The survivors

The concept of a “second chance” has always been boosted in all cultural aspects of our lives. Through centuries, we’ve talked as a society of the possibility of changing, improving, making the future better than the present. Philosophy, history, science: you name it, the environments where this concept could be applied are potentially infinite. But among those sciences, we could very well include football.

J. League was some sort of a “white whale” in this sense: while many leagues try to finish the 2019-20 season and France’s Ligue 1 just opted to freeze the whole thing (counting the points-per-game average to establish the table order), the Japanese championship had a whole different challenge, just like many Asian leagues: beginning the season and bring it home.

They did it, although there were many troubles along the way. In this crazy path, though, there was one asterisk: no relegations. In the end, this opened an unexpected scenario: certain clubs could just opt to ignore the championship and focus on something else. This could explain the dreadful title-defending campaign by Yokohama F. Marinos and the final stint by Vissel Kobe (who had clearly in their mind only the AFC Champions League).

On the other hand, certain teams had time to experiment, because they wanted or they had to (e.g. Sagan Tosu, fielding an incredible amount of youngsters). Furthermore, this also meant that four teams would have avoided a certain relegation because of these rules: J1 and J2 witnessed no drops for the first time in 16 and 9 years, respectively. But make no mistake: there’s no “sleeping on a problem” mode for these four teams.

Probably the best afternoon of the season from all the four teams we’re going to mention combined.

This Winter has been once in a lifetime-chance for them: the opportunity of erasing their mistakes doesn’t come twice in a row. And these four teams carry a different outcome to reach in 2021: some of them might be able to overcome these weaknesses, while others are probably just meant to be dropped, no matter the changes. Let’s see together how these four teams complied with these necessities last Winter.

J1, 17th place: Vegalta Sendai

(28 points: 6 wins, 10 draws, 18 defeats, 36 goals scored, 61 allowed | 12th season in a row in J1)

What about last year: From the change in the dugout to the performances on the pitch, passing through the financial problems of the club and the disgraceful case of Ryohei Michibuchi: even if Vegalta didn’t finish last, it felt so. And it’s not like Sendai shone in the Winter transfer market, since they lost Katsuya Nagato, Naoki Ishihara and Kazuki Oiwa, all players that felt necessary for Watanabe’s system.

Meanwhile, their replacement didn’t confirm the expectations: Akasaki scored just once in 11 matches, Guedes was inconsistent and only a few youngsters stepped up (e.g. Yuma Obata looked interesting). Vegalta faced a 17 games-winless run before reviving in the final part of the championship: they won four games – all away from Sendai, where the club clinched just six points (!) – and ended up avoiding the last spot of the table.

What’s wrong: First of all, we could agree that letting Susumu Watanabe go wasn’t exactly the best idea available, although Takashi Kiyama was highly-rated among J2 managers due to his past in Ehime and Yamagata. Watanabe’s work probably hid the cracks on the wall, which became pretty evident throughout the season. Kiyama tried several line-ups, but nothing worked and he was dismissed before the last game.

In all this confusion, Vegalta are still going through financial problems, which have affected the club. Despite the solid results achieved by Watanabe with little resources (including an Emperor’s Cup final in 2018), the board doesn’t really seem to have a clue about their future. Hiring Makoto Teguramori – who rebuilt part of his reputation in Nagasaki – is like the return of the prodigal son, hoping to partially recall the golden days under his guide in the early 2010s.

This Winter: There wasn’t too much to save from last year’s squad, but almost all the pieces stayed where they were, except up front. Germain is off to Yokohama FC, Shun Nagasawa to Oita. Someone would argue that Sendai needed better players in the first place, so no problem. Ryoma Kida (from Nagasaki), Rikiya Uehara (from Iwata) and Quenten Martinus (from Urawa) could represent smart acquisitions in the right context.

Chance of survival in 2021: We would say 25%. The return of Teguramori, a healthy Cuenca from the start and a normal-paced season (instead of a packed schedule) could help Vegalta in avoiding the drop. Nevertheless, having their old prophet on the bench even in the case of a relegation could actually benefit them in bouncing immediately back to J1.

J1, 18th place: Shonan Bellmare

(27 points: 6 wins, 9 draws, 19 losses, 29 goals scored, 48 conceded | 4th season in a row in J1)

What about last year: For a squad considered for a long time as a “elevator club”, Shonan Bellmare have found a bit of continuity. Despite losing their most influential member in club’s history – the often-lauded head coach, Cho Kwi-jea, dismissed due to power harassment within the team in 2019 – , Bellmare somehow survived the Promotion/Relegation play-off against Tokushima Vortis to retain their J1 spot.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough to make the problem disappear. Despite changing a lot in the previous Winter and confirming Bin Ukishima in the dugout, Bellmare found troubling to score (they had the worst attack of the league) and their defense wasn’t as solid as it used to be (they ranked just eleventh in that special table). It didn’t matter they kept the same structure from Cho’s times: the miracle didn’t happen.

What’s wrong: Sometimes, it’s tough to change that much the roster and the manager as well. Sometimes the former works, other times the latter (e.g. Frontale with Oniki in 2017)… but both is tricky. Bellmare have surely one of the best youth sectors in Japan, but that’s not enough to pull yourselves out of the relegation zone (not at least in J1). And it doesn’t stand out as the only problem.

The day when Mitsuki Saito found the goal of the year, but also when Kosei Tani decided to ruin the mood of Vissel fans.

Is Bin Ukishima the right manager to lead this group over the hill? Confirming him after avoiding relegation in 2019 seemed plausible, but in 2020? And what about all the purchases from the previous Winter? Barada, Mawatari, Elyounossi, Fukuta, Iwasaki and Miyuki all flopped, for one reason or another. The only moves to have worked were Kosei Tani, Gamba Osaka-loanee and amazing shot-stopper, and the over 30 Ishihara and Oiwa.

This Winter: While some newcomers might become future bargains – Shun Nakamura from Montedio Yamagata and Masaki Ikeda from Fukushima United FC are two examples –, the rest of the arrivals didn’t seem to be game-changers. Instead, key-players from 2020 left for Europe or other clubs – replacing Saka, Kaneko, Matsuda and Saito all at once doesn’t look easy.

Chance of survival in 2021: We would give a 15%. If they can find a clear starting eleven and some goals in the forwards department, there might be a chance; otherwise, prepare for a 2022 season in J2. And this time, bouncing back to J1 might require a couple of years through rebuilding.

J2, 21st place: Ehime FC

(34 points: 8 wins, 10 draws, 24 losses, 38 goals scored, 68 conceded | 16th season in a row in J2)

What about last year: Let’s be absolutely clear about this. No one ever expected Ehime to thrive this long in J2: since they joined the second division in 2006, they lived 15 years probably punching above their weight. With FC Imabari coming to professional football and the lack of major resources, their results have been surprising. Even avoid the Bottom 2 spots was a success for Ehime.

But if the times when the club featured in the play-offs are certainly gone (2015 will remain the best season ever of Ehime), there might be some concerns about what’s coming. Last year, seeing the club in the bottom part of the table wasn’t a surprise: they lacked offensive unpredictability, a good keeper (Okamoto has done his time) and the Kawai project requested time. Apparently, the club didn’t want to wait anymore.

What’s wrong: As just mentioned, letting Kawai go might have been the nail on the coffin. Surely the club is hoping to stay in J2, but the former head coach offered a plan. We’re not sure a new manager could do the same… and we’re talking of a club who pretty much nailed the coach appointments in the last ten years: Ishimaru, Kiyama, Mase and Kawai were all solid choices.

But they might have the best set of mascots in the whole Japanese football pyramid.

Unfortunately, without a decent roster, no one can make a miracle. If you consider also the crazy-paced schedule in 2020 and a shortened depth in the squad, Ehime’s trajectory looked inevitable. Nozawa left, Kamiya returned to Bellmare, Kawahara retired and the squad’s quality dropped. Sisinio was injured all year long and the expert J. Leaguers in the roster were not enough to steer the boat (worst attack, second-worst defense).

This Winter: It seems pretty evident that there was no will and/or chance to change anything. Ehime lost Yamazaki (he joined Montedio), Arita (to Kofu) and Niwa (to Kanazawa). The only source of fantasy in the team, Yoichi Naganuma (remember the name!), left after two years on loan from Sanfrecce. Kondo is back, Akimoto will grant a decent keeper and Kawamura’s loan was extended, but what else?

Chance of survival in 2021: Since ruling every little odd would not be safe, we would say there’s a grim 1% chance of Ehime surviving. But as we said before in this piece, too many elements are matching for the perfect storm: just like it happened to Kataller Toyama in 2014 and to Thespakusatsu Gunma in 2017, their relegation looks almost certain already in the pre-season.

J2, 22nd place: Renofa Yamaguchi

(33 points: 9 wins, 6 draws, 27 losses, 43 goals scored, 74 conceded | 6th season in a row in J2)

What about last year: Ok, it wasn’t really something new. Renofa risked a lot already in 2017, when they changed their manager mid-season and almost crumbled back to J3, coming shy of one point to the second-last place (that year, luckily, there was no play-out to face). Nevertheless, they were not new to the danger of dropping to J3; in 2020, though, the flaws became evident to everyone with viable sight.

In his third year in charge, Masahiro Shinoda has clearly built his profile as a coach: he’s an excellent developer of talent (ask Ado Onaiwu, Ryuho Kikuchi, Kosuke Onose or Keita Yamashita) and he brings an offensive brand of football, but the defense will just be forgotten. Unfortunately, the attack wasn’t as efficient as expected and the defense was absolutely dreadful, conceding 74 goals (!). This couldn’t go any further.

What’s wrong: Sure, the defense looked terrible and there weren’t too many talents in the last year’s squad. But there’s more: after three years, J2 opponents have probably figured out Shimoda’s plan. A change was necessary in order to avoid a relegation that would be a shame: Yamaguchi Prefecture isn’t exactly small and the club has already created a little bit of history in just six years of pro-football.

That’s why the appointment of Susumu Watanabe looked crucial. This might be a real game-changer among managers in J2: the former Vegalta manager proved to be a solid head coach, despite many doubts were hanging over his head. After a one year-hiatus, starting fresh from Yamaguchi seem a solid choice, especially if you think that his philosophy could give Renofa the defensive solidity they’ve been missing for a long time.

This Winter: Not keeping Iury and Tanaka around might be a problem for creating chances, but the rest looks improved. The main core is there and it has been strengthened: Takai stayed, some expert J. Leaguers are here (Kensuke Sato looked unreal in J2 when YFC got promoted), while the addition of Ishikawa and some prodigal sons (D. Takagi and Shimaya) could help Watanabe in his mission.

Chance of survival in 2021: Probably that’s the case where we want to spend our optimism. We would give a 45% chance of Renofa surviving: we don’t see them in the top half of the table, but they’re now in a better position of overcoming their problems than one year ago. If they can also find a gem among the university players who have joined the club in 2021, they’ll be fine with Watanabe at their helm.

Hello there, everyone. This feels like a piece of preview for the 2021 season and it kinda is. Nevertheless, there will be other pieces about what’s coming in the upcoming year in all three professional divisions. Hear you soon!

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