Shame on me, I forgot that there were a lot of teams on the island of Kyushu. Their preview is split into north & south. We start our previews in the north, where two clubs are looking to bounce back from relegation, and others are hoping to get some consolidation.
- Giravanz Kitakyushu
- Stadium: Mikuni World Stadium Kitakyushu
- Last year: 22nd in J2
What to expect in 2017: An assault on promotion.
Let’s get one thing clear, it couldn’t have possibly been a worse year on the field for Giravanz last year. Many observers – including me – tipped them to be a play-off team. The basis of the team looked sound – they had Kazuki Hara & Rui Komatsu up front, Kotegawa, Kazama, Ikemoto & Motoyama in midfield. The defence, while not top shelf, certainly didn’t have the look of one that would completely collapse. But it all came together in the worst possible way.
Still now I’m at a loss to really explain what happened. The simplest explanation is that they simply couldn’t recover from a horrible start that saw them win just two of their first 17 games. Kazuki Hara scored goals, but aside from him, the whole squad under-performed hugely, and they left themselves with too much to do to avoid the drop – a drop that was confirmed with an abject defeat at Montedio Yamagata on the final day.
Now that the negativity is out of the way, there’s a lot to be positive about. The main thing is their brand new stadium – Mikuni World Stadium – situated in the heart of Kitakyushu City (right near Kokura station, close to the bullet train station for you train geeks there). It is a superb structure, and one that quite frankly deserves more than J3 football.
(picture from Kitakyushu Stadium on Facebook)
On the playing side of things, Kazuki Hara has gone to Kamatamare Sanuki, so they will have to replace his goals, but they have a stable of strikers – headed by new recruit Shoki Hirai (from Avispa Fukuoka) – that should ensure they have enough firepower to do well in J3. In midfield, another recruit from Avispa in Shuto Nakahara should thrive in Kitakyushu and he will be joined in midfield by returning Daichi Kawashima and the vastly experienced Masashi Motoyama. One key addition could in goal, where Norihiro Yamagishi has been signed from Montedio Yamagata. Yamagishi is probably most known for his injury time winner in a play-off semi final against Jubilo Iwata in 2014, but he is also a very sturdy & reliable goalkeeper and his presence will most probably stabilize a weak point of their team. His could be the most important signing this year.
Key player: Norihiro Yamagishi. I’ve already outlined the main reason why above. When you look at the collection of attacking players this squad has, it shouldn’t struggle to hit the back of the net. What they need this year, is a stable head & pair of hands at the back. His Yamagata side didn’t do particularly well, but “Gishi” – to his friends – still helped ensure that his team didn’t concede that many goals, relative to their poor performance. Yamagishi brings a wealth of experience and will command the respect of the dressing room instantly. Kitakyushu will look to make their stay in J3 a brief one – and if Yamagishi can get the defence organized, the attackers will probably easily deliver their end of the bargain.
- Avispa Fukuoka
- Stadium: Level 5 Stadium, Fukuoka
- Last year: 18th in J1
What to expect in 2017: A serious promotion push. Manager Masami Ihara has been given the chance to oversee a return to J1 after there were some rumours that he would pay the price for Avispa’s poor 2016 season. He has reshaped his squad, bringing in experienced & youthful players that give it a really balanced look.
Avispa’s problem last was scoring goals, but I’m not sure they’ll have that problem this year with their attacking options. Of course, Hisahsi Jogo is the headliner. The Prince of Fukuoka (I think that is his nickname – if it isn’t, he should adopt it) will be back patrolling the right side of attack once again. He is joined by a relatively star-studded (for J2 level anyway) line up that includes Wellington, who has averaged one goal every two starts in his last two years in J2, Gilsinho, Willian Popp (arriving from Busan I-park in Korea with a good goalscoring reputation), Daisuke Ishizu & promising forward Riki Matsuda from Nagoya Grampus. That is quite a collection of firepower for this league. This group of players should mean that they don’t miss Takeshi Kanamori too much after his move to Kashima Antlers. The signing of Koji Yamase from Kyoto Sanga should also turn out to be a very good one. Yamase, despite his advancing age (he’ll be 36 in September) he rolled back the years to produce an excellent season for a good Sanga side last year. He’ll be surrounded by just as much – if not more – talent in Fukuoka and so I see no reason why he should have another productive year at this level.
Avispa conceded 66 goals in J1 last year, but Ihara, a former top class defender himself, has decided to keep faith with the majority of defenders for 2017. Yu Tamura has joined J1 side Urawa Reds, but the main prize of Masashi Kamekawa will remain at Avispa for this season. He is an excellent defender, although he would have been chastened by the experience he had in J1 last year. This year, he will be allowed to get forward a bit more because of the drop down in standard of winger he will play against.
Key player: Kim Hyun Hun. The Korean centre back was an almost ever present last year, and you’d think that that might actually count against him, given how bad Avispa were last year in defence. But, as detailed above, manager Masami Ihara has avoided major surgery in the defence, preferring instead to supercharge the attack. That means that most of the defensive members from last year return, and it would make sense for Kim to be at the forefront of Ihara’s defensive plans. He has a good reputation at this level, and the strikers he will come up against won’t be the level he faced last year. He is good in the air, and can marshal the defence well. It is also worth noting that Kim was the one defender that was indispensable when Avispa switched between four at the back and three centre backs. My guess is that all of the Avispa defence are “on notice”, but they have a chance to grow & improve together and Kim Hyun Hun should be a major part of their plans.
(picture courtesy of Sagan Tosu)
- Sagan Tosu
- Stadium: Best Amenity Stadium, Tosu
- Last year: 11th in J1
What to expect in 2017: Probably more mid-table mediocrity. Not that that is a bad thing per-se – the fact that Tosu are not classed as a yo-yo club (like neighbours Avispa Fukuoka) is a testament to how the club is run & maintained. They have their moments – letting table topping manager Yoon Jung Hwan walk away when they were mounting a serious title challenge is a difficult to top – but on the whole they are a stable club.
Italian manager Massimo Ficcadenti had some big plans this winter, but on the whole his signings have been underwhelming when you look at the kind of player he was after. He struck out on FC Tokyo’s Japan international Masato Morishige, and there were rumours of other big name approaches. Possibly their highest profile signing was Yuji Ono, the attacking midfielder who spent the previous two years in Belgium. Riki Harakawa – a midfielder with talent but who always seems to have the “promising” tag attached to him needs to deliver on his undoubted skill. Yuzo Kobayshi (from Yokohama F.Marinos) will likely turn out to be a good signing, and their two main attacking threats – striker Yohei Toyoda & midfield schemer Daichi Kamada – both return and will look to once again make hay in the Best Amenity Stadium. Kamada is a very exciting player, great with the ball at his feet & very difficult to stop in full flow. If he can improve on his breakout 2017 season (7 goals, 31 chances created) Tosu will do well.
They will have to move on from the loss of outstanding Korean midfielder Kim Min Woo, who has moved back to his homeland with an eye on doing his military service. Kim created 60 chances last year, twice as many as Daichi Kamada, and Ficcadenti will hope Ono, Kamada and some of the other supporting cast can make up this shortfall. One other prominent player from last year that they’ll have to replace is goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi who has made the long trip to FC Tokyo (where he will be an instant upgrade on Yota Akimoto). His replacement? None other than Shuichi Gonda, former FC Tokyo ‘keeper. It seems a little bit bizarre that two clubs would take each others’ keepers. At first glance, it would seem that Tokyo have got the better deal from it. Gonda has been out for a while related to personal issues, and actually tried to find a club in Europe during the winter transfer window on that continent, but despite coming close to signing for a Portuguese side, returned home to Japan and promptly signed with Tosu. He has been spent time in Austria at SV Horn, but the last time he was playing in Japan he suffered from exhaustion (amongst other things) due to what was called at the time “over-training”. One hopes he gets the help & time to get back to full mental & physical health. If he does, Tosu will have taken on a very goalkeeper. If not, they’ll be in this goalkeeper market once again in the summer in an effort to replace the very consistent Hayashi.
Key player: Yohei Toyoda. The Tosu icon is about as consistent as they come, and he will once again be tasked with leading the line for Ficcadenti’s side. Over the course of the last five years he has netted a total of 83 league goals – an outstanding level of consistency. He is excellent in the air and uses his physicality to his advantage. He stands around 1.85m and when crosses come into the area he is inevitably on the end of them. Allied to that is his sometimes unsung hold up/build up play. His frame allows him to shield the ball from defenders, so when Tosu do have to clear their lines, they have a willing and able person who can hold the ball up, thus giving time for the defence to push up. His pink mouthguard makes him stand out, but it is consistent goalscoring prowess which marks him out in the J.League.
(picture courtesy of V-Varen Nagasaki)
- V-Varen Nagasaki
- Last year: 15th in J2
What to expect in 2017: A struggle. The future of the club has been thrown into some long term doubt this week as news of a bad year financially last year came to light. Exact figures are still unknown to this point but sourced reports say that they lost up to $1.2m in the 2016 season. Not only that, but their top scorer last with 17 goals, Ryo Nagai, is no longer with the club having moved to Nagoya Grampus in January. When you factor in that the team only won one of their final 17 games of last season, the arrow seems to be pointing downwards.
With Nagai gone, his goals will have to be replaced. The big signing tasked with that is Spanish forward Juanma. The former Alaves & Hearts striker will need to hit the ground running because behind him there doesn’t appear to be a lot except for ex-Shimizu & Kumamoto striker Takashi Sawada. In fact, their top four league goalscorers from last year are no longer with the club, so the form of Juanma is going to be incredibly significant. Just before I was planning to publish this, Nagasaki announced the signing of a second Spanish player, Miguel Pallardo. If he & Juanma can strike up some kind of Spanish understanding (I know that seems far too simplistic) that would be a huge thing for manager Takuya Takagi (more on him to come).
Further back, Nagasaki will also have to get used to a new goalkeeper as last year’s custodian Takuo Okubo moved to FC Tokyo this off-season and one would expect new signings Takuya Masuda (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and Tatsuro Okuda (Jubilo Iwata) to fight for the place, but they have both been career back ups and relatively untested.
One thing that Nagasaki can count on is good management, and that starts at the top with manager Takuya Takagi. He has done an exceptional job at Nagasaki. They din’t get big crowds or big money, but his teams are always relatively safe (they did reach the play-offs three years ago). He is a proponent of the three centre back model, and his sides are usually characterized by energetic wing back play. There were signs that this approach had been found out by the end of last year, so I wonder if the signing of ex-FC Gifu manager Megumu Yoshida, who had relative success with Gifu last year using a four at the back might try to influence how they play.
Key man: Juanma. It is all about replacing Nagai’s goals. If Juanma can, they’ll be fine. If he can’t, I think Nagasaki might be in some real danger this year.