The silent wizard

It’s undeniable the most fun we’ll see in 2021 among the three professional leagues in Japan will come from J2. This is easy to prove: like it was said in the “J-Talk Pod”, it’s not going to be easy to witness some surprising relegation from J1, because the number of squads increased as much as the relegation slots. Meanwhile, in J3, the relegations are still a long way to come and only two promotions spots will be up for grabs in a tight race.

The second division, instead, might witness an exception, at least for years to come. The number of relegations jumped from zero in 2020 to four in 2021, a level never seen in J2. In fact, the highest number was two and it happened just three times in the whole history of the league (2015, 2018 and 2019). Furthermore, the number of teams stayed the same, so the danger is higher than before.

In this scenario, there are teams looking up – although play-offs won’t take place – and someone who’s looking behind them, in the fear of underachieving and risking their place in J2. Among them, there are several names: Giravanz Kitakyushu, Mito HollyHock, Tochigi SC. But there’s also another club, featuring a name we’ve seen for several seasons in J1 and now called to another round of re-inventing themselves on the pitch.

Ventforet Kofu have lost several pieces in the Winter transfer market, but they’re somehow relaxed just before the Minami-Alps. Since their days in J1, losing players always happened and it’ll probably happen again in the future. But if the club feels safe in the beliefs they hold, it’s because of the man in charge: Akira Ito has gone under the radar, despite his amazing work in two years in Kofu.

Kofu, B.I. (Before Ito)

Throughout 2010s, Ventforet Kofu were really punching above their weight. They lived a first return in J1 in 2011, when Mike Havenaar found his golden hour despite the club dropped immediately back to J2. The successive season, though, saw Kofu bouncing back strongly, with Davi scoring 32 goals and a new manager delivering the return to the top-flight, Hiroshi Jofuku, in search of a resurgence after his Tokyo years.

In another two seasons in Kofu, the head coach brought home two steady salvations and many players saw the chance of emigrating somewhere else, especially to Hiroshima and Chiba (on the Reysol side). Sho Sasaki played there, just like Junya Ito, Cristiano and Yoshifumi Kashiwa. Even when Jofuku left to rejoin FC Tokyo, Kofu survived one more year before getting relegated in 2017.

Meanwhile, Akira Ito had a different life trajectory. He played mostly for Kawasaki Frontale, but one of his other teams as a player, Omiya Ardija, gifted him the chance of starting his coaching career. For a decade, he was part of the coaching staff, going from the U-12 side in ’07 to the top team’s head coaching position in 2017. When Omiya got relegated, he was let go.

Looking back, it’s incredible how a club that has basically eaten alive every head coach since their magical 2016 season –Hiroshi Shibuya, Masatada Ishii and Takuya Takagi – easily dropped one of their internal products to have a career somewhere else. Ito had a first year as an assistant coach under offensive wizard Nobuhiro Ueno, only to inherit his place for 2019 season.

Small corner for the Nobuhiro Ueno’s appreciation society: after years of super-defensive football, Kofu became a fun side to watch in J2. Case in point? This absolute domination over continental champions in the J. League Cup. It ended 2-0, but it could have been far worse.

The laboratory

While Omiya is certainly a tough gig to overcome, Kofu features the same problems after several years they spent in J1. It’s not easy to achieve something there for two main reasons. First: the legacy of managers like Jofuku, but also Takeshi Oki and Satoru Sakuma (another Omiya product in managerial terms, then twice Kofu’s head coach and currently the general manager of Ventforet) is a complicated matter to manage.

Second: the club was able to get certain achievements because they carefully exploited the resources they had. They made clever acquisitions, developed players, brought back former stars and built a quiet environment to play football. Just look at Winter 2018-19: after a ninth place in J2, Kofu lost Kazuki Kozuka, Ryohei Michibuchi, Yuki Horigome and Toshio Shimakawa. They got Dudu and Utaka, but it wasn’t simple to manage this transition.

Despite this scenario, Ito brought Ventforet to fifth place, clinching a play-offs spot in the last matchday. Kofu were never lower than ninth all-season long and they drew 1-1 away at Tokushima, almost scaring Vortis on their attempt to reach J1. Another Winter brought more significant losses in the roster, since Utaka and Soneda signed for Sanga, while Yuzawa, Koide and Yokotani left.

To confirm all the good we’ve seen under Ito, Kofu have done even better in 2020. The depth of the roster didn’t look amazing, but the club emerged as the “best of the rest” in the higher part of the table, coming fourth. A balanced side, whose numbers were not amazing (eleventh best attack, fifth best defense), but were solid enough to achieve another good finish at the end of a hectic season.

Before seeing the creation of the “Utaka-meter” in Kyoto, the Nigerian striker found back his groove in Kofu.

Can he do it again?

What impressed us the most is that last year’s roster at Ventforet doesn’t look impressive at all. Dudu was a clear asset for J2, but he isn’t enough alone. Jin Izumisawa rose again to his levels once he left Marinos, Shohei Takeda was a clever operation and some youngsters – Nakashio, Yamada and Nakamura – worked well in Ito’s 3-4-2-1. But there are rosters which looked way better on paper.

Despite the pre-season previews, a clear identity (the 3-4-2-1 was always maintained as a tactical style) and some minor adjustments worked a treat. Kosuke Okanishi took the no. 1 spot after years on the bench and he was one of the best keepers of the league; Yuta Imazu was a key-member of the team, Riku Nakayama leaked some good premises and up front everyone but Havenaar gave their contribution.

But can they do it again? Last Winter looked even worse in terms of losses within the roster. Dudu off to Machida, Imazu moved to Hiroshima, Nakashio joined Yokohama FC, Takada is now at Sanga and the whole attack has been changed. Sure, certain arrivals will help Kofu – like Takashi Kanai, Gukuto Notsuda and Kazushi Mitsuhira, while Izumisawa and Yamada are now permanent members of the teams –, but will it be enough?

There might be the fear of a huge drop in performances, but if there’s something that Akira Ito has proved throughout these two years is that when the roster gets worse, he somehow manages to improve the resources he has at his disposal. It’s a talent and Ventforet have to cling on to his manager, who has been among the best head coaches of the league in both seasons he was at the helm of the club. Who knows if the third wonder might be around the corner?

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