Blanklisted – Yoshinori Suzuki

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 the style of recent years, we fear 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 200s 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 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 and you should follow him on Twitter by the name of @J1tokei) – 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. For episode two, we move South after having been in Osaka: Kyushu and precisely Oita are waiting for us.

Trinita have been THE surprise of 2019 season. Many tipped them to get relegated and instead they put up a solid fight, ending the year mid-table, with one of the best results of their history. And to do so, they relied on some players who have been there since the dark times of the J3 descent in 2015: among them, captain Yoshinori Suzuki has been certainly influential to climb the ladder of Japanese football.

Before the spotlight

Class ’92, Yoshinori Suzuki started his journey from Kyushu indeed, precisely from the little municipality of Sadowara, which no longer existed after it was merged with the capital of the homonym Prefecture, Miyazaki. And that’s where Suzuki stayed for the larger part of young life, juggling the passion for football and the four years at the Miyazaki Sangyo-keiei University.

In fact, he actually debuted in the pro-world with his college team, since he played four matches in three different editions of the Emperor’s Cup between 2011 and 2013, even facing Urawa Red Diamonds in the second round of 2011. Unfortunately, still now, there isn’t any Miyazaki Prefecture-based team having gone pro in these years, so Suzuki – at the end of his four years in university – had to look a little North.

He joined Oita Trinita in February 2014 as a Special Designated Player, just to end up signing fully for the team in the next season. Meanwhile, Oita just got relegated from J1 in 2013 and they didn’t know back then, but little they imagined about their double descent coming true at the end of 2015 season, after losing promotion/relegation playoffs against Machida Zelvia.

In his rookie season, Suzuki played 40 games, but Trinita got relegated and he even lost the second game of that double-legged playoffs, because he was ejected in the first match. Despite Oita got rid of several names to start fresh, they held on to Suzuki, convinced that he could have been one of the elements to compose the backbone that Tomohiro Katanosaka – back then former assistant coach of Kenta Hasegawa during the treble-times at Gamba – wanted to get.

2016 built the foundation of #OitaBall, not only because it was Katanosaka’s first year in charge, but also because both Suzuki and Tomoki Iwata – a youth product of Oita – featured in the new defensive asset by the manager. Closing a great comeback on Tochigi in the table to get direct promotion, Suzuki even scored on the final matchday @ Tottori, sealing the 4-2 away win that got Oita back into J2.

To think that Yahiro Kazama wanted him to build his new version of Nagoya Grampus and Suzuki opted to stay in Oita… one has to wonder how it’d have been.

But it was just the beginning, because Oita built something magical in the next two years, first developing the system while adding some key-pieces and then crafting these tools into a even stronger result, which meant second place and another promotion, this time to J1. A symbol of constancy, Suzuki has played all the league games from 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons, becoming a pillar for the new three-CBs formation lined up by the manager.

To the day when this piece has been released, his current streak of 185 starts goes back to… May 31st, 2015, the last time – an away game in Kitakyushu – that he didn’t start in a league match for Oita.

The chance to shine

Besides being always there for Oita, though, there’s something else. Sure, it’s an exception to see an efficient, but fair defender in action (Suzuki picked up just five yellow cards in the last four seasons). He’s a unique player and Katanosaka understood that the action or the build-up plays of Trinita had to start from him, linking himself with the left wing-back, the holding midfielder or even with one of the two strikers through laser passes.

In fact, our friend from “J. League Stats” comes in play to help. Looking at the numbers of Suzuki’s 2019 season, some data are absolutely amazing:

  • 50 blocked shots (the highest amount in J1);
  • 2303 accurate passes, with a 93.35% of success: he was the 4th most accurate passer in J1 and he held the highest pass accuracy in J1 out of all players who made more than 2 appearances (which is a ridiculous stat);
  • 66 interceptions (second highest in J1);
  • 161 clearances (second highest in J1)

And despite 2020 season hasn’t been exactly brilliant as last year, there’s something there (numbers are updated to August 14th, 2020):

  • 607 accurate passes, with a 94.97% of success: he has been the third highest for accurate passes in J1, with highest pass accuracy of all players who’ve made more than 300 passes;
  • 11 blocked shots (tied for the highest amount in J1);
  • 38 clearances (fourth most in J1);
  • 75% of defensive duels won.

Ryan himself has described the amazing rise of Suzuki within the Japanese footballing landscape:

Synonymous with Oita Trinita’s remarkable rise to the Japanese top-flight, Yoshinori Suzuki embodies just what the humble Southern club is all about in more ways than one. Driven by Tomohiro Katanosaka’s expansive passing style, a lot of Trinita’s good work comes from playing out the back. Suzuki exists as both the backbone and starting point of much of this.

A solid foundation in many ways, Suzuki’s precise, risk-averse passing ability sets up the more eye-catching, dynamic exploits of fellow center-halves Tomoki Iwata and Yuto Misao. And boy can he flip the switch – as the blocked shot numbers will tell you.

Chance, space and shot concession is a ramification many a passing-oriented team has to face and admittedly one that Trinita don’t deal as well with. Suzuki makes up for this with a grand mix of solid positioning and raw tenacity – putting his body on the line and preventing far more efforts at goal than a defender should”.

The present and the future

Surely Oita haven’t looked as sharp as 2019, when they indeed started with a magnificent run of results, so good to even get in contention for an ACL spot. Once they sold Noriaki Fujimoto to Vissel – a move that didn’t benefit any of the parts involved – and their pace slowed down a little, they started leapfrogging in the table and ended ninth, which was anyway a solid result (Katanosaka won Coach of the Year).

We already devoted one piece to #OitaBall, but things are not looking nice in this 2020. Sure, Trinita gained some traction in the last weeks and did get a couple of solid wins throughout this season (they won in Hiroshima and defeated defending champions Marinos at home), but in general they seemed to have slipped on some solid points, which became reliabilities after having been certainties.

Shun Takagi is now benched after making too many mistakes in the first games. The replacements in certain roles are not working – we certainly expected more from Chinen and Watari up front, while Takazawa is becoming a nice card to play despite the double jump from J3 to J1 – and only a couple of players have confirmed their rise. Tatsuya Tanaka, for example, or Suzuki himself, as we’ve seen from some stats.

The whole architecture isn’t processing results like last year and we would even go further by saying that this “frozen season”, with no relegation, is hurting rather than helping Trinita. In 2019, they looked majestic in the first part of the year, when there was something on the line. They played at their best against some of the hardest opponents; instead, with nothing to compete for in this strange 2020, they seem sloppy, certainly a little bit unfocused.

The system is still there, but it’s not as sharp as we’ve become to get used to. And that’s a shame, because the famous “second product-syndrome” – a risk we’ve mentioned for Trinita in lauding the enormous work made by Katanosaka – is apparently happening here. But does this mean that some parts of this majestic squad will leave again at the end of the season? And could the captain jump the ship somewhere else?

Yoshinori Suzuki will turn 28 in a few weeks. Surely, he could look somewhere to start again, but he seems an indispensable mechanism for the club and the way they play. In a certain sense, Suzuki and Oita are fundamental for each other, for mutual success. Can Oita still face a certain brand of football without him? And can Suzuki succeed leaving behind the only club of his career until now? That’s something that will have to be followed in the months to come.

Thank you all for the following. As always, thanks to Ryan for his immense contribute to J. League Regista and if you want to read the first episode of the new column, just click here to enjoy a perspective on Cerezo Osaka’s Riku Matsuda. See you soon!

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