The Gifu-lácticos

A club opted to splash the market to win it all. The only idea was that reinforcing the squad by filling it with names like baseball cards would have brought the desired results. In the end, how hard can it be to win a championship in this mighty mystery called football? It might seem we’re talking about Vissel Kobe, but that’s not the case (and we highlighted the point back in 2020, so feel free to read that).

FC Gifu lived through 12 seasons in J2 only to get the drop in 2019. In the years before, the club showcased a good brand of football and the birth of some talents. Among all, that Kyogo Furuhashi who’s now lighting up the Celtic Park. But you could also add Yuki Omoto, Yoshihiro Shoji, Sisinio, Paulo Junichi Tanaka, and having as well J2 historical figures like Hiroaki Namba.

When they dropped, the idea was to see them back in J2 sooner or later. But if 2022 can represent a wake-up call, we might not see them back so soon. Their 2022 version looks like a reenactment of Real Madrid between 2003 and 2009, adding up players without proper continuity on the bench, and too much star power. After two sixth-place finishes in 2020 and 2021, the risk is that they might go lower this time around.

Remember the time Alessandro Del Piero was in Gifu? Nice one.

The J3 Experience

Relegation didn’t just appear all of the sudden. Gifu were on a small budget compared to other J2 clubs and they risked every year something. But given the structure of J2 – relegations were introduced only in 2012 and the second one came in place just in 2016, when not everyone in J3 had the requirements to come up –, it became easier to ditch the danger. 2019 was unavoidable: Gifu came last on the table.

Gifu ended ten points shy of Kagoshima United FC, the other team relegated at the end of the season. For 2020, then, the idea was to fill that gap. With Roasso Kumamoto as the main rival, the club was expected to clinch a Top 2 slot to come back to J2. Unfortunately for them, COVID-19 basically threw everyone into panic mode and the schedule became super-compressed, open to surprise.

That’s how we got Blaublitz Akita dominating the league and winning promotion with some games to go. But second place was still up for grabs… unless Gifu was screwing this chance up. They came short of five points compared to SC Sagamihara and take this data as a referral: in a season where no club changed their manager outside of the U-23 teams, Gifu were the only one to do so (sacking Zdravko Zemunović for Kenji Nakada).

Ok, well… 2021 is going to be different. They have an ace like Shota Kawanishi (who was 32 at the time, but super-sharp for the championship), and COVID-19 is in remission. Only 15 teams to play. Roasso, Nagano, and Kataller are all struggling. They can do it, right? No. For half the season, Gifu were first… and then started losing at home against Fukushima and Vanrarure.

Conceding 4 goals in 25 minutes at home against Fukushima United was probably the takeaway from 2021.

Under Takayoshi Amma, the team never found the right setup in the second part of the season. Kawanishi won indeed the top-scoring title, but it didn’t serve any purpose. Gifu won 9 out of the 10 matches in which they went ahead, but with 30 games to play… that’s a low number. Gifu ended 12 points away from Iwate Grulla Morioka and Tegevajaro Miyazaki, who battled until the last match for the second promotion spot.

The Winter Market-Splashing Raptus

Last Winter, the management probably got fed up with the strategy brought forward until then and splashed the market with what we call the “Roman Strategy”. This Summer, AS Roma didn’t have the money to buy a lot of players despite winning the UEFA Conference League… so they just waited for free agents to become available, bringing home Nemanja Matic, Paulo Dybala, Andrea Belotti and getting Georgino Wijnaldum on loan.

FC Gifu pulled off something similar, although it’s easier on the Japanese market because deals are rarely multi-year agreements. Indeed, the club needed a proper Winter campaign, because J3 featured in 2022 18 teams and some of them were ready to battle: Kataller reinforced their roster, Ehime and Giravanz were back in the third tier, Matsumoto had massive salary power, and Iwaki FC looked a dark horse for promotion.

The right idea would have been to have a certain manager, with proper identity, and build the roster around center points like Shota Kawanishi and Kentaro Kai. On the contrary, both were gone by January, signing respectively for Kataller Toyama and newly promoted Iwate Grulla Morioka. FC Gifu knew it was crucial to replace them properly, but they have probably overreacted.

The shell of the player he used to be.

After taking in Yosuke Kashiwagi last year, another Urawa man joined in Tomoya Ugajin. Then Freire at the back, the return of Yoshihiro Shoji in the midfield, and Henik as a center-back… but most of all: an immense number of forwards. Junya Tanaka, Daisuke Ishizu, Junki Hata, and another year of Shumpei Fukahori on loan were the answer. This by keeping Toma Murata, Hirofumi Yamauchi, and Yuta Togashi on the roster.

And we haven’t even mentioned the two players who actually made sense to reinforce the squad. Charles Nduka had a solid rookie season at YSCC, he’s 24 and he seemed ready for the next step. Even better went with Kosuke Fujioka, a secret talisman for Tegevajaro’s amazing run in 2021 and capable of playing several positions. The former hasn’t confirmed the progress done in Yokohama, but the latter is having a massive season.

A Disappointing Season

Needless to say: all of this needed a strong and prepared man in the dugout. Management identified Toshiya Miura – former Omiya Ardija and Consadole Sapporo head coach – as the man. And the man got off to a decent start – 10 points in the first 5 games –, only to be ditched at the beginning of May, after a string of three consecutive losses against Matsumoto, Kamatamare, and Fujieda MYFC.

Then management pulled off a classic: calling the most experienced coach in the history of J3, Yuji Yokoyama. He did an amazing job in Tochigi, bringing the club back to J2 after relegation, and then almost did the same with Nagano. He seemed the right man to fight the battle… and a streak of six games and 14 points brought Gifu back to fifth place. It was the calm before the storm.

Losing 4-0 at Tottori didn’t help. And the fans weren’t happy either.

Gifu entered a terrible run: six defeats in seven games, with four goals scored and 18 conceded. The last week’s defeat in Hachinohe probably closed the curtain on the hopes of going back to J2, with FC Gifu currently standing tenth on the table (21 points away from the promotion zone!) and matches against all the teams in the Top 3 to be played. They could be a referee of the promotion race, but nothing more than this.

Meanwhile, the only positive from this season is Kosuke Fujioka’s stats: 23 games, 11 goals, and 3 assists. He took part in 40% of Gifu’s goals this season. After two seasons in double digits of goals, though, you might think he’s not going to be there next season. Therefore, the question is mandatory: where can FC Gifu start from? What’s to save from this dreadful 2022?

Is Yokoyama part of the problem? Doesn’t seem so, no trainer imposed himself in Gifu after Takeshi Oki left in 2019 and started a new dream in Kumamoto. Is there someone available better than him and willing to reboot the whole project? Looking at available managers, Atsuhiro Miura or Tsuneyatsu Miyamoto seems out of reach, but what about Ichizo Nakata? Or trying someone from JFL?

The roster would also need to ditch several old players since Gifu is the oldest roster in J3 (29,2 years old on average, two full years more than Sagamihara and Vanraure). But can Yokoyama eventually grow a young core to restart? Tough to say. Surely though profiles like Koyama, Onishi, and Murata need to become the future as soon as possible. Otherwise, there won’t be one to write.

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