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.
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.