Blanklisted – Kōsuke Onose

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. The fifth (and last) protagonist of this column is someone who two years ago probably didn’t even think of being in the top tier.

His rise has requested an enormous amount of patience, hard work and commitment. Kōsuke Onose didn’t flourish as the talent Japanese football was waiting for, but he took his chance at the right time, making the leap to one of the biggest clubs in Japan and becoming one of the pillars of a new era under beloved legend Tsuneyatsu Miyamoto. His story could be the embodiment of this column.

Before the spotlight

Class ’93, Onose was born in Tokyo and came through the youth system of Yokohama FC. He stayed for five years before being registered as player for the senior side. He was just 18 years old, but maybe the club was hoping for him to emerge in an environment who saw J1 days just four years before. He debuted in August 2011 against Mito HollyHock and he became a full-time first squad-player in the subsequent season.

Onose was also known among young players, since he took part at the 2012 AFC U-19 Championship, where Japan didn’t exactly shine – they lost in the quarter-finals against Iraq –, but they had indeed a good amount of talent in that roster, which featured Wataru endo, Ryosuke Yamanaka, Naomichi Ueda, Takuya Iwanami, Tatsuki Nara, Ryota Oshima, Shinya Yajima, Kento Hashimoto and Yuya Kubo.

Despite that blow, Onose gradually found his spot in Yokohama. Three games in 2011, 15 in 2012 and kept developing like this, rising to the 37 matches played in 2015. Yokohama FC missed the return to J1 in 2012 by just two points, but in general the winger found his time on the pitch despite four different managers – Yasuyuki Kishino, legend Motohiro Yamaguchi, Slovenian head coach Miloš Rus and caretaker Hitoshi Nakata.

After a decade within the Kanto area, Onose opted out and chose to move South, joining Renofa Yamaguchi for 2017. That’s where his game stepped up, but to do so, he needed a manager who could have made him shine. He initially performed well also in a disastrous year like that one, when Renofa collapsed after a decent maiden campaign in J2 and almost got relegated, changing three different managers and coming twentieth in the table.

For Onose, 2018 was the real breakthrough season, the year when Masahiro Shimoda took charge of the team. Surely, Renofa never reached the top part of the table, but developed a lot of good players under Shimoda: Ado Onaiwu found the net multiple times, Ryuho Kikuchi joined Vissel Kobe, Takayuki Mae signed for Marinos, Daisuke Takagi went to Gamba. Even in this tough 2020 for Renofa, Kensei Ukita and Ren Komatsu are growing.

In the 4-3-3 of Shimoda, the impact of Onose was massive. He was even more inspired than ever before, scoring 10 goals and assisting three more in just 25 games. Renofa were in fifth place when he featured for the last time with the orange jersey, scoring a brace in Kumamoto to clinch a point away from home. That’s when Gamba Osaka came into the spot and brought him to Kansai.

The chance to shine

Osaka waited for Onose and the move came at the right time, since Gamba were enduring a terrible season: when the winger joined the black and blue side of the city, the club had spent only two out 18 matchdays out of the relegation zone. And they indeed touched the bottom again – when they became deadly last after a home draw against Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo –, but the arrival of Onose helped turning the ship around.

Just one week before his coming to Osaka, Gamba hired club legend and former U-23 side head coach, Tsuneyatsu Miyamoto, promoting him to the top job in place of Levir Culpi. The newly appointed head coach gave Onose some time to adjust to the new reality, but then the former Renofa winger played all the last 12 games of the season, starting in 11 of them. Gamba snatched nine wins in a row and avoided the worst nightmare, a relegation.

And it’s not like something changed in 18 months after this joyful baptism: Onose stayed in the starting eleven, took the no. 8 and played a wonderful 2019 season, participating in 12 goals in 30 J1 games. Despite Gamba went through a lot of changes in the roster – especially in the offensive line –, Onose remained a certainty for Miyamoto. Nothing has changed in 2020, when Gamba were tipped in pre-season among title-contenders.

You can see how Onose matters for Gamba also from the stats of our friend from “J. League Stats”, who helped us tracing his rise within this new environment. It wasn’t something to take for granted, because the leap from the quiet Yamaguchi to one of the biggest clubs of Japan could have gone worse. Instead, 2019 season’s numbers were pretty good:

  • Eight goals and four assists (Gamba’s second top scorer and second most goal contributions G/A).
  • 38 key passes (second-most for Gamba).
  • 60 tackles (the highest number in Gamba’s roster).
  • 30 interceptions (fourth-most for Gamba).
  • 30 successful dribbles (second-most in Gamba).
  • 27/78 accurate crosses (the highest number among Gamba players), with a 34.62% of accuracy.

Onose proved to be useful even in the 3-1-4-2, a formation which rarely faced in his career. From winger, the no. 8 became handy also as a full wing-back, playing mostly on the right side of the pitch. 2020 numbers are good as well:

  • 28 key passes (second-most in Gamba).
  • 17/43 accurate crosses (second-most in Gamba), with a 39.53% cross accuracy.
  • 14/32 successful dribbles (the highest number for Gamba).
  • 25 tackles (fourth-most in Gamba).

These numbers have translated themselves into a crucial player for Gamba Osaka and the years under Miyamoto, just like Ryan explained us in a solid resume:

“Many forget that 2019 season was Onose’s first full year in the Japanese top-flight, one that yielded a great return to boot. The season before, he arrived at Gamba off the back of a superb half-season in J2 with Renofa Yamaguchi, which saw him rack up ten goals and three assists in 25 games. All things considered, numbers indicative of a winger with a very decent end-product in his locker.

And yet, Onose never quite gave off that sort of aura. Instead, he exuded an air most accurately described as a familiar unremarkableness. Much like a lot of players who make a relatively late jump from J2 to J1; technically sound, hardworking and with no particular strengths or weaknesses for that matter – jacks-of-all-trades and whatnot. Though as his numbers reveal, Onose’s is a master of quite a few in his own right.

But it’s that exact quality – tough to put a finger on, but yet oh so familiar – that makes him one of Gamba Osaka’s greatest assets. Hardly putting in a bad shift and perhaps just as rarely putting in an outstanding one, just doing his job – running for the team, doing his bit in attack and defense. It’s that repetition, that routineness – that when aggregated, makes him no less of a contributor than the high-flyers of the league.

And that’s Kōsuke Onose, the embodiment of the industry of Miyamoto’s Gamba and the perfect conclusion to Blanklisted.”

The present and the future

It’s incredible how a player that a few years ago wasn’t even on the J1 radar could today become so instrumental for a historical team (which still though has some returning to the winning ways of the Treble). Nonetheless, the rise of Onose represents at best the spirit of this column: you can struggle in the minor leagues, you can wait some time to take your shot at greatness. But it will come.

It happened to Ryuta Koike, who was playing part-time at Renofa Yamaguchi when they were in the JFL and almost retired before beginning his rise through the Japanese football ladder. It happened to Noriaki Fujimoto, who was wrapping books and playing football as a hobby, before rocking J3 with Kagoshima and surprising everyone with Oita in his J1 maiden year. It happened as well for Onose.

Now international football is hindered by COVID-19, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Gamba winger at least tried out by Hajime Moriyasu for the Japan national team. With the fixation of the current head coach for three backs-defense and wingbacks, Onose could represent a joker to play in certain situation. Surely a jump to Europe seems too little too late for him, but the card of a national team-debut is still firmly in his hands.

Whichever might be the outcome of the next future, Kōsuke Onose seem to be fine in his new environment. He had to play 192 J2 games before being considered for the top tier, but we have the feeling that he’s going to stay there until the end of his career. Especially if the output of these performances will keep being this one; who knows, a title with Gamba might reward this incredible story.

This column is over, but we can’t thank enough our friend Ryan, the mastermind behind “J. League Stats”, for his constant and punctual help for this colum. He’ll be back, for sure.

If you want to revisit the past episodes, we’ve talked about Riku Matsuda (Cerezo Osaka), Yoshinori Suzuki (Oita Trinita), Riki Harakawa (Sagan Tosu) and Kenta Nishizawa (Shimizu S-Pulse). Enjoy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s