December 19th was the last window to appreciate J1 teams in action, but there’s one club above others who really couldn’t wait for the season to end. Sure, Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka have still commitments in the Emperor’s Cup and there’s a J. League Cup final to play on January 4th, 2021 (Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo hope to clinch a title), but for 14 teams 2020 and its crazy-paced schedule are finally over.
Among those clubs, two just returned from the continental stage, where Japan had mixed emotions in this season. We were all waiting for Yokohama F. Marinos to win it all, but they couldn’t go beyond Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Instead, there was another team – featuring in the AFC Champions League for the first time in their history – who impressed and came tantalizingly close to reaching the last act.
But while the end of their dream in Asia felt bitter and came late in extra-time, Vissel Kobe looked absolutely lost in their homeland. They sacrificed everything for the major competition and in exchange they got another change of manager (it doesn’t look that Miura is going to stay), Iniesta injured for four months and a disastrous streak of result to close the season in J1 (four points in the last 11 games).
How can you come back from this? Maybe we have to frame their problems in a different perspective. Splashing the market and spending money on household names isn’t really working and it seems safe to say six years into the Rakuten project the mindset should be different (the company bought the club in late 2014).
The continental dream
By winning the 2019 Emperor’s Cup – in a surprising run, which seemed far away from their league form –, Vissel Kobe granted themselves a spot in the AFC Champions League for 2020. And February looked favorable for them, because they immediately cashed in by lifting also the Japanese Super Cup (after the craziest PK-lottery ever) and the work done in the Winter transfer market appeared more balanced than before.
This helped in the first stretch of the season, when Vissel Kobe impressed. They trashed Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta’zim in their first continental outing, with Keijiro Ogawa – a senator in this squad, after a decade in the roster – scoring a hat-trick. Then super-star Kyogo Furuhashi clinched the game winner away at Suwon to bring Vissel to six points in two games.
The pandemic stopped everything, but Kobe seemed on their way to lock a spot in the Round of 16. When ACL came back in the Qatar-based bubble, the club crushed Guangzhou Evergrande for 3-1 and granted themselves both first place in the group and the access to the next round. Both in the Round of 16 and in the quarterfinals, Vissel didn’t appear in rhythm, but they managed to take two important wins.
First against the dismantled Shanghai SIPG, then against a 10-men Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Kobe proceeded through their journey. And when they had to face favorites Ulsan Hyundai, the Kansai-based club found the advantage and even a second goal (strangely disallowed), before crumbling under pressure and conceding two goals. It ended like this, but it looked like a strong result to show in a terrible season.
The Japanese nightmare
In fact, ACL might deceive you. We’re talking about seven games, most of them taking place in the space of three weeks. What about the rest of this season? Well, it didn’t look good. Despite having a more focused approach on the market – we praised the purchases of Douglas and Ryuho Kikuchi, for example –, Thorsten Fink kept his shaky performances going even in his second year in charge.
Kobe won just four of the 19 games with Fink still on the bench. Those four wins came against teams which all ended the season in the bottom-part of the table. After a winless run of six matches, Fink opted to return to Germany to his family, so sporting director Atsuhiro Miura took his place in the dugout and the beginning of his tenure deceived everyone (just like many managers’ stints at Vissel).
Miura won four games in a row (a feat missing from the start of the 2017 season, under Nelsinho), even defeating Marinos in Yokohama and Grampus at home. Then the squad followed the usual path, collapsing in the final part of the season, although for many reasons: preserving the starters for the return of AFC Champions League, injuries and the same, constant defensive collapses (they had the fourth-worst defense, tied with Marinos).
Vissel were never even close to be in contention for an ACL spot through the championship and this time there wasn’t any Emperor’s Cup to rely on. They fell behind in the score 23 times (!) in 2020, but they managed to win only two of those matches. Ending your aspirational season with the same points of Sagan Tosu – actually, Vissel came behind because of goal difference – says a lot.
Seventh heaven or sin?
What’s next for 2021? It’s really hard to tell. We don’t throw there strange predictions, but is there a chance where Vissel finally overcome expectations? Or can we see them getting relegated, since 2021 J1 League will see four relegations and Kobe came fifteenth in the second part of the season? Tough to forecast, but we might say the truth is somewhere in the middle.
There were many discussions and banters after Kobe exited ACL and lost again in the last matchday of the 2020. “No. 1 club in Asia” might be just a claim, but it’s also a punt at this point, a constant joke about a project without patience. There’s no will to see this flower flourish (and we pointed at this in another article. And another one), while it seems that’s exactly what Kobe would need. This season could have been that year, but we saw another change of manager.
After Nelsinho got dispatched, Vissel flipped the bench five times more, with caretaker Yoshida coming twice. Miura isn’t going to stay and we fear about the next pick, having joked already about the lottery of available managers who could be hired for this job. But that’s a key-decision, one you would have to stick to for at least two seasons, in order to understand if there’s something there or not.
He’s leaving Tokushima for being hired with Urawa Reds, but Ricardo Rodríguez is one name that could have worked if he would have had some time granted to craft his game in Kobe. Shigetoshi Hasebe, a manager on the rise, has preferred to stay in Fukuoka rather than accepting the Kobe-based gig. Is there someone who has a solid profile, the right confidence and the will to see his reputation possibly tarnished by accepting this job after these four seasons? Tough to crack a perspective like this one.
Last but not least, the roster. There are immense question marks all over the Noevir Stadium. Will the squad be able to perform without Iniesta, who looked crucial even if injured? Will Kyogo Furuhashi stay in Japan? Because he looks pretty ready for Europe to us. Will Douglas recover his form, after being the disappointment of the season in J1? Will other youngsters keep developing, like Yasui, Kikuchi and Goke have done in 2020?
Reading through the lines when we talk about Vissel is exhausting, complicated and mildly satisfying. But it seems 2021 could be the “make it or break it” season for this project and the hopes to reach the Olympus of Japanese football.