Revenge of the doubts

It’s funny, but this time for our “Regista Awards” we’re gonna talk through the two relegated teams of 2019 from J1. It’s something we did in the past as well when we mentioned the misfortunes of both clubs, who were heading together towards a revolution or total reset in J2. One with probably better odds than the other: in fact, we thought Júbilo Iwata had a solid chance to start over with some youth.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Júbilo played away in Mito to seal their promotion and the J2 title in this season. The surprise is that Iwata went down a radically different way to achieve this goal. To sum it up a little bit:

  • Their usual starting eleven featured no player under 25 years old (excluding Hiroki Ito, who left mid-season to join VfB Stuttgart in Germany).
  • Their roster was the oldest in the league (28,3 years old).
  • Their manager – who won the “Manager of the Year” award as well from J. League – was the one who also won their last league title in 2002. And their caretaker for the last game was the deputy captain of that team.

We don’t even know where to start. Júbilo won the battle, but will they win the war in the long run? Surely, we expected Iwata to be involved at least in the Top 6, since they ended in sixth place in 2020. But winning the league with an easy ride, marked by their tough defense, 3-4-2-1, and a team with no young prospects on sight… well, that was surprising indeed.

In our “Regista Awards” for the 2021 season in J2 League, Júbilo Iwata won by a landslide as the “Best Team”. That’s surely deserved, but it also rose a lot of questions someone might answer now to avoid future misunderstandings about the fate of the club.

It’s a country for old men

At the dawn of 2020, we kept Shimizu as a possible reference. Their neighboring rivals got relegated in 2015 and rejuvenated their team with a core of young or new faces – among them: Ryohei Shirasaki, Koya Kitagawa, Ko Matsubara, Shota Kaneko and Genta Miura – to start fresh. It worked for them, although S-Pulse are not exactly drifting through placid waves right now.

Unlike them, though, Júbilo retained their back-then manager, Fernando Jubero, and just kept most of their players. Sure, some youngsters had their shot – Hiroki Ito, Koki Ogawa and Rikiya Uehara above all –, but it wasn’t enough. Confirming Jubero was a mistake: in 23 games, Iwata were never in the Top 2. And they have not been as well for the remainder of the season, ditching their manager and calling back an old friend.

As mentioned above, Masakazu Suzuki was the last manager to win a league title for the club. His career seemed over after a bleak stint with Niigata in 2017, but he was called to stabilize things in a club that had no goals already mid-season. They steadily improved, reaching the sixth place and mostly bringing in the most celebrated player in Japanese football, who was warming the bench in Osaka (and wasn’t happy about it).

He was among the men who made the difference in 2021.

Three players, one wave of change

It’s undeniable Yasuhito Endo knows his craft. He’s been knowing it since his days with Flügels in Yokohama. Nevertheless, his old pal Tsuneyatsu Miyamoto didn’t see him as a regular in Osaka, with Gamba riding high without him. Endo played 11 league games, but mostly he wasn’t starting anymore, being relegated to a substitute role from the bench. His greatness probably couldn’t accept this ending to his career.

Therefore, he joined Iwata in July 2020 with a loan, a formula still standing today. Once he arrived in Shizuoka, he started right away. Suzuki counted on him to give stability and masterfulness to the midfield. Endo did just that: J2 pace let him be the game-changer he’s always been in J1 as well. Yatto confirmed his influence this season, featuring 35 times, with three goals, five assists, and 86 chances created to his name.

While Endo was a key piece of the puzzle, the same you could say about Ryuki Miura:he was on paper the third choice. Instead, after some blunders by beloved Naoki Hatta, Suzuki put him between the sticks and he kept 14 clean sheets, conceding just 31 goals in 37 matches. Just to put in perspective: Miura played this season the same number of matches he EVER played in ANY competition throughout his whole career.

Last but not least, the absolute transformation of Yuto Suzuki has gone pretty much under the radar. A former trequartista, Suzuki has even played with Frontale and Gamba, but never lived up to expectations. In 2020, he joined Yamaga on loan, but didn’t impress that much. Once he was signed by Iwata, the head coach gave him two sub appearances to field him from the third match as a starter.

Little detail: he was fielded as a center back! You heard us right: Suzuki completed the three-backs line with captain Kentaro Oi and Hiroki Ito (with So Nakagawa as an alternative). Masakazu Suzuki understood it was probably too much, so he tailored a right-wing-back role for Yuto, who complied with an amazing season: eight goals, six assists, and probably the most incredible story from this promotion run. 

Beyond the promotion

The head coach did what he had to do in the pre-season as well. Seiya Nakano already left last year, while Koki Ogawa rarely saw the pitch. Other youngsters – like Naoto Miki, So Nakagawa, or Kotaro Fujikawa – didn’t play that much. With Yuki Otsu and Hiroki Yamada behind lone striker Lukian (3.9 shots per 90 mins in 2021), Iwata had their plan. It wasn’t fun to watch (although they had the best attack: 75 goals scored), but it was effective, and it worked to perfection.

The real deal is: what about now? Due to his physical condition, Suzuki stepped down already, having left everything to caretaker Toshihiro Hattori. He brought the title home, but will the possible arrival of Akira Itothe wizard behind Kofu’s miracle these years – be enough? Surely Ito proved to be especially good in developing players and rebooting careers, but Júbilo will put much more pressure on him.

But most of all: what about if another relegation comes? From which kind of roster Iwata could restart if that happens? It’s a risky move. We’re happy to see Ito measuring himself in J1 and seeing the Shizuoka Derby back in J1 will be wonderful, but it might be a real struggle for Iwata, just like 2018 and 2019. The revenge must be served cold, but a frosted meal shouldn’t be anyone’s objective.

3 thoughts on “Revenge of the doubts

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