Providence Man

What’s the best moment in Vissel Kobe’s history? You can surely say that the last two years have provided some, between two trophies and a solid run in the 2020 AFC Champions League. And who’s the best manager? That’s tougher to say, because Vissel had 22 different head coaches in 25 years and there are some who have done an excellent job in less glorious times.

The opulent advent of Rakuten was supposed to change that, but nothing worked in the first four years of the mega-project desired by CEO Hiroshi Mikitani. Despite spending a lot and bringing both players and coaches with solid CVs, this wasn’t working. Then COVID hit and left Mikitani looking for internal solutions, both on the pitch and in the dugout. And then, the magic started coming to life.

And if some intelligent acquisitions changed the course of history – like Ryuho Kikuchi from Renofa, Hotaru Yamaguchi from Cerezo, and bringing back Gotoku Sakai from Europe –, you needed a man to put it all together. That man wasn’t former Guardiola assistant coach, Juanma Lillo. And it wasn’t entirely either Thorsten Fink, who won two trophies, but the squad didn’t look “fulfilled” under the German coach.

In a messy situation like this, you needed some with experience, skilled enough to be there, but mostly a manager of human resources, capable of putting together a team before than a squad. Sporting director Atsuhiro Miura – former NT member, who featured for Vissel in the 2000s, and most of all “a human supervisor”, in an Ancelotti-esque way – was exactly the right man for this task.

On the spotlight

We’re not talking about a random guy since the playing career of Miura was indeed solid. He featured for the national team 25 times, taking part in a lot of tournaments, including two winning Asian Cup teams, two Confederations Cup, and the 2000 Olympic Games. He wasn’t included in the ’02 squad, but he did play a part for two different head coaches, while also having a notable J. League career (playing for Flügels, Marinos, Verdy and Yokohama FC).

But despite Yokohama being the center of his world when he was a player, he had a three-year stint in Kobe as well, when the club was even relegated to J2. Famous for his free kicks, Miura was the captain – taking the reins from Kazu Miura (no family relationship) – and decided to stay in Vissel’s orbit after retiring. He did work as a commentator for a few years, but since February 2018 he’s been appointed as a sports director in Kobe.

He could theoretically coach since he obtained his license in 2015, but he was never hired as a caretaker even when Rakuten’s project was deemed to fail. But when Thorsten Fink was let go in September 2020 – after a dreadful league run for Vissel and with the ACL still on hold –, Mikitani picked him as the new head coach. Little did he know that he was making the best choice he ever took since starting this run.

Veni, Vidi, Vici

2020 was tough, anyway. Even if Miura collected a streak of three consecutive wins, Vissel ended tumbling in the league, coming fourteenth in the table. Nevertheless, under Miura, Kobe reached the semifinals of the AFC Champions League, even regretting the officiating in that match and missing the final by an inch. Signs would have brought the club to change again, but what for? To hire who? For once, not doing anything was the right call.

In fact, there were already some positives: Miura opted to rely more on youngsters, Furuhashi kept blooming under him and the new head coach didn’t bring in a lot of names the successive Winter, avoiding overcrowding the roster with useless players. Names like goalkeeper Maekawa, defender Yamakawa, returning Sasaki and young Yutaro Oda saw the pitch more times than expected.

He managed the resources he had, but most of all he got rid of whoever wasn’t functional. Dankler is a total mess? No problem, we’ll let him go to Cerezo Osaka (where he lasted a few months). Daigo Nishi isn’t fitting our style? Then he’s on his way to Urawa Red Diamonds. Thomas Vermaelen is the second most-paid player of the whole league, he’s injury-prone and not capable anymore of standing the test of time? Then let’s rely on others.

Our biggest talent is leaving? We’ll make it through.

It’s about time

But it’s in 2021 where Miura stepped up his level. His 4-3-3 saw several elements emerging. Returning from a loan to Yokohama FC, Yuki Kobayashi started playing more. Ryo Hatsuse is maybe back to being a real football player. Yuta Goke isn’t just anymore a promise, but a ductile element. You could say there’s some work to do upfront, but you could have also made a case for him as “Manager of the Year”.

Vissel Kobe never reached these heights, but they did under Miura. They surely splashed the market last Summer, but this time they did it cleverly, by bringing two players whose European adventures were clearly over: Yuya Osako and mostly Yoshinori Muto will be useful in the next couple of years. And what about last Winter? They brought in two expert players – like Tomoaki Makino and Takahiro Ogihara – while keeping most of the squad.

Someone speaks about title chances in 2022, but that’s not the point. Vissel won the 2019 Emperor’s Cup and the 2020 Japanese Super Cup, but the club was nowhere near to the organization and vision clarity they have now. They’re ready for another ACL-run, while keeping themselves at least in the Top 6 and building momentum while Andrés Iniesta is still up and running.

And they still must extract the best from this guy.

That wasn’t granted two years ago. That wasn’t going to happen without Atsuhiro Miura.

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