Vamos Victor!

In the winter, FC Gifu made the surprise signing of a European goalkeeper. Most watchers had expected Gifu to roll with Yoshinari Takagi & Satoshi Tokizawa as the two primary options in goal, with possibly a youngster being brought in to be groomed for a future role. But that strategy was rendered (probably) redundant by the signing of Victor Ibanez from Spanish side L’Hospitalet.

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Foreign goalkeepers

There have been plenty of foreign goalkeepers in Japan, you only have to look at this season’s J1 to find a plethora of Korean goalkeepers currently plying their trade here. Kashima, Sapporo, Kobe, Kawasaki are four teams that currently have Korean custodians, but this is not rare for Japan. Koreans have a much easier time in adjusting to the Japanese leagues due to the proximity and similarity of the league. European goalkeepers are much rarer these days; I can only think of Jubilo Iwata’s Krystof Kaminski as a European-born goalkeeper who has been a regular starter in the past few years. But Gifu’s number 25 is the newest member of that exclusive club of foreign goalkeepers.

 

How & why?

Those two questions interested me for a long time before I actually got to ask Victor himself and FC Gifu’s president Hiroyuki Miyata. Before the defeat against Oita, I asked Mr. Miyata about the process of signing a foreign player, and how it worked with Victor.

“We were given a list of criteria by our new coach (Takeshi Oki) on what he wanted from a goalkeeper, and then we told our scouts & agents (FC Gifu have some connections with European scouts/agents, especially in Spain) and they gave us a list. The coaches watched videos of the goalkeepers, it is easier these days because we can ask for videos or there are lots of resources on YouTube, and then we decided which one would be best – thinking about various factors: cost, age, abilities. Then we negotiated with Victor, and that’s how we signed him.”

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When I put this to Victor, he added another interesting bit of information. “I was actually looking to move abroad, to move away from Spain. I wanted to experience playing outside of my home country, and this opportunity came up and so I was happy to accept.”

 

Challenges

Mr. Miyata continued “I think Victor is a nice person. He’s polite & humble, but wants to work hard. I think he wants to learn as much Japanese as possible, and when he learns more he’ll become a better player.”

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Victor: “Yes, communication was difficult at first!” I asked him how he communicates with his defenders. I was under the impression that, given he has Daiki Tamori (Japanese) and Henik (Brazilian) usually in front of him, the lingua franca would be English. Apparently not. “We communicate in Japanese if possible. I know only a bit of Japanese: Migi (right), hidari (left), ushiro (behind), mae (in front) – those kinds of important words. Sometimes Henik helps me because Portuguese is not so different from Spanish so sometimes we can work things out together. But I want to learn Japanese. It has been very busy for me coming here because I’ve come here with my family and we wanted to settle down a little bit. I hope to make a big effort to learn more Japanese soon.”

 

What does Victor bring to Gifu?

Much like Pep Guardiola hand picked Claudio Bravo to move to Manchester City because he’s a goalkeeper that fits Pep’s playing style, Takeshi Oki and goalkeeper coach Motoki Kawahara have taken the same route with Victor.

Kawahara had an especially interesting interview in the latest “Football Critique” (フットボール批評) in which he talked at length about how the European model of goalkeeping – especially the German one of which Manuel Neuer is the poster boy – is becoming the standard. Kawahara said “The prevailing thought is “attacking goalkeepers”. Goalkeepers that have the ability to influence play not just by the way they stop shots or take crosses, but the way they can start attacks quickly are in demand. It starts with making goalkeepers aware of the benefits of playing a little further forward, which can be difficult for goalkeepers to get used to. European goalkeepers seem to be a bit more advanced in this regard.”

Victor: “I think one of the reasons that Gifu wanted me was because I like to have the ball at my feet. I can build play from defence. Maybe the level of Japanese goalkeepers in this area, while getting better, might not be as high as European ones. I’m not sure though.”

If ever a team needed a goalkeeper who is comfortable on the ball, then Takeshi Oki’s team is it. Under his stewardship, Gifu pass and pass and pass and pass. And then pass some more. Everyone needs to be comfortable receiving the ball. In the recent 4-4 draw with V-Varen Nagasaki, Gifu attempted a staggering 945 passes, completing 90% of them – good for a 73% share of possession.

On this topic, I spoke to Sisinio, Gifu’s other Spanish import.

Sisinio: “Yes, we pass a lot! It is how the coach likes to play and we have good players.” Don’t you get a bit nervous when you are passing it out of difficult situations in defence, I asked. “Haha! Yes, of course. Sometimes I just want them to clear the ball, but our coach wants us to keep possession, so that is what we try to do.”

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Victor (right) shares a word with fellow Spaniards Sisinio (centre) and Juanma

Victor’s impressions of Japanese football & Japan itself

I asked him what he thought of the level of football in Japan.

Victor: “I think the actual level of the league is a bit lower than what I was playing in in Spain, but the facilities are much better. Look at this (he motions to the stadium). Today we had over 7,000 here, and great support all game long. I’ve found the set up good for me.”

Off the pitch, he seems to be taking advantage of any free time he has to see as much of Japan as possible. If you follow him on Instagram, you’ll see regular updates from travels around the country.

Victor: “Yes! I want to see as much of Japan as possible. I want to go to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Takayama…..anywhere!” It is a refreshing view. People just think of football players training and then going home. But Victor and his girlfriend (sorry ladies, he is taken) want to extract the maximum amount from their time in Japan.

Victor has had a good start to his time in Gifu. His performance in the 1-1 draw at Tokushima Vortis was outstanding, and he has been key in other good performances against Machida Zelvia, Gunma & Kanazawa. On the flip side, his “attacking” approach to goalkeeping has left him exposed once or twice. Against Oita, he was exposed by a cruel deflection which let in Yusuke Goto to open Oita’s scoring (Oita would go on to win that game) and in the latest game a misplaced pass by Takayuki Fukumura which fell to Nagasaki forward Yu Kimura left Victor helpless as Kimura chipped the ball over him.

Such are the risks associated with goalkeepers that start off in an advanced position, but it doesn’t phase Victor. “That’s the…..(searches for the English word)….beauty of football. Those things can happen. It is football. But, we must move forward.”

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FC Gifu 4-4 V-Varen Nagasaki

One of the craziest games I’ve seen in a while at FC Gifu (and I’ve seen a few!) probably won’t yield any clues as to how much this particular game reflects the fortunes of Gifu in 2017. But let’s try anyway.

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Starting XI

This is an area where there is no argument: Takeshi Oki knows his best eleven and he is sticking to it. The only change for this game came because Henik, the Brazilian centre back, was suspended and so Masanori Abe came in to replace him. Other than that, the line up is set:

Victor

Omoto   Tamori   Abe   Fukumura

Shoji

Nagashima            Sisinio

Yamada                                                                Furuhashi

Namba

It is a fluid 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 that relies on Yoshihiro Shoji & Sisinio to set Gifu’s tempo. The pace of Furuhashi on the left is a huge asset for the team, and he is a youngster that is getting better every week. Hiroaki Namba has provided a focal point for the team which it didn’t really have when Koya Kazama started the season up front. Kazama is a good player, but isn’t one to lead the line and Gifu look a more dangerous side going forward when NMB24 is on the pitch.

In defence, full backs Omoto & Fukumura look really good when they go forward, but can be exposed defensively, especially when they don’t get assistance from the wingers. Victor has made the goalkeeper spot his own as Oki wants a goalkeeper who is more of an extra defender and can start plays quickly from the back. Gifu’s goalkeeper coach Motoki Kawahara calls him an “attacking goalkeeper” and says that this is the way in which goalkeeping is heading. (Kawahara spent time in Cologne & Arminia Bielefeld in Germany and has contacts across Europe and so it pretty abreast of the goalkeeping world).

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Oki observes the warm up

First half

Gifu actually started quite well. They got into their rhythm and Shoji, as usual, was the metronome that ticked Gifu along but it was Nagasaki who got the first effort on goal, Victor saving from Nagasaki forward Yu Kimura. Gifu’s possession started to make inroads into Takuya Takagi’s team, and a couple of really nice moves ended when, on both occasions, left back Fukumura mis-controlled the final ball. Still, the signs were that Gifu’s incessant passing would wear down Nagasaki, but that was blown out of the water when Nagasaki took the lead in controversial circumstances.

I don’t like having a go at referees, but Iemoto made a mistake when awarding Nagasaki a penalty in the 21st minute. A cross came in from deep and looked like it was heading out of play when Fukumura and Nagasaki defender Kitatani jumped for the ball. I didn’t even notice a coming together in the air, but Kitatani fell in a heap and Iemoto, much to the disbelief of almost everyone in the stadium, gave a penalty to Nagasaki. Yu Kimura didn’t mess around, drilling his penalty straight down the middle to put the visitors in front.

Gifu seemed a bit rattled after that; Shoji & Sisinio getting a bit aggressive in the tackle. The passing style however, didn’t change and Gifu slowly clawed back their composure until they were undone by a self inflicted sucker punch. Fukumura (having quite an eventful game) and Abe were involved in a mix up just on the edge of the penalty area, the ball falling perfectly for Kimura who chipped the ball over the helpless Victor. It was a beautifully composed finish, but it really was a bad mistake from the the Gifu defenders.

It was looking despondent until Iemoto handed Gifu a lifeline just before half time. Masanori Abe was held as he jostled for position at a corner and Iemoto deemed it worthy of a penalty – although I admit that I still feel this was  an evening up of things regarding Nagasaki’s penalty. Subsequent replays showed however, the Abe was clearly having his shirt pulled and it looked a clear penalty. Hiroaki Namba stepped up and placed the ball into the top right corner to make it 1-2 at the interval.

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Takayuki Fukumura gets set to take a free kick

Second half

At half time, it is customary for coaches to give the bullet points from the first half, and what they expect in the second. When I get my copy (when I sit in the press seats) I find it hard to understand because, well…..my Japanese isn’t that good in any instance, but it is written like a doctor’s note. So, bad Japanese comprehension + difficult to read writing = I don’t understand.

But this particular phrase was easy to understand:   カウンターに気をつけろ – be careful of the counter attack. It made sense, because Gifu had to chase the game and could be susceptible down the flanks especially. Nagasaki proved Oki’s worries true, as in the 51st minute, they executed a perfect counter attack which finished with Nagasaki full back Ryutaro Iio finishing from close range to put the visitors 3-1 up.

Not for long though. Gifu executed a counter of their own, and when Fukumura (that name again!) found Furuhashi onside just inside the area, the young winger slotted in to reduce the arrears again.

Nagasaki brought on forward Juanma to give Gifu something else to think about, but it was Gifu who were controlling possession and eventually they brought on Brazilian striker Cristian (whom, I believe, prefers to go by the name of Alex) to add a different dimension to their play. Alex was involved in lots of good work, and Gifu created half chances but looked like they were floored when Nagasaki went 4-2 up with just five minutes remaining.

Again, it came from the flank, this time the right, where Iio’s inch perfect cross was headed into the top corner by Hijiri Onaga. That, I believed, was that.

Erm……

But apparently not as Gifu went straight up the other end and scored to give themselves & the supporters hope. Furuhashi collected Shoji’s long ball into the area and his bad touch ironically set it up perfectly for Alex to bang it in at the near post. 3-4, with three minutes of the ninety left. Just after this, the fourth official (who would become the hero of the game in just a few minutes….) signaled for five minutes of additional time.

  • A quick aside to this additional time. The Nagasaki goalkeeper is probably responsible for at least two of those minutes due to his time wasting when taking goal kicks and free kicks. I’m not blaming him for taking his time, everyone probably would have done the same thing. But it is quite gratifying to sometimes see time wasting work against the team doing it.

 

So, five minutes additional time and Gifu threw everything at Nagasaki. Victor, as is his style, went up for a couple of corners and the crowd (a relatively modest 4475, but not bad for a Sunday night 7pm kick off) got really loud.

And then it came.

In the 94th minute, Fukumura’s (the more I look back at this game, the more influential he becomes) cross into the box was headed back into the danger zone by Abe, and it was there that Daiki Tamori produced a stunning overhead bicycle kick in the midst of all the mayhem going on around him to level things up at 4-4. Mental stuff.

The end of the drama? Not at all.

From Nagasaki’s kick off, they humped the ball deep into Gifu territory where Nagasaki’s the ball was headed into the area by Onaga and Yuzura Shimada beat Victor & Tamori to the ball to chest the ball in. Crazy. Absolutely crazy. But at that point there were serious scenes of anger on on the Gifu bench with everybody seemingly surrounding the fourth official. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was happening but while Nagasaki were celebrating it became increasingly clear that something was wrong with the goal. Upon replay review, it was clear: Onaga was actually 20 yards in the Gifu half before the kick off was taken. Tamori knew it, and Sisinio knew but it seems that it was the fourth official that spotted it (possibly with a little gentle nudging from the the Gifu bench…) and that message was relayed to Iemoto who correctly disallowed the goal.

Aaaaaaand relax.

Game over. FC Gifu 4-4 V-Varen Nagasaki.

 

Post game

Manager Takeshi Oki gave a superb interview at the end. It went a little something like this:

  • Interviewer: Wow! What an exciting game! What are your thoughts?
  • Oki: We conceded too many goals.
  • Interviewer: Going forward you were good.
  • Oki: Yes.
  • Interviewer: Your players fought really well.
  • Oki: They had to because they conceded too many goals.
  • Interviewer: What can you take from this match into the next game?
  • Oki: We conceded too many goals. We have to fix that.
  • Interviewer: Thank you for your time.
  • Oki: …………….. (walks off)

It is easy to understand his frustration. Gifu completed 90% of 945 passes and had 73% possession, but still ended up conceding four goals and coming away with only one point. He’s always brief with the press, that is just the way he is but I wonder what he said to the players in the dressing room after the game. Tamori, who is as close to an on pitch manager as it comes, said in his post match interview roughly the same as what Oki had said – namely that it was unacceptable to score four goals at home and not come away with the three points.

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Alex, on the other hand, was in a slightly better mood after his debut goal helped key the Gifu comeback.

“I’d like to thank God and I dedicate this goal to my daughter & pregnant wife. I’ve waited a long time to get this chance and I was happy to score. I’ve trained hard for the past two months to get into match shape. It is has been difficult, not getting a look in but hopefully this goal helps me, and I’ll keep training hard to help the team.”

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I think it would be a fool’s errand to read too much into this game, but for Gifu it showed how much Henik means at the back. He’ll be available for the next game (away at Kyoto) and so Oki has a decision to make on the fate of Alex. Of course, you can only select three foreigners in your match day squad (excluding Asians, which Gifu don’t have) and Gifu’s regular three foreigners have been Victor, Sisinio & Henik. Will any of the make way for Alex? That is the kind of decision that coaches get the big bucks to make.

I suspect Gifu will have more games in a similar vein to this, lots of possession but not as much as they would like to show for it. But this style of football is great to watch compared with previous years. This team has an identity, a clear idea of how they should be playing. It is easy to see from he stands, and while it may be frustrating a little bit when passes are made instead of someone taking on responsibility to shoot or make the killer, but risky, pass it is a method and playing style that almost everyone has got behind.

Gifu head to Oki’s former stomping ground Kyoto next week, and with Sanga boasting Tulio amongst their number it is very good timing for Henik to return. The supporters have faith in Oki, the players have faith & belief in the system too. It will produce results, I’m convinced of it, but there might be a few more peaks & troughs along the way.

 

An April to remember

I might be wrong, but I can’t remember a whole calendar month where FC Gifu went unbeaten, but that is exactly what happened in April 2017. Five games, four wins, one draw represents a lot of things – progress, optimism, valediction among them.

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For me, it represents relief. After the first five games in which Gifu failed to register a win you could sense some of the old negativity returning, no matter that some of the football Gifu were playing was far in excess of anything that had been previously seen. In hindsight, Gifu had a rough start to the year given the teams they faced. Nagoya, Shonan, Matsumoto, Yokohama, Tokyo Verdy are all in the top seven and Gifu faced them all before April was out.

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In Gifu’s unbeaten April, they faced:

  • Machida (A)
  • Mito (H)
  • Shonan (A)
  • Sanuki (A)
  • Kanazawa (H)

With the exception of Shonan, all of those teams are “around us” types of teams – meaning that Gifu should not go into those games fearful but that is exactly what had been happening over previous years, especially at home. The fact Gifu put those teams away only gives good signals going forward.

 

How has it happened?

Manager Takeshi Oki has found a settled line up, and one that suits the football he wants to play. There is little squad rotation, but I’m sure that will come when summer/suspensions/injuries hit. The usual formation looks like:

 

Victor

Omoto   Henik   Tamori   Fukumura

Nagashima   Shoji   Sisinio

Tanaka   Namba   Furhashi

The key to this team performing well is ball retention. In my opinion, there are only three defensive outfielders in that line up as Yuki Omoto (more on him soon) is more of a winger than a full back. Shoji & Sisinio in the middle get a lot of plaudits, and rightly so. Shoji is more of an all round midfielder who does everything; tackle, pass, shoot, score & organize while Sisinio is superb when facing the opposition goal. His range of passing is excellent at this level and Gifu play well, the chances are that Sisi plays well – the two are highly interconnected.

Up front, it took a while to settle on this three. At first, Koya Kazama was prefered as the central striker and while it worked to a certain extent (i.e. the creation of chances) Namba brings a more direct, physical element that allows the wingers to get into the game more. Kyogo Furuhashi has been outstanding in his first two months with his pace & directness causing all sorts of problems for opposition defenders. Paulo Tanaka has got better every week and finds himself in great attacking positions. One of the keys to Furuhashi & Paulo playing well is speed at which they get the ball. Shoji & Sisinio are so decisive in the midfield that they also seem to know instantly whether the two wingers are available as an outlet. If the ball gets played quickly, Paulo & Furuhashi will find themselves one-on-one with opposition full backs and those are battles they would back themselves to win on a regular basis.

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The wild card in the midfield is Yushi Nagashima, the youngster on loan from Kyoto Sanga. He has lots of energy, but is tasked with finding soft spots in the opposition defence. He is usually the furthest forward of Gifu’s midfield three meaning he occupies space between opponents’ midfield & defence. He is extremely skillful and his low centre of gravity, while occasionally meaning he gets knocked off the ball, also means he can turns very quickly in tight spaces. When he does that around the opposition area, it becomes very difficult to defend.

Gifu started May in the same way they finished April, with a win at Gunma. We host Oita Trinita in Sunday knowing that a win would probably take us into the top six. Oita are a good side, but with the form Gifu are in, it would be wrong not to go into this game with confidence.

See you there!!

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