It is all very well this site providing the reader with feel good stories about fans around the world, and what to eat & drink at certain stadia, but sometimes you need your fix of analytical detail and tactical breakdowns for J2 sides. For this particular mission, there is only one man for the job. Ladies & gentleman, let Jon Steele take you through everything you didn’t realize you needed to know about two of “his” clubs: JEF vs Yokohama.
Match Day: JEF United 1-0 Yokohama FC (13th March 2016)
Jon Steele reports on his trip to Fukuda Denshi Arena last weekend, where JEF United squeezed past Yokohama FC in the first ‘Kanto Derby’ of the J2 season.
After working over the first two weekends of the new J.League season, it was nice to finally visit a stadium for the first time in 2016. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was (quite literally) dampened by the drizzle that greeted me when I stepped out of Soga Station, the terminus of the JR Keiyo Line that serves as the main access point for JEF’s beautiful Fukuda Denshi Arena.
Early March can bring bright sunshine and warm temperatures to the Kanto region, but that wasn’t the case last Sunday. Upon taking my seat in the ‘away corner’ of the stadium, I realized that I would be contending with the ground’s only real design flaw: the gap between the backs of the stands and the stadium roof, which allows strong winds to gust in and chill supporters, especially those seated in the upper rows. Still, a bottle of hot green tea from a vending machine, plus a delicious ‘Combo Taco’ (1 sausage, 1 beef for 650 yen), helped to warm me up with kick-off approaching.
The match itself had the feel of an early-season affair, with both sides seemingly yet to find their rhythm. The game was settled with the only genuine moment of quality on the day, when Takayuki Funayama sumptuously volleyed Atsuto Tatara’s right-wing cross past visiting keeper Yuta Minami. The small (but vociferous) Yokohama FC support reserved loud boos for their former player Junki Koike, who had two goals disallowed (first for an offside, then when the ball had already crossed the line for a goal-kick). There was also some abuse for their current players at full-time, as the team slipped to their third straight defeat of the nascent campaign.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the number of new players in the squad, JEF looked quite ponderous and sluggish in the first half of this game. I was looking forward to seeing how their defensive unit functioned at close quarters, but Yokohama’s relatively powder-puff attacks meant that neither goalkeeper Sato, nor centre-backs Kondo and Lee, were really tested. I was impressed with Shohei Abe in the left-back spot. He was given plenty of room to join the attack, and supplied several teasing crosses. Additionally, he warmed Minami’s gloves with a dipping volley after a corner was only half-cleared.
Abe’s freedom down the left wing was largely due to Kazuki Nagasawa, nominally the left winger in JEF’s straightforward 4-4-2, constantly drifting into the centre of the park. Whether this was part of JEF’s game plan or not, it’s hard to say. My own impression was that he seems like more of a central attacker, and was moving inside to get on the ball and influence the game more. It’ll be interesting to see if he remains in a wide role throughout the season, or eventually locks down a more central berth. I was also impressed with Masaki Yamamoto, who kept things simple in defensive midfield, but slightly less so with his partner Aranda. The Paraguayan didn’t quite seem to be on the same wavelength as his teammates when he tried to join the attack, although I know he has already put in some impressive performances in pre-season matches.
Up front, Makito Yoshida was pretty quiet, which was disappointing since he had worked very hard to earn a starting place ahead of Elton. His slight frame wasn’t really a match for Denis Halilovic’s controlled aggression on the day. Funayama was also anonymous for long stretches, but showed his quality with that fantastic volley midway through the second period.
One look at the league table tells you that Yokohama haven’t enjoyed a particularly good start to the season. This was their third straight defeat, leaving them bottom of the league and still searching for their first goal of the campaign. However, their performance on this occasion wasn’t characteristic of a relegation struggler. Denis Halilovic, a new Slovenian import, made his first start for the club at centre-back, and gave a pretty assured performance. His partner, Shogo Nishikawa, looked very uncomfortable in possession, but I expect Yuki Nogami to take back his place when he recovers from injury. A Halilovic-Nogami pairing could make the team much harder to beat in the coming months.
In midfield and attack, it was business as usual. Ever since their surprise run to the Play-Offs in 2012, the team has badly lacked the pace and guile to unlock opposing defences. Most of the creativity is expected from captain Shinichi Terada, who is a reasonably good passer but has a bad habit of dawdling in possession. Also, he often has very few options in terms of moving the ball forward. The introduction of Takahiro Nakazato as a second-half substitute seemed to help with the team’s composure, so he may well play a bigger role in the next game against Yamaguchi. Up front, Tetsuya Okubo toiled fruitlessly in aerial combat against the JEF centre-halves, and Tomohiro Tsuda showed glimpses of the player who scored 14 goals for Tokushima in 2013. Unfortunately, the defining moment of Tsuda’s afternoon came when he tried to dribble around a defender inside the JEF penalty area but was easily dispossessed, wasting an opportunity to put the ball across goal with the home defence at full stretch.
An encouraging performance for Yokohama, then, but warning signs remain in place. Despite three passable-to-good performances already this term, they are yet to register a point, or even a goal. Furthermore, a quirk of the fixture list means that four of their first five games of the campaign are at home. If they only have one or two points on the board after their first four home games, storm clouds could remain over Mitsuzawa well past the opening month of the season. The ill health of manager Milos Rus could also prove to be a distraction for the team. Rus, who left the club due to unspecified health problems in 2015, is currently in hospital undergoing treatment for coronary vasospasm (chest pains). He is expected to return home early next week, but first-team coach Kosaku Masuda will take charge for the weekend’s crunch game against newly-promoted Yamaguchi.