Don’t stop us now

When J3 League started in late June, there were some candidates to win the title and the promotion to J2, but Blaublitz Akita probably weren’t in the minds of fans and passionate watchers of the third division. Sure, they’re a solid team, but the change of manager could have been seen as a mistake, despite newly appointed Ken Yoshida proved to be a solid head coach throughout his stint at Azul Claro Numazu.

When they won their first match of the season – with a 4-0 away win against Iwate Grulla Morioka –, it seemed pretty normal to see them emerging against neighbor rivals. They did the same with Fukushima United FC and Vanraure Hachinohe. But when they started to defeat the likes of Kataller Toyama and Nagano Parceiro, while keeping an almost seven games-clean sheet, we understood they were no match for any club in J3.

It’s strange: out of seven J3 League seasons, Blaublitz were eighth on the table four times, once fourth and they won twice. From this year, they’re the only team with more than one title in J3 and it’s not a record that will be broken soon. Just like many of the other records the club set throughout this once-in-a-lifetime season they just put together. And that’s why most of our Regista Awards came their way.

The supporting cast

The line-up looked certain from Day 1: newcomer Yudai Tanaka on goal (replacing Takuya Matsumoto, who went to FC Gifu), a line of four in front of him – from right to left: Junya Suzuki, Kaito Chida, Han Ho-gang and Yuji Wakasa –, followed by two holding midfielders like captain Naoyuki Yamada and Nao Eguchi. On the flanks, it was time for Masaki Okino and Taira Shige to play, with Ken Hisatomi used as a joker.

Up front, four players have appeared at least for 25 times this season. Yohei Hayashi, Keita Saito and Naoki Inoue were all useful, but you could say that Ryota Nakamura proved himself to be crucial. The no. 9 scored was the only one to score double figures of goals and he’s the top scorer of the team. You wouldn’t believe though who’s following him though in the squad’s table.

Han Ho-gang was another surprise (and a candidate to receive the MIP Award), since he never had such a season in his career. After having already played for the club for three and a half years, it was tough to forecast such a rise in performances. Same goes for another MVP candidate, Nao Eguchi, a set piece-master and the real brain behind Akita’s plays. He scored from half-line, he mastered the midfield and he’ll be a treat to watch in J2.

Another last addition which has to be made, in our humble opinion, is for Masaki Okino. The former Cerezo youngster seemed lost at a certain point of his career: he played a lot for the U-23 team in J3, but never emerged with the first squad (he featured in a couple of J2 games when he was 19). In 2019, he was dealt to Blaublitz Akita and emerged as an engine for the team, running a lot on the right flank and providing five goals in the process.

A star in the making

There’s though one mention above others and that goes to the player who’s been voted both as “MVP” and “Best Goalkeeper”: Yudai Tanaka. He joined the club in 2020 after a solid two years-stint with SC Sagamihara, where he played consistently despite sharing the locker-room and the role itself with one of the legends of Japanese football, back-then 43 years-old Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.

We know how tough it is to find your spot when you have such a challenging competitor in your role: surely Kawaguchi wasn’t in Sagamihara just to enjoy the final stint of his career, but Tanaka was good enough to reduce his minutes and being the starter in 2018. A proud product of the Aomori Yamada High School, Tanaka then opted to move out last Winter, when he joined Blaublitz Akita.

The results have been self-evident: as we’re writing, before the last matchday, the goalkeeper played 33 games, having kept 21 clean sheets and conceding just 15 goals. Sure, the defensive structure has its own merit, but we’re not sure another keeper would have been worth of the same result. Sometimes Tanaka had to save the day himself, conceding a goal every 192 minutes (basically more than two games).

The commander

In the end, though, it’s pretty clear that all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the appointment of Ken Yoshida. Sure, Akita had always a solid taste in terms of managers – Shuichi Mase was the longest-serving head coach, while Koichi Sugiyama bring them to the first title in 2017 –, but a veteran of J3 like the former Azul Claro Numazu was necessary to point to the sun.

In fact, when Blaublitz won it all three years ago, the favorites for the title were others. There was Tochigi SC, who needed to come back to J2 after missing out the year before. And there was Azul Claro Numazu, a just promoted side who launched a run to the title and almost win it. The club ended that 2017 campaign two points short of the first place and they were champions for 70 minutes in the last day.

Coming to Akita after almost 20 years in Numazu, Yoshida was happy to find his old striker Ryota Nakamura, whom he used as a winger in the 4-4-2 Azul Claro played in those years (Shota Aoki and Takuma Sonoda were the starting forwards in that 2017). He implemented the same 4-4-2 system with Blaublitz and it worked: after glorious runs in Numazu, he can now enjoy a title and a shot at J2.

The future

Small and fun fact: no J3 champions have ever been relegated after coming up and we don’t see that happening to Akita in 2021. Four relegations will be in place and we can spot at least 5-6 teams with bigger problems. Moreover, we have to compare this title with the 2017 run: back then, it seemed Blaublitz took advantage of a close competition, while now the success has been clear and resounding.

Records have been broken and some might be broken in the last match, when Akita will travel to Kagoshima to end their 2020. Already now, Akita are the team with less defeats in a J3 season, while they might also snatch the record for the less goals conceded. Looking to 2021, keeping the group together is the must for a squad who has potential and a clear structure, but needs some minor renovations.

There will be some goodbyes, just like some retirements: Kyohei Maeyama – an institution for the club – is quitting football, while Yohei Hayashi will be released. Probably Akita need just 3-4 reinforcements, like a left-back, another good side midfielder, a solid central midfielder and a two ways-striker, capable of partnering Nakamura. If Blaublitz will be able to do such moves, retaining a spot should be doable also in the 2021 scenario.

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