Blanklisted – Riku Matsuda

J. League is on the rise and surely the recent COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped the developing trajectory of the league, which – as we said in the pre-season – was clearly set up to go even higher in the upcoming months. Despite the outbreak, though, J. League is trying to manage the situation and games have resumed in the last weeks, which brings us to the point of this new special column.

In recent years, we’ve feared that sometimes the narrative about J. League has been too focused on the main heroes and less on who we would call “sparring partners”, who are represented by truly important players for certain sides and featured in many successes of some clubs in the last years. Think about the defensive backbone of Sanfreecce Hiroshima, senators at Kashima Antlers throughout 2000s or members within Kawasaki Frontale.

Under the surface, though, there’s a multitude of decent, if not solid players to be discovered. And you need to take a closer look to really get a grip on them: that’s why we involved again a friend of this project – J. League Stats (you can find him on Twitter by the name of @J1tokei, you should follow him) – to scour the unsung heroes of the top tier, the ones we don’t often talk about.

The column is called “Blanklisted”, joking on the “blacklist” term and twist it to our favor. Because yes, sometimes you could be one of the most efficient players of the league and still get overlooked by many fans. No shakedown, no suffering, but simple and plain indifference. Today’s protagonist – who starts this special column – is a guy who has been a huge part in Cerezo Osaka’s renaissance in recent times.

Surely Ken Tokura or Bruno Mendes can score, while Yoichiro Kakitani and Hiroki Kiyotake oversee creating chances. Yusuke Maruhashi is a veteran J. Leaguer and the foreign duo formed by Matej Jonjić and Kim Jin-hyeon represents the core of the defensive department. But what about one that was there from a long time ago? Riku Matsuda is among the best full backs of the league, yet… no major narration about him.

His first days in pink, back in 2016.

Before the spotlight

Class ’91, Matsuda is actually the twin brother of Riki Matsuda, today featuring with Ventforet Kofu after playing a long time in J2 with JEF United Chiba and Avispa Fukuoka. They had a parallel career until their approach to the pro world, where Riki came one year before Riku. Born in Osaka, they both attended Biwako Seikei Sport College, but Riki’s career looked way brighter than Riku’s at the beginning.

In fact, Riki Matsuda joined Oita Trinita in 2013 and immediately scored four goals in nine games of a terrible season for the club, which returned in J1 to be immediately relegated. Nevertheless, the forward looked sharp and ready to crush opponents; so much that he joined Nagoya Grampus in 2014, only to be loaned and then sold to J2 sides. His premises didn’t live up to the early expectations.

Instead, his brother Riku – who got a pro-contract the year after, in 2014 – was an attractive option for many clubs and then joined FC Tokyo, who were then guided by Massimo Ficcadenti. Probably the Italian head coach didn’t believe so much in the young prospect, since the defender played just 25 matches in all competitions over two seasons under Ficcadenti, who opted for the experience of Yuhei Tokunaga on the right flank.

It seemed that the switch he made in high school from attack to defense – he initially featured as a forward, just like his brother – didn’t pay that much. Little did he know that he had a new chance on the horizon. After a terrible relegation in 2014 and the lost chance of coming back in 2015, Cerezo signed Riku and brought him back to his hometown, Osaka. Last but not least, Matsuda was joining the club he always cheered for.

The Matsuda twin brothers ready to party in J1.

The chance to shine

Cerezo weren’t beautiful to watch at all, especially in the first year Matsuda experience within the organization. Kiyoshi Okuma’s version of the pink side of Osaka wasn’t enjoyable, but the club got rid of the toxic vibes from the previous two seasons. Even by not being in the run to book direct promotion throughout the whole year, Cerezo aced the two games they needed to get back to J1 and win the playoffs.

Despite Okuma leaving, the newly-appointed manager – reliable South Korean head coach, Yoon Jong-hwan – counted on Matsuda to set a decent defensive line-up. After playing all the matches in J2 the previous season, Riku stayed in the starting eleven… and you don’t even know which is the strangest data. He scored two goals in 2017 J1 League, both.. against FC Tokyo. Like a sweet revenge.

That gritty and fighting spirit brought him also to win three trophies in the span of five months, lifting the J. League Cup, the Emperor’s Cup and the Japanese Super Cup between October 2017 and February 2018. Matsuda was the undisputed starter for those two seasons under Yoon also because the rivals for the spot weren’t that good: Yusuke Tanaka is mostly a center-back, while Noriyuki Sakemoto was a joker to be used in many roles.

And then the 2019 season came: Yoon left behind many doubts about what it could have been – especially in his sophomore year on the bench – and Cerezo had to look out for a new manager. They picked Miguel Ángel Lotina, the Spanish manager who almost took Tokyo Verdy back to J1 after an exhausting season in 2018, only to lose in the promotion/relegation playouts against Júbilo Iwata.

Initially Lotina had some doubts. The Spanish manager started with a 3-4-2-1 and Matsuda played as a wing-back, a position where though he wasn’t as convincing as in the two previous years. Lotina subbed Matsuda a lot in the first games, but then the no. 2 of Cerezo started against Matsumoto Yamaga as a right-back, like he used to. From that match – which took place on May 4th –, Matsuda played all the minutes until the end of the season.

And it’s not an accident: like we said, it’s not like there were too many rivals for that spot. At the same time, Lotina found his balance with the back-four line-up and the interpreters were picked: Kim, Maruhashi, Jonjić and Matsuda. It’s not a case if they were the top four players with the most minutes played for Cerezo in 2019 J1 League. Only one spot remained up for grabs, with Kimoto and Seko fighting for that.

In fact, our friend from “J. League Stats” comes in play to help. Looking at Matsuda’s 2019 stats, there’s something there:

  • he had one goal and four assists (the second-best assist-man for Cerezo);
  • he completed 47 tackles (also here the second-best in his team).

In 2020, he isn’t exactly slowing down:

  • he had 11 key-passes (the second-best within Cerezo);
  • he completed 10 tackles and 9 interceptions (same position);
  • he featured 14/39 accurate crosses (the best in his team, fourth in J1 League).

@J1tokei underlined the massive impact of Matsuda on Cerezo Osaka’s fortunes: “What I feel makes Matsuda underrated is how effective he’s in both halves. On one side, you notice his solid tackling and positioning, while on the other side his energy to overlap and link up on the right is incredible. His crossing is very, very good and he provides superb width going forward, which is extremely important given how Cerezo are set up”.

The present and the future

We’ve been thinking to say this out loud from a long time: Cerezo Osaka – especially under Lotina – looked way too similar to a different club or franchise, which actually play in another sport. The rough, organized and robust style of the pink side of Osaka looks eerily similar of the shape Memphis Grizzlies developed throughout mid-2010s under head coach David Fizdale.

If you’re not familiar with NBA and basketball, basically the Grizzlies got results going countercurrent. If the whole league followed first the Spurs’ and then the Warriors’ evolution of the game, Memphis relied on the “Grit-and-Grind” style, playing old-school in one of the toughest forms of the Western Conference. And they somehow succeeded, since they reached a Conference final in 2013 and lied at the top of the WC for a long time.

The same could be said for Cerezo Osaka, who appeared (and still appear) way less flashy than other J1 clubs. They don’t have the pool of talent featuring at Gamba, they don’t make the headlines like Vissel, they don’t play a spectacular brand of football like Marinos (or Oita), they don’t enjoy a super-packed stadium and massive financial backing like Reds or Grampus. Yet, they’re there.

And why they’re there, then? Because being organized somehow counts, even when you’re playing a defensive-minded brand of football. In 2019, Cerezo scored just 39 goals – only the twelfth attack of the league –, but they optimized their efforts, since they conceded just 25 goals, being the best defense of the league with a good margin.

In the era of a J1 League with a 18 teams-format (from ’05), only Vegalta Sendai in 2011 were capable of such feat, while Oita Trinita in ’09 were the only team to perform even better (they conceded 24 goals). Both teams came fourth on the table in their respective years, while Cerezo lingered near the possible achievement of an ACL-spot, losing it by only four points and closing fifth.

You need a gritty, tough player? Matsuda is there, even in simple exchanges like this one with Isaac Cuenca last season in Cerezo v. Sagan.

It’s incredible how in the end Matsuda fits so well this column (and the meaning behind it) that he ended up being undervalued also in his own team. Just think about how much we value the other full back, Yusuke Maruhashi, and the super goals he scores with his wonderful left foot. Think about how Ayumu Seko has been tipped as one of the most reliable prospects, plus we already mentioned the dynamic duo Jonjić-Kim.

Yet, Riku Matsuda seems as undervalued as necessary for Lotina. And he’ll stay like this, since Cerezo – less than their city rivals – aren’t finding so many new interpreters among their U-23 members. Surely Seko has made a step forward and Nishikawa is looming towards a European leap, but this squad will always need elements like Matsuda to stay relevant in such a balanced league.

We could also mention other members of the team who could fit this description – like Naoyuki Fujita, the Argentinian Leandro Desábato or the underrated Hiroaki Okuno –, but Riku Matsuda has been one of the longest serving member at Cerezo and he truly deserved some appreciation time.

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