Conspiracy theories. Utter drivel spouted by neurotic imbeciles? Or people who can see past the obvious and into the glorious realm of truth? Whichever one of these descriptions you subscribe to, the J.League has its own conspiracies. Or does it? It is a complex issue, but luckily @AgentOrange2009 is here to decode the messages – Robert Langdon style – coming from one particular J.League club in particular – Nagoya Grampus.
The 21st century has seen a boom in conspiracy theories. From the 9/11 “truthers” to Donald Trump’s cadre of “birthers”, it seems like there is a growing collection of individuals who see the world in very dark and cynical ways. I’m here to tell you that the J League is no different. There is a small but growing group of conspiracy theorists called “droppers” who believe that teams with reasonably large payrolls who have hit hard times get relegated on purpose in order to “clear” their books of big salaries and give their fans a break from losing seasons by dropping a division and beating up on lower competition.
Alright, let me clarify some things. By growing group of conspiracy theorists, I mean me. I think Nagoya is tanking it and I’m going to try and make the case. Let’s get it started!
1. Vaya Con Dios, Ogura!
Earlier today neophyte manager Takafumi Ogura was relieved of duty after he watched the team embark on a 17 match league winless streak. After taking over as general manager, Ogura was charged with overseeing the rebuilding of Grampus when Akira Nishino was let go as manager after 2 lackluster seasons as manager. Ogura opted to get rid of the core of a team that had managed a string of mid-table finishes over the past four years. Vocal leaders like the controversial Marcus “Tulio” Tanaka were released from the squad, leaving a void. More importantly, key members along the back four were released or transferred and filled in with a collection of rookies and journeymen who have proven to be not up to the task.
Arguably not the recipe for success, but if you are truly trying to change course it’s doable if you have the right man in charge. Putting yourself in charge? Not a great idea, especially if you have no experience as a manager. Unless….YOU ARE TRYING TO MAKE SURE THE TEAM GETS RELEGATED!!!!!!!
2. The Reysol Playbook
Ogura’s replacement is former Macedonia and Red Star Belgrade manager Bosko Gjurovski, a longtime assistant under team icon Dragan “Pixy” Stojkovic. I would argue that Gjurovski was hired to see what can be salvaged and what needs to be dumped. We’ve seen various incarnations of this strategy in the past. Arguably the most successful implementation of this was in 2009, when Kashiwa Reysol fired rookie manager Shinchiro Takahashi halfway through a disastrous campaign and brought in Nelsinho Baptista. Nelsinho was charged with cleaning house and rebuilding the team with smart imports and young prospects while reinforcing with reliable veteran players. Relegation gave Nelsinho the ability to figuratively “slaughter” some of the sacred cows on the squad.
Grampus has been trying to do that over the past couple of years, with players like Keiji Tamada, Tulio, and Takahiro Masukawa being shown the door. Arguably, it’s much easier to cut payroll when you get relegated. There are a fair amount of underperforming players with big names on the squad. That’s going to be easy.
What’s going to be tough is telling the face of the franchise for well over a decade that his time is up. Seigo Narazaki has represented Nagoya between the posts over 500 times. He’s been the one constant for the squad since 1999, appearing no less than 22 times in any season since he joined from the Flugels. The only way the team gets rid of him and his large salary is either by him stepping down or releasing him because of a relegation. In the age of Gon Nakayama and Kazu Miura, stepping down does not seem very likely. He’s going to need a push.
3. Embracing Relegation
A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable to imagine a team deciding that relegation would be a better option than surviving. The horror story of Tokyo Verdy is one that was whispered around many a stadium when a big club started out a bit sluggishly, like children telling stories of the boogieman. Sanfrecce changed that in 2009. Then Kashiwa showed that you could actually thrive after relegation. Then there was Gamba in 2014. Recently, teams who have been relegated and manage to come right back up have done better than teams who struggle and strain for survival. There’s good reason for that.
Psychologically, it’s a better situation to beat weaker teams than it is to lose to stronger ones. Think of it as a break for all involved from the drudgery of grinding out results in hopes of finishing not 16th. Winning builds a more positive culture, which helps development. It’s easier to play young players when you are in a situation of gaining promotion as opposed to a situation of trying not to lose your spot in J1.
Nagoya supporters in Kyoto – a taste of what is to come next year?
Nagoya has been one of the power teams in the J youth set-up for over a decade. They’ve had trouble developing that talent into top level starters and stars. I’d argue that dropping relieves them of the pressure of having to start big name, high salary players and lets them blood younger prospects. Mainly because expectations lower with the drop to J2. I think teams get a honeymoon period after a drop, one that doesn’t happen when you barely survive the year before.
Is there a grassy knoll in Nagoya?
Probably not. But it kind of makes you wonder if there was some subterfuge done by the Toyota corporation and Ogura before the season started. Did Ogura throw himself in front of the relegation train in order to give the man he truly wanted to manage some cover before he took over? Is there a plot to overthrow Seigo Narazaki and implement one of the three journeymen keepers they have on the team? Is this all a grand scheme to finally have a dream matchup with FC Gifu?
EDIT – this guy is back in town. I’ll just leave it here…..