Barely Legal

December 2nd, 2017. It’s a cold Saturday in Niigata, like many happened when Winter is approaching. It’s a strange one at the Denka Big Swan Stadium because the home side has just won their game (1-0 against Cerezo Osaka), but no happy faces in sight. Albirex Niigata have won their fifth match in the last six games, but it didn’t matter. Relegation was a matter of fact already from a couple of weeks.

It was written in the stars. Like it happened to Jubilo, JEF United, Kyoto or Tokyo Verdy, there was a time for Niigata to go down. They fought hard to postpone it, but it had to come. And no one bet on seeing Niigata back to J1 so soon. In fact, the first two years after relegation were a constant struggle, coming 16th and 10th in the table, far away from the top or even playoffs run.

Those 2018 and 2019 seasons were followed by a small revolution brought by a Spanish manager, which developed the team in an interesting way but partially solved the problem. One more mid-table finish and a sixth place to seal the end of his adventure and four years of regrets (although fun ones). Can one of the biggest crowds in J. League history see a J1 match again?

After almost half of the season, it seems we can finally say “yes”. Albirex Niigata are looking sharp, especially after being doomed by the loss of their manager, Albert Puig. Instead, the transition to Rikizo Matsuhashi has incredibly produced what Niigata were lacking: consistency. An important trait in a 42 games season, especially if you’re looking to direct promotion.

Where were we?

As we said, Albirex Niigata spent a long stint in the top tier, featuring from 2004 to 2017. In that time, the crowd in Niigata was second just to Urawa Red Diamonds and the club had some nice seasons. They grabbed once a sixth place (in 2007), seventh (2013), eighth (2009), and ninth (2010). They produced solid players, and they always had a Brazilian striker to feature.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to avoid the scare (like it happened in 2012 or 2016). When relegation came in 2017, they kept developing talent. I mean, Rony – a Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana winner – played for Niigata just in 2017. Léo Silva emerged from Niigata, just like Masaaki Higashiguchi, Gotoku Sakai, Daigo Nishi, Marcio Richardes, Kengo Kawamata, and Leonardo in the past.

Nevertheless, Albirex couldn’t find the right formula to emerge. They changed three managers in two years, starting from Masakazu Suzuki, passing through Koichiro Katafuchi – the caretaker who almost became the real deal – and Kazuaki Yoshinaga. Nothing really worked, despite they found a gem in Leonardo, who scored 29 goals (Niigata scored 71 goals that season: the second attack of the division, behind Reysol).

That’s why Albirex needed more structure from a true maestro, like Albert Puig. The former Barcelona – who started as a talent scout over the world, discovering Takefusa Kubo, Ansu Fati, and many other talents for the club – was an assistant in New York for the MLS club and was eager to start a new experience as a head coach. His work was amazing, but a new problem emerged when FC Tokyo made him an offer for 2022.

If you can understand Spanish, the excellent Fútbol de Samurais produced a nice interview with Puig himself this year.

What we were expecting

The departure of Puig – who then accepted the offer, succeeding to Kenta Hasegawa in the dugout of the capital club – posed a problem. Could Albirex restart again? It wasn’t an easy decision. Puig brought the club to a mid-table position to the doors of the playoffs, with the chance this year to achieve direct promotion, since no one among the relegated teams looked that strong.

Furthermore, there were scares about players departures. Shion Homma, one of the hidden gems within Japanese football, was courted by Tokushima Vortis the previous Winter and opted to stay at the last moment. Would he again? And what about Kento Taniguchi, who had a strong rookie year in J2 with Niigata? Would he have stayed? They produced 18 goals and 7 assists combined.

There was the fear the team lost its guidance, its structure. Furthermore, it’s not like the market brought that much. Albirex needed a stronger defense – and the arrival of Thomas Deng could have surely helped –, but it wasn’t a sure thing to see the Australian defender fit with the new manager. And there was the keeper problem: Puig relied mostly on young Koto Abe on goal, but basically tried three different no. 1s (Kazuki Fujita and Ryosuke Kojima were tried too).

Worries started to mount when Niigata picked an internal replacement. Rikizo Matsuhashi had a minor career as a J. League. After retiring, he stayed at Marinos for 16 years as a coach with several roles, being also in the dugout when Ange Postecoglou took over. In 2021, he moved to Niigata to be an assistant for Puig, but then it was his time: the risk of repeating the (failed) experiment of Katafuchi was behind the corner.

2022 is here

A few days ago, who’s writing this piece joked about a historical parallel: what’s happening now in Niigata looks a lot like what happened at Frontale when Kazama left for Toru Oniki. Kawasaki were the most fun team to watch in J. League, but never won. The arrival of Oniki produce the extra mile to make them a dynasty; at the same time, Matsuhashi is probably the missing piece for a Top 2 finish.

A good job was done this Winter. Every offensive star was kept around, while also adding Ryotaro Ito – a fancy trequartista from Urawa Reds –, Ippei Shinozuka, and Eitaro Matsuda, who helped (like it was needed?) to expand rotation even further. Daichi Tagami was retained on the right-back, while Albirex solved the keeper issue by benching Abe and sending Fujita on loan to Tochigi, making Kojima the no. 1.

Furthermore, having Homma on the pitch alongside Mito and Takagi, with Taniguchi up front, is barely legal for J2. That kind of offensive firepower would grant a mid-table finish in J1, let alone in the second division. Ken Yamura is still there, Koji Suzuki is still there, Alexandre Guedes was added, and young Yota Komi is rapidly becoming the answer to the replacement of Homma and/or Mito if they’re leaving mid-season or at the end of 2022.

Albirex look especially unbeatable at home. The atmosphere is electric, and Niigata have scorched every opponent for now. Nine wins out of 10 home games, with just Renofa Yamaguchi taking a point in the opening match of the season in Niigata. And don’t forget the defense: before the game against Akita, Albirex conceded 18 goals in 21 games. A solid record, in line with last year. But this time, the roster looks deeper.

We’re sure European scouts are not watching this, otherwise why Homma is still in Niigata?

You can see how the tables turned from one match in particular, the 4-3 home win against Tokyo Verdy on May 8th, 2022. Albirex went up 3-0 in eight minutes, in what seemed like a repeat from the 7-0 home win from the previous year. Instead, Niigata crumbled and conceded three goals to even the game in the first 20 minutes of the second half. Not a solid attitude from the leading team.

Last year, Albirex would have lost that game. Instead, Ken Yamura found the net with two minutes to go, granting Niigata a fundamental win not just for the table, but for morale in general. The future is theirs: if they can keep this pace, the five-years drought from J1 will be over soon for Albirex.

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