J.League Regista invited two of the sharpest J3 minds, @GifuRichy & @JMiraiBlog to discuss their thoughts on what has happened so far in the third tier of Japanese football. J.League Regista (JLR) is asking the questions, Richy (GR) and Mr. Mirai (JMB) take turns to answer.
Get set, because you’re going to get knowledged!
JLR – Gentlemen, thank you for agreeing to speak on this topic. Let’s not waste any time. So, we are decent way through the season. What, if anything, has stood out for you or surprised up to this point?
JMB – The season has been really interesting for me so far, particularly due to how competitive it has been. While I greatly enjoyed watching the story of Renofa Yamaguchi unfold last season, it was pretty disappointing that the rest of the league was fairly predictable so it has been great to see the top 6 to 8 clubs shuffling around every week so far in 2016. By this point last season, the teams that went on to fill the top 4 places were already in place but it’s not so clear whether or not that will be the case by the end of this season.
I’m sure that the big surprise to most people will be the club that have spent the longest in the top spot: Blaublitz Akita. Anyone who was paying close attention last season may not be so surprised, however, as the league’s most northerly club finished 2015 off in an incredibly rich vein of form and have simply carried that through into the new campaign to great effect. Akita are on a run of just 2 defeats in their last 25 league matches as of the time of writing, both of which were pretty much dead rubbers away from home at the end of last year. I also felt that they strengthened well over the off-season, particularly in snatching Ken Hisatomi from Fujieda MYFC, so were in a good position to better themselves. Will this be their season? Only time will tell; they are known to have the tendency to go on a poor run (their current great run overlapped with a run of just 1 win in 16) so might crumble under the pressure if and when they hit a bump in the road.
There hasn’t really been anything that has surprised me personally as I did sense during pre-season that a lot of what has happened might happen. The vacuum left behind by perennial challengers Machida Zelvia and the fact that most of the major players changed management prior to the season had me struggling to call the favourites for promotion and we’re now almost a third of the way through the campaign with any of the top 7 (if not more) still in with a shot at the title.
One thing that I must say has pleased me is the attendance figures as the overall league average appears to be continuing on an upward trend; 8 of the 13 clubs have also seen attendances rise from last season and 2 of the Under-23 sides have averages that are better than that of the whole league in 2015. Oita Trinita, in particular, have been doing very well in keeping their fans coming back for more as their current average is higher than that from last season despite their relegation.
Also of note is Kataller Toyama as they have seen attendances return to being more like those from their last season in J2 after a significant drop last year. Unfortunately, both Akita and FC Ryukyu continue to struggle to pull in the crowds, which would harm any hopes they have of playing in J2 next term should they retain their lofty positions, and Gainare Tottori’s off-field woes won’t be helped by their fans continuing to stay away.
GR – I’m surprised at how competitive the competition has become. In the last 2 years it looked like 2-3 teams would be battling it out for J2 promotion, but this year over half of the teams are putting up a good fight. Also even the teams nearer the bottom of the table are performing better and there are no real easy beats this year. Teams like Tottori and Fukushima for example, at the bottom of the table, could beat any of the teams on their day and have some real firepower within their teams.
It’s also great to see teams like Akita and Ryukyu up the top of the table. Both teams have worked hard and recruited well over the winter, and it’s paying off for them. It’s still doubtful whether or not they will be eligible for J2 should they be in that position at the end of the year, however it’s good to see them building their clubs up and providing more competition within the J3.
JLR – The elephant in the room: The U23 teams. Do they bring anything positive to the division? Or are they merely a distraction?
GR – Positives.
-These teams bring J3 football to areas that have little or no J3. The nearest team to Kansai is Tottori, while Tokyo’s nearest teams are not too far away in Yokohama. But this is not just good for fans in Osaka and Tokyo, but away fans and teams too. Both Tokyo and Osaka are probably the easiest areas to get to in Japan and cheaper than trips up to Tohoku and Okinawa. This means that teams won’t have to spend as much to get to these games, and there are more transportation options available too.
-The addition of these three teams brings more teams into the competition meaning that there are enough teams so that teams can play each other twice – home and away. J3 teams need enough games per season at home to get them through the season financially and this means that the teams don’t have to play each other three times, which results in some teams being at a disadvantage depending on who they play and where.
-J3 teams get to play some quality players, such as Murqiri for FC Tokyo U23 of Kiyohara for Cerezo U23. The fans of course also get to see these players in action from their own stadiums.
-They have been attracting reasonable crowds, and this will help make up for disappointing crowd numbers that are often found for teams like YSCC, Fujieda, Morioka and Fukushima to name a few.
Overall, while I can now understand some reasons why these teams were put into J3, I think the main question will be whether they will remain there, or be kicked out like the Japan U22 team. These teams have a home ground, some fans, and reasonably consistent squads so in that way the idea of them is vastly superior than to that of the Japan U22 team. However if they stay in J3 there are fears they may block out newer teams from entering J3, and also block teams being promoted from J3 too.
JMB – I think the Under-23 teams certainly bring something positive to their parent clubs, as evidenced by FC Tokyo being able to give some game time to a star player in need of fitness when Muriqui made his long-awaited J3 debut and Gamba Osaka being able to give more regular game time to a host of promising young talent that had been treading water with the first team in recent seasons.
Their impact on the league is a much tougher thing to call and I feel it’s still a little early to make a proper judgement. So far the 3 teams haven’t had too much of an effect on the promotion race, which I feel was one of the main concerns; Cerezo took points from both Ryukyu and Nagano Parceiro at home and Oita also dropped a couple when they visited Gamba (while FC Tokyo are lucky to have taken points from anyone let alone the top sides) but the top would still be tight even if those teams had won. Perhaps my feelings will change if one of these teams takes crucial points from a contender at the business end of the season but for now I’m happy to keep observing from my seat on the fence.
JLR – From what we’ve seen so far, can we make any predictions about what will happen over the summer?
JMB – I wouldn’t advise anyone to make any predictions just yet (unless that prediction is for Morioka and Tokyo to continue their battle for the proverbial wooden spoon) as all of the teams will have played at least 10 of their 30 matches by the end of May and yet it’s still too close to call. It’s entirely feasible that the top 7 could have been separated by just 3 points had the 5th round not been disrupted by bad weather and the awful earthquake in Kumamoto, which is as competitive as the league has been in its short history.
In the spirit of not being completely on the fence in this article, I will do a bit of predicting and say that I expect that we will see a couple of the contenders falling away over the next 10 matches but it’d be hard to call which ones. It’s probably easier to call the ones that won’t and my primary target would be Nagano as they have the experience to hang around.
As such, they’re still my pick for the title despite their tendency to drop silly points as evidenced by their inability to defeat a poor Tottori side at home. SC Sagamihara also have the smarts to make a serious push so I expect them to still be around and I think that Oita will come good after their little blip over the last month or so.
The rest of the top 7 still have big questions to answer for me. Can Akita survive the inevitable bump in the road? Can Ryukyu remain consistent enough to stay in the race? Is Kagoshima United’s current run just a happy blip or are they serious contenders? Have Toyama turned a corner and learned to get to grips with not being a J2 club any more? I think we’ll have a much clearer view of where everyone stands by the start of July.
GR – Not really. The league has become a lot stronger overall and there is no one team that looks like it will pull away. I think Akita and Ryukyu will remain in relatively good positions but may lose a few games just out of fatigue as the teams face long travel schedules throughout the year. Tottori, Fukushima and Morioka have all been unlucky in some of their results and I expect that they will get a bit more momentum and move up the table a little.
Favourites Nagano, Oita and Tochigi should be around the top but will already be feeling the pressure and weight of expectation among them, and this could work in favour of teams like Toyama who have a reasonable team and could slip under the radar a bit. Finally, the U23 players should be able to handle the summer heat a bit better than some players in other teams and this could make them hard to beat during the hotter months especially.