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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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…..

 

#WeAreGifu

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