A rough patch

An era isn’t something easy to build, especially when achieving goals is a top priority and seasons go by without exactly thriving. There have been a few exceptions: look at Shonan Bellmare, with Cho Kwi-jea coaching the team for seven and a half seasons, before finding himself forced to resign due to some arguable conducts in managing the team, highlighted by some reports and slammed by the league itself.

Another long run has taken place in Matsumoto. After the promotion from JFL to J2 League and becoming pro, Yamaga hired Yasuharu Sorimachi, who was actually the manager at Shonan before the advent of Cho. A coach with solid stints both with clubs and national team, at least in terms of time. The perfect candidate to guide Yamaga to a steady, but concrete development.

It worked. The Ptarmigans grew into a consolidate reality, capable of reaching the top-flight twice and growing as a club, followed by one of the most passionate fanbase you’ll ever find in Japan. It’s not an exception to find a lot of green scarfs away, supporting Yamaga. But right now, it’s time to start from scratch. And this might be the toughest year in pro-football for Matsumoto since 2012.

Memories aren’t all

At the beginning of 2010s, some clubs were still coming up from JFL. Between 2007 and 2013, at least one team got promoted from the first amateur division to J2 League: after Giravanz Kitakyushu in ’09 and Gainare Tottori in 2010, 2011 was the right year for two clubs. But if Machida Zelvia lasted only one season before getting relegated back to JFL, Matsumoto Yamaga were another story.

The squad got attention for the wrong reason in their run to J2, since they suffered the devasted loss of Naoki Matsuda, who just signed for Yamaga in order to push them to pro-football. Then, on August 2nd, the former national team collapsed during a training session due to heart problems and never recovered, dying two days after. It was a huge shock for the team, but the passion of fans never faltered.

Yamaga averaged 7,461 people on the stands during that 2011 season. There are clubs currently in the second division who are struggling to reach those figures; Matsumoto were capable of doing that already in those times. When they got promoted, it felt normal to have some expectations, but the squad surprised everyone, finishing twelfth in their first pro-year and seventh in their sophomore season (missing play-offs due to goal difference).

In 2014, Yamaga gained promotion to J1 with a group ready to take the next step: while Shonan dominated the league (101 points!), Matsumoto had a run without opponents, scoring 85 points and ending with a 15 points-advantage on the third-placed JEF United Chiba. There was a lot of enthusiasm, but their maiden adventure in the first tier didn’t work, especially because Yamaga lost a huge amount of points in the final minutes of games.

In 2016, the club lost the direct promotion and then a strange play-off semi-final saw Yamaga falling to Fagiano Okayama. Needless to say: Matsumoto were the most convincing side among those four participants, but they fell short twice. And 2017 was another disappointment (they ended eighth), bringing everyone to think Sorimachi reached his “now or never” season.

2018 did go well for him: in a balanced season, Yamaga got the best of everyone else and won the league, despite clinching the title with a 0-0 home draw against Tokushima and risking to lose the league until Oita Trinita lost the lead in the injury time of their game in Yamagata. The pace was severely different from the first promotion and expectations were not as high as the first time they got up.

Indeed, it was a right forecast. Yamaga powered up their roster in a better way than 2015: they were more expert, talented and prepared than four years before… but so was J1 League. The general level rose and the defensive pattern by Matsumoto wasn’t enough to retain the status in the end. The Ptarmigans missed something, spending all the second part of the season in the relegation zone.

With one match to go, everything was settled to go back to J2. It couldn’t go differently from relegation, since Yamaga had the best eighth defense in the league, but the worst attack by far (just 21 goals scored). When the curtain fell on Sorimachi’s time, it was time to start with a new manager. But the Winter market brought even more.

Still, Yamaga found a way to make things complicated for Bellmare in the run to avoid relegation.

Why a fresh start is needed?

In the end, both J1-season of Yamaga showed a problem: the roster was solid, the mentality and the game plan were clear, but there wasn’t enough quality to seal the deal and avoid relegation. In 2014-15, Matsumoto had a strange Winter market session, losing their best player – Takayuki Funayama didn’t impress in J1, but he would have been useful for the club in their debut J1-year – and replace him with a bunch of J2-leaguers.

Three players came from Fagiano Okayama, Tomoki Ikemoto was underwhelming, the Brazilians didn’t work and basically none of those acquisitions represented a real plus for the roster. In the end, relegation wasn’t exactly a surprise. But last Winter, Yamaga seemed to have learned something from their mistakes and opted for acquiring some decent players to avoid a second descent.

Among the ones who left, only Takaaki Shiichi had a wonderful season at Mito HollyHock. Instead, Sorimachi pushed for decent signings: Leandro Pereira should have been the real mate for Daizen Maeda, Taro Sugimoto and Yamato Machida should have added quality to the midfield. Masaki Miyasaka should have brought geometry in building possession and Ryo Takahashi offered another option on the wings.

Nothing worked. All the players waited to be tested and proved their real value… failed. No one was really worthy of a gig in J1 League. And Sorimachi himself didn’t have a Plan-B, maybe because this time he was counting on the Plan-A to work. Daizen Maeda leaving mid-season – as well as Leandro Pereira, who was acquired by Sanfrecce in a swap of loans with… Hiroki Mizumoto? – surely didn’t help.

No one really brought that plus on the field. But at this point, change was needed not only on the bench, but also on the pitch: this Winter, Matsumoto saw a revolution. A lot of senators said goodbye to the green jersey: historic defensive juggernaut Masaki Iida was released, Yuzo Iwakami and Miyasaka left for Gunma. Hiroyuki Takasaki signed for FC Gifu in J3 and Pereira stayed in Hiroshima (while Mizumoto came back to Sanfrecce).

Add other departures – Morita and Eduardo to Sagan, Paulinho to Fagiano, Machida to Oita and Nagai as well to Sanfrecce –, don’t forget some inexplicable moves – why loaning again to J2 rivals Han Yong-thae and Ren Komatsu if you don’t have any reliable forward? – and you have a rough patch for Yamaga. Who’s writing you isn’t only doubting to see them back to J1, but even in a playoffs spot.  

Replacing Tatsuya Morita won’t be easy anyway.

Expectations aren’t high as you could imagine

We’ll give a strong statement: there’s a high risk that none of the two relegated teams from J1 League in 2019 will come back to the top-flight. And despite Jubilo’s market window has been far from enthusiastic, Matsumoto’s actually has a lot of question marks, starting from the pitch and going to the bench.

Yamaga will count on many players coming back from loans, but they didn’t sign so many names from J1 teams. Sure, Kentaro Kakoi has been solid with Avispa and Akito Takagi has potential. Certainly Yuto Suzuki is valuable for J2 and Jael might even be a joker to play in this division, but… is really all that Matsumoto can bring to the table? The squad looks weaker than ever.

Among the ones who are still in the roster, Tomohiko Murayama is still a keeper capable of clinching a pro-contract (why?), Hayuma Tanaka is a legend, but a 38 years-old one; Hashiuchi isn’t getting any younger and Isma has been another question mark. Basically, the board is hoping for under-achievers in J1 – Serginho, Sugimoto, Nakami, Sakano, Takagi – to step up and do the job in the second division. Just like they’ve always done.

This will pass through the hands of the new coach. And taking the legacy of Sorimachi won’t be easy anyway, but Keiichiro Nuno has seen worst times in Gunma, where the club was in extremely financial pain and yet he brought them back to J2. Yamaga are hoping Nuno to build another miracle in two years, but is this the right core to achieve this goal? Only time will tell.

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