November 28, 2021. It’s a cold afternoon in Kanazawa, but it’s not just because of the cold weather. After struggling months and the constant danger of the drop to J3, Zweigen absolutely need to win their home game against Montedio Yamagata. In the direst moment, Yuji Senuma comes through: first with a header with ten minutes to go to unlock the context, then with the winner on a counterattack in injury time.
That brace is a good synthesis of the 2021 season for Zweigen Kanazawa: a light in the unexpected moment, just when things seem couldn’t turn for the best anymore. Despite having survived comfortably for several years, the last 12 months were difficult for the Ishikawa-based team. If that victory partially avoided a worse outcome, the successive 0-0 away draw in Kyoto sealed the club status in J2 for 2022.
This final result, though, can’t hide the truth. Despite having the longest-serving manager in the whole second division, it wasn’t enough to have a quiet year. And Masaaki Yanagishita – now at his sixth season at the helm of Zweigen Kanazawa – almost risked getting the boot from the club, staying in the end and surviving probably the toughest time of his career.
Nevertheless, being the most expert head coach in J2 isn’t enough alone to grant Yanagishita an easy pass to 2021. With the four relegations looming, Kanazawa went through their worst year since 2016. And if they want to avoid another scare like this, things have to change, although the first signs make it hard to forecast which kind of season awaits the club. But it wasn’t always like this.
In a region where football wasn’t exactly thriving, Zweigen Kanazawa had to wait a lot to see even glimpses of professional football. In 2009, they got promoted to JFL and they got to J3 for its maiden season, in 2014. At their first pro-experience, Kanazawa actually won the whole thing, clinching the first-ever J3 title (BTW: who would have thought that, in 2022, Kanazawa would be on the tail of EIGHT J2 seasons and Parceiro still waiting?).
The first season in J2 was another success, even groundbreaking. Zweigen started the year with two losses in three matches, but then endured a successful run of 14 positive results, even topping the table. Eventually, they lost the lead and even slid out of the playoffs zone, but the squad under the guide of Hitoshi Morishita left a solid impression (with players captain Kiyohara being the most surprising asset).
In the span of the 12 months, things tumbled pretty quickly. 2016 was an insufferable season for Zweigen fans, who started relaxed and ended up fearing the return to J3. Kanazawa ended as the second bottom team, but the unbelievable data is how Zweigen spent 15 matchdays in last place, but then ditched the direct drop in the last game (with a famous – and maybe regretful – 0-0 away draw in Sapporo).
Ready to face Tochigi SC in a double-legged playout, Zweigen bagged a 3-0 on aggregate to avoid the worst. What now, though?
The Great Grumpy
A proud product of Hamamatsu and a symbol for Júbilo Iwata for almost 30 years – first on the pitch and then on the bench –, Masaaki Yanagishita isn’t known for his easy-going attitude or for his jokes. Pretty grumpy, even sharp sometimes, Yanagishita gained more and more experience as an assistant coach in Shizuoka. Then had a solid success between Sapporo (with an Emperor’s Cup semifinal), Iwata (he won the J. League Cup in 2010) and Niigata (under him, they actually enjoyed the last decent year in J1).
Despite saving the club in 2015 from an almost certain drop, Albirex let Yanagishita go. He stayed in the dark for one year, only to sign for Zweigen Kanazawa in 2017, since the club clearly need a U-turn from their terrible previous season. In the end, he represented the kind of head coach Zweigen needed: a stable, firm hand to gently guide Kanazawa through the insidious tides of the second division.
Yanagishita did just that. From 2017 to 2019, the club kept improving, developing players, and gradually climbing the table. First seventeenth, then thirteenth, and at last eleventh in 2019, even improving the amazing 2015 season. Just think about Fujimura, Kakita, Nakami, Kato, Yamamoto, Miyazaki, Shimazu. This without forgetting even J2 legends, like Koichi Sato or Yuto Shirai.
Cracks on the wall
Despite relegation being frozen for 2020, some cracks on the wall were already evident. Zweigen had several goals to count on – Mutsuki Kato, Raisei Shimazu, Lucão, and Kyohei Sugiura all lived through an excellent season –, but two of those players were gone in 2021, another one lost his way (by ending loaned to Kagoshima in J3!) and Sugiura couldn’t turn it around by himself.
The arrival of some players – Masaaki Goto in goal, Honoya Shoji in defense, Shintaro Shimada and Shu Hiramatsu on the flanks, plus Hayato Otani up front – should have been enough to replace them. It wasn’t the case: no one scored in double digits, and most of all Zweigen won just two matches out of 21 between May and September. It’s incredible how the board stuck with Yanagishita in a time where EVERYONE just sacked their coach.
In the end, it worked just fine and that Senuma’s brace was enough to avoid the worst. But it’s not over: Kanazawa have lost Goto (to Montedio), Ishio (to Vortis), Ohashi (to Omiya) and Senuma himself (not a sore departure, actually: the swap with Toyoda might be a bargain in the long run). There are a lot of question marks, though…
Can Shirai start again on goal? Will the defense find some stability? Who’s going to play alongside Fujimura, maybe Matsumoto? Are Shimada and Hiramatsu finally ready to show what they’re capable of? Can the arrivals of Toyoda, Tsukamoto and most of all Hayashi help Kanazawa’s offensive production?
On top of that, is Yanagishita’s reign effectively over and this is a mistake? Or the sixth verse is the right one for this song in Ishikawa? The baseline for 2022 has to be avoiding relegation because coming back from J3 is hard (ask Giravanz or Tochigi).