Six clubs in search of a season

I’m sure he didn’t write and compose many of his play to be used in this context, but I think I might need a help from an Italian author to describe the upcoming 2019 season of J1 League. And that man is Luigi Pirandello, born in 1867 and died in 1936. Little did he know I would improperly use his play to talk about Park Iru-gyu, Daisuke Nasu and Ryohei Shirasaki.

Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore” (Six Characters in Search of an Author) is probably one of his most famous plays, which debuted in 1921 at the Teatro Valle in Rome. Those were different times, but the story could give us a hint to understand better what’s coming to us. 2019 J1 League has a lot of themes that could potentially develop during the arch of this year and we do need to get something on loan from the man born in Agrigento.

On the Japanese stage, there are six clubs that are looking to some answers for their future. Any of them has a past to react to, a future waiting for them and a present to build. And we’re the Director of Play, surprised to see some actors on the stage and waiting impatiently for delivered lines. These are the protagonists we’re going to watch this year.

The search of glory – Kawasaki Frontale

After winning two back-to-back titles, you would say that Kawasaki Frontale haven’t anything to prove anymore to anyone. If 2017 season was strange and the title arrived on the last matchday, last year the squad coached by Toru Oniki just ran over the competition. When Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Hiroshi Jofuku ended their run, plummeting into a dark series of results, Kawasaki were there to jump them and win.

Now there’s though a new phase for the club: from being constant chokers to become the no. 1 team to beat in Japan. The Fuji Xerox Super Cup underlined this concept, given that their new acquisitions – especially the Brazilians, Maguinho and Leandro Damião – made a solid impression in their first outing with the new jersey, with the striker even deciding the match in Saitama.

The goal could be the third title in a row (it’d be a tied-record, since Kashima Antlers already achieved that between 2007 and 2009), but something says to me that Kawasaki are looking even further. Without any particular goodbye, the squad would have been enough strong to lock a third title. If they made some splashes on the market, it’s because they’re pointing to something else.

It’s no mystery that Frontale didn’t deliver on the continental stage. Just like Sanfrecce Hiroshima under Moriyasu (another team which won three titles, but in four years), Kawasaki have struggled on the AFC Champions League. The meltdown in Saitama after winning the first leg of the 2017 quarter-finals is still in my eyes and giving more depth to team is useful for this purpose: looking for a third title, but – at the same time – making a proper run in ACL. Will it work?

Tradition and renovation – Kashima Antlers

You wouldn’t say, but also Kashima Antlers have managed to get a huge monkey off their backs. Despite being one of the biggest clubs in the history of J. League, Antlers haven’t even remotely skimmed a continental title. They won a Suruga Bank Championship, but AFC Champions League was missing. Luckily, they closed that gap on November 2018, defeating Persepolis with a 2-0 aggregate.

It was a great moment, because senators like Mitsuo Ogasawara and Hitoshi Sogahata deserved something like this. The run in the second half of the season was so good that not only Kashima blew opponents on the continental stage, but also did a decent job both in J. League and national cups. They reached semi-finals both in Emperor’s Cup and Levain Cup, while they managed to clinch a third place in J1 (stretching the usage of players in all the roster).

They did it despite losing a lot of players in the space of six months. Last Summer, Naomichi Ueda, Pedro Junior and Mu Kanazaki left Kashima, while this Winter it was the turn of Gen Shoji and Daigo Nishi. Ogasawara retired and probably small injuries postponed the departures of Yuma Suzuki and Kento Misao. Can they re-start from the raw material they discovered during the last run, like Machida, Oda, Anzai and Yamaguchi?

The next step – Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

After last season, I wouldn’t exclude anything for Consadole. Their work has been amazing on the last three years: first they won J2, then they consolidate their J1-status under Yomoda and lastly they had the guts of putting this manager aside to call Mischa Petrovic. And the former Sanfrecce and Urawa head coach did what he has always done best: he improved the team by a big margin.

Sapporo came fourth on the last season and after 45 minutes of the last game, they were second. It would have been a miracle, but the comeback by Sanfrecce Hiroshima might have been a blessing in disguise: without a proper continental effort, Consadole Sapporo can focus their energies on the league. And without the struggles of trips and games during the week (they’ll use the B-team for Levain Cup), they might have another dream to chase.

Is it impossible to figure them in a title-race? Given Petrovic’s past performances for that kind of goals, you would say… yes. Petrovic always improved his teams and he’s a long-lasting manager, but he never won the league. He actually did with Urawa Red Diamonds in 2016 (they had the most points), but they somehow lost in the strange play-off appendix after a two-stage season. Who knows if this can’t happen again in Sapporo.

Anyway, the squad has been heavily reinforced and there’s much more depth than 2018. They might even hope in a cup-run to lift a historical trophy. But what if Sapporo can hope for a title-race, with Kawasaki Frontale committed to ACL and Urawa Red Diamonds in the same condition?

New king, new dynasty? – Gamba Osaka

The first part of the 2018 season was dreadful for Gamba. The Lévir Culpi experiment didn’t work and the former Cerezo manager got fired halfway through the year. But the best was yet to come, because Tsuneyasu Miyamoto was hired from the U-23 squad. At first I thought it was just a solution to get by until the end of the season; instead, it became a new beginning for Gamba.

The club made a solid comeback in the second part of the championship, winning 10 out of the 17 matches where Miyamoto has been the manager. With a surprising ninth place, it was granted that the head coach would have stayed, despite his record in J3 didn’t suggest an outcome like that one. But Gamba pushed even more on the transfer market, knowing how 2019 could be a good chance to chase the top of the table.

In fact, Gamba kept many of his key-players – starting from keeper Higashiguchi and striker Hwang Ui-jo – while letting go many of his youngster and/or players without a real shot to shine at Gamba. Some footballers came back from loans, other have arrived from other realities: just think about Naoaki Aoyama (who moved from Thailand) or Kim Young-gwon (who joined from Guangzhou Evergrande).

With a couple of adjustments – Tatsuya Tanaka from Roasso as the main bargain of this whole Winter transfer market window –, Gamba might be on the path of conquering another title. Can Miyamoto surprise us again and push the team of his life to the top?

The galactic bet – Vissel Kobe

If you’re a foreigner who never watched the J. League and just happened to be here due to Lukas Podolski, Andrés Iniesta and David Villa… well, welcome first! But then again: many unprepared observers and late adapters of J1 are pushing Vissel Kobe through the roof, with the club coached by Juan Manuel Lillo tipped to be the no. 1 squad at the end of this season.

You look at the squad and you would ask why. Yes, there are stars. Yes, Iniesta can still move balance in the J. League and I believe David Villa will do even more (not on the same page about Podolski). Yes, Yamaguchi, Hatsuse and Nishi seem promising signings for this club (although Hatsuse didn’t exactly shine with Gamba last year). And yes, Rakuten is putting a lot of money on this venture, while deluding both themselves and the fans to be the no. 1 club in Asia.

But then again, the balance of the team seems unstable at best. While a 4-3-3 with Furuhashi, Podolski and Villa looks attracting and Iniesta and Yamaguchi will improve their midfield, I find very hard to understand how can you win with such a defense. Kim Seung-gyu looked out of place starting the play as a keeper and it’s not like Daiya Maekawa has shined in the second part of 2018 seasons.

What about the back four? Nishi is a solid pick and a classy player, but Hatsuse leaves some uncertainty on the left. And who’s going to play as a center-back? Nasu is turning 38 in October, Watanabe isn’t that strong, Osaki looked averagely sufficient and the Brazilian Dankler hasn’t exactly thrived during his career.

Last but not least, with Fujita gone and Jung Woo-young leaving mid-season in 2018, who’s supposed to be the holding midfielder? And how much weight should he bring on himself to balance the team? That’s the deal. Short note in the end: with all the stardom, you’re actually sacrificing the development of players who showed something last year (Mita and Goke, for example).

All or nothing – Yokohama F. Marinos

Here we are: the Phase 2 of the Postecoglou project in Yokohama is starting. After a rollercoaster of results in 2018 – with Marinos coming 12th in the end, but flirting with relegation all year long –, it’s time to step up their game and deliver a much better season than the last one.

You could say that some departures will leave a mark. First on the heart, because Yuji Nakazawa was among the protagonists of the great retirements and his absence will be felt, despite Bomber wasn’t in the plans of the Australian manager during last season. At the same time, Hugo Vieira and Ryosuke Yamanaka leaving Yokohama will be huge absences for Postecoglou’s plan.

Yet, the arrivals might inspired some trust. Koji Miyoshi has come on loan from Kawasaki – small note: what’s the deal with Frontale loaning him constantly? The kid’s amazing – and he promises to be the missing piece for Marinos’ plan to come true. He’s talented, gifted and hugely skilled: the key-element Postecoglou was looking for last year. You could also argue there are some minor signings who could turn into bargains.

Take Park Iru-gyu, a symbol of FC Ryukyu and J3 League in general, who could even challenge Hiroki Iikura to play a sweeper-keeper under Postecoglou. Yamanaka left, but now the Australian manager has two good choices on the left, with Theerathon Bunmathan coming on loan from Muangthong United and Ryo Takano coming back from the loan to Ventforet Kofu, where he has grown a lot.

At the same time, Tadanari Lee is a solid pick for centre-forward and Marcos Junior might reveal himself as a massive fit for the starting eleven (we hope so, we don’t want to witness another Kayke for Marinos). Some players have been promoted on the first squad and also Rikuto Hirose – arrived from Tokushima Vortis – might reveal himself as a surprise. It’s all or nothing for Postecoglou: can he challenge the top?

The first reaction to the play of Pirandello was shouting “Madhouse!” after the debut, since this play relies on absurdism. We might find ourselves in the same mood after witnessing the upcoming season. Us, the seventh character, who never talked but it’s tied to this story: in the end, football is like that.

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