This is a team I’ve been wanting to explore for a long time. The club that brought us Shinji Kagawa & Takashi Inui have long been a glamorous name in J.League circles. Whether it is their iconic pink kit, their legions of female fans, the fact that they brought in Diego Forlan & Cacau and still managed to get relegated, or the sheer numbers of good players they produce – people talk about Cerezo Osaka.

Last year, they brought an end to a humbling period in J2 by beating Fagiano Okayama in the J2 play-off final, thus securing their promotion back to the top league. It has seemingly, from the outside at least, been a winter and spring of evolution rather revolution. The manager changed, and Hiroshi Kiyotake came back to the club, but they have kept a large number of the players that helped them gain promotion from J2.

To get a more detailed view on the current situation at Kincho Stadium, I sought the counsel of @crz_tweets – someone who knows Cerezo inside & out. This is fascinating.

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1. After winning the J2 play-off final last year, Cerezo decided to hire ex-Sagan Tosu manager Yoon Jung-hwan. Were you surprised Cerezo hired him? What kind of football does he play? (direct? passing? counter-attack?)

There had been a rumor that Cerezo Osaka were watching him (and another former Cerezo player Hwang Sun-hong as well) as a candidate for future manager and actually they had made an offer for him a few years ago, so in that sense, I wasn’t surprised.

The club’s decision to have former manager Kiyoshi Okuma step down at the end of the last season looked quite reasonable to most people. As a replacement for him, I believe Yoon was the best choice available. He has his own vision and style, and an ability to implement it on the pitch. Whatever they are, Cerezo didn’t have such things last year. Yoon, as the first former Cerezo player to take actual charge of the team, knows Cerezo well and can directly communicate with the club as he is seen to be fluent in Japanese (although he has an interpreter).

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Yoon’s preferred style of play is often described with a phrase “kenshu sokko” (tight defense and quick transition). Let me quote some of his words to briefly explain his approach from an article published on a sports magazine Number (vol. 926): “First, I build an organized defense. And set a starting point of attacks on the flanks. If I had an overwhelming player like Zidane, I would prefer to construct a splendid (style of) football. But it has some distance away from contemporary football.” I don’t think he has employed exactly the same tactics as he did at Tosu, but the basic approach seemingly remains the same. In another interview by the official media Maido! Cerezo, he also said “any team has at least one chance during 90 minutes. If we can convert it into a goal and don’t concede, then we will win.”

Actually, the fact that Cerezo have allowed the least goals in the league (as of writing this) simply tells us how solid their defense is. The signing of Matej Jonjic, who had been selected in the K-League Best XI twice, definitely has contributed a lot to it. Cerezo are often described as a team with “an iron ball of destruction and a pot lid” but when they perform well they always have a good defense. At the same time, a flowing combination play between players can be also watched. On the other hand, one of the reasons for Cerezo’s recent form is that they can score through a set-piece even when they face difficulty in getting a goal from an open play. In fact, they produced 48% of their goals (12 out of 25) directly or indirectly from set-pieces (including penalty kicks) according to Football LAB.

 

2. The big story for Cerezo in the winter was the return of Hiroshi Kiyotake from Sevilla. How much did that excite you, and how has he played so far in 2017?

I was very pleased with it, while there were financial concerns and also some doubt in acquiring new player after finishing all scheduled transfer activity (again). But of course, the important thing is how much he can contribute to the team, and at the moment I’m satisfied with his performance.

He wasn’t at his best from the beginning of the season because he had a conditioning issue, but I feel his form, as well as the relationship with other players, is getting better and better. The problem is that he, the same as before, is very much injury prone and already got injured a few times so far (fortunately not that serious ones though). But with such players as Kunimitsu Sekiguchi and Kota Mizunuma in the squad, I don’t have many worries.

Kiyotake will meet his old teammates again next month when Cerezo play a friendly with Sevilla FC in the StubHub World Match 2017. It would be great if he could play so well that they feel regret on their decision to let him go.

 

3. Cerezo always seem to have exciting forwards, and this year’s star (so far) has been Kenyu Sugimoto. Why is he playing so well in 2017?

Well, I don’t necessarily think that Cerezo always have had exciting forwards (if so, it must have been much easier to get back to J1!) but I agree with you in that it looks like Kenyu Sugimoto finally “woke up” from “a long sleep.” Sugimoto had been always rated highly and everyone knew he had a high potential, but he had failed to demonstrate it on the pitch.

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To me, it seems he has changed after he returned from Kawasaki Frontale, especially since Yoichiro Kakitani was sidelined for months due to injury last year. I don’t know why but it might be because the captain’s injury made him think he must play a more central role and lead the team on behalf of him. I think the biggest change lies in his shooting ability – I feel it has much improved in terms of accuracy and power. He also looks to be playing more aggressively than before. In that sense, his goals against Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima might represent his development.

As to Cerezo’s attacking corps, I feel I have to mention other name too: Kazuya Yamamura, who has played in an attacking position this season. Originally a defensive midfielder or a center back, Yamamura was deemed as a promising player when he captained the national team for the London Olympics. Actually he is a good player, has a high level of basic skill and especially his aerial ability is incredible. But at the same time, he was seen to have some difficulty in positioning and speed. Taking it into account, Yoon decided to place him in more forward position and it worked very well. This decision by Yoon is widely praised as almost all media reports mentioned it when they tried to search for a reason behind Cerezo’s good form.

 

4. Personally, I’m a big fan of Souza, the Brazilian midfielder. He was outstanding in J2 last year, and has continued his form in J1. Why is he important for Cerezo?

It’s true that Souza was impressive and effective last year, but he also had some problems, for example, he tended to chase the ball too much and (rather recklessly) make too many shots. But the club considered he had a potential, so they decided to pay (reportedly) $1m to purchase him. To be honest I was a bit skeptical, but his performance so far proved me wrong.

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Souza has notable dispossessing and shooting skills, but as written above, he also had some problems. This season, it looks he has overcome them. If so, what was a factor which solved them? Again, I don’t know exactly why. It might be because he has got used to Japanese football, or because of the instructions of the new manager who used to wear the same number 6 shirts from 2000 to 2002. Consequently, for instance, his number of shots decreased from the last season (144 shots in 39 games in 2016, while 31 shots in 14 games in 2017 so far according to Football LAB), but still he has shown a remarkable performance. Also, he is important as a set-piece taker this season, despite the fact that one of the best set-piece takers in Japan joined the team. He scored his first goal of the season (and also the first in J1) from a free kick.

 

5. What is your hope for this year? How high can Cerezo finish?

I’m confident that most Cerezo supporters will agree with me – The only target for this season is to avoid relegation. Sounds sarcastic in a situation that the team are among the top 3 in the league table? But given the fact that a team promoted through the play-off always get relegated next season and there is no exception before, what else can we hope for? Everything starts after they achieve it.

Before the season started, manager Yoon set finishing in the 9th (or a single-digit) place as their goal. I think it is realistic, reasonable, and acceptable. Of course, there is a possibility to change it upward later on (Yoon then mentioned that possibility too). But, as I wrote on my blog just before the beginning of the season, we (I mean both the players and supporters) should not misunderstand the situation. Because we are currently in a good form, I think now is a good time to remember once again that we just returned from J2, so we are a challenger. Fortunately, considering their comments, it seems the players have not forgotten it yet.

Unless we throw away that way of thinking, I strongly believe we can continue aiming higher.

 

A huge thanks to @crz_tweets for taking the time to put these thoughts to me. If you’re not already, you should really be checking his Cerezo Osaka site – you can find it at crzblog.com

And a note – the photos in the article are taken from Cerezo Osaka’s website

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