Boulevard of Broken Dreams

J. League is a fun ride, but there’s a risk of backfire. Many clubs know that: only two out among the founding members never got relegated (and Yokohama F. Marinos risked a lot this season), but in general the faith of many clubs can drastically turn around in 4-5 years. Just look in recent years to both clubs in Osaka, Sanfrecce Hiroshima or Omiya Ardija.

We thought some clubs may have some variations in performing, but maybe avoid the worst. Among them, there were for sure Kashiwa Reysol, one of excellences in Japanese football’s recent history. Yet, despite a 3-0 away win, the yellow side of Chiba witnessed the incredible: a relegation, the third in their history, but probably the most surprising one.

This becomes even more incredible when you look back to some pre-season predictions, which even saw Reysol as a title-contender (yours truly has to raise his hand). Or to the last decade at the Sankyo Frontier Kashiwa Stadium.

Rebooting (and flying)

Just like mentioned before, it’s not the first time Kashiwa Reysol face relegation. It’s not like the yellow side of Chiba was always a huge success: it seems strange to say, but JEF United Chiba had more J1-seasons played and more silverware in their cabinet by mid-2000s. Kashiwa Reysol faced a first relegation in 2005, when a then unknown Brazilian centre-forward saved Ventforet Kofu in a famous relegation play-off.

Between 2002 and 2009, the best season was 2007, when Kashiwa got 7th in the table. Otherwise, difficult and anonymous years run down in Chiba. And even when JEF United got relegated, Kashiwa faced the same fate: it happened in 2009. If JEF never came back from the J2 purgatory, Reysol rebuilt in the right way. But probably, even in their wildest dream, they wouldn’t have imagined the success of the next decade.

For 2010, Kashiwa Reysol confirmed Nelsinho Baptista, who came mid-season the year before but was unable to keep the team in J1. Yet, it was the right choice: Nelsinho-era has been the most successful one at the club. Their J2 season was the best-ever seen alongside 2014’s Shonan Bellmare: just two losses out of 36 games and a clear victory to re-join the top tier.

Incredibly, 2011 went even better: no newly-promoted team ever won the J. League, but Kashiwa Reysol overcame both good opponents (Gamba Osaka and defending champions Nagoya Grampus) and odds. That squad launched a lot of good players: from Leandro Domingues to Yuki Otsu, from Hiroki Sakai to Masato Kudo, passing through solid J. League players (Akimi Barada, Takanori Sugeno, Junya Tanaka, Ryosuke Yamanaka, Naoya Kondo and so on).

From there and until Nelsinho stayed in Chiba, Reysol kept winning. They lifted the 2012 Japanese Super Cup by defeating FC Tokyo, then the Emperor’s Cup in the same year; 2013 saw Kashiwa lifting also the J. League Cup, while 2014 completed the cabinet by defeating Lanus in a tense match for the Suruga Bank Championship. But not only that: Kashiwa Reysol were consistent, being probably the best Japanese team in AFC Champions League. It’s a credit, because they did it when Japan didn’t care about the competition: they reached semi-finals in 2013 and quarter-finals in 2015, but got swept both times by Guangzhou Evergrande.

Then the Nelsinho era-ended. It could have been the end, but it seemed the beginning of something else.

Why there was optimism

After the terrible interlude of Tatsuma Yoshida (who still managed to be employed in other J1 clubs), Kashiwa Reysol opted for another Brazilian manager for 2016, Milton Mendes. The former assistant of Sebastião Lazaroni lasted two games in Japan, just the time of being the coach for three games. The reasons why Milton Mendes left Kashiwa are still unclear, but his successor turned out interesting.

Tomohiro Shimotaira could have been just another interim coach, but he had a good past and most of all he was then in charge of the U-18 team at Kashiwa Reysol, which produced tons of good players in the last years. He was also a key-player for the club between 90s and 2000s (he also featured for Juventus’ youth ranks in 1994!), so his induction could have been temporary, but became permanent just after a few weeks.

Why? Because Kashiwa Reysol started running. The club did a solid job by finding the right players on the market and raising their youngsters: Kosuke Nakamura came back from a wonderful season at Avispa Fukuoka; Shinnosuke Nakatani and Yuta Nakayama grew massively, while the acquisitions of Diego Oliveira, Junya Ito and Cristiano (during the Summer) boosted Kashiwa’s chance to rise in the J1 League.

While doing this, Kashiwa also let many historic figures go away, like Takanori Sugeno, Masato Kudo, Naoya Kondo and Daisuke Suzuki. They ended 8th in the table (five points adrift from 3rd place), but the premises were respected in 2017, when the club left a huge impression for their trademark of football and for the growth of their players.

Reysol came 4th, just one point behind Cerezo Osaka, and they even won eight games in a row during Spring. They also booked a spot for AFC Champions League play-offs. So how a young and promising core could fall this low from those shining results?

2018: Doomsday

I can’t hide I tipped Kashiwa Reysol as possible champions for 2018 J1 League. The premises were there: no key-player left, they lost someone, but they still added depth to the bench. Given their previous AFC Champions League appearances, they could even snitch a run into the continental stage. Instead, everything went wrong immediately.

Last Winter, some players left. Most bench-warmers or secondary senators (like Otsu, Taketomi or Wako), but most of all Kashiwa didn’t have a striker anymore. Diego Oliveira was loaned to FC Tokyo, where he has scored a decent amount of goals for the capital side. Reysol promoted some youngsters and replaced who left: Kamekawa, Koizumi, but most of all Esaka, Segawa and Yamazaki to fill the spaces as forwards.

Consistency was the biggest absence for Reysol, which couldn’t put two wins in a row for all this season (who knows, maybe they’ll do it on the last day). Defeats, instead, weren’t missing, since seven came in the first 14 games of the season. If you associate those with an early exit from AFC Champions League (Kashiwa lost against Kitchee!), Takahiro Shimotaira certainly couldn’t stay.

If you have an expectation to win, a change might be needed. But when you just change a manager with an internal staff member, you aren’t exactly improving your condition. Just look at the other two cases in J1: Takafumi Hori and Levir Culpi were fired by Urawa Red Diamonds and Gamba Osaka, but Oswaldo de Oliveira and Tsuneyatsu Miyamoto were picked because a project was built on them.

It hasn’t been the case for Nozomu Kato, a Shimotaira-like case: a legend for Kashiwa Reysol who hadn’t too much experience as a head coach of a J. League club. This time, though, magic didn’t work for Kashiwa, since under Kato the club has collected 16 points from 18 games (against the 17 in 14 matches for Shimotaira). They’ve been constantly in the relegation zone for the last two months.

Besides, in the Emperor’s Cup it didn’t go well (out due to Montedio Yamagata) and in J. League Cup a final was missed on penalties without winning any of the four matches played. The board probably didn’t make the right choices also on the transfer market: Nakatani was let go to Nagoya, while the return of Daisuke Suzuki and the acquisition of Michael Olunga haven’t exactly helped.

To this, you have also to add the terrible injuries for Kosuke Nakamura, who was absent for three months and hasn’t been properly replaced by Kirihata. Throw in there also a terrible defense – the fourth worst of this season – and there you have a terrible nightmare, which materialized itself today, despite a 3-0 away win in Osaka against crumbling Cerezo.

And keep in mind that this happened despite Junya Ito and Yusuke Segawa’s best season of their careers.

Now what?

We could say a lot of things. There are going to be the first Chiba derbies in nine years. There’s still a game to play – at home, hosting Gamba Osaka –, the last one in J1 League for at least one season. Kashiwa Reysol never stayed more than one season in J2 after getting relegated, but it’s not easy to come back (Kyoto Sanga, JEF United Chiba and Tokyo Verdy could tell you about it).

The first key-choice is the manager: with the amount of youngsters and talent Reysol have at their availability, the club has to nail this choice. A return might be a good choice, since Masami Ihara left Fukuoka and he already worked at Reysol as an assistant. There might be also the option of a Nelsinho’s return, but this choice has to be perfect; otherwise, a 2019 J2 League season might be more complicated.

Also, who’s going to stay? Junya Ito and Cristiano aren’t so sure to stay. Ataru Esaka, Ryuta Koike, Yuta Nakayama and most of all Kosuke Nakamura should play in J1. And some senators – Kirihata, Kamata, Hosogai – might leave some space to youngsters who has something to offer, like Tezuka, Miyamoto or Nakagawa. I think it’s important for Reysol to hold on to Yusuke Segawa, a key-player to relaunch the environment.

There are also other evaluations to do about players on loan, like Hashiguchi, Koga, Akino, Anzai, Kobayashi and Diego Oliveira. Who knows what will happen, but one thing is sure: the club has the potential to thrive again. They just need to fulfill the premises they’ve been linking us to.

3 thoughts on “Boulevard of Broken Dreams

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