2021 J1 League Round 1
Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka
Saturday 27th February 2021, 17:00 (JST)
After a 10 week break J1 is back with a bang this weekend and it’s a Kansai Derby away at Vissel Kobe to start the season for Gamba. I joined Ben and Sam on this week’s J-Talk Podcast to run the rule over both these teams as well as Nagoya, Cerezo and Hiroshima…don’t worry I found nice things to say about all of them….even Cerezo!
I was only able to catch highlights of Gamba’s 3-2 Super Cup loss to Kawasaki last Saturday as a result of work commitments and the game being shown on terrestrial TV here in Japan. By most accounts, Frontale were the dominant force in the first half and went into the interval with a 2-goal cushion courtesy of, who else but, Kaoru Mitoma. The Nerazzurri fought back gamely in the second stanza and did something they failed to do in 2020, breached the Kawasaki rearguard. Shinya Yajima’s close range effort and a powerful Patric penalty (his 7th goal in his last 14 games in all competitions) looked to have the match on course for spot-kicks before Frontale talisman Yu Kobayashi’s excellent shot in the 6th minute of additional time saw the Kanagawa side lift yet another domestic trophy.
Key talking points from a Gamba perspective were, the 4-3-3 formation adopted at the start of the match, and also the personnel selected to fill it. Regarding the set-up, Miyamoto seems to be looking to emulate the last two J1 champions, Marinos and Kawasaki, with a more attacking brand of football. However, Gamba kick off their league season with 10 games inside 43 days (only 1 free midweek) and this could see the Nerazzurri revert to the defensive mindset that worked well for them and fellow ACL qualifiers Nagoya and Cerezo during the condensed 2020 campaign. Though, with things set to ease off fixture-wise in the latter part of the year and a far less intense summer schedule awaiting then it’s possible to hypothesize that we’ll see a number of the top sides operating more expansive game-plans this time round.
Regarding the starting eleven from last week, thanks to many of you who got in touch via Twitter and WordPress with your questions. I’ll summarise injury concerns and reasons for my predicted line-up in later parts of this post, but I will say my gut feeling is that the hectic upcoming schedule and last year’s injury crisis played a large part in Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s selection on Saturday. It was interesting to note that pre-match, Gamba supporters on Twitter were struggling to fit the eleven names selected into a coherent formation, I saw Kawasaki, Ideguchi, Kurata, Yajima and Onose all listed to start there in various posts. In the end, Kosuke Onose filled the void, though going forward I expect he’ll play either on the right wing or in the advanced right central-midfield role and Saturday’s match was just seen as an opportunity to test him as an option there should Brazilian Wellington Silva come in and make the right-wing slot his own.
Now to this weekend’s hosts Vissel Kobe, the side from Hyogo should be desperate to bounce back from last season’s poor domestic showing which saw them end up a lowly 14th, largely as a result of focusing on the ACL. With the exception of young Brazilian attacker Lincoln, there have been no big-name buys this winter, but crucially, I feel, this side is now younger and hungrier than before. I think they could be one of the most upwardly mobile teams in the league this season, along with Shimizu.
Aside from the purchase of Lincoln from Flamengo, 4 other players have joined Vissel permanently since the end of the 2020 campaign. For me, Shion Inoue (Tokyo Verdy) is the pick of the bunch, a very tidy performer with a nice range of passing, he should fit in well as one of the more advanced central midfielders or on the wing. Elsewhere young midfielder Tatsunori Sakurai comes highly rated from Maebashi Ikuei High School in Gunma (ex Gamba U23 captain Riku Matsuda’s alma mater), but he, as well as backup goalie Ryotaro Hironaga (Hiroshima) and right sided full-back / wing-back Nagisa Sakurauchi (Iwata) are likely to provide depth to the squad rather than being regular members of the starting eleven.
Yuki Kobayashi is a centre-back who is comfortable with the ball at his feet and he returns to Hyogo for the first time in 18 months following decent loan spells with Machida (2019) and Yokohama FC (2020). Both he, and attacking midfielder / winger Asahi Masuyama, who is back in town after helping Fukuoka win promotion last season, could prove to be key figures for the men in maroon this time round. Yuta Goke (21 years old), Takuya Yasui (22), Daiju Sasaki (21), Tetsushi Yamakawa (23) and Yutaro Oda (19 ) all showed in spells last season that they could form the core of a good, vibrant side for years to come. If, and it is a big IF, Kobe’s front office and coaching staff back this group of youngsters appropriately, then regular ventures into the Asian Champions League might become more of a reality than the pipe dream it appears to be at the moment. Last season’s final table may suggest otherwise, but this is a Vissel Kobe side that Gamba would do well not to underestimate.
Vissel Kobe 2021 Squad
Head to Head
Gamba did the double over Kobe in 2020 without conceding a goal, though it should be noted that Vissel were no pushovers in either match and could make an argument for being worthy of a point both home and away. Takashi Usami isn’t nicknamed the ‘Kobe Killer’ for nothing and a 2021 repeat of his fierce long-range effort which sealed Gamba’s 2-0 win at the Noevir last summer would be welcomed by all of a blue and black persuasion.
Yuji Ono and Haruto Shirai (both recovering from knee operations) are definitely out of this match. Takashi Usami (knee) wasn’t in the squad for the Super Cup, I’m led to believe that it’s more a case of him being wrapped in cotton wool than having a serious problem. Kim Young-gwon and Yuya Fukuda were also absent from last weekend’s precedings, Kim missed most of the team’s pre-season camp due to quarantine regulations, and I haven’t seen any news of a Fukuda injury, so his condition remains a mystery. If fit and selected, Fukuda will make his 50th Gamba and J1 appearance in this match.
Spanish legend Andrés Iniesta is expected back in April at the earliest after picking up a hamstring injury playing in the Asian Champions League last December. Brazilian newcomer Lincoln is still not in the country due to the ongoing state of emergency so won’t be featuring until next month, if not later.
Predicted Line Ups
Gamba began last week’s clash with Kawasaki in a 4-3-3 system before switching to 4-4-2 later on. I’d also guess that 3-5-2 remains an option, however, I’m going with the assumption that 4-3-3 will be the default formation in 2021 unless (until? lol) the wheels come off. I believe Takao’s benching and Kim and Usami’s non-selection against Frontale were all precautionary, so we should see a stronger starting eleven this week, on paper at least. With the intense schedule coming up in March, it’s expected the side will be rotated a lot, so it would be no surprise to see new Brazilian duo, Leandro Pereira and Tiago Alves crack a start on Saturday.
One of Kobe’s main downfalls during the Thorsten Fink era was the constant switching between a back 3 and a back 4, however, under Atsuhiro Miura they seem to have settled on a 4-man rearguard. Thomas Vermaelen’s fitness is a constant topic of speculation and, in reality, I found him the easiest centre-back to leave out as, at the moment, I’m unsure of what order Miura ranks Kikuchi, Osaki and Kobayashi, so having them all in the matchday squad put my mind at rest (is that a good enough justification?) It’s also possible that we see Goke in central midfield ahead of Yasui with Oda or Inoue starting right-wing, while at right-back Sakurauchi is an alternative to Yamakawa.
It’s always difficult to know what to expect on the opening day, but Gamba generally have a good record away to Vissel and come into this bout battle hardened after duelling with Kawasaki last week. With all that in mind I’ve opted for a tight 2-1 away win to set the ball rolling in 2021.
2021 J1 League Round 1