Jubilo Iwata are on a roll. Currently sixth in J1, and winners of eight of their last eleven, the team from the east of Shizuoka, a prefecture known as a hotbed of football in Japan, are looking like serious contenders for a top three spot. But they are a relatively unfamiliar team with the notable exception of Japanese legend Shunsuke Nakamura. To get a bit more detail on the 2017 incarnation of Jubilo Iwata, Regista spoke with Jubilo watcher Tony Dee, and he sheds light on what is making Jubilo tick.

 

1. No Jay Bothroyd this year. Kengo Kawamata was brought into to fill this void, but how have Jubilo looked going forward this year?

Despite being a polarising figure off-field, scoring 14 goals from just 22 appearances last season means Jay’s boots are difficult to fill. If there was a Japanese player – in modus operandi at least – that could be brought in to replace Jay Bothroyd, it would be Kawamata Kengo. Strong in the air, expert poachers in the box, big yet mobile, they are of a very similar ilk.

A key difference between the two, though, is trajectory. Jay, whilst a veteran at 34 years of age, had found his groove in the J.League over the past couple of seasons, whereas after a disappointing spell at Nagoya Grampus, Kawamata at 27 seems to be on the way down from his stellar 23-goal season of 2013 with Albirex Niigata.

It took until Round 3 for Jubilo to get off the mark on the scoreboard thanks to a free kick off the left foot of a certain newly-recruited veteran midfielder, Kawamata also notching his first for the season in that game. Goals remained a struggle to come by for both striker and team even until Round 13. Having been held successively scoreless by Kashiwa, Kawasaki and Hiroshima, Iwata were 12th on the table and scoring at a rate of only a goal a game.

Despite showing a terrific work-rate and toiling up-front with little support, to that point Kengo had only 3 goals and 2 assists to his name. As strikers are oft judged on return more than on effort, one could be forgiven for questioning whether the move was working out or not. Usually isolated and battling alone against two or more defenders, I wondered whether Kawamata needed some assistance up front. After the season-ending injury to young gun Ogawa Koki in the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea it was uncertain as to where this might come from. Perhaps a mid-year signing would be needed?

Help was already waiting in the wings, however, in the form of midfielder Adailton. The Brazilian returned from injury with little fanfare, having been kept quiet in the scoreless matches against Kashiwa and Hiroshima – but that all changed in the home game against Gamba Osaka in early June. Jubilo’s manager, Nanami Hiroshi, had already shown that he wasn’t afraid to tinker with the set up having already switched from a possession-based game using a 4-2-3-1 formation (at times changing to 4-4-2 mid-game) used early in the season to 3-4-2-1, and now threw the strong yet mobile Adailton up forward to join Kawamata in a two-pronged attack.

With that change everything just seemed to click into place and the first goal in the three-nil rout over Gamba epitomised the new system – an early lofted ball forward from Kawamata for Adailton to run onto and out-muscle a defender before slotting past keeper Higashiguchi. Unlucky on numerous occasions so far this year with headers just wide or shots barely saved, Kawamata’s fortunes changed when a deflection off a defender bounced off his knee for the second, whilst to mark a well-deserved brace for the day with a goal on the break a mirror image of Adailton’s in the first half.

The new weapon in their armoury – the counter attack spear-headed by the likes of Adailton and more recently the pacy midfielder Kawabe Hayao – has given defenders more to think about and taken the pressure off Kawamata: his hard work is now paying off as he makes the runs to get onto the end of through-passes, gets onto the end of crosses in the box, sets up his team-mates and does what a striker loves best – putting the ball in the back of the net.

Amidst their recent 6 game winning streak the tactic has claimed the big scalps of Gamba, Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale. With 23 games gone, Jubilo have 10 more goals than at this stage last year and Kawamata with 10 goals and 6 assists is having his best season since that special year in 2013. Supported by the big Brazilian who has 6 goals and 3 assists of his own, as well as Sanfrecce-loanee Kawabe Hayao with 4 goals and 5 assists, a double digit return is certain for the key frontman. And he is on track to match or even surpass Bothroyd’s tally.

In comparing Jubilo with their current and former Jubilo front-men, it is significant that they were only able to win 2 games out of the 11 in which the Englishman scored, whilst having already won 9 and drawn 1 out of the 10 games in which his replacement has put his name on the scoreboard. With 6 assists (so far) to Bothroyd’s 2, the other positive is that Kawamata is bringing the players around him into the game more. Whilst there were early signs of a post-Jay hangover, Jubilo seem to have found their morning tonic and shaken it off.

 

2. Obviously Iwata’s headline signing this year was Shunsuke Nakamura. Has he been as good as advertised?

 

Whilst the off-field benefits of drawing one of the biggest names in Japanese football to Iwata were obvious from the beginning, many neutrals questioned what a 39 year-old player would bring on the pitch for a team that had flirted with demotion at times in the latter half of 2016.

Despite the crowds at practice, the shirts selling out and the high hopes in pre-season, in the early going Jubilo looked incredibly disjointed with passes not finding targets, mis-timed runs and an obvious lack of cohesion. The results weren’t completely disastrous, but it wasn’t pretty to watch. The sceptics were already questioning the move and even after scoring the team’s first goal with a direct free kick in Round 3, there were still murmurings amongst the fanbase that Nakamura was ‘only good for set pieces’.

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(pic from Jubilo Iwata on Twitter)

In the ensuing weeks, however, less was heard from the doubters and the commentariat began to say that Jubilo were looking more like a ‘Nakamura Shunsuke team’. The players were gelling and Shunsuke grew accustomed to the role that Nanami wanted him to play: directing the attack and resisting the urge to drop back too deep when the build up is struggling.

Notching up several best on field performances as rated in the media (including our favorite Brazilian J.League journalist, Tiago Bontempo), there have been the highlights: the set pieces including the previously mentioned free kick goal against Omiya, and the 30-metre strike against Kashima Antlers being the obvious stand outs. As the season has progressed and the team has grown accustomed to playing together, Shunsuke is still playing an integral role in Jubilo’s play whilst bringing other players more into the game. Often providing the second to last pass in the build up to goal, his ability to keep the ball under pressure and then to find an advantageous outlet has also featured in several of Jubilo’s goals.

Players and press agree that having the former Japan number 10 on the pitch is lifting the level of the other players in the squad. The seeds of this were sewn in pre-season with a culture change at the club when, following his example, other players began to stay back longer at training. The most discernible beneficiary of this impact has been fellow midfielder Kawabe Hayao, with whom Shunsuke has struck an highly effective partnership. For whilst the veteran can still run all day, often clocking up the most (or close to the most) kilometres in a match, his younger team-mate provides explosive pace in the midfield that has long departed the 39 year-old’s legs.

The 21 year-old for his part says that the presence of Nakamura in midfield gives him the freedom to get forward more. When not in possession, Shunsuke closes off passing lanes whilst the quicker Kawabe will rush in to close down opposition players directly. With 4 goals and 5 assists to his name as previously mentioned, Kawabe’s marked improvement has caught the eye of Japan’s National Team manager Vahid Halilhodžić, who has despatched his assistants to monitor his progress.

Whilst Nakamura may well be helping to lift his team-mates to the next level, on the other hand the presence of players like Kawabe and Musaev nearby in the midfield have given Nanami the flexibility to shift the formation to a successful counter-attacking 3-5-2 that still allows Shunsuke to be Shunsuke, something that managers at F.Marinos had mostly struggled with over the years.

Nanami said that one of the motivations for bringing Nakamura to Iwata was that he wanted to change the way his team played, and the key indicator the manager had in mind was the number of goals scored from through passes. Jubilo netted but one goal on the end of a through pass for the entire season in 2016. In 2017 they have netted a league-highest eight times so far in this manner. The other key area of attack that has benefited from the presence of the ‘ultra lefty’ is more obvious – set plays. With only 8 goals from set plays in 2016 (15th in the league), Iwata also lead the league with 16 to this point in the season.

After an injury-disrupted final season with Marinos, Shunsuke has only missed 4 out of the 24 games played to now and has still amassed the 7th most minutes on-pitch in the squad. Add seven assists and three goals as well as several game-changing performances to his name, this is not a bad return at all for a player in the rarefied air of the ‘arafo’ (‘around forty’) age bracket. With 2 wins and 2 draws, as well as Matsuura and Ueda both scoring from direct free kicks in Shunsuke’s absence, Iwata have also shown that they don’t over-rely on the veteran. Having come across for a third less salary than what he was on at Yokohama (reportedly around US$800,000), Nanami’s gamble is looking to have paid off.

 

3. The defence has been pretty good this year (at the time of writing they have conceded 22 goals in 24 games). Who are the key components of Jubilo’s defensive unit?

After conceding fifty goals last year, finishing with a -13 goal difference and narrowly dodging a relegation dogfight, defence was logically a key focus of attention in the off-season for Jubilo’s manager. To this end, the reinforcements that Iwata brought in seemed – to be honest – somewhat lacklustre. The two primary defensive signings were Takahashi Shohei from Vissel Kobe (and Omiya Ardija before that), along with journeyman Uzbekistani holding midfielder Musaev.

With their shaky start to the season, perhaps that Jubilo didn’t suffer any blowouts was indeed testament to the work put into the organisation of the backline over winter. The foundation of the defence is the continuing partnership between Oi Kentaro and Morishita Shun at the back. The latter’s strength is his mobility, whilst Oi is tasked with marshalling the defence and his presence in the box belies his physical stature – the 33 year-old centre back stands just shy of six foot, his aerial ability has also added 4 goals to the team’s efforts at the other end of the pitch.

The other key players in defence have been – surprise, surprise – those two new ‘lacklustre’ recruits, Takahashi and Musaev. The Uzbek has featured regularly in the midfield all season, whilst after Takahashi missed the first five games with injury he has since cemented his spot on the right side of the back three. The standout contribution of both players has been their ability to break up the opposition’s play, from which Jubilo are able to rapidly spring into attack. Their efforts have seen them featured in weekly Best XI selections on a number of occasions, with Musaev’s performances earning him a recall to the Uzbekistan national team. The defensive mid can also make strong runs forward and possesses a thundering right boot, off which Jubilo nabbed a win at the death at home against Sagan Tosu in April.

Of honourable mention is Krzysztof Kaminsky in goal behind the trio of Takahashi, Oi and Morishita. The Polish gloveman has made some terrific saves over the course of the season, the best perhaps in early August when facing a fierce header from Sendai’s Brazilian striker Crislan he somehow dropped a hand to the base of the post and kept the ball from completely crossing the line, denying Vegalta a late winner. On the flip side, however, he is the kind of keeper who guarantees at least one heart attack per match for supporters and Jubilo have perhaps been lucky it hasn’t cost them on the scoresheet as yet.

The aim for the defence according to Oi and Nanami was to finish the season with a zero goal difference, which seemed like a difficult if not impossible task for a team that leaked a goal and a half per game not so long ago. Yet having conceded the second least goals in the league to date in 2017 – less than a goal per game – and with Kawamata, Adailton, Kawabe and Nakamura firing in attack, a +15 goal difference with 10 games remaining hopefully has prompted an adjustment of expectations.

4. What is trajectory of Hiroshi Nanami’s side? Are they good enough to be upwardly mobile? Or do you think they’ll be looking over their shoulders for the rest of 2017?

Nanami’s expectations for the 2017 season were of modest improvement, based on the belief that they wouldn’t be competitive against Kashima, Gamba, Urawa and Kawasaki. As things have turned out Jubilo have beaten all four of these teams and beaten them well – defeating Gamba twice, Kashima convincingly 3-nil away, and turning around from a 0-2 home loss to the much-fancied Frontale in May to thrash them 5-2 away in July.

The longer this squad plays together, the better they are looking. Compact and getting numbers back in defence, Iwata have the confidence to let their opponents come at them, then the likes of Musaef or Takahashi break up the opposition play and then spring the counter led by the pace of Adailton, Kawamata and Kawabe. Nakamura directing the play and adding the most dangerous set-pieces in the league provides another threat for the opposition to try to nullify.

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(pic from Jubilo Iwata on Twitter)

Having already surpassed last season’s tally of 36 points (remembering that they took a mere 13 points from a dire second half of season 2016), Iwata have quickly rounded out the peaks and troughs in their performances and are building consistency. Results won’t always go their way, but they need not fear any other team. Before summer I’d have picked a mid-table (8th-10th) finish for the Sax Blues, but the best form in more than a decade over the past 2 months has taken many of us by surprise. Even if they came off the boil a touch in the latter stages of the season – and depth is a real issue – they should be nibbling away at the edges of the top five.

 

Big thanks to Tony for that rundown, the kind of analysis that is quite rare to see in English. When he’s not observing Shunsuke & Jubilo, Tony can be found tweeting at @tgR_tsuru –  follow him!

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