right-back if required.

#4 Ryota Nagaki – 31 – Kashima Antlers – Central-midfield / right-back – Before you start batting this one down, please hear me out. Nagaki may have played 46 games in all competitions for a strong Kashima side this year, so he could be seen as out of Gamba’s reach, but, he was reportedly on his way out of the club last winter as part of the deal that took Ryohei Shirasaki to Ibaraki. He’s also spent time at right full-back when Leo Silva and Kento Misao were fully fit and with the up-and-coming Shintaro Nago commanding more game time in the Antlers midfield, there is a slim chance Gamba could lure him to Osaka to provide a much needed shield in front of the back 3. Hidemasa Morita of Kawasaki would also fit this mould for me, but even if he’s behind Oshima and Tanaka at Frontale, I’m not sure we could get him (see Tatsuki Nara last year).

#5 Leonardo – 22 – Albirex Niigata – Centre-forward – Scored so many goals for Albirex in J2 this year that even Olunga’s 50 goals on the final day couldn’t overtake him. In all seriousness he netted 28 and assisted 6 in just 38 games making him one of the hottest properties in Asian football. Ademilson has been linked with Urawa (though the passion and commitment he showed on Saturday would suggest he’s going nowhere), however, if he stays, his partnership with Usami backed up by Goya and Ichimi (two other prolific scorers in J2 in 2019) probably means this deal would be dead in the water. If, on the other hand, Ademilson does become a Judas to the Gamba support and moves to Saitama, Leonardo would be the perfect replacement (Sugimoto in a swap deal would make heads explode). Gamba would be likely to face stiff competition from fellow J1 sides and even teams from China, the Middle East and Europe to land his services, but why not give it a shot?

Anyway, those are my thoughts, please let me know what you think on Twitter.

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Vegalta Sendai Match Preview

Gamba Osaka (9th) vs Vegalta Sendai (11th)
2019 Meiji Yasuda J1 League Round 32

23 November 2019 at 15:00 JST
Panasonic Stadium Suita

J1 returns after the final international break of the season with a clash between Gamba Osaka and Vegalta Sendai, two teams locked on 38 points in mid-table. Gamba currently lie 2 places above Sendai due to a superior goal difference and have accumulated their points total through 9 wins and 11 draws whereas Sendai have won 11 times and drawn 5. With only 3 rounds of games left, both teams will feel like their J1 status is almost secure for next season and any points taken from this game should guarantee safety. After this match, Gamba play Matsumoto Yamaga at home the following week and then AFC Champions League finalists Urawa Red Diamonds in the final round. Vegalta, on the other hand, face tricky fixtures, at home to Oita Trinita in round 33, before finishing away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on December 7th.

Vegalta come to Osaka on Saturday with the worst away record in the league this year, just 3 wins and 1 draw from 15 matches, however, they have won 2 of their last 3 games on the road, overcoming struggling Nagoya Grampus 2-0 as well as a surprisingly comfortable 3-1 win at Sapporo back in September. Gamba haven’t been defeated in the league at Panasonic Stadium Suita since Urawa left with all 3 points back on April 14th and have won 5 and drawn 6 of their following 11 home fixtures.

Sendai won the reverse encounter between the sides on April 28th, as goals in injury time at the end of the first and second half by Katsuya Nagato and former Gamba man Shun Nagasawa respectively saw them overturn Kim Young-gwon’s early effort. This was an identical outcome to the match played between the two in 2018 when Kazuma Watanabe fired Gamba ahead only for two second half goals to swing things in the direction of the home side. This is a lesson that doesn’t seem to have been learned from by Gamba this year as they’ve only converted half-time leads into victories on two occasions (out of 6 attempts) and indeed when they’ve trailed at the break in 2019 they’re yet to come back to gain all 3 points (2 draws and 7 defeats).

Golden Week 2018 was the last time these two sides played a league match in Osaka with Levir Culpi’s struggling outfit earning a 1-0 victory over a Sendai team which on paper looked much stronger than this year’s crop, featuring as it did the likes of Ko Itakura, Hiroaki Okuno, Gakuto Notsuda and Takuma Nishimura, all now departed. Shu Kurata’s 62nd minute finish was all that separated them and although the talismanic Gamba number 10 is unlikely to take any part in this game due to a cheekbone fracture, the men in blue and black will be looking for a similar outcome against a Sendai side which has definitely punched above it’s weight this season following the departures of the aforementioned players.

Team News:
Gamba had Kim Young-gwon, Genta Miura and Yosuke Ideguchi away on international duty, but welcome all three back into a squad which is now only missing Shu Kurata through injury. Miyamoto usually likes to make a couple of small changes following a defeat, so I feel we could see the return of Yuya Fukuda down the left side in place of Hiroki Fujiharu. Other options for small tweaks could be bringing Ryu Takao back in for Shunya Suganuma at centre-back or perhaps changing the dynamic up-front with Kazuma Watanabe or Patric coming in to partner Takashi Usami and thus providing a big target for crosses or long balls.

Most of Sendai’s best performances in recent weeks have come with them operating the 4-4-2 system, although they have used 3-4-2-1 quite extensively in the recent past. I’m working on the basis that they’ll go 4-4-2 for this one. Polish ‘keeper Jakub Slowik, who joined the club as a mid-season replacement for the now departed Japanese international Daniel Schmidt will be between the sticks. Veteran centre-back Yasuhiro Hiraoka, who will make his 300th J1 appearance in this match, is likely to be partnered by versatile Mozambique international Simao Mate with Koji Hachisuka at right-back and assist-king Katsuya Nagato (9 assists, 2 goals in 27 J1 games in 2019) on the left. Club legend Shingo Tomita will anchor the midfield alongside Yoshiki Matsushita, an acquisition from Vissel Kobe last winter. Another winter 2018-19 signing, Ryohei Michibuchi (Ventforet Kofu) usually plays on the right-wing and in-form ex-Urawa and Cerezo winger Kunimutsu Sekiguchi is enjoying an Indian Summer in his career down the left (4 goals and 1 assist in 20 J1 games). Up front, 192cm former Gamba star Shun Nagasawa will likely be partnered by wily Brazilian Ramon Lopes, both forwards have found the net 6 times in the league this year and are currently Sendai’s top scorers. As noted earlier Simao Mate is able to play in more than one position, if he moves into central-midfield it could open the door for another former Gamba player, Kim Jung-ya, to come into their defence. Powerful forward Ryo Germain, ex-FC Tokyo attacker Takuma Abe and the vastly experienced Naoki Ishihara are likely to provide attacking re-inforcement from the bench.

Gamba haven’t lost at home in the league for 7 months and Vegalta are owners of the worst away record this season, but J1 is rarely that predictable. A draw for both teams would most probably make them mathematically safe from relegation, so I believe we will see a tight, tactical scuffle that Gamba will ultimately edge through a Takashi Usami strike which will take him to within one goal of Ademilson and Kurata at the top of the Gamba goalscoring charts.

As an aside, because of Labour Thanksgiving Day, this will be my 4th home game of the season. The results of the previous three are; 0-1 vs Urawa (Gamba’s last home league defeat), and 1-1 against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata at either end of the Obon vacation. Goals scored by the opposition are Ewerton (Urawa) 87’, Leandro Pereira (Hiroshima) 90+2’ and Masato Nakayama (Iwata) 90+5’….so I guess what we can take from this is never give up Sendai….a 97th minute equaliser this time, anyone?

Predicted Gamba Line-up:
GK 1 Masaaki Higashiguchi (33 years old)
CB 13 Shunya Suganuma (29)
CB 5 Genta Miura (C) (24)
CB 19 Kim Young-gwon (29)
RWB 8 Kosuke Onose (26)
LWB 34 Yuya Fukuda (20)
DM 7 Yasuhito Endo (39)
CM 15 Yosuke Ideguchi (23)
CM 21 Shinya Yajima (25)
CF 33 Ademilson (25)
CF 33 Takashi Usami (27)

Subs: 23 Mizuki Hayashi (GK/23), 27 Ryu Takao (CB/RWB/23), 4 Hiroki Fujiharu (LWB/30), 11 David Concha (RW/LW/AM/23), 14 Markel Susaeta (RW/LW/AM/31), 18 Patric (CF/31), 39 Kazuma Watanabe (CF/33)


Gamba News 10/11/19

A disappointing result for Gamba today in J1, going down 2-1 away to Oita Trinita, while they U23 side drew 3-3 at Iwate Grulla Morioka yesterday. Here’s my take on all the latest Gamba news.

# 1 Top half finish still a realistic prospect
I’m sure all Gamba supporters came away from today’s game with a feeling of what might have been, plenty of opportunities were created but only one taken and ultimately any chance to catch up with and pass Oita and Sapporo has now evaporated. That said, due to poor results for other team’s just behind Gamba, they remain in 9th place on a paltry 38 points. After the international break comes a home double header against Vegalta Sendai (11th, behind Gamba on goal difference, but the owners of the worst away record in the division) and Matsumoto Yamaga (17th, 30 points), two definitely winnable games which could see Gamba onto 44 points, a total unlikely to be overhauled by anyone further down the table regardless of the outcome of the Urawa game in the final day. 9th place (following on from 9th in 2018 and 10th in 2017) isn’t something that would have thrilled your average supporter had you asked them at the start of the season, but it looks like it’s going to be as good as it gets in 2019.

# 2 Away form a handbrake on the team’s progress
I felt strangely confident coming into the Oita game. As I wrote in the match preview, Trinita flew threw the first third of the season and have been in cruise control ever since. They are better away than at home and even after today’s win, they only have 5 victories in their last 19 J1 games. That Gamba were unable to come away with even a point is a testament to the fickleness of their road performances this year. After winning their first 2 games against Shimizu and Kawasaki, the only further away successes have been at struggling Matsumoto and Shonan. We haven’t lost at home in J1 for 7 months, but it that time have been well beaten at Cerezo, Tokyo and Yokohama as well as today’s loss….much improvement in mentality and tactical approach needed, I feel.

#3 How to judge this season….thoughts about next year
In 2017 Gamba defeated Cerezo 3-1 at home on 29 July to go third in the table after 19 matches but then conspired to win only one of their remaining fixtures and ended up 10th. The rot continued in the first half of 2018 and they only climbed out of the relegation zone after round 28 which fell in the middle of a 9 game winning run that ultimately saw a 9th place finish. This year started much like last with 7 defeats in the first 11 games which was been followed by personnel and tactical changes and a lot of average performances and may again result in a top half finish. However, the feel good factor that came with the Miyamoto appointment and the 9 game winning streak is not with me this time and I find myself desperately searching for reasons to be positive for 2020.
Here are some of my ideas for a better year;
* Better co-ordination between the front office and the coaching staff – too many players have been signed this year (and before) who the manager clearly didn’t want / need (Daisuke Takagi, Susaeta, Concha)
*Stick to the areas of recruitment we’re good at, namely; direct from the youth system (Gamba Youth have produced more internationals than any other JLeague club), players from high schools outwith Kansai (Keito Nakamura, Fukuda, Takae), players from university (Takao, Goya, Hiroyuki Abe, Fujiharu), ex-players (Ideguchi and Usami), and if we’re going to sign foreigners, maybe stick to South Koreans, we seem to be good at that.
*If we’re going to sign players from other J1 teams whose experience and age means that they’ll expect to play regularly, please consider if a) they play in a position that needs upgrading and b) they are better than players currently contracted to Gamba…I know this sounds obvious, but look at all transfer windows post 2014 for evidence of signings who don’t fit a, b or both.
*No more “Hail Mary” foreign signings – David Concha may or may not be a good player, no Gamba supporters really know, he was brought in after the season started, when we had no other Spanish speakers in the squad (Ademilson may have helped as I believe Spanish and Portuguese are mutually understandable)….he’s a young kid far away from home, at least give him a good chance of succeeding, ditto Susaeta, brought in with 9 matches left after being out of contract in Spain for a good 3 months, what kind of impact did we expect him to have? (this situation is made worse by the fact that neither player plays in a position that needs upgrading, if we’re going to go Spanish, what are Sergio Ramos or Gerard Pique up to?)
*Finally, please don’t sign any players in the same position as Kurata or Onose unless we either sell them or the new player is world class.

#4 2020 signings update
As I reported last week, it was confirmed that U23 assist king Shuhei Kawasaki would be joining the first team in 2020. He’ll be joined by fellow U23 left-winger / second striker (why did we sign Daisuke Takagi again?) Dai Tsukamoto….both players celebrated the news by scoring in Gamba U23’s 3-3 draw at the weekend, Tsukamoto even helped himself to an assist, setting up Kawasaki’s first half strike.

#5 Congratulations and good luck to those selected for international duty this week
Japan U22 vs Colombia….Kosei Tani
Japan vs Venezuela (Kirin Challenge)….Genta Miura and Yosuke Ideguchi
South Korea vs Lebanon and Brazil….Kim Young-gwon

Also….Gamba Youth and U23 forward Shoji Toyama represented Japan U17 in the World Cup, but unfortunately they were defeated 2-0 by Mexico in the last 16.

And finally….Gamba Youth defeated Avispa Fukuoka 3-1 today to reach the final of the Japanese Youth Cup….well done boys.


Shonan Bellmare Match Preview

Shonan Bellmare (16th) vs Gamba Osaka (10th)
2019 Meiji Yasuda J1 League Round 30
3 November 2019 at 16:00 JST
Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka

The only J1 fixture on Sunday is a massive clash for both sides with Gamba looking to take a giant step towards securing their J1 status for next season and Shonan hoping to halt a horror run of 7 league games without a win that has seen them slip into the promotion/relegation playoff spot.

Gamba won the reverse fixture between the two back in June with Ryotaro Meshino’s 91st minute wonderstrike all that separated them and this followed the pattern set last year when both teams won their respective home game 1-0.

Shonan have been in a state of shock since long serving manager Cho Kwi-jae was accused of power harassment and forced to step down. He has since been replaced by Bin Ukishima, but they have lost their previous 2 home games heavily, 5-0 against Kawasaki Frontale and 6-0 versus Shimizu S-Pulse. They last won at home on August 3rd when they upset Kashima Antlers by a score of 3-2 but in the 8 league games played since they’ve won just once (3-2 away to bottom club Jubilo Iwata on August 11th) and drawn twice, 1-1 away to Vegalta Sendai and at home to Urawa Reds. Their season has now reached a crisis point as they currently sit in 16th spot in the standings, just one point from safety but also only two points ahead of 17th place Matsumoto Yamaga who are in much better form than they are.

In contrast to Shonan, Gamba have taken 10 points from the previous 8 games (2 wins, 4 draws and 2 defeats), although they haven’t won away since defeating Matsumoto 3-1 at the end of June, one of only 3 victories on the road in 2019. They do know, however, that 3 points on Sunday would take them 7 clear of Shonan with only 4 games left and would surely just about guarantee their safety with remaining fixtures at home to Sendai (12th) and Yamaga (17th) as well as away matches against Oita (7th – nothing but pride to play for) and Urawa (9th – the result of this game is likely to be swung by what each team still has to play for, if anything on the final day.)

Team News:
Takashi Usami (left thigh) and Ademilson (hip) both missed the 2-2 draw at home to Kawasaki a fortnight ago, but return to the matchday squad for this crucial clash. Unfortunately attacking midfielder Shu Kurata, who netted his 7th league goal of the campaign against Frontale suffered a fractured cheekbone in the process and is likely to miss the rest of the season. Usami directly replacing Kurata is likely to be the only change to the starting line-up. Kosuke Onose did well in a more advanced role so I imagine he may get another run there with Hiroki Fujiharu once again at left wing-back and Yuya Fukuda on the right, which is supposed to be his favoured side anyway. Veteran forward Kazuma Watanabe should keep his place after netting 3 times in the last 4 league games meaning that Brazilian duo Ademilson and Patric will have to make do with spots on the bench.

Shonan generally set up their side in a similar style to Gamba with 3 centre-backs, against Yokohama F.Marinos in their previous game these were; Takuya Okamoto, Keisuke Saka and captain Kazunari Ohno. Their wing-backs were Shota Kobayashi on the right and 19 year-old rookie Toichi Suzuki on the left with Temma Matsuda and a recently returned from injury Shunsuke Kikuchi in the midfielder engine room. On loan Urawa Reds player Naoki Yamada and the rarely used Kazuki Yamaguchi played just off 187cm target man Ryogo Yamasaki who netted Bellmare’s consolation, his 5th league goal of 2019 which draws him level with Kosuke Taketomi as Shonan’s top scorer this season, Taketomi having already finished his loan and returned to Urawa after the Cho scandal broke. Experienced ‘keeper Yota Akimoto has been an ever present between the sticks for Bellmare this year. Due to their poor run, changes can be expected from Shonan with dangerous Brazilian attacker Crislan, former Urawa attacking midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki and left wing-back Daiki Sugioka, a Japan national team representative in this year’s Copa America, all potential starting options.

A tough one to call for me, in theory Shonan should be there for the taking following 5-0 and 6-0 thrashings in their last two home games, but Gamba’s away form hasn’t been great for the majority of the season so I’m kind of leaning towards a draw. Shonan’s defence is leaky, conceding 57 goals in just 29 games (2nd worst in the league after Shimizu) and Gamba do have a fondness for a 2-2 draw this year (4 in total including 3 away from home), so that’s what I’m going to opt for.

Predicted Gamba Line-up:
GK 1 Masaaki Higashiguchi (33 years old)
CB 27 Ryu Takao (22)
CB 5 Genta Miura (C) (24)
CB 19 Kim Young-gwon (29)
RWB 34 Yuya Fukuda (20)
LWB 4 Hiroki Fujiharu (30)
CM 21 Shinya Yajima (25)
CM 15 Yosuke Ideguchi (23)
AM 8 Kosuke Onose (26)
AM 33 Takashi Usami (27)
CF 39 Kazuma Watanabe (33)

Subs: 23 Mizuki Hayashi (GK/23), 13 Shunya Suganuma (CB/29), 7 Yasuhito Endo (CM/39), 29 Leo Takae (CM/AM/21), 14 Markel Susaeta (RW/LW/AM/31), 9 Ademilson (CF/25), 18 Patric (CF/31)


Gamba U23 squad review

With Gamba’s senior team having a weekend off due to the Levain Cup final between Kawasaki and Sapporo, the spotlight fell on the U23 side in J3, particularly as they were playing their final derby against Cerezo U23 before both clubs leave the league to make way for newcomers from the JFL.

Gamba U23 went into the match with no over-age players in their starting 11, only reserve goalkeeper Ken Tajiri. They took the lead in the 50th minute when Dai Tsukamoto played the ball to diminutive right-winger Jiro Nakamura and he somehow managed to squeeze the ball in from a tight angle. Cerezo U23 hit back late on and strikes from Mizuki Ando (83′) and Motohiko Nakajima (90+1′) earned them the 3 points and left Gamba in 14th spot in the standings with just 6 games remaining.

I decided to do something different with this week’s blog and I’ll use my crystal ball to predict the futures of the young players currently turning out for Gamba U23 (for reference; Tani, Yamaguchi, Okuno, Shibamoto, Shirai and Tajiri are on full professional contracts for this year, all the other players are currently high-school students who have type-2 amateur contracts which allow them to play);

#41 Kosei Tani – goalkeeper – 18 (years old) – injuries have restricted him to just 9 games so far this year, but he is clearly highly rated as evidenced by his call up to the Japan U22 squad earlier this month. Long term he is the natural successor to Higashiguchi in the top team and if Mizuki Hayashi goes out on loan next season, he could earn the backup spot and get game time in the cups.

#43 Shohei Ogushi – right-back – 17 – high school 2nd grader so ineligible for a senior contract next year. He’s been reasonably solid if unspectacular whenever I’ve seen him play. Gamba do have decent options in his position so it may be hard for him to make the step up to the first team in 2021.

#38 Hayate Toma – centre-back – 17 – another high school 2nd grader, he has only just come into the team and has definitely looked better playing alongside the more experienced Riku Matsuda. Too early to tell with him, but his height (185cm compared with Matsuda 175cm) is in his favour.

#42 Shinri Ono – centre-back – 17 – the 3rd 17 year old in the backline yesterday and similar to Toma he has looked better playing alongside a more experienced partner who can talk him through games. Very tall (187cm) and seen as a good prospect, though I’m not particularly convinced by him when he has the ball at his feet. He has another year of high school / youth team football to develop him and he could potentially be in line for a senior contract in 2021.

#35 Tatsuya Yamaguchi – left-back – 19 – Has played a lot of J3 football for someone so young (58 games and counting) but he hasn’t really kicked on this year after a stellar start last season (albeit in a much stronger side). Another thing going against him is that Fujiharu, Fukuda and Kurokawa are all blocking his path to a place in the starting lineup. Perhaps a loan move to a decent J3 side would be a good move for all parties in 2020.

#26 Kohei Okuno – central-midfield – 19 – Struggled early on in the season with injuries but since returning to full fitness he’s become one of my favourite Gamba U23 players. He has a decent pedigree after playing in the Under-17 world cup alongside former team-mate Keito Nakamura, however, his style is quite similar to Takahiro Ko who’s currently out on loan at Yamaguchi in J2. At the moment Ko is the better player of the two, so if he’s not near the starting eleven then I don’t see Okuno getting there anytime soon. Finally, I hope Morishita stops experimenting with him at full-back, it’s definitely not his position.

#32 Ren Shibamoto – central-midfielder – 20 – One of the senior statesmen in the side this year, he has really improved with the added responsibility. He has played mostly in the deep lying playmaker role (a la Yajima and Endo in J1) or more recently as an attacking midfielder. I’d say the deeper role suits him better and ideally I’d like to see him challenge Yajima next season. A loan move to a decent J2 team who play good football could also be beneficial.

#48 Jiro Nakamura – right-winger – 16 – A very exciting prospect who won’t be available for a pro contract until 2022. I’d expect him to be handed a type 2 contract next year and in 2021 to aid his development. He’s very tricky and nimble, similar in many ways to Takefusa Kubo, although naturally as he’s so young, the physical side of the game is too much for him and he can be a bit of a liability defensively.

#47 Shuhei Kawasaki – left-winger / occasional centre-forward – 18 – The player who I’m most confident will earn a pro contract for next year. He hasn’t scored yet in J3 but has 7 assists in 19 games this year. I feel his form has tailed off a bit as teams have grown wise to him, but he’s still a high-school kid so next year training with the top team would really aid his development.

#37 Haruto Shirai – right-winger / centre-forward – 20 – He’s listed almost everywhere as exclusively a centre-forward but I think I saw him play 6-7 times as a right-winger before he finally went up top and this was basically when there was almost no-one left to play there. He has bags of pace but is sometimes lacking in composure and he doesn’t have much to show in terms of output (goals and assists), kind of similar to Akito Takagi 2-3 years ago. I’m also not sure if there are fitness or attitude problems with him as he’s been on the bench a few times recently with high schoolers in the starting line up and I’ve also seen him subbed off with 30-35 minutes of a game to go when he was playing well. At the moment it’s hard to see him cracking the top team so he may be playing in J3 or JFL next season.

#49 Dai Tsukamoto – centre-forward / left-winger – 18 – Scored a memorable hat-trick against Tottori on his 18th birthday back in June but hasn’t really stepped up since then. He is eligible for a senior contract next year but with the U23 team being dissolved and the first-team squad presumably being a bit smaller I feel he might not quite make it.

Subs: #31 Ken Tajiri (GK), #44 Keishi Murakami (LB), #45 Ko Ise (CM)…Tajiri is at a career crossroads, with no U23 team next year he should leave for another J3 side, although if Hayashi goes out on loan he may stay on as backup. Murakami and Ise are both in high school 2nd grade and play in positions currently well covered in the top team so their futures remain a bit cloudy.

Final Thoughts
Riku Matsuda (centre-back / occasional right-back) is captain of the U23 side and was suspended for this game, I’d like to see him challenge Ryu Takao for a starting place in J1 next season as his leadership and reading of the game have really improved this season. Shoji Toyama (centre-forward) missed the game as he’s currently with Japan U17 at the U17 world cup, he looks a great prospect and has scored 7 goals in just 7 games this year (5 starts 2 sub) including a hat-trick in the 6-0 drubbing of Fukushima last month. He is really composed for a 17 year old and I’m sure good things lie ahead for him (type 2 contract next year, pro contract for 2021).

Regarding the bunch of type-2 players who featured earlier in the season (Hayato Okuda, Naoya Takahashi, Sho Nishimura, Yuto Nagao, Soma Meshino), I’m assuming that they are not playing now due to other commitments in their final year of high school (I could very well be wrong). Out of that group, who are all eligible for senior contracts next year, I’d say right-back Okuda and centre-back / occasional central-midfield Naoya Takahashi were the two players who impressed me most and would be most likely to join Kawasaki in earning their first professional contracts in 2020.


Weekend round-up

Gamba hold Kawasaki to 2-2 draw, move up to 9th place

Kawasaki came into the game in 4th place looking to close in on a Champions League place for next year while the home side were looking to ease lingering relegation worries. In the end both had to settle for a share of the spoils following an entertaining game.

Gamba, missing both Takashi Usami and Ademilson due to injury, pushed Kosuke Onose into a more attacking role just off veteran striker Kazuma Watanabe. This move paid immediate dividends as Shu Kurata and Onose exchanged passes down the left side and Onose then unleashed a thunderous strike from just outside the area which crashed off of the Kawasaki crossbar, bounced on the line, touched the crossbar again before rebounding to the grateful Watanabe who tapped into an empty net, 1-0 Gamba after just 5 minutes.

Kawasaki quickly settled after their early setback and dominated possession and territory for most of the rest of the half, however, they were unable to find an equaliser with tall Brazilian striker Leandro Damiao (an excellent selection as Gamba always struggle against tall or fast Brazilians – way too much respect given) going closest with a header just wide. Yajima and Ideguchi had half chances for Gamba but in truth Kawasaki would have felt slightly aggrieved not to go in level at half time.

The second half started with a surprise change for Kawasaki, impressive young midfielder Ao Tanaka, fresh from scoring a double for Japan U-22 midweek replacing the versatile Hidemasa Morita in central midfield. The switch seemed to galvanise Frontale and they quickly seized the initiative. On 51 minutes, Damiao nodded down for Ryota Oshima and he slid the ball past Masaak Higashiguchi in the Gamba goal. Just 12 minutes later Damiao was the scorer, Kyohei Noborizato broke down the right and fed the ball to ex-Gamba star Akihiro Ienaga who in turn found Damiao who was allowed to swivel (too easily?) and angle a shot past Higashiguchi. 2-1 to the reigning J1 champions.

Kawasaki’s lead was to be short-lived however, as just 2 minutes later Onose swung in a cross from the right and Kurata placed a beautiful header into the bottom corner, his 7th J1 goal of the current campaign which puts him joint 1st with Ademilson. That goal could be Kurata’s final contribution this season as after connecting he was knocked unconscious by Kawasaki right-back Noborizato who was late arriving for the header. Both players had to be replaced with head injuries and it was later revealed by Gamba that Kurata had suffered a fractured left cheekbone, get well soon Shu!

Akihiro Ienaga had two good chances to win the game late on but was off target on both occasions, while Gamba threw on ex-Frontale forward Patric in place of Watanabe, but to no avail. 2-2 the final score.

The result, coupled with others elsewhere moved Gamba up to 9th in the standings, the first time they’ve been in the top half since their round 4 win over Kawasaki back in March. Victory away to crisis-hit Shonan in 2 weeks would put us 7 points ahead of them with 4 games left to play. Following that up with positive results at home to Sendai (Nov 23) and Matsumoto (Nov 30) would surely secure J1 football for next year.

Gamba Osaka 2-2 Kawasaki Frontale
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Attendance: 25,748
Temp./Humidity: 24.8C / 57%

Gamba Osaka: Masaaki Higashiguchi; Ryu Takao, Genta Miura, Kim Young-gwon; Yuya Fukuda, Shinya Yajima, Yosuke Ideguchi, Hiroki Fujiharu (Markel Susaeta 62′); Kosuke Onose, Shu Kurata (Leo Takae 68′); Kazuma Watanabe (Patric 87′).
Unused Subs: Mizuki Hayashi, Shunya Suganuma, David Concha, Yasuhito Endo.
Goals: Watanabe 5′, Kurata 65′
Assists: Onose 65′
Yellow Cards: Fukuda 90+3′

Kawasaki Frontale: Shota Arai; Kyohei Noborizato (Yasuto Wakizaka 69′), Kazuya Yamamura, Shogo Taniguchi, Shintaro Kurumaya; Hidemasa Morita (Ao Tanaka 46′), Ryota Oshima; Akihiro Ienaga, Kengo Nakamura (Hokuto Shimoda 78′), Tatsuya Hasegawa; Leandro Damiao.
Unused Subs: Jung Sung-ryong, Manabu Saito, Yu Kobayashi, Kei Chinen.
Goals: Oshima 51′, Leandro Damiao 63′
Assists: Leandro Damiao 51′, Ienaga 63′
Yellow Cards: Ienaga 41′, Kurumaya 90+6′

Gamba U23 unable to stop winless run

Gamba U23, who’d stopped the rot of 4 successive defeats with a draw away to Gainare Tottori last week, were unable to go one better against Kamatamare Sanuki and had to once again settle for a point.

No overage players were selected for this game so the starting line up had an average age of just 18 years old and contained a mixture of 6 professionals and 5 high school students. Captain Riku Matsuda made his 50th J3 appearance in this game, while Shohei Ogushi returned at right back and Kohei Okuno moved into his more natural position of central midfield.

The first half was a rather cagey affair with Gamba U23’s best chances coming through free-kicks from Ren Shibamoto and Shuhei Kawasaki. In the end neither side could find the back of the net and it was goalless at the interval.

Gamba U23 rejigged things at half time, replacing central midfielder Ko Ise with the more attacking Dai Tsukamoto, a move that allowed Shibamoto to move into a deeper role alongside Okuno, his best position in my opinion. The substitution quickly paid off as Tsukamoto played the ball through to Shibamoto just inside the box in the 65th minute and he managed to prod the ball past Kenta Shimizu in the Sanuki goal to give the visitors the lead.

The joy from that goal would be short-lived though as Matsuda was sent off for a second bookable offence just three minutes later. This prompted another reshuffle as centre-back Shinri Ono came on for right-winger Jiro Nakamura to try to shore things up at the back. Initially Gamba U23 held out well against the waves of Sanuki attacks that followed but an own goal with just 5 minutes of normal time remaining meant they left Shikoku with just a point and will now head into the home derby match against Cerezo U23 next week aiming to snap a 6 game run without a victory.

Kamatamare Sanuki 1-1 Gamba Osaka U23
Pikara Stadium
Attendance: 1,786
Temp. / Humidity: 23.6C / 41%

Kamatamare Sanuki: Kenta Shimizu; Kenji Arabori, Akira Takeuchi, Shogo Asada, Takuya Nagasawa; Kenshiro Suzuki (Kenta Sawada 85′), Kazumasa Takagi, Hironori Nishi (Ryosuke Kijima 68′), Kentaro Shigematsu, Yuki Morikawa; Yuki Fuke (Tomoya Takeshita 79′).
Unused Subs: Yusuke Akahoshi
Goals: Own goal 85′
Yellow Cards: Takagi 30′, Takeshita 90+4′

Gamba Osaka U23: Kosei Tani; Shohei Ogushi, Riku Matsuda, Hayate Toma, Tatsuya Yamaguchi; Kohei Okuno, Ko Ise (Dai Tsukamoto 46′); Jiro Nakamura (Shinri Ono 70′), Ren Shibamoto, Shuhei Kawasaki; Haruto Shirai (Keishi Murakami 90+2′).
Unused Subs: Wang Xinyu
Goals: Shibamoto 65′
Assists: Tsukamoto 65′
Yellow Cards: Okuno 35′, Matsuda 49′, 68′


Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo vs Gamba Osaka (YBC Levain Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg) Preview

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo vs Gamba Osaka
YBC Levain Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg
13 October 2019 at 14:00 JST
Sapporo Dome

Gamba take a slender 2-1 advantage into this game following Shu Kurata’s injury time winner at Panasonic Stadium Suita on Wednesday. A draw would be enough to take them through, but both of Wednesday night’s goalscorers, Kurata and Takashi Usami, were quick to point out, when talking to Gamba’s official website, that playing for a draw was not a good strategy to employ against opposition as strong as Consadole. The winning side will play either Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale on October 26th in Saitama.

Team News:
Gamba are still without South Korean centre-back Kim Young-gwon who is away on international duty, everyone else is ready to play. The only possible changes would be for Yasuhito Endo coming in for Shinya Yajima in the deep-lying playmaker role, while Hiroki Fujiharu could replace Yuya Fukuda and Patric may take the place of his compatriot Ademilson. However, I feel Head Coach Miyamoto is unlikely to tinker too much and we’ll likely see either the same starting line-up as Wednesday or just Endo replacing Yajima,

For Consadole, key attacking midfielder Chanathip was injured and forced to pull out of Thailand’s squad, while 195cm former Cerezo Osaka goalkeeper Gu Sung-yun is away with South Korea ahead of their derby match with North Korea on Tuesday. English striker Jay Bothroyd could come into the starting line-up following a brief substitute appearance on Wednesday.

Gamba have the upper hand in head-to heads this season, leaving Sapporo with a 0-0 draw back in May, before winning the reverse fixture 5-0 just last week. Being a finely balanced cup tie means this could go either way, but Gamba have already used away goals in their favour this year in the quarter-final victory over FC Tokyo. An early Gamba goal would leave Consadole with a mountain to climb and I think that’s what we may see with a second half equaliser leaving the final score 1-1 and Gamba advancing to the final (probably against Kawasaki).

Predicted Gamba Line-up:

GK 1 Masaaki Higashiguchi (33 years old)
CB 27 Ryu Takao (22)
CB 5 Genta Miura (C) (24)
CB 13 Shunya Suganuma (29)
RWB 8 Kosuke Onose (26)
LWB 34 Yuya Fukuda (20)
DM 7 Yasuhito Endo (39)
CM 15 Yosuke Ideguchi (23)
CM 10 Shu Kurata (30)
CF 33 Takashi Usami (27)
CF 9 Ademilson (25)

Subs: 23 Mizuki Hayashi (GK/23), 30 Naoaki Aoyama (CB/33), 4 Hiroki Fujiharu (LB/LWB/30), 21 Shinya Yajima (DM/CM/25), 14 Markel Susaeta (RW/LW/AM/31), 18 Patric (CF/31), 39 Kazuma Watanabe (CF/33)