Freefalling

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: it wasn’t easy to restart everything at Matsumoto Yamaga.

With their manager leaving – Yasuharu Sorimachi was the head coach for eight seasons, going through all the success Yamaga gathered –, they needed the right choice. To succeed him, they picked Keiichiro Nuno, the man behind Gunma’s renaissance. Unfortunately, it wasn’t proved to be a healthy choice, since Matsumoto lingered in the relegation zone, and they needed a clear turn to adjust their trajectory in 2020.

Picked after a 6-1 home defeat to Ryukyu, Kei Shibata proved to be the right answer: since his hire, Yamaga had their fifth-best run of the league, bagging 35 points in 21 games. They ended thirteenth and, most of all, they seemed back on their plan: a defensive, strict, and gritty team, capable of shrinking narrow wins with their consolidated plan. Last Winter, though, the club tried to transform itself. Probably even too much.

Fast forward to November 28th, 2021: in their last away game of the season, Matsumoto Yamaga absolutely need three points in Sagamihara. Instead, they go down almost in stoppage time to then level the contest, before almost losing their single point in the last action of the game. With one game still to play, it’s over: after 10 years, Yamaga are back to the third level of Japanese football.

The embodiment of a failed season.

It seems incredible, even more than when Oita Trinita became the first club who ever played in J1 to get relegated to J3. Yes, because Yamaga did everything wrong, somehow, triggering massive dissatisfaction from their beloved and passionate fans. And not only from them since they’ve been chosen as the “Flop Team” in our “Regista Awards” for 2021 J2 League.

A past, but no future

It wasn’t just Sorimachi leaving, since other senators slowly left after the second drop to J1 in 2019. Only three are still up and running in Yamaga’s roster:

  • Captain Hayuma Tanaka, though he’s rarely seen on the pitch at 39. In fact, he played just once this season in J2.
  • Cult hero Yuya Hashiuchi, who’s 34 and didn’t exactly shine as the first choice as a center-back the last two years.
  • Keeper Tomohiko Murayama, who shares the same age as Hashiuchi, but also the vague sensation he’s not fit for this level (and yet, he played many games this season).

The heroes from the 2018 J2 title – former captain Masaaki Iida, speedy wonder Daizen Maeda, solid keeper Tatsuya Morita, tough midfielder Yudai Iwama – are all gone. And in all of this, Matsumoto managed to squander everything they’ve been building from 2020, with the revelation Koki Tsukagawa leaving to join Frontale, Serginho moving to South Korea, and Taro Sugimoto happy to sign for Avispa in J1.

At least on paper, though, Yamaga did an awesome job last Winter in landing some amazing players:

  • Albeit injured, Kazuma Yamaguchi left Kashima Antlers to join Yamaga and we indeed marked him as the best acquisition by any J2 team last Winter.
  • After a decisive loan in Kagoshima and a nice year in Kanazawa, Lucão should have been the ideal match to score lots of goals.
  • Other offensive players and prospects – like Kunitomo Suzuki, Shuto Kawai and Paulo Junichi Tanaka – completed an offensive department that seemed even too much stacked.
Time slips from the tips of our hands, but maybe we forgot how decisive Yamaguchi was in Mito.

We did even put Matsumoto in second place, just behind Kyoto Sanga, in our #JPred21. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the end, beyond what anyone could imagine.

Backbone missing

Yamaga tried to change their narrative, but implementing a new football style after a season like 2020 – lived through many changes and COVID nation-wide – seemed a bet. Stacking all these offensive talents was another hurdle, even when Yamaguchi and Lucão were not available (not even adding Serginho last Summer helped). But the real problem lied somewhere else: in their defense.

Between the posts, Matsumoto never found a real answer about who’s the real no. 1. Kentaro Kakoi looked more solid (having played 26 goals), but Murayama stayed in contention all year long. The deep core of Yamaga’s identity – the center-backs – was though disappointing. None of them played more than 30 matches, and the one with the most games played was Masato Tokida, not exactly Alessandro Nesta.

Although defense could count on some expert members, the options available to Shiibata first and Nanami after were relatively young and with not so much experience: Tokida and Hoshi are 24, Ono 25, Nonomura and Miyabe 23. This produced a situation where no one was able to lead. To prove it, Yamaga conceded 71 goals (!) in 2021: to put in perspective, their count of goals allowed in two full J1 seasons (2015 and 2019) is 94.

Bringing Nanami in mid-season – a celebrated figure in Japanese football, but another “defensive” coach – didn’t help. The gamble Omiya took with Shimoda would have probably suited more Yamaga in this situation, although we’ll never know. But data could say something about this squad.

A good photograph of how Yamaga’s defense couldn’t get a grip of itself this season.

The Murphy Laws

If something could go wrong, it did. Matsumoto went down in 27 of the 42 games played, but 22 of these matches ended in defeat, clinching just nine points from this situation. To put it in perspective, Sagamihara had the same situation 28 games, but racked up 14 points in those matches. Out of the 71 goals conceded, Yamaga allowed 70% in the second half and the club entered the relegation zone in Matchday 32 to never leave it again.

In the end, their fire-cracking attack never came through. Yamaga’s top scorer in 2021 was Kunitomo Suzuki with six goals. Second was Sho Ito, who joined this Summer to score four goals. Once recovered, Yamaguchi played 13 games with no flashes: is he just a shell of the player he used to be? Lucão featured just four times. Nanami can’t be blamed completely, but he was confirmed for 2021 and we have some doubts.

Scary times might be ahead. It’d be easy to say Yamaga will (and must!) win J3 next year. They must: God knows if they can afford to stay in the third tier for a long time after COVID slashed a lot of revenues for the clubs. They’ll also play their first Shinshū Derby in a long, long time (and with the hire of Yuki Stalph, Nagano seems finally heading towards a totally different direction from the past).

The last time Matsumoto played at this level, J3 wasn’t even born and Yamaga ended fourth in JFL to get promoted, the same year they lost Naoki Matsuda. It’d be sad to see them losing another piece of their soul due to a prolonged stay in J3.

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