The Sorcerer

December 1, 2007: Ventforet Kofu are hosting FC Tokyo. Their championship is already over since they got relegated. The home side’s manager is gruntling, didn’t want to see his J1 stint finish like this. But, hey: Takeshi Oki is just 46 years old, he’s got already three J1 seasons under his belt with two different teams (mostly Kofu, but also one with S-Pulse). He’ll be around again for sure… right?

Wrong. That cold December night will be the last appearance of Oki in the top tier. 15 years later, Oki hasn’t been able to climb back the ladder. He came close twice – both with Kyoto Sanga, playing the playoffs twice and reaching the final once (lost to Tokushima Vortis in 2013) –, but he went backwards. First fighting for salvation with FC Gifu, then actually featuring in J3 with Roasso Kumamoto.

Nevertheless, he never lost the touch with developing players. He started in Kyoto, when a young side reached the Emperor’s Cup final thanks to Yuya Kubo’s development. Kyogo Furuhashi wouldn’t be in Glasgow right now without the Oki’s treatment. And there are a lot of promising players who are coming out from Roasso’s squad, who could be successful J. Leaguer for many years.

And Oki has been able as well to re-invent himself, even from his mistakes. Just look at Roasso’s strange 3-3-1-3 to field his squad this season, after mostly relying on 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 in 2021. At 60 years old and with almost 20 years under his belt being the head coach, Oki has always found a way to develop and evolve.

The magic behind Oki

To talk about Takeshi Oki, we asked the biggest fan in Japan about his skills. Stuart Smith (@sushi_football on Twitter), FC Gifu supporter and advocate for Oki’s work, has followed him closely throughout his three seasons with the green side in J2.

So, what makes him absolutely unique? “His absolute insistence on HIS way of playing. I don’t think it is actually unique, but the only other person I can think of with such a steadfast belief in his way of playing in the face of difficult results is Misha Petrovic. Pass, pass, pass, move, pass some more – that is Oki football.

I remember watching a game against Renofa Yamaguchi where Gifu attempted over 1000 passes in the game, and only winning 1-0 with a last minute goal. Also, his resistance to squad rotation is quite rare I think. For example, in Kyogo Furuhashi’s first J.League season after graduating from university, he played EVERY game – in J2 that was 42 games and anyone who has spent time in Japan in the summer would be able to tell you how hot and humid it gets, meaning footballers who play that many games were like iron men.

His training is also quite long (or it was when he was in Gifu). When I spoke to the foreign players in Gifu they were surprised to have training sessions that could last up to three hours. You could often see players doing laps of the training pitch before and after sessions – I suppose to build up their stamina so they could play in every game! His training was really heavily weighted on attacking principles – overloading was one of his favorites (6 attackers vs 4 defenders for example).

It’s nice to think Oki’s teachings are currently showing in Glasgow.

Of course, in theory, it should help the defenders work out how to cover empty spaces and help with positioning, etc., but theirs was rarely any praise for defenders who did well, it was always shouting at the attackers for not doing well enough. Rinse and repeat for a large amount of time”.

The legacy in Gifu

For a manager who lastly coached in J1 a long time ago, talking about Oki like this might appear far-fetched to an untrained eye. Nevertheless, if he’d retire tomorrow, Oki would have left already a legacy.

Stuart again: “The biggest legacy was the reputation Gifu got for developing young talent and allowing players to grow in a footballing way. Under his coaching, the list of players that moved upward in their careers is impressive:

  • Kyogo Furuhashi – Vissel Kobe
  • Yuki Omoto – Tokushima Vortis
  • Sisinio – Tokushima Vortis
  • Yoshihiro Shoji – Vegalta Sendai
  • Victor Ibanez – Montedio Yamagata
  • Kota Miyamoto – Shimizu S-Pulse
  • Yuya Yamagishi – Montedio Yamagata

Not to mention players like Kaito Taniguchi – currently in Niigata – and Hikaru Nakahara – now with Cerezo Osaka – that he developed in Kumamoto. That is a pretty good list of players that improved under his tutelage. It isn’t really a legacy that impacts Gifu, more like his fingerprints are on a number of really good players – and one bonafide superstar”.

Three is the magic number

After Kyoto and Gifu, it wasn’t written in the stars that Roasso would have worked so well for Oki. Especially after the first season, which ended with a disappointing eighth place and a lot of troubles. Stuart tried to rationalize why the pace changed and how Kumamoto are actually enjoying a safe season in J2.

We shouldn’t forget that his Kyoto teams went to the playoffs twice, losing in the final once so his teams at Nishikyogoku were pretty good. At Gifu he couldn’t seem to get the defense worked out – Gifu were always great in possession, and beautiful to watch going forward, but defensively they were really difficult to understand a lot of the time. I remember watching Gifu beaten 6-4 at home by JEF United in a game that I’ll never truly be able to comprehend.

This year their defensive record isn’t great, but they seem to have a bit more resilience in their side. Maybe because they have the experience of getting promoted together and they have that inner belief. I don’t know. The style of play is very similar to his Kyoto and Gifu days, he loves his wide forwards and a real possession-based game.

It is difficult for me to say the players are better than his first year in Gifu because I don’t think they are but maybe having players there for two or three years that get what he wants to do has given Roasso a good base to work from”.

The day of the promotion.

What’s next

Things have radically changed since 2020. After that collapse, Roasso stayed in the Top part of the table for the whole championship. They risked indeed to lose the championship and the promotion when they lost in the penultimate game at Tegevajaro Miyazaki. It seems Roasso were going to squander again the chance, but a final 2-0 home win – by accident, against FC Gifu – granted Kumamoto both the promotion and the J3 title.

It was the first title won by Oki in his career, although his successes can be seen in the development of his prospects. For example, Roasso is full of these examples: Thales signed immediately for Nagoya Grampus, staying though on loan at Roasso (where he isn’t repeating himself at the same level of 2021). But the Brazilian winger is just one of the many examples you could find.

So Kawahara, the captain, has become an excellent metronome for the midfield. Toshiki Takahashi is showing why letting Hayato Asakawa go was the right move. Naohiro Sugiyama is a J1 prospect ready to be picked up (Sagan Tosu would be wonderful). Ryuga Tashiro could be the fourth (!) decent keeper Roasso found in the last three years. Yuhi Takemoto and Koki Sakamoto are scorching opponents.

What’s the goal? The one Kumamoto had before getting relegated. Gifting the wonderful home crowd a safe J2 stint, developing a lot of talents and having fun with a unique and recognizable style of football. Is there something more you could ask for? For Takeshi Oki, it could be paradise.

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