Here is my long postponed end of season round up. The end of season posts seem to be dragging on quite a bit this year, perhaps because winning the Levain cup doesn’t quite provide the same euphoria as winning the league. But we shouldn’t diminish the achievement. A few years ago we would have bitten your hand off to win any cup, even this most lowly of ones. I’ll split this up by competition and will just run through some thoughts about how we did and what might have gone wrong. I’ll leave thoughts about the players to the individual player posts as no one wants to hear me go through all that again. So here we go, starting with what I consider to be the most successful and finishing with the biggest disaster. (By the way, I realise the pictures don't really match with the competitions they are next to, but you know, it's difficult to find good photos of bad experiences).
Fuji Xerox Super Cup
The Levain cup was undeniably the high point of our season. Another star won for the shirt and a first victory in a cup competition is quite satisfying. However we did only have to play five games in this tournament against three teams and won only two of them, so let’s not get too carried away. Perhaps the highlight performance wise was the 3-1 home win against Kashima, where we really destroyed them in the second half. Of course the final was exciting and it was pretty exhilarating to win on penalties, but it wasn’t exactly a quality performance from us. Seems churlish to moan though. It always seems a bit off that the ACL teams automatically qualify for the quarter final in this competition. The fact that we started at that stage of the cup also takes the shine off a little and makes me feel like the win was a little undeserved. Going in this stage also denies us the opportunity to give some of our fringe players some pitch time in the group games. But no worries about that for 2020, as there’s a big chance we’ll be playing the group stages due to our dodgy performances in....
After back to back titles, the second of which was a runaway victory in quite some style, this year has got to go down as a big disappointment. Finishing fourth is perhaps not so bad, but given the squad we had, and the fact that most of the league seemed to be worse than in the previous two years, it has got to go down as a huge missed opportunity. As always, we started slowly. The early draws against FC Tokyo, Kashima and Yokohama turned out to be draws against teams who finished above us, so perhaps were not as bad as they felt at the time but they did sow the seeds for a season of us floundering, failing to take chances, not playing what I consider our best eleven and stagnating tactically. We then followed this up with a late home defeat against a totally hopeless Gamba team who couldn’t buy a win at that stage. The late goal was another developing theme of this season. We conceded late on in a lot of games. I hate to see us taking the ball into the corner flag with five minutes to go, or sitting on 1-0 leads with 30 minutes to go and it didn't seem to work very often. Sure, we had some more defensive solidity in the last few seasons under Oniki, but this year that evaporated and when you're not defensively solid and you're trying to hang on for a 1-0 win for a significant portion of the game it’s always going to come back and bite you. We actually lost the least games in the whole league this year, which is perhaps something to be optimistic about and celebrate. However, the fact that we were only out 'drawn' by Matsumoto, (they drew 13 and we drew 12), a team who seemed to be attempting to stay in J1 by getting 34 points from drawing every game shows what kind of company we were in tactically. The draws killed our title hopes and also a significant portion of my enthusiasm. After the initial three draws against the end of season top three we did scrape some kind of form together but the reason we finished fourth is because of Nagoya home, Urawa home, Sagan Tosu home, Matsumoto home, Sendai away, Shimizu home, all of which were draws against bottom half teams. Looking at this list you can see that our home form was rubbish, teams having sussed us out at Todoroki, sitting back and waiting for a chance to hit us on the break, and this is something Oniki has never been able to counter. In previous seasons we’ve started slow and then built up momentum. This season we started slow, accelerated briefly, crunched the gears, veered of the road and crashed into a tree over the summer, then got pushed back onto the road and coasted downhill in neutral to the finish line, with massive pieces of our vehicle occasionally falling off down the final stretch. Yes, I realise I’ve overdone that metaphor a bit, but let me have it, won’t you? It’s maybe one of my favourite things about this years league campaign. Oh, finally, I should probably mention, as I’ve hinted at before, we used a ridiculous amount of different starting line ups this year. Unfortunately, I’ve left the stats I worked out back in Japan, but as far as I can remember, we used 29 different starting line ups in 34 league games, and the few times we repeated a starting eleven were after truly awful performances. I dunno why, I can’t work it out, but it definitely has contributed to a disappointing 2019 league campaign.
It was a a toss up for me as to whether our ACL or our Emperor's cup performances were worse. I’ve plonked for the ACL being just a little better. We had a tough group with three league champions (including us), and one very strong Korean club. We’d actually met the two toughest teams in this group in the previous year's ACL group, so we should have been prepared. As seems to happen in this competition with Oniki, we seemed to try to adjust too much to the opposition rather than playing our own game. Mercifully, due to work commitments, I didn't get to see many of these games this year, but it once again seemed like we were trying to be canny and cagey and hang on for one of those draws we liked so much this year, yet more often than not failed and conceded late. (Some familiar themes here, eh?). Shanghai away, a late unfortunate penalty undid us. Ulsan away, a 91st minute absolute howler of a goal to concede. And by that stage things we’re looking dicey, even though we’d beaten the mighty Sydney FC at home thanks to a late Manabu goal. A couple more draws followed leaving us theoretically in a possible qualifying position if the game between our two qualification rivals went as we wanted it to. Sadly, these teams also knew what score we wanted and didn’t oblige. We had some more weird team selections in this tournament, Oniki still not really getting the whole rotation thing. Caio Cesar was rewarded for his couple of minutes from the bench away at Matsumoto with a start away at Ulsan, his only start for us ever. If we were struggling for continuity in the league, Oniki really pushed the boat out regarding random selections in the ACL. So basically, bad tactics, bad selections and we still managed to almost qualify, mainly thanks to a couple of wins against a pretty poor Sydney team. Who knows what might have been? Unfortunately, we all know what was. Next year, we probably won’t have to deal with ACL disappointment. we probably wont qualify and therefore won’t be able to underwhelm.
I really want us to do well in this competition, feeling that we have unfinished business. Although it’s a competition that I’m unlikely to ever be able to see to its conclusion as I’m normally back in the UK around the final time. Thankfully this year there was no danger of me having any scheduling conflicts, due to us absolutely stinking away at Kobe and tanking out of the competition. Mercifully, I wasn’t able to attend that game, and not going was perhaps one of the best Frontale things to happen to me this year I think. The writing was already on the wall though. We’d laboured to a 1-0 victory against Meiji university thanks to an own goal. We had a decent team out but could easily have been knocked out at the first time of asking. Not sure Leandro Damiao and Chinen as a front two ever really worked, but still Oniki kept trying it, on this occasion supporting them by playing two left wingers. This saw us move on to Okayama away, where our blushes were spared by a late Leandro Damiao equaliser and then late in injury time, a penalty winner from Ienaga. On to Kobe where we generously gave them a 3-0 lead and unsurprisingly couldn’t pull back three goals in the last half hour. Although the two goals we got maybe made it look a bit more respectable. Still a loss though, and still a load more goals conceded. And another huge wasted opportunity.
So, all a bit gloomy this, isn’t it? But I’m sure you’d expect nothing less. I’m shocked that such an underwhelming league campaign could be the second best we did this year. I think we need to take a good look at ourselves, as many of these competitions were there for the taking this year as most of the teams in the league seemed pretty average this year. Yokohama would definitely have given us a challenge, but if we hadn't had all those awful league results we would have been putting some pressure on them. Next year, perhaps we'll get a go at the Levain group stages for the first time in a few years. Whether that is a welcome thing, you’ll have to decide for yourself. 2019 saw us gain another star for our shirt, yet can’t really be taken as a huge success. It might sound snooty to say so, but we could have done a lot better and we probably should have. Anyway, that’s all from this blog this year. I’ll post the results of the survey some time early next year. Until then, I hope you all have a happy Christmas and a happy new year. Or that you enjoy whatever festive event you celebrate at this time of year. Cheers!