Yokohama F.Marinos were a mystery before the season started, and have continued on the mysterious trajectory, combining some excellent performances such as their opening day win against Urawa with some pretty average ones – the defeat at Sagan Tosu springs to mind.
I could have asked around 40 questions to Yokohama F.Marinos supporter Tony Dee, about what is going on at Nissan Stadium, but four will have to suffice.
(Header photo from the F.Marinos website)
1. Have F.Marinos suffered from PSS – Post Shunsuke Shock? How has Manabu Saito stepped into Shunsuke’s shoes?
The off-season was looking grim after Shunsuke left for Jubilo, having tired of butting heads with Mombaerts and front office over on- and off-field issues such as the treatment of players and long-term staff, whilst Saito himself was still unsigned when the transfer window closed in early February.
However the late additions of Milos Degenek (CB, from TSV 1860 München), and Red Star Belgrade pair Hugo Vieira (FW) and David Babunski (AMF), along with a successful pre-season jaunt to Thailand and Saito’s eventual confirmation that he would be staying for 2017 buoyed the spirits of all in the lead up to the campaign kick-off at the end of February.
In the first few rounds it seemed that Manabu was able to step into Shunsuke’s #10 role quite neatly, becoming a key provider: his pace with the ball at his feet and ability to get by defenders opening up opportunities for other players to finish off. The come from behind 3-2 win at home in the season opener over Urawa was sparked by two assists from the Number Ten who looked at the the top of his game.
Yet Manabu’s impact has lessened over the past several rounds as the both his form and that of the team dropped off from those early highs. Defenders targeting him even more closely and niggling injuries have combined to curtail his influence. That he has five assists to his name and is yet to open his own scoring account perhaps captures succinctly the season Saito is having so far – no doubt he’d prefer to be having more of a direct impact on the Goals For column.
F.Marinos old & new (photo: Sports Hochi)
As far as taking over the leadership role, Manabu is a Marinos lad through-and-though who wears his heart on his sleeve. Yet the tears of previous years have been replaced by chest-thumping and constant encouragement of his team-mates during the game and after, be it a win, loss or draw. Personally I wasn’t sure that he was the right choice (yet) for captain, but taking on the extra responsibility as both captain and the Marinos #10 shirt has brought with it a maturity – or an expression of maturity – that we hadn’t seen previously. Saito Manabu stepping in to fill the void is looking to be about the best outcome one could expect in the wake of the loss of such an iconic club figure as Nakamura.
2. YFM are comfortably in mid-table now. Is that basically what was expected, or should they be doing better?
For Mombaerts’ third year at the helm, the expectation from the club administration and supporters is that the team must finish higher than mid-table and be pushing for a spot in the ACL.
Now having played just over a third of the season, Yokohama is just within touching distance of the top four. However, as is usual for the J.League, a half-dozen teams are within three points of each other and with Marinos struggling to impose themselves on games – dropping points or losing outright to lower ranked teams – a 10th place finish could be as likely as a 5th.
After two and a half years in the job most of the same issues that have plagued the team throughout Mombaerts’ tenure still exist. A ponderous approach to the game, all too often falling back to playing the percentages with a sideways or backwards pass when opportunities exist to catch the opposition on the back foot, the struggle to score against defences which have an abundance of time to organise themselves in the face of our over-elaborate build-up, and the head-scratching selections and substitutions. All of which are now being voiced even by sections of the fanbase which are normally reluctant to criticise the status quo.
“At least he’s developing the young players” is the best Marinos fans can currently say about their current manager, which for me speaks volumes.
3. From the outside, the new foreign players seemed to have settled reasonably well. What the F.Marinos supporters take on them?
On paper, at least, three foreign players with decent pedigrees who should be walk-up starters in their positions, these signings look the most impressive for F.Marinos over the past decade or so. That may be as much a reflection of F.Marinos’ poor record of recruiting players from outside Japan as anything else, it must be said.
Mombaerts threw all three into the fray early yet has only stuck consistently with Milos Degenek. Fans warmed quickly to the Australian defender, and he’s quickly adjusted to life in Japan and alongside Bomber Nakazawa. The 26 year-old has adds mobility to a central defence that relies upon the nous and experience of 550-gamer Nakazawa, yet he’s also having his ups and downs.
A best-on-field effort for Marinos in their loss to Kashiwa in April was spoiled by the Australian’s failure to mark Reysol’s diminutive (1.55m) forward Nakagawa who scored their second to put the game out of reach, whilst he perhaps unfairly earnt the angst of some supporters after Sanfrecce scored a late winner in this week’s final round of the Levain Cup to eliminate us from the competition. Overall, though, the Nakazawa-Degenek combination is looking more solid than we’ve seen at the back since the 2013 season and he’s been a positive addition to the squad.
After the first several weeks David Babunski and Hugo Vieira were relegated to the Levain Cup squad, which incidentally did nothing to help the team’s results. Just as some were starting to despair at the thought of yet another striker seeming to not work out for us, Vieira – the 2016 Serbian SuperLiga Players’ Union Player of the Season – has started finding the back of the net. With 4 goals in the 2 games (1 cup and 1 league, albeit 2 from the penalty spot), the tricolour supporters are back on the Hugo bandwagon in full voice as the small yet mobile and athletic striker looks confident, composed and is finishing his chances.
David Babunski, despite having played impressively and scoring in the first two games of the season, now finds himself in and out of the starting eleven from week to week. With obvious talent, the ex-Barca youth player (apologies, it had to be mentioned somewhere!) brings an X-Factor to a Shunsuke-less midfield, and in his absence the team has lacked a creator in the middle of the field – something that stood out to even a first time Marinos watcher next to me in the stands at Kashiwa. (Below is an example of the quality that Babunski can bring)
It’s difficult to expect a young player, new to the league to be able to pull the strings and impose himself on the game consistently, but when the other options are Maeda or Amano in the middle of the attack, I’d argue for giving the philosophical Macedonian more consistent playing time.
#Philosophy from David Babunski’s instagram account
4. What do F.Marinos need to do to make a run at the ACL places? Is Mombaerts up to that task?
F.Marinos need to go on an extended run of good form, which I think can only come about if Mombaerts can take off his inner handbrake, so to say. We need to see Vieira and Babunski starting and a willingness to attack in the game plan, and the courage to keep at it. We need to see a more pro-active Mombaerts on the sidelines, less slow to react to the game, more willing to use his full compliment of substitutes.
The conservative approach works better for us in the knock-out environment of the Emperor’s Cup, for example. The much maligned Ito Sho, whose use by Mombaerts has come symbolise the more defensive, plodding Marinos style everyone knows and does not love, has an important role to play primarily as a forward who chases down defenders, covers passing lanes to help keep us in the game and only secondarily as a goal-scoring threat. Over the course of the season this might keep Marinos within reach of the top five, but leaves us vulnerable to upsets by ‘weaker’ teams and also won’t be enough to get us past the other top 5 contenders such as Kashima, Kashiwa, Cerezo and Gamba to whom we have already fallen.
So this shouldn’t be our Plan A. Yet I don’t think that anyone believes that Mombaerts has it in him to let the team regularly play in a more positive fashion – I certainly don’t. It’s not all on the manager though, there are some question marks over whether some of the starting players are yet of the calibre that one associates with a top four team. This season may be a case of close but not quite.
Big thanks to Tony for that in-depth look at the club he supports. Be sure to follow his musings at @tgR_tsuru. But he isn’t only member of the Yokohama F.Marinos foreign supporter bloc. Oh no, they have their own supporters group – Tricolore Pride. Always to be found behind the goal at Nissan or Mitsuzawa, they are a collective of foreign residents and football fans that have taken to watching F.Marinos, and they show themselves in an excellent light always.
Find the Tricolore Pride on Twitter at @TricolorePride