Sound the klaxon! After taking a year’s sabbatical in J2, and ending the season as champions, Omiya Ardija find themselves back in the big time in 2016. But what is to become of The Squirrels this year? Are they going to be wrapped up in year long battle for survival, or are they sufficiently equipped to deal with the rigours of J1 and possibly look up the table instead of down?
There is only one man with a crystal ball clear enough for this task and, of course, it is Squirrels expert, Steve Barme.
1. After a short lived, but presumably enjoyable, stay in J2 it is back to J1 duties for the Squirrels. Are you looking forward to the new season?
I am. The team is very different from past models, so to speak. There are a lot of question marks, but there is a ton of potential. The front office was looking to infuse the team with guys who were just coming into their prime, as opposed to guys who had either hit it or had passed their sell by date by a couple of years. I’m very intrigued to see how Shibuya works Iwakami, Numata, Okui, and Esaka into his plans. It has the potential to be something great or something disastrous. I’m going to enjoy the mystery nevertheless.
2. Omiya’s promotion platform was initially set through a very solid defensive unit, marshalled superbly by GK Nobuhiro Kato. Is this unit ready for J1?
I hope so! I think the team took some decent steps in the offseason to shore up a fairly shaky sideback situation. I already love the Keigo Numata signing and am hoping he can be the answer at left back for years to come. The left side combination of him and Komoto is something that can be depended upon week in and week out (Feel free to use this line when I start complaining about them on twitter!). The major concerns for Omiya are on the right side of the pitch. Captain Kosuke Kikuchi has been a perennial disappointment since he arrived from Kawasaki in 2012. Omiya has cycled through numerous sidebacks during his stint as the starting right back. Last year, Omiya were exposed on crosses from the right side. This year will be no different until they figure out who on the team is capable of protecting the right flank. Early reports are that the opening day starter will be Hitoshi Shiota and not the hero of last year’s J2 championship run (in my humble opinion). I’m honestly torn between thinking this is a dumb mistake and seeing the logic in letting Shiota start at his longtime former home and then benching him if he proves to be not up to the task of starting regularly. We’ll see if the gamble pays off.
I am also concerned with the pairing in the center of the midfield. I think that how they gel will go a long way towards determining whether or not Omiya will be successful in keeping teams from running up the score.
3. With the addition Nejc Pecnik from JEF United, Omiya can call upon a physical and potentially clinical forward line, with Dragan Mrdja being the main man. How do you think Omiya will go about attacking teams this year?
Unfortunately, the attack still rests on the dubious motivations of Akihiro Ienaga. If he is locked in and focused, it will go a long way in determining the success of the team on the offensive side of the pitch. Pecnik lines up on the right in an attacking midfielder role and showed early on that he has a good working relationship with Dragan Mrdja. I think that having Pecnik playing deep and getting the ball to his for Red Star teammate will help both in terms of their stat sheets at the end of the year. I think having another huge body will help in terms of set pieces on both the offense and defense.
The real key to the squad being effective on offensive is how well Yuzo Iwakami fills in for Carlinhos. The Brazilian was underrated as a creative presence for the team and his hard work and linking play were crucial to the success of the squad. Iwakami might be an upgrade in terms of set pieces, so having him taking free kicks and corners will help the team add a couple of goals during the year.
4. There seems to be an abundance of creative players at Omiya: Yokotani, Izumisawa, Ienaga, and new boys Yuzo Iwakami & Ataru Esaka. Are you worried about there not being enough steel, especially in midfield?
A little bit. There are a fair amount of small players for Omiya. Outside of Tsubasa Oya, there isn’t a sideback on the squad who is over 170cm tall. You add Iwakami and Izumisawa to that and there is 4 players who are miniscule in terms of J League physiques. High balls are going to be Omiya’s biggest vulnerability this year. There is a flip side this though. Having a small, quick team will give Omiya the advantage of countering teams who push forward too much. If they can exploit other teams holes , and limit attacks on theirs, it should go a long way to Omiya surviving. It’s kind of like prison, I suppose.
5. What are your hopes for 2016?
I could see the team finishing anywhere from 6th to 18th. It’s going to depend on them surviving a rough four game stretch to start the season. I think a good start will go a long way towards determining the success of this team. Shibuya has a plethora of options this year with guys like Yokotani, Esaka, Mateus, and Shimizu chomping at the bit to get in. That’s good news and bad news in a sense. Those guys will arguably come in for players like Izumisawa or Mrdja, whom Shibuya has shown less faith in over his past two campaigns. It should also be noted that Ryuji Bando is back and always a threat to waste 45 good minutes a game not being on the same page as the rest of the squad. I guess in a long winded way, I’m thinking that comfortable survival combined with an influx of young talent as regular contributors would be something I would be very satisfied with.