Stuart Smith (@sushi_football) takes a look at what is in store for Matsumoto in 2016, and the decision to stick with what they know in coach Yasuharu Sorimachi. Was it the right decision? Predicting what Yamaga will do this year isn’t particularly easy…..

November 1st, 2014. Fukuoka. The date will forever be etched in the memories of Matsumoto Yamaga supporters, as a 2-1 win at Avispa Fukuoka, coupled with Jubilo Iwata’s draw in Chiba, meant that Yamaga had secured second spot in J2 and with it the prize of J1 football in 2015.

It was hard not to come to the conclusion that this was a club on the crest of a wave. Powered by a fanatical support base, financially provided for by printing giant Epson and with the nucleus of very good team, Matsumoto were looking like kind of team that would belong in the top league.

Matsumoto supporters fill the away end… usual

November 7, 2015. Kobe. Matsumoto are relegated after spending just the one season in Japan’s top flight. As it turned out, they were dealt their fatal blow before a ball had even been kicked. Striker Takayuki Funayama, the icon of the side and Matsumoto’s top goalscorer in their promotion season with 19 goals, departed in the pre-season for Kawasaki Frontale. His replacement, Brazilian forward Obina, failed to replacate him and his form adequately enough. They also found out that their Alwin stadium, one of the most picturesque in Japan but one that, despite being almost entirely roof-less, creates a raucous atmosphere, wasn’t quite the advantage in J1 as it was in J2. The well-traveled players in the top league were used to playing in those types of arenas, and so the “One Soul” chorus did very little to affect opposition teams.

Matsumoto Yamaga’s Alwin stadium

So what of 2016? Can we expect a swift return to J1? Or will they find the sledding a touch more difficult than the last time they were in J2?

On paper (and of course we all know that football isn’t played on paper) Matsumoto’s squad doesn’t look as strong as it was last time around. They still haven’t really replaced Funayama – although striker Hiroki Yamamoto has fully signed for the club after spending much of the past two years on loan. However, the loss of set piece specialist and creative force Yuzo Iwakami to Omiya Ardija cannot be overstated. Iwakami was the Rolls Royce engine that purred when Yamaga were on their game, and has one of the best final balls in the J.League.  His relationship with Yudai Iwama in midfield brought them to J1, and Iwakami (despite only two assists last year, much of which can be put down to the fairly insipid play ahead of him) leaves a massive gap in his wake.

Tasked with filling that gap is Masaki Miyasaka, the artful central midfielder signed from also relegated Montedio Yamagata this winter. Miyasaka, like Iwakami, struggled to hit the same heights in J1 as he did in J2, but often found himself being sacrificed for more “steely” players – an all-to-common sight amongst teams in relegation battles. On his day, Miyasaka is a confident midfielder who likes to get the ball down and dictate play, while at the same time getting in scoring positions. He was superb in Yamagata’s promotion run, scoring eight goals from midfield as he & Brazilian striker Diego fired Montedio towards the play-offs, and, ultimately, promotion. In fact, he was almost operating under the radar while goalkeeper-turned-striker-turned-injury time winning goalscorer Norihiro Yamagishi got all the attention. But he didn’t fly under everyone’s radar, as Yamaga manager Yasuharu Sorimachi tried to bring Miyasaka in at the start of last year and now, finally, Sorimachi has been able to bring the play-maker to the Alwin.

This year threatens to be a very close title/promotion race with any number of “big” clubs thinking that they have a good chance of going up. Cerezo Osaka have once again taken control of Yanmar’s credit card and splurged on high-end players, while Shimizu S-Pulse boast attacking riches that Matsumoto must envy. Ken Tokura led Consadole Sapporo and ‘Extreme Makeover: JEF United edition’ will also possibly have a say in what transpires at the top of the league.

But Yasuharu Sorimachi is a wily old fox. He is entering his fifth year in the Yamaga hotseat, and you don’t last that that long unless you can adapt and adhere to different situations. The Matsumoto board were faced with the usual quandry that teams at the bottom face: stick or twist? They could easily have dispensed with his services last year, but in a rare show of loyalty they stuck with him. Even though it didn’t work out well last year, there are reasons to believe that he can push the club in the right direction again. He knows J2, having been in charge when Matsumoto played their first ever game in J2 back in 2012. He has made Matsumoto teams past perform greater than the sum of their parts, which is something that he’ll have to do once again this year if they are to challenge at the top. And he also has experience of running for promotion, seeing off then new Jubilo Iwata manager Hiroshi Nanami in the promotion winning season of 2014 (Nanami, taking this experience of a failed promotion challenge, learned the lessons, applied them and turned it around to lead Jubilo back to J1 in 2015). In that season, if anything Yamaga got better the more pressure that was applied to them – easing to promotion when they hit a purple patch of form as the season was reaching its climax. Cerezo Osaka, Consadole Sapporo and JEF United all wilted under the pressure of trying to stay in the promotion/play-off hunt last year – as a side note, one wonders if the detonation of JEF’s squad over the winter was designed to erase all the knowledge of pressure induced failure from the playing staff.

Make no mistake though – this will be tough sledding for Sorimachi and company. They open the season with three away trips, the third of which is a very important match-up at Shimizu S-Pulse. If things don’t go according to plan for team, expect Sorimachi to come under increased scrutiny.

Yamaga supporters pre-game

Can they bounce straight back? They can but, at the risk of sounding incredibly obvious, they need someone to put the ball in the net regularly. Obina really failed in his primary duty last year, scoring only six goals, but it isn’t unheard of for Brazilian strikers to thrive at this level. With Naoki Maeda also leaving for pastures new (Yokohama F.Marinos coloured pastures to be precise) Obina needs to have a Funayama-esque season, and Miyasaka needs to dominate games like he did for Yamagata in J2. The defence, while over-matched in J1, looks to be more than solid enough for J2 with new signing Takefumi Toma joining Hayuma Tanaka and Masaki Iida in a decent looking defence.

The loss of attacking talent is the one huge question mark that hangs over Matsumoto heading into 2016. Matsumoto have made their decision to stick, and once again Sorimachi will have to play the role of alchemist with his squad. He’s done it before, can he do it again?

Will all roads (or rails) lead to Matsumoto this year?

Stuart Smith is more noted for covering the trials and tribulations of FC Gifu on his We Are Gifu blog. But he does have a soft spot for Matsumoto after they let Atsushi Mio & Kosuke Kitani bow out of professional football with a win against them at the end of 2014.