JEF United.

Those two words provoke a myriad of reactions, but what exactly are the team from the Fukuari these days?

  • Big club?

  • Sleeping giant?

  • Stuck in the past?

  • A club with illusions of grandeur?

More prescient, what does the immediate future hold for the club & and their long suffering fan base? @J2KantoBites, fresh off his winter break, doesn’t waste any time in giving us a good, detailed analysis of the perennial conundrum that is JEF United Chiba.

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Since the introduction of the J2 Promotion Play-Offs in 2012, JEF United have been the most consistent (and infuriating) failures in post-season competition. The Yellow Dogs from Chiba have twice been beaten in the Play-Off Final, with a Semi-Final elimination sandwiched in-between for good measure. In more recent times though, even these feats have been beyond them. After only finishing 9th in 2015, followed by a disappointing 1th1 last term, even the most optimistic JEF fans are hopeful, rather than expectant, ahead of the new campaign.

Manager

The new man in charge at the Fukuda Denshi Arena is Juan Esnaider. The Argentine is JEF’s first-ever South American boss, and their first non-Japanese coach since the (harshly dismissed) Dwight Lodeweges in 2011. The fact that JEF’s front office are ‘thinking outside the box’ with this appointment could either suggest a brave new dawn of blue-sky thinking, or sheer desperation that nothing else has worked over the last 8 years. As mentioned previously by Stuart on this very site, Esnaider’s playing career (as a striker) took in some of football’s most illustrious clubs, including Real Madrid, Juventus and (briefly) River Plate.

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(image from laliga.es)

His managerial statistics so far are much less impressive though. After spells at Zaragoza’s B team, Cordoba and Getafe, his career win percentage stands at 28.57%. Needless to say, his time at JEF will be extremely brief if that statistic doesn’t improve. Esnaider has brought in an Argentine assistant coach (Marcos Guillermo Samso) to help him out on the touchline, while Shigetoshi Hasebe, who stepped into the breach as manager last season when Takashi Sekizuka left the club, is also retained on the backroom staff. Hasebe should provide some continuity for the players as they adjust to the Esnaider regime, although it might be the wrong type of continuity for some: his win percentage from his 17 games in charge last term was an Esnaider-esque 29.41%.

Defence

The back line will be very similar to last season in terms of personnel, although it seems that Esnaider might favor a system with three central defenders (ostensibly a 3-4-3, or 3-4-1-2). Goalkeeper Kaito Yamamoto has joined from Vissel Kobe, and the likelihood is that he will replace Yuya Sato as first-choice custodian. Takaharu Nishino has also arrived on loan from Gamba Osaka, and should be a regular fixture as one of the three center-backs. This season’s captain, Naoya Kondo, will be the ‘center’ of the back three (he is the best organizer, and not mobile enough to play elsewhere). The other central defensive berth will probably be filled by Masashi Wakasa or Lee Joo Young, with young Yuki Okubo also waiting in reserve.

While not looking especially resilient in central defense, JEF do have an embarrassment of riches for the wing-back/full- back roles. On the right, Atsuto Tatara and Kengo Kitazume will duke it out for a starting berth, and the situation on the left side is even more complicated. Any of Shohei Abe, Yusuke Higa, Takaya Inui or Jorge Salinas could line up in that position (although Salinas will surely spend more time in an attacking role higher up the pitch). It will be interesting to see if Esnaider chops and changes his back line depending on the opposition, or settles on a ‘first- choice’ lineup very quickly.

Midfield

In defensive midfield, Esnaider seems to have big plans for Aranda. The Paraguayan suffered with injuries last year, but will shoulder a lot of responsibility for linking defence and attack (and stopping opposition counterattacks) when he plays. Aranda is skillful but not especially quick, so he will need a speedy partner in central midfield. That could well be Andrew Kumagai, who has joined on loan from Yokohama Marinos after spending last season at Kanazawa. Other (slower) options are veterans Yuto Sato and (returning from FC Tokyo) Naotake Hanyu. The underrated Masaki Yamamoto is also likely to get game time in this position.

Attacking midfield is where JEF lost big during the winter break. Highly-rated Haruya Ide left for Gamba Osaka, and Kazuki Nagasawa’s loan from Urawa has ended. The maturing Yamato Machida has signed a new contract though, and should become an integral part of the attack in 2017. Incoming Paraguayan Jorge Salinas (from Olimpia), mentioned earlier as a defensive option, will surely get the chance to show off his cultured left foot in the center of the pitch, or down the flank. Takayuki Funayama also spent a lot of last season in a right-wing spot, which could well continue this term.

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Attack

JEF have lost the services of Elton (to Corinthians) and Ado Onaiwu (to Urawa), but their roster of forwards should still induce panic in most J2 defences. Esnaider seems to have used his Argentine connections to lure compatriot Joaquin Larrivey from Baniyas in the UAE. 32-year- old Larrivey initially made his name at Huracan, before enjoying a productive spell with Cagliari in the Italian Serie A. If the service he receives from the likes of Machida and Salinas is good, he could be a goal machine at this level.

JEF’s other big winter signing was Koki Kiyotake from Kumamoto (brother of Cerezo Osaka’s Hiroshi). A confident and hard-working attacker, Kiyotake scored 12 goals in 37 appearances last season. If the tragic events of the Kumamoto earthquakes last spring hadn’t interrupted Kumamoto’s season so dramatically, he could have perhaps scored many more. He can play as an out-and- out striker, winger or attacking midfielder, and will keep defenders guessing with his quick feet and dribbling prowess.

With Larrivey and Kiyotake likely to be automatic starters when fit, Takayuki Funayama might have to settle for a place in midfield, or on the bench, at the start of the campaign. After misfiring for most of 2016 (5 goals in 42 games), he has to make the most of his chances when they come along this term. Esnaider can also call upon the aerial power of Makito Yoshida, and the dribbling skills of Hiroki Sugajima, from the bench.

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J2 Kanto Bites Prediction

Predicting the fortunes of JEF United is usually futile, but as usual, they have assembled a squad with enough quality to finish in the top six. While the ability in the side cannot be questioned, the players have yet to prove that they have the winning mentality needed to gain promotion back to J1. JEF will face a stern test of their mental strength on the opening day of the campaign, as they visit last season’s 7th-place finishers, Machida Zelvia. A good performance, and result, would really boost the confidence of players and supporters for the long road ahead. JEF do not look particularly strong at the back, but with so many exciting forward players, they should see off most opponents at home. The key to their promotion hopes probably rests on their away results, where their back line is likely to be examined more severely, and their forwards may be starved of possession. It remains to be seen if Esnaider has the tactical nous, and good fortune, to get the right results on the road.

Prediction Time: 6th (heart), 8th (head)

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