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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!