What has happened to Consadole Sapporo?

Gifu welcome Consadole Sapporo to the Nagaragawa Stadium on Sunday, but the visitors are not in the kind of shape that most expeceted them to be in at this point in the season. They’ve just sacked Keiichi Zaizen and replaced him with Croatian Ivica Barbaric – a result of a disjointed season that has seen the much fancied club struggle around mid-table. Here is a look at what has gone wrong for the club so far this year.

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November 24th 2013. Sapporo Dome. 87th minute in the game between Consadole Sapporo and Giravanz Kitakyushu. The home side know that one goal will put them in to the J2 play-offs. Consadole’s Vietnamese superstar Le Cong Vinh then smacks a free-kick, that looks like it was in all the way, against the post. Their last chance gone, and a 0-0 draw seals their fate – they will be in J2 again in 2014.

Fast forward to September 2014, and instead of pushing on from last year and gunning for an automatic promotion spot, they are languishing in mid-table. They have a loaded squad, a dash of superstar, an amazing stadium, financial backing – all the ingredients for a successful club. So what has gone wrong this year?

1. The case for the lack of defence

Consadole’s big defensive acquisition of of the winter was the signing of goalkeeper Junki Kanayama from V.Varen Nagasaki. Kanayama was widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in J2 last year, and was at the heart of Nagasaki’s stunning 4th place finish. Many, myself included, expected him to kick on and establish himself as the top keeper in the league again. But it hasn’t quite worked out like that. He got off to a slow start and was dropped early on in the season and while he has regained his place he hasn’t scaled the heights of last year.

Paulon, the giant Brazilian was supposed to be the rock upon which the defence was to be built. He, however, has been in and out of the side through injury & bad form and Consa’s defensive blueprint has been thrown in the bin.

2. Too many cooks…..

Specifically, one centre forward too many. Before I carry on this point it is important to make the distinction between not being a good player, and being a good player but being brought in at a puzzling time into a difficult system. Last year, the undoubted top dog up front was Yoshihiro Uchimura. 17 goals in 32 appearances meant that he was one of the most feared strikers in the league. This season, they brought in Ken Tokura – who had trialled with teams in Scandanavia – to add competition. But the formation that Keiichi Zaizen preferred was a 4-2-3-1 with only one centre forward. Given that they needed more depth in the attacking midfield area, where Shunsuke Maeda and Sunakawa are getting on in age, it was a surprising move. Again, no doubt Tokura is a good player, evidenced by the fact that he has scored three in the last two games. But trying to shoehorn two strikers into a team that can only accommodate one rarely works.

Now, if Barbaric decides to go with two up front then Tokura & Uchimura instantly become one of the best, if not the best, one-two punch in the division. Just for example, if they went with a forward three of

Tokura        Uchimura

Ono

no-one would like to play against them. Assuming the midfield balance was there (and Consa do have the holding midfield players to play this way) this would be very dangerous for opposing teams. But Zaizen didn’t entertain this formation, instead sticking with his one top and support from behind from players like Shunsuke Maeda, Sunakawa and Shinji Ono. All those players, you’ll notice, are in their 30’s and can’t be relied upon to produce for 90 minutes week in week out.

3. Superstar settling in problems

Much hullaballoo ensued when Shinji Ono, he of Urawa, Feyenoord and Western Sydney Wanderers fame, signed for Consadole this summer. Widely regarded as the missing piece in the Sapporo jigsaw, his arrival was meant to propel the team to at least the play-offs. His first game was good, controlling the majority of the home game against Oita Trinita (which they eventually drew 1-1) and helping stage a remarkable away win in Ehime, but Sapporo haven’t won with him in the team since. He has suffered a couple of nagging injuries that have curtailed his involvement somewhat, but he really hasn’t shown the kind of form that gained him so many admirers in Australia where he helped fire WSW to ACL qualification.

The only good thing I can see is that given the logjam below the J2 play-off places, they are only a few decent results from being back in the play-off hunt. They’ve taken 7 points from their last three games, and will be confident ahead of their trip to Gifu. Whether Barbaric decides to change things up, as the Gifu game represents his first official game in charge, remains to be seen. Gifu fans are looking forward to this match, but don’t fear Sapporo. My gut feeling is that this will be a game with goals – although Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi will be hoping for a third clean sheet in a row.

In any event, hoping for a good game on Sunday night.

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