Youth of the Nation

The relegation of Matsumoto from J2 to J3 was huge. We already investigated the theme, but we wanted to see if Yamaga were going to be able to react to this kind of downfall: since Oita Trinita’s relegation in 2015, it was the biggest drop you can witness from the second division. Therefore, we expected the club to react properly, given their expensive salaries and the will of keeping Hiroshi Nanami despite the relegation.

There’s something Matsumoto finally tried: youngsters. They’ve always relied on experienced members and senators. They’ve always been one of the oldest teams, whichever division they were in… but they took a turn this season, lowering their average age to 25,8 years and being the eighth youngest team in J3. It’s still low, but it shows a change from the 2019 season when they were the second-oldest team in J1.

Some of the youngsters had their chance this season. Masato Tokida played 30 times, Taiki Miyabe 27, and they’re both 24 years old. Sho Sumida (23) appeared in 20 games, scoring three goals. Ren Komatsu (24), back from a loan to Renofa Yamaguchi, featured 28 times, just like Yusuke Kikui (23) and Itsuki Enomoto (22). But the youngest of them was the star of the team.

Ayumu Yokoyama skipped university and joined Yamaga at 19 years old in 2021. His rookie year was mostly about appearances from the bench, but those 16 caps became something else this season: with 11 goals and many bangers, Yokoyama brought Matsumoto close to the Top 2 – they missed promotion for one point – and won the “MVP” award from our readers.

Debuting in a Bleak Scenario

When Yamaga joined J2 after just one season in J1, we warned how a rough patch was awaiting them. In the end, they were not in the run for promotion in 2020 and got relegated in 2021, deservedly. Kei Shibata seemed to have turned it around for Matsumoto, but he was fired mid-season and Hiroshi Nanami couldn’t actually make anything, with Yamaga squandering many chances both at home and away.

The stacked offensive department was one of the reasons. Despite having many options, Yamaga didn’t find a real threat to promote their cause of avoiding relegation. No one scored more than six goals, racked up by Kunimoto Suzuki. A player like Toyofumi Sakano – almost 60 goals in the second tier – scored just three, and even Kazuma Yamaguchi – the promised prodigy from Antlers – was mostly injured and didn’t have any impact.

In this bleak scenario, Yokoyama – a class 2003! – got his first caps. He played 16 games, with Shibata even starting him. It was a sign of great trust, but once Nanami came into charge, he basically never saw the pitch again. It didn’t help that he never scored in J2 but playing 45 minutes against V-Varen on the last matchday after the last appearance – still against Nagasaki – in June… didn’t help.

Nanami, Yamaga and J3

It’s strange though, because Nanami managed another super old team, that Júbilo Iwata whom he brought from J2 to J1 and back. Nevertheless, in his years in Shizuoka, Nanami nurtured the careers of some young guns: among them, Hayao Kawabe – now at Grasshopper, on loan from Wolverhampton – is the main name, but others debuted with him (Hiroki Ito, Seiya Nakano, Daigo Araki, Koki Ogawa, Adailton).

Yamaga lost several players in J3. Some by force, some by will. Serginho, Kawai, Kotegawa, Yamaguchi, Sakano, Ito, Suzuki, and Toshima all left. From last year, only the youngsters and Lucão – finally healthy and available – were available. Yokoyama started again on Matchday 1, but this time he scored against Kamatamare Sanuki and started a wonderful run of performances.

A streak of six goals in the first seven games not only sealed his starting spot but helped Yamaga climb to first place. Both Yokoyama and Yamaga lost a bit of brightness throughout the 2022 season – from September to the end of the year, Yokoyama scored just twice –, but there’s no doubt that the kid represents a huge asset for the club (by the way, his father Hirotoshi played in J.League between 1998 and 2007, mostly in J2).

Emerging

The signs of his growth didn’t go unnoticed. Yokoyama even got his place into the Japanese national team, being called up by U-20 head coach Koichi Togashi for the 2022 Toulon Tournament, where Japan usually takes part with their youngsters. It wasn’t a glorious event – Japan got knocked out in the group stage –, but Yokoyama featured twice alongside established profiles such as Jiro Nakamura, Shinya Nakano, and Sota Kitano.

Yokoyama has surely to improve on two aspects: he has to grow physically because J2 and J1 will be tougher than J3 in terms of opponents. Secondly, he needs to widen his sight: he served only one assist all season long and he’s got the tendency of shooting every time he gets to the 25-30 meters threshold. Yamaga and himself can succeed only if he adds these two feats to his range of skills.

It’s rare to see Matsumoto launching a young player. And it’s rare to see some bursting into the scene like this from high school to J3. If Yamaga have a chance of reaching J2 again – and next year, they’ll be surely among the favorites to get a promotion spot –, they need to retain Yokoyama. Otherwise, everything might become harder.

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