Sagan are dead, long live Tosu!

It was just February from one year ago when Sagan Tosu snatched a comfortable 0-0 away draw at the Todoroki Stadium. We didn’t know back then that Kawasaki Frontale would have destroyed the opposition, but that’s not even the most surprising news in retrospective. We supposed that Sagan Tosu, despite no relegations in place, would have faced a terrible year. Why? Well, there were many reasons.

Sponsors were running away. The hype wave from signing Fernando Torres faded not only because of results – the Spanish striker retired in the middle of the 2019 season, with just seven goals in 40 matches in Tosu –, but his stay left a crater in the books. A huge debt was disclosed throughout the first outbreak of COVID-19 (almost 20 million of dollars) and Sagan had a cluster of COVID cases, postponing several games in an already condensed 2020 schedule.

A tough situation for a club who avoided the promotion/relegation playoffs twice in a row just because of goal difference. Sagan were hanging by a thread in retaining their J1 status and only the news of no relegations kept them alive and running for 2020. In fact, the man behind this piece asked one question to the “J-Talk Pod” before the league resumed: “Are we going to witness the worst season ever by a J1 club?”.

Then what happened? Kim Myung-hwi happened (again, like we didn’t take notes). A unique season happened, but it wasn’t that unique, given how 2021 is unfolding before our eyes. Some sudden and surprising developments happened, with players rising and flourishing with their quality. Sagan Tosu are a miracle, but it’s not like they came out of the blue. We weren’t probably ready to admit it to ourselves.

Can you believe that Frontale, who had the best season ever by a professional club in Japanese football history, were held not once, but twice to a draw by Sagan Tosu in 2020?

A chaotic saga

Sagan’s story has been pretty peculiar from the start. They stayed for a decade in the second division before taking the right train in 2011, when they got promoted to J1: Tosu ended as runners-up thanks to the 23 goals of Yohei Toyoda and guided by South Korean coach Yoon Jong-hwan. The year after, against all odds, they found a way to push themselves to the third place, only to drop it in the last matchday and ending fifth.

Nevertheless, Sagan seemed to have found their place in the spotlight. They reached the semifinals of the Emperor’s Cup in 2013 and then guided the table in 2014 for a few weeks, before an inexplicable internal brawl brought to the release of Yoon Jung-hwan when the club was first. After that, a streak of defeats pushed Tosu back to fifth, missing out again on the ACL spots for a few points.

Despite these episodes, the club retained their status in J1. Suffering, scrambling and finding a way to stay up thanks to the hire of Massimo Ficcadenti, but it wasn’t enough. Tosu developed decent players – Daichi Kamada, Akihiro Hayashi, Kota Mizunuma and Yohei Toyoda, 98 goals in J1 –, but they were pushed furthermore down the table with the passing of each season. The arrival of Torres represented the nail on the coffin.

The downfall was inevitable: the property – guided by Minoru Takehara – kept thinking about the brand awareness, but wrecked the books, bringing the club to represent an exception. We witnessed tough economical situations, mostly for J2 clubs; instead, when the debt was disclosed in April 2020, many might have thought that we were going to see the first cracks within the J. League rules in terms of economical diligence.

The first J1 season is forever.

Rising from the ashes

We were then assuming that 2020 would have been a disaster for Sagan. Managed by Kim Myung-hwi – the eternal caretaker finally turned head coach – Tosu gave us instead a story of rebirth. Not a glamorous one, because Tosu broke the record for most draws in one season (15) and thought always first of not conceding. But the careful tactics by the manager worked well for a struggling side, which needed first and foremost to find an identity.

Kim Myung-hwi imposed a strict 4-4-2, not fearing to launch new faces, new players who maybe made a small debut already in 2019. Sagan won just seven matches, but lost just 12; they lost just once in the last 12 matches from 2020 season, even though they drew nine times and won just twice. In the end, they had the same points of Vissel Kobe, but with a better goal difference.

Some players indubitably helped in this evolution: Park Iru-gyu came mid-season in place of Yohei Takaoka, who was swapped to Marinos in an ACL-related market move. He gave stability to a shaky department, who had though already counted on the sudden rise of Eduardo, who didn’t play at this level with Yamaga. Riki Harakawa confirmed his quality, while another former Kyoto Sanga – Tomoya Koyamatsu – became the winger the squad needed.

And what about the additions in the last transfer market window? When Sagan lost all of the sudden Teruki Hara (who moved to S-Pulse), Ryoya Morishita (to Nagoya), Harakawa (to Cerezo) and Takeshi Kanamori (to Avispa), replace them seemed a tough ask for a club with financial problems. Instead, the additions of Keita Yamashita, Hwang Seok-ho, Keiya Sento and mostly Nanasei Iino (a revelation) were key-moves to do even better than 2020.

Let aside the fact the goal was disallowed despite it was all good to go, but… what about the assist by Iino?

Underdogs no more?

But there’s a reason why Sagan Tosu are doing even better than last year: their youngsters. While the management was putting all their efforts in throwing money at useless players, Tosu could already count on a vibrant academy. Their youth sector featured in the Future Cup of 2019, thanks to the partnership the club had with Ajax: Sagan came seventh, but some of the current team members were playing back then.

Furthermore, Kim Myung-hwi coached for a long time the youth ranks, who racked up trophies in Japan. And now most of them have become interesting names: we mentioned already Morishita, but Daichi Hayashi has led the attack and scored already several goals, becoming a candidate for Tokyo 2021. And don’t forget Daiki Matsuoka, who’s played basically in any position. But what about the others?

Shinya Nakano is playing like a veteran, despite being 17 years old (he could play for Japan for the Olympics… of 2024!). Yuta Higuchi showed some moves last year and confirmed his progresses this season, taking the no. 10 and becoming a threat from set pieces. Fuchi Honda is finding his space on the pitch, while Ryonosuke Sagara – who scored on his debut last year against Gamba Osaka – is probably the most promising player from this bunch.

What next, though? Just remind something: if results on the pitch are giving relief to fans, finances are still dire. Tosu will need to sell those players and who’s writing this piece is still convinced their time in J1 will come to an end, sooner or later. Nevertheless, their work in these last 18 months has been amazing and it wasn’t easy to overturn the mess we’ve seen between 2018 and 2019.

It’s that season where you can win also by fielding Noriyoshi Sakai as a forward.

Can ACL finally come to Kyushu? We doubt Sagan Tosu will be able to keep this pace all year long, but they found an identity in times of need. They’re playing way better than 2020 and they can count on a solid pool of young talent, while recruitment worked a treat under Kim Myung-hwi. They’ve already regained life from debts to relevancy and that’s the biggest miracle of all.

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