% add_header_above(c(" ", "Result" = 5, "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(4:15, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "white") %>% row_spec(16, bold = TRUE, color = "white", background = "orange") %>% row_spec(17:18, color = "white", background = "red") %>% add_footnote(label = "Data: FBref.com & Sporteria | Kyoto survive after winning pro/rel playoff | All xG values do not include penalties", notation = "none") jleague_kable_table ``` J.League 2022 - League Table (After Matchday 16) Result Goals Expected Goals Team Matches W D L Pts GF GA GD xG xGA xGDiff Yokohama Marinos 34 20 8 6 68 70 35 35 57.32 36.86 20.46 Kawasaki Frontale 34 20 6 8 66 65 42 23 41.57 32.93 8.64 Sanfrecce Hiroshima 34 15 10 9 55 52 41 11 44.25 38.81 5.44 Kashima Antlers 34 13 13 8 52 47 42 5 37.35 37.53 -0.18 Cerezo Osaka 34 13 12 9 51 46 40 6 39.32 37.77 1.55 FC Tokyo 34 14 7 13 49 46 43 3 36.45 40.90 -4.45 Kashiwa Reysol 34 13 8 13 47 43 44 -1 36.33 35.37 0.96 Nagoya Grampus 34 11 13 10 46 30 35 -5 39.44 37.42 2.02 Urawa Reds 34 10 15 9 45 48 39 9 47.08 34.58 12.50 Consadole Sapporo 34 11 12 11 45 45 55 -10 43.91 46.02 -2.11 Sagan Tosu 34 9 15 10 42 45 44 1 34.67 38.21 -3.54 Shonan Bellmare 34 10 11 13 41 31 39 -8 33.75 36.60 -2.85 Vissel Kobe 34 11 7 16 40 35 41 -6 41.05 40.45 0.60 Avispa Fukuoka 34 9 11 14 38 29 38 -9 33.42 32.14 1.28 Gamba Osaka 34 9 10 15 37 33 44 -11 34.37 49.09 -14.72 Kyoto Sanga 34 8 12 14 36 30 38 -8 36.44 44.84 -8.40 Shimizu S-Pulse 34 7 12 15 33 44 54 -10 39.64 44.33 -4.69 Jubilo Iwata 34 6 12 16 30 32 57 -25 36.11 48.62 -12.51 Data: FBref.com & Sporteria | Kyoto survive after winning pro/rel playoff | All xG values do not include penalties Team Reviews Since the mid-season review, I’ve gone for an approach to integrate everything (both the data viz and the tactics stuff) for every team into its own section. Therefore, if you want an explainer to the data viz you’ll need to jump down to the Data Visualizations section to learn more. Hopefully the specific context I provide when presenting each viz for a particular team I’m talking about can give you the right idea though. Cerezo Osaka Manager Akio Kogiku’s first full season (he took over from Levir Culpi in the summer of 2021) can be marked as a success, the club hierarchy certainly seem to think so as a week after the season ended the club announced they were continuing with him at the helm for 2023. Their start of the season was rather inconsistent but they really started building moment mid-season only losing twice in 14 games from May to August in a 8W-4D-2L record that propelled the pink half of Osaka to 4th and within 3 points of 2nd placed Kawasaki Frontale after matchday 24. All despite a very public bust up between star player Takashi Inui and the manager which saw the ex-national team winger leave the team in June to go join Shimizu S-Pulse as a free agent in July. Unfortunately, it went all down hill after the first week of August as Cerezo only won twice in the last 10 games of the season, even going win-less in the last 6 games of the campaign to limp to a 5th place finish (their malaise only dropping them to 5th due to everybody else in the top half also in bad form). The one bright spot among this was another good League Cup run but yet again they fell at the last hurdle, this time against Sanfrecce Hiroshima in heartbreaking/dramatic fashion as they were denied victory by 2 goals in the 92nd and 97th minute of the 2nd half. Various injuries to Riki Harakawa, Hinata Kida and later Hiroaki Okuno (luckily only for a short period) left Cerezo extremely bare in center midfield. On the other hand, this opportunity gave Tokuma Suzuki the ability to shine in the 2nd half of the season after spending most of the 1st half on the bench. His ability to control the tempo in midfield as well as his set-piece deliveries have meant Cerezo didn’t miss Harakawa much at all. Veteran Hiroshi Kiyotake had to drop back into an uneasy double pivot role late in the season and it even came to the point that 17 year old Nelson Ishiwatari made his debut against FC Tokyo in mid-October. Out wide, Jean Patric proved to be a good outlet with his dribbling ability, especially as a late substitute, but he’ll be hoping to break into the starting XI more often next season. Another benefactor of Inui’s departure was Hirotaka Tameda, who is extremely good at combining with teammates and getting into good positions… which he unfortunately ruins with extremely poor decision making and off-the-mark shooting in the final 3rd. It’s very frustrating to watch. Promising young defender Ryuya Nishio found himself more on the bench or played at Left Back, as his Center Back berth next to the returning Matej Jonjic was usurped by Koji Toriumi in the 2nd half of the season. At full back, veteran Yusuke Maruhashi suffered a horrible injury so the burden was on Ryosuke Yamanaka to supply the strikers with his trademark crosses alongside Riku Matsuda on the right. Yamanaka’s own injury troubles also gave Kakeru Funaki a chance in the team while Seiya Maikuma was converted to a wide midfielder following Inui’s departure to decent effect. Kim Jin-Hyeon in goal remains not only a good shot-stopper but an excellent passer as well. Cerezo once again featured a rotating cast of big hard working strikers but lack of finishing touch detrimental (like in the calamitous game vs. Sapporo in September) as Hiroto Yamada, Bruno Mendes, new signing Satoki Uejo especially disappointed with many glaring shots off target. On a slightly positive note the injury-riddled Adam Taggart finally recovered enough to contribute 5 goals in very limited minutes and Kato Mutsuki finished as the top goal scorer albeit with only 6 goals to his name. Akio Kogiku had Cerezo stepping up to press a lot more than in previous years and they notably did good job against build-up savvy Urawa Reds in the league and cup games among other fixtures like Yokohama Marinos. Otherwise they reform into a very tight 4-4-2 mid-block that are very quick moving laterally to close down gaps and spaces between the lines. Set pieces and crosses from the likes of Ryosuke Yamanaka, Riki Harakawa (and after his injury, Tokuma Suzuki), and Riku Matsuda (Matsuda cross vs. Kobe) are a huge source of chances for this team, over 45% of Cerezo’s goals this season coming from either situation. Yamanaka in particular took over from the injured veteran Yusuke Maruhashi to make the Left Back position his own. See examples against Kobe and S-Pulse. The wide midfielders and full backs work really well together, coordinating their movements and bringing out the best of the crossing ability in this team. Over the long season, Cerezo’s performances could veer from fantastic to dreadful and building upon the foundations of a decent 2022, the team will hope to gain some consistency and make a real push for the Champions League places next year. It should be a bit concerning that the group of players who played around or over 80% of total league minutes this season were all well into their 30s. Since the previous winter though, Cerezo have been recruiting smartly for younger players in key positions, so I expect this kind of recruitment, especially plucking promising pre-peak age players from J2 (like Funaki, Uejo, Maikuma, Nakahara, etc.), will continue. Shimizu S-Pulse After securing Shimizu S-Pulse’s survival at the end of the 2021 season with a record of 3W-1D-0L, Hiroaki Hiraoka was rewarded with a mandate to see if he could build upon that good run of form. It turned out to be a huge mistake as S-Pulse only won 2 games in the 16 matches in Hiraoka’s first full season in charge and he was promptly fired. In came Brazilian manager, Ze Ricardo, who apparently was someone the S-Pulse hierarchy had been after for quite a few years. At first glance it certainly looked he improved the attack, helped by new acquisitions in the form of Takashi Inui and Yago Pikachu and S-Pulse looked well poised to be clear of the relegation battle following a good stretch of form through August that pushed them up to 11th place by matchday 28. However, a loss against 10 man Hiroshima in early September started a downward spiral that S-Pulse simply couldn’t climb out of as they failed to win another game for the rest of the season. The problem, as has been the case for S-Pulse for quite sometime now, is in defense (I feel like I’ve repeated this in just about every review since I started in 2019…) and its a major failing of Ze Ricardo’s tenure that there was nothing done about shoring up an awful defense despite having decent-to-good J1 level players like Shuichi Gonda and Yoshinori Suzuki leading the back line. When looking deeper at the numbers (the number of games from either manager being close enough…) its actually interesting to see that in fact the attack didn’t really change all that much in terms of creating chances (using xG), only their finishing improved. On the defensive side, things got even worse than the already poor numbers under Hiraoka’s reign… Hiraoka (16 games)         xG per Game xGA per Game Goals per Game Goals Against per Game   1.18 1.27 0.938 1.44   Ze Ricardo (18 games)         1.15 1.34 1.56 1.67   (Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself) When looking at S-Pulse’s metrics over the entire season compared to other teams in general, the metrics show S-Pulse to be around a midtable team (in non-penalty xG, xG per shot, shots taken, etc.), so its clear what really sunk them was their awful defense. It’s been an issue for S-Pulse for the past few seasons, regardless of manager or squad that they simply can not keep the lead and have a deeply concerning habit of conceding late goals. A heartbreaking loss to Kawasaki Frontale after leading 2-1 at the 75th minute, an injury time equalizer in a relegation decider against bottom club and regional rival Jubilo Iwata, among late drama earlier in the season, culminated in a final matchday tie vs. Consadole Sapporo to secure a playoff place or evade relegation altogether. …Where they threw away a 3-2 lead going into the 80th minute to promptly lose 3-4 and send the Shizuoka club directly down the drain to J2. Check out the “How does Shimizu S-Pulse play?” section from the mid-season review for a more in-depth look at their tactics/play style, especially if you are interested in Yuito Suzuki, Reon Yamahara, and Ryohei Shirasaki (a really smart successful signing), all players I focused on a fair bit. Some examples below: On the topic of Yuito Suzuki, following his injury on national duty in June, the young attacker subsequently lost his place in the line-up even after recovering and so what was looking like a promising year for him overall ended on a bad note. It was a touch unlucky, that he got injured right as Ze Ricardo took over the managerial reins. In his stead, star striker Thiago Santana has been paired with Carlinhos or Koya Kitagawa (who returned from a failed stint in Europe). Santana was the undisputed MVP of the team as his 14 goals and 6 assists were able to keep S-Pulse alive until the final matchday. Not only could he settle long balls from the defense and Shuichi Gonda when their build-up failed (and it failed often…) he was also capable of drifting wide into the channels, especially in the space vacated by Inui’s dropping movements dragging the opposition fullback in tow. Ryohei Shirasaki would make runs from midfield to overload wide areas and open up space for Santana in the middle or in the half-spaces. Along with Takashi Inui’s ball-carrying ability from deeper areas, Yago Pikachu was always ready on the Right Wing to make a hard dash behind the defensive lines, so S-Pulse did have quite varied weapons in their attacking arsenal. The latter two were summer signings that were a big upgrade on Katsuhiro Nakayama, Benjamin Cololli, Kenta Nishizawa (injured again), Yuta Kamiya, and a better option than forcing Carlinhos or Yuito Suzuki to play out wide. As you might have noticed a lot of S-Pulse’s good attacking come from transition moments and when they are desperate for a goal (as they so often were), they had troubles breaking down a packed box, with endless crossing from the likes of Teruki Hara and Reon Yamahara an exercise in futility at times. Shimizu S-Pulse have very little to show for the… medium-to-large (?) amount of investment put into this club in the past few seasons, never breaking out of a relegation battle and constantly changing managers. I had quite a few things to say in the mid-season review on S-Pulse as a club: S-Pulse have now gone nearly 4 seasons of hiring a new manager, struggling in a relegation battle, firing that manager, and finally the new manager or caretaker just about leading them to safety (S-Pulse were also lucky there was no relegation play-off in 2020 due to COVID as well), then rinse-and-repeat. It’s not as though S-Pulse are a club with few resources either, while they may not have the strength of the absolute top teams in J1, they have been able to splash some cash (well, relatively speaking) on various players in transfer fees and wages all throughout the past couple of years. It’s quite a damning indictment of their top-level administration that they keep swapping and changing players and managers, then starting all over again once they’ve fired them. I’m not sure what S-Pulse’s vision or identity is, even more so because they haven’t actually had any real success on the pitch in the past 20 years with only Kenta Hasegawa’s tenure coming anywhere close to consistent success (and he still didn’t win a single trophy!). With their direct relegation, the vultures are swooping overhead and its hard to tell who will be willing to stay with S-Pulse, as I explained above there are more than a few talented individuals on this team. It may certainly be a season of heavy rebuilding for S-Pulse to push themselves right back up to J1 but so much uncertainty hangs around the club as both the club and players themselves have big decisions to make on whether certain people/staff will stay or go. Vissel Kobe It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Rakuten Rovers but firing Miguel Angel Lotina and hiring Takayuki Yoshida for the 3rd time led to a run of 5 straight wins coming into the last 2 games of the season that saw them finish fairly comfortably in 13th place. While their 2 losses to finish the season were disappointing and brought them down to only 4 points away from the relegation spots, those were against the top 2 teams in the league. It will only motivate them to keep pushing to regain the kind of form that got them to finish 3rd (their highest ever league finish) back in the 2021 season. So how exactly did Vissel Kobe turn their fortunes around, especially as they had sat bottom of the table when I wrote my mid-season review after matchday 16? They simplified the game-plan, turning to a solid 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 mid-block and playing more direct by relying on the speed and dribbling ability of wingers Koya Yuruki and Nanasei Iino (a summer signing). In the striker positions, Yoshinori Muto, Yuya Osako, and Daiju Sasaki (later Yuki Kobayashi) would try and bait opponent CBs and allow Yuruki and Iino to make dangerous diagonal runs inside to great effect. The wingers also worked well with the Full Backs overlapping past them in the final 3rd and Vissel Kobe distinctly crossed the ball into the box and played more long direct balls forward far more than in previous seasons under Atsuhiro Miura. A lot of this strategy was also reliant on how brilliant Yuya Osako is at settling the ball from any direction, a great example being Yuki Kobayashi’s goal against Avispa Fukuoka. Video clip: Sakai cross for Muto vs. Marinos In midfield, Leo Osaki made a imperious return to the starting XI as he formed a formidable midfield partnership with Hotaru Yamaguchi. Their range of covering and their enormous strength in winning duels in the ground and air was a key factor in Kobe being able to shut down attacks while Osaki’s passing range was helpful in pushing Kobe forward on the ball. For opponents it’s become necessary to try and completely bypass Kobe’s strong midfield altogether and find gaps between Kobe’s wide midfielders and fullbacks especially when the wide midfielders push up to press and enlarge the vertical gap between the lines. Whenever both Muto and Osako were fully fit together, this Vissel Kobe team looked much like the upper table team they should be but Osako especially was only fit to start 16 matches this season and Kobe suffered for it. Despite a shaky start to the season (esp. with the early injury troubles of Center Back Ryuho Kikuchi), Kobe’s defense was solid in the latter half of the season. Ryuho Kikuchi and Yuki Kobayashi rekindled the partnership that blossomed in the 2021 season (while Thomas Vermaelen was away at the Euros, read more about the duo here) while Tetsushi Yamakawa and Gotoku Sakai have contained opponent wingers pretty well out in the wide areas. The team finished with the tied 5th best xGA per shot while giving up the 5th most shots against in the league (so allowing a large quantity of shots while suppressing the quality of shots). For a team that was rock bottom mid-season they finished around the middle in terms of goals against and their goal differentials (both actual and xG related) were better than most of the bottom half teams around them. Miura, Planaguma, Lotina (All stats per game, 18 games)           xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against 1.19 1.28 0.83 1.39 12.1 13.7 Takayuki Yoshida (All stats per game, 16 games)           1.22 1.08 1.12 0.875 11.6 11.6 (Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself) I’d imagine getting a younger and most importantly fit striker will be one of many priorities for the Rakuten Rovers in the off-season especially as Stefan Mugosa, Lincoln, Bojan, among others have flattered to deceive up top. In the tail end of the season Yuki Kobayashi (the midfielder, not the defender…) played the #10/#9-and-a-half role quite well when one of Osako/Muto needed to be rested or Muto had to play out wide. Takahiro Ogihara was quite good at Marinos but I think they were quite smart to offload him to Kobe at the time and I had questions about the signing in the 2021 season review as he’s an older and even less mobile version of Sergi Samper. On that note, I do wonder how Sergi Samper will fit into the team next season as although still a fantastic passer of the ball, this rejuvenated Vissel Kobe team relies a lot on a very mobile and aggressive center midfield. While Samper still produces a reasonable defensive output, he is very poor at covering ground (many examples of which I highlighted in the 2021 review) and in light of how Kobe’s midfield is rather old it might make sense to dip into the market here especially since younger midfielders such as Yuta Goke and Yuya Nakasaka don’t really fit in a double pivot. Veteran defender Tomoaki Makino didn’t make much of a splash either. Although to be fair to him, he wasn’t supposed to start as many games as he did but had to fill in after Kikuchi’s injury/illness at the beginning of the season. In the latter half of the season he barely made an appearance let alone start games. A priority should be made to sign Thuler permanently as Leo Osaki looks to be a more medium-term fixture in midfield instead, and lots of rumors swill around Yuki Kobayashi (the defender, not the midfielder…) regarding a transfer to Celtic FC, while Tetsushi Yamakawa will be need far more at Right Back (while only occasionally filling in at CB). Another big question mark in defense is the medium-to-long term goalkeeper spot. Both Hiroki Iikura and Daiya Maekawa split minutes…and while Maekawa got injured in the last month of the season, Hiroki Iikura’s contract was not renewed at all. 23 year old Yuya Tsuboi played the last 2 games of the season but I doubt he’ll be challenging for the starting spot next season. This squad is reasonably composed if Vissel Kobe can start offloading a lot more of their old deadwood such as Bojan, Takahiro Ogihara, Stefan Mugosa, and… dare I say Andres Iniesta? Kawasaki Frontale So close, yet so far for Kawasaki Frontale as they took the title race to the last matchday but came up 2 points short. It was not smooth sailing as they had many rocky periods of their own. So despite Marinos’ own stumbles, Frontale didn’t take enough advantage to overtake the eventual champions after relinquishing their 1st place position way back in matchday 15 (late May) following a catastrophic 0-4 loss against relegation strugglers Shonan Bellmare. As mentioned in the mid-season review Frontale yet again suffered another horrendous exit in the Champions League, somehow topping last year’s ignominious exit by being eliminated in the group stages. This team seems cursed somehow to never be able to spread their dominance of the J.League to the continent as a whole. In other cup competitions they did no better, being dumped out by J2 side Tokyo Verdy in the Emperor’s Cup and then by Cerezo Osaka in the League Cup. For all the negativity surrounding the club (from neutrals and their own fans), despite the disappointments in every competitions, looking at the season overall from a bird’s eye point of view… Kawasaki Frontale were still a very good team. Frontale accumulated 1.22 non-penalty xG per 90 throughout the season (5th best in the league), but they were actually 3rd best in the 2nd half of the season. It’s on the defensive side of things that things weren’t very rosy, in a very particular way… Despite limiting the opposition to the fewest (non-penalty) shots in the league and the 2nd least xGA overall, they had the 4th worst xGA per shot… when opportunities were presented to the opposition (even if they were few and far between), they were relatively good ones! Jesiel’s return to the lineup in July definitely helped things, but it didn’t completely solve all of Frontale’s defense as fans would’ve hoped. It became all too easy for opponent’s to play right through Frontale’s midfield, then smart movements by attackers can pull away Jesiel out of the defense line or penalty box and others can attack the space vacated by the Brazilian with the other Frontale defenders and midfielders in no position or without the speed to recover. It became such a problem to the point that at various points Oniki shifted to a double-pivot of Kento Tachibanada and Joao Schmidt to provide more protection (as well as offer more options in the buildup). Miki Yamane’s critical role in Frontale’s attack means he’s going to be quite far up field especially as Frontale play a style of football that tries to assert dominance and keep possession in their opponent’s defensive 3rd. In Frontale’s best years this wasn’t a concern because Jesiel-Taniguchi were at their physical best and could defend quick transitions even when outnumbered due to their speed and strength. On top of that Frontale also had a fully functioning counter-press that would extinguish those types of situations from flaring up in the first place. Without Jesiel and the gradual change in Frontale’s midfield personnel over the past few years, this stopped working as neither Kazuya Yamamura, Shintaro Kurumaya, etc. had the tools to match quick opponent wingers/strikers in large open spaces and captain Shogo Taniguchi had too much to handle by himself. Still, none of this excuses Yamane from the slew of poor defensive decisions he’s made this season nor not being able to recover quickly enough. I’ll just keep repeating that Oniki has really run him into the ground the past few years by not rotating him which I would think has only contributed to his physical and mental fatigue. Still, no other fullback in this team (and dare I say league?) can match Yamane’s offensive output and he works extremely well with Akihiro Ienaga ahead of him so it is difficult to simply not play him … but also there’s literally no other Right Back in this squad which is on Oniki and Frontale as an organization. On top of all this, Kyohei Noborizato’s injury woes continued all throughout the season which meant Asahi Sasaki was given a trial by fire as he started most games at Left Back in the 1st Half of the season. Shintaro Kurumaya was also shifted back out wide despite becoming more of a Center Back in recent years. At other points, midfielders such as Kento Tachibanada and Tatsuki Seko were press-ganged to play fullback as the young Sasaki suffered dips in form in his debut season. In attack… I talked in length about Leandro Damiao’s decline in the mid-season review (tl;dr: drastically lower shot quantity and xG output) and it didn’t get much better; it ended with a whimper as he suffered a season-ending injury in late August. The Brazilian striker finished the season with only 5 goals and 1 assist in only 17 starts. In his place Kei Chinen and Yu Kobayashi shared striker duties and battled hard (Chinen in particular doing a lot of great work with his back to goal settling long balls, his performance in Sanfrecce that I watched live at Todoroki was standout in particular), scoring some crucial goals of their own. Still, even in the short term I am not quite sure either are the right quality to lead the line next season, especially as Kobayashi is 35 years old. In lieu of Damiao’s goals, the burden fell onto the two wingers, Akihiro Ienaga and Marcinho, whose exploits kept Frontale in the title race and were a deserved inclusion in the Team of the Season. Supplying them was Yasuto Wakisaka, one of my favorite players in the league, one that I’d love to write a dedicated article on. So many of Frontale’s great attacking moments come through his combination play with Akihiro Ienaga and Miki Yamane when drifting over to the right. From deeper areas Frontale had Joao Schmidt pulling strings as the single pivot, with his great range of passing allowing the team to switch play from one side to the other with ease. On the opposite wing Marcinho was a terrific outlet. Using his speed to score goals galore, making back post runs to get on the end of the crosses/passes into the box made by the aforementioned Right sided trio. Frontale fans feared the worst when close to the end of the season, Al-Ahly (Egypt) came a-knocking for his signature but Frontale refused outright and the Brazilian continued business as usual, scoring 3 crucial goals in the final 3 games. However, just because they kept themselves in the title race doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to a lot of their poor performances, as in quite a few games they weren’t punished for their mistakes. Frontale just can’t seem to establish the dominance that they used to, and had to resort to very risky tactics (going all-for-broke with a 4-2-4 formation when desperately chasing goals) to somehow brute-force their way to victories. On top of this, goalkeeper Jun Sung-ryong seemed way busier this season than previously, with the spotlight on him far more as he rescued Frontale countless times. Every great team has a great goalkeeper but ideally you don’t want him getting this kind of attention very often. A part of Frontale’s threat has always been set-pieces (they led the league with 15 goals from this type of situation), but a lot of the time this season… this was their only way of breaking the deadlock which was/is a major concern. So, in the end Frontale still finished 2nd… good results masking poor performances, other teams (not just Marinos) collapsing at various points in the season notwithstanding… Still as mentioned throughout this section there is still a lot of quality in this team and their performance against FC Tokyo on the final day while a man-down for a majority of the game was rather inspiring, even if their hard fought victory was for naught as Marinos clinched victory themselves in their game. I’d imagine Frontale will keep going with Tohru Oniki. But this is a really big turning point for Frontale as with the long winter break it really is the perfect time to reset and refresh this rather small squad that’s been stretched to its limits in the past few years. Oniki will really need to reconfigure Frontale’s toolkit and get some fresh faces in so that Frontale can once again dominate games. Kashiwa Reysol In Nelsinho’s 4th season at the helm (10th if you include his previous stint from the 2009~2014 seasons), Reysol were able to defy all pre-season predictions (including my own!) and finish in the top half. They were legitimately a good team in the 1st Half of the season. But unfortunately, after this electric start, their attacking output really dropped as Mao Hosoya only scored twice in the 2nd half of the season while Matheus Savio wasn’t able to create as much. 1st Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)           xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against 1.27 0.989 1.29 0.882 12.3 10.6 2nd Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)           0.869 1.09 1.06 1.59 10.7 11.9 (Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself) Looking deeper at the numbers, it surprised me at just how good their defense actually was, although this too deteriorated in the 2nd Half of the season. Overall, with 35.37 non-penalty xGA (4th best in the league), 0.093 non-penalty xGA per Shot (4th best in the league) and 382 shots against (5th best in the league), all painted a picture of a team that were not only able to restrict the number of shots against them but also limit good quality chances as well. What seems to have done them in is opponent’s finishing as it’s interesting to note that they conceded significantly more goals than the quality of the chances conceded (1.59 goals against per game from 1.09 xGA per game in the 2nd half of the season). Opponents haven’t been able to break this team down often in open-play but Reysol’s Achilles’ heel was clearly set pieces which is how they gave up a whopping 34.1% of their total goals conceded. Despite Reysol’s attack slowing down, overall there have been lots of encouraging signs in attack for a team that had been wrestling with the departures of Michael Olunga and Ataru Esaka since 2021. The reinvigorated Matheus Savio has been at the forefront of this renaissance, helped ably by Tomoya Koyamatsu’s and Mao Hosoya’s intelligent movement. Attempts to continue building out from back is still a work-in-progress, with a big problem being too many players dropping back toward their own goal. Sometimes this can work to pull opponents higher up the pitch and exploit the space in behind (like in the 1st image below) but often times this just makes Reysol easier to defend against as players are all bunching up in a small(er) space as well as lacking numbers in attack when the ball is able to be moved forward. This is similar to problems that Sanfrecce Hiroshima and FC Tokyo faced this season, you’ll see me bring this topic up a few more times throughout this blog post. This team still has a bit more work to do on the training pitch to be able to properly use the space in their own half to their advantage to move up the field without resorting to just kicking it up for Hosoya or Douglas (although, of course this is still a valid alternative tactic). This is a squad that’s build pretty well, with the majority of the players that accumulated most of the minutes all coming into or at their physical peak ages. If Kashiwa can build around this solid core of Matheus Savio, Mao Hosoya, Taiyo Koga, Masato Sasaki, etc. they are in a good position to challenge for the next couple of years. Nelsinho will hope to build upon the solid foundations he discovered this season to make the necessary tweaks for another push for an ACL place in 2023. Kashima Antlers It’s all gone belly up in Kashima. Rene Weiler was fired in August despite Antlers still in the top 3 (although they had been without a win in the 5 games prior to the sacking) due to “differences with the upper management” and Daiki Iwamasa, who was installed as a coach just a few weeks prior, was given the full time gig until the end of the season. The team from Ibaraki prefecture was in the mix for the title for nearly half a season but a horrendous loss of form in the 2nd half of the season, saw Antlers only win 3 (three!) games since my mid-season review in mid-June! Their slide down the table only stopped at 6th as they drew an extraordinary amount of games (taking over from early season Tosu/Sapporo it seems) rather than outright losing them. Antlers fans were not happy as the season continued (and certainly let the manager know about it) and Daiki Iwamasa was/is under a lot of pressure, especially after the poor performance against Ventforet Kofu in the semifinals of the Emperor’s Cup where Antlers finally extinguished any hopes of silverware in 2022. In hindsight it’s easy to pinpoint their inability to grab victory in close games was due to the loss of star striker Ayase Ueda but in my opinion the rot starts from much deeper down the field. Antlers play extremely narrow with their midfielders shaped in a diamond while the width in the team came from the fullbacks, especially Koki Anzai on the Left. Just like under Rene Weiler, Yuma Suzuki continued to be the main threat, dropping back and/or to the sides to support the play. Not only was Yuma their best striker, he was their most creative outlet too. Otherwise, they kept the same long and direct ball strategy as under Weiler despite attempts to change course. Another positive note has been Yuta Higuchi who worked tirelessly in midfield and was one of Kashima’s main threats this season with his accurate long passing/switches of play being the start of many dangerous attacks. However, Antlers had difficulty in breaking down packed defenses with their only solution seemingly throwing endless amounts of crosses into the box. They really missed the presence of Ryotaro Araki (last season’s winner of the “best young player” award) as the creator-in-chief, with a herniated disc injury keeping him out for the majority of the season. Deeper still, they continued to have the same build-up problems as they had under Rene Weiler, in spite of having good individual passers in Ikuma Sekigawa and Yuto Misao as the Center Back pairing. It goes to show that just having good passers doesn’t make for a good clean buildup. The numbers don’t lie… Kashima Antlers in the 1st Half of the season had 2nd best xG per 90 in the league but in the 2nd Half they were the 2nd worst! Their defensive numbers remained relatively the same (around middle-of-the-pack) throughout the season which is part of the reason why they drew so many games in the tail end of the season rather than lose outright which prevented Antlers from tumbling further down the table. In defense, Keigo Tsunemoto continues to be a very solid Right Back at the J1 level as his 1v1 defending is top notch. Further up the pitch, Arthur Caike played many times as striker after Ueda left and overall he became the 2nd highest goal scorer in the team with 9 goals to his name. However, his threat comes from being a guy that can sneak into holes in the defense from midfield. The Brazilian seems much more limited when he starts out up top, under pressure and the watchful eye of defenders from the get go. Everaldo made somewhat of a come back (an eye popping overhead goal to boot that inexplicably didn’t win the “Goal of the Season” award) but he barely started despite netting 5 goals in 3 starts and 19 appearances (totaling up to only 6.1 90s played). To fill the Ueda-shaped hole up top, they brought in Blessing Eleke for Weiler as the two had a prior relationship… but then Kashima promptly fired the Swiss manager a few weeks later… I am not really confident in Iwamasa’s abilities as a manager nor am I confident that the higher ups at Kashima can find some other candidate given their poor managerial decisions in the past few seasons. This squad is still clearly good, featuring a talented mix of young, peak, and veteran players. Antlers really could use another Center Back to pair with Ikuma Sekigawa, as Bueno and Naoki Hayashi were constantly injured, Kim Min-tae not doing too well, and any way for Kento Misao to return to midfield where he truly belongs. Most importantly, they need the right manager to guide the ship. Yokohama F. Marinos Despite taking over from Ange Postecoglou and guiding them to a 2nd place finish in 2021, there were lots of concerns about the team and the new manager, fellow Aussie Kevin Muscat, heading into 2022 (from myself included!). By the time of the mid-season review I updated my prior assumptions and marveled at how well Marinos were able to navigate another busy schedule of games throughout the season. The one big disappointment would be their Champions League exit to (at the time) a Vissel Kobe team in upheaval but they’ll have another chance next year with a bit more experience under their belt, both Muscat and the players. By all metrics this team was just clearly the best team in the league, especially when it comes to their attacking output. 67 non-penalty goals from 57 non-penalty xG were the best numbers in the league by a big margin (next placed teams were Urawa Reds on 47 non-penalty xG and Kawasaki Frontale on 57 non-penalty goals). Overall, their goal difference (both actual and xG related) also showed their dominance over the 34 game season. They not only took the most shots (535) but also took quality shots with 0.107 non-penalty xG per Shot being 2nd best in the league. For defensive metrics they were slightly more middle of the rankings but it was far improved from their disastrous 2020 season when their high line was broken again and again. Not only can this Marinos team dominate in possession but they can be also be more vertical and direct. Marinos are really good at shifting gears in a flash as they search for spaces between the lines and then immediately slice through teams with quick combinations. With goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka acting as the extra man in the buildup, Marinos are able to break past opponent pressing. Their players work together to create space by luring opponent marker off a Marinos player so that another Marinos player can be in a optimal position to receive facing forwards. Marinos players also by distance themselves from each other in an optimal way to spread their opponents far apart and force them to exert more energy to approach Marinos defenders. Further up-field the fullbacks (usually Ryuta Koike and Katsuya Nagato) are either hugging the touchline or slightly inverted to support the central midfielders, who in turn either remain as a double pivot or can spread themselves out vertically, depending on how the opponent defended. Tomoki Iwata, surprisingly, won the Player of the Year award as attributes such as his unrelenting stamina that gave him the range to cover all over the field and ball-progressing from back-line to midfield or further forward as either a Center Back or Center Midfielder were given the plaudits it thoroughly deserved. On the defensive side of things, what immediately pops up is how 40% of their total goals conceded have come from set pieces and add to that the 25.7% of conceded goals coming from crossing situations, we can see a clear weakness in this team. With Shinnosuke Hatanaka’s injury troubles and poor form continuing this season, only new signing Eduardo (184cm) and Ryotaro Tsunoda (184cm) stood more than 180cm tall in Marinos’ defense line. At full back Katsuya Nagato is actually decent enough in the air but Ryuta Koike’s aerial ability is almost non-existent. You don’t necessarily need height to be good in the air (and indeed there are many tall players who are bad at winning headers!) but it’s still important in general. With Tsunoda’s inexperience (despite his promise) and the fact that both he and Eduardo are left-footed meant that Muscat wasn’t inclined to start both of them together at any point during the campaign. On top of that, when your midfielders were also on the short side (vs. Tosu they started 165cm Kota Watanabe and 173cm Riku Yamane together!), things can get very difficult no matter how well you try to set up your team on set pieces to compensate for lack of height. A common tactic by opponents was to simply drag Eduardo away and contest aerial balls vs. Tomoki Iwata instead. Contesting aerial duels is probably Iwata’s one big weakness and is one of the reasons why I prefer him to be in midfield rather than at Center Back. Video clip: goal conceded vs. Vissel Kobe Looking at other parts of the squad, a notable change in Marinos personnel was Takuma Nishimura who was brought over from a rather mediocre spell at relegated Vegalta Sendai. With the presence of the ever-excellent Marcos Junior, he was seen as cover but as the season progressed it would actually be Nishimura who would make the #10 position all his own. Not only was he a brilliant at finding pockets of space to receive the ball, he was getting on the end of chances in the box as well culminating in his 10 goal haul which was only 1 goal behind the tallies of both of Marinos’ strikers, Leo Ceara and Anderson Lopes. I don’t think there was a team in this league with not just the quality but the quantity of fantastic wingers in Elber, Kota Mizunuma, Teruhito Nakagawa, and Ryo Miyaichi (Frontale’s Ienaga and Marcinho come close but nobody else in that team can match Marinos’ quartet). Ryo Miyaichi had a renaissance season of sorts, not just chipping in with 3 goals and 3 assists but his general performances caught my eye and he did enough to earn himself a call back to the Japan national team for the EAFF Cup… only for his injury curse to strike again and leave him out for the season in July. After a few seasons of injury struggles of his own for Teruhito Nakagawa, he came close to match his MVP winning performances of 2019 with 7 goals and 6 assists mainly coming off the bench or as part of the rotation. As I mentioned in the mid-season review, rotation was a big part of Muscat’s overall strategy to handle the long and hectic season and for the most part it worked. As part of this, in midfield both the youngsters Kota Watanabe and Joel Fujita (another pick up from a relegated side, Tokushima Vortis) filled in admirably when Tomoki Iwata had to step back into defense and were partnered by veteran captain/midfield stalwart, Takuya Kida. It was only in the last 5 or so games, with no other competitions to think about that the starting XI sort of got more consistent. Despite all the praises sung about Marinos, they still nearly threw it away with poor results in two consecutive matchdays against relegation-battling teams in the form of Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata. I do feel like if Marinos were to play both of these game over and over again, they would win 9/10, unluckily for them some things were slightly off (individual mistakes vs. Iwata, tactics vs. Gamba) and they got football'd… it happens! It just happened at probably the worst time in the season! Nevertheless, I reiterate that Marinos were absolutely the best team in the league and all eyes (and pressure!) will be on Kevin Muscat and his fantastic group of players to repeat the feat next year as well as take the continent by storm through an improved showing in the Asian Champions League in 2023. Nagoya Grampus Kenta Hasegawa’s first season in charge of Nagoya Grampus was quite a struggle despite finishing in 8th. An awful start to the season saw Grampus teetering close to relegation until an overhaul in strategy to move to a back 3 paid dividends as Grampus rose up the table with lots of wobbles along the way. Nagoya’s Right side unit consisting of Shinnosuke Nakatani, Ryoya Morishita, and Mateus were quite good. They had good chemistry and a lot of Grampus’ good attacks came from there, especially when Nakatani was able to step up with the ball from defense and play incisive passes into the final 3rd. There is still a giant over-reliance on Mateus to actually finish off attacks and when he drifts wider to support the play, Grampus have lacked numbers in the box and a lot of burden were placed on their other midfielders to make late long distance runs into the box to make up for the lack of numbers. None of Noriyoshi Sakai, Naldinho, or Yoichiro Kakitani were been able to provide the goals up front while surprisingly summer arrival Kensuke Nagai was in fine form notching 4 goals and 3 assists in the 2nd half of the season. As many might know star striker Jakub Swierczok was suspended last year for failing a doping test and it looks likely that he won’t be able to play football for another few years… The defense has been mostly fine, I talked about Haruya Fujii a bit in the mid-season review. Mitch Langerak was also a top goalkeeper yet again and it’s mind-boggling that he wasn’t selected for Australia’s World Cup squad. From what I’ve seen, a lot of their goals conceded have been problems further up-field. There doesn’t seem to be a great understanding in midfield of when to properly drop-off and when to go press and this caused moments of hesitancy and confusion to the rest of the team. When the ill-conceived press attempt was easily evaded then that left the defense exposed and the other players were in no position to be able to track back quickly enough. The midfield 3 had a lot of work to do shifting as a unit from side-to-side but at times that left the opposite side very exposed if they couldn’t swing back in time (similar to the problems I’ve talked about facing Shonan’s midfield 3 in the past…). Sho Inagaki in particular had to do quite a lot as he was usually the key player in making late runs to support the attack, especially entering the space vacated by Mateus when he drifted out wide to receive the ball and exchange passes with Ryoya Morishita. At the same time, Keiya Sento dropped into spaces between the lines to receive on the half-turn or lay-off to teammate using the space created by Kensuke Nagai pushing defenders back toward their own goal. Still, it will be a disappointment to both him and Nagoya fans that he just wasn’t at his best and ended the season mainly coming off the bench. To their credit Nagoya did bring in reinforcements for the central midfield positions that I fretted over in the mid-season review in the form of Ryota Nagaki and Takuya Shigehiro so they wouldn’t be forced to use Kazuya Miyahara or Takuya Uchida as midfield cover. There is at least some credit that should be given to Kenta Hasegawa for recognizing the faults in the team (and some of the blame is also on the upper management of Nagoya not recruiting well too) and shifting to a 3-at-the-back shape which slowly improved Grampus’ fortunes to a level where they were comfortably midtable… Indeed, looking at their stats, Nagoya pretty much wound up around the middle-of-the-pack in the per game metrics, 39.44 non-penalty xG (8th), 37.42 non-penalty xGA (7th), 404 non-penalty shots (10th), 395 non-penalty shots against (8th), 0.098 non-penalty xG per shot (9th), 0.095 non-penalty xGA per shot (10th)… But clearly this is not what Grampus management and fans were expecting from this squad nor Hasegawa himself. Well, at least in terms of the quality of their best 13~14 or so players… I’ve already touched on the squad depth issues previously. So I imagine a lot of pressure will be on Hasegawa at the start of next season to deliver results, especially after a long winter break to make and execute on lots of plans. Otherwise, I can see Kenta Hasegawa as a good candidate for getting the chop early next season. Shonan Bellmare It was another season fighting relegation for Satoshi Yamaguchi’s Shonan Bellmare side but they finished the season extremely strongly. They only lost twice in the last 10 games and were undefeated in the last 7 to secure a 12th place finish which was their best highest position in the J.League since they returned to J1 back in 2018 (also one position below their best ever league finishes back in the 90s). After finishing last in 2020 (but not relegated due to the pandemic) and finishing with their neck just above water in 2021, Satoshi Yamaguchi did a much better job than his predecessors and his contract with the Hiratsuka-based side has already been renewed for next season. Despite a few blowout losses to Consadole Sapporo, S-Pulse, and Marinos, they have otherwise been able to keep the score down… it’s been notable how they were able to suck the life out of games. Shonan finished the season with the 5th best non-penalty xGA (36.6) and limiting opponents to the 3rd best shots conceded (367 total or 10.79 shots against per 90) in the league. Shonan have been able to do this through not just working hard to hassle-and-harry the opposition, something that has been a trademark of Shonan for a long time now under different managers, but also defending really deep in their own box. On their worst days this made them leak goals mostly through attrition especially when their press didn’t work and they were worryingly stuck in their own half for long periods of the game. Despite the good defensive stats I presented in the previous paragraph, Shonan also concede the 3rd worst xGA per shot in the league (0.1 non-penalty xGA per Shot), providing some evidence as to when opponents were able to break through Shonan they created dangerous opportunities. Shonan also noticeably struggled to build-up out of their own half when their opponent man-marked their 3 CBs and the single pivot. It’s become the clear blue print to suppress Shonan in the past few years and keep them trapped in their own half. Also still relevant is switching the ball to the outside and advancing before their midfield 3 can shift over. A big change for the squad was that in mid-season, star midfielder Satoshi Tanaka (finally) left for Europe. You can see all of my various thoughts on Satoshi in the past few years here (I really like him). This meant a big paradigm shift in midfield as Tanaka had made the defensive single pivot position his own for the past few seasons. In his place veteran Akimi Barada (well, after Takuji Yonemoto fell out of favor) shifted back from his box-to-box position to become the new holding midfielder. Then, to fill Barada’s position came Masaki Ikeda who is adept at finding space and combining with teammates using quick touches to progress up the field. I was hoping to see more of Taiyo Hiraoka but just turning 20, he’s still got plenty of time on his hands and it’ll be interesting seeing him battle it out with Masaki Ikeda and Tarik Elyounoussi for the midfield spots next season. I was disappointed in the little progress Taiga Hata showed this season, Yoshihiro Nakano seems to have taken his position at Left Wing Back while it looks like Hirokazu Ishihara will continue at Right Wing Back along with veteran Takuya Okamoto, who only returned to the lineup following a long injury layoff in the middle of the season. Interestingly, upon Okamoto’s return he was played more as a Right-sided Center Back alongside Ishihara at Right Wingback. It’s a bit of a shame as Okamoto’s attacking instincts (4 goals apiece in the 2020 and 2021 seasons) have been a huge asset for Shonan in the past with his late runs to the back post but it seems Yamaguchi has other plans for him (or maybe with Okamoto’s latest injury means he just can’t get up and down the field like he used to?). Yusuke Segawa missed an enormous amount of good quality chances… scoring only 3 goals off of 6.88 xG! If he scored just a few more, Shonan would’ve been quite comfortable far earlier in the season. Still, his excellent movement to even appear in the right place and the right time to take those chances in the first place speaks well of him, as well as his great defensive contributions on the other side of the ball. On the other hand, Shuto Machino finally found his shooting boots this season and lead the team with 13 goals (from just 6.34 xG according to Football-Lab, which does raise some concerns for me as to whether he can consistently keep up with this kind of production). His all-around performances also led him to be called up to the national team proper, first for the domestic-only EAFF squad and then a curve-ball inclusion in the full national squad against the USA and Ecuador in September. Finally, with Left Back Yuta Nakayama’s injury, it came as a surprise to all that Shuto Machino was called up to travel to the World Cup! Wellington was released by the club (for the 2nd time) and with Shuto Machino not long for Europe (especially with his inclusion in the World Cup squad), it’ll be interesting to see who Shonan can find to fill their boots. At the other end of the pitch, lots of question marks over on-loan goalkeeper Kosei Tani appear again, especially as Gamba Osaka go through (yet another…) transformation and only time will tell if a new Gamba manager will want to pull Tani back into the fold to finally take over from Masaaki Higashiguchi. Satoshi Yamaguchi has done a decent, if unspectacular job given the limited resources at Shonan’s disposal. They will hope to push onwards to a midtable (or above) finish in 2023. FC Tokyo FC Tokyo’s first season under new management both on the footballing side with the arrival of Spanish manager (and former Barcelona academy director) Albert Puig and in club owners, MIXI, was a moderate success. The performance against title-holders Kawasaki Frontale in the 1st game of the season was an electric performance with Kuryu Matsuki making his professional debut, despite having only played at the high school level, and this game provided fans with a sweet taste of what this new Tokyo team could bring. Of course, the manager repeatedly mentioned the need for patience and despite early good results (Tokyo were 4th after matchday 10) some hard times followed in the summer with heavy defeats to Avispa Fukuoka, Sagan Tosu, and Urawa Reds as Tokyo’s players struggled to play in a drastically different way as in the past few seasons. This inconsistent form simply continued in the fall and despite a brief potential of a late run for a Champions League spot, FC Tokyo were resigned to a 6th place finish as they lost the last 2 games of the season, including a disappointing final matchday defeat to 10 man Kawasaki Frontale. Getting dumped out of the cup competitions very early on was also a disappointment. Nevertheless, it gave Puig a great opportunity to give quite a few young players such as Renta Higashi, Yuki Kajiura, Yuta Arai, a chance to make an impact which was aligned with the new Spanish manager’s philosophy. Adailton had a barnstorming year with a career best 12 goals (1 penalty), his immense dribbling ability to move the ball up to the opponent box, usually all by himself was a huge asset especially due to FC Tokyo’s struggles in building up from the back more slowly. It should be noted though that this came from a strong finishing streak rather than consistently getting on the end of quality chances as his 12 goals came from just 7.73 xG (Football-Lab, penalties included). Ryoma Watanabe playing a variety of roles in midfield, popping up in spaces between the lines to receive the ball from the defenders. A star was born in Tokyo in the form of Kuryu Matsuki, who from his first game was already matching the intensity of seasoned professionals. His boundless energy was an asset, popping up deeper to help with the build-up and then make lung-bursting runs behind the defense in the same possession sequence. Matsuki also gradually got more disciplined as the season went on after an early string of early yellow card accumulations. A big room for improvement for both the teenager and fellow midfielder Shuto Abe is to start chipping in with more goals as they both improved upon making more dangerous runs into the box as the season progressed. All 3 players mentioned above were a huge part of FC Tokyo’s successes this season, they were the most involved players in attacking sequences as per Opta/StatsPerform. Kashif Bangunagande, who I talked about in quite some depth in the 2021 midseason review a long time ago, used the departure of Ryoya Ogawa (to Europe) to really make the Left Back spot his own. The Japan international (U-21s) is so calm and assured with his feet, he was a great outlet for FC Tokyo transitioning from defense to attack. Yasuki Kimoto and Masato Morishige as the Center Back pairing were aggressive in shutting down opposition strikers in tandem with Tokyo’s high press. The midfielders pushing up meant gaps behind and to the side of the single pivot, so it was crucial that the Center Backs stepped up. Both players were also very good at long passes out to the wingers to release them on the weaker side of the opponent after they left space open to press FC Tokyo. However, without Henrique Trevisan as back up to a series of injuries, it was rather nervous having them play nearly every single game, especially as Makoto Okazaki didn’t quite look up to the task. As a solution, Seiji Kimura was brought back from loan to take up the bench role in the summer and would occasionally come on to close games as the 3rd Center Back. Regarding the big issue of passing it from the back line, there is a clear need for better press-resistance from individuals while as a unit more care needs to be made in how players space themselves relative to their teammates. Many times players dropping back would only restrict space and made it easier for opponents to press and disrupt the build-up even in smaller numbers since the players got bunched up. This happened particularly along the sidelines when a FC Tokyo fullback received the ball and opponents wisely aimed to press FC Tokyo in a way that funneled the ball toward the fullbacks. It would be nice to get goalkeeper more involved, but Jakub Slowik, for all of his brilliance, is just simply not the guy for that… At the other end of the pitch, FC Tokyo’s pressing was fairly good especially when Diego Oliveira was leading the line. It was a season of many steps backwards and forwards. The fact that FC Tokyo were still in touching distance of a possible ACL spot was also due to the horrific loss of form of Kashima Antlers (2 wins in the last 10 games), Kashiwa Reysol (0 (zero!) wins in the last 10 games), and Cerezo Osaka (2 wins in the last 10 games ) so despite a lot of (warranted!) excitement, FC Tokyo’s season needs to be taken in context of the other teams around them as well. Even with these reality checks, I am still very much looking forward to next season, where the long winter break will benefit FC Tokyo and hopefully there is a bit more squad turnover to get ready for a Champions League place push in 2023. Gamba Osaka Things seemed hopeful at the start of the year as Tomohiro Katanosaka took the helm at Gamba Osaka. I was rather worried for them in the mid-season review even though they sat in 13th (albeit only 4 points off the drop) and unfortunately, things did not improve and Katano-soccer ceased to exist at Gamba as he was relieved from duty after a demoralizing defeat to fellow relegation candidates Shimizu S-Pulse in mid-August. Much like under Takashi Kiyama at the end of the 2021 season, under Hiroshi Matsuda Gamba once again found themselves in need of going back to a solid 4-4-2 low-mid block… playing on the counterattack and launching the ball up top to Patric and L. Pereira in attack. Juan Alano was a good acquisition, one of the few in my opinion which tells you quite a lot about Gamba’s recent transfer dealings. The rest have been the likes of Hideki Ishige, who hasn’t been in the matchday squad since August (and I haven’t seen any reports of injury although I may be wrong?). Musashi Suzuki returned to Japan after a failed stint in Belgium and he does not look half the player he was for Consadole Sapporo a few years ago. Defending in general was horrible, about the only person in the back 4/5 that you could say that had a ‘decent’ season was Keisuke Kurokawa, even then I quite like him more for his boundless energy to get up and down the flank in support of the attack rather than any defensive miracle work he did. Beneath is a table of the stats under both managers, not the best comparison as Matsuda had only 10 games compared to Katanosaka but it’s what we’ve got. Even after moving to a compact 4-4-2, Gamba still gave up quite a lot of shots (15.9 per game under Katanosaka vs. 15.5 per game under Matsuda, see below table) and it still came down to Masaaki Higashiguchi performing miracles between the posts for Gamba to just about scrape by in games and keep themselves within touching distance of safety until the final day. We can see this in how despite only slightly decreasing the quality and quantity of chances conceded, Gamba somehow managed to reduce their goals conceded by a solid chunk on a per game level (bad opponent finishing and just pure good luck probably played a part as well, of course). Katanosaka (All stats per game, 24 games)           xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against 1.06 1.46 0.96 1.33 11.3 15.9 Matsuda (All stats per game, 10 games)           0.9 1.39 1.00 0.9 9.8 15.5 (Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself) Still, Gamba’s guardian goalie isn’t getting any younger and yet again J.League fans everywhere will speculate on what’s to become of Kosei Tani, who had excellent performances of his own on loan at Shonan Bellmare the past few years. Takashi Usami finally came back in October after a long injury lay-off but it’s the same old thing all over again, the very reliance on him that Gamba want/should move away from. It’s been two straight seasons of the same thing, actually: poor squad recruitment, fire underperforming manager, hire a “firefighter” manager, move to a mid-low block 4-4-2, “hail mary” it to Patric and Usami, Higashiguchi performs miracles, etc. It was very frustrating as a neutral (and just imagine how their supporters feel!) as this is a club that has so much going for it… great/many fans, great stadium, and fantastic youth set up (and the willingness of the club to play them at the top level creates a virtuous cycle of more players wanting to come play for Gamba) but its just hampered by awful short-term thinking. Sooner rather than later they might just wind up like Shimizu S-Pulse! If I’m honest, I’d much rather have seen Gamba gone down under Tomohiro Katanosaka so he could have had the possibility to rebuild everything from the ground up… but that wasn’t to be. Gamba are safe… yet again, but what exactly does the future hold? Rumors of Dani Poyatos coming to manage swill around the media as the off-season slowly grinds itself into gear despite the approaching World Cup. Gamba have already started clearing house, saying "sayonara!" to Leandro Pereira (a big flop), Wellington Silva, and surprisingly Patric by not extending their contracts. New signing like Rihito Yamamoto will seek to establish themselves in the team after an injury ruined his first half-season with Gamba while Juan Alano and Dawhan will hope to continue their good form into the new season. Otherwise the promising youngsters that lost their place in the team under Matsuda, like Jiro Nakamura, Hiroto Yamami (who I thought was one of Gamba’s few bright lights during Katanosaka’s tenure but disappeared from August until making the bench on the final matchday…), and Isa Sakamoto, will hope a new manager and a new direction will mean further chances to impress. Whoever comes in will face a lot of pressure early on so as to not have history repeat itself yet again… Consadole Sapporo It’s been a very weird and yet another inconsistent season from Consadole Sapporo. Starting off the season with 6 straight draws and not scoring a whole lot in the 1st half of the season… to finishing off the season extremely strongly with 5 wins in the last 8 games of the season and also scoring a bucket load of goals throughout the 2nd half with 4 games where Sapporo scored more than 4 goals. It’s not exactly like they were suddenly amazing though, as when we look deeper at the stats we can see that they’ve been fairly consistently producing the same quality of chances throughout the season but they just simply started scoring more from a similar set of chances in the last 10 or so games. Looking at the data and the matches, this is a defensively shambolic team. It’s not secret. A multitude of factors meant that these defensive horrors didn’t actually translate to equally bad results though. Their 0.115 xGA per Shot is the worst in the league and alongside conceding 1.35 xGA per game (3rd worst in the league), Consadole Sapporo should be building a statue for Takanori Sugeno, who frequently came to Sapporo’s rescue (especially in games vs. Urawa, Marinos, etc.). When Sugeno was injured, the young Kojiro Nakano filled in but those coincided with 3 of Sapporo’s heaviest losses of the season. While of course not all goals were Nakano’s fault, it does strike home how daunting of a task it will be to fill Sugeno’s shoes in the near future as the veteran is approaching his 39th birthday. In general though, it’s far more of an immediate issue to sort out this disastrous defense. While I’m still not really sold on Daihachi Okamura as Hiroki Miyazawa’s heir at the heart of the defense yet, it’s quite clear that he will continue to play there (and hopefully improve). Out of the other defenders available, he is still the best candidate to play as the center most Center Back due to his sheer strength and dueling ability in the air or ground being his main skill set. I quite like Tomoki Takamine but he’s not the type to be the Central Center Back in a 3 and is better kept in his usual position as Left-sided Center Back or in the double pivot. I don’t see him improving to the point of entering the national team (unless maybe a future EAFF cup place?) nor going to Europe but as a good-to-very-good J1 level Center Back? Yep, fine and I can see him moving to a top-half J1 team in the next year or two if Sapporo keep floundering around in lower-mid table. Same applies to Shunta Tanaka on the other side of Sapporo’s defense as well. I find Tanaka a better 1v1 defender and carries the ball better, while Takamine is more about passing out from the back. For all of Daiki Suga’s highlight goals you also have to realize he takes the 2nd most (!) shots on the team and is extremely inaccurate with those shots (as per FBref). He slowly started to replace Akito Fukumori (when Takamine wasn’t in midfield) but the big negative about Suga is that he’s not particularly good at passing and is a much more direct player. Sapporo’s build-up ability noticeably declines whenever he played there. In the near term, it’s probably for the best to play Takamine at Left Center Back and keep Suga in the energetic up-down Wingback role to utilize his strengths. Going back to Fukumori, as great of a wand his left foot is, he was a huge liability in every other aspect of the game and indeed he slowly lost his starting spot in the team in the 2nd half of the season to the aforementioned Suga or Takamine. The general problem is that defending as a unit is hard for a team that is set up by Mischa Petrovic, as he likes to incorporate a tight man-marking system all over the pitch which can leave gigantic spaces open for opponents to exploit. At the opposite end of the pitch, things were rosier and especially their goal scoring spurt at the end of the season helped their numbers significantly. Oddly, of all people in the squad, it’s Ryota Aoki that finished as the team’s top scorer with 8 goals. He’s a peculiar player that got shoved around different midfield and wingback type roles. His game is mostly about being a final 3rd passer (but not directly assist others) and finisher, he had a large volume of passing yet not really involved in the build up at all. Otherwise, the goals were very spread out across the entire team from attackers, midfielders and even defenders like Hiroki Miyazawa and the aforementioned Daiki Suga. Yoshiaki Komai played a lot more this season as one of the attackers behind the striker with his defensive work-rate in chasing down opponents a crucial asset as his attacking partners were often the likes of Gabriel Xavier and Shinzo Koroki, who for all of their positive attributes are not quite the defensive workhorses needed in Sapporo’s man-marking system. The new summer arrivals, Supachok and Kim Gun-hee provided a much needed spark, albeit in very limited minutes as 2nd half substitutes. Kim provided a much needed aerial presence up top that’s been missing since Jay Bothroyd retired and A. Lopes left, while Supachok has made some smart runs and passes in the final 3rd. Time will tell if they can force themselves into the starting XI next season. (Update: Supachok’s loan was upgraded to a full transfer in the days after the league ended.) Continuing with the striker position, Sapporo fans will hope Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa can stay fit next year and that Taika Nakashima improves and gets more chances. With some bright cameos this season, it was very easy for people to say he should have got more chances but we don’t really know what goes on in training and how he fits Mischa’s system, especially on the defensive side of things. Otherwise, they’re stuck with Shinzo Koroki or GX10 (or I should say GX18 now but old habits die hard) up top next season. While Koroki has been quite good in my opinion, it’s very clear he has a time limit every game and it’ll only get worse from here on out. Regarding **GX10 ** playing as the striker… the fact that he’s not going to be able to hold off players with his back to goal still stands from my mid-season review, but if the ball is played to his feet he can keep it just long enough for support to arrive. His role is really to provide the through balls into space or feet for the attacking midfielders and wingbacks making overlapping runs or layoffs for the double pivot who can face forward on the ball. The less said about Milan Tucic and Douglas, the better. Lucas Fernandes remains a consistent threat bombing up the Right Wing. Near the end of the season he was switched over to the Left to take advantage of cutting inside and came up with 2 goals and 3 assists in the final 5 games of the season. This may be a winning formula that Mischa Petrovic wants to build upon next season. Takuro Kaneko is still an essential cog to Sapporo’s attack as his role out wide or sometimes closer to the striker tasks him with speeding up the rhythm of Sapporo’s possession as they try to break into the final 3rd with his mazy dribbles. Even so, he of all people would be disappointed he wasn’t able to get close to his excellent 2021 numbers (7 Goals, 2 Assists) as he tallied up only 2 goals and 4 assists in 2022. Once again it was another midtable finish but unlike previous seasons it did look like Mischa was actually in hot water for a bit. There was a point in the last few months of the season that Sapporo were teetering close to getting dropped into the relegation dog fight. Anyway, my talking points from the mid-season review still stands: But in terms of the near-to-mid term future, where does Mischa go from here? It just feels like Sapporo keep taking a few steps forward but even more steps back every season and wind up in midtable mediocrity… or this season, it could easily be worse. Urawa Reds Urawa Reds endured an extremely rough start to a season that had initially promised a lot following their Emperor’s Cup win alongside their trouncing of ex-Champions Kawasaki Frontale in the Super Cup (basically the J.League version of the Community Shield) that kicked off the 2022 season. What I wrote about them in the mid-season review sums up their start… It has been a rocky start to the 2nd season of Ricardo Rodriguez’s Reds Revolution as the club hovers just above the relegation zone. A wild mix of disallowed goals (some deserved, some questionable), chances being missed by themselves or scored by the opposition at crucial branching points in games, and idiotic red cards especially when Urawa were in the ascendancy (Gamba, Kobe, etc.), have seen the Reds completely throwing away their momentum from their Emperor’s Cup win late last year. This hasn’t been helped by injury issues (star striker Kasper Junker having an especially slow start as his injury malaise from last year followed him into this season) and a COVID scare right after the morale-boosting pre-season Super Cup win over league and ACL rivals Kawasaki Frontale. At the halfway point, they were in 14th, hovering just 2 points off the relegation zone. However, I also mentioned that I wasn’t too worried about them, they are/were a good team that just couldn’t score even though they were clearly creating good chances on average. 1st Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)           xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against 1.28 0.90 0.82 0.88 12.7 10.5 2nd Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)           1.49 1.13 1.53 1.29 13.8 12.2 (Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself) And yeah, after the midway point of the season they won 6 of their next 10 and were pretty safe from relegation by September as they started scoring more in line with the chances they were creating (from 0.82 goals per game from 1.28 xG per game vs. 1.53 goals per game from 1.49 xG per game). On top of that, they pretty comfortably won their way to the final of the Asian Champions League. The semifinal game against Jeonbuk should have been put to bed long before penalties on the quality of chances that Urawa created… again a recurring theme of this season. However, poor losses against Cerezo in both the league and cup started a downward spiral in the league yet again with Reds upper management seemingly losing confidence in Ricardo Rodriguez. Following the heavy defeat against Marinos on the penultimate matchday, it was announced that they were ending their contract with the Spanish manager. Alex Scholz was a centerpiece of Urawa’s build-up as he has been since his arrival in 2021, carrying the ball from the left half-space into midfield to push past opponent’s first line of press. He also took penalties with aplomb, 5 of his 6 goals were from the spot which actually put him as the 3rd highest goal scorer in the team (a bit of a red flag we’ll get to later). Ayumu Ohata has been quite good as a good passer and works well with Scholz taking up the right positions to allow the ball to progress smoothly up the field. Tomoya Inukai suffered a season-ending injury early on and so there wasn’t much rotation at Center Back with Tetsuya Chinen only filling in occasionally to play alongside regular Takuya Iwanami. Ken Iwao established himself as the fundamental rock of the midfield but with Rodriguez now gone, whether his loan will be made permanent is very up in the air. I find that a shame as he was so good this year, he was the glue that connected the defense to attack and lots of Urawa’s ball progression flowed through his feet. Ataru Esaka lost his starting position in the 2nd half of the season, after being guilty of missing quite a lot of good chances (a paltry 2 goals from 6.4 xG as per Football-Lab) despite his innate creativity, along with the versatile Takahiro Akimoto. Meanwhile Yoshio Koizumi started to play more as the season went by but instead of solely operating centrally, he would sometimes start on the Left Wing with license to move inside or outside as needed. Near the end of the season, Koizumi or whoever else was playing behind the striker would drop deeper to form a 3 in midfield next to Atsuki Ito, with Ken Iwao playing as a single pivot. Bryan Linssen got injured immediately after arriving, continuing Urawa’s curse at the Striker position especially as Kasper Junker’s injury concerns also didn’t let up all throughout the season. As a mix between a winger/striker, Alex Schalk continued to flatter to deceive and was largely left out of the matchday squads. On the other hand, Yusuke Matsuo took up this opportunity to be converted into a striker to good effect, he was seen as a good option not just for his movement but for his pressing instincts as well. Still none of the striker options got into the double digits, Junker coming closest with 7 goals but his fitness issues remained as he only played minutes totaling up to 12.2 90s in the league. Despite a slow start to his Red’s career, David Moberg gradually lit up the league with his step-overs and direct dribbling (and also the team’s top goal scorer with 8 goals) while Tomoaki Okubo does similar on either wing. I’ve really liked the evolution of Okubo from a pure wide dribbler to someone who can take up more varied tasks like coming inside into the half-spaces or more centrally to receive the ball under pressure. Okubo dribble vs. Tosu for Junker’s goal (if anybody can actually find a clip of it anymore please share it with me…) Okubo half-space receive and dribble vs. Reysol Even still, despite the immense talent Ricardo Rodriguez had at his disposal and their mid-season recovery to get back into the top half… Urawa really struggled to be consistent in the last 10 or so games of the season. There was a lot of squad turnover between games but unlike Marinos, Urawa felt like a different team game-to-game depending on who was playing, especially when it came to the players in the attacking unit (ex. Matsuo vs. Junker up top). For all the praise I’ve given to Urawa’s build-up throughout Rodriguez’s reign, there have been quite a few times where they have struggled like against Cerezo or Marinos. Reds’ transition from building up with a back 3 vs. a back 4 each had their pros vs. cons, neither which completely solved Urawa’s problems. Back 3 (a 3-1 or 3-2 build-up): More people involved in deeper areas but means less people up top making runs in-behind the opponent’s defense and longer time for support to arrive in the final 3rd (a thing I touched upon the the mid-season review). Back 4 (a 2-1 or 2-2 build-up): Heavily reliant on the skills of each individual in the back line as there are fewer people supporting the build-up from deeper areas but when they can progress into the opponent half, there are more options readily available to make runs in-behind or attack the box. Urawa concede vs. Sanfrecce (70th minute) With the conclusion of the 2022 season, so too ended Urawa’s “3 Year Plan”. There were some clear successes: winning the Emperor’s Cup, getting to the final of the Champions League, and generally playing good football especially compared to the mediocrity seen in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. As touched upon in the previous paragraph, Reds couldn’t find the consistency to challenge for the title in a year that should have been the capstone for Urawa’s medium-term strategy after a very good 2021 season. I am disappointed that Ricardo Rodriguez left but I’m sure he’ll have no shortage of takers in J1 or even J2 in the off-season. To replace the Spaniard, Maciej Skorza will be the incoming manager. He has a lot of experience winning titles in the Polish League but I don’t know too much about him so we’ll have to wait and see. This squad has seen significant investment and turnover, so overall it can be said that Urawa under-performed this season. With a great mix of players of all age categories, a few tweaks by the new manager could see them as a extremely strong force to be reckoned with in the years ahead. Kyoto Sanga Only 3 wins in the latter half of the season but to Kyoto’s credit they were able to keep the score down in their defeats as they only lost by more than 1 goal twice (0-2 vs. FC Tokyo and 1-3 vs. Kawasaki Frontale). They ran hard all over the pitch and with Naoto Kamifukumoto in goal they were able to squeeze the life out of games. This is despite them giving up the 4th worst most shots against and xGA per shot in the league, opponents had a hard time converting that into goals as Kyoto finished the season giving up 36 non-penalty goals (their 38 total goals conceded is tied 3rd best in the league!) from 44.84 non-penalty xGA. They were able to cling on for dear life and scrape draws in games where their xGD were very negative and even managed to squeeze some wins from those types of games as well. I can not emphasize how immense Naoto Kamifukumoto was this season, while of course some luck also played a part in the opposition not being able to finish their chances. But at the other end of the pitch, things became quite barren. In the mid-season review I talked about how Kyoto’s survival would depend on Peter Utaka and well… the Nigerian simply stopped scoring after July (July 2nd to be concise). Then due to injury and also subsequently losing his starting position despite his return he’s played an extremely bit-part role for someone who had been such an integral piece of Kyoto’s play. His replacement up top were former Nagoya striker, Ryogo Yamasaki, whose hard work off the ball and his hold-up play kept Kyoto’s intensity intact but on the other hand he only scored a solitary goal. No other player come close to Peter Utaka with the next highest scorer on the team being Kosuke Taketomi with 3 goals. Check out the “How does Kyoto Sanga play?” section from the mid-season review for a more in-depth look at their tactics/play style. I found this team pretty poor in possession once in the final 3rd, they need overlapping runs from their full/wing-backs like Kosuke Shirai and Takuya Ogiwara to create chances and even those are low-quality ones created from crossing situations. Kyoto live or die by the quickness and interplay of attackers in tight areas on the counter attack, especially on balls won from the pressing up high. They can also build up slowly from the back and use their attackers to drag opponents around to create space, probably the most extreme example being the goal they scored against Kashiwa Reysol that went somewhat viral back in the summer. Summer also saw the Kyoto side welcome Alan Carius, Paulinho, and Kyo Sato to bolster Sanga’s survival hopes… but none of them actually saw any significant number of minutes as manager Cho Kwi-jae sought to shuffle his existing deck of players rather than throw his new players into the fray. A lot was expected of Origbaajo Ismaila, especially as a backup for Peter Utaka but that never really materialized as the likes of Ryogo Yamasaki, Yuta Toyokawa, and even Kosuke Taketomi took up the striker position instead at various points of the season. Fuki Yamada looked promising at one point, his performances in limited minutes earned him a call up to the U-23 national team set up but he completely disappeared in the 2nd half of the season (similar to promising striker Yudai Kimura, although he made most of his appearances in the 2nd half of the season instead). It was a closely run thing, with J2 challengers Roasso Kumamoto playing their hearts out and were just one shot off the post away from throwing Kyoto back down into J2. Kyoto Sanga have a youthful squad and if they can build upon this temporary reprieve, their stay in J1 may be prolonged without having to get mired in a relegation battle again. Sagan Tosu tl;dr: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” describes Sagan Tosu quite succinctly. In my mid-season review I talked about how my predictions for Tosu going down were completely upended by their really good form under new manager Kenta Kawai and now at the end of the season… yeah this team is still good, even if going win-less in their last 7 games ended the season on a bit of a sour note. One of the funnest (?) parts of watching Sagan Tosu in the past few years is you never **really** know what their shape is until a few minutes after the game starts! 😅#JLeague (not to mention, their shape can change drastically depending on in-poss. vs. out-of-poss.) https://t.co/7XF2mhYgGi — ⚽️Ryo Nakagawara📊 (@R_by_Ryo) October 1, 2022 Sagan Tosu shifted between different shapes mainly looking like either a 3-4-2-1 or a 4-4-2. Below is how things shifted around in the 1st half of the season: The left side is dominated by the presence of Yuto Iwasaki, his speed and direct dribbling, won many plaudits this season (even culminating in a national team call-up for the domestic-player only EAFF Cup squad). He starts off as a wing back but can push up to become a part of a front two when pressing the opposition from high up before reverting back to his wing back position when Tosu are pushed back toward their own goal or only drop slightly back as a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2 instead. Diego, working slightly deeper on the same wing as the Left Center Back or Left Back, showed a lot of quality as a ball progressor from deep with his ball carrying abilities and was an inspired choice to replace Ayumu Ohata, who left for Urawa Reds in the off season. In Tosu’s tactics section in the mid-season review I talked about how well they work as a team to work the ball up from the back, starting off with their Goalkeeper Park I.G. In general they like to keep a lot of conservative possession, not really forcing things too much which can also serve as a good defensive tactic. Still, even they can get pressed into mistakes. On top of this, forcing Tosu’s wing backs back deeper into their own half provided avenues for the opposition to bring the ball up from the wide areas. Two young stars made their names known in a Tosu shirt this season in the form of attacking midfielders Fuchi Honda and Taichi Kikuchi. Honda made headlines for providing the finishing touch to chances as he concluded the season as the team’s 3rd highest goal scorer while Kikuchi was more in the business of assisting and creating for others with his smart passing while also possessing a good defensive work rate. Yoichi Naganuma, who arrived after Nanasei Iino was scooped up by Vissel Kobe, carved out a spot on the Right of Midfield with his tireless running in the 2nd half of the season. The rise in prominence of the ex-Sanfrecce man alongside Honda and Kikuchi saw Yuki Horigome take a step back from the starting line up as he mostly appeared from the bench in the 2nd half of the season. Akito Fukuta become the central cog in Tosu’s system, creating a solid midfield partnership with Kei Koizumi and sharing responsibilities to drop into the back line to aid the build up. Further forward in the final 3rd, Fukuta’s accurate deliveries into the box from open-play and set-pieces earned him 7 assists which were vital for a team that scored over 35% of their total goal haul from crossing situations this season (even more so when you add the 22.2% of goals coming from set-pieces as well, many of them taken by Fukuta). In the mid-season review I talked about how the goal scoring was spread across entire team but the lack of true clinical striker has been a bit of a disadvantage, with only Yuki Kakita truly able to perform that role, but he doesn’t usually start due to deficiencies in other parts of his game that Tosu need to generate chances in the first place. Saying this, Tosu don’t create a whole lot of shots with their 370 over the course of the 2022 season tied for 3rd worst in the league. In the 2nd half of the season Taisei Miyashiro looked to have partially solved Tosu’s goal scoring issues with 4 goals in the last 8 matches of the season, but he was only on loan and is unlikely to return next season due to his good form. It will be another transfer market of turbulence for Sagan Tosu as teams might pluck their star performers of the 2022 season alongside the question marks hanging over many of their loanees such as Taisei Miyashiro, Yuki Kakita, Jun Nishikawa, and Yuto Iwasaki. So clearly Tosu will be on the look out for a striker that can finish the few quality chances that this team can fashion. But seeing their consistently good record over the past few years, one would be foolish to bet against them anymore. Avispa Fukuoka The COVID crisis during the summer really derailed their campaign, although to be clear, by the halfway point of the season they weren’t exactly looking like the Avispa Fukuoka of last season either. The Fukuoka side were 6 points clear of 16th and 17th at the halfway point but going on a 7 game win-less streak from August to mid-September threw the team right into the thick of the relegation dogfight. The team was so depleted they had to bring out veteran striker 36 year old Hisashi Jogo as a Center Midfielder in the league and cup games while 2 goalkeepers filled the 4 man bench in their League Cup tie vs. Vissel Kobe immediately after the breakout was confirmed. More frequent changes to a back 3 (something we only saw manager Shigetoshi Hasebe turn to when playing against back 3 sides a few times) and trying to play Lukian as a wide midfielder to provide some attacking spark didn’t really make much of an impact. Indeed, the big problems that Avispa carried over from last season remained in attack with the Kyushu side scoring only a league worst 29 goals this season. It was fortuitous that Yuya Yamagishi turned down a move to Gamba over the summer as their goal scoring problems would have somehow turned even worse if he (and his team-leading 10 goal haul) were to have departed midway through the season. As mentioned in the mid-season review, Lukian wasn’t the goal scoring spark that was expected, with 2 of his 3 goals coming in a drubbing of FC Tokyo. To his credit, he did work hard for the team by filling in as a wide midfielder and as a attacking midfielder when Fukuoka shape up in a back 3/5. Emil Salomonsson’s absence was felt keenly as neither his replacements at fullback nor options further forward in midfield (such as major signing Tatsuya Tanaka from Urawa Reds who hasn’t even been seen in the matchday squad since the end of August!) were able to match his creativity from the flank and on set pieces in the 2021 season. For a team with a limited budget like Avispa, making key transfers work is absolutely crucial and unfortunately their bets on Tatsuya Tanaka and Lukian didn’t worked out (although it’s clear Lukian is providing some impact outside of goal scoring). As a result a lot has been put on Jordy Croux’s shoulders while both Hiroyuki Mae and Shun Nakamura try to be a bit more progressive themselves. On top of this the sheer volume of crosses have increased across this entire team. Indeed, Jordy Croux led the league by some margin in cross attempts… but Avispa have little to show for it. They took the least amount of shots in the league, worst xG per 90, lowest shots taken per 90, even if their xG per Shot is tied 3rd best in the league (it’s more just because they take so few shots than anything in my opinion) Avispa simply don’t produce enough attacking output. Are they getting enough players in the box? Can they up the variety of crosses and/or create more opportunities through more dangerous cut-backs instead? Are they dragging opponent CBs out of the box to make it easier for their big strikers to get on the end of crosses? Answer to all these questions were a resounding no. I also mentioned how Avispa were trying to slightly update their style by pressing a bit higher up than they were before but… it just doesn’t seem to be working and all too frequently they’ve got their backs to the wall without much hope for attacking besides long distance (inefficient) counterattacks. On top of this, in goal, Masaaki Murakami lost his spot to backup Takumi Nagaishi as his form dropped at various points of the season. Compared to their good 2021 season, they seem to have far more problems with filling the gaps between the lines and getting pulled out of position. On the other hand, they still did finish the season conceding the 2nd least shots per game and league best xGA per game. With 3 wins in the last 5 matches of the season, they finished 2 points off the relegation playoff place to just about clinch survival on the final day. Still, it wasn’t completely awful as Avispa made some pretty deep cup runs in the shape of the Semifinals of the League Cup (after defeating Kobe over 2 legs with a bare bones squad in the Quarters) and the Quarterfinals of the Emperor’s Cup where they were beat by eventual “Giant Killer” champions, Ventforet Kofu. This season was a big challenge for Shigetoshi Hasebe and the Kyushu side just about overcame it. With a long off-season, it’ll be up to Avispa to make sure they are far more comfortable next season and perhaps make another run at the Cups. I’ve talked about Avispa’s old squad composition in many past reviews and yet again it’ll be an important transfer market period as their core players are all approaching 30 and they don’t have a whole lot of young(er) players to rely upon (or at least haven’t convinced Hasebe to give them an extended run out yet). Sanfrecce Hiroshima Michael Skibbe deservedly won the Manager of the Year award after a terrific debut season with Sanfrecce Hiroshima. He led the team to appearances in the finals of both domestic cup competitions, winning one of them alongside a strong 3rd place league finish, their best since 2018 and the championship winning teams of the early 2010s. Largely taking a squad that remained unchanged since the maligned Hiroshi Jofuku era as they had no outright transfers, the only arrivals being players coming back from loan (Gakuto Notsuda and Takumu Kawamura) or recruited from university (Taishi Senba and Makoto Mitsuta), Michael Skibbe rapidly transformed this team into a quality team. As a result, Skibbe didn’t change the shape of the team (3-4-2-1) but drastically increased the intensity of the team on and off the ball. Sanfrecce press Urawa and score It wasn’t just running hard but also smart movements especially the likes of Makoto Mitsuta and Tsukasa Morishima to drag defenders around and create space. These two were absolutely the star players in this team, Mitsuta especially being one of the surprises of the season as he was brought in from Ryutsu Keizai University but has been playing like a seasoned professional. Another player who really blossomed this season was Right Wing Back Tomoya Fujii. His speed and directness gave Sanfrecce a new dimension in attack through his elite ball carrying ability and support for attackers on the over/underlap. Another thing to notice was the general theme of Sanfrecce’s opponents widening the gap and getting in between Sanfrecce’s midfield and back line (something I also noticed while watching the Emperor’s Cup final live at Nissan Stadium in October). Opponents would spread out and/or drop players into the back line to force one or both of the double pivot to move around to cover Sanfrecce’s wingbacks pushing really high up or jump forward to press an open player, which then opened gaps to switch play as there’s barely any cover available in the center and opposite wing. Deeper in Sanfrecce’s half, opponents would try to create gaps between Sanfrecce’s Center Back trio to force one or two wide away from the box. vs. Shonan vs. Sapporo With the wingbacks also dropping back to ostensibly help the build-up, this actually made problems worse as they restricted space for the ball-carrier even further by bringing even more players into the immediate playing area. While there was a time where Skibbe experimented with a very attacking 3-man midfield with Gakuto Notsuda at the base and Mitsuta and Morishima as box-to-box midfielders, they soon changed back to a double-pivot as the burden on Notsuda to cover the midfield was too great. Notsuda was another loand returnee that impressed this season, surprisingly so considered he had been exiled out on loan for multiple seasons prior to 2022 (On the other hand his last loan at Kofu did catch the eye). With a lot of emphasis on taking risks and supporting the attack, the central midfielders would often support the wing back and attacking midfielders with runs out wide of their own. However, this caused significant problems if there was a turnover as there was a lack of cover in central areas which left Sanfrecce’s Center Backs woefully exposed. It’s fairly indicative of their approach that while Sanfrecce were able to suppress the quantity of shots against them (371, 4th best in the league), their xGA per shot of 0.105 is the 2nd worst in the league. I mentioned in the mid-season review about how thin Sanfrecce’s squad looks and indeed, with the loss of Tomoya Fujii, Shunki Higashi, and Ezequiel to injury for long stretches of the season, and Naganuma’s transfer to Tosu, Sanfrecce were forced to play regular Center Back Yuki Nogami, convert central midfielders like Takumu Kawamura into a wing back, or extend playing time to Yusuke Chajima, options that weren’t ideal at all. With Sanfrecce’s entry into the Asian Champions League next season it’s even more imperative that they fill out the squad a bit more. Other options could simply be players like Taishi Semba or Ryo Nagai returning from loan reinvigorated (the former more likely than the latter) like Notsuda and Kawamura did or Shunki Higashi and Shun Ayukawa returning fully fit. I am especially worried at the wide Center Back options as neither Sho Sasaki nor Tsukasa Shiotani are getting any younger and their ball progressing skills from deep are essential to how Sanfrecce want to build up from the back. Maybe Osamu Iyoha, who had a very good season with Roasso Kumamoto in J2, will be recalled and integrated? Especially as neither Jelani Sumiyoshi nor Yuta Imazu fill me with confidence playing against quality opposition as backup. These worries can’t completely cloud over an extremely successful season for Sanfrecce Hiroshima and over the long off-season they’ll hope to take time to make some moves in the market and work on their weaknesses for what could very likely be another title-challenging year ahead. Jubilo Iwata A truly woeful team. I noted with surprise in the mid-season review that while they were by far the worst team (by eye and the data), they had somehow kept themselves out of the relegation zone (in 15th by a mere 2 points) at the halfway point. Nothing improved in the 2nd half of the season, in fact things got worse, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that their xG did catch up to them as they continued to post some of the worst numbers in the league (2nd worst in non-penalty xGA, 2nd worst shots taken, 2nd worst shots against, 4th worst xGA per shot) and critically, their results started to fall in line with those underlying numbers. Manager Akira Ito was finally fired after a horrific 0-6 loss against Urawa Reds and in came… Hiroki Shibuya, who was one of the coaches during Ito’s tenure. Not very inspiring. Unsurprisingly, not a whole lot changed as they only won once under him and relegation was confirmed on Matchday 32 after a 0-2 loss against relegation rivals Gamba Osaka. The fact that they weren’t relegated earlier was due the poor performances of the teams around them along with the shock win over Marinos in mid-October. Yuto Suzuki simply stopped scoring/assisting goals, partly due to being forced to cover the Right Center Back position instead of the marauding Wing Back position that proved so fruitful in the first few months of the season. The fact that his early season exploits of 6 goals and 4 assists proved to be the team’s best individual record is a damning indictment of the attacking “talent” on show at the Yamaha Stadium this season (Lasso has 6 goals but 0 assists). It’s all representative of the keenly felt loss of Lukian to Avispa Fukuoka last year but even with him in the team, would the rest of this very mediocre squad have been able to supply their former Brazilian attacker with the chances against J1 level opposition? Doubtful. With Fabian Gonzalez (Lasso) proving to be a volatile threat mainly off the bench, that didn’t translate as much when he started games due to his volatility, injuries, and now he’s been suspended (in effect he’s been excluded from the squad since early September) for illegally breaking a contract to join Jubilo. Jubilo themselves have been dealt with the extremely dire consequences of a possible transfer ban! For a relegated club this is a double-whammy to end all double-whammys and I would be extremely doubtful of Jubilo being able to return to J1 anytime soon if the decision is upheld. Where else could they get goals from? Ryo Germain has bounced around various relegation-threatened J1 clubs and has done poorly everywhere he goes, Kotaro Omori wanders between an attacking midfielder and wide midfielder without really threatening in either position. Shota Kaneko has some utility as a good ball receiver - finding pockets of space between the lines but is yet another player that isn’t much of a goal threat. With injuries and the poor form of others, Jubilo resorted to playing veteran Hiroki Yamada at the tail end of the season as they didn’t really have anybody else. I would’ve liked to see a bit more of Atsushi Kurokawa and Yosuke Furukawa (who did score against Marinos in October) but throwing them on would maybe have been a bit too much in that tightrope situation. Jubilo played in a mix of 5-4-1 and 5-2-3 that shifted around in different phases of possession with Kotaro Omori usually switching between the wide attacker role and the wide midfielder role throughout the game. Their back line weren’t quick or aggressive enough and lines between midfield and defense were very open to be exploited. Jubilo would fall back to try and defend in numbers but their lines would get bypassed easily and players would be slow to shift over, defeating the point of having more players sit back to defend. Ex. Sapporo goal concede Their attempts at pressing only worked when they intentionally played their more “active” guys like Kurokawa, Kaneko, Germain, Lasso, etc. but even then it wasn’t always successful. In general, consistent pressing was unfeasible for Jubilo a lot of the time due to the profiles of key players in each line (Otsu, Omori, Endo, and their entire back line). In the attack Jubilo have been one of the worst teams in the league. They tried to play it out from the back but were rather poor… Shota Kaneko was an outlet as he would drift around into pockets of space or overload the wings. However, Jubilo had to spend so many “resources” (players) into getting the ball up-field by moving around or dropping back that even when they were successful, they had a hard time getting shots off simply because there weren’t enough people in the box or on the opposite wing when they switched the ball. Jubilo have struggled a lot as their languid possession style has them camped out outside the box without a whole lot of incision. They have often looked a lot more threatening playing direct and on the counter, especially when Lasso was involved. With Jubilo also confirming Hiroki Shibuya’s exit, whoever comes into the managerial hot-seat next has quite a fight in J2 on his hands as this squad is rather bloated with veterans, many who played significant minutes throughout the season. However, there are still a fair number of young or ‘entering their prime’ players that could take up the mantle, especially considering Jubilo’s transfer ban. With regional rival Shimizu S-Pulse’s relegation, this was indeed a very dark season for soccer fans in Shizuoka Prefecture. Data Visualizations Squad Age Profiles I changed the calculation of a squad’s median age up a bit by simply taking into account only players that have played 50% of more of total possible league minutes. This is so when looking at the ‘average’ age of a team, we’re doing a better job of considering players who are regulars in the team. I am not sure how other people might do it but from playing around with the raw data it looks OK, most teams have around 9~12 players that meet this threshold so I do think I’m capturing the right selection of players in any given team. Anyway, here’s the list of the U-23 players in the league with the most minutes played so far this season (filtered for those that have played more than 50% of total possible league minutes). You might want to keep an eye on these guys in the short-to-end term. Click to show R code! ```r jleague_age_utility_df % filter(age = 0.5) %>% 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) %>% knitr::kable() ``` Name Team Age Minutes % of Total Minutes Played Kosei Tani Shonan Bellmare 21 2790 91.2 Haruya Fujii Nagoya Grampus 21 2635 86.1 Reon Yamahara Shimizu S-Pulse 23 2616 85.5 Yuki Kobayashi Vissel Kobe 22 2586 84.5 Yuki Kobayashi Vissel Kobe 22 2586 84.5 Keisuke Osako Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 2520 82.4 Hirokazu Ishihara Shonan Bellmare 23 2501 81.7 Kuryu Matsuki FC Tokyo 19 2433 79.5 Mao Hosoya Kashiwa Reysol 21 2385 77.9 Ikuma Sekigawa Kashima Antlers 22 2382 77.8 Makoto Mitsuta Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 2358 77.1 Sota Kawasaki Kyoto Sanga 21 2173 71.0 Tomoya Fujii Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 2105 68.8 Ryuya Nishio Cerezo Osaka 21 1989 65.0 Masato Sasaki Kashiwa Reysol 20 1800 58.8 Shuto Machino Shonan Bellmare 23 1792 58.6 Shimpei Fukuoka Kyoto Sanga 22 1775 58.0 Mitsuki Saito Gamba Osaka 23 1695 55.4 Taisei Miyashiro Sagan Tosu 22 1575 51.5 Asahi Sasaki Kawasaki Frontale 22 1550 50.7 Name Team Age Minutes % of Total Minutes Played Kosei Tani Shonan Bellmare 21 2790 91.2 Haruya Fujii Nagoya Grampus 21 2635 86.1 Reon Yamahara Shimizu S-Pulse 23 2616 85.5 Yuki Kobayashi Vissel Kobe 22 2586 84.5 Yuki Kobayashi Vissel Kobe 22 2586 84.5 Keisuke Osako Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 2520 82.4 Hirokazu Ishihara Shonan Bellmare 23 2501 81.7 Kuryu Matsuki FC Tokyo 19 2433 79.5 Mao Hosoya Kashiwa Reysol 21 2385 77.9 Ikuma Sekigawa Kashima Antlers 22 2382 77.8 Makoto Mitsuta Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 2358 77.1 Sota Kawasaki Kyoto Sanga 21 2173 71.0 Tomoya Fujii Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 2105 68.8 Ryuya Nishio Cerezo Osaka 21 1989 65.0 Masato Sasaki Kashiwa Reysol 20 1800 58.8 Shuto Machino Shonan Bellmare 23 1792 58.6 Shimpei Fukuoka Kyoto Sanga 22 1775 58.0 Mitsuki Saito Gamba Osaka 23 1695 55.4 Taisei Miyashiro Sagan Tosu 22 1575 51.5 Asahi Sasaki Kawasaki Frontale 22 1550 50.7 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 | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga Time Interval 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. What’s noticeable from this data set is that the good teams generally know how to close out a game and don’t concede many goals in the last 10~20 minutes. 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 | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga Scoring Situations 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 a team’s actual performance). 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 | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga Team Shot Quantity 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 Sporteria 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. Team Shot Quality 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: Expected Goals in Context (StatsPerform) What is xG? (TifoFootball) Football Stats Explainer: xG - Grace On Football 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. Combining shot quantity and shot quality numbers gives you a much better idea about a team’s performance on either side of the ball. 5 Match Rolling Averages: Here are the image links for each team: Goals vs. Goals Against |Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga xG vs. xGA |Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga xG vs. Goals |Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga xGA vs. Goals Against |Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga xG Difference xG Difference is pretty much the same thing as Goal Difference except that we use xG and xGA rather than goals and goals against. This lets us see very quickly which teams generally outperformed their opponents in terms of quality of chances created to quality of chances conceded based on a xG model. This time around I also included the team’s results inside the bubble points. So it’s easier to see whether a team that had a positive xGD in a specific match couldn’t manage to win the game or vice-versa. |Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Jubilo Iwata | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Shimizu S-Pulse | Avispa Fukuoka | Shonan Bellmare | Kyoto Sanga Conclusion It was another fantastic J.League season that went right down to the wire! Yokohama F. Marinos are your 2022 J.League champions, their 5th ever league title. At the other end of the table, two storied Shizuoka clubs, Jubilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse go down while Kyoto Sanga kept their heads just above water by not being defeated by J2 playoff challengers, Roasso Kumamoto. With the World Cup putting an early end to J.League festivities, there will be seven J.League-based players heading over to Qatar. Best of luck to Shuichi Gonda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Miki Yamane and Shogo Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), Yuto Nagatomo (FC Tokyo), Hiroki Sakai (Urawa Reds), Yuki Soma (Nagoya Grampus), Shuto Machino (Shonan Bellmare), and of course the rest of the Japan team. As for myself, I had the pleasure of going to quite a few games this year: Kyoto Sanga vs. Sagan Tosu Urawa Reds vs. Nagoya Grampus Vegalta Sendai vs. V-Varen Nagasaki Kawasaki Frontale vs. Sanfrecce Hiroshima FC Tokyo vs. Kyoto Sanga Kashiwa Reysol vs. Cerezo Osaka Ventforet Kofu vs. Sanfrecce Hiroshima FC Tokyo vs. Kawasaki Frontale I plan to go to even more next year - including more J2, J3, and WE League! Maybe I’ll see some of you around. A big thank you if you stuck around to read this all the way through! " />

J.League Soccer 2022 Season Review!

[This article was first published on R by R(yo), and kindly contributed to R-bloggers]. (You can report issue about the content on this page here)
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Intro

As winter approaches, the sun sets on the 2022 season of the J.League! This was yet another condensed season due to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, just about overlapping with the time the J.League usually finishes so fans and players alike got another busy J1 schedule. We are now in the 30th season of the J.League and although COVID related measures are still largely in place, things were slowly getting back to normal with bigger crowds and from the summer months onward, small sections of fans in the stadium were allowed to cheer again. It is quite likely, bar some catastrophic new variant, that this season might be the end of all restrictions on fan cheering/singing (fingers crossed…). This season saw Jubilo Iwata and Kyoto Sanga join J1, their first time back to the premier competition level in 3 years and 12 years respectively. As has become tradition in the last few years, this is the season end review of the J.League where I look at how teams are doing using both data and watching the games (or the “eye-test” or whatever other term you want to use).

For these blog posts that I create I would ideally use data from WyScout, InStat, etc. to take advantage 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 and of course the tagged/organized video footage that these platforms provide (especially as DAZN only keeps matches up online for about a month until they are archived forever into the abyss…). Unfortunately, all of that costs $$$. I do all of this as a hobby and I can’t justify the expense (it’s not the $ but more importantly 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 this past year. Once again, 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 my taking a look at the bottom corners of any viz.

Since last year I’ve been heavily relying on the TACTICALista app to create tactics diagrams/animations. You’ll see a lot of them in the tactics sections and I urge you to check it out, it’s really great. For those of you familiar with my previous work, I would’ve liked to remain on brand and create soccer-related diagrams/animations with {ggplot2} and {gganimate} but… that would’ve taken a loooong time so I have been using a program that’s actually built for this kind of thing instead.

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 (on Twitter: R_by_Ryo) if you want me to do so!

Before I start just a few notes:

  • To keep up to date with all of what’s happening in J1, I made a giant Twitter thread of lots of cool informed people to follow on Twitter for English language/international J.League content. You can find it here!

  • While I have become a FC Tokyo fan since returning to Japan a few years back, this review is meant to be as objective (as possible) and I do try my best to be impartial.

  • I can’t watch every match for every team but I do try to watch around 70%~80% of all J1 games in a given season. Of those games I do watch I’m almost always taking detailed notes on them to review later, re-watching them, etc. This season I’ve been able to go watch games live at the stadiums a lot more so I was able to gain impressions from that perspective as well.

  • All of the shots and xG related stuff you see in the viz are non-penalty stats. Exceptions are stuff like the time interval and scoring situations plots. When I mentioned these stats in writing I always do mean non-penalty but I explicitly wrote it out every time just to be super clear.

  • My views come from watching only J1 league matches as most cup games clash with my work schedule and I can’t be bothered to subscribe to yet another streaming service. The things I talk about here are primarily based on the J1 league with occasional references to cup competitions.

  • Again, I am doing this all on my own free time. As much as I do enjoy doing this, it’s honestly becoming a huge time sink. It’s quite likely this will be the end of blog posts of this scale. The data stuff is easy and I can produce everything with a few button clicks but the tactics stuff takes an enormous amount of time, especially when I am doing it for 18 (Eighteen!) teams to the level of understanding and depth that I am happy with. I may change the format to a monthly newsletter that is much smaller in scope and may ease the burden on me.

  • With better data and more time (especially with the World Cup starting in only 14 days after the J.League finishes), I would’ve done more… I definitely wanted to do more… but what you see is what you get!

Anyway, Let’s get started!

League table

Click to show R code!
```r
jleague_table_2022_end_cleaned <- read.csv(
  file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/jleague_2022_end/jleague_table_2022_end_cleaned.csv")

jleague_kable_table <- jleague_table_2022_end_cleaned %>% 
  knitr::kable(format = "html", 
               caption = "J.League 2022 - League Table (After Matchday 16)") %>% 
  kable_styling(full_width = FALSE,
                bootstrap_options = c("condensed", "responsive")) %>% 
  add_header_above(c(" ", "Result" = 5, "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(4:15, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "white") %>% 
  row_spec(16, bold = TRUE, color = "white", background = "orange") %>% 
  row_spec(17:18, color = "white", background = "red") %>% 
  add_footnote(label = "Data: FBref.com & Sporteria | Kyoto survive after winning pro/rel playoff | All xG values do not include penalties",
               notation = "none")

jleague_kable_table
```
J.League 2022 – League Table (After Matchday 16)
Result
Goals
Expected Goals
Team Matches W D L Pts GF GA GD xG xGA xGDiff
Yokohama Marinos 34 20 8 6 68 70 35 35 57.32 36.86 20.46
Kawasaki Frontale 34 20 6 8 66 65 42 23 41.57 32.93 8.64
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 34 15 10 9 55 52 41 11 44.25 38.81 5.44
Kashima Antlers 34 13 13 8 52 47 42 5 37.35 37.53 -0.18
Cerezo Osaka 34 13 12 9 51 46 40 6 39.32 37.77 1.55
FC Tokyo 34 14 7 13 49 46 43 3 36.45 40.90 -4.45
Kashiwa Reysol 34 13 8 13 47 43 44 -1 36.33 35.37 0.96
Nagoya Grampus 34 11 13 10 46 30 35 -5 39.44 37.42 2.02
Urawa Reds 34 10 15 9 45 48 39 9 47.08 34.58 12.50
Consadole Sapporo 34 11 12 11 45 45 55 -10 43.91 46.02 -2.11
Sagan Tosu 34 9 15 10 42 45 44 1 34.67 38.21 -3.54
Shonan Bellmare 34 10 11 13 41 31 39 -8 33.75 36.60 -2.85
Vissel Kobe 34 11 7 16 40 35 41 -6 41.05 40.45 0.60
Avispa Fukuoka 34 9 11 14 38 29 38 -9 33.42 32.14 1.28
Gamba Osaka 34 9 10 15 37 33 44 -11 34.37 49.09 -14.72
Kyoto Sanga 34 8 12 14 36 30 38 -8 36.44 44.84 -8.40
Shimizu S-Pulse 34 7 12 15 33 44 54 -10 39.64 44.33 -4.69
Jubilo Iwata 34 6 12 16 30 32 57 -25 36.11 48.62 -12.51
Data: FBref.com & Sporteria | Kyoto survive after winning pro/rel playoff | All xG values do not include penalties

Team Reviews

Since the mid-season review, I’ve gone for an approach to integrate everything (both the data viz and the tactics stuff) for every team into its own section. Therefore, if you want an explainer to the data viz you’ll need to jump down to the Data Visualizations section to learn more. Hopefully the specific context I provide when presenting each viz for a particular team I’m talking about can give you the right idea though.

Cerezo Osaka

Manager Akio Kogiku’s first full season (he took over from Levir Culpi in the summer of 2021) can be marked as a success, the club hierarchy certainly seem to think so as a week after the season ended the club announced they were continuing with him at the helm for 2023. Their start of the season was rather inconsistent but they really started building moment mid-season only losing twice in 14 games from May to August in a 8W-4D-2L record that propelled the pink half of Osaka to 4th and within 3 points of 2nd placed Kawasaki Frontale after matchday 24. All despite a very public bust up between star player Takashi Inui and the manager which saw the ex-national team winger leave the team in June to go join Shimizu S-Pulse as a free agent in July.

Unfortunately, it went all down hill after the first week of August as Cerezo only won twice in the last 10 games of the season, even going win-less in the last 6 games of the campaign to limp to a 5th place finish (their malaise only dropping them to 5th due to everybody else in the top half also in bad form). The one bright spot among this was another good League Cup run but yet again they fell at the last hurdle, this time against Sanfrecce Hiroshima in heartbreaking/dramatic fashion as they were denied victory by 2 goals in the 92nd and 97th minute of the 2nd half.

xG-xGA

Various injuries to Riki Harakawa, Hinata Kida and later Hiroaki Okuno (luckily only for a short period) left Cerezo extremely bare in center midfield. On the other hand, this opportunity gave Tokuma Suzuki the ability to shine in the 2nd half of the season after spending most of the 1st half on the bench. His ability to control the tempo in midfield as well as his set-piece deliveries have meant Cerezo didn’t miss Harakawa much at all. Veteran Hiroshi Kiyotake had to drop back into an uneasy double pivot role late in the season and it even came to the point that 17 year old Nelson Ishiwatari made his debut against FC Tokyo in mid-October. Out wide, Jean Patric proved to be a good outlet with his dribbling ability, especially as a late substitute, but he’ll be hoping to break into the starting XI more often next season. Another benefactor of Inui’s departure was Hirotaka Tameda, who is extremely good at combining with teammates and getting into good positions… which he unfortunately ruins with extremely poor decision making and off-the-mark shooting in the final 3rd. It’s very frustrating to watch.

Promising young defender Ryuya Nishio found himself more on the bench or played at Left Back, as his Center Back berth next to the returning Matej Jonjic was usurped by Koji Toriumi in the 2nd half of the season. At full back, veteran Yusuke Maruhashi suffered a horrible injury so the burden was on Ryosuke Yamanaka to supply the strikers with his trademark crosses alongside Riku Matsuda on the right. Yamanaka’s own injury troubles also gave Kakeru Funaki a chance in the team while Seiya Maikuma was converted to a wide midfielder following Inui’s departure to decent effect. Kim Jin-Hyeon in goal remains not only a good shot-stopper but an excellent passer as well.

Cerezo once again featured a rotating cast of big hard working strikers but lack of finishing touch detrimental (like in the calamitous game vs. Sapporo in September) as Hiroto Yamada, Bruno Mendes, new signing Satoki Uejo especially disappointed with many glaring shots off target. On a slightly positive note the injury-riddled Adam Taggart finally recovered enough to contribute 5 goals in very limited minutes and Kato Mutsuki finished as the top goal scorer albeit with only 6 goals to his name.

Akio Kogiku had Cerezo stepping up to press a lot more than in previous years and they notably did good job against build-up savvy Urawa Reds in the league and cup games among other fixtures like Yokohama Marinos. Otherwise they reform into a very tight 4-4-2 mid-block that are very quick moving laterally to close down gaps and spaces between the lines.

vs. Vissel
Kobe

Set pieces and crosses from the likes of Ryosuke Yamanaka, Riki Harakawa (and after his injury, Tokuma Suzuki), and Riku Matsuda (Matsuda cross vs. Kobe) are a huge source of chances for this team, over 45% of Cerezo’s goals this season coming from either situation. Yamanaka in particular took over from the injured veteran Yusuke Maruhashi to make the Left Back position his own. See examples against Kobe and S-Pulse. The wide midfielders and full backs work really well together, coordinating their movements and bringing out the best of the crossing ability in this team.

Cerezo scoring
situations

Over the long season, Cerezo’s performances could veer from fantastic to dreadful and building upon the foundations of a decent 2022, the team will hope to gain some consistency and make a real push for the Champions League places next year. It should be a bit concerning that the group of players who played around or over 80% of total league minutes this season were all well into their 30s. Since the previous winter though, Cerezo have been recruiting smartly for younger players in key positions, so I expect this kind of recruitment, especially plucking promising pre-peak age players from J2 (like Funaki, Uejo, Maikuma, Nakahara, etc.), will continue.

Cerezo squad age
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Shimizu S-Pulse

After securing Shimizu S-Pulse’s survival at the end of the 2021 season with a record of 3W-1D-0L, Hiroaki Hiraoka was rewarded with a mandate to see if he could build upon that good run of form. It turned out to be a huge mistake as S-Pulse only won 2 games in the 16 matches in Hiraoka’s first full season in charge and he was promptly fired. In came Brazilian manager, Ze Ricardo, who apparently was someone the S-Pulse hierarchy had been after for quite a few years.

At first glance it certainly looked he improved the attack, helped by new acquisitions in the form of Takashi Inui and Yago Pikachu and S-Pulse looked well poised to be clear of the relegation battle following a good stretch of form through August that pushed them up to 11th place by matchday 28. However, a loss against 10 man Hiroshima in early September started a downward spiral that S-Pulse simply couldn’t climb out of as they failed to win another game for the rest of the season.

SPulse
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The problem, as has been the case for S-Pulse for quite sometime now, is in defense (I feel like I’ve repeated this in just about every review since I started in 2019…) and its a major failing of Ze Ricardo’s tenure that there was nothing done about shoring up an awful defense despite having decent-to-good J1 level players like Shuichi Gonda and Yoshinori Suzuki leading the back line. When looking deeper at the numbers (the number of games from either manager being close enough…) its actually interesting to see that in fact the attack didn’t really change all that much in terms of creating chances (using xG), only their finishing improved. On the defensive side, things got even worse than the already poor numbers under Hiraoka’s reign…

Hiraoka (16 games)        
xG per Game xGA per Game Goals per Game Goals Against per Game  
1.18 1.27 0.938 1.44  
Ze Ricardo (18 games)        
1.15 1.34 1.56 1.67  

(Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself)

When looking at S-Pulse’s metrics over the entire season compared to other teams in general, the metrics show S-Pulse to be around a midtable team (in non-penalty xG, xG per shot, shots taken, etc.), so its clear what really sunk them was their awful defense. It’s been an issue for S-Pulse for the past few seasons, regardless of manager or squad that they simply can not keep the lead and have a deeply concerning habit of conceding late goals.

A heartbreaking loss to Kawasaki Frontale after leading 2-1 at the 75th minute, an injury time equalizer in a relegation decider against bottom club and regional rival Jubilo Iwata, among late drama earlier in the season, culminated in a final matchday tie vs. Consadole Sapporo to secure a playoff place or evade relegation altogether. …Where they threw away a 3-2 lead going into the 80th minute to promptly lose 3-4 and send the Shizuoka club directly down the drain to J2.

Check out the “How does Shimizu S-Pulse play?” section from the mid-season review for a more in-depth look at their tactics/play style, especially if you are interested in Yuito Suzuki, Reon Yamahara, and Ryohei Shirasaki (a really smart successful signing), all players I focused on a fair bit. Some examples below:

On the topic of Yuito Suzuki, following his injury on national duty in June, the young attacker subsequently lost his place in the line-up even after recovering and so what was looking like a promising year for him overall ended on a bad note. It was a touch unlucky, that he got injured right as Ze Ricardo took over the managerial reins. In his stead, star striker Thiago Santana has been paired with Carlinhos or Koya Kitagawa (who returned from a failed stint in Europe). Santana was the undisputed MVP of the team as his 14 goals and 6 assists were able to keep S-Pulse alive until the final matchday. Not only could he settle long balls from the defense and Shuichi Gonda when their build-up failed (and it failed often…) he was also capable of drifting wide into the channels, especially in the space vacated by Inui’s dropping movements dragging the opposition fullback in tow.

Ryohei Shirasaki would make runs from midfield to overload wide areas and open up space for Santana in the middle or in the half-spaces. Along with Takashi Inui’s ball-carrying ability from deeper areas, Yago Pikachu was always ready on the Right Wing to make a hard dash behind the defensive lines, so S-Pulse did have quite varied weapons in their attacking arsenal. The latter two were summer signings that were a big upgrade on Katsuhiro Nakayama, Benjamin Cololli, Kenta Nishizawa (injured again), Yuta Kamiya, and a better option than forcing Carlinhos or Yuito Suzuki to play out wide.

As you might have noticed a lot of S-Pulse’s good attacking come from transition moments and when they are desperate for a goal (as they so often were), they had troubles breaking down a packed box, with endless crossing from the likes of Teruki Hara and Reon Yamahara an exercise in futility at times.

Shimizu S-Pulse have very little to show for the… medium-to-large (?) amount of investment put into this club in the past few seasons, never breaking out of a relegation battle and constantly changing managers. I had quite a few things to say in the mid-season review on S-Pulse as a club:

S-Pulse have now gone nearly 4 seasons of hiring a new manager, struggling in a relegation battle, firing that manager, and finally the new manager or caretaker just about leading them to safety (S-Pulse were also lucky there was no relegation play-off in 2020 due to COVID as well), then rinse-and-repeat. It’s not as though S-Pulse are a club with few resources either, while they may not have the strength of the absolute top teams in J1, they have been able to splash some cash (well, relatively speaking) on various players in transfer fees and wages all throughout the past couple of years. It’s quite a damning indictment of their top-level administration that they keep swapping and changing players and managers, then starting all over again once they’ve fired them. I’m not sure what S-Pulse’s vision or identity is, even more so because they haven’t actually had any real success on the pitch in the past 20 years with only Kenta Hasegawa’s tenure coming anywhere close to consistent success (and he still didn’t win a single trophy!).

With their direct relegation, the vultures are swooping overhead and its hard to tell who will be willing to stay with S-Pulse, as I explained above there are more than a few talented individuals on this team. It may certainly be a season of heavy rebuilding for S-Pulse to push themselves right back up to J1 but so much uncertainty hangs around the club as both the club and players themselves have big decisions to make on whether certain people/staff will stay or go.

SPulse squad age
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Vissel Kobe

It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Rakuten Rovers but firing Miguel Angel Lotina and hiring Takayuki Yoshida for the 3rd time led to a run of 5 straight wins coming into the last 2 games of the season that saw them finish fairly comfortably in 13th place. While their 2 losses to finish the season were disappointing and brought them down to only 4 points away from the relegation spots, those were against the top 2 teams in the league. It will only motivate them to keep pushing to regain the kind of form that got them to finish 3rd (their highest ever league finish) back in the 2021 season.

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So how exactly did Vissel Kobe turn their fortunes around, especially as they had sat bottom of the table when I wrote my mid-season review after matchday 16?

They simplified the game-plan, turning to a solid 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 mid-block and playing more direct by relying on the speed and dribbling ability of wingers Koya Yuruki and Nanasei Iino (a summer signing). In the striker positions, Yoshinori Muto, Yuya Osako, and Daiju Sasaki (later Yuki Kobayashi) would try and bait opponent CBs and allow Yuruki and Iino to make dangerous diagonal runs inside to great effect. The wingers also worked well with the Full Backs overlapping past them in the final 3rd and Vissel Kobe distinctly crossed the ball into the box and played more long direct balls forward far more than in previous seasons under Atsuhiro Miura. A lot of this strategy was also reliant on how brilliant Yuya Osako is at settling the ball from any direction, a great example being Yuki Kobayashi’s goal against Avispa Fukuoka.

In midfield, Leo Osaki made a imperious return to the starting XI as he formed a formidable midfield partnership with Hotaru Yamaguchi. Their range of covering and their enormous strength in winning duels in the ground and air was a key factor in Kobe being able to shut down attacks while Osaki’s passing range was helpful in pushing Kobe forward on the ball.

For opponents it’s become necessary to try and completely bypass Kobe’s strong midfield altogether and find gaps between Kobe’s wide midfielders and fullbacks especially when the wide midfielders push up to press and enlarge the vertical gap between the lines.

Whenever both Muto and Osako were fully fit together, this Vissel Kobe team looked much like the upper table team they should be but Osako especially was only fit to start 16 matches this season and Kobe suffered for it.

Despite a shaky start to the season (esp. with the early injury troubles of Center Back Ryuho Kikuchi), Kobe’s defense was solid in the latter half of the season. Ryuho Kikuchi and Yuki Kobayashi rekindled the partnership that blossomed in the 2021 season (while Thomas Vermaelen was away at the Euros, read more about the duo here) while Tetsushi Yamakawa and Gotoku Sakai have contained opponent wingers pretty well out in the wide areas. The team finished with the tied 5th best xGA per shot while giving up the 5th most shots against in the league (so allowing a large quantity of shots while suppressing the quality of shots). For a team that was rock bottom mid-season they finished around the middle in terms of goals against and their goal differentials (both actual and xG related) were better than most of the bottom half teams around them.

Miura, Planaguma, Lotina (All stats per game, 18 games)          
xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against
1.19 1.28 0.83 1.39 12.1 13.7
Takayuki Yoshida (All stats per game, 16 games)          
1.22 1.08 1.12 0.875 11.6 11.6

(Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself)

I’d imagine getting a younger and most importantly fit striker will be one of many priorities for the Rakuten Rovers in the off-season especially as Stefan Mugosa, Lincoln, Bojan, among others have flattered to deceive up top. In the tail end of the season Yuki Kobayashi (the midfielder, not the defender…) played the #10/#9-and-a-half role quite well when one of Osako/Muto needed to be rested or Muto had to play out wide.

Takahiro Ogihara was quite good at Marinos but I think they were quite smart to offload him to Kobe at the time and I had questions about the signing in the 2021 season review as he’s an older and even less mobile version of Sergi Samper. On that note, I do wonder how Sergi Samper will fit into the team next season as although still a fantastic passer of the ball, this rejuvenated Vissel Kobe team relies a lot on a very mobile and aggressive center midfield. While Samper still produces a reasonable defensive output, he is very poor at covering ground (many examples of which I highlighted in the 2021 review) and in light of how Kobe’s midfield is rather old it might make sense to dip into the market here especially since younger midfielders such as Yuta Goke and Yuya Nakasaka don’t really fit in a double pivot.

Veteran defender Tomoaki Makino didn’t make much of a splash either. Although to be fair to him, he wasn’t supposed to start as many games as he did but had to fill in after Kikuchi’s injury/illness at the beginning of the season. In the latter half of the season he barely made an appearance let alone start games. A priority should be made to sign Thuler permanently as Leo Osaki looks to be a more medium-term fixture in midfield instead, and lots of rumors swill around Yuki Kobayashi (the defender, not the midfielder…) regarding a transfer to Celtic FC, while Tetsushi Yamakawa will be need far more at Right Back (while only occasionally filling in at CB).

Another big question mark in defense is the medium-to-long term goalkeeper spot. Both Hiroki Iikura and Daiya Maekawa split minutes…and while Maekawa got injured in the last month of the season, Hiroki Iikura’s contract was not renewed at all. 23 year old Yuya Tsuboi played the last 2 games of the season but I doubt he’ll be challenging for the starting spot next season. This squad is reasonably composed if Vissel Kobe can start offloading a lot more of their old deadwood such as Bojan, Takahiro Ogihara, Stefan Mugosa, and… dare I say Andres Iniesta?

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Kawasaki Frontale

So close, yet so far for Kawasaki Frontale as they took the title race to the last matchday but came up 2 points short. It was not smooth sailing as they had many rocky periods of their own. So despite Marinos’ own stumbles, Frontale didn’t take enough advantage to overtake the eventual champions after relinquishing their 1st place position way back in matchday 15 (late May) following a catastrophic 0-4 loss against relegation strugglers Shonan Bellmare.

As mentioned in the mid-season review Frontale yet again suffered another horrendous exit in the Champions League, somehow topping last year’s ignominious exit by being eliminated in the group stages. This team seems cursed somehow to never be able to spread their dominance of the J.League to the continent as a whole. In other cup competitions they did no better, being dumped out by J2 side Tokyo Verdy in the Emperor’s Cup and then by Cerezo Osaka in the League Cup.

For all the negativity surrounding the club (from neutrals and their own fans), despite the disappointments in every competitions, looking at the season overall from a bird’s eye point of view… Kawasaki Frontale were still a very good team. Frontale accumulated 1.22 non-penalty xG per 90 throughout the season (5th best in the league), but they were actually 3rd best in the 2nd half of the season. It’s on the defensive side of things that things weren’t very rosy, in a very particular way…

xG
xGA

Despite limiting the opposition to the fewest (non-penalty) shots in the league and the 2nd least xGA overall, they had the 4th worst xGA per shot… when opportunities were presented to the opposition (even if they were few and far between), they were relatively good ones!

Jesiel’s return to the lineup in July definitely helped things, but it didn’t completely solve all of Frontale’s defense as fans would’ve hoped. It became all too easy for opponent’s to play right through Frontale’s midfield, then smart movements by attackers can pull away Jesiel out of the defense line or penalty box and others can attack the space vacated by the Brazilian with the other Frontale defenders and midfielders in no position or without the speed to recover. It became such a problem to the point that at various points Oniki shifted to a double-pivot of Kento Tachibanada and Joao Schmidt to provide more protection (as well as offer more options in the buildup).

Miki Yamane’s critical role in Frontale’s attack means he’s going to be quite far up field especially as Frontale play a style of football that tries to assert dominance and keep possession in their opponent’s defensive 3rd. In Frontale’s best years this wasn’t a concern because Jesiel-Taniguchi were at their physical best and could defend quick transitions even when outnumbered due to their speed and strength. On top of that Frontale also had a fully functioning counter-press that would extinguish those types of situations from flaring up in the first place. Without Jesiel and the gradual change in Frontale’s midfield personnel over the past few years, this stopped working as neither Kazuya Yamamura, Shintaro Kurumaya, etc. had the tools to match quick opponent wingers/strikers in large open spaces and captain Shogo Taniguchi had too much to handle by himself.

Jesiel vs. Hiroshima Ezequiel
run

Still, none of this excuses Yamane from the slew of poor defensive decisions he’s made this season nor not being able to recover quickly enough. I’ll just keep repeating that Oniki has really run him into the ground the past few years by not rotating him which I would think has only contributed to his physical and mental fatigue. Still, no other fullback in this team (and dare I say league?) can match Yamane’s offensive output and he works extremely well with Akihiro Ienaga ahead of him so it is difficult to simply not play him … but also there’s literally no other Right Back in this squad which is on Oniki and Frontale as an organization.

On top of all this, Kyohei Noborizato’s injury woes continued all throughout the season which meant Asahi Sasaki was given a trial by fire as he started most games at Left Back in the 1st Half of the season. Shintaro Kurumaya was also shifted back out wide despite becoming more of a Center Back in recent years. At other points, midfielders such as Kento Tachibanada and Tatsuki Seko were press-ganged to play fullback as the young Sasaki suffered dips in form in his debut season.

In attack… I talked in length about Leandro Damiao’s decline in the mid-season review (tl;dr: drastically lower shot quantity and xG output) and it didn’t get much better; it ended with a whimper as he suffered a season-ending injury in late August. The Brazilian striker finished the season with only 5 goals and 1 assist in only 17 starts. In his place Kei Chinen and Yu Kobayashi shared striker duties and battled hard (Chinen in particular doing a lot of great work with his back to goal settling long balls, his performance in Sanfrecce that I watched live at Todoroki was standout in particular), scoring some crucial goals of their own. Still, even in the short term I am not quite sure either are the right quality to lead the line next season, especially as Kobayashi is 35 years old.

In lieu of Damiao’s goals, the burden fell onto the two wingers, Akihiro Ienaga and Marcinho, whose exploits kept Frontale in the title race and were a deserved inclusion in the Team of the Season. Supplying them was Yasuto Wakisaka, one of my favorite players in the league, one that I’d love to write a dedicated article on. So many of Frontale’s great attacking moments come through his combination play with Akihiro Ienaga and Miki Yamane when drifting over to the right. From deeper areas Frontale had Joao Schmidt pulling strings as the single pivot, with his great range of passing allowing the team to switch play from one side to the other with ease.

On the opposite wing Marcinho was a terrific outlet. Using his speed to score goals galore, making back post runs to get on the end of the crosses/passes into the box made by the aforementioned Right sided trio. Frontale fans feared the worst when close to the end of the season, Al-Ahly (Egypt) came a-knocking for his signature but Frontale refused outright and the Brazilian continued business as usual, scoring 3 crucial goals in the final 3 games.

However, just because they kept themselves in the title race doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to a lot of their poor performances, as in quite a few games they weren’t punished for their mistakes. Frontale just can’t seem to establish the dominance that they used to, and had to resort to very risky tactics (going all-for-broke with a 4-2-4 formation when desperately chasing goals) to somehow brute-force their way to victories. On top of this, goalkeeper Jun Sung-ryong seemed way busier this season than previously, with the spotlight on him far more as he rescued Frontale countless times. Every great team has a great goalkeeper but ideally you don’t want him getting this kind of attention very often. A part of Frontale’s threat has always been set-pieces (they led the league with 15 goals from this type of situation), but a lot of the time this season… this was their only way of breaking the deadlock which was/is a major concern.

goal
situation

So, in the end Frontale still finished 2nd… good results masking poor performances, other teams (not just Marinos) collapsing at various points in the season notwithstanding… Still as mentioned throughout this section there is still a lot of quality in this team and their performance against FC Tokyo on the final day while a man-down for a majority of the game was rather inspiring, even if their hard fought victory was for naught as Marinos clinched victory themselves in their game.

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I’d imagine Frontale will keep going with Tohru Oniki. But this is a really big turning point for Frontale as with the long winter break it really is the perfect time to reset and refresh this rather small squad that’s been stretched to its limits in the past few years. Oniki will really need to reconfigure Frontale’s toolkit and get some fresh faces in so that Frontale can once again dominate games.

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Kashiwa Reysol

In Nelsinho’s 4th season at the helm (10th if you include his previous stint from the 2009~2014 seasons), Reysol were able to defy all pre-season predictions (including my own!) and finish in the top half. They were legitimately a good team in the 1st Half of the season. But unfortunately, after this electric start, their attacking output really dropped as Mao Hosoya only scored twice in the 2nd half of the season while Matheus Savio wasn’t able to create as much.

1st Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)          
xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against
1.27 0.989 1.29 0.882 12.3 10.6
2nd Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)          
0.869 1.09 1.06 1.59 10.7 11.9

(Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself)

Looking deeper at the numbers, it surprised me at just how good their defense actually was, although this too deteriorated in the 2nd Half of the season. Overall, with 35.37 non-penalty xGA (4th best in the league), 0.093 non-penalty xGA per Shot (4th best in the league) and 382 shots against (5th best in the league), all painted a picture of a team that were not only able to restrict the number of shots against them but also limit good quality chances as well. What seems to have done them in is opponent’s finishing as it’s interesting to note that they conceded significantly more goals than the quality of the chances conceded (1.59 goals against per game from 1.09 xGA per game in the 2nd half of the season). Opponents haven’t been able to break this team down often in open-play but Reysol’s Achilles’ heel was clearly set pieces which is how they gave up a whopping 34.1% of their total goals conceded.

situation
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Despite Reysol’s attack slowing down, overall there have been lots of encouraging signs in attack for a team that had been wrestling with the departures of Michael Olunga and Ataru Esaka since 2021. The reinvigorated Matheus Savio has been at the forefront of this renaissance, helped ably by Tomoya Koyamatsu’s and Mao Hosoya’s intelligent movement.

Attempts to continue building out from back is still a work-in-progress, with a big problem being too many players dropping back toward their own goal. Sometimes this can work to pull opponents higher up the pitch and exploit the space in behind (like in the 1st image below) but often times this just makes Reysol easier to defend against as players are all bunching up in a small(er) space as well as lacking numbers in attack when the ball is able to be moved forward. This is similar to problems that Sanfrecce Hiroshima and FC Tokyo faced this season, you’ll see me bring this topic up a few more times throughout this blog post. This team still has a bit more work to do on the training pitch to be able to properly use the space in their own half to their advantage to move up the field without resorting to just kicking it up for Hosoya or Douglas (although, of course this is still a valid alternative tactic).

This is a squad that’s build pretty well, with the majority of the players that accumulated most of the minutes all coming into or at their physical peak ages. If Kashiwa can build around this solid core of Matheus Savio, Mao Hosoya, Taiyo Koga, Masato Sasaki, etc. they are in a good position to challenge for the next couple of years. Nelsinho will hope to build upon the solid foundations he discovered this season to make the necessary tweaks for another push for an ACL place in 2023.

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Kashima Antlers

It’s all gone belly up in Kashima. Rene Weiler was fired in August despite Antlers still in the top 3 (although they had been without a win in the 5 games prior to the sacking) due to “differences with the upper management” and Daiki Iwamasa, who was installed as a coach just a few weeks prior, was given the full time gig until the end of the season. The team from Ibaraki prefecture was in the mix for the title for nearly half a season but a horrendous loss of form in the 2nd half of the season, saw Antlers only win 3 (three!) games since my mid-season review in mid-June! Their slide down the table only stopped at 6th as they drew an extraordinary amount of games (taking over from early season Tosu/Sapporo it seems) rather than outright losing them. Antlers fans were not happy as the season continued (and certainly let the manager know about it) and Daiki Iwamasa was/is under a lot of pressure, especially after the poor performance against Ventforet Kofu in the semifinals of the Emperor’s Cup where Antlers finally extinguished any hopes of silverware in 2022.

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In hindsight it’s easy to pinpoint their inability to grab victory in close games was due to the loss of star striker Ayase Ueda but in my opinion the rot starts from much deeper down the field. Antlers play extremely narrow with their midfielders shaped in a diamond while the width in the team came from the fullbacks, especially Koki Anzai on the Left. Just like under Rene Weiler, Yuma Suzuki continued to be the main threat, dropping back and/or to the sides to support the play. Not only was Yuma their best striker, he was their most creative outlet too. Otherwise, they kept the same long and direct ball strategy as under Weiler despite attempts to change course.

Another positive note has been Yuta Higuchi who worked tirelessly in midfield and was one of Kashima’s main threats this season with his accurate long passing/switches of play being the start of many dangerous attacks.

However, Antlers had difficulty in breaking down packed defenses with their only solution seemingly throwing endless amounts of crosses into the box. They really missed the presence of Ryotaro Araki (last season’s winner of the “best young player” award) as the creator-in-chief, with a herniated disc injury keeping him out for the majority of the season. Deeper still, they continued to have the same build-up problems as they had under Rene Weiler, in spite of having good individual passers in Ikuma Sekigawa and Yuto Misao as the Center Back pairing. It goes to show that just having good passers doesn’t make for a good clean buildup.

The numbers don’t lie… Kashima Antlers in the 1st Half of the season had 2nd best xG per 90 in the league but in the 2nd Half they were the 2nd worst! Their defensive numbers remained relatively the same (around middle-of-the-pack) throughout the season which is part of the reason why they drew so many games in the tail end of the season rather than lose outright which prevented Antlers from tumbling further down the table.

In defense, Keigo Tsunemoto continues to be a very solid Right Back at the J1 level as his 1v1 defending is top notch. Further up the pitch, Arthur Caike played many times as striker after Ueda left and overall he became the 2nd highest goal scorer in the team with 9 goals to his name. However, his threat comes from being a guy that can sneak into holes in the defense from midfield. The Brazilian seems much more limited when he starts out up top, under pressure and the watchful eye of defenders from the get go.

Everaldo made somewhat of a come back (an eye popping overhead goal to boot that inexplicably didn’t win the “Goal of the Season” award) but he barely started despite netting 5 goals in 3 starts and 19 appearances (totaling up to only 6.1 90s played). To fill the Ueda-shaped hole up top, they brought in Blessing Eleke for Weiler as the two had a prior relationship… but then Kashima promptly fired the Swiss manager a few weeks later…

I am not really confident in Iwamasa’s abilities as a manager nor am I confident that the higher ups at Kashima can find some other candidate given their poor managerial decisions in the past few seasons. This squad is still clearly good, featuring a talented mix of young, peak, and veteran players. Antlers really could use another Center Back to pair with Ikuma Sekigawa, as Bueno and Naoki Hayashi were constantly injured, Kim Min-tae not doing too well, and any way for Kento Misao to return to midfield where he truly belongs. Most importantly, they need the right manager to guide the ship.

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Yokohama F. Marinos

Despite taking over from Ange Postecoglou and guiding them to a 2nd place finish in 2021, there were lots of concerns about the team and the new manager, fellow Aussie Kevin Muscat, heading into 2022 (from myself included!). By the time of the mid-season review I updated my prior assumptions and marveled at how well Marinos were able to navigate another busy schedule of games throughout the season. The one big disappointment would be their Champions League exit to (at the time) a Vissel Kobe team in upheaval but they’ll have another chance next year with a bit more experience under their belt, both Muscat and the players. By all metrics this team was just clearly the best team in the league, especially when it comes to their attacking output. 67 non-penalty goals from 57 non-penalty xG were the best numbers in the league by a big margin (next placed teams were Urawa Reds on 47 non-penalty xG and Kawasaki Frontale on 57 non-penalty goals). Overall, their goal difference (both actual and xG related) also showed their dominance over the 34 game season. They not only took the most shots (535) but also took quality shots with 0.107 non-penalty xG per Shot being 2nd best in the league. For defensive metrics they were slightly more middle of the rankings but it was far improved from their disastrous 2020 season when their high line was broken again and again.

Not only can this Marinos team dominate in possession but they can be also be more vertical and direct. Marinos are really good at shifting gears in a flash as they search for spaces between the lines and then immediately slice through teams with quick combinations.

With goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka acting as the extra man in the buildup, Marinos are able to break past opponent pressing. Their players work together to create space by luring opponent marker off a Marinos player so that another Marinos player can be in a optimal position to receive facing forwards. Marinos players also by distance themselves from each other in an optimal way to spread their opponents far apart and force them to exert more energy to approach Marinos defenders. Further up-field the fullbacks (usually Ryuta Koike and Katsuya Nagato) are either hugging the touchline or slightly inverted to support the central midfielders, who in turn either remain as a double pivot or can spread themselves out vertically, depending on how the opponent defended.

Tomoki Iwata, surprisingly, won the Player of the Year award as attributes such as his unrelenting stamina that gave him the range to cover all over the field and ball-progressing from back-line to midfield or further forward as either a Center Back or Center Midfielder were given the plaudits it thoroughly deserved.

On the defensive side of things, what immediately pops up is how 40% of their total goals conceded have come from set pieces and add to that the 25.7% of conceded goals coming from crossing situations, we can see a clear weakness in this team. With Shinnosuke Hatanaka’s injury troubles and poor form continuing this season, only new signing Eduardo (184cm) and Ryotaro Tsunoda (184cm) stood more than 180cm tall in Marinos’ defense line. At full back Katsuya Nagato is actually decent enough in the air but Ryuta Koike’s aerial ability is almost non-existent. You don’t necessarily need height to be good in the air (and indeed there are many tall players who are bad at winning headers!) but it’s still important in general. With Tsunoda’s inexperience (despite his promise) and the fact that both he and Eduardo are left-footed meant that Muscat wasn’t inclined to start both of them together at any point during the campaign. On top of that, when your midfielders were also on the short side (vs. Tosu they started 165cm Kota Watanabe and 173cm Riku Yamane together!), things can get very difficult no matter how well you try to set up your team on set pieces to compensate for lack of height. A common tactic by opponents was to simply drag Eduardo away and contest aerial balls vs. Tomoki Iwata instead. Contesting aerial duels is probably Iwata’s one big weakness and is one of the reasons why I prefer him to be in midfield rather than at Center Back.

situation

Looking at other parts of the squad, a notable change in Marinos personnel was Takuma Nishimura who was brought over from a rather mediocre spell at relegated Vegalta Sendai. With the presence of the ever-excellent Marcos Junior, he was seen as cover but as the season progressed it would actually be Nishimura who would make the #10 position all his own. Not only was he a brilliant at finding pockets of space to receive the ball, he was getting on the end of chances in the box as well culminating in his 10 goal haul which was only 1 goal behind the tallies of both of Marinos’ strikers, Leo Ceara and Anderson Lopes.

I don’t think there was a team in this league with not just the quality but the quantity of fantastic wingers in Elber, Kota Mizunuma, Teruhito Nakagawa, and Ryo Miyaichi (Frontale’s Ienaga and Marcinho come close but nobody else in that team can match Marinos’ quartet). Ryo Miyaichi had a renaissance season of sorts, not just chipping in with 3 goals and 3 assists but his general performances caught my eye and he did enough to earn himself a call back to the Japan national team for the EAFF Cup… only for his injury curse to strike again and leave him out for the season in July. After a few seasons of injury struggles of his own for Teruhito Nakagawa, he came close to match his MVP winning performances of 2019 with 7 goals and 6 assists mainly coming off the bench or as part of the rotation. As I mentioned in the mid-season review, rotation was a big part of Muscat’s overall strategy to handle the long and hectic season and for the most part it worked. As part of this, in midfield both the youngsters Kota Watanabe and Joel Fujita (another pick up from a relegated side, Tokushima Vortis) filled in admirably when Tomoki Iwata had to step back into defense and were partnered by veteran captain/midfield stalwart, Takuya Kida. It was only in the last 5 or so games, with no other competitions to think about that the starting XI sort of got more consistent.

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Despite all the praises sung about Marinos, they still nearly threw it away with poor results in two consecutive matchdays against relegation-battling teams in the form of Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata. I do feel like if Marinos were to play both of these game over and over again, they would win 9/10, unluckily for them some things were slightly off (individual mistakes vs. Iwata, tactics vs. Gamba) and they got football'd… it happens! It just happened at probably the worst time in the season!

Nevertheless, I reiterate that Marinos were absolutely the best team in the league and all eyes (and pressure!) will be on Kevin Muscat and his fantastic group of players to repeat the feat next year as well as take the continent by storm through an improved showing in the Asian Champions League in 2023.

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Nagoya Grampus

Kenta Hasegawa’s first season in charge of Nagoya Grampus was quite a struggle despite finishing in 8th. An awful start to the season saw Grampus teetering close to relegation until an overhaul in strategy to move to a back 3 paid dividends as Grampus rose up the table with lots of wobbles along the way.

Grampus
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Nagoya’s Right side unit consisting of Shinnosuke Nakatani, Ryoya Morishita, and Mateus were quite good. They had good chemistry and a lot of Grampus’ good attacks came from there, especially when Nakatani was able to step up with the ball from defense and play incisive passes into the final 3rd. There is still a giant over-reliance on Mateus to actually finish off attacks and when he drifts wider to support the play, Grampus have lacked numbers in the box and a lot of burden were placed on their other midfielders to make late long distance runs into the box to make up for the lack of numbers. None of Noriyoshi Sakai, Naldinho, or Yoichiro Kakitani were been able to provide the goals up front while surprisingly summer arrival Kensuke Nagai was in fine form notching 4 goals and 3 assists in the 2nd half of the season. As many might know star striker Jakub Swierczok was suspended last year for failing a doping test and it looks likely that he won’t be able to play football for another few years…

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The defense has been mostly fine, I talked about Haruya Fujii a bit in the mid-season review. Mitch Langerak was also a top goalkeeper yet again and it’s mind-boggling that he wasn’t selected for Australia’s World Cup squad. From what I’ve seen, a lot of their goals conceded have been problems further up-field. There doesn’t seem to be a great understanding in midfield of when to properly drop-off and when to go press and this caused moments of hesitancy and confusion to the rest of the team. When the ill-conceived press attempt was easily evaded then that left the defense exposed and the other players were in no position to be able to track back quickly enough.

grampus defensive shape mid-season
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The midfield 3 had a lot of work to do shifting as a unit from side-to-side but at times that left the opposite side very exposed if they couldn’t swing back in time (similar to the problems I’ve talked about facing Shonan’s midfield 3 in the past…).

Sho Inagaki in particular had to do quite a lot as he was usually the key player in making late runs to support the attack, especially entering the space vacated by Mateus when he drifted out wide to receive the ball and exchange passes with Ryoya Morishita. At the same time, Keiya Sento dropped into spaces between the lines to receive on the half-turn or lay-off to teammate using the space created by Kensuke Nagai pushing defenders back toward their own goal. Still, it will be a disappointment to both him and Nagoya fans that he just wasn’t at his best and ended the season mainly coming off the bench.

To their credit Nagoya did bring in reinforcements for the central midfield positions that I fretted over in the mid-season review in the form of Ryota Nagaki and Takuya Shigehiro so they wouldn’t be forced to use Kazuya Miyahara or Takuya Uchida as midfield cover.

There is at least some credit that should be given to Kenta Hasegawa for recognizing the faults in the team (and some of the blame is also on the upper management of Nagoya not recruiting well too) and shifting to a 3-at-the-back shape which slowly improved Grampus’ fortunes to a level where they were comfortably midtable… Indeed, looking at their stats, Nagoya pretty much wound up around the middle-of-the-pack in the per game metrics, 39.44 non-penalty xG (8th), 37.42 non-penalty xGA (7th), 404 non-penalty shots (10th), 395 non-penalty shots against (8th), 0.098 non-penalty xG per shot (9th), 0.095 non-penalty xGA per shot (10th)…

But clearly this is not what Grampus management and fans were expecting from this squad nor Hasegawa himself. Well, at least in terms of the quality of their best 13~14 or so players… I’ve already touched on the squad depth issues previously. So I imagine a lot of pressure will be on Hasegawa at the start of next season to deliver results, especially after a long winter break to make and execute on lots of plans. Otherwise, I can see Kenta Hasegawa as a good candidate for getting the chop early next season.

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Shonan Bellmare

It was another season fighting relegation for Satoshi Yamaguchi’s Shonan Bellmare side but they finished the season extremely strongly. They only lost twice in the last 10 games and were undefeated in the last 7 to secure a 12th place finish which was their best highest position in the J.League since they returned to J1 back in 2018 (also one position below their best ever league finishes back in the 90s). After finishing last in 2020 (but not relegated due to the pandemic) and finishing with their neck just above water in 2021, Satoshi Yamaguchi did a much better job than his predecessors and his contract with the Hiratsuka-based side has already been renewed for next season.

Despite a few blowout losses to Consadole Sapporo, S-Pulse, and Marinos, they have otherwise been able to keep the score down… it’s been notable how they were able to suck the life out of games. Shonan finished the season with the 5th best non-penalty xGA (36.6) and limiting opponents to the 3rd best shots conceded (367 total or 10.79 shots against per 90) in the league. Shonan have been able to do this through not just working hard to hassle-and-harry the opposition, something that has been a trademark of Shonan for a long time now under different managers, but also defending really deep in their own box.

On their worst days this made them leak goals mostly through attrition especially when their press didn’t work and they were worryingly stuck in their own half for long periods of the game. Despite the good defensive stats I presented in the previous paragraph, Shonan also concede the 3rd worst xGA per shot in the league (0.1 non-penalty xGA per Shot), providing some evidence as to when opponents were able to break through Shonan they created dangerous opportunities. Shonan also noticeably struggled to build-up out of their own half when their opponent man-marked their 3 CBs and the single pivot. It’s become the clear blue print to suppress Shonan in the past few years and keep them trapped in their own half. Also still relevant is switching the ball to the outside and advancing before their midfield 3 can shift over.

A big change for the squad was that in mid-season, star midfielder Satoshi Tanaka (finally) left for Europe. You can see all of my various thoughts on Satoshi in the past few years here (I really like him). This meant a big paradigm shift in midfield as Tanaka had made the defensive single pivot position his own for the past few seasons. In his place veteran Akimi Barada (well, after Takuji Yonemoto fell out of favor) shifted back from his box-to-box position to become the new holding midfielder. Then, to fill Barada’s position came Masaki Ikeda who is adept at finding space and combining with teammates using quick touches to progress up the field. I was hoping to see more of Taiyo Hiraoka but just turning 20, he’s still got plenty of time on his hands and it’ll be interesting seeing him battle it out with Masaki Ikeda and Tarik Elyounoussi for the midfield spots next season.

I was disappointed in the little progress Taiga Hata showed this season, Yoshihiro Nakano seems to have taken his position at Left Wing Back while it looks like Hirokazu Ishihara will continue at Right Wing Back along with veteran Takuya Okamoto, who only returned to the lineup following a long injury layoff in the middle of the season. Interestingly, upon Okamoto’s return he was played more as a Right-sided Center Back alongside Ishihara at Right Wingback. It’s a bit of a shame as Okamoto’s attacking instincts (4 goals apiece in the 2020 and 2021 seasons) have been a huge asset for Shonan in the past with his late runs to the back post but it seems Yamaguchi has other plans for him (or maybe with Okamoto’s latest injury means he just can’t get up and down the field like he used to?).

Yusuke Segawa missed an enormous amount of good quality chances… scoring only 3 goals off of 6.88 xG! If he scored just a few more, Shonan would’ve been quite comfortable far earlier in the season. Still, his excellent movement to even appear in the right place and the right time to take those chances in the first place speaks well of him, as well as his great defensive contributions on the other side of the ball.

On the other hand, Shuto Machino finally found his shooting boots this season and lead the team with 13 goals (from just 6.34 xG according to Football-Lab, which does raise some concerns for me as to whether he can consistently keep up with this kind of production). His all-around performances also led him to be called up to the national team proper, first for the domestic-only EAFF squad and then a curve-ball inclusion in the full national squad against the USA and Ecuador in September. Finally, with Left Back Yuta Nakayama’s injury, it came as a surprise to all that Shuto Machino was called up to travel to the World Cup!

Wellington was released by the club (for the 2nd time) and with Shuto Machino not long for Europe (especially with his inclusion in the World Cup squad), it’ll be interesting to see who Shonan can find to fill their boots. At the other end of the pitch, lots of question marks over on-loan goalkeeper Kosei Tani appear again, especially as Gamba Osaka go through (yet another…) transformation and only time will tell if a new Gamba manager will want to pull Tani back into the fold to finally take over from Masaaki Higashiguchi. Satoshi Yamaguchi has done a decent, if unspectacular job given the limited resources at Shonan’s disposal. They will hope to push onwards to a midtable (or above) finish in 2023.

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FC Tokyo

FC Tokyo’s first season under new management both on the footballing side with the arrival of Spanish manager (and former Barcelona academy director) Albert Puig and in club owners, MIXI, was a moderate success. The performance against title-holders Kawasaki Frontale in the 1st game of the season was an electric performance with Kuryu Matsuki making his professional debut, despite having only played at the high school level, and this game provided fans with a sweet taste of what this new Tokyo team could bring. Of course, the manager repeatedly mentioned the need for patience and despite early good results (Tokyo were 4th after matchday 10) some hard times followed in the summer with heavy defeats to Avispa Fukuoka, Sagan Tosu, and Urawa Reds as Tokyo’s players struggled to play in a drastically different way as in the past few seasons. This inconsistent form simply continued in the fall and despite a brief potential of a late run for a Champions League spot, FC Tokyo were resigned to a 6th place finish as they lost the last 2 games of the season, including a disappointing final matchday defeat to 10 man Kawasaki Frontale. Getting dumped out of the cup competitions very early on was also a disappointment. Nevertheless, it gave Puig a great opportunity to give quite a few young players such as Renta Higashi, Yuki Kajiura, Yuta Arai, a chance to make an impact which was aligned with the new Spanish manager’s philosophy.

Adailton had a barnstorming year with a career best 12 goals (1 penalty), his immense dribbling ability to move the ball up to the opponent box, usually all by himself was a huge asset especially due to FC Tokyo’s struggles in building up from the back more slowly. It should be noted though that this came from a strong finishing streak rather than consistently getting on the end of quality chances as his 12 goals came from just 7.73 xG (Football-Lab, penalties included).

Ryoma Watanabe playing a variety of roles in midfield, popping up in spaces between the lines to receive the ball from the defenders.

Kashima

S-Pulse

A star was born in Tokyo in the form of Kuryu Matsuki, who from his first game was already matching the intensity of seasoned professionals. His boundless energy was an asset, popping up deeper to help with the build-up and then make lung-bursting runs behind the defense in the same possession sequence. Matsuki also gradually got more disciplined as the season went on after an early string of early yellow card accumulations. A big room for improvement for both the teenager and fellow midfielder Shuto Abe is to start chipping in with more goals as they both improved upon making more dangerous runs into the box as the season progressed.

All 3 players mentioned above were a huge part of FC Tokyo’s successes this season, they were the most involved players in attacking sequences as per Opta/StatsPerform.

Kashif Bangunagande, who I talked about in quite some depth in the 2021 midseason review a long time ago, used the departure of Ryoya Ogawa (to Europe) to really make the Left Back spot his own. The Japan international (U-21s) is so calm and assured with his feet, he was a great outlet for FC Tokyo transitioning from defense to attack.

Yasuki Kimoto and Masato Morishige as the Center Back pairing were aggressive in shutting down opposition strikers in tandem with Tokyo’s high press. The midfielders pushing up meant gaps behind and to the side of the single pivot, so it was crucial that the Center Backs stepped up. Both players were also very good at long passes out to the wingers to release them on the weaker side of the opponent after they left space open to press FC Tokyo.

However, without Henrique Trevisan as back up to a series of injuries, it was rather nervous having them play nearly every single game, especially as Makoto Okazaki didn’t quite look up to the task. As a solution, Seiji Kimura was brought back from loan to take up the bench role in the summer and would occasionally come on to close games as the 3rd Center Back.

Regarding the big issue of passing it from the back line, there is a clear need for better press-resistance from individuals while as a unit more care needs to be made in how players space themselves relative to their teammates. Many times players dropping back would only restrict space and made it easier for opponents to press and disrupt the build-up even in smaller numbers since the players got bunched up. This happened particularly along the sidelines when a FC Tokyo fullback received the ball and opponents wisely aimed to press FC Tokyo in a way that funneled the ball toward the fullbacks. It would be nice to get goalkeeper more involved, but Jakub Slowik, for all of his brilliance, is just simply not the guy for that…

At the other end of the pitch, FC Tokyo’s pressing was fairly good especially when Diego Oliveira was leading the line.

It was a season of many steps backwards and forwards. The fact that FC Tokyo were still in touching distance of a possible ACL spot was also due to the horrific loss of form of Kashima Antlers (2 wins in the last 10 games), Kashiwa Reysol (0 (zero!) wins in the last 10 games), and Cerezo Osaka (2 wins in the last 10 games ) so despite a lot of (warranted!) excitement, FC Tokyo’s season needs to be taken in context of the other teams around them as well.

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Even with these reality checks, I am still very much looking forward to next season, where the long winter break will benefit FC Tokyo and hopefully there is a bit more squad turnover to get ready for a Champions League place push in 2023.

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Gamba Osaka

Things seemed hopeful at the start of the year as Tomohiro Katanosaka took the helm at Gamba Osaka. I was rather worried for them in the mid-season review even though they sat in 13th (albeit only 4 points off the drop) and unfortunately, things did not improve and Katano-soccer ceased to exist at Gamba as he was relieved from duty after a demoralizing defeat to fellow relegation candidates Shimizu S-Pulse in mid-August. Much like under Takashi Kiyama at the end of the 2021 season, under Hiroshi Matsuda Gamba once again found themselves in need of going back to a solid 4-4-2 low-mid block… playing on the counterattack and launching the ball up top to Patric and L. Pereira in attack.

Juan Alano was a good acquisition, one of the few in my opinion which tells you quite a lot about Gamba’s recent transfer dealings. The rest have been the likes of Hideki Ishige, who hasn’t been in the matchday squad since August (and I haven’t seen any reports of injury although I may be wrong?). Musashi Suzuki returned to Japan after a failed stint in Belgium and he does not look half the player he was for Consadole Sapporo a few years ago. Defending in general was horrible, about the only person in the back 4/5 that you could say that had a ‘decent’ season was Keisuke Kurokawa, even then I quite like him more for his boundless energy to get up and down the flank in support of the attack rather than any defensive miracle work he did.

Beneath is a table of the stats under both managers, not the best comparison as Matsuda had only 10 games compared to Katanosaka but it’s what we’ve got. Even after moving to a compact 4-4-2, Gamba still gave up quite a lot of shots (15.9 per game under Katanosaka vs. 15.5 per game under Matsuda, see below table) and it still came down to Masaaki Higashiguchi performing miracles between the posts for Gamba to just about scrape by in games and keep themselves within touching distance of safety until the final day. We can see this in how despite only slightly decreasing the quality and quantity of chances conceded, Gamba somehow managed to reduce their goals conceded by a solid chunk on a per game level (bad opponent finishing and just pure good luck probably played a part as well, of course).

Katanosaka (All stats per game, 24 games)          
xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against
1.06 1.46 0.96 1.33 11.3 15.9
Matsuda (All stats per game, 10 games)          
0.9 1.39 1.00 0.9 9.8 15.5

(Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself)

Still, Gamba’s guardian goalie isn’t getting any younger and yet again J.League fans everywhere will speculate on what’s to become of Kosei Tani, who had excellent performances of his own on loan at Shonan Bellmare the past few years.

Takashi Usami finally came back in October after a long injury lay-off but it’s the same old thing all over again, the very reliance on him that Gamba want/should move away from. It’s been two straight seasons of the same thing, actually:

poor squad recruitment, fire underperforming manager, hire a “firefighter” manager, move to a mid-low block 4-4-2, “hail mary” it to Patric and Usami, Higashiguchi performs miracles, etc.

It was very frustrating as a neutral (and just imagine how their supporters feel!) as this is a club that has so much going for it… great/many fans, great stadium, and fantastic youth set up (and the willingness of the club to play them at the top level creates a virtuous cycle of more players wanting to come play for Gamba) but its just hampered by awful short-term thinking. Sooner rather than later they might just wind up like Shimizu S-Pulse! If I’m honest, I’d much rather have seen Gamba gone down under Tomohiro Katanosaka so he could have had the possibility to rebuild everything from the ground up… but that wasn’t to be. Gamba are safe… yet again, but what exactly does the future hold?

Rumors of Dani Poyatos coming to manage swill around the media as the off-season slowly grinds itself into gear despite the approaching World Cup. Gamba have already started clearing house, saying "sayonara!" to Leandro Pereira (a big flop), Wellington Silva, and surprisingly Patric by not extending their contracts. New signing like Rihito Yamamoto will seek to establish themselves in the team after an injury ruined his first half-season with Gamba while Juan Alano and Dawhan will hope to continue their good form into the new season. Otherwise the promising youngsters that lost their place in the team under Matsuda, like Jiro Nakamura, Hiroto Yamami (who I thought was one of Gamba’s few bright lights during Katanosaka’s tenure but disappeared from August until making the bench on the final matchday…), and Isa Sakamoto, will hope a new manager and a new direction will mean further chances to impress. Whoever comes in will face a lot of pressure early on so as to not have history repeat itself yet again…

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Consadole Sapporo

It’s been a very weird and yet another inconsistent season from Consadole Sapporo. Starting off the season with 6 straight draws and not scoring a whole lot in the 1st half of the season… to finishing off the season extremely strongly with 5 wins in the last 8 games of the season and also scoring a bucket load of goals throughout the 2nd half with 4 games where Sapporo scored more than 4 goals. It’s not exactly like they were suddenly amazing though, as when we look deeper at the stats we can see that they’ve been fairly consistently producing the same quality of chances throughout the season but they just simply started scoring more from a similar set of chances in the last 10 or so games.

Looking at the data and the matches, this is a defensively shambolic team. It’s not secret. A multitude of factors meant that these defensive horrors didn’t actually translate to equally bad results though. Their 0.115 xGA per Shot is the worst in the league and alongside conceding 1.35 xGA per game (3rd worst in the league), Consadole Sapporo should be building a statue for Takanori Sugeno, who frequently came to Sapporo’s rescue (especially in games vs. Urawa, Marinos, etc.). When Sugeno was injured, the young Kojiro Nakano filled in but those coincided with 3 of Sapporo’s heaviest losses of the season. While of course not all goals were Nakano’s fault, it does strike home how daunting of a task it will be to fill Sugeno’s shoes in the near future as the veteran is approaching his 39th birthday. In general though, it’s far more of an immediate issue to sort out this disastrous defense.

While I’m still not really sold on Daihachi Okamura as Hiroki Miyazawa’s heir at the heart of the defense yet, it’s quite clear that he will continue to play there (and hopefully improve). Out of the other defenders available, he is still the best candidate to play as the center most Center Back due to his sheer strength and dueling ability in the air or ground being his main skill set.

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I quite like Tomoki Takamine but he’s not the type to be the Central Center Back in a 3 and is better kept in his usual position as Left-sided Center Back or in the double pivot. I don’t see him improving to the point of entering the national team (unless maybe a future EAFF cup place?) nor going to Europe but as a good-to-very-good J1 level Center Back? Yep, fine and I can see him moving to a top-half J1 team in the next year or two if Sapporo keep floundering around in lower-mid table. Same applies to Shunta Tanaka on the other side of Sapporo’s defense as well. I find Tanaka a better 1v1 defender and carries the ball better, while Takamine is more about passing out from the back.

For all of Daiki Suga’s highlight goals you also have to realize he takes the 2nd most (!) shots on the team and is extremely inaccurate with those shots (as per FBref). He slowly started to replace Akito Fukumori (when Takamine wasn’t in midfield) but the big negative about Suga is that he’s not particularly good at passing and is a much more direct player. Sapporo’s build-up ability noticeably declines whenever he played there. In the near term, it’s probably for the best to play Takamine at Left Center Back and keep Suga in the energetic up-down Wingback role to utilize his strengths. Going back to Fukumori, as great of a wand his left foot is, he was a huge liability in every other aspect of the game and indeed he slowly lost his starting spot in the team in the 2nd half of the season to the aforementioned Suga or Takamine.

The general problem is that defending as a unit is hard for a team that is set up by Mischa Petrovic, as he likes to incorporate a tight man-marking system all over the pitch which can leave gigantic spaces open for opponents to exploit.

At the opposite end of the pitch, things were rosier and especially their goal scoring spurt at the end of the season helped their numbers significantly. Oddly, of all people in the squad, it’s Ryota Aoki that finished as the team’s top scorer with 8 goals. He’s a peculiar player that got shoved around different midfield and wingback type roles. His game is mostly about being a final 3rd passer (but not directly assist others) and finisher, he had a large volume of passing yet not really involved in the build up at all. Otherwise, the goals were very spread out across the entire team from attackers, midfielders and even defenders like Hiroki Miyazawa and the aforementioned Daiki Suga.

Yoshiaki Komai played a lot more this season as one of the attackers behind the striker with his defensive work-rate in chasing down opponents a crucial asset as his attacking partners were often the likes of Gabriel Xavier and Shinzo Koroki, who for all of their positive attributes are not quite the defensive workhorses needed in Sapporo’s man-marking system.

The new summer arrivals, Supachok and Kim Gun-hee provided a much needed spark, albeit in very limited minutes as 2nd half substitutes. Kim provided a much needed aerial presence up top that’s been missing since Jay Bothroyd retired and A. Lopes left, while Supachok has made some smart runs and passes in the final 3rd. Time will tell if they can force themselves into the starting XI next season. (Update: Supachok’s loan was upgraded to a full transfer in the days after the league ended.)

Continuing with the striker position, Sapporo fans will hope Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa can stay fit next year and that Taika Nakashima improves and gets more chances. With some bright cameos this season, it was very easy for people to say he should have got more chances but we don’t really know what goes on in training and how he fits Mischa’s system, especially on the defensive side of things.

Otherwise, they’re stuck with Shinzo Koroki or GX10 (or I should say GX18 now but old habits die hard) up top next season. While Koroki has been quite good in my opinion, it’s very clear he has a time limit every game and it’ll only get worse from here on out. Regarding **GX10 ** playing as the striker… the fact that he’s not going to be able to hold off players with his back to goal still stands from my mid-season review, but if the ball is played to his feet he can keep it just long enough for support to arrive. His role is really to provide the through balls into space or feet for the attacking midfielders and wingbacks making overlapping runs or layoffs for the double pivot who can face forward on the ball.

The less said about Milan Tucic and Douglas, the better.

Lucas Fernandes remains a consistent threat bombing up the Right Wing. Near the end of the season he was switched over to the Left to take advantage of cutting inside and came up with 2 goals and 3 assists in the final 5 games of the season. This may be a winning formula that Mischa Petrovic wants to build upon next season. Takuro Kaneko is still an essential cog to Sapporo’s attack as his role out wide or sometimes closer to the striker tasks him with speeding up the rhythm of Sapporo’s possession as they try to break into the final 3rd with his mazy dribbles. Even so, he of all people would be disappointed he wasn’t able to get close to his excellent 2021 numbers (7 Goals, 2 Assists) as he tallied up only 2 goals and 4 assists in 2022.

Once again it was another midtable finish but unlike previous seasons it did look like Mischa was actually in hot water for a bit. There was a point in the last few months of the season that Sapporo were teetering close to getting dropped into the relegation dog fight. Anyway, my talking points from the mid-season review still stands:

But in terms of the near-to-mid term future, where does Mischa go from here? It just feels like Sapporo keep taking a few steps forward but even more steps back every season and wind up in midtable mediocrity… or this season, it could easily be worse.

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Urawa Reds

Urawa Reds endured an extremely rough start to a season that had initially promised a lot following their Emperor’s Cup win alongside their trouncing of ex-Champions Kawasaki Frontale in the Super Cup (basically the J.League version of the Community Shield) that kicked off the 2022 season.

What I wrote about them in the mid-season review sums up their start…

It has been a rocky start to the 2nd season of Ricardo Rodriguez’s Reds Revolution as the club hovers just above the relegation zone. A wild mix of disallowed goals (some deserved, some questionable), chances being missed by themselves or scored by the opposition at crucial branching points in games, and idiotic red cards especially when Urawa were in the ascendancy (Gamba, Kobe, etc.), have seen the Reds completely throwing away their momentum from their Emperor’s Cup win late last year. This hasn’t been helped by injury issues (star striker Kasper Junker having an especially slow start as his injury malaise from last year followed him into this season) and a COVID scare right after the morale-boosting pre-season Super Cup win over league and ACL rivals Kawasaki Frontale.

At the halfway point, they were in 14th, hovering just 2 points off the relegation zone. However, I also mentioned that I wasn’t too worried about them, they are/were a good team that just couldn’t score even though they were clearly creating good chances on average.

xG-goals

1st Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)          
xG xGA Goals Goals Against Shots Shots Against
1.28 0.90 0.82 0.88 12.7 10.5
2nd Half of the Season (All stats per game, 17 games)          
1.49 1.13 1.53 1.29 13.8 12.2

(Data: Sporteria + removing penalties from above metrics done by myself)

And yeah, after the midway point of the season they won 6 of their next 10 and were pretty safe from relegation by September as they started scoring more in line with the chances they were creating (from 0.82 goals per game from 1.28 xG per game vs. 1.53 goals per game from 1.49 xG per game). On top of that, they pretty comfortably won their way to the final of the Asian Champions League. The semifinal game against Jeonbuk should have been put to bed long before penalties on the quality of chances that Urawa created… again a recurring theme of this season.

However, poor losses against Cerezo in both the league and cup started a downward spiral in the league yet again with Reds upper management seemingly losing confidence in Ricardo Rodriguez. Following the heavy defeat against Marinos on the penultimate matchday, it was announced that they were ending their contract with the Spanish manager.

xGD

Alex Scholz was a centerpiece of Urawa’s build-up as he has been since his arrival in 2021, carrying the ball from the left half-space into midfield to push past opponent’s first line of press. He also took penalties with aplomb, 5 of his 6 goals were from the spot which actually put him as the 3rd highest goal scorer in the team (a bit of a red flag we’ll get to later). Ayumu Ohata has been quite good as a good passer and works well with Scholz taking up the right positions to allow the ball to progress smoothly up the field. Tomoya Inukai suffered a season-ending injury early on and so there wasn’t much rotation at Center Back with Tetsuya Chinen only filling in occasionally to play alongside regular Takuya Iwanami.

Ken Iwao established himself as the fundamental rock of the midfield but with Rodriguez now gone, whether his loan will be made permanent is very up in the air. I find that a shame as he was so good this year, he was the glue that connected the defense to attack and lots of Urawa’s ball progression flowed through his feet.

Urawa shot
involvement

Ataru Esaka lost his starting position in the 2nd half of the season, after being guilty of missing quite a lot of good chances (a paltry 2 goals from 6.4 xG as per Football-Lab) despite his innate creativity, along with the versatile Takahiro Akimoto. Meanwhile Yoshio Koizumi started to play more as the season went by but instead of solely operating centrally, he would sometimes start on the Left Wing with license to move inside or outside as needed. Near the end of the season, Koizumi or whoever else was playing behind the striker would drop deeper to form a 3 in midfield next to Atsuki Ito, with Ken Iwao playing as a single pivot.

Koizumi drift in Left
Space

Bryan Linssen got injured immediately after arriving, continuing Urawa’s curse at the Striker position especially as Kasper Junker’s injury concerns also didn’t let up all throughout the season. As a mix between a winger/striker, Alex Schalk continued to flatter to deceive and was largely left out of the matchday squads. On the other hand, Yusuke Matsuo took up this opportunity to be converted into a striker to good effect, he was seen as a good option not just for his movement but for his pressing instincts as well. Still none of the striker options got into the double digits, Junker coming closest with 7 goals but his fitness issues remained as he only played minutes totaling up to 12.2 90s in the league.

Despite a slow start to his Red’s career, David Moberg gradually lit up the league with his step-overs and direct dribbling (and also the team’s top goal scorer with 8 goals) while Tomoaki Okubo does similar on either wing. I’ve really liked the evolution of Okubo from a pure wide dribbler to someone who can take up more varied tasks like coming inside into the half-spaces or more centrally to receive the ball under pressure.

Even still, despite the immense talent Ricardo Rodriguez had at his disposal and their mid-season recovery to get back into the top half… Urawa really struggled to be consistent in the last 10 or so games of the season. There was a lot of squad turnover between games but unlike Marinos, Urawa felt like a different team game-to-game depending on who was playing, especially when it came to the players in the attacking unit (ex. Matsuo vs. Junker up top). For all the praise I’ve given to Urawa’s build-up throughout Rodriguez’s reign, there have been quite a few times where they have struggled like against Cerezo or Marinos. Reds’ transition from building up with a back 3 vs. a back 4 each had their pros vs. cons, neither which completely solved Urawa’s problems.

  • Back 3 (a 3-1 or 3-2 build-up): More people involved in deeper areas but means less people up top making runs in-behind the opponent’s defense and longer time for support to arrive in the final 3rd (a thing I touched upon the the mid-season review).

  • Back 4 (a 2-1 or 2-2 build-up): Heavily reliant on the skills of each individual in the back line as there are fewer people supporting the build-up from deeper areas but when they can progress into the opponent half, there are more options readily available to make runs in-behind or attack the box.

  • Urawa concede vs. Sanfrecce (70th minute)

With the conclusion of the 2022 season, so too ended Urawa’s “3 Year Plan”. There were some clear successes: winning the Emperor’s Cup, getting to the final of the Champions League, and generally playing good football especially compared to the mediocrity seen in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. As touched upon in the previous paragraph, Reds couldn’t find the consistency to challenge for the title in a year that should have been the capstone for Urawa’s medium-term strategy after a very good 2021 season. I am disappointed that Ricardo Rodriguez left but I’m sure he’ll have no shortage of takers in J1 or even J2 in the off-season. To replace the Spaniard, Maciej Skorza will be the incoming manager. He has a lot of experience winning titles in the Polish League but I don’t know too much about him so we’ll have to wait and see. This squad has seen significant investment and turnover, so overall it can be said that Urawa under-performed this season. With a great mix of players of all age categories, a few tweaks by the new manager could see them as a extremely strong force to be reckoned with in the years ahead.

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Kyoto Sanga

Only 3 wins in the latter half of the season but to Kyoto’s credit they were able to keep the score down in their defeats as they only lost by more than 1 goal twice (0-2 vs. FC Tokyo and 1-3 vs. Kawasaki Frontale). They ran hard all over the pitch and with Naoto Kamifukumoto in goal they were able to squeeze the life out of games. This is despite them giving up the 4th worst most shots against and xGA per shot in the league, opponents had a hard time converting that into goals as Kyoto finished the season giving up 36 non-penalty goals (their 38 total goals conceded is tied 3rd best in the league!) from 44.84 non-penalty xGA. They were able to cling on for dear life and scrape draws in games where their xGD were very negative and even managed to squeeze some wins from those types of games as well. I can not emphasize how immense Naoto Kamifukumoto was this season, while of course some luck also played a part in the opposition not being able to finish their chances.

But at the other end of the pitch, things became quite barren. In the mid-season review I talked about how Kyoto’s survival would depend on Peter Utaka and well… the Nigerian simply stopped scoring after July (July 2nd to be concise). Then due to injury and also subsequently losing his starting position despite his return he’s played an extremely bit-part role for someone who had been such an integral piece of Kyoto’s play. His replacement up top were former Nagoya striker, Ryogo Yamasaki, whose hard work off the ball and his hold-up play kept Kyoto’s intensity intact but on the other hand he only scored a solitary goal. No other player come close to Peter Utaka with the next highest scorer on the team being Kosuke Taketomi with 3 goals.

Check out the “How does Kyoto Sanga play?” section from the mid-season review for a more in-depth look at their tactics/play style.

I found this team pretty poor in possession once in the final 3rd, they need overlapping runs from their full/wing-backs like Kosuke Shirai and Takuya Ogiwara to create chances and even those are low-quality ones created from crossing situations. Kyoto live or die by the quickness and interplay of attackers in tight areas on the counter attack, especially on balls won from the pressing up high.

kyoto
counter

kyoto pressing
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kyoto pressing
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They can also build up slowly from the back and use their attackers to drag opponents around to create space, probably the most extreme example being the goal they scored against Kashiwa Reysol that went somewhat viral back in the summer.

Summer also saw the Kyoto side welcome Alan Carius, Paulinho, and Kyo Sato to bolster Sanga’s survival hopes… but none of them actually saw any significant number of minutes as manager Cho Kwi-jae sought to shuffle his existing deck of players rather than throw his new players into the fray. A lot was expected of Origbaajo Ismaila, especially as a backup for Peter Utaka but that never really materialized as the likes of Ryogo Yamasaki, Yuta Toyokawa, and even Kosuke Taketomi took up the striker position instead at various points of the season. Fuki Yamada looked promising at one point, his performances in limited minutes earned him a call up to the U-23 national team set up but he completely disappeared in the 2nd half of the season (similar to promising striker Yudai Kimura, although he made most of his appearances in the 2nd half of the season instead).

It was a closely run thing, with J2 challengers Roasso Kumamoto playing their hearts out and were just one shot off the post away from throwing Kyoto back down into J2. Kyoto Sanga have a youthful squad and if they can build upon this temporary reprieve, their stay in J1 may be prolonged without having to get mired in a relegation battle again.

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Sagan Tosu

tl;dr: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” describes Sagan Tosu quite succinctly.

In my mid-season review I talked about how my predictions for Tosu going down were completely upended by their really good form under new manager Kenta Kawai and now at the end of the season… yeah this team is still good, even if going win-less in their last 7 games ended the season on a bit of a sour note.

Sagan Tosu shifted between different shapes mainly looking like either a 3-4-2-1 or a 4-4-2. Below is how things shifted around in the 1st half of the season:

The left side is dominated by the presence of Yuto Iwasaki, his speed and direct dribbling, won many plaudits this season (even culminating in a national team call-up for the domestic-player only EAFF Cup squad). He starts off as a wing back but can push up to become a part of a front two when pressing the opposition from high up before reverting back to his wing back position when Tosu are pushed back toward their own goal or only drop slightly back as a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2 instead. Diego, working slightly deeper on the same wing as the Left Center Back or Left Back, showed a lot of quality as a ball progressor from deep with his ball carrying abilities and was an inspired choice to replace Ayumu Ohata, who left for Urawa Reds in the off season.

In Tosu’s tactics section in the mid-season review I talked about how well they work as a team to work the ball up from the back, starting off with their Goalkeeper Park I.G. In general they like to keep a lot of conservative possession, not really forcing things too much which can also serve as a good defensive tactic.

Still, even they can get pressed into mistakes.

On top of this, forcing Tosu’s wing backs back deeper into their own half provided avenues for the opposition to bring the ball up from the wide areas.

Two young stars made their names known in a Tosu shirt this season in the form of attacking midfielders Fuchi Honda and Taichi Kikuchi. Honda made headlines for providing the finishing touch to chances as he concluded the season as the team’s 3rd highest goal scorer while Kikuchi was more in the business of assisting and creating for others with his smart passing while also possessing a good defensive work rate.

Yoichi Naganuma, who arrived after Nanasei Iino was scooped up by Vissel Kobe, carved out a spot on the Right of Midfield with his tireless running in the 2nd half of the season. The rise in prominence of the ex-Sanfrecce man alongside Honda and Kikuchi saw Yuki Horigome take a step back from the starting line up as he mostly appeared from the bench in the 2nd half of the season.

Akito Fukuta become the central cog in Tosu’s system, creating a solid midfield partnership with Kei Koizumi and sharing responsibilities to drop into the back line to aid the build up. Further forward in the final 3rd, Fukuta’s accurate deliveries into the box from open-play and set-pieces earned him 7 assists which were vital for a team that scored over 35% of their total goal haul from crossing situations this season (even more so when you add the 22.2% of goals coming from set-pieces as well, many of them taken by Fukuta).

scoring
situations

In the mid-season review I talked about how the goal scoring was spread across entire team but the lack of true clinical striker has been a bit of a disadvantage, with only Yuki Kakita truly able to perform that role, but he doesn’t usually start due to deficiencies in other parts of his game that Tosu need to generate chances in the first place. Saying this, Tosu don’t create a whole lot of shots with their 370 over the course of the 2022 season tied for 3rd worst in the league. In the 2nd half of the season Taisei Miyashiro looked to have partially solved Tosu’s goal scoring issues with 4 goals in the last 8 matches of the season, but he was only on loan and is unlikely to return next season due to his good form.

It will be another transfer market of turbulence for Sagan Tosu as teams might pluck their star performers of the 2022 season alongside the question marks hanging over many of their loanees such as Taisei Miyashiro, Yuki Kakita, Jun Nishikawa, and Yuto Iwasaki. So clearly Tosu will be on the look out for a striker that can finish the few quality chances that this team can fashion. But seeing their consistently good record over the past few years, one would be foolish to bet against them anymore.

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Avispa Fukuoka

The COVID crisis during the summer really derailed their campaign, although to be clear, by the halfway point of the season they weren’t exactly looking like the Avispa Fukuoka of last season either. The Fukuoka side were 6 points clear of 16th and 17th at the halfway point but going on a 7 game win-less streak from August to mid-September threw the team right into the thick of the relegation dogfight.

The team was so depleted they had to bring out veteran striker 36 year old Hisashi Jogo as a Center Midfielder in the league and cup games while 2 goalkeepers filled the 4 man bench in their League Cup tie vs. Vissel Kobe immediately after the breakout was confirmed.

More frequent changes to a back 3 (something we only saw manager Shigetoshi Hasebe turn to when playing against back 3 sides a few times) and trying to play Lukian as a wide midfielder to provide some attacking spark didn’t really make much of an impact. Indeed, the big problems that Avispa carried over from last season remained in attack with the Kyushu side scoring only a league worst 29 goals this season.

It was fortuitous that Yuya Yamagishi turned down a move to Gamba over the summer as their goal scoring problems would have somehow turned even worse if he (and his team-leading 10 goal haul) were to have departed midway through the season. As mentioned in the mid-season review, Lukian wasn’t the goal scoring spark that was expected, with 2 of his 3 goals coming in a drubbing of FC Tokyo. To his credi...

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