It’s undeniable that winning our second ever title, with plenty of games to spare, by plenty of points, scoring the most and conceding the least is a pretty fantastic achievement. So full credit to everyone involved for that. Seven losses and six draws meant that we finished up with a slightly worse record than last year, but you could probably make the case that the league was a bit more competitive at the top and the bottom this year. Ten points separated Urawa in fifth and Nagoya in a potential relegation position. So clearly lots of teams were taking points off their near rivals. The shocking thing is that Urawa in fifth, (and very nearly Sapporo in fourth), were closer to V Varen Nagasaki at the bottom of the table than they were to us, just a few league positions above them. Hiroshima’s complete implosion probably spread a few points around the league that you wouldn’t normally expect to be shared around. We were well off the pace earlier in the season and would never have got the chance to make such an amazing comeback if they hadn’t really started stinking the place up. Certainly, pressure from us putting results together contributed to their collapse, but if we are in a similar position next season, we can’t expect our opponents to do the same.
Looking at the games we didn’t win, a few things stand out. Cerezo and Urawa both did the double over us. We still can’t beat Cerezo, although the complete off-season deconstruction of their squad could help us next year. We drew twice with Shonan, which in a way points to a similar problem. Both teams play pretty conservatively, sitting back, keeping things tight and then hitting on the counter attack. As did FC Tokyo, who beat us at Todoroki. Playing these kind of teams was a problem for us last season, and the fact that more and more teams are playing like that now can’t be a good thing for us. Our inflexible way of playing still means we struggle a bit against these tactics. I’m sure more teams are noticing. I feel Urawa worked this out and their two victories against us saw them playing in a less exciting but more effective way than we might normally expect them to. To round up the last few matches we didn’t take all the points in, we have draws against Sagan Tosu and Yokohama, teams who were right down the bottom for most of the season, and also draws against Kashima and Sendai who were doing significantly better (at least when we played them). One of our worst performances of the year was out defeat at Gamba who were in a dodgy position but seemed to be getting things together. Can’t help but feel that we helped them on their way with a stinker of a performance. And I guess I have to mention the defeat against Sanfrecce at home which featured one of the worst refereeing decisions we saw in a season that was notable for the amount of clangers from the officials.
On to the cups and I’ll start very briefly with the ACL. The campaign was a total disaster. Against the stronger teams, we displayed a complete tactical ineptness, not playing the way we could, perhaps hoping to tighten things up and not concede, but instead just ended up completely sacrificing any kind of attaching intent. After the first couple of games were lost we were up against it, and it seemed that the pressure told with the two middle games of the campaign against Melbourne Victory which we really should have won. The first home game was a draw after a late penalty, which I think caused Nara to be dropped for a while by Oniki. We should have been out of sight by then though, if we hadn’t been playing so badly. After drawing what should have been our easiest game, I’m not sure if Oniki had given up already by the return fixture as he sent a very strange squad. I guess he had one eye on the league and was considering the long travel involved, but we really should have won that game too, but once again can have no real complaints about losing. After four games we were out, and two of those games were our gimmes in the group. The final two games were draws, but you can’t really take much from either as we were already cooked by then and our opponents were already home and dry. The ACL isn’t my biggest concern, I’m much more interested in doing well in the league, but it would be nice if we didn’t stink it up so much. Not just for the fact that we want to show our best side and do our best, but also for the fact that our ACL failures manage to simultaneously irritate (we’re doing badly for Japan) and delight (we’re losing and showing we can’t hack it at the ‘next level’ up) our J League opponents fans. If we have to irritate and delight rival J League fans, I’d much rather we did it through winning games (Go Japan! Damn Kawasaki, kind of thing).
Finally, the Emperor’s Cup. Another missed opportunity really, but not so surprising given how much of a meal we made of getting through to where we did. We struggled a bit against Sony Sendai, having to come back from 2-0 down at half time. It didn’t really feel that we were going to lose, but we only scored the winner in the 89th minute. Perhaps a bullet dodged. The next round away at Mito was different. In spite of leading for most of the game, the late equaliser felt somehow inevitable, if only for the potential journey home difficulties it caused. Extra time was tense, as were the penalties but we scraped through and we finally managed to scrape home around 3am. The next round was possibly our most straight forward game in the competition this year even if we did go behind once again. I guess Shonan were resting some players and there wasn't quite the giant killing potential in the game. A decent second half performance saw us comfortably through to the quarter finals to lose to Montedio Yamagata at home, although the game was played in Yamagata. I’d love someone to explain how that works. I was delighted to get the chance to go to Yamagata though, and aside from the game enjoyed my visit. I think Taniguchi might feel the same. There was a full strength team out for us and we still went three behind in the first 50 minutes. It was another game where we really didn’t turn up, but this time it was individual errors that cost us, with every goal coming from a Taniguchi clanger. A red card for Sung-Ryong didn’t help, but you could say we might have actually played better after that happened. Another good opportunity thrown away as the draw to the final looked pretty good for us. But no complaints from me about either Oniki or the result. Montedio deserved it.
All in all, I guess 2018 will go down as a success. It was great to get the second league title and this was the competition I was most interested in and I think it overshadows the others. However, there were a fair few missed opportunities. Of course we can’t expect to win everything, but perhaps whilst we have the squad we do, we might expect to do a bit better in the cups. Naturally, 100% consistency doesn’t happen, and we’re always going to lose games. However the manner in which we’ve lost some this year, and perhaps also the manner in which we’ve won some games suggests that we still had a significant portion of luck on our side. I guess luck is an important aspect of any successful team, but I’d rather we didn’t have to rely on it so much. As for what next year holds, we’ll have to wait and see. We’ve lost Elsinho, which looks like being potentially a big blow. We’re strengthening, but there are a lot of big teams that are also doing so, and you can’t imagine that the big sides will be content with us taking the league title again. I think 2019 will be a lot more competitive at the top, but perhaps that there will be more of a gap to the middle and lower parts of the table. Hopefully, we’ll still be in the top section, can push on from 2018 and keep our momentum going. Happy Christmas and New Year to all of you. Go Frontale!