Tabula Rasa (Part II)

Giambattista Vico was a political philosopher. He was born in Naples during the XVII century and certainly he had never been to Japan, but he stated a fundamental concept talking through his doctrine in defense of Classical Antiquity: the idea of “ideal eternal history”, basically meaning that history tends to repeat itself after several cycles. There are slight differences, but two periods in time – even away from each other in time – can and mostly have points in common.

Looking at two dates apart in time – November 10, 2013 and November 30, 2019 –, you could say that Vico made a good point, even if he didn’t know anything about Japanese football. Venues are different – in the first case it’s Saga, in the second one it’s their home turf –, but the main character is always the same: Júbilo Iwata. Two separate games, two different squads, but the same ending point: relegation.

The club from Shizuoka doesn’t seem to have learned any lesson. The last two years were a written script for this particular scenario. The roster of 2013 looked way stronger than the current one, but still: Júbilo have to say goodbye to J1 for the second time in six years and it’s not granted we’ll see them back so soon in the top tier, since coming back from second division was already difficult the first time.

What could be different from now? The future, which doesn’t have to be as dull as it was build in the last seasons. Because Júbilo Iwata can still turn their history around, as long as they’ll make a serious effort to change some key-points in their approach.

The first relegation in 2013.

The first time isn’t always the good one

It’s not the first time Júbilo Iwata make some mistakes in building and preparing a season. This happened already six years ago. It wasn’t uncalled for, because the club was clearly in decline: since the first seasons of pro-football – where they were dominating and featuring players like Carlos Dunga, Salvatore Schillaci and Masashi Nakayama –, things changed massively for the Shizuoka-based squad.

After winning three championship between 1997 and 2002 (while coming second three more times and winning both national and continental cups), Júbilo clearly took a fall. From ’04, their best season was… 2004, coming fifth. Then sixth, fifth again, ninth, and then the passage to the right part of the table, while the last trophy to fill the club’s cabinet was the 2010 J. League Cup.

Once the cycle under Masaaki Yanagishita was over (look how well he’s doing now with Zweigen Kanazawa), Hitoshi Morishita wasn’t able to steer direction and the club just gave up. 2013 season was a manifesto of such fall: it took eight matches for Júbilo to win their first league game and they never exited the relegation zone, being dropped to J2 with still three matchdays to go. Not even the appointment of Takashi Sekizuka – just coming back from the successful expedition of London 2012 in the Summer Olympics – changed anything.

In that case, the club picked Péricles Chamusca – the wizard behind the Oita Trinita’s miracle in late 2000s – to restart everything. Strangely, it didn’t work. Despite new exciting players like Yuki Kobayashi, Júbilo struggled from the start. Chamusca lasted 33 matches and then he was fired after a 4-1 away defeat in Mito: the club needed to reach promotion.

And that’s where the strange era of Hiroshi Nanami started. His five years-tenure had his mark since from the start: Júbilo weren’t neither particularly nice to watch nor uniquely progressive in their brand of football, but they were delivering. Nanami brought the club to playoffs, where they didn’t even have an opponent, since Giravanz Kitakyushu weren’t eligible for J1.

So Nanami and his players had to face sixth-placed Montedio Yamagata: just like for every J2 playoffs ever played, a draw would have been enough for Júbilo, who had a better position than Montedio during the regular season. Fun fact: Montedio kept their spot in the playoffs, coming ahead of Oita Trinita of just one point, also thanks to an away win against Iwata on Matchday 41 (2-0).

Despite featuring Ryoichi Maeda – who was a starter under Zaccheroni until just before the World Cup – and having two possible results on their side, while playing in front of their own crowd, Júbilo crumbled. They went down 1-0 and then Ryohei Yamazaki equalized, but it wasn’t enough. The unexpected happen, with Norihiro Yamagishi stretching his career a few years thanks to this moment:

No one expected the goalie-winner, but it put Montedio through and then Yamagata won even the final against JEF United Chiba (who, since they’re JEF, lost a second playoffs final. After two years from the previous one, still against the lowest-seeded team in the competition). And while Yamagata celebrated their keeper and a return to J1, Iwata needed to start again.

Nanami remained at his seat, because a club legend who has worked decently will never be fired. Ryoichi Maeda and minor players left, but Júbilo didn’t wait to push on the transfer market. Hayao Kawabe, Kota Ueda and Yasuhito Morishima came, but there were also several foreign additions: Jay Bothroyd, Adailton and keeper Krzysztof Kamiński. It was all Nanami needed, hoping the youngsters would have delivered.

It worked. With several struggles, but it worked. In one of the tensest championships of J2 history, Júbilo had to fight with Omiya Ardija and surprising Avispa Fukuoka. Omiya almost killed the season, but they slipped in the final steps and even risked to lose first place. It all came down to the duel between Júbilo and Avispa. Take the last matchday of the season, for example.

Nanami’s squad was challenged by Trinita in Oita, while Avispa were ready to face away FC Gifu. The duel was played on that link: Avispa went ahead, FC Gifu equalized, Júbilo found an advantage, then Ihara’s team went up 4-1 in Gifu. It was basically game over, although Fukuoka tried to score as many goals as possible to erase the goal difference. And then, when hope was gone, Oita’s Paulinho equalized the context in Kyushu.

It seemed another failure. It could have changed the history of the club: it’s a strong statement, but we think a second missed promotion would have killed any J1 return to Júbilo for many years to come. Just like it happened to JEF United Chiba or Tokyo Verdy. Instead, the long hand of Yuki Kobayashi – the best players Júbilo produced in the last years – saved the day for Nanami and his guys.

A new start? A long-waited reward? The problem seemed always the same: despite getting a nice (and tough to explain) sixth place in 2017 season, Júbilo never actually impressed. Once they’ve also lost certain players – like Hayao Kawabe and Jay Bothroyd, who were fundamental to get back to J1 –, the club looked worst than before and in fact they began their descent towards the relegation zone.

Free falling

The first doubts about came because of their work on the transfer market window. Despite almost getting relegated last year – in the most dramatic way, through relegation/promotion playoffs – Júbilo didn’t make any splash, they didn’t change that much. The manager stayed, many players stayed and the only good signing was Gerson Rodrigues, who though opted to leave Japan mid-season for Dynamo Kyiv.

Kentaro Moriya and Masato Nakayama were the other additions. And even if the former Renofa Yamaguchi scored more goals than expected (he’ll certainly be a resource in the second tier), no one lighted up the game. Sometimes Rodrigues did it, sometime Adailton, sometimes even Lukian (who arrived mid-season from Chonburi). But the big Japanese players of the squad all failed without a proper structure to be fit in.

Júbilo feature several former members of the Japan national team: Yasuyuki Konno came mid-season, Kengo Kawamata was acquired from Nagoya a couple of seasons ago, just like Taishi Taguchi and then you have even the all-time top-scorer of J1, Yoshito Okubo. Who, though, could just score his first 2019 goal in Matchday 33 and he had to do it off-side to give the win the hosts.

Remind that all those players were supposed to push the club up in the table. Instead, Júbilo have one of the oldest squads in the league – actually the oldest one: 29 years-old of average age! – those names looked terrible this year. They seemed like a waste of wages and time for both supporters and the club itself on the pitch, since they weren’t able to justify their high-paid salaries.

Right now, Júbilo appear like an old team, who should probably try to cut some dead wood and restart from promising and solid players. Of course, you need experience – Kaminski, Oi and Yamamoto might be some names –, but you have to count on the growth of players like Daigo Araki, Daiki Ogawa and others.

Think that Júbilo shouldn’t look too far away from them. Their hardcore rivals, Shimizu S-Pulse, suffered the same fate, being relegated in 2015 and trying somehow to restart, just when Júbilo were just getting back to J1. S-Pulse, though, didn’t rely too much on the old core and opted to promote youngsters: Ryohei Shirasaki, Koya Kitagawa, Ko Matsubara, Shota Kaneko and Genta Miura. It worked and now all these players have been regular J. Leaguers.

What now?

Júbilo recently recorded a nice period, winning ten points in the last five games under new coach Fernando Jubero. I’d argue that might be an accident and you need more certainty rather than picking just a random situation because it worked for some weeks. If you go down that road, often you find yourself being unsatisfied with your manager in the next season or ever firing him after one third of the season.

Most of all, I think there’s a lifeline for Júbilo, but I didn’t understand a move in this 2019: the club has the property of two of the most brilliant young players in Japan. Koki Ogawa broke his ligament a couple of years ago, but he recovered from that injury and he has lived a wonderful second part of the season in Mito, where he scored seven goals in 17 games while being on loan at HollyHock.

While I can at least imagine the presence of Okubo and Kawamata limited Ogawa’s chances to breakthrough, even more puzzling to me is the case of Seiya Nakano, one of the most surprising stories in recent times in Japanese football. He was the case of a national wonder with Tsukuba University, scoring five goals in four games of the 2017 Emperor’s Cup and brining the uni-side to the fourth round.

When Júbilo picked him up for their squad, they were contrasting results. Nakano played little time in J1, yet he scored 12 goals in 20 games in all cups matches. In two years, he never started a J1 game and in the end he was loaned to Fagiano Okayama: it was indeed the right deal, because even if Nakano didn’t score that much, he even didn’t play so much (six goals in 26 games), but he gave a nice impression, leaving the feeling that he’s a well-educated offensive player, capable of covering several positions. Just what Júbilo would need.

Ogawa is a class ’97, Nakano is a class ’95. Next year J2 won’t feature a better candidate for direct promotion than them (unless Shimizu, Urawa or Nagoya are somehow able to go down), so Júbilo must exploit their young talent and trying to go through the same path of their neighbors: keeping few experienced players and start with a new coach and the youngsters you have, maybe adding two or three players from this category.

Just like Vico reiterated, history tend to repeat itself. Who knows if this time, for Júbilo, it’ll be a good or a bad news.

5 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa (Part II)

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