Opening thoughts

FC Gifu welcome Matsumoto Yamaga to Nagaragawa tomorrow, basking in the praise of yet another good performance last week at Nagoya Grampus.


The signs from Takeshi Oki’s first two games are highly promising, if the results aren’t that spectacular, with just two points to show from their first two games. If you’ve seen anything of Gifu this year, you’ll know that they have morphed into the “Barcelona” of the far east (my phrasing – don’t go looking that up on Twitter).
In goal, Victor is the number one. The Spaniard looked a lot more assured in the game at Toyota Stadium last week – although looking back at the opening game in which he looked a little suspect on long balls over the top of the defence, it can be argued that the swirling wind made it difficult to judge the velocity of the ball, and where it would land. Plus, he was still getting to know Henik & Tsubasa Aoki and I think as his Japanese improves, his command will too. Oki, without question, values his comfort on the ball and his willingness to make passes instead of just hoofing the ball upfield.

In defence, left back Takayuki Fukumura has been outstanding. He plays more like a winger that can defend, but offers some experience to an inexperienced back four. In the middle, Henik & Tsubasa Aoki are a work in progress, but again the name of the game is ball possession. Aoki’s ability to play the ball out from defence is more valuable than his current defensive capability. Henik was excellent against the dual threats of Ryo Nagai & Hisato Sato against Nagoya, and his body positioning and mental reading of the game seemed to get better compared to the first week against Renofa Yamaguchi.

Without question the stand out player in defence has been full back/winger hybrid Yuki Omoto. I don’t know who sourced this kid, but he is absolute dynamite. Quick enough to cover pace wingers, skilful enough to make opposition full backs nervous; It is early, but he could be the best full back I’ve seen in my time watching Gifu. My gut feeling is that Oki would prefer him to operate further forward, and given that Daiki Tamori started the season at right back, with Omoto as a right winger, it wouldn’t be a leap to imagine that. But with Omoto at right back and Paulo Tanaka on the right wing, it is a potent right sided attack that Gifu can field.

Most of the good things you will have heard from Gifu emanate from the midfield. Spanish midfielder Sisinio has been exceptional in his range of passing and his ability to keep the ball. When teamed with captain Yoshihiro Shoji, that axis has the potential to be one of the best in the league. Shoji showed a different side to his game last week against Nagoya. While it was universally acknowledged that Sisinio was the MOTM at Toyota Stadium, Shoji showed the leadership qualities that Gifu desperately needed. He wasn’t as influential in the passing game, but his workrate, tackling and cover work was off the scale. It was no surprise that he was the person who cleared the ball off the line in additional time to preserve a point last week – that is just the kind of game he had. Leading by example, not by his voice.

In front of the Shoji-Sisinio pair is Yushi Nagashima. Who? Well, yes. That is what almost everybody thought when he was brought in because the expectation was that Hideyuki Nozawa would be the third midfielder. But Nagashima has been an integral part of Gifu’s ability to pass & move. He is small and elusive, but if teams neglect him he’ll get in behind their midfield and cause havoc in the “hole”. Nagashima is one of those players that make you think “whoa – his parent team don’t need a player like that?” He’s only on loan at Gifu, so the chances are that he won’t extend beyond a year, but if he continues his hot start, he’ll become a very important player for Gifu.

Up front, Koya Kazama has been employed as Gifu’s “false 9” – the forward who isn’t a forward. He’s done ok, but he is naturally a winger and you can see him gravitate more to the side during a game. That means that there is no-one on the middle when crosses come in. Kyogo Furuhashi is seemingly comfortable on either side of an attacking three and his pace and directness, if harnessed properly, can become a weapon for the team. It has been clear that Furuhashi has been asked to stretch the field, so he has been staying on the wing which gives Shoji & Sisinio an outlet when they get the ball in the middle of the pitch.

Paulo Tanaka is becoming an increasingly important part of what Gifu are trying to do stylistically. He has been playing on the right hand side of attack, but because he is left footed he attacks inside the full back – their weak side. It can be highly effective, as most people saw from his goal against Nagoya last week. I’d be interested to see if he would as effective on his natural left side, my guess is that he would prefer to cut in on to his left foot, as opposed to going outside a full back.

I don’t anticipate too many changes for tomorrow’s game against our rivals from Matsumoto. It would be nice to get a win and we’ve traditionally been pretty decent against them. They have yet to score a goal this year and so they’ll be desperate to break their duck on Sunday. They’ll bring a lot of supporters, but Gifu are a team that plays at their own pace now, as opposed to being a reactionary team like last year. It will be an interesting afternoon by the river river tomorrow.

See you there!!


A Tale of Two Cities

One is a beautiful, rural (for Japanese standards at any rate) quiet city; the other is a down to earth, concrete jungle. The two cities are just twenty minutes apart by train, and tomorrow the football clubs from these two cities will face off against each other for the first time in a league game.

Nagoya Grampus vs FC Gifu


Is it a derby? Well, geographically speaking, yes it is. The two clubs don’t have anyone closer to them. But can it be considered a “derby” when the two clubs have barely played a competitive game against each other? I’ll leave that for the marketing men & women to decide (and it seems they already have, given the publicity around the game).


I’d much rather focus on the state of the two teams on the pitch, and what that will mean for the game on Saturday.

Gifu come into the game on the back of an impressive performance in the opening game against Renofa Yamaguchi, albeit a performance that yielded a disappointing 2-2 result. Gifu dominated the midfield and possession – they 71% of the ball and completed over 650 passes, something quite unheard of at Gifu. The main players in the midfield domination were Yoshihiro Shoji & Sisinio and those two combined to set the tempo for Takeshi Oki’s side. Shoji often dropped deep to pick up the ball and start attacks, while Sisinio was all across the midfield, seemingly always available as an outlet.

I spoke briefly to Sisinio after the game and put it to him that it must have nice to play in a team that had so much of the ball, and were so intent on keeping it on the ground. He said that it was something that they had worked on all pre-season, and that it was nice to see the execution of it on the field. He also said it made him a bit nervous at times when players in defensive positions tried to play the ball out from the back because there was always a chance it could go wrong, but as a footballing philosophy, he couldn’t fault it. The only disappointment for Sisinio – and the rest of the supporters – was that they didn’t get the result that they probably deserved.


Whilst the passing was very nice to watch and an extremely positive development, the alarming part was Renofa’s ability to turn defence into attack pretty quickly, and get pressure on Gifu’s centre back pairing of Henik & Tsubasa Aoki. In the picture above, you can see very clearly the space between the midfield and Henik – the player who is about to receive the ball, and there are three Renofa players in that space, ready to take advantage if it goes wrong. That would be the space where Ryo Nagai & Hisato Sato will be looking to play in. Neither of them (Aoki & Henik) are the quickest, and many people had probably not considered Aoki a defender heading into the season, but he has a very good left foot and a solid range of passing. His midfielders intuition makes him comfortable on the ball and that is what Oki sees in him, a ball playing defender. What will make Gifu supporters nervous is that if Kazuhito Kishida can get space against Gifu’s defence, then the Grampus forward line of (presumably) Ryo Nagai – who scored five times against Gifu last season – and Hisato Sato will be equally adept at finding the soft spots.

That isn’t to say that it is a given. Oki has had a week of work with the team, including a practice game against Kataller Toyama earlier in the week in which a lot of players coming back from injury, including Hideyuki Nozawa & Cristian, got some much needed playing time. He will have seen the tape of the game, assessed what needs to be changed and will set Gifu up accordingly.


Nagoya are coming off an opening day win against Fagiano Okayama with Ryo Nagai, their winter signing from V-Varen Nagasaki, scoring twice. It was a decent performance from Nagoya, but that wasn’t the same Okayama team that made the J2 playoff final last year. From that side, Fagiano lost forward Yuki Oshitani (their top scorer), Hirotsugu Nakabayashi (one of the best ‘keepers in the league), Daiki Iwamasa (their defensive leader) and Shinya Yajima (the Japan U23 star who returned to Urawa). So while it is right to say Grampus got off to a good start, it would be wrong to read too much into their opponent on purely name value.

Yahiro Kazama, the new Grampus coach, set his side up in a 3-4-2-1 formation (at least it looked like that way when re-watching their game). Nagai was the lone striker who was tasked to work the central defenders hard, and Hisato Sato & Keiji Tamada – two very wily & clever veterans – were left to exploit the space between Okayama’s midfield & defence. Tamada seemingly was more content to let Sato get forward a bit more while he was more of a playmaker, although it was clear at times that Nagai & Sato could swap & change their positions at will, making it difficult for Okayama defenders to decide who to track.

In defence they played a three back system, which in theory could benefit Gifu IF they can exploit the soft zones behind the wing backs and to the side of the centre backs. I think Kazuya Miyahara is a good player with potential, but Kenta Uchida & Kushibiki (should they play) can be got at. The wildcards are the Brazilian trio that didn’t start against Okayama, including defender Charles.

The thing that Nagoya have which Gifu don’t, is depth. An example of that is when Swedish forward Robin Simovic came on for Keiji Tamada and changed the way Grampus set up. It would be wrong to class Simovic as just a physical forward becasue there is more to his game than just his height, but the fact that he is such a different player from what they have in the rest of their squad makes it all the more difficult to game plan for the opposition.

In the end, Nagoya will go into the game as heavy favourites – as they will for most games this season. Gifu will have to show more ruthlessness when it comes to chances they get than they did against Yamaguchi, when they created more than enough openings to win the game. You would probably surmise that they won’t dominate possession like they did in the opening game, but they won’t go away from that premise, I’m almost certain of it. If they can get overlaps & outnumber Grampus’ midfield at times, they will be able to have a reasonable amount of possession. If Yushi Nagashima can repeat his highly impressive Gifu debut performance, where he floated between the forward line and the midfield, he might be able to influence the game again.


Still, you would think that Gifu supporters will travel to the magnificent Toyota Stadium more in hope than in expectation. But the team have to remember that they are in the same division for a reason, and that they deserve to be on the same, level playing field. Hope springs eternal…..