Often the “trendy pick” amongst the football hipsters in Japan (or have I just imagined that?) Kawasaki Frontale have flattered to deceive on many occasions. Under previous boss Yahiro Kazama they played a brand of football that was beautiful on the eye, but short on quantifiable success. Players like Kengo Nakamura, Yoshito Okubo & Yu Kobayashi thrived in Kazama’s slick, attack minded operation, but defensive and mental frailties exposed the team at crucial times. 

This season, sans Okubo, Frontale still look good going forward but also seem to have added a bit of defensive resilience to their repertoire. So, is this a new dawn or are old fault lines going to open up during the season? Regista spoke to Neil of the excellent Frontale Rabbit blog to get his opinion on the 2017 version of Frontale.

 

1. A new coach this year for Kawasaki, but have you noticed a difference in the style of play? From an outsiders point of view, they still play the slick style of football seen under Kazama.

I think the fact that (new boss Toru) Oniki was Kazama’s assistant before getting promoted to the position was a pleasant thought for those of us who enjoyed our style of football last year. For better or worse, we still seem to be playing the same kind of stuff this season. At times it’s frustrating that we seem to want to pass the ball all the way to the net and that we are often extremely cavalier at the back. When we are playing well and winning it’s great to watch and I love it, but it can be frustrating when we need to chase a game and are endlessly playing it across the back four. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, as it now does seem to be the Frontale way.

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Frontale celebrate after winning in Kashima (pic: Frontale Rabbit)

2. So far, the goals seem to be spread evenly throughout the team, although Yu Kobayashi is the team’s biggest threat. How is Frontale’s attack post Okubo?

It’s weird actually, as Kobayashi is our main striker, but I don’t think he has played particularly well when he’s been up front. He’s clearly a confidence player and I hope his cracking goal in the ACL last week against Muangthong will help him regain some of his goalscoring form of last year. (See the goal in the video below….)

He has been doing a great job making goals for others though. It could be said that we have a bit of a striker shaped hole in the team at the moment, but it’s one that I am delighted is not being filled by Okubo. I was relieved when he left us at the end of last season as he definitely seemed to be on his way down and for many games was doing nothing more than making up the numbers, only contributing negativity with his constant moaning. Sure he was a great player for us, but he definitely wasn’t last year. It was horribly predictable that he scored his first goal for FC Tokyo against us, but I’m not sure he’ll be getting that many this year.

Ienaga could be an important player for us, but hasn’t really had much of a chance yet to show what he has to offer after getting injured pre-season, then limping through a few games early on and then having a lengthier spell on the sidelines. Abe has really shown his worth recently. Think it’s goals in four consecutive games now for him. We do have a front line of fairly short players though and I wonder if sometimes it might be useful for us to have another option for when things aren’t working. Of course we have Morimoto, but he has really been anonymous in the games he’s played so far. I think it’s reaching make or break time for him soon.

3. Kawasaki’s defence has been reasonably good, and I’ve been impressed with goalkeeper Jung Sung Ryong. Is the defence noticeably better this year?

There was a hope that we would tighten things up a little defensively under the new boss, and whilst our results recently might suggest that has been the case, it’s mainly due to our goalie. He’s been in amazing form recently and is playing the best I’ve ever seen him do right now. He occasionally makes a howler, but he’s saved us so many times in the last few weeks that he must be soon approaching god like status in Kawasaki. Our defence is on the whole still pretty young and I think they’re better than last year, but still a work in progress. They have given away some soft goals, but at the same time have been contributing at the other end of the pitch. I guess the way we play, we’re never going to be rock solid at the back, but with Neto and Sung-Ryong helping out the centre backs we haven’t conceded as many as some might have imagined we would.

 

4. Frontale look like they will reach the latter stages of the Asian Champions League. Do you think the schedule will catch up with them at some point?

I think it caught up with us recently when we had a few dodgy results in the league. We were blighted by injuries at the start of the season. I think we had a whole injured 11 plus some subs at one stage, but now people seem to be getting fit again and I think we now have more chance to rotate players a bit. The good result last week against Muangthong has probably given us a bit of breathing space to use a few different players in the second leg. But we could easily get in trouble if we get some injuries to crucial players in certain crucial positions as I wouldn’t say we’ve got as much cover in the squad as some of our rivals. I’ve got my fingers crossed but it seems inevitable we’ll have a bit of a dip at some stage, but right now, whilst we’re doing well I want the games to keep coming.

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5. What is a reasonable expectation for the remainder of the year? Are Frontale genuine title contenders?

This is a difficult question. I don’t think any of us know really. I was a bit miffed when a pundit predicted we would go down this year as I thought it was totally ridiculous. All the same, before the season started I think many of us thought that this would be a season of transition and as long as we could see things going in the right direction we wouldn’t be too concerned about our final position. Whilst I still think this is the case, the recent good run (which will almost inevitably come to a crashing halt now I’ve mentioned it so many times in this article), has probably caused us to start thinking that maybe we can have a decent season. The fact that we’ve come close on quite a few occasions to winning something but always failed shows that we might not have what it takes to win the league yet, but maybe the format this year favours us more than the horrible Championship system of last year. I think our problem is that for every 3-0 win away at Kashima we will have a rotten home defeat where we look clueless against a team at the bottom of the league. I think I’d be happy with top four and some decent cup runs but it’s probably still too early to say where we might end up.

 

After being the bridesmaid too often, is it time for Nakamura & co. to step up & be the bride this year? Big thanks to Neil for his analysis (and photos!), and if you want to keep up with his thoughts on all things Frontale you can:

Note: the header photo comes from goal.com

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