Welcome to 2018

From my football-insulated bunker in Gifu, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy new year. 2018 is upon us, and that means the follow up to Takeshi Oki’s first season of pass-tastic football is about to unfold before our very eyes.

 

With regards to this site, I’ve given it a fresh lick of paint, organised & updated a few things, got rid of a lot of the older, non-important posts from back in the day and tried to inject a bit of freshness into it. I always feel like this at the start of the season, so I might as well take advantage of this will to work.

 

On the field, this will be a different looking side to the one that in parts enthralled us, and in other parts frustrated us last year. Gone are Yoshihiro Shoji (Vegalta Sendai), Sisinio (Tokushima Vortis) and Yuki Omoto (also Tokushima) – arguably three of Gifu’s five best players from last year.

 

In have come a lot of younger players – the average age of Gifu’s squad is now at around 24.5 years old. As with last year, players straight from University are intriguing the supporters. Gifu’s very own Shohei Mishima has been given Sisinio’s old #6 shirt and as such has a big weight on his young shoulders. The “Ace #10” shirt has been allocated to Ryan De Vries, a centre forward brought in from Auckland City FC. He had an excellent goalscoring record in NZ, scoring 10 times in 6 games this year, and his arrival is very interesting indeed. (On a more selfish point, it is good to have one guaranteed English speaker on the books!) De Vries has, up until this point in his career, been semi-pro and this is his first full time contract so it will be fun to see how he adapts to Takeshi Oki’s strict training regime. Hopefully I’ll get to speak to Ryan at length before the season starts and get a good insight from him about how he is settling in.

 

I’ll get to a full, more detailed breakdown on the squad as we get closer to the season and after I’ve seen the new team in action. One thing that I don’t expect to change is the style & the will of coach Takeshi Oki. Oki starts his second season with the goal of finishing in the top ten – a lofty ambition given the relative quality of teams in J2 this year.  He’ll almost certainly stick with his fluid 4-3-3 formation, but the defence has to be tighter if Gifu are to make real progress.

But analysis & previews are for a time closer to the beginning of the season. Until then, I’m going to get studying Gifu’s new players – stay tuned for updates!

 

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The Evolution Continues

The phrase “evolution, not revolution” is particularly apt today, as it was announced (although it wasn’t a surprise) that coach Takeshi Oki will continue in charge of FC Gifu for the 2018 season.

I think everyone is familiar with what has happened in Gifu this year. The implementation of a pass-pass-pass-pass approach has made household names (well, if those households have DAZN) of Yoshihiro Shoji & Sisinio, as well as fostering the exponential improvement of defender Masanori Abe and introducing exciting youngsters Kyogo Furuhashi & Yuki Omoto.

The stats tell you what you need to know about Oki’s football. Gifu pass the ball most in the league with an average (!) of nearly 700 passes per game, and they have possession for longer than any other team in the league at 63% per game. The aforementioned Shoji & Sisinio are widely admired for their strict adherence to Oki’s footballing principles and not hoofing or booting the ball away. That’s not to say they don’t go long, but when they do it isn’t aimless – a long pass is very different to a long ball. Shoji & Sisinio both like to showcase their long passing prowess when possible (even if I would like to see it more often).

The fact that Gifu keep possession for such a long time should make the game conditions more favourable to them, no? Well, the results this don’t bear it out. There’s a lot of passing, but often too much just in the middle of the pitch, where opposition teams don’t really have to do anything other than shuffle around five yards to the left, then five yards to the right just to stay in shape. The reason I mentioned that I’d like to see Sisi & Shoji spray passes longer more often is that they force teams to shift and adjust quickly and that’s when they are at their most vulnerable. Most of Gifu’s good play comes when they get the ball wide to Fukumura or Furuhashi on the left, Omoto or Paulo on the right. This is because the midfield have set this up: deliberately keeping the ball in close quarters before drilling the opposition with a possible two-on-one with their full back. Possession is nine tenths of the law, but that other ten percent is where Gifu need to improve.

 

I think it is also fair to say that Oki doesn’t really like doing things in front of the TV cameras. His pre and post game interviews are one word/one phrase masterpieces that make me feel a whole lot better about my own limited Japanese.

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He doesn’t really feel like answering questions immediately after the game, and when he does, those answers aren’t really that positive. Sisinio tells me that he is really positive in the changing room, going around giving everyone encouragement, but that very really comes across in interviews. I’ll be interested to see/hear what he has to say during the end of season ceremony on Saturday. The one thing that I will say about Oki and his staff, is that they are very respectful of the supporters. I’ve not once seen him hide from the post game walk around the pitch, even after the humiliating losses against JEF United, Kamatamare Sanuki etc. He and his staff are always there, showing that they are with the players. I expect he’ll get a very warm reception from the supporters on Saturday night.

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Is 17th (or even 18th) what we expected this year? Yes and No – depending on your positivity levels in pre-season. Personally, I’m happy we stayed in the division although I do feel our playing style warrants a better points total. At the Nagoya game in Toyota, I was talking with a long time Gifu supporting friend of mine who said (while drunk, it has to be said….) “If we keep Oki for three years, we will have a chance to go to J1. His teams play very well, and he’s an excellent coach” We will enter year tow next year, and it will be time to see some progress.

With all that said, Oki will have a list as long as Pink Floyd guitar solo of things to do for next year. But there are a few things I would point him in the direction of.

 

The retention of Takayuki Fukumura

Fukumura is a difficult player to define. He is classed as a left back, but in reality I think he is a player who, in the venerated Dutch scheme, is a total footballer. He finds himself anywhere on the field, and not in any kind of unplanned Shun Nogaito WHAT ARE YOU DOING THERE?? kind of situation, but in controlled chaos kind of way. He gives Gifu so much going forward, that his defensive lapses are easy to forgive. Him and Furuhashi have struck up a good understanding on the left, and to be quite honest there isn’t another left back capable of filling Fukumura’s role. It is my understanding that he is out of contract at Shimizu S-Pulse at the end of the season, and so I would assume that Gifu would make a big push to sign him.

 

Keeping the Sisinio/Shoji axis in midfield

Of course, Oki wants to retain the services of his tow best midfielders, but that will be easier said than done. Sisinio no doubt has a lot of offers heading his way, but he likes playing for Oki and if the manager can sell his vision of 2018, he might be able to persuade Sisi to join him. Shoji will almost certainly stay – that is my educated guess. Sisinio loves playing for Oki, and loves the style of play Gifu implement. Whether he’ll stay is still up in the air though.

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Yoshihiro Shoji leads the team out for the warm up

Find a sharper cutting edge

Hiroaki Namba is going on 34, Alex is often injured (but does look very good when he plays) and Koya Kazama is still transitioning from attacking midfielder to forward. Gifu really need someone capable of hitting 15-20 goals per year to take advantage of all the creativity this side possesses. Just a random name, but if Gifu had Matsumoto Yamaga forward Hiroyuki Takasaki, we would be a play-off caliber team. Someone who can occupy defenders, make the right runs at the right time, and can get into scoring areas & finish off moves.

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If Alex can stay fit, he could be the solution up front 

There are a selection of players that might fit the criteria, but some that come to mid for me include:

  • Kagoshima United forward Noriaki Fujimoto
  • Azul Claro forward Takuya Sonoda
  • Nagoya Grampus forward Ryo Nagai
  • Current on-loan forward (and injured) Kensei Nakashima

Any of these players could give Gifu a focal point going forward. If the creativity level is as high next year, then we can’t afford to keep wasting chances.

But I trust Oki. He knows exactly what he wants, and I’ve no doubt that he’ll search high & low to bring in the players needed. Hopefully we can put on a good show on Saturday afternoon when we welcome champions Shonan Bellmare to Nagaragawa. A win would be just rewards for Takeshi Oki.

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Trundling towards the finish

Haven’t done a blog post in a while. I think it is partly to do with my Bronchitis (seriously…the discrepancy in temperatures these days are horrible) but I think it is mostly to do wit the fact the Gifu don’t really have anything tangible to play for.

Gifu are in the rare situation of not being in a relegation fight and I think that has affected the mood / atmosphere around the club. It has been clear for a long time now that we weren’t in relegation danger, and we weren’t getting near the play-offs and so this is what the middle-ground feels like.

In recent weeks, since the slaying by Nagoya Grampus, Gifu have had a really difficult slate of games against top sides in the division:

  • Oita Trinita (A) – 3-3
  • Tokushima (H) – 0-2
  • Tokyo Verdy (H) – 1-2
  • Matsumoto (A) – 1-2

Out of these games, the Tokushima game was the only one in which we were properly turned over. Vortis are a good side, and it is surprising to me that they aren’t comfortably in the top six. They are fast, strong & direct when needed, but also have the guile & skill of Taro Sugimoto & Daiki Watari to call upon.

Against Oita, we conceded an injury time equalizer (after coming back from 0-2 down), against Verdy it was in the balance, and in my opinion Gifu were much better than Matsumoto last week. However, looking at the big picture, we have lost five of the last six games which isn’t a good look. As usual, the lack of decisiveness in the front third has been what has cost Gifu games – something that needs to be sorted in the winter, a fact that wasn’t lost on one of our favourite ex-players, Stipe Plazibat:

I’m not really sure what else to say about the current state of FC Gifu. People might disagree with me here, but to be safe with a relatively long time to go in the season is pretty good. We went into this season not really knowing what to expect from this coach & this group of players – but the most important thing was to stay in the division. Mission accomplished. Could we have achieved more? Sure. And we probably should be in mid-table. But I think that this season is a starting point, and I think it is clear where the squad improvements need to be, so in that aspect I think manager Takeshi Oki will – despite being pissed off at being in 17th – be happy that there is some clarity regarding what he needs to do.

My take on that will come post season, but for now I’ll take a brief look at some of the more pressing issues facing the club at this point.

1. Yoshinari Takagi’s retirement

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Nari-san, in rainier times.

Our back up goalkeeper this year has announced his retirement from the game. He has had a fine career with spells at Tokyo Verdy, Nagoya Grampus & Gifu, but it is no surprise that he is calling it a day. It wouldn’t surprise me if he is selected for Gifu’s final home game of the year against Shonan Bellmare on November 11, just to give him a proper send off. The word is (from Nagoya people) that he will probably take up a position at Grampus upon retirement, but I woudn’t put the possibility of becoming a coach out of the question. More & more this year he has been acting like a coach on the sidelines, and someone with his experience should be able to give back to the game.

 

2. Player movement

This will come up after the season as well, but it is fair to wonder which players might not be here next year. I think inevitably three names will crop up: Sisinio, Yuki Omoto and Kyogo Furuhashi.

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It’s not really a secret that some J1 clubs are interested in what the rookie duo of Omoto & Furuhashi have been producing this year. Representatives from FC Tokyo, Kashiwa Reysol and others have been present in the second half of the season to check on Gifu, and it is highly likely that they are the ones under the microscope. It is my understanding that the two of them actually signed two year contracts coming out of university, meaning they both have a year remaining (although my understanding could be wrong). It is interesting, perhaps, that JSP, Yuki Omoto’s agency, has released a highlights video of their client. If I was being suspicious I’d say it is an attempt to drum up interest (both home & abroad) for their client. If I was being naive I’d say it was an attempt to make people aware of Yuki so that they come to watch him next season. Whatever….it is a situation to keep an eye on.

 

Sisinio’s situation is a little harder to predict. He’s older, at 31, and so probably doesn’t have a lot of time left in order to make the jump to J1 – which he is undoubtedly good enough to do. The question is is whether he is willing to be patient with Gifu, and with a coach whom he admits he loves working for, and try and reach J1 with Gifu. If he decides not to, then few would blame him. He’s been outstanding this season.

 

Victor & Yoshihiro Shoji’s names should come up – they’ve both had excellent seasons. But I think (and I hope!!) they stay. Victor still has time remaining on his contract and I don’t think he is in a rush to leave. I know he likes Gifu, and only just recently got married. Shoji is integral to manager Oki’s vision of football, so I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere (Still, this is the J.League so you’re never really sure about transfers or contract status’ and things like that).

I’d really like all of the on-loan players to stay. Takayuki Fukumura has been very good and I think next year Hideyuki Nozawa & Yushi Nagashima would turn into excellent players in Gifu’s system. Hopefully Oki can persuade them.

 

3. The run-in

But let’s not forget there still three games for Gifu to navigate before the end of the year, starting with a trip north to face Zweigen Kanazawa. Kanazawa are safe themselves after flirting with relegation for the bulk of the season, aided by a highly impressive 3-1 home win against Nagoya Grampus in September. The so called “Hakusan derby” (derby of the white mountains) is the latest attempt to drum up a rivalry for Zweigen. Kanazawa finds it difficult to have genuine rivals due to their geography – up in the Hokuriku area of Japan, their nearest team is actually Kataller Toyama but seeing as they are in J3, that isn’t going to be a viable derby in the near future.

Kanazawa are a humdrum side, but one that has done well to maintain its J2 status. Striker Koichi Sato – scorer of 14 this season and very well known to Gifu supporters after his spell here in the early 2010’s – will look to extend Zweigen’s excellent recent form of just one defeat in the last six (and that defeat was against champions Shonan Bellmare). Interestingly, Kanazawa don’t rely on foreign players – they only have one currently on their books – Korean defender Byeon Jun Byum – and the vast majority of their minutes have been played by Japanese players. I do like their attacking midfielder Keiya Nakami, he’s been excellent in forward positions and around the box leading to an excellent tally of 11 goals this year. The two teams have scored 95 goals between them this year while conceding 112 – so it probably won’t end up a scoreless draw.

 

Ah….it feels good to get some thoughts down on (virtual) paper again. Hopefully Gifu can sign off the season with a good run of form.

Ouch (but not the end of the world)

It was going so well for the first 30 minutes. Yuki Omoto’s well worked goal had put FC Gifu in front, and the balance of play was fairly even. But then Taishi Taguchi curled in a shot from 25 yards and it all went downhill from there. Here is the story of Sunday October 1st, 2017.

 

An early start

From a young age, I’ve been going to stadiums to watch football. I’ve been to some of the most iconic footballing venues on the planet, but never have I arrived at a stadium as early as I did on Sunday. Why? I’m not that sure to be honest. Wisdom of the crowds to a certain extent. I knew that a lot of people were going to be there early, and I thought it would be wise to get there earlier than usual to avoid all the transport congestion, food stall waiting that surely would entail. As it was, I arrived at the stadium (after a quick pit stop at the nearest 7-11 for supplies) at around 10:15am – for a 3pm kick off.

That seems a bit crazy now, but when I got to the stadium I found out I was far from the first, and was far from early. I met up with a group of supporters that I know who had been there since 9am and by the time the gates were opened to season ticket holders at 11:30am, there was a huge number of people in the stadium vicinity.

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I met up with FC Gifu president Hiroyuki Miyata who told me that he had been there since 8am and hadn’t had a lot of sleep the night before. Not surprising since this was the most hyped home game in Gifu’s relatively short J.League history. Next up I met the stadium MC’s – Hiramatsu-san & Kuze-san. Hiramatsu-san was the long time MC before he moved to Kanto for work reasons at the start of this year, but he had a contractual agreement to be MC for the Nagoya games (he was also guest MC in the first meeting at Toyota Stadium). We had a good talk about what we thought might happen, the crowd etc and we both agreed that it wouldn’t finish 0-0, something we were right about……

 

Next up, meeting big Richy. Anybody that knows Gifu knows that actually Richy pre-dates me as a Gifu supporter. What he lacks in fashion sense (a lot….sorry mate) he makes up for with footballing knowledge (a lot). One of the things I said to him was “I hope it is a close game” the thinking being that, although of course we wanted Gifu to win, a heavy defeat in front of what was certain to be a record crowd could be quite damaging. After that, we went to grab a beer (a beer which I didn’t expect to have to wait 20 minutes in line for) with a Nagoya supporter we mutually know (I’ll leave him nameless as he probably doesn’t want to be associated with Gifu supporters anymore than he has to….) and talked about what we expected. Of course, as a Nagoya supporter who had admittedly had a few beers he was pretty confident about what was about to transpire. “We’re going to fucking win” were his exact words, if I remember correctly. I think we have some kind of Nostradamus on our hands with that one.

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In the stadium, the crowd was building. As the players came out for their warm ups, behind both goals were practically full. One of the perks of my role with Gifu is that I get to go out on to the pitch side when the players come on for their warming up time. I’m lucky in that get to see what the players go through before a game, and it is fascinating. A couple of fist bumps with Victor and Yoshinari Takagi and they were away, closely followed by the players.

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At this point, Gifu supporters were already in full voice and, along with their Nagoya counterparts, were making for a great atmosphere. As the teams came out, the Nagoya end exploded into their red & yellow flag tifo – simple but effective, and it looked good both in the stadium & on TV. In the home supporters end, a mosaic which read “We Are Gifu” was portrayed, and it looked really good in the stadium.

My photo doesn’t do it justice to perfectly honest. As the players lined up for the pre-match ritual of receiving gifts from a seemingly endless stream of sponsors, I caught the eye of Gifu’s Spanish midfielder Sisinio, who gave me a quick nod that seemed to say “I’m ready” and as the game kicked off, it was clear he was.

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Gifu lined up in their now customary 4-3-3 formation, with Shoji, Sisinio & Yuto Ono patrolling the middle of the park, with Furuhashi & Paulo Tanaka on the wings. Koya Kazama, whose father Yahiro is Grampus coach (as we heard on the local news programmes plenty of times in the lead up) was the focal point of Gifu’s attack. Gifu started shakily, conceding a dangerous free-kick almost immediately, but Gabriel Xavier’s delivery was poor, and would be something that we wouldn’t be able to say as the game progressed. Sisinio settled in well, getting the ball, opening his body and looking for the wings. A couple of times his passes didn’t reach their intended targets, but the fact that he was doing it regularly put doubt into Taishi Taguchi & Yuki Kobayashi’s minds – they didn’t want to get caught too far in front of their defence, and it was from a Sisinio switch that the opening goal of the game came. Sisi took the ball in midfield, and found Paulo on the right touchline. Instead of taking it inside like he usually does, Paulo saw the run of Yuki Omoto into clear space and played a clever cushioned ball right into his path. Omoto, by now in the penalty area, shifted the ball from his favoured right foot on to his left, leaving Nagoya defender Washington stranded, and promptly curled the ball in off the far post. An excellent goal, and a worthy addition to Omoto’s burgeoning CV.

 

The place, as they say, went off. This was the dream for lots of Gifu supporters: to be beating Nagoya Grampus at home in a meaningful game. Gifu needed to settle and to make Nagoya work for their chances, although there was very little anyone could for Taguchi’s equaliser, which was a beautiful shot past the outstretched hand of Victor. Hands up – it was a quality strike. It wasn’t too long before Nagoya put themselves in front, Keiji Tamada’s quick layoff taken in stride by Gabriel Xavier, and the Brazilian forward rounded Victor and slotted into the empty net. Just like that, Grampus had turned the game on its head and were forcing Gifu to make the running once again. Half time came, and the game was finely poised – although no-one really though that that would be the end of the scoring. The level of play during that first half was very high for J2 – I would posit that these two teams were/are the best “footballing” sides in the division, and the style of both teams combined to produce a half that flew by.

 

However, the game was punctured for Gifu less than 30 seconds after the start of second half when Nagoya took a two goal lead. An intelligent run by Hisato Sato dragged three defenders wit him to the right of the area, and when he played the ball across the area, Gabriel Xavier was there in oceans of space and a player of his quality is not going to miss those kinds of chances. 1-3, and Gifu were really behind the eight ball. It could have been different if Kazama’s shot almost immediately after Xavier’s goal wasn’t well saved by Yohei Takeda but once Gifu were chasing the game, it wasn’t going to end pretty – Nagoya, for all their defensive faults (and they have them, which is why promotion won’t be easy for them), can be ruthless going forward. Xavier completed his hat-trick with another easy finish, and at this point this is what I had feared: the game slipping violently away from Gifu with plenty of time left. At this point, Nagoya brought on Robin Simovic, and Gifu brought on Hiroaki Namba. Namba scored to bring the score to 2-4 and maybe created a false sense of hope, but after Nagoya brought on Yuki Oshitani & Ryo Nagai, those hopes were snuffed out in professional style. Ryota Aoki capped an industrious game with Grampus’ fifth of the afternoon in the 85th minute, while Rio Nagai added the final insult with a deft finish in the 92nd minute. Full time, and a score of 2-6 wasn’t what people had in mind when they rocked up before 10am in the morning.

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Gifu manager Takeshi Oki: “Nagoya were very good, weren’t they? I can’t fault the players, I know they gave their all but they were picked off systematically. The turning point was the goal just after half time. You could see the heads go down a bit after it. We got back into it, but when their fifth goal went in, their heads went down again. It isn’t a nice feeling, and I feel bad bad for all the supporters that turned out today. We will start again tomorrow and try and prepare for our remaining games.”

Sisinio: “They were good. They were a completely different side from the one we played in April and sometimes you just have to congratulate the other team. We started well, but I think we left too much space behind us (he means “us” as in the midfielders) and when the opponents have good, technical players they can make that space work for them.”

I think that last point from Sisinio is very pertinent. I’d put this down as a system defeat. Gifu’s system couldn’t cope with Nagoya’s sharpness when they turned Gifu’s defenders around. Before the game I was really surprised that Robin Simovic was only on the bench, but in hindsight, it makes sense. The mobile-ness of of Tamada, Sato, Xavier & Aoki made it really difficult for Gifu defenders to track them. Had Simovic started, he would’ve been a natural target for Nagoya, but because they three or four smaller, more nimble players, they stretched Gifu’s defence side to side and up & down and ultimately gave Gifu’s defenders too many problems to figure out.

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It has been a theme of Gifu this year, the lack of protection in front of the back four. Oki eschews a true holding midfielder in favour of “true” footballers, those whose primary focus is to keep the ball. Possession, or more accurately attack, being the best form of defence. It is true up to a point, but the fact that Gifu conceded six at home for the second time this year means that it has to at least be considered. Gifu don’t really have a destructive midfielder on their books – possibly Henik if you pushed me to name one, but aside from him everyone is what you would call a footballer. It is how he feels football should be played, and I think the vast majority of supporters are right behind that idea. But you can’t keep shipping goals at home like Gifu do and expect to keep getting positive results. The defenders aren’t bad – I’d put forward the notion that centre back Masanori Abe is the most improved player this year – but they just don’t get the help they require at times. (Most) good teams need a screen in front of their defence and Gifu’s is currently possession. When they don’t have possession (which, in fairness, is quite rare) they don’t have a screen and opposition attackers & midfielders have direct access to Gifu’s defensive line.

Also, Nagoya showed how to be clinical. When they got in advanced positions, they were always looking for a positive pass, and only went back when it was necessary. Gabriel Xavier’s first goal is a prime example: Keiji Tamada was facing his own goal when he played in Gabriel, but his flick wrong-footed the Gifu defence and gave Xavier – who was making runs from deep all afternoon – a free run into the area. This speed of “turning” the defence creates chances and I wish Gifu would try and do that more often.

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So where do Gifu go from here? Literally, to Oita next weekend. Figuratively, that is slightly more difficult. Gifu are not going to the play-offs, they’ll unlikely be a top half side but at the same time they won’t be going down. A finish between the places of 17th-14th is the most likely scenario given the difficulty of the remaining schedule. I’d expect more playing time for Kento Yabuuchi – a forward that came on for his J.League debut in the closing minutes of the Grampus game – and possibly defender Kentaro Kai. Alex is close to returning from injury and I think he’ll play a part as the season comes to a close too.

The defeat in this game has the potential to completely overshadow the season, butI hope it doesn’t. It is easy to forget that Nagoya are bankrolled by the biggest automobile maker in the world, and as such can afford a deep bench with players that would start for Gifu. But Oki wants to attack, and wants to play on Gifu’s terms which in this league is a highly admirable thing to do. I just want him to protect the defence a bit more. Hopefully, it will come. Don’t lose faith!!

Derby day

So, it is almost upon us. The “Meigi” derby between FC Gifu and Nagoya Grampus will take place on Sunday in front of a sold out Nagaragawa Memorial Centre stadium. So what can we expect from this occasion?

1. A great atmosphere.

This is, as far as i’m aware, the first time that the stadium will be sold out for an FC Gifu game. Grampus have been given an allocation, although the expectation is that there will be a lot of Nagoya supporters contained within the stadium. While probably not half, it could be between 35-40% full of Grampus fans. Gifu supporters have a choreo planned and the event will be very well covered by various TV networks.

2. An open game

Both of these teams have a penchant for attacking football which leaves their respective defences exposed to varying extents. Based on the stats, the teams are number 1 & 2 in possession & passes in the division, while Nagoya have had the most shots this season of any J2 team. They are also easily the highest scorers in the league with 65 goals, Gifu in comparison have 46.

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For all of Nagoya’s attacking prowess, their defence is highly vulnerable. They’ve conceded an eye-popping 54 goals – only Gunma, Yamaguchi & Kanazawa have conceded more (as of the time of writing). Their midfield, while aesthetically pleasing does little to shield their defence from opposition attacks. Taguchi (a national team member not so long ago) is a decent but nothing more player. Ryota Aoki & Gabriel Xavier are the key components of this attacking juggernaut. Xavier is one of the best players in the league, and his ability to open up defences and his final ball quality will be difficult to defend on Sunday. Aoki has really come into his own this year, providing Nagoya with a goalscoring threat from midfield that compliments their forward options.

Goals have been pretty easy to come by for both teams, so don’t expect it to be a 0-0 draw.

3. Differences in expectations

Of course, both teams want to win. That should be a given, but the two supporter bases probably have wildly differing views of the clash.

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Grampus fans are still trying to get their head round the fact that they are traveling to Gifu for an actual competitive game. The fact that Nagoya aren’t cruising through this division league a majority of people thought they would gives this game extra urgency for them. They certainly shouldn’t be taking anything for granted – they aren’t too far removed from a humiliating defeat at Kanazawa, a defeat that came in the middle of a four game winless run. That came to an impressive end last week when they dismantled Tokyo Verdy in a sign of what they can actually achieve when everything clicks. Gifu have to hope that Nagoya are having an off day.

4. Key battles

Masanori Abe vs Robin Simovic

Simovic is a difficult forward to play against, but Abe has shown real signs of improvement this year after stalling due to the lack of defensive coaching from previous regimes. Abe is strong & good in the air and so his skill set matches up well with the 190cm Simovic. The Swede has scored 15 times in 32 games this year, and with the delivery of Gabriel Xavier being so good, it is a good bet that he will score a few more before the season’s end. Abe will have to stick with him as Simovic not only scores goals, but he also helps create them from his knockdowns. It will be imperative that Daiki Tamori & Abe work in tandem because if there is any misunderstanding then Simovic & Hisato Sato (or Ryo Nagai, Keiji Tamada or whoever else Grampus decide to field up front) will be there to take advantage.

Yoshihiro Shoji vs Taishi Taguchi

Gifu’s captain sets the pace for the side, and how he dictates that against Taguchi will have a large bearing on the game. Taguchi is a decent player who looks good in J2. He doesn’t dictate games in the way Shoji does, but he only has to do the simple things well in order to provide a platform for Nagoya to do well. When he picks the ball up deep, he looks to his left to see Gabriel Xavier. When he looks right he has Ryota Aoki. Going long he has Simovic while Sato/Nagai/Oshitani do the shallow runs. Gifu’s pressing game has to stop him doing this and also has to starve him of possession.

Did someone say possession? Because that is when Yoshihiro Shoji is in his element. As the main ball player in the division’s possession kings, Shoji is the man for the job. He’ll also have to be forceful and be strong against Taguchi. Shoji is already loved by Gifu’s supporters and a win against Nagoya will only elevate that adulation.

 

Sisinio vs Gabriel Xaiver

Quite possibly the two best players in the division, these two will probably influence the outcome of this game. Sisinio has been a revelation, his skills on the ball, and his gorgeous first touch mean envious eyes from other J.League clubs have been cast at him. He hasn’t scored in the league this year yet – something that I know bugs him – but if he opened his account on Sunday he would get a superb reaction. Sisinio is vital to how Oki wants to play football in that Sisinio’s first instinct is to open his body and scan the whole field for his next pass. You’ll see many times a game where he spies space on either flank and pings the ball out there – it doesn’t matter if it is left to Furuhashi or Fukumura, or right to Paulo or Omoto, Sisinio is always looking to make the pitch as big as possible. One of the reasons Yuki Omoto & Furuhashi have had such good seasons is that Sisinio can get the ball quickly to them and encourage them to go forward.

Xavier only came to Grampus after they had released Brazilian defender Charles in July, and since then has provided three goals and eleven assists. His last ball is outstanding, and he has a good work rate too – he isn’t afraid to work for the ball. Gifu’s right sided players – Yuki Omoto & Paulo Tanaka are attack minded players, but they will have to be wary of the threat Xavier poses because if they leave him isolated, he doesn’t need a lot of space to make good things happen.

5. What will happen?

Well, being biased, Gifu will win with a last minute Yoshihiro Shoji free-kick. Above that, I hope it will be a great atmosphere & advert for football in this area.

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We are Gifu!!

Rensho~~!

For the first time in what seems like an eternity, FC Gifu have strung consecutive wins together, one away from home and one at home. This is how they did it.

 

JEF United Chiba 1-3 FC Gifu

The Koya Kazama hat-trick will rightly get most of the plaudits, but this game showed the way that Gifu should play away from home.

Gifu initially set up with Kazama as lone frontman, with Kyogo Furuhashi on the left, and Paulo Tanaka on the right. It was a formation that didn’t really have great success earlier in the season, indeed, up until this point Kazama hadn’t scored a league goal in 2017. The system is dependent on width, with Furuhashi & left back Fukumura stacking the left side and Paulo & Yuki Omoto stacking the right side. This system works really when midfielders can switch the play quickly and in Sisinio & Yoshihiro Shoji, Gifu have two of the best in the league at doing that.

The first goal came after 45 seconds, and it came from the left hand side stack. Fukumura released Furuhashi down the left hand side, and Furuhashi’s outstanding cross was headed into the net by Kazama. A real bolt from the blue, but a superbly worked goal. Furuhashi is rapidly developing into an explosive player and he currently leads the J2 assist ranking, and with crosses like that it isn’t hard to see why.

Kazama’s second goal came from the right hand side. Paulo Tanaka released the ultra-quick Omoto down the right hand touchline, and his centre found Kazama again, who beat JEF’s keeper to the ball to double Gifu’s advantage. Omoto is a serious burner. He needs to work on his final ball, but if he improves that, he really could go on and do something special because his speed & stamina make him unmarkable at times. On the right, Omoto usually sets up at right back, with Paulo in front of him. This makes it difficult for opposition defences to decide what to do; Paulo is left footed so his inclination is to dribble inside, but if the defence covers that move, Omoto moves into the space on the outside. If done correctly, it will work every time the defence decides to leave Paulo one-on-one. Kazama’s second goal is the prime example.

His hat-trick goal wasn’t to dissimilar – Omoto getting to the byline and pulling the ball back to Koya, who feinted one way before prodding the ball into an unguarded net.

 

More than anything, this was a clinical performance. Sure, they could have scored more goals and sure, JEF were pretty abject, but this was the prototypical away performance. The shape was strong, Fukumura was superb in defence & attack, Shoji, Ono & Sisinio while not dictating the play as they are used to doing, did the simple things well (and props to Shoji for standing up to Andrew Kumagaya – that is what a captain does).

But of course, Kazama gets the headlines. He led the line well, dropped off cleverly before exploiting the gaps he had created. It was the performance that Oki had in mind when he started the season playing Kazama up front. I’ll admit I was sceptical, because I thought that Koya would be too slow to get into the area. He’s a clever, skillful player but not blessed with the kind of pace that role needs, but what his intelligence does do is that it makes him aware of spaces and he took full advantage in the JEF game. It was a much needed win because the season was slowly starting bog down and supporters were starting to get a bit nervous and looking over their shoulders at Sanuki, Kumamoto etc in the relegation battle. The next question was could they build on the JEF win?

 

FC Gifu 2-1 Ehime FC

A game of two halves (as someone famous once said), Gifu were electric in the first half but more subdued in the second half, and only just came away with the three points.

Unsurprisingly, Oki stuck with the same starting line up that beat JEF the previous week, and the team started really well and dominated the first half. Koya Kazama opened the scoring wit ha beautiful right footed curler from around 20 yards, but the goal owed so much to the energy and pressuring of Kyogo Furuhashi. Furuhashi harried & chased, and ultimately dispossessed an Ehime defender near the halfway line which set Gifu off on the counter attack. The ball made its way to Sisinio who in turn found Kazama, who had cultivated some space for himself right on the edge of the area. He received the ball while opening his body and was able to curl a beautiful shot past Ehime’s young Korean goalkeeper Park Seong Su. A fabulous finish, but one which owed a great deal to the energy of Furuhashi. Gifu could, and should, have enhanced their lead but had to settle for a single goal lead at the break.

 

The second half was a different story. Ehime came out a bit more fired up and started to close Gifu down a bit more when they had possession. Sisinio went off after just five minutes of the second half and that seemed to affect the way Gifu played. Ehime were well in the game and it came as no surprise when they leveled things up with 12 minutes to go. Gifu were caught sleeping from a quick free-kick, and the resulting cross found Ehime forward Koki Arita completely free in the middle of the area to head past Victor. Arita is a good striker at this level, but there is no way he should be completely unmarked in the box – really poor defending.

It nearly got so much worse for Gifu just two minutes later when Ehime’s Shuto Kojima found himself in space in Gifu’s area. His shot beat Victor, but not Daiki Tamori, who had shuffled himself on to the line behind Gifu’s goalkeeper, who cleared the ball away.

That was to prove a crucial turning point as Gifu seemed energized by that event and upped the pace to first half levels. Koya Kazama nearly grabbed his second after taking down a sensation long ball from Fukumura, only to see his goalbound effort excellently blocked by Ehime defender Nobuhisa Urata. The first resulting corner was cleared, but the second was brilliantly delivered by Yuto Ono, and it found the head of veteran striker Hiroaki Namba who headed the ball into the roof of the net. His celebrations tell you all you need to know about how important that goal was to him – and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mind the yellow card given to him for taking off his shirt.

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Gifu held on for four minutes of additional time to claim a much needed and confidence boosting home win. It wasn’t easy though – the second was tough watching for the supporters because it seemed like Gifu let Ehime back into the game. One thing that struck me during the game was that while possession is key for the style Takeshi Oki wants, it sometimes negates the need for incisiveness. For example, there were quite a few times that Gifu got in behind Ehime but players, instead of taking a chance and heading towards the danger-zone, too often stopped in their tracks & played the ball back to start the process off again.

Gifu look so dangerous, as I said in the JEF review, when they stack either side and isolate the opposition full back. They did it plenty of times on Sunday, but too often they didn’t take advantage of it. It seems churlish to demand more after consecutive victories, but I  would like to see more chances being taken in the final third. Get the ball in the area, shoot quicker etc. Of course, if nothing is on, get the ball back to creative players like Shoji & Sisinio who can create things out of nothing, but once we get the opposition turned around, we have to exploit it. We did it well in the first half, but in the second half the will to do it seemed to fade a bit. Maybe it is tiredness – this team has played a lot of minutes this season, and trained a lot this summer so it would not be a surprise to see some kind of fatigue set in.

 

But there is some tough sledding ahead. Here is the immediate future for Gifu:

  • Mito Hollhock (A)
  • Renofa Yamaguchi (A)
  • Avispa Fukuoka (H)
  • Nagoya Grampus (H)

Mito are unbeaten at home since the first day of the year; Renofa are fighting for survival; Avispa are looking for automatic promotion while Nagoya are local rivals and also going for promotion. This is a tough September, so it was crucial that Gifu took advantage if these games against teams with little to play for. The next game, at Mito, will be tough, but Gifu will go into it with confidence after these two victories – let’s hope that September can be like our April, when we went unbeaten. If that happens, it will be something to write home about!IMG_2342.JPG