It is a fair question to ponder: What direction are the team from the port city heading in? Has a lack of winter spending left them behind their traditional rivals at the top of the J.League? Or is an apparent faith in their young players something to be lauded? Do stars Shunsuke Nakamura and Yuji Nakazawa still have the legs for a title push? Like Benedict Cumberbatch’s SHERLOCK, it is deep and complex. Luckily, we’ve enlisted the help of F.Marinos supporter Tony Dee to help guide us through the enigma that is the 2016 edition of YFM.

 

Year two of the Erick Mombaerts experience is upon us. Are you excited?

I always look forward to a new year of the J.League, although perhaps ‘nervous excitement’ is the best way to describe my feeling as we approach the start of the 2016 season. Mombaerts came in at a difficult time for Yokohama F.Marinos, finding a team that still relies heavily upon two aging stars in Nakazawa Yuji and Nakamura Shunsuke and without the services of a credible forward. New to the country and unable to make any changes to the squad, he got F.Marinos off to a slow start. But, despite a difficult summer, he managed to navigate his first season successfully, if not spectacularly.

A 10-game unbeaten streak in the Second Stage, highlighted by a four-nil drubbing of Urawa Reds, showed some promise of what might be possible under the Frenchman’s stewardship. Mombaerts described 2015 as laying the foundation for the coming seasons and in that regard we saw Japan Under-23 representative Kida Takuya cement his spot in the first eleven whilst up-and-comers Nakagawa Teruhito and Amano Jun were given time coming off the bench. Whilst ostensibly using the same 4-2-3-1 set-up as his predecessor, the new gaffer had worked hard in training to increase the tempo and intensity of the team’s play, which to some extent was apparent on-field, although a lack of a cutting edge in the final third hampered the success of those efforts, it seemed.

With the signing from Tokyo Verdy of another Rio Olympics hopeful, attacking midfielder Maeda Naoki (on-loan at Matsumoto Yamaga last season), top university defender Arai Ikki and the promotion of Marinos Youth team’s standouts Wada Masashi and Endo Keita, there are some exciting young players to keep an eye out for, and with a year under his belt hopefully Erick will be able to express his football philosophy more clearly in 2016.

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An injury to Rafinha in pre-season, possibly season ending, is bad no matter which way you slice it. But doesn’t it leave the F.Marinos striker cupboard pretty bare?

The injury to Rafinha is a massive blow to the team, particularly given that management declared in January that it was putting it’s faith in the Brazilian, Ito Sho and the younger players coming up through the ranks. Either unwilling to open it’s purse strings or unsuccessful in signing another (much needed) striker in the off-season, F.Marinos are now left with Ito Sho as the main option up front, a player who remains unconvincing despite 14 goals in the past two years. Whilst the former Grenoble player has scored some important goals in his time with us, he unfortunately presents little menace to opposition defences and isn’t the kind of decisive player to lead the front line in a tilt at the championship.

The younger players that F.Marinos will be relying on to come off the bench and make their mark each in their own way show promise, yet are very green at J.League level. Nakagawa Teruhito spent the first half of his rookie year in 2015 recovering from a serious knee injury sustained at the very end of his final year of university.  Known for his dribbling and explosive running, the diminutive striker (1.61m, or five foot three and a half in the old measure) made an immediate impact in the torrential rain on a miserable Emperor’s Cup night at Mitsuzawa Stadium last October, bursting through the MIO Biwako Shiga defence and earning a decisive penalty. In several appearances in last years second stage he added some much needed vigour to the front third of the pitch which, of course, we hope to see more of.

Midfielder Wada Masashi was such a prolific goal scorer at Youth level that he was briefly promoted to the senior team as a back-up striker at the start of the 2015 season, before late-comer Ademilson joined on loan from Sao Paulo. Selected for a scholarship to train with Manchester City in 2014, the 18-year old’s nose for goal sees him listed as a forward, despite saying he feels most comfortable playing number ten and it is there that Mombaerts has been playing him in the pre-season. Being able to play a number of attacking roles may be to his advantage in the limited game time these young players will most likely see in 2016.

Last season’s ‘Special Designated Player, American-born Togashi Cayman, made a dream professional debut in the home game against FC Tokyo, coming on as a late substitute to score the dramatic winner. Whilst only making four appearances at the latter end of the season, Cayman seems to me the most ready of the new-comers to the senior team to make an impression on the match  day squad in 2016.

Getting back to Rafinha, though, it’s especially unfortunate for the player himself as he had come off eighteen injury-troubled months and was looking the fittest we’d seen him. Although somewhat of a hot-head, his cannon of a left boot will be missed, yet his longer-term future at Marinos must be under a cloud.

What specifically does your side need to improve in order to move up the table?

F.Marinos’ strength has long been based on the platform of solid defence and for twelve of the the past fourteen seasons the backline has been in the best three league-wide for goals conceded. It is no coincidence that former Japan National Team centre back Nakazawa Yuji has been an integral member of the defence in all that time. With the 37 year-old having played every minute of every game in leading the J.League’s second tightest defence in 2015, fitness is less of a concern to the train-a-holic ‘Bomber’ than his undeniably slowing legs. He’ll be assisted by Brazilian defender Fabio, with long-time partner Kurihara Yuzo waiting in the wings, so although all three players are known for their occasional brain explosions, more often than not they work together successfully.

I mention the above because in the years that Marinos have found success they have been able to counter-balance this strong defensive platform with ready, if not necessarily Gamba-esque scoring. Usually there has been at least one prolific goal scorer in the team that could trouble opposition defences, be it Yoo Sang Chul in 2000, Will in 2002, or ‘Dragon’ Kubo in 2003. Three double-digit scorers helped Marinos to their title in 2004 – Ahn Junghwan and the Daisuke’s Sakata and Oku, yet the team was only 9th in total goals scored, whilst having the conceded the least in the league.

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More recently, the tragedy of 2013 might be remembered by most for our inability to get past Frontale on the final day of the season to lose the Championship. That season, however, F.Marinos showed that it could play attractive, positive football and still maintain one of the better defences in the league. We had put ourselves  at the top of the table with ten games left to play, Marquinhos had scored 16 goals to be third in league scoring, and the team was both third in both goals scored and conceded to that point of the year. That was when the wheels started to fall off for a variety of reasons, not limited to the loss of form of any single player. We finished the season in second place, third in goals conceded yet only 9th in goals scored.

F.Marinos have been unable to fill the huge void created by the departure of the veteran Brazilian at the end of that painful 2013 season, and the problem isn’t simply one of numbers: it is one that filters right through the squad and how it plays. Without a credible threat in the front third, the team is more conservative than it needs to be, and is noticeably hesitant and lacking the confidence to get the ball quickly into dangerous positions.

All of that is to say that ‘Yokohama F.Marinos needs a quality striker’ if it is to improve upon it’s position in the table in 2016, and onethat is capable of a double-digit return at that. This was evident even before the pre-season injury to Rafinha, and as it is highly unlikely that we will see a Watanabe Kazuma-esque debut season from Togashi, Nakagawa or Wada, it is all the more necessary since the Brazilian’s unlucky sidelining.

What are your realistic expectations for 2016? Can you challenge for a stage win? An overall win? Or are your sights a little bit lower?

If we assume that playmaker Nakamura Shunsuke is fit for at least two-thirds of the season and F.Marinos can sign a capable forward, the squad will be good enough to finish in the top five and should be challenging for the top three, I think. Otherwise, the team will at best be treading water and more likely will slip down the table as it fails to match the improvements other teams have made to their squads in the off-season.

Cheers Tony! It has the makings of an intriguing season at Nissan Stadium. Follow Tony on Twitter at @tgR_tsuru to keep up to date with all the goings on at YFM. Also good for foreign supporters of F.Marinos are the @TricolorePride group. They can almost always be found behind the goal cheering Nakamura, Saito and the rest of the boys in blue (or pink, if away from home).

 

 

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