Another year, another run: 2021 has been a full season, with 38 games in J1 and a reduced version of J3, with the second tier always exciting (also thanks to the four relegations). And it’s going to be another rush for 2022, since the Qatar-based World Cup will push an early start of the season, forcing J. League to another run to the finish line.
For the third year in a row (almost building a kind of tradition), J. League Regista assigned its awards. To do that, we summed up a small panel to pick the possible options, then saw the votes coming through polls by our readers and followers:
J3 have not appeared in the semifinals of the Emperor’s Cup – as Blaublitz Akita did in 2020, facing Kawasaki Frontale in a special and shortened edition of the tournament –, but the league found anyway its path to gift us some storylines for the 2021 season.
Best team | Tegevajaro Miyazaki (66,7%)
Well, saying that we’re shocked might be the understatement of the decade. When Tegevajaro Miyazaki joined J3 from JFL last Winter, their transfer market window was silent, and they mostly relied on players already available for the roster. Sure, promoted teams have a good tradition when they join J3. Just look at this record:
- 2015 – Renofa Yamaguchi: Champions
- 2016 – Kagoshima United FC: 5th
- 2017 – Azul Claro Numazu: 3rd
- 2019 – Vanraure Hachinohe: 10th
- 2020 – FC Imabari: 7th
There was a chance of seeing Miyazaki in the Top 8, but this? Playing this aggressive and offensive football, fearing nobody, and developing unknown heroes on the scene? No, it wasn’t on the cards. Sure, Renofa Yamaguchi won the title… but suffered like hell in the final part of 2015. Yes, Azul Claro Numazu came tantalizingly close in doing so in 2017, but they squandered some chances.
Instead, Tegevajaro looked sharp all season long. They’ve been in the Top 6 since Matchday 4, Top 2 from Matchday 21 and they found themselves leading the table only in two matchdays, but those have been fundamental. They lost seven games, but five of them came with just a one-goal disadvantage. And in some cases, you might argue they suffered an adverse destiny (like in Fukushima, when the referee didn’t help them at all).
This has been fantastic, even if from 2022 we might never hear of them. It’s a unique season for a pretty much unique league.
Flop Team | FC Gifu (44%)
It depends on what you were expecting. Our readers picked Gifu over Tottori because they forecasted the club featuring in the promotion battle. Unfortunately, Gifu looked solid but unenthusiastic from Matchday 1, when they snatched a 0-0 home draw against Vanraure Hachinohe. They’ve topped the table for 8 matchdays and in the Top 2 for 10, but they drifted away from the promotion zone in September to never come back in it.
With a sixth-place finish (12 points shy from the Top 2), we’ll leave Stuart Smith (@sushi_football on Twitter) resuming the rest. He summed up the situation within the club better than everyone could.
MVP | Kaito Umeda, Tegevajaro Miyazaki (57,1%)
Umeda probably won this award because he’s the player who embodied the most the strangest and surprising run of Tegevajaro in this season. After attending Fukuoka University for four years, Umeda joined the club in 2020. Back then, Miyazaki were still in JFL and the forward scored just three goals out of 15 games. It wasn’t on the cards to see him thriving this much at a pro-level.
Instead, the striker put everyone on notice since Miyazaki’s first games, scoring a fantastic screamer in Kumamoto. His shooting skills from a long-distance – Umeda had the highest shots per 90 mins-ratio (2.9, alongside team-mate Kosuke Fujioka) – were matched just by his grit-and-grind attitude (54 fouls, more than anyone in J3!), which found him as well being a key resource in the pressing mechanism implemented by Naito.
You wonder if: a) he’ll repeat himself next season; b) he’ll stay in Miyazaki for 2022.
Best Goalkeeper | Yuya Sato, Roasso Kumamoto (63,6%)
We were not the only ones surprised to see this kind of ending. It was a great renaissance for the former JEF shenanigans-maker like we wrote in this piece here.
MIP | Yuki Shikama, Iwate Grulla Morioka (52,6%)
If there are some signs of Yutaka Akita’s wonderful job in Morioka, they might come in the form of this young winger. Shikama featured already in 2020, playing though a way minor role. In the previous season, Iwate could count on other players, like Lucas Morelatto. This changed in 2021, where the Brazilian saw fewer minutes on the pitch. At that point, Akita started fielding Shikama more time on the pitch.
Brought up by Kashima Antlers’ academy, Shikama was forged with that resilient mentality, and it worked: he scored six goals and became a crucial member of Grulla’s surprising run to their best season ever. His goals against Imabari and Fukushima proved to be crucial to seal this result.
Best Rookie | Keigo Hashimoto, Tegevajaro Miyazaki (42,1%)
It wasn’t just Umeda and Fujioka who took the stage for Tegevajaro: rookie Keigo Hashimoto represented the classic, old-format striker every club might need in J3. You might not start him, but you never know when you might need him. And did Miyazaki rely on him, since Hashimoto joined last Winter from the Osaka University of Commerce.
The no. 20 ended up featuring in every single match the club played in their debut season in J3, but he was especially instrumental through the Summer, when he scored five goals in the span of six games. Until early September, he started many games, only to finish as a back-up and mostly come off the bench in the final games of this first pro-experience.
Unlike other elements – who might capitalize on this wonderful 2021 –, Hashimoto would need another year in Miyazaki to polish some aspects of his game. Who knows what he’s going to do?
Best Signing | Shota Kawanishi, Oita Trinita » FC Gifu (50%)
We don’t have a real stat about it, but we think it might be the first time a “Best Wish” award turns into a “Best Signing” award in the successive year. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened to Shota Kawanishi, who left Oita for good to join FC Gifu with a permanent move.
If that planned out well for him personally – Kawanishi won the Golden Boot, scoring 13 goals –, FC Gifu haven’t been able to build around him throughout 2021. The no. 10 will stay in Gifu and hopes that the club will solidify its position in order to actually achieve a promotion race worthy of his performances.
Best Wish | Shogo Sasaki, Kashima Antlers » Iwate Grulla Morioka / Junya Takahashi, Montedio Yamagata » Azul Claro Numazu (36,8% each)
Different situations, different outcomes. Shogo Sasaki joined on loan from Kashima and maybe even Antlers didn’t expect this flashy growth: the young center-back signed for Iwate already in Summer 2020, but his parent club opted to leave in Morioka a further season under the handling of former Kashima and legendary defender, Yutaka Akita.
With captain Yusuke Muta and revelation Masahito Onoda, Sasaki took his starting spot mid-season in 2021 and never left it. As a right interpreter in a three-CBs line-up, he did his job. Just like Junya Takahashi, who joined on loan from Montedio Yamagata, but faced a radically different situation. Azul Claro Numazu had their moments – like winning 7-2 at home against Vanraure Hachinohe –, but they were fairly underwhelming under head coach Masataka Imai.
Alongside striker Ryo Watanabe, Takahashi was one of the few silver linings from this season for Numazu. Six goals in 28 matches, the winger played also as a main striker, but he might go back to Yamagata (wondering how Cklamovski feels about him). It’ll be tough to see him back with Azul Claro anyway, while Sasaki might have a chance of seeing his loan in Morioka extended a further season, given how Iwate will play in J2 next season.
Best Foreign Player | Brenner, Grulla Morioka (45,5%)
Despite both Thales (Roasso Kumamoto) and Ömer Tokaç (Fukushima United FC) deserve a shout-out for their performances, the no. 11 of Iwate Grulla Morioka completes the trio of Brazilians who clinched the first edition of this award. Read here why Brenner was fundamental in Morioka’s run to J2.
Best Goal | Jun Arima, FC Imabari-FC Gifu (MD12 – 46,7%)
Sometimes there isn’t too much to say. Jun Arima’s magic against Gifu doesn’t really need too many words. We’ll just add how sad we’re to see a JFL proven striker – 67 goals in 133 games between Sony Sendai and FC Imabari – having struggled this much in the pro-world, since Arima featured just 22 times over two years, with three goals to his name.
Best Manager | Naruyuki Naito, Tegevajaro Miyazaki (61,9%)
The real wizard behind this result. Sure, we keep our doubts over the sustainability of this project – Will Tegevajaro keep their players? Will they overcome the “second product syndrome”? –, but Naito won his bet. He built a super-aggressive team, without a real first violin (Fujioka, Umeda and Hashimoto scored 5+ goals, while Maeda, Umeda and Okuma provided 5+ assists) and some interesting profiles (Yudai Tokunaga and Ryo Watanabe to watch closely).
Their will to play the ball in a certain way at all costs produced some magic numbers. Look at the passes for 90 mins as well: you can find four Tegevajaro players – Chibu, Fujitake, Maeda and captain Dai – featuring deservedly in the Top 10. It’s not an accident if Miyazaki had as well the best attack of J3 (44 goals scored).
Thank all our panelists for featuring here, we can’t wait to see them again in action for 2022. J3 League will be super-exciting next season, coming back to 18 teams and welcoming FC Iwaki. You can find here the awards for J1 League, while the J2 ones will come next week!