Lévir V

We have to admit we had a different working title: “The fifth (non)sense”. If there’s a squad whiich many looked with perplexity and doubts in J1, that must be Cerezo Osaka. Some clubs lost important players, others changed their manager and we’ve talked a lot about the revolution within S-Pulse, but at least in that case you can see an actual need of improving the current situation. You didn’t feel that urge at Cerezo.

This will be a “year zero” for the organization, although it’s tough to understand how much of a positive connotation this term could assume. We left Cerezo struggling in the last matchday, fighting for their ACL-spot away at Kashima: after taking the lead thanks to a wonder by Riku Matsuda, first Antlers got back in the game with a goal by Everaldo and then almost won the game, with their continental dreams coming almost true.

It seemed like Cerezo survived the scare and they were ready to enjoy a solid achievement: it wasn’t their first time booking a ticket the AFC Champions League, but it wasn’t granted to see them back onto the continental stage so soon, after all the changes the club went through under the guide of Miguel Ángel Lotina. Nevertheless, it happened and this amazing effort would have been impossible without the Spanish head coach.

In the end, though, the board wasn’t so happy to play this brand of football. In a championship like J. League – where building from the back and spectacular squads are the norm –, we need “bad guys”, figthing the trend. Lotina is among those – we could name different coaches, in a range going from Massimo Ficcadenti to Hiroki Jofuku – who have been capable of surviving this evolution and achieving results with their own beliefs.

In the year where also the U-23 team has been disbanded and a lot has changed, continuity would have helped. Instead, club’s chairman Hiroaki Morishima opted to dismiss Lotina and wanted a complete change of pattern at Cerezo. And to do so, he brought back an old friend: just play this song in the background and put yourselves in the shoes of Lévir Culpi, hired for the fourth time in his career by the pink side of Osaka.

The good, the bad and the ugly

We don’t want to lie: Cerezo Osaka haven’t exactly been easy to watch. After Yoon Jung-hwan departed in 2018, the club needed to rebuild as soon as possible, but it wasn’t easy. The South Korean coach clinched the 2017 J. League Cup, the Emperor’s Cup in the same year and the 2018 Japanese Super Cup. After these silverwares, the season went downhill fast and they ended seventh.

To rebuild, the club hired Lotina, who came really close to bring Tokyo Verdy back to J1 with a rough style of play and some interesting players. In a showdown that we’ll never forget, the Spanish head coach immediately showed what he wanted from his new squad: in the opening match of 2019, Cerezo blocked Vissel Kobe with a tight defense and then won the game with a header by Tatsuya Yamashita.

It was Lotina’s business card for the league, anticipating what was going to come. Cerezo almost rewrote history by coming close to establish a new record for goals allowed (25). Their defense was impenetrable, players suddenly flourished and yet, the offensive interpreters were able to shine. From Yoichiro Kakitani to Tatsuhiro Sakamoto, going through the MVP caliber-season Hiroshi Kiyotake just had.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t enough. What now?

The best afternoon of these two years under Lotina?

Four is the magic number

Hiroaki Morishima knows Lévir Culpi pretty well: he was earning the “Mr. Cerezo” title for himself when the Brazilian head coach was hired in 1997 for the first time. He was just the third manager Cerezo ever had and his maiden experience was interlocutory: the club ended eleventh on the table and nothing memorable happened. Then those two parts went separate ways, living their lives.

Culpi’s reputation grew in Brazil, especially because of his experiences with Cruzeiro (winning the Recopa Sudamericana in ’98). Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to find a stable job, hopping from one squad to another… until, in May ’07, Cerezo wanted him back. Back then, the club just got relegated to J2 and they needed someone to develop the immense amount of talent they featured in the squad.

Cerezo needed three years to go back to J1, but they reaped seeds of greatness and sow some household names in the club’s history: in the ’09 squad – the one who scored 100 goals in J2 – there were youngsters like Kim Jin-hyeon, Yusuke Maruhashi, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Yoichiro Kakitani, but mostly Takashi Inui and Shinji Kagawa. That squad even clinched a third place in 2010 J1 League, the best result in club’s history back then.

The prophet and the secret agent

Culpi stayed two more seasons, left after 2011 (when Sérgio Soares didn’t work out as his successor) and came back for more 18 months mid-season in 2012. There’s one common trait among his three stints with Cerezo: once the talents he develops are ready to shine, he enjoys one solid year with all the pieces in their place. It happened again in 2013, when Cerezo came fourth and gained their second-ever ACL ticket.

When Yoichiro Kakitani became national team-material.

For example, in that season, Culpi had in his roster talents like Takahiro Ogihara, improved versions of Kakitani, Maruhashi, Yamaguchi and Kim Jin-hyeon, and Takumi Minamino. But he also made a terrible mistake in 2018: after having returned to Brazil for a few years – where he improved his reputation as a head coach –, he opted to return to Osaka… but for the other side, Gamba.

Let’s just say that taking the reins of the club after Kenta Hasegawa’s winning cycle and his “three shades of Cerezo” was at least naïve. He was never the right feat for the blue and black side of the city, lasting just 17 games and leaving with Gamba in 16th place. The rest is history: Tsuneyatsu Miyamoto got promoted to the senior’s head coach position and we know how he’s faring with everyday reality at the club.

One, two, three, fo(u)r… what?

Culpi is surely part of the history of Cerezo Osaka, but coming back to Kansai right now might backfire. The Winter transfer market saw a revolution within the club, letting most youngsters go away, losing key-players from the last two seasons – Katayama, Kimoto, Kakitani, Bruno Mendes and especially Jonjić – for a bunch of questions marks, which might remain doubts all season long.

Riki Harakawa is a fine player, while Naoto Arai and Motohiko Nakajima will help expand the depth of the roster. But there are way more questions than certainties:

  • Can Ryosuke Shindo shine outside of Sapporo in a four CBs-backline?
  • Is Tiago Pagnussat the right choice to replace Jonjić?
  • Did you really need Hirotaka Tameda with all the offensive players in your roster, like young star Jun Nishikawa and and J. Leaguer Toshiyuki Takagi?
  • Can Adam Taggart adapt to J. League, after having a decent success in K League?
  • Can Mutsuki Kato achieve the same levels of efficiency we’ve seen in J2 with Zweigen Kanazawa?
  • What’s the point of signing Yoshito Okubo right now, after the worse season of his career?
  • Why is Riki Matsuda joining from Kofu, when you have Shota Fujio, Kato, Taggart, Okubo and Sawakami as strikers?
  • And last but not least, weren’t two years of Dankler as a center-back enough in J1?

As you may have just witnessed, we’re struggling to find some answers. With the ACL in hindsight and a packed schedule, there are enough players to feature in all the competitions, but we don’t know if the quality has improved and if a new game plan will be absorbed fast and clear by this squad. Being in this confusion won’t be beneficial to anyone, especial to the fifth episode of Culpi-saga in Osaka.

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