Thursday 6 January 2022

2021 Season Competion Round-Up


I’ll keep this post fairly brief as I’ve again left it a bit too late and the details are fading and also, probably a lot of what I’ll say here will have been said in previous posts. This will be divided into four sections for the different competitions we took part in and will basically be a few words on how we did, the reasons why things happened like they did, and maybe a few other comments.


You can’t complain about a season where we won the league by 13 points, won the most games, got the best goal difference and conceded the least goals. If we’re being really greedy, it’s a shame we couldn’t have got a couple more goals and have ended up scoring the most too. Losing only twice is pretty amazing, but without wanting to sound like a brat, it’s a real shame we lost those two games as I thought we could have gone the whole year without losing. Our first loss away at Avispa was pretty annoying. Their goalscorer should have been sent off long before he scored in my opinion, and it was a game that we dominated when it came to possession but both teams were in a ‘can’t shoot for shit’ period that we sometimes slip in to. Three shots on target out of 15 suggests that we would have been lucky to score. Their ratio (2 out of 9) was pretty similar but one of their two shots happened to be an audacious wonder strike, the type of which could only come from a player who knows he was having a lucky day from the fact that he was still on the pitch. It probably should have been a 0-0 really, I don’t think we deserved to win it, but neither did they really, but these things happen. The other loss also came in Kyushu to our usual recent bogey team Sagan Tosu. They were the only team we failed to beat last season, and hungover from winning the title in the previous game and delighted by the guard of honour they gave us, we put in a limp performance and they raised their game. Thanks to alcohol it was still a fun day out though. At least until Jesiel got injured. I think in the last two years we have  missed our two best chances ever to go the whole season unbeaten. Next year I think the title race will be a lot tighter than it was in the last two years. Perhaps we could have done it this year if we’d managed to keep Mitoma and Tanaka but to be honest that was never really going to happen. The ACL group stage in a bubble in Uzbekistan was a bit of a disruption for us and we definitely wobbled in all competitions after coming back to Japan and having to quarantine. The Avispa loss came at a time when Taniguchi was injured (from playing in midfield in the Emperor’s Cup…) and was around the time that almost everyone who played in that position picked up at least one semi-serious injury. As I say every year, I hope we can get some cover there for next year. I always say this but now have some vague evidence to support the statement I guess. All in all it didn’t quite feel as exciting as last year. We played four more league games this year but still scored seven goals less than in 2020. But we did concede three less too, so perhaps we slid back to something a bit more defensive. Certainly we had to rely on some late winners or equalisers this year and it was nowhere near as comfortable. I fancy that next year will be even trickier so fingers crossed for our hopes.


Once again it seemed a bit crazy to even bother holding the ACL in its usual form given the state of the world and the pandemic. But perhaps like the Olympics, some tournaments being made to go ahead is apparently more important than concerns for people’s health and safety. The group stage being held in Uzbekistan took a signifcant lump out of the middle of our season and flying back with Gamba apparently caused a few people to get COVID. The Chinese teams sending their kids added an extra layer or strangeness. I know I always say that Oniki doesn’t like to change things, but the fact that he played lots of different players, giving some of them their debut in our group games suggested that a couple of the teams we were facing were very weak. As did the scorelines, I guess. We coasted through the group with a perfect record only conceding three times in six games and scoring 27. And in doing so were rewarded with an away game at Ulsan Hyundai who had also won their group with a perfect record. I don’t think either team was particularly happy but given that there were 5 groups in the Eastern section, two group winners were always going to have to face each other and it was just our luck to get that draw and to even have to play the one legged tie at their ground. Add to this the fact that our central defender injury crisis was really kicking in when it came to our knockout stage match, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps we weren’t getting the luck of the draw in this competition in 2021. The game was pretty dire with only 2 shots on target from each team in 120 minutes and then the pitch disintegrated under our penalty takers (I feel particularly bad for Hasegawa as you could almost see him sink as he went to take his kick and that ended up being the last thing he did for us before he left). Apparently the ref could have changed ends half way through given that the penalty spot had to be replaced after every kick but he chose not to, presumably wanting to get things over and done with after a turgid 120 minutes of football and perhaps also feeling that people slipping over during their run up was perhaps in keeping with the general standard of the match. But both teams had to deal with the same situations so I’m not really moaning. It just felt like it wasn’t meant to be. Which was presumably a delight for rival J League fans. I don’t necessarily want to say that there are still some question marks over our performances in knockout competitions, but the next two sections might reinforce that idea…

Emperor’s Cup

This was once again a bit of a disaster for us in 2021. We were taken to penalties after falling behind to J3 Nagano and J2 JEF in consecutive rounds and scraped through. Then more comfortably got through against J1 pair Shimizu and Kashima before coming up against another brick wall of fate against Oita in the semi-final. This was a game that it was impossible to be too upset about losing. Unlike against Ulsan where we’d been shit and then had a penalty shoot out nightmare in horrible conditions, we totally dominated Oita for most of the game but came up against Frontale old boy Takagi in the Oita goal who seemed to have decided to have the game of his life and managed to stop pretty much everything in amazing ways. We had 41 shots and three quarters of them were on target. When in the shootout one of their penalties hit the post and bounced in off Sung-Ryong’s back it became truly evident that fate was in charge and against us, and whatever we might do we weren’t going to get through. It was a real shame that Tsukagawa missed as he’d done pretty much nothing for the previous few months and probably saw it as a good opportunity to remind people who he was. Still getting to the semi finals wasn’t bad considering how we’d struggled to get past J3 and J2 opposition in previous rounds.


Coming into the competition at a late stage always feels a bit like cheating. Particularly if you’ve messed up the ACL whilst getting a bye for the group stage of the Levain. In the first leg with Tanuguchi injured we started with Jesiel and Kurumaya at centre back, both of whom left the pitch injured before the 90 minutes were up. We ended up with a centre back paring of Yamamura and Noborizato. We didn’t play particularly well, the pitch was horrible and so was the ref. But we got a dubious penalty (I wrote in my post, I can’t remember it to be honest). To come away with a 1-1 draw in the away leg was something of a miracle really but probably only really delayed the inevitable. In the following game we went with Yamamura and Tanabe at centre back but Oniki withdrew Tanabe at half time. Yamane was away on international duty so we ended up with a bit of a mess of a line-up and in the end probably got what we deserved (a 94th minute equaliser which gave them the tie on away goals). Similarly to the Oita Emperor’s Cup loss it was difficult to feel too upset about the result as not only was this game in the middle of our big mid-season wobble but also everything seemed to be going against us when it came to luck and again it felt like it just wasn’t meant to be.

All in all, a bit of a weird year. The league was fun, but not as exciting as last year and it felt like we’d regressed slightly maybe, particularly when it came to exciting football. It really doesn’t help when you lose two starters mid-season though. And it does seem that this is what’s going to be happening to us more and more often now, which is a bit worrying. We’ve got a great plan A which works pretty well most of the time, but you still have to think that we need a plan B. Oniki’s limited experiments with 4-4-2 haven’t really seemed to work but I think he probably needs to make them work for next year. In league games perhaps it’s ok if you plug away with plan A relentlessly, usually ending up with at worst a draw. But in knockout competition I’m not sure we still have what it takes to change a match and grab something in a stalemate. It can’t have come as a surprise to see us struggle to break though a defensive Ulsan in the ACL when we failed to do the same to Nagano and JEF in the Emperor’s Cup. I used to moan a lot about Oniki, but that seems a bit ridiculous given the success he’s had. So don’t take this a moan, just a suggestion that maybe he needs to take his management to another level for us to be able to deal with situations that aren’t going our way. Anyway, we won the league and we’ve got another star for the kit, which will also have the benefit of irritating some opposition fans. Let’s hope we can step it up a little next season in what is going to be another packed schedule.

No comments:

Post a Comment