The curtain has fallen on the regular season of the 2016 J League, and with it, an end to the controversial two-stage system experiment. Urawa Reds, Kawasaki Frontale and Kashima Antlers will contest this season’s ‘Championship Stage’, but the chance that a team could win despite finishing the season third, fifteen points off the pace, will rankle with many. This should not, though, distract from what was another exciting season. Throughout the course of the campaign Urawa, Kawasaki and Kashima all dazzled with fantastic interchanges: lightning counters from the Reds, sheer pace from Frontale, and an oozing of class from Antlers (at least in the First Stage).
Elsewhere, three of last season’s top four flattered to deceive for the most part, as Gamba Osaka, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and FC Tokyo dropped to 4th, 6th and 9th respectively, while Omiya Ardija proved this season’s surprise package, with the newly-promoted side only missing out on a potential Asian Champions League spot on the last day.
Vissel Kobe, Kashiwa Reysol and Yokohama F-Marinos provided great excitement and attacking verve, mixed in with some atrocious mistakes.
At the foot of the table Avispa Fukuoka struggled on their return to the top flight, and Shonan Bellmare paid the price for losing the spine of their team in the off-season, but the biggest surprise came with Nagoya Grampus’ demise. They went 19 league games without a win as they succumbed to their first ever relegation.
Overall it has been a superb season, complete with an abundance of technical ability, high profile departures, the emergence of new talent, incredible supporters and, of course, appalling goalkeeping! Ahead of the playoffs, I try and make sense of it all so far.
In my eyes, Urawa Reds were without doubt the best team in the league; some of the football they play would not look out of place in the UEFA Champions League, let alone the J League. They are blessed with incredible squad depth, and have mastered their own unique way of playing: an attacking version of a Japanese favourite, the 3-6-1. Reds were imperious throughout – barring a six-week spell in May and June – but that spell cost them both the First Stage title, and their Champions League last-16 fixture against FC Seoul. In both competitions Reds threw away promising positions, and though the fixture congestion was immense, the tag of chokers was once again labelled on Urawa.
Further turbulence came with the scandal which embroiled majority shareholders Mitsubishi Motors, with scenarios as far-fetched as a merger with Yokohama F-Marinos bandied around. However, just as off-the-field issues were resolved, Reds’ on-field form also rallied. They finished the Second Stage six points clear of their nearest rivals and overhauled Kawasaki Frontale to seal first place overall. In the meantime, they shook off the chokers tag to some extent with their Levain Cup Final victory over Gamba Osaka, their first silverware since 2007. Reds will go into the Championship Stage final as firm favourites, and few people would bet against them lifting a first league title since 2006.
Aside from Urawa Reds, the perennial chokers of Japanese football are Kawasaki Frontale, and the record of three second place finishes in the three tables this season poetically typifies them. Frontale led the league for 21 of the 34 matchdays, including a spell from matchday 18 to 31. Frontale’s first eleven is arguably the strongest in the league. Jung Sung Ryong in goal offered stability behind the defensive fallibilities which so often haunt Frontale, while the talent in their midfield and striking departments is almost unmatched. Kengo Nakamura enjoyed a renaissance this season; the 36-year old consistently turned in in majestic displays, scoring nine goals whilst assisting a further eleven. It is, however, the lack of cover which has been cruelly exposed this season. Frontale have suffered a defensive nightmare which has led to 5ft 6in winger Yusuke Tasaka filling in as a makeshift centre-back for long periods. To solider on and even finish as high as second is a credit to the team, but a lack of depth may again be their undoing in the Championship Stage.
Never has the phrase ‘a season of two halves’ been more apt than when describing Kashima Antlers’ 2016 J League season. In the First Stage they were an attacking juggernaut. Mu Kanazaki, Shoma Doi, Gaku Shibasaki, and perhaps most crucially Caio helped to power Antlers to the First Stage title, while a stern defensive unit marshalled by Gen Shoji conceded just ten goals. The Second Stage, though, saw Antler’s form nosedive. They lost Brazilian winger Caio to Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates which was a huge blow and left the manager Ishii with a conundrum over how to set up his team, a problem which even now he has not figured out. Ishii also had to deal with in-house indiscipline which flared up when Mu Kanazaki reacted angrily to being substituted, leading to a series of events that culminated in him half-resigning due to anxiety, before finally returning. With a Championship Stage berth guaranteed after winning the First Stage, Antlers perhaps understandably took their foot off the gas and coasted through the Second Stage, finishing in a lowly 11th place. It will be interesting to see whether they can turn on the style once again when the playoffs begin at the end of November.
After missing out to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in last season’s Championship Stage Final, a new, modern stadium in Suita and a youthful and potentially exciting side held high hopes for the 2016 season. The new stadium – at least early on in the season – proved somewhat of a curse. Gamba won just one of their first five league fixtures at the Suita City Soccer Stadium, losing early ground in the title race as a result. Osaka were struggling to find a real goalscorer. Ademilson, their loan signing from São Paulo, struggled to adapt early in his Gamba career, whilst fellow Brazilian Patric failed to recapture his form from previous seasons and Shun Nagasawa was, well, Shun Nagasawa: a fairly well-built and imposing striker who generally fails to use his attributes to their full potential (though he did somehow gain a monthly MVP vote later in the season).
Gamba’s issues looked to have been compounded after the First Stage when talisman Takashi Usami finally completed his protracted move back to Europe with FC Augsburg. Contrarily, though, that loss seemed to galvanise them. The likes of Shu Kurata and Kentaro Omori stepped up, whilst Ademilson finally started to fulfill his promise. Gamba managed a much improved Second Stage thereafter, but still could not challenge for the stage title. They finished 4th overall and still harbour hopes of an Asian Champions League spot. The main positive, though, was the full emergence of Yosuke Ideguchi. The 20-year old midfielder has blossomed this season, forcing his way into the Japanese National Team. He is tenacious, confident on the ball, and at one stage looked to be creating his own personal goal of the season competition. With the likes of Ideguchi, Goya, Doan and Hatsuse, the future is bright in the blue half of Osaka.
If Japan was to have its version of the Leicester City story, it would have to be Omiya Ardija. After being promoted from J League 2 last season, Omiya surprised everyone with an extraordinary performance on their way to a 5th-place finish, earning a highest ever points tally and clearly surpassing their best finish of 12th in the J League. Omiya have a wonderfully balanced squad. Two solid goalkeepers in Kato and Shiota were protected by a disciplined defence led by Kosuke Kikuchi and Hiroyuki Komoto, conceding 36 goals in total – a tally bettered only by Urawa. Crucially, they also have the quality to score goals. Akihiro Ienaga may well be a luxury player, but he nevertheless scores critical goals, whilst young forward Ataru Esaka, signed from Thespakusatsu Gunma, has adapted wonderfully to the step-up. Central midfield would be the one area of concern, although in Keisuke Oyama they have a very promising prospect on their hands.
As title defences go, this was pretty tame from Sanfrecce Hiroshima. At no stage during this campaign did they ever look likely to retain or even challenge for their title. At times they have shown glimpses of quality, with the 5-1 demolition of Omiya Ardija being the prime example, but otherwise it has been a fairly timid season only really brightened by the goals of Nigerian loanee (from Shimizu S-Pulse) Peter Utaka, who shares the Golden Boot with Vissel Kobe’s Leandro on 19 goals. Sanfrecce will have to go through a period of transition; Utaka may not be around next year, Hisato Sato – who briefly held the record for the J League’s top scorer of all-time until Kawasaki’s Yoshito Okubo assumed that title – is coming to the end of his career, and the bright spark of Japanese football Takuma Asano completed a mid-season move to Arsenal (now at Stuttgart on loan). Hiroshima have a pretty tired looking squad, and I’d expect some level of overhaul next season.
Perhaps the most exciting team in the league to watch, Vissel Kobe came very close to causing a major upset and winning the Second Stage. They were in contention until the final three fixtures, but couldn’t quite cling to Red’s coattails. In the First Stage inconsistency was Vissel’s downfall. One day they could be irresistible, but on others they were a defensive shambles! The performances of Brazilian duo Leandro and Pedro Junior were at times scintillating. The latter, in one Nabisco Cup tie against Kashima Antlers, put in a near-perfect display, scoring twice, assisting another and mesmerising a previously near-impenetrable Antlers defence. The Second Stage saw midfielder Nilton join the Brazilian contingent and he helped to secure the back-line whilst also acting as the pivot between attack and defence. His presence allowed an improved cohesion between the expressive mix of foreign talent, the influential captain Kazuma Watanabe, and a influx of exciting young Japanese talent, as the side put opposition defences to the sword with a series of attacking performances. If they can ward off interest in their star players and add one or two more, Vissel could be a real force next season.
Another exciting attacking unit, Kashiwa Reysol came fairly close to a Second Stage victory, but in truth their season was a rescue act almost from day one. Eccentric Brazilian manager Milton Mendes was appointed for the start of the season, but a mixture of chaotic training methods, a lack of communication and some bizarre tactics saw Reysol in disarray after failing to win their first three games. Takahiro Shimodaira was drafted in to steady the ship and rebuild the team’s shattered confidence, but it was not until Matchday six before Reysol registered their first league victory. A top three finish was out of the question early on, but for the Second Stage Reysol signed Cristiano from Ventforet Kofu, following up on his successful loan spell last season. He added that touch of quality which combined superbly with Diego Oliveira, Junya Ito and Kosuke Taketomi, and saw Reysol mount a decent Second Stage title challenge. Elsewhere, Reysol have a number of promising young players. Kosuke Nakamura is to many pundits the future Japanese number one, while Shinnosuke Nakatani, Yuta Nakayama and Hiroto Nakagawa have all had lengthy exposure to the first team and have greatly impressed.
A quick glance at Tokyo’s final positions both overall and in each stage clearly demonstrates just how mediocre they have been this season. The foundations laid by Massimo Ficcadenti and Tokyo’s 4th-place finish last season were well and truly undone by the negative appointment of the much-maligned Hiroshi Jofoku. There is enough quality in that squad, as has been shown by their late season run of four straight victories under new manager Yoshiyuki Shinoda, for Tokyo to be challenging at the summit of the table, but poor management – both from the manager and the front office – have really held Tokyo back. Just a few weeks ago, captain Masato Morishige criticised the civil war occurring behind-the-scenes. There needs to be a drive for unity at Tokyo if they are to return to challenging for trophies.
Marinos’ season never really got going. On a number of occasions they seemed to be on the cusp of displaying performances to suggest they were capable of challenging for honours, but they would then inexplicably lose form. The squad is too highly reliant on its experienced players: Yuji Nakazawa (38), Shunsuke Nakamura (38), as well as tricky winger and my favourite J League player Manabu Saito. Elsewhere, though, there are plenty of solid and dependable players, but no further creativity and crucially no fifteen-goal-a-season striker. Kayke Moreno was brought in to provide that, but he has been profligate in the main and more recently discarded from the squad altogether for poorly judged social media comments. A striker is crucial for Marinos next season – Jay Bothroyd, perhaps?
As always, Sagan Tosu were not the prettiest team to watch, but after a slow First Stage, the squad finally bought into Massimo Ficcadenti’s style of play and narrow 4-5-1/ 4-4-2 formation, ending the season in a very solid mid-table position. Tosu had lost influential figures in Naoyuki Fujita and Kota Mizunuma ahead of this season, and will have to overcome similar hurdles next season, with it already being confirmed that Kim Min-Woo will have to return to his native South Korea for military commitments. However, Ficcadenti is a proven shrewd J League manager and now given time to formulate his own team in his own image, Tosu could be a dark horse next season.
Vegalta Sendai will be delighted with the ease at which they avoided relegation this season, and reaped the rewards of a settled team. Key partnerships developed throughout the team which led to consistent performances and a surprisingly comfortable campaign. Hirofumi Watanabe and Kazuki Oiwa were standout performers at the back, while up top Ramon Lopes really came to the fore, ably assisted by Hiroaki Okuno. However it was the midfield lynchpins of Shingo Tomita and Hirotaka Mita which truly carried the side. Neither are flashy players, nor overly combative, but both are tidy, hardworking and tactically savvy, able to intuitively shield the defence whilst quickly transitioning into attack. It will be difficult again next season for Sendai, especially if Ramon Lopes departs, but they can take heart from a fine season.
It was always going to be difficult for Jubilo on their return to J1, but after a fine First Stage in which they beat Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium on their way to a top-half finish, it all seemed to be going swimmingly. Former England international and Jubilo’s top scorer in J2, Jay Bothroyd, scored six times in his first six appearances before suffering an ankle injury following which Jubilo coped remarkably well. In their talisman’s absence, Jubilo were somewhat liberated, with Yuki Kobayashi and Adailton flourishing without essentially having to play towards Bothroyd. Kobayashi’s displays earned him international recognition and a move to Heerenveen in the Eredivisie where he has made a positive start to his career in Europe. Kobayashi left during the Second Stage, and with Bothroyd returning in and around various misdemeanours, Jubilo barely got going and only won twice throughout the stage. Their play had become stale and one-dimensional and if Bothroyd failed to score a header, Jubilo did not really look like scoring at all. In the end they survived due to the shortcomings of other outfits, but they must improve dramatically without Bothroyd next season.
With a back three whose ages total 114, Kofu are without doubt an interesting club, and the re-signing of a 39-year old previously released midfielder was a quirky move typical of the J League. On paper this team did not really stand a chance of surviving. They have such a poor squad on paper, along with a lack of financial clout and a horrifically turgid style of play. But nonetheless the smallest club in the J League have survived again. Huge credit has to go to Satoru Sakuma who has organised this team very well and enabled them to somehow grind out enough points. They operate in a flat back five, with one real talisman shouldering the burden of creating chances. In the First Stage this was Cristiano, whilst in the Second Stage it was Dudu. In the Second Stage Kofu won just four times as they stumbled to safety, but those victories – three of which came against teams in a similar position to them – were crucial.
Another season, another dice with relegation for Albirex Niigata, but once more they managed to survive. With an horrific final three fixtures against Urawa, Gamba and Sanfrecce, they were written off by many people – myself included – but much like Kofu and Jubilo, they survived mostly due to the ineptitude of others. To their credit, though, they do possess great individual talent in defence; both Rafael Silva and Leo Silva were perhaps the key to them staying up. Both have been strongly linked with moves away from Niigata, and if they do go, then Niigata would be in significant peril, as pickings in the rest of the squad are pretty thin.
Where to start with Nagoya Grampus? For the first time in their history, they have been relegated to J League 2. An extraordinary season culminated in an appalling failure to overcome an already relegated Shonan Bellmare at home on the final day, but relegation was not down to this one game alone. After losing just one of the first four games, against Kawasaki Frontale, Nagoya seemed in a positive place and new manager Takafumi Ogura appeared to be settling well into his new role. The towering Swedish striker Robin Simovic was in superb goalscoring form and the subsequent decline could not have been foreseen.
However, following a 1-0 loss to Vissel Kobe on May 8th, Nagoya embarked on an 18-game winless run in the league stretching until September. Unsurprisingly Ogura was dispensed with and replaced by Bosko Gjurovski. Alongside Gjurovski was the return of the charismatic and talismanic Tulio Tanaka, as the 35-year old returned to the Nagoya defence. The Tulio Effect seemed to be rescuing Nagoya as they won three of their next four games to pull clear of the relegation zone. However, a badly timed international break, combined perhaps with a level of over-confidence, saw Nagoya draw with a free-falling Jubilo, get smashed by a youthful Vissel Kobe side, and culminated in the final day humiliation against Shonan which sealed their fate. A winter clearout is almost certain, while a new manager will definitely be in place next season. The future for Grampus is up in the air, but it will certainly be incredibly interesting to follow.
Besides the back-to-back victories over Yokohama and Sagan Tosu in late April and early May, Shonan’s demise has been almost a foregone conclusion. Having lost the spine of their team in Yota Akimoto, Wataru Endo and Ryota Nagaki, it was never going to be easy for manager Cho to rebuild this youthful team, and so it proved. Cho is often lauded by Japanese football viewers, but personally I don’t believe he helped himself this season. At no stage did he know his best team, and the high levels of rotation did not help to build any continuity, with the performances reflecting this. It’s a shame that Shonan have succumbed to the drop. They are an exciting, footballing team full of youthful exuberance, but also have the naivety that comes with that. With the right manager, there is enough talent in this squad to mount a decent challenge in J2 next season, but ultimately the young players were not ready for J1, or to replace the key players which had previously departed.
After an attacking approach saw Avispa soar up the J2 table and to promotion through the playoffs last season, high hopes were held for Fukuoka on their latest return to J1. Unfortunately that positive football was held at the gate and replaced with a defensive mindset and a solitary tactic: launch the ball to Wellington up front. That tactic failed, and Avispa managed just the four victories all season, propping up all tables over the course of the season. Avispa paid the price for not investing in their squad as they entered the season far too limited in striking options, and when Wellington suffered an injury, they were left with Shoki Hirai leading the line. Quite frankly, he’s barely good enough for the lower end of J2, let alone J1. Along with their failings in front of goal, they were defensively woeful as well. Last season they had Kosuke Nakamura to bail them out of situations, but Lee Beom-Young could not match up to Nakamura’s achievements. Avispa’s sorry season ended with a 4-0 home defeat to Kashiwa Reysol which was indicative of their campaign. I hope that Avispa can regroup and challenge again in J2 next season, but it’s going to be tough to bounce back from this chastening year.
Ryo Okui Gen Shoji Hiroyuki Komoto Yutaka Yoshida
(Omiya) (Kashima) (Omiya) (Sagan Tosu)
Yosuke Kashiwagi Kengo Nakamura
Junya Ito Yu Kobayashi Manabu Saito
(Kashiwa) (Kawasaki) (Yokohama)
Sam Robson (Japan J.League Analyst)
Follow Sam on Twitter @FRsoccerSam for all his latest thoughts and opinions on Japanese football.
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