J.League Soccer 2021 Mid-Season Review!

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The 29th season of the J.League is slightly different compared to a normal season as for the first time there are 20 teams fighting for the league title and 4 teams facing relegation into J2 as no teams were relegated last season due to impact of COVID on football finances. Kawasaki Frontale remain at the top of the table as they are still undefeated. Due to there being no relegation last season due to COVID having a huge impact on match day revenue from loyal fans, this season sees an unprecedented 4 teams relegated as Japanese football deals with an unprecedented 20 team league (promotion from J2 was still in effect) along side another packed schedule that has to allow for a 1 month break due to the Olympics. We are only a bit over half way through the season but fans have already seen some surprises such as the rapid rise of Sagan Tosu and the fall of some strong teams from last year like Kashiwa Reysol and Gamba Osaka.

League Table

Click to show code!

``` r
jleague_table_2021_mid <- read.csv(file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/J-League_2021_mid_review/J-League_2021_mid_league_table.csv", 
                               stringsAsFactors = FALSE) %>% 
  mutate(team_name = case_when(
    Squad == "Kawa Frontale" ~ "Kawasaki Frontale",
    Squad == "Grampus" ~ "Nagoya Grampus",
    Squad == "Sanfrecce" ~ "Sanfrecce Hiroshima", 
    Squad == "Marinos" ~ "Yokohama F. Marinos",
    Squad == "Consa Sapporo" ~ "Consadole Sapporo",
    Squad == "S-Pulse" ~ "Shimizu S-Pulse",
    Squad == "Vortis" ~ "Tokushima Vortis", 
    TRUE ~ Squad
  )) %>% 
  select(Rk, team_name, W, D, L, GF, GA, GD, Pts)

xG_all_df <- read.csv(file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/J-League_2021_mid_review/team_xG_J-League-2021_mid.csv") %>% 
  mutate(xG = round(xG, 2),
         xGA = round(xGA, 2),
         xGDiff = (xG - xGA) %>% round(., 2) ) %>% 
  select(Squad, xG, xGA, xGDiff)

jleague_table_2021_mid_cleaned <- jleague_table_2021_mid %>% 
  left_join(xG_all_df, by = c("team_name" = "Squad")) %>% 
  select(Team = team_name, W, D, L, Pts, GF, GA, GD, xG, xGA, xGDiff)

jleague_kable_table <- jleague_table_2021_mid_cleaned %>% 
  knitr::kable(format = "html", 
               caption = "J.League 2021 Table (As of July 26, 2021)") %>% 
  kable_styling(full_width = FALSE,
                bootstrap_options = c("condensed", "responsive")) %>% 
  add_header_above(c(" ", "Result" = 4, "Goals" = 3,
                     "Expected Goals" = 3)) %>% 
  column_spec(1:2, bold = TRUE) %>% 
  row_spec(1, bold = TRUE, color = "white", background = "green") %>% 
  row_spec(2:3, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "lightgreen") %>% 
  row_spec(4:16, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "white") %>% 
  row_spec(17:20, color = "white", background = "red") %>% 
  add_footnote(label = "Data: FBref.com & Football-Lab.jp | Note: 4 teams relegated to return J1 to 18 teams in 2022",
               notation = "none")

#kable_material_dark(kable_input = jleague_kable_table)

J.League 2021 Table (As of July 26, 2021)
Result Goals Expected Goals
Team W D L Pts GF GA GD xG xGA xGDiff
Kawasaki Frontale 18 4 0 58 53 15 38 36.79 15.64 21.15
Yokohama F. Marinos 14 4 2 46 39 16 23 38.20 22.80 15.40
Vissel Kobe 11 8 3 41 35 21 14 28.44 22.40 6.04
Sagan Tosu 10 8 4 38 30 15 15 22.36 18.88 3.48
Nagoya Grampus 11 4 6 37 23 16 7 18.66 14.60 4.06
Kashima Antlers 10 5 7 35 35 23 12 31.06 20.66 10.40
Urawa Reds 10 5 7 35 26 23 3 27.90 26.27 1.63
FC Tokyo 10 5 7 35 31 30 1 23.79 27.34 -3.55
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 7 9 6 30 24 22 2 30.62 22.75 7.87
Consadole Sapporo 8 5 7 29 27 26 1 30.70 28.40 2.30
Avispa Fukuoka 8 5 9 29 23 27 -4 22.78 27.01 -4.23
Cerezo Osaka 6 8 7 26 29 27 2 24.43 24.79 -0.36
Shimizu S-Pulse 5 8 9 23 22 30 -8 23.35 24.40 -1.05
Shonan Bellmare 4 9 9 21 21 28 -7 23.34 29.70 -6.36
Kashiwa Reysol 6 2 14 20 22 32 -10 30.80 25.23 5.57
Tokushima Vortis 5 5 12 20 18 28 -10 19.91 26.42 -6.51
Gamba Osaka 4 5 9 17 9 17 -8 13.61 23.67 -10.06
Vegalta Sendai 3 8 10 17 18 35 -17 21.29 33.37 -12.08
Oita Trinita 4 4 13 16 13 30 -17 18.56 27.82 -9.26
Yokohama FC 2 5 15 11 14 51 -37 20.48 44.95 -24.47
Data: FBref.com & Football-Lab.jp \| Note: 4 teams relegated to return J1 to 18 teams in 2022

For this blog post I would ideally use data from WyScout or InStat to be able to take advantage of a lot of their detailed stats (expected goals, progressive passes, etc.) especially to look at player-level data and match that up with my own notes from watching the games. Unfortunately, all of that costs $$$. I do all of this as a hobby and I can’t justify the expense (not just the $ but also the time to make full use of purchasing an account). So, I am only using data from free websites which do not have as much detail. Thankfully, I have been able to find a bit more on a player and team level from a variety of new sources since the 2020 season review I did in January. A big arigato to websites like Transfermarkt, Sporteria, Football-Lab, FBref, and more! As always, you can always check where I got the data from taking a look at the bottom right corner of any viz.

The data used below is up to what officially should be Matchday 22 for all teams, or the games that took place on July 10 and 11. There are make-up games for ACL teams during what is supposed to be the “Olympics Break” while Gamba Osaka also have many games in hand due to their COVID outbreak. I set a hard stop there because I wanted to establish a clear date to stop re-running all my code and just focus on the write-up. With a lot of teams playing a different amount of games I have tried my best to contextualize both player and team-level statistics on a per 90 basis.

I’ll be very happy if any J.League bloggers (as long as there’s no pay wall or anything) want to use any of the viz I’ve made in this blog post with proper credit along with a link to their work (as I’d love to read more English J.League content). Some of the viz can be created for J2 and J3 teams as well so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want me to do so!

I’ll start by talking about the data and the graphs and then I’ll give my opinions on various teams and players that I’ve found interesting.


  • Squad Age Profiles
  • Goals Scored/Conceded by 10-minute Time Intervals
  • Goals Scored/Conceded by Match Situations
  • Five Game Rolling Average: Goals vs. Goals Against
  • Five Game Rolling Average: xG vs. xGA
  • Team Shot Quantity: Shots per 90 vs. Shots Against per 90
  • Team Shot Quality (xG): xG per 90 vs. xGA per 90
  • Team-level Shot Quality vs. Quantity: Shots per 90 vs. xG Per Shot & Shots Against per 90 vs. xGA per Shot
  • Player xG: Goals vs. xG & Shots per 90 vs. xG per shot
  • Mid-season Team Reports & Player Scouting Reports

Below are the some of the major R packages I used to create all these graphics:

  dplyr, tidyr, purrr,
  stringr, tibble,
  glue, extrafont,
  ggplot2, magick,
  cowplot, patchwork,
  rvest, polite,
  knitr, kableExtra

extrafont::loadfonts() ## I'm hoping to switch over to {systemfonts} for the next J.League review...

Let’s get started!

Data Visualizations

U-23 Players

Using data from Transfermarkt, you can also get a quick look at some of the most promising young J.League players, purely from the “if they’re good enough, age doesn’t matter” perspective. The criteria I chose was “less than or equal to 23 years old and has played 60% or more of total league minutes”.

Click to show code!

``` r
jleague_age_utility_df <- read.csv(file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/J-League_2021_mid_review/jleague_age_utility_df_2021_mid.csv") ## change to URL

jleague_age_utility_df %>% 
  filter(age <= 23, min_perc >= 0.6) %>% 
  arrange(desc(min_perc)) %>% 
  select(contains("name"), age, -fname, minutes, min_perc) %>% 
  mutate(min_perc = min_perc * 100) %>% 
  unite("Name", first_name, last_name, sep = " ") %>% 
  rename(Team = team_name, Age = age, Minutes = minutes,
         `% of Total Minutes Played` = min_perc) %>% 

Name Team Age Minutes % of Total Minutes Played
Yuya Oki Kashima Antlers 21 1890 100.0
Taiyo Koga Kashiwa Reysol 22 1890 95.5
Takeru Kishimoto Tokushima Vortis 23 1891 95.5
Keisuke Osako Sanfrecce Hiroshima 21 1890 95.5
Hirokazu Ishihara Shonan Bellmare 22 1890 95.5
Koki Machida Kashima Antlers 23 1800 95.2
Takuro Kaneko Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 23 1670 92.8
Daiki Matsuoka Sagan Tosu 20 1650 91.7
Takahiro Akimoto Urawa Red Diamonds 23 1736 87.7
Ao Tanaka Kawasaki Frontale 22 1652 87.4
Kosei Tani Shonan Bellmare 20 1710 86.4
Yuta Goke Vissel Kobe 22 1508 83.8
Tetsushi Yamakawa Vissel Kobe 23 1484 82.4
Daizen Maeda Yokohama F. Marinos 23 1477 82.1
Takumi Mase Vegalta Sendai 23 1550 82.0
Takuma Ominami Kashiwa Reysol 23 1620 81.8
Taisei Miyashiro Tokushima Vortis 21 1610 81.3
Go Hatano FC Tokyo 23 1440 76.2
Koki Tachi Shonan Bellmare 23 1493 75.4
Shuto Abe FC Tokyo 23 1408 74.5
Shinya Nakano Sagan Tosu 17 1324 73.6
Reo Hatate Kawasaki Frontale 23 1379 73.0
Atsuki Ito Urawa Red Diamonds 22 1444 72.9
Tatsuki Seko Yokohama Fc 23 1432 72.3
Satoshi Tanaka Shonan Bellmare 18 1368 69.1
Ryotaro Araki Kashima Antlers 19 1283 67.9
Shunki Higashi Sanfrecce Hiroshima 20 1333 67.3
Ryuya Nishio Cerezo Osaka 20 1086 67.0
Yota Maejima Yokohama Fc 23 1324 66.9
Shuto Machino Shonan Bellmare 21 1282 64.7
Ryoma Kida Vegalta Sendai 23 1203 63.7
Tomoki Takamine Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 23 1133 62.9

Some players have “aged out” of the list from the 2020 season review like Tsuyoshi Watanabe (who was still eligible for the U-23/24 Olympic squad) while others just haven’t kicked on from last season, along with several exciting new additions. Notable exclusions include players like Daiki Kaneko, Keiya Shiihashi, and Tomoki Iwata none of whom have been able to quite replicate their form and status to translate into significant minutes at their new teams (although Iwata has been finding success in the past month or so playing in the double pivot for Marinos).

There are a lot of young goalkeepers making a name for themselves this season which meant a very tight race for the 2 spots on the Olympics squad. In the end it was Keisuke Osako and Kosei Tani in the final squad but good performances from the likes of Go Hatano, Yuya Oki, and Zion Suzuki (not shown in table above) have Japan fans excited for the future in a position where the nation has had longstanding problems.

Squad Age Profiles

Some players have left during the season and therefore their “join” and “departure” data is erased on the Transfermarkt’s team page, for example Ao Tanaka who recently moved to Fortuna Düsseldorf. For some notable players like Ao Tanaka and Sapporo’s Anderson Lopes, I filled them in manually but I might be missing some others who have already left for greener pastures.

Here are the image links for each team:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Tokushima Vortis

Yokohama FC

A large group of +32 year olds (and Kleber) have been playing plenty of minutes in tandem or rotation for the Kanagawa side and this is even without a cameo from Kazuyoshi Miura, who has only appeared for one whole minute in the league this season. On the bright side they have quite a number of young exciting prospects that they’ve brought in the past two seasons, Yuya Takagi, Yota Maejima, and others, whom they’ll need to rely on to make a promotion push from J2 next season (yes, I am unfortunately already writing them off as they really have been terrible).

Avispa Fukuoka

A big chunk of their regular squad members are right within the “peak age” sweet-spot supplemented by a number of veterans with varied playing time. It may be worrying in the intermediate-to-long term that they haven’t given playing time in the league for any players under the age of 25 except Yuji Kitajima, and even then he’s only played 62 minutes.

Kashima Antlers

I am still rather disappointed at Kashima letting go of manager Zago so early in the season, especially when their underlying numbers suggested their poor results weren’t representative of their actual performances (more on that later…). Regardless, there are a lot of young players on this team that I am excited about. Yuya Oki, Ayase Ueda, and Koki Machida have all won plaudits in the past 2 seasons while Keigo Tsunemoto has started to cement his place at right back. Another mercurial young talent is attacking midfielder Ryotaro Araki who has become the fulcrum of the team with 6 goals and 5 assists at the tender age of 19 (you can check out a StatsBomb radar plot from last season here, and imagine how better it’ll look considering how much he’s improved this season!).

Time Interval

I would be very careful of crafting narratives based solely on these plots below, especially since we’re only halfway through the season. Ideally I would use a 15 minute interval so I could get rid of that one weird section straddling both halves (40-50th minute) but this was the easiest data set I could get. Still, there are some interesting bits you can pick out so I’ve included them again for this review.

Here are the image links for each team:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Tokushima Vortis

Avispa Fukuoka

Avispa Fukuoka are very slow starters.

Yokohama F. Marinos

Marinos seem to have a penchant for late goals as their high-intensity press slowly attrition defending teams.

Kawasaki Frontale

Kawasaki’s dominance usually sees them put the game to bed by halftime although there has been a trend of letting the foot off the gas a bit too much from the 60th minute onward.

Shimizu S-Pulse

Whether it’s not being able to defend a narrow lead (and they usually are narrow!) or going behind in the last few minutes of the game, Shimizu S-Pulse have a league-leading 10 goals against in the last 10 minutes of the game. Not a league-leading stat to be proud of.

Match Situation

Ideally, I would have data that concerns all shots or xG accumulated from different match situations as that would mean a much larger sample of data to power any insights (as goals are only the end result and may not give us information about actual performance) but like in last season’s review these viz are what you get.

Here are the image links for each team:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Tokushima Vortis

Shonan Bellmare

Shonan are a team that are heavily reliant on wing play maximizing the utility of their wing backs and its shown clearly here with a whopping 42.9% of their goals coming from crosses and a further 14.3% from set piece situations.

Kawasaki Frontale

While Frontale are known for their possession game with midfielders camped out around the box to circulate possession and rotating with other attackers to pull defenders away from position, they have actually scored a greater proportion of their goals this season through crosses by a single goal. While the main benefactor of these crosses is the obvious Leandro Damiao-shaped target in the box, Kawasaki also score from a lot of smart cut backs from their wingers and full backs.

Kashima Antlers

Antlers have proven to be one of the most dangerous sides from set pieces, although ironically it seems that it’s their Achilles’ heel as well!

Gamba Osaka

While a lot of Gamba’s problems this season can be blamed on their lack of attacking edge, they have a clear vulnerability when defending crosses into the box which is rather puzzling given the imperious presence of Genta Miura and Gen Shoji.

Shimizu S-Pulse

Like Kashima Antlers, S-Pulse are another team that have a Jekyll-&-Hyde relationship with set pieces and crossing.

Yokohama F. Marinos

As Marinos are a high pressing team that seeks to disrupt the opponent’s build-up, it makes perfect sense that a significant chunk of their goals come from pouncing on loose balls. They lead the league in this category with 8 goals from these type of situations.

Team Shot Quantity: Shots per 90 vs. Shots Against per 90

In the previous few sections we got to know a lot about the goals that J.League teams scored. However, in a sport like soccer/football goals are hard to come by, they might not really accurately represent a team’s actual ability or performance (even if ultimately, it’s the end result that matters). To take things one step further I was able to gather data from FBref.com on shot quantity to dive a bit more into team performances. I’ve reversed the order of some of the stats in these next few plots so that in all cases the top right is best and bottom left is the worst teams when looking at their respective stats.

As per last season Kawasaki Frontale and Kashima Antlers remain the teams who are both good at preventing shots as well as taking many shots themselves. On the opposite spectrum, Nagoya Grampus keep up their iron fortress from last season but not improving on their shot output from last season at all. Consadole Sapporo and to a lesser extent Cerezo Osaka play a very open game that gets many shots in attack but also leaves them vulnerable at the back.

Team Shot Quality (Expected Goals): xG per 90 vs. xGA per 90

So, what exactly is expected goals (xG)? Expected goals is a statistic where a model assigns a probability (between 0 and 1) that a shot taken will result in a goal based on a variety of variables and is used for evaluating the quality of chances and predicting players’ and teams’ future performances. A xG model only looks at the variables up to the point that the player touches the ball for a shot. Post-shot xG models covers the information about where in the frame of the goal the shot went (“post” as in all the information after the player touches the ball for the shot) but I won’t cover that here.

For some quick primers on xG check the links below:

The following two sections use xG data from Football-Lab. I’m not privy to all of what goes into their model but the explanation page on their website (in Japanese) tells us about some of the information they used:

  • Distance from goal?
  • Angle from goal line?
  • Aerial duel?
  • Body part used?
  • Number of touches? (one touch, more than two touches, set plays, etc.)
  • Play situation? (Corner kick, direct/indirect free kick, open play, etc.)

So, the usual variables that you might recognize from other xG models are being considered.

Although the quantity of shots conceded didn’t look too bad for Consadole Sapporo in the previous graph, when looking at the quality of shots conceded (using expected goals against) we clearly see the downsides of manager Mihailo Petrovic’s playing style as they are guilty of being the team that concedes the 4th most xGA per Game so far this season. Yokohama FC not only concede the most amount of shots but concede almost half an expected goal more per game than the next worse team, highlighting how porous their defense has been in not just giving away shots in general but those that are good opportunities to score from as well.

Nagoya have kept their rock-solid defense from last season but the thing that prevents them from becoming true title contenders has been the fact that they don’t create many shots in the first place, and even of those that they do, they aren’t necessarily guilt-edged chances that you might expect any player to score from easily.

Shots per 90 vs. xG per Shot

Kawasaki Frontale and Yokohama F. Marinos create a high number of high quality chances while on the opposite spectrum a lot of the bottom clubs bar Nagoya Grampus take a low number of low quality shots.

Shots Against per 90 vs. xGA per Shot

One the defensive side of things Nagoya Grampus shine as they only allow the 3rd least shots against per 90 while keeping the quality of chances (as measured by expected goals) down to a league-best 0.08 xGA per Shot.

Rolling Averages: Goals vs. Goals Against & xG vs. xGA

NOTE: Unfortunately, the expected goals values include penalties, so please be aware of that when reading these graphs.

Here are the image links for each team:

Goals & Goals Against:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Tokushima Vortis

Expected Goals & Expected Goals Against:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Tokushima Vortis

FC Tokyo

I was first motivated to create some viz with the new J.League xG data I found due to FC Tokyo’s horrific form. By match day 13 things were looking reaaaalyyy baaaad:

But following that rough patch FC Tokyo have really tightened things at the back while not necessarily creating more quality chances on average.

Yokohama Marinos

After a rough start to the season, especially in the season opener against Kawasaki, Ange Postecoglou managed to turn things around and slowly rise up to table due to their games in hand. Although Ange has now left for Celtic and caretaker Hideki Matsunaga has more or less kept things the same for the past month or so, only time will tell if incoming manager Kevin Muscat will be able to keep this form up to challenge Kawasaki for the title.

Although given that their xG is exceeding their goals tally you might even say they can still pack a bit more punch if they can start scoring more goals from the high value opportunities they are managing to create for themselves.

Gamba Osaka

In recent matches, before they jetted off to their ACL campaign, Gamba were finally scoring some goals… yet the quality of chances they were creating has still stayed pretty much the same, suggesting some fortune and/or Gamba players being far more clinical than the average player in recent weeks. One important thing to note is that 2 of their paltry 7 goals have come from penalties (as of Matchday 22 | July 11).

Kashima Antlers

I mentioned before how I didn’t like the decision to sack Zago after the 8th match (a draw versus Consadole Sapporo) and you can see why here. While a record of 2 Wins, 2 Draws, and 4 Losses looks extremely poor on paper it was quite clear that Kashima had no problems creating chances as well as limiting opponents at the same time. Unfortunately, the reality was that while this was happening, Kashima just weren’t able to turn those chances into goals while opponents were able to score off the small amount of low quality chances they got. While you could say that by the time of the Sapporo game their underlying performances (as quantified by expected goals) were indeed getting worse, the rumors and discontent had started long before. It can be said that Zago’s last game vs. Sapporo was genuinely the first really bad defensive performance they had this season by the metric of expected goals against (quality of chances conceded).

It just seems extremely unfortunate that Zago’s exciting Kashima project was extinguished due to a run of games where the variance of scoring/conceding goals just weren’t going in their favor. Of course, since I’m not a Kashima fan I don’t have a lot of information regarding the relationship Zago had with the team and the management so it could very well have been a combination of the poor results (regardless of actual performances) along with a deterioration of said relationships that led to his sacking.

Sagan Tosu

Sagan Tosu tarted off the season in terrific defensive form as they kept a clean sheet every game until matchday 7 when Park Il-Gyu was beaten by a 30-yard screamer from Cerezo Osaka’s Okuno. Things have taken a slight bobble in recent games, having only won once in the last five, but with the sandstone club allowing only 0.938 xGA per Game (3rd best) and 15 goals conceded (tied 1st) across the entire season they are still one of the most formidable defenses in the league!

Yokohama FC

Bottom side Yokohama FC have been consistently poor at both ends of the pitch. In terms of their average numbers across the entire season (expected goals numbers from Football-Lab) they are 5th from bottom in xG per Game (0.931) and 3rd from bottom in goals scored (14), last in xGA per Game (2.043) and last in goals conceded (51). The J2 abyss awaits.

Player xG: Goals vs. xG, Shots per 90 vs. xG per shot

Now let’s dig a little deeper and look at individual-level stats.

The following is based on a sample of the top 20 or so expected goals leaders as evaluated by Football-Lab’s xG model, so unfortunately some players that have scored more goals may not appear below. You’ll also want to look at shot maps where xG values and shot locations are plotted on a field but unfortunately I don’t have that granular data.

Goals vs. xG

Top goalscorer Kyogo Furuhashi’s reputation as a clinical finisher is shown here as he has scored 14 goals (at the time this data was gathered) from 8.34 non-penalty xG. This means that he’s scored almost 6 goals more than what Football-Lab’s xG model expected an average league player to score from the chances he took.

Shots per 90 vs. xG per Shot

In this chart I compare shot volume per game against shot quality per shot for the sample of top 20 J.League players ranked by expected goals provided by Football-Lab. Using this data we can begin to understand whether a player is taking and/or scoring from high quality chances (close to the goal and at a good angle) or shots from outside the box or at bad angles and compare them with their shot volume output.

Teams & Players Report

In this section I’ll talk about some teams and players I mentioned in the 2020 season review and see whether I got things right or wrong, and generally talk about those teams and a few other interesting ones. Consider the player sections to be less of the “best” players but more of an assortment of interesting players that I happened to be able to watch in detail since the season started. I would love to have been able to do a deep dive on other players someday, especially the young guys at Kashima Antlers or some of the Sagan Tosu players making their mark.

Vissel Kobe

Vissel Kobe started off the season without Andres Iniesta and reverted to a 4-4-2 with Hotaru Yamaguchi and Sergi Samper in the middle and Kyogo Furuhashi mainly playing out wide instead of as a striker. In defense Ryuho Kikuchi snatched away a Center Back berth from last season’s starter Leo Osaki and partnered Thomas Vermaelen, until he left for the Euros and was in turn replaced by Left Footed Yuki Kobayashi.

The return of Andres Iniesta in May brought a few different ideas such as the Spaniard at the #10 in a 4-2-3-1. However, in the past 2 months or so a slight tweak to 4-4-2 diamond with Kyogo Furuhashi and Douglas up top has led to good performances (albeit against teams in the lower half) that has propelled them up to 3rd in the table. Vissel Kobe’s build-up heavily relies on either Sergi Samper splitting the Center Backs or the Full Backs combining with the diamond to progress up field. A lot of passes from both Kobe Center Backs go to their respective fullbacks ( Ryo Hatsuse and Gotoku Sakai) who are then tasked with finding the midfielders in the diamond centrally, in the half-spaces, or lofting balls down the line for one of the strikers making a run. In the final 3rd, Hotaru Yamaguchi makes great runs into space and into the box, supplementing the movements of Douglas and Kyogo Furuhashi (I’ll talk about the latter in more detail soon).

Vissel Kobe’s more recent Center Back pairing is a good example of a “Dog” and “Cat” Center Back so I’ll talk a bit more about Ryuho Kikuchi and Yuki Kobayashi.

Dog: A type of center back who is very aggressive and loves to press or chase an attacker.

Cat: A type of center back who is more patient, steps back and covers. Carefully positioning themselves to be able to recover the ball.

Of course, Center Backs aren’t all either 100% Dog or 100% Cat and most players have characteristics of both that can depend on the teammates around them. For a bit more information take a look at “The dutiful dog and cool cat: Why Soyuncu and Evans are a perfect partnership” (warning: pay wall) from Michael Cox as he’s the man who I believe coined these terms or this handy graphic made by Sam on Twitter.

Ryuho Kikuchi

Ryuho Kikuchi (Right Center Back): Extremely aggressive and is a strong aerial presence standing at 1.88 meters / 6 ft. 1 complemented by a big leap from standing and running starts. Kikuchi frequently pushes up and prevent players from turning forwards as he is very aggressive in following forwards who drop deep, even into their own half. He isn’t very fast, so when forced to cover out wide for full backs he can get beaten for pace easily by a winger 1 v 1, especially if he can’t trap them against the sideline. He is much better in 1 v 1 situations where the opponent hasn’t built up a lot of speed yet and uses his big body to block or intercept passes going past him on either side. Kikuchi scans his surroundings frequently and keeps track of his markers when static in the box and when retreating back to the box against multiple runners.

He keeps his passing very simple, mainly targetted to Center Back partner Yuki Kobayashi or Thomas Vermalen, the Right Back Gotoku Sakai/Tetsushi Yamakawa, and to the dropping pivot Sergi Samper. Still, there are rare occasions when he does pull out an accurate long pass or through ball that breaks lines but his role in possession is conservative in general. When there is some space available he can drive forward with the ball into midfield. The end result usually ends up being a simple pass out wide or to a central midfielder but his movements up field can serve to pull out opponent players from their lines, which can help Kobe’s creative midfield find spaces to exploit. On the other hand his first touch can be suspect at times, letting the ball bobble and needlessly inviting pressure on himself as a result. He mostly uses his right foot, I don’t think he actively avoids using his left but doesn’t use it as much.

Yuki Kobayashi

Yuki Kobayashi (Left Center Back): The more cautious of the pair, he is the one covering the spaces in behind while Kikuchi charges up and gets into duels in the air or ground. There are obviously times where Kobayashi is the one that has to push up to challenge, and while competent he is nowhere near the physical force that Kikuchi is, especially in the air. While still not the quickest player, positions himself well to recover loose balls and intercept through balls.

Kobayashi does a lot more of “progressive” passing compared to Kikuchi although, from what I’ve been seeing, a lot of it is 15~20 meter diagonals to Left Back Ryo Hatsuse stationed close to the left sideline rather than through balls into gaps in the central areas. Still, there are times when he has both the vision and execution to play line-breaking passes into the likes of Iniesta, Yamaguchi or one of the strikers from the left halfspace.

Kyogo Furuhashi

In the past year, Kyogo Furuhashi has made great leaps and has rightfully earned call ups to the Japan national team. In the prime of his career, the rapid winger/striker has a great understanding with Sergi Samper and Andres Iniesta, who love sliding through balls into the path of his smart runs in behind the opposition defense. As he is very fast, he can start his run several meters in front of defenders and still latch on to passes while his good touch on the ball allows him to deftly maneuver goalwards. Kyogo Furuhashi is also very good at driving forward with the ball himself and can be seen leading counterattacks after dropping deep to receive or when recovering loose balls from tracking back. While not the strongest with his back to goal, he can still produce lay offs and then burst quickly into space or take the ball on the half-turn and drive up the field. He can play vertical “progressive” passes for overlapping fullbacks or fellow attackers in the mid-to-final 3rd, but he’s not exactly a player that can play a defense-splitting pass.

Unlike many Japanese strikers in the past who have been notoriously fickle with their finishing, Kyogo Furuhashi is very clinical especially when 1 on 1 with the goalkeeper. He can cut in from either wing and is comfortable shooting with his weaker left foot when cutting in from the right.

A concern one might have after reading the above is, whether he’ll be able to thrive at Celtic, who routinely play against teams who deny the space in behind that Furuhashi loves. While it is true that he’ll be much less involved on the ball in these sort of games, he does still have value in being able to combine with teammates with one-twos and flicks around the box and his good crossing ability is something that’s not talked about as much in my opinion. His smart runs aren’t limited to getting in behind the defense as his good movement inside the box lets him evade a defender’s marking. There are also situations where he delays his runs and lurks outside the area, knowing that with his pace he’ll still be able to get on the end of crosses. Furuhashi can also rely on a striker (usually Douglas) or another attacker to make a run first to drag the opponent’s defense line back toward their own goal, leaving space in front for Furuhashi to receive cut backs in the box.

Furuhashi is also very diligent in defending, pressing high and using his speed to try to nip the ball from the feet of defenders and is intelligent in cutting out passing lanes. His departure for Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic makes perfect sense and I do think he’ll be a good fit. The number of sprints he performs every game (in defense and offense) is usually the most out of not just his own team but of the opponent as well. I can’t think of any other player that does this volume of intense running besides Marinos’ Daizen Maeda.

Vissel Kobe

Back to Kobe, Kyogo Furuhashi’s departure could mean a potential big money transfer for a replacement. However, Vissel also have two players who they bought during the offseason that may now come into the limelight, Ayub Masika and Lincoln. To me, Masika looks to be the best replacement for now. Although stylistically he is a bit different to Furuhashi, the Kenyan has had a few bright cameos but the real test is whether he can now cement a starting spot in the team.

In the intermediate term, Vissel Kobe’s squad looks pretty good. Lots of players coming into their prime in the next season or two with flexible midfielder Yuta Goke, Center or Right Back Testushi Yamakawa, and towering Center Back Ryuho Kikuchi looking the most promising of the bunch. In the older group Kobe have veteran Japanese internationals Hotaru Yamaguchi and Gotoku Sakai alongside seasoned European stars Thomas Vermaelen and Andres Iniesta taking leadership roles on and off the pitch.

I voiced my doubts about Atsuhiro Miura being retained as a permanent choice in the dugout after Thorsten Fink’s departure in last season’s review but I’ve been proven wrong so far. The lack of identity I talked about seems to be dissipating, a lot of the dead wood is gone, and more emphasis is placed on integrating the superstars to work with the team rather than the other way around. If the “Rakuten Rovers” can ride out this speed bump of Furuhashi leaving, they can definitely continue their challenge for the Asian Champions League places this season.

Gamba Osaka

(I wrote most of this prior to Gamba Osaka’s make-up games over the Olympics break and will provide an update as Gamba play some games in the next few weeks)

Many victories from narrow margins last season masked some very sub-par attacking performances and it has come to haunt them this season as despite boasting the talents of Patric and Takashi Usami only Oita Trinita have a worse expected goals per game and are also third from bottom in expected goals against per game (as of Matchday 22 | July 11). With a horrid start to the season (3 GF | 9 GA in 10 games), Japan and Gamba legend Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s managerial tenure ended in May under huge clouds of uncertainty. Although some of the blame can be attributed to him, he was also not helped by a COVID breakout in the squad after Matchday 2 significantly disrupted their season.

Caretaker Masanobu Matsunami hasn’t made too much progress either as the Osaka side still languish in the relegation spots and have just recently crashed out of the Asian Champions League. Due to the fact that Gamba have 5 games in hand compared to the rest of the league due to their COVID outbreak, the more optimistic fans will opine that “if we win our games in hand, we’ll be comfortably mid-table” but as the bad results continue this is still a big “if”. The next 2 months will be the real test of Gamba’s mettle as they will be making up their games in hand over the Olympic break that will consist of a grueling schedule in the middle of a blistering Japanese summer playing a game every 3 days for over 2 months.

Update: (To be written a few weeks after this blog post’s release, after Gamba have played their games in hand over the Olympics break)

Shonan Bellmare

After yet another year of losing some of their best young talents, Shonan are… just about keeping their neck above water. Taiga Hata and Satoshi Tanaka, two players I hinted in last season’s review that could be in the limelight this season, have really established themselves in the team.

Taiga Hata

Taiga Hata had a slow start to the season as he was out with injury until late May but he’s provided value with his versatility as he is able to play on either side as a wing back. His runs from deep provide Shonan with a much needed out ball for their Center Backs. His directness and crossing ability have already paid dividends with 2 assists so far. Although he’s still quite young at 19 years old and his physical strength and speed is quite good, I don’t think he’ll be a world-beater. I’m not so sure of his utility beyond being a wingback: he is rather limited in dribbling technique (mainly kick-and-rush past opponents), and I feel like his strengths will be mitigated and deficiencies highlighted more if he was playing in a back 4.

Satoshi Tanaka

Satoshi Tanaka was already making waves last season but he was mainly forced to play at Left Center Back due to the established duo of Daiki Kaneko and Mitsuki Saito playing in midfield. This season he has made the #6 position himself using his strength and aggression that belie his age to bully more experienced professionals off the ball. On the ball, Satoshi Tanaka is able to set the tempo for the Shonan side, playing neat one-twos with the center backs and midfielders to evade pressure and circulating the ball out wide. I really like the way he uses his body on the ball too, the aforementioned strength to shield the ball being the most obvious. However, he also has the agility and quick thinking (including reactions to loose balls from passes or bad touches) to be able to shift the ball between different parts of his body to then release a pass with ease under pressure. He is not one to take too many unnecessary touches on the ball which helps Shonan move up field as quickly or as slowly as they need.

Shonan Bellmare

Other players I’ve liked on this Shonan team are the young captain, Hirokazu Ishihara, who plays as the libero in their back 3 and Masaki Ikeda who has made a huge jump from playing in J3 last season and doesn’t look out of place in J1 combining well with his teammates on the right. Forward Shuto Machino has also stepped up from J2 with good performances, dropping into space and laying the ball off to the likes of Naoki Yamada or playing longer balls into the box for strike partner Wellington, or release the wingbacks down the wing for a crossing opportunity. He is also a threat from his long throw-ins as well.

FC Tokyo

FC Tokyo were mired in poor form after an initial wild start to the season with multiple 5 goal games. With pass-savvy center back Masato Morishige moved to become the single pivot in a 3 man midfield, as was tested out in the last few months of last season, FC Tokyo sought to evolve from the side that struggled when the team had a majority of the possession in games. However, after 5 losses in a row between matchday 9 and 13 that left the Tokyo side teetering just above the relegation zone, which was compounded by an awful cup loss against non-pro side (Juntendo University) in the Emperor’s Cup a month later, there were big calls for manager Kenta Hasegawa to be sacked.

Despite Leandro’s heroics in securing a first trophy for FC Tokyo in nearly a decade, he was inexplicably left out of the line up for the majority of the season despite forming the the “O Tridente” with Diego Oliveira and Adailton that has produced some scintillating football in the past 2 years. The understanding the three have is almost telepathic at times as they can rip apart a team on the counter attack with deft flicks and complementary runs. As the poor performances mounted though, he was eventually placed back in the starting line-up in June as the team returned to a 4-2-3-1 // 4-4-2 with Masato Morishige returning to Center Back alongside Tsuyoshi Watanabe. Good form for the past month or so have FC Tokyo within touching distance of 3rd place and a gateway back into the Asian Champions League. I do have some concerns about the amount of work the shift back to 2 central midfielders puts on the usual double pivot of Takuya Aoki and Shuto Abe, especially as Arthur Silva left on loan to Yokohama FC for more playing time. On a slightly more optimistic note, Manato Shinada has had some more promising performances in midfield since coming back from injury showcasing a more expansive passing range compared to last season.

Go Hatano has grasped at the opportunity presented by veteran Akihiro Hayashi’s long term injury as his strong performances throughout the season means he’ll be keeping his spot for the long haul, as long as he doesn’t make any more foolish off-the-field decisions like breaking COVID protocols… He was also a long shot for the Olympics squad and was ultimately not picked.

There’s been a lot of churn in the fullback position this season, especially after Right Back Hotaka Nakamura suffered a long term injury back in April. With Makoto Okazaki, midfielder Takuya Uchida, and Takumi Nakamura all tried with mild-to-little success it’s been a problem position for FC Tokyo. Since June, however, 19 year old Kashif Bangunagande has caught the eye as he took up the Left Back position which shifted regular Left Back Ryoya Ogawa to the right.

I’ve tweeted about him a few times already and I have been excited about his performances. However my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that he’s been mainly playing against teams from the bottom half so he hasn’t been tested defensively by the best wingers in the league (small sample size and all). Even still, his offensive skills are a real boon to the team so I took a deep dive below.

Kashif Bangunagande

The biggest positives for Kashif Bangunagande is when the team is in possession. He makes a lot of runs on the overlap which gives him the space to hit a variety of different crosses (different heights, positions, cut backs) in with his first touch from his natural left foot. He has the speed to be able to start well in front of defenders and still be able to beat them onto the ball and his timing is very good as I don’t think he’s ever been caught offside and makes it hard for opponents to keep track of him. He usually hugs the touchline in the build-up and in the final 3rd but makes outside-to-in runs toward the edge of the box to receive the ball over the top from teammates. Kashif’s runs on the outside can also drag defenders away, giving strong dribblers such as Adailton or Diego Oliveira an advantage in 1 v 1 situations against their nearest defender and lets them cut inside easier.

On the other hand, when he is forced to take more touches, Kashif’s lack of ability to take players on 1 v 1 is made pretty clear. Kashif doesn’t seem to have many tricks up his sleeve to beat a defender head-on and doesn’t utilize his good body strength (for his age) and speed to good effect which limits his effectiveness in attack on the ball. While he can still manipulate the ball to gain a bit of space to curl in a cross, he is no where near as dangerous as when he is able to run onto the ball behind the opponent’s defensive line. It does show good decision-making to not force the issue and get himself into a situation he knows he’s not comfortable with but it can make him rather predictable and slow down attacks. For FC Tokyo this usually isn’t a problem as he can hand it off to other players in the team who thrive on the dribble either from standing or running starts, which then frees him up again to make a run in behind.

Kashif is quite involved in the build-up phase as FC Tokyo as a team primarily work the ball through the wide areas. In these situations Kashif will usually look to play quick combinations with the ball-near central midfielder (usually Shuto Abe) and the left winger (usually Adailton). It is also in this phase that his comfort playing with both feet is quite evident. As teams try to trap FC Tokyo against the sideline, this requires their fullbacks to have quick thinking and feet to evade pressure. Along with his use of his right foot to control difficult balls under pressure, Kashif’s confidence in his weaker foot allows him to be able to easily slip balls inside to a striker or an attacking midfielder in central areas or when they drift over into the left halfspace. While many can be fairly straightforward passes, he does have the ability to hit players into feet or into space quite accurately in tight windows.

As said previously, Kashif hasn’t faced the best attacks in the league yet but he has played well enough defensively against what come at him so far. He scans his surroundings frequently and is aware of potential late runners on his blind side. His physical traits allow him to track down and recover through and long balls. Has decent body strength to shield and box-out opponents for a throw-in or goal kick.

Update: While Kashif started the game all right against Sakamoto, out-muscling him on a few occasions and getting some crosses off from his usual runs, he really got worse as the game went on. Near the end of the half Sakamoto skillfully dribbled past him and got a cut back in and then in the 2nd half Sakamoto was able to sneak behind Kashif to bundle in a goal. It was disappointing as Kashif had been pretty aware of runners over his shoulder but he seems to have switched off when the cross came to the near post. Kato and Watanabe were fighting for it and so he thought they were going to get to it but the ball slipped by them and kept going across to the far post, by which time Kashif was too late to recover. With new Right Back, Junya Suzuki, making his debut it looks like Ryoya Ogawa will return to Left Back from hereon out. Still, it is a long season and despite a bad game, Kashif will still feature plenty as the back up. I’ll keep an eye on him.

Shuto Abe

With the departure of key midfielder, Kento Hashimoto, to FC Rostov and the physical decline of Yojiro Takahagi last season, FC Tokyo needed new blood to power their midfield and they had a ready-replacement in youth player Shuto Abe. After a good rookie season he hoped to continue his performances to possibly get into the Olympic team. Unfortunately, Abe is suited to a more transition game rather than a possession-heavy team, which is probably why he didn’t really get a look in at any point (among other reasons) despite playing the majority of minutes as a starter in the league this season and the last.

Shuto Abe is one of the smallest players in the team, standing at 1.71 meters and while as a result he doesn’t win many aerials, he has a very good engine. Regularly the player with the most distance ran for FC Tokyo he covers a lot of ground and never gives up. In defense he hassles and harries the opposition, using his agility he can nip in to steal the ball from the toes of opponent as they are receiving. He can arrive late and he does commit fouls a lot but is also fouled fairly often in return by using his low center of gravity and shielding the ball well despite his size.

With how aggressive Tokyo’s wingers and full backs are, Shuto Abe is usually tasked to hang back and guard the half space for any counter attacks and also to recover clearances or loose balls to recycle possession. This is even more the case now with the fact that FC Tokyo have moved back to a double pivot instead of a 3 man midfield when Morishige was playing as the 6. He does make the occasional underlapping run but only when there is cover behind. If he was the one to dispossess the opponent in the high press, he’ll naturally continue moving up the field with the Brazilians in the counterattack.

On the ball he is more of a link-up man, shifting over to the fullback on his side and being the facilitator between defense and attack by providing quick give-and-go or wall passes. With his conservative positioning, he doesn’t make many creative or incisive passes in the final 3rd. Shuto Abe doesn’t do a lot of play-making from central areas as FC Tokyo place a lot of emphasis on wing play. It is only from short counters from winning the ball back high, that are the times when he is really involved in those areas as he is good at jumping out of the midfield line to trap opponent midfielders receiving the ball.

FC Tokyo

Rounded up, FC Tokyo have the youngest squad at age 24, as the metropolitan side prefer to supplement their squad depth with young talents from their large academy rather than big name signings. The off-season brought reinforcements in a few key positions without instigating wholesale changes with the arrivals of Takuya Aoki, Ryoma Watanabe, and Bruno Uvini being the non-youth transfers.

Unfortunately, early in the season, FC Tokyo lost two young squad members in new signing Ryoma Watanabe and Hotaka Nakamura which has led to some reshuffling in the squad. As mentioned before, the biggest problem has been filling the Right Back shaped hole of Hotaka Nakamura. You can see in the bottom left corner of the squad age graphic all of the various players that have been tested in that position as cover.

There is a curious gap of “peak age” players in this Tokyo squad with the exception of star attacker Leandro who featured very little until recently. With a core of young and “pre-peak” players such as Go Hatano, Shuto Abe, Tsuyoshi Watanabe, and Kyosuke Tagawa supplemented by veterans like Diego Oliveira, Adailton, and Kensuke Nagai, FC Tokyo hope Kenta Hasegawa can spur this squad onto greater heights to follow their League Cup victory last season.

Kawasaki Frontale

The incumbent champions keep trucking along, undefeated in the league so far. Despite the loss of influential anchor Hidemasa Morita to Santa Clara, the Kanagawa side replaced him with Nagoya’s Joao Schmidt, who has taken to Kawasaki’s slick passing side like a duck to water. Up top, Leandro Damiao has had a career renaissance since he arrived in the J.League back in 2018 and he has cranked it up another notch this season with 12 goals and 8 assists in 21 games, including a lovely overhead effort against Shonan Bellmare (video link). Reo Hatate continued to deputize at Left Back at the start of the season until Kyohei Noborizato’s return in April. Since then he’s played a lot more in central midfield and it looks like he won’t be played as a winger much anymore.

With Ao Tanaka leaving for Fortuna Dusseldorf and news of Kaoru Mitoma’s potential switch to the Belgian league (on loan from Brighton to gain immigration points) there is a bit of concern among Frontale fans of whether they can keep their forward momentum going. I did a mini-report on Ao Tanaka on Twitter a month back in his last ever league game for Frontale here (it was based on that one game but it’s fairly representative of his general quality of play).

On the bright side, Ryota Oshima is back following a long injury spell and in the past few weeks he used the ACL group stages as a sort of pre-season training. He’ll be a welcome sight back in midfield. He also scored on his first J.League start of the season in a match against Shimizu S-Pulse after Frontale returned to Japan. Even still with these departures, Frontale will have to hope that newer players such as Ten Miyagi, Daiya Tono, Kento Tachibanada, can fill the boots of those moving on (Tono has already shown some promise in cameos this season).

Kawasaki still have a healthy lead and along with key departures to their nearest competitors, Vissel Kobe and Yokohama Marinos will hope they can keep up the momentum to win another historic league title as they are still undefeated this season. In continental competition, with China sending their youth teams and Australian teams pulling out entirely, it really is the best chance for Kawasaki to erase their Asian Champions League voodoo. The Champions league has been the one competition that they haven’t been able to crack yet in Tohru Oniki’s tenure as manager.

Kashiwa Reysol

The big Michael Olunga shaped hole in their offense has taken yet another big hit recently with the sale of effervescent fantasista, Ataru Esaka, to Urawa Reds. To offset Olunga’s departure, a large contingent of Brazilian nationals (Dodi, Pedro Raul, Rodrigo Angelotti, and Emerson Santos) were called upon as reinforcements but they were delayed due to COVID immigration protocols. As such they have only been integrated into the squad in the past 1~2 months. Manager Nelsinho has been constantly tinkering with this team switching between many different formations and shapes and hasn’t really been able to get any consistency out of his side. With Taiyo Koga, Keiya Shiihashi, Takuya Ominami, Takumi Kamijima, among others, Reysol have a good core of young and peak age players to build the squad around but whether it’ll be Nelsinho at the helm to fine tune the squad in the next few years remains to be seen…

Nagoya Grampus

For a good chunk of the season it looked like a real two-way battle for the title between Nagoya and Kawasaki… that is until a rather weird scheduling quirk led to a double-header between the two sides within a week in April/May that all but showcased the gulf in class between the two sides (0-4 and 2-3 losses). Nagoya still boast a formidable defense but with the loss of Center back and captain Yuichi Maruyama for the season, there are concerns of whether they can keep it up without such a key figure. Despite some reinforcements over the winter offseason, Nagoya still look noticeably thin as Yasuki Kimoto now has to cover as the main Center Back alongside Shinnosuke Nakatani, which then has the knock-on effect of leaving center midfield cover bare with only Kazuki Nagasawa available to stand-in for Takuji Yonemoto and Sho Inagaki. Nagoya are greatly relying on Yonemoto and Inagaki to pull yet another iron man season (the latter played nearly 100% of minutes while Yonemoto played in about 70%).

One of Nagoya’s biggest challenges in the winter offseason was to try to find a goal-scoring striker, as although Nagoya finished last season quite strong, a lot of their victories after they lost Mu Kanazaki to injury were by razor thin margins. Their solution was… to buy Yoichiro Kakitani, who is more of an attacking midfielder than a goal getter (not to mention Nagoya already have good #10s in Gabriel Xavier and Hiroyuki Abe). Most of their threat still comes from Mateus and Yuki Soma out wide and with Mu Kanazaki still looking far from fitness, Ryogo Yamasaki has continued as their main striker. While he does well holding the ball up and bringing their other attackers into the final 3rd, he is still lacking in the goals department with a measly 3 goals so far this season.

UPDATE: Jakub Świerczok has been brought in as Grampus finally pull the trigger on a much needed striker!

One of the smallest squads in the J League, Massimo Ficcadenti has preferred to stick to a very small set of handpicked men. Last season 5 players of Nagoya’s usual XI finished the season having played 95% or more of total league minutes and a similar number have been doing the same so far this season. While Nagoya do have a couple of important young or pre-peak players like Olympics-bound Yuki Soma along with Shumpei Naruse, Ficcadenti places a lot of trust into an aging core of +30 year olds. Grampus have the highest un-weighted average age at 28.8 years old.

Yokohama F. Marinos

It took a while for Yokohama F. Marinos to get going especially after a rough loss against Kawasaki Frontale on opening day but in the past 2 months they have blasted up the table as they had several games in hand compared to their rivals. As last season’s stars Junior Santos and Erik Lima left, Marinos had big shoes to fill up top. However, Ado Onaiwu (12 goals) and Daizen Maeda (10 goals) were able to find their shooting boots, notching double figures in the goal scoring charts already. At the other end of the pitch things have improved massively as they have the joint 4th least goals conceded (as of July 21) compared to last season when they let in a whopping 59 for joint 4th most. As Marinos press high, they have a lot of trust in Center Back pairing, Thiago Martins and Shinnosuke Hatanaka to win their 1 vs. 1 duels as Marinos usually don’t leave a spare man to help.

Ado Onaiwu

Ado Onaiwu has just recently earned himself a move to Ligue 2 side, Toulouse FC. He has really exploded in his second season after a promising start at Yokohama Marinos having scored 8 goals in all competitions (4 in the league) last season despite not being the starting striker. With the departure of Junior Santos up top, Onaiwu has taken the striker position for his own. His fine form with 15 goals in 27 games (12 in the league) was rewarded with a call up to the national team last month where he scored a hattrick against Kyrgyzstan in the World Cup qualifiers.

What I’ve really liked from watching him is his play-making ability when dropping deep, an improved aspect of his play since his move to Marinos and playing under Ange Postecoglou’s possession-heavy football. He does have good strength with his back toward goal and while most passes received come into his feet, he can chest down, use his thighs, or provide flick-ons with his head from higher balls. Sometimes he does take a heavy touch with his feet when receiving under pressure but is generally sound.

It’s not just simple lay-offs you might expect a striker to do in these situations as Onaiwu (#45 in the image below) good at sweeping the ball on the half-turn into space behind the defense for overlapping wingers or Marcos Junior (#10 in the image below) drifting into the half space with both his right and left foot.

He makes good runs in behind defenders from their blind side off their shoulder and also from further back as he has the speed to outpace most Center Backs. With the help of wingers like Daizen Maeda (#38) or Elber (#7) that keep the width and pin the opponent fullback out wide, Onaiwu (#45) is very aware of the opportunities to make penetrating runs in between the gaps of defenders that appear due to Marinos’ positional play. Following a lay off, his vertical runs also serve to push opposition defense lines back and create space in between the lines for Marcos Junior or an inverted fullback to exploit.

Ado Onaiwu (#45) can also drop much wider to help Marinos progressive the ball around the opposition block.

We see Yokohama taking advantage of opponent 4-4-2 in other games in this fashion, like in the game vs. Avispa Fukuoka (Right-Winger, Elber frequently drops into these zones on the outside of the midfield 4). Opponent’s defensive line don’t want to push up due to being afraid of Marinos’ threat in behind from fast wingers like Daizen Maeda and Elber but also Ado Onaiwu as well.

While Ado Onaiwu can drive forward after facing forward on the half-turn it’s not often that he drives forward with the ball or challenge defenders 1 v 1. While in and around the box, he has good body feints and quick turns to create that little bit of space to get a shot or cross off, with 0.5 successful dribbles per match and around 1 dribble attempt per match (per FotMob’s data) he doesn’t take on players very often.

Comfortable with both feet in shooting as well (4 goals with left / 6 with right / 2 with his head). I don’t have data for shots but from watching him play he’s comfortable with cutting inside and using his left without reservations. He averages 3.49 Shots per 90 (as of his last match, data: FBRef) putting him in the top 10 in the J.League. Most of his goals come from inside the box after snaking runs that evade his marker or quick reactions from rebounds and loose balls in the area. See 10 of his 12 league goals here, especially note his good in-box movement for his goals against FC Tokyo from 4:02.

Yokohama F. Marinos

Marinos’ attacking instincts have not been blunted, as last season’s 2nd most prolific goal scorers still remain the 2nd most scoring team in the league this season (behind Kawasaki on both season). Their underlying metrics show that they are actually first in xG per Game with 1.91 compared to Kawasaki’s 1.698 while in defense their xGA per Game of 1.14 is slightly less impressive ranking 8th in the league (source: Football-Lab).

The biggest (?) news of the J.League season came through in June when manager Ange Postecoglou confirmed his move to Celtic FC. While more recently it was announced that the team’s top scorer Ado Onaiwu was on the move, surprisingly not to follow in Ange’s footsteps, but to Ligue 2 side Toulouse. As for his replacement up top it’s most likely going to be Leo Ceara, who has found minutes hard to come by as he joined up with the team quite late but he’s looked lively in a couple cameos with 2 goals and 1 assist. A more effective signing for Marinos has been Elber who, in my opinion, has been one of the best wingers in the J.League this season. While 3 goals and 4 assists is nothing to scoff at for a winger, it doesn’t do justice to how well he has fit in tactically at Marinos and his smart positioning, link-up play, and his on-the-ball abilities (dribbling & crossing) have really impressed me. It was a slow start for Tomoki Iwata but he’s been excellent in the center of midfield the past 2 months providing equal amounts of aggression and passing acumen. Of course, there is still time for other Marinos players to go to Europe (Daizen Maeda?) which leaves the incoming manager, Kevin Muscat, with quite the job to do to keep the ship steady and provide some of his own spark to challenge leaders Kawasaki.

Urawa Reds

Ricardo Rodriguez’s Reds Revolution! Amidst much fanfare and praise over Ricardo Rodriguez’s work at Tokushima Vortis which ended with a promotion for the Kyushu club to J1 and a semifinal appearance in the Emperor’s Cup, the Spaniard was faced with the daunting task of re-awakening the sleeping giants of traditional J.League power house Urawa Red Diamonds. Although still a work-in-progress, the Saitama side have shown clear improvements over last year’s team, some aspects were even evident when I watched their opening game against FC Tokyo back in February. At the forefront has been Yoshio Koizumi, the ambidextrous attacking midfielder who was brought over from FC Ryukyu in the offseason, providing a much better link between defense and attack with his ability to find space and playing through balls with both feet. While Urawa looked good in possession they were clearly lacking in a striker as Kenyu Sugimoto struggled and Shinzo Koroki’s powers finally waning due to age. Then along came Kasper Junker…! The Danish striker has been a huge hit as he’s scored 7 goals in 10 games (9 starts) showing the clinical edge that Urawa had been missing for the first quarter of the season.

There are still some holes in the squad, in my opinion at Left Back, Center Midfield, and Center Back. While center midfielder Takahiro Akimoto has filled in admirably at Left Back he is definitely not the long term answer. Lo and behold in early June, Urawa Reds announced the signing of Marseille man Hiroki Sakai but due to his commitments with the Olympics squad, he still hasn’t linked up with the squad yet. One would imagine this would solve all their problems there as he is probably the best option available (right-footed but has regularly played at Left Back in Europe) but since he hasn’t actually played for them yet, I’ll still leave it as a question mark for now.

Center midfield has been a bit of an issue, where Ricardo Rodriguez has even had to pull Koizumi down a line to make up for the unavailability or poor form of others. Kai Shibato is the only consistently reliable option as Urawa sold both Takuya Aoki (FC Tokyo) and Kazuki Nagasawa (Nagoya). Meanwhile Daiki Kaneko hasn’t really impressed since his big move to Saitama and I’m still unconvinced by Atsuki Ito although he has had a good game here or there. Otherwise, Reds are left with 38 year old former Leicester man Yuki Abe, who is still a quality player but not a viable option week-in week-out.

At Center Back, it was announced in late May that FC Midtylland and Danish league MVP, Alexander Scholz would be joining the Reds. However, due to government COVID protocols he has not joined up with the squad yet so the question remains whether a pairing of Tomoaki Makino and Takuya Iwanami, back up by Aussie Olympian Thomas Deng, are really good enough to challenge for the top.

In late June, Kashiwa’s star man Ataru Esaka joined the Reds in a surprising transfer. While there is no doubting his skill as one of the best creators in the league, with Koizumi as an undisputed starter (and first name on the teamsheet), where does he fit in? I can imagine it’ll be something like fellow new signing, Tatsuya Tanaka, shifting over to the left with Koizumi and Esaka rotating between the right and center throughout the busy league schedule.

After a rough start to the season at both ends of the pitch the Saitama side have risen up the table in recent months. Over the Olympic break Ricardo Rodriguez will endeavor to further ingrain his team to his style of play and make a real statement to the rest of the league when it resumes in August. With their offseason and mid-season signings Urawa have been making news on and off the pitch. I feel an ACL spot (up to 3rd place in the league standings) may still be a bit soon and largely depends on whether Marinos and Kobe can keep up their current momentum in light of key departures. Nevertheless, we are already seeing the foundations of something very exciting from Urawa Reds this season.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for either team but they have exceeded my expectations, less so Tokushima Vortis though after some initial promise.

My reasoning were as follows:

  • Avispa Fukuoka lost a good chunk of their players that made their league best defense so formidable: Center Back Takumi Uejima who returned to parent club Kashiwa and beloved goalkeeper Jon Ander Serantes.

A very functional rather than stylish side, Avispa Fukuoka have managed to keep their defensive solidity despite their personnel losses and step up to a more rigorous league as they are only mid-table in goals conceded (27) and in expected goals against per game (1.261, source: Football-Lab). Emil Salomonsson has been one of the best Right Backs of the season so far and also is pretty active in fan engagement on Twitter while Masaaki Murakami has stepped up to fill Serantes’ boots in goal (with the occasional mistake)! While they have lost their last 5 league games and slid back to a more realistic mid-table position, there was a time in late May when they were up to around 5th in the table after 6 consecutive wins!

  • Tokushima Vortis lost Ricardo Rodriguez and incoming manager Dani Poyatos was only able to interact with the squad virtually until a few months into the season.

They’ve been going through a rough patch of form as of late but most of their games have been very close affairs with their expected goal differential averaged across the games since their last league victory (in mid-May against Sanfrecce Hiroshima) coming to -0.02. Under Dani Poyatos they seem to be espousing a very possession-heavy style that can be frustrating to watch at times. A lot of their troubles are also down to not cutting down on mistakes during their careful build-up which has let quite a few high-pressing sides steal the ball and score. Nonetheless, there are good players that have excited fans in this team such as energetic Center Midfielder Joel Chima, on-loan attacking midfielder Taisei Miyashiro who is their top scorer with 5 goals, and the marauding presence of Right Back Takeru Kishimoto.

While both Avispa Fukuoka and Tokushima Vortis have shown shaky form over the last month, there’s still reason to believe both teams can finish outside of the relegation places, which would be a satisfactory result for two promoted teams that went into the season with big question marks.


If you’ve read this far, thank you! A lot of work went into this on the data side and video side so I am glad you enjoyed it. For the future, besides watching more J.League games, I’ll be hoping to further refine my data pipeline over the next few months so I can focus more on writing and watching games rather than dealing with the minutiae of standardizing x-axis code in functions and reading {ggplot2} documentation.

This J.League season is unique with a record 20 teams fighting it out. There have been events that have been surprising and expected throughout the first 6 months of the season as the J.League really leans into the #ChaosEnergyJLeague moniker put forth by observers on Twitter. The biggest stories going into the 2nd half of the season will be:

  • Can Kawasaki keep up their form to win a 2nd straight league title, if not remain undefeated?
  • Can Gamba Osaka dig themselves out of the hole they created themselves?
  • Despite the losses in key personnel, can Vissel Kobe and Yokohama F. Marinos provide Frontale with some kind of challenge for the title race?
  • Will Nagoya be able to find a way to score more goals? (Update: Can new striker Jakub Świerczok hit the ground running?)
  • Can Kashiwa move on from the losses of Michael Olunga and Ataru Esaka by fully integrating their new Brazilian imports?
  • and more…!

I hope this mid-season review has got you interested in the J.League or if you were already a fan that it was informative and entertaining. I will be writing an end-of-the-season review so goodbye for now and…

See you at the end of the season!

Some English-Language J.League Content!

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