At The Match
Machida Zelvia 0-1 JEF United (2017 J2 League, Round 1)
Attendance: 8, 124 (Nozuta)
Last weekend, Jon Steele was at Nozuta to run the rule over two Kanto-based J2 clubs. Visitors JEF United emerged victorious thanks to (confusingly) a goal from Yamato Machida at the end of the first half. Here are his thoughts on how the teams shaped up, and their prospects for 2017….
The hosts started very brightly in this game. I think the fairest way to describe boss Naoki Soma’s play style would be ‘uncomplicated’. With the height of Yuki Nakashima and Akira Toshima up front, it was no surprise to see the ball being pumped forward quickly and often. At times the center of midfield was bypassed completely, which wasn’t a problem for key man Ri Han Jae, but did leave his partner Yudai Inoue looking a bit lost at times (I noticed him receiving plenty of instructions from Soma, especially in the first half). Whilst Zelvia’s no-nonsense 4-4-2 and direct football might seem easy to defend against on paper, the speed and accuracy with which it was executed gave JEF plenty of problems initially. With more luck and better finishing, Machida could have been two or three goals ahead in the first twenty minutes, as the visitors struggled to contain Nakashima and Toshima (not to mention Yazawa and Morimura on the flanks).
However, having failed to find a first-half breakthrough, Zelvia seemed to run out of ideas pretty quickly in the second period. This is when the trickery of Koji Suzuki and Yuya Nakamura (both out with long-term injuries) was sorely missed. I was impressed with the attacking substitutions in the last quarter of the game though. Kentaro Shigematsu and the relatively unknown (at least to me) Ryohei Yoshihama gave JEF’s back line some different kinds of headaches, and I expect both of them to get much more game time in the coming weeks. On another day, and with JEF clinging on grimly for the last ten minutes, Zelvia could well have salvaged a point from this one.
While I have some concerns about the potency of the Machida attack, I was pleased to see them looking pretty solid at the opposite end. Toshiyasu Takahara is one of J2’s better goalkeepers in my opinion, and as usual made a series of good saves in-between dominating his penalty area quite comfortably. A custodian of his quality is easily worth eight or ten points over the course of a season. It was also nice to see Kota Fukatsu, back from a long-term injury, at center-back. He is a proven quantity at J2 level, and will help Zelvia to remain a tough side to beat (if he stays fit). His partner, Yudai Fujii, enjoyed a solid debut as well, being especially dominant in the air. He restricted himself to one mistake with the ball at his feet, but it was a doozy as he simply lost control and handed JEF possession in a very dangerous area of the pitch.
Overall, I still think Machida will come up a little bit short of a Play-Off spot on this evidence. However, there’s enough quality in the team for a top-ten finish (maybe higher if Suzuki and Nakamura can come back and make an immediate impact over the summer months).
You’d have to imagine that Juan Esnaider is highly delighted with his team after Round 1: an away win against a side that finished above them in 2016, a fine goal from the outstanding player on the day (Yamato Machida), and a clean sheet to boot. On the negative side, that clean sheet was in peril almost from the kick-off, as JEF’s three center-backs completely failed to settle for the opening twenty minutes. Naoya Kondo is a competent defender, but I remain unconvinced that he has the positional sense to play as the ‘sweeper’ in-between the other two center-backs. The fact that Zelvia lined up with two out-and-out strikers was a problem, with visible confusion about which defender should track Nakashima or Toshima. A better, or more fortunate, side could have taken the game away from JEF in that shaky opening spell. I reserve a special mention here for goalkeeper Yuya Sato, who surprisingly got the nod to start ahead of Kaito Yamamoto. Sato was the antithesis of Takahara’s cool composure in the Zelvia goal: he repeatedly wasted possession with bad throw-outs and short passes to defenders who weren’t wanting, or expecting, the ball. In the final stages, with the team defending their 1-0 lead for dear life, Sato enraged Esnaider by taking short goal-kicks when the manager was imploring him to punt the ball downfield. Surely any scouting report on JEF will pick out Sato as a weak link that can be preyed upon. He is a good shot-stopper and cross-taker, but a real liability in almost every other sense. It’ll be interesting to see how much patience Esnaider has for Sato this spring.
The game was really won in midfield, and JEF performed very well here. Wing-backs Kitazume and Salinas were in fine form (Kitazume’s pass to set up the goal was superb), and Aranda did a good job of linking defence and attack in the center (despite giving possession away a little too often in the first half). The standout performers though were Issei Takahashi, and (Yamato) Machida. 18-year-old Takahashi made his professional debut in this game, but didn’t appear overawed at all. If he can sustain this kind of performance level, he might be able to hold down a regular starting berth this year. Yamato not only decided the match with a very well-taken goal (brilliantly slowing down to compose himself before slotting past Takahara), but also kept the home side busy by constantly harrying defenders who were trying to gather possession. Now that Haruya Ide has moved on to Gamba Osaka, Yamato is the key youth team product in the first team. 2017 has the potential to be a massive year for him, and he has started it in excellent form.
Things didn’t quite click up front for JEF in this game, but there were lots of positive signs. Koki Kiyotake almost opened the scoring with a sweetly-struck volley in the first half, only to be denied by Takahara, and there was a positive cameo for Joaquin Larrivey, who replaced Takayuki Funayama for the final twenty minutes. Funayama seems to be completing his transformation into the ‘new Morimoto’ at JEF: he does everything right, and tries his socks off, but nothing ever seems to go right for him. He is always inches away from connecting with the cross that would be a tap-in; he is violently knocked off the ball but there isn’t enough contact to win a free-kick; he forgets to turn the light on and stands barefoot on trapezoid Lego (I made the last one up). I found myself willing him to score, just to get his confidence back. If he does hit the goal trail this season, the rest of J2 could be in trouble.
My verdict on JEF is that they remain a work in progress, and definitely need some improvements at the back if they are going to make a serious push for a top-six finish. The balance in midfield and up front looks good, however. They have a handful of players who have enough ability to turn games at J2 level. In my view, that makes them a good outside bet for a Play-Off spot.