The Evolution Continues

The phrase “evolution, not revolution” is particularly apt today, as it was announced (although it wasn’t a surprise) that coach Takeshi Oki will continue in charge of FC Gifu for the 2018 season.

I think everyone is familiar with what has happened in Gifu this year. The implementation of a pass-pass-pass-pass approach has made household names (well, if those households have DAZN) of Yoshihiro Shoji & Sisinio, as well as fostering the exponential improvement of defender Masanori Abe and introducing exciting youngsters Kyogo Furuhashi & Yuki Omoto.

The stats tell you what you need to know about Oki’s football. Gifu pass the ball most in the league with an average (!) of nearly 700 passes per game, and they have possession for longer than any other team in the league at 63% per game. The aforementioned Shoji & Sisinio are widely admired for their strict adherence to Oki’s footballing principles and not hoofing or booting the ball away. That’s not to say they don’t go long, but when they do it isn’t aimless – a long pass is very different to a long ball. Shoji & Sisinio both like to showcase their long passing prowess when possible (even if I would like to see it more often).

The fact that Gifu keep possession for such a long time should make the game conditions more favourable to them, no? Well, the results this don’t bear it out. There’s a lot of passing, but often too much just in the middle of the pitch, where opposition teams don’t really have to do anything other than shuffle around five yards to the left, then five yards to the right just to stay in shape. The reason I mentioned that I’d like to see Sisi & Shoji spray passes longer more often is that they force teams to shift and adjust quickly and that’s when they are at their most vulnerable. Most of Gifu’s good play comes when they get the ball wide to Fukumura or Furuhashi on the left, Omoto or Paulo on the right. This is because the midfield have set this up: deliberately keeping the ball in close quarters before drilling the opposition with a possible two-on-one with their full back. Possession is nine tenths of the law, but that other ten percent is where Gifu need to improve.

 

I think it is also fair to say that Oki doesn’t really like doing things in front of the TV cameras. His pre and post game interviews are one word/one phrase masterpieces that make me feel a whole lot better about my own limited Japanese.

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He doesn’t really feel like answering questions immediately after the game, and when he does, those answers aren’t really that positive. Sisinio tells me that he is really positive in the changing room, going around giving everyone encouragement, but that very really comes across in interviews. I’ll be interested to see/hear what he has to say during the end of season ceremony on Saturday. The one thing that I will say about Oki and his staff, is that they are very respectful of the supporters. I’ve not once seen him hide from the post game walk around the pitch, even after the humiliating losses against JEF United, Kamatamare Sanuki etc. He and his staff are always there, showing that they are with the players. I expect he’ll get a very warm reception from the supporters on Saturday night.

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Is 17th (or even 18th) what we expected this year? Yes and No – depending on your positivity levels in pre-season. Personally, I’m happy we stayed in the division although I do feel our playing style warrants a better points total. At the Nagoya game in Toyota, I was talking with a long time Gifu supporting friend of mine who said (while drunk, it has to be said….) “If we keep Oki for three years, we will have a chance to go to J1. His teams play very well, and he’s an excellent coach” We will enter year tow next year, and it will be time to see some progress.

With all that said, Oki will have a list as long as Pink Floyd guitar solo of things to do for next year. But there are a few things I would point him in the direction of.

 

The retention of Takayuki Fukumura

Fukumura is a difficult player to define. He is classed as a left back, but in reality I think he is a player who, in the venerated Dutch scheme, is a total footballer. He finds himself anywhere on the field, and not in any kind of unplanned Shun Nogaito WHAT ARE YOU DOING THERE?? kind of situation, but in controlled chaos kind of way. He gives Gifu so much going forward, that his defensive lapses are easy to forgive. Him and Furuhashi have struck up a good understanding on the left, and to be quite honest there isn’t another left back capable of filling Fukumura’s role. It is my understanding that he is out of contract at Shimizu S-Pulse at the end of the season, and so I would assume that Gifu would make a big push to sign him.

 

Keeping the Sisinio/Shoji axis in midfield

Of course, Oki wants to retain the services of his tow best midfielders, but that will be easier said than done. Sisinio no doubt has a lot of offers heading his way, but he likes playing for Oki and if the manager can sell his vision of 2018, he might be able to persuade Sisi to join him. Shoji will almost certainly stay – that is my educated guess. Sisinio loves playing for Oki, and loves the style of play Gifu implement. Whether he’ll stay is still up in the air though.

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Yoshihiro Shoji leads the team out for the warm up

Find a sharper cutting edge

Hiroaki Namba is going on 34, Alex is often injured (but does look very good when he plays) and Koya Kazama is still transitioning from attacking midfielder to forward. Gifu really need someone capable of hitting 15-20 goals per year to take advantage of all the creativity this side possesses. Just a random name, but if Gifu had Matsumoto Yamaga forward Hiroyuki Takasaki, we would be a play-off caliber team. Someone who can occupy defenders, make the right runs at the right time, and can get into scoring areas & finish off moves.

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If Alex can stay fit, he could be the solution up front 

There are a selection of players that might fit the criteria, but some that come to mid for me include:

  • Kagoshima United forward Noriaki Fujimoto
  • Azul Claro forward Takuya Sonoda
  • Nagoya Grampus forward Ryo Nagai
  • Current on-loan forward (and injured) Kensei Nakashima

Any of these players could give Gifu a focal point going forward. If the creativity level is as high next year, then we can’t afford to keep wasting chances.

But I trust Oki. He knows exactly what he wants, and I’ve no doubt that he’ll search high & low to bring in the players needed. Hopefully we can put on a good show on Saturday afternoon when we welcome champions Shonan Bellmare to Nagaragawa. A win would be just rewards for Takeshi Oki.

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Rensho~~!

For the first time in what seems like an eternity, FC Gifu have strung consecutive wins together, one away from home and one at home. This is how they did it.

 

JEF United Chiba 1-3 FC Gifu

The Koya Kazama hat-trick will rightly get most of the plaudits, but this game showed the way that Gifu should play away from home.

Gifu initially set up with Kazama as lone frontman, with Kyogo Furuhashi on the left, and Paulo Tanaka on the right. It was a formation that didn’t really have great success earlier in the season, indeed, up until this point Kazama hadn’t scored a league goal in 2017. The system is dependent on width, with Furuhashi & left back Fukumura stacking the left side and Paulo & Yuki Omoto stacking the right side. This system works really when midfielders can switch the play quickly and in Sisinio & Yoshihiro Shoji, Gifu have two of the best in the league at doing that.

The first goal came after 45 seconds, and it came from the left hand side stack. Fukumura released Furuhashi down the left hand side, and Furuhashi’s outstanding cross was headed into the net by Kazama. A real bolt from the blue, but a superbly worked goal. Furuhashi is rapidly developing into an explosive player and he currently leads the J2 assist ranking, and with crosses like that it isn’t hard to see why.

Kazama’s second goal came from the right hand side. Paulo Tanaka released the ultra-quick Omoto down the right hand touchline, and his centre found Kazama again, who beat JEF’s keeper to the ball to double Gifu’s advantage. Omoto is a serious burner. He needs to work on his final ball, but if he improves that, he really could go on and do something special because his speed & stamina make him unmarkable at times. On the right, Omoto usually sets up at right back, with Paulo in front of him. This makes it difficult for opposition defences to decide what to do; Paulo is left footed so his inclination is to dribble inside, but if the defence covers that move, Omoto moves into the space on the outside. If done correctly, it will work every time the defence decides to leave Paulo one-on-one. Kazama’s second goal is the prime example.

His hat-trick goal wasn’t to dissimilar – Omoto getting to the byline and pulling the ball back to Koya, who feinted one way before prodding the ball into an unguarded net.

 

More than anything, this was a clinical performance. Sure, they could have scored more goals and sure, JEF were pretty abject, but this was the prototypical away performance. The shape was strong, Fukumura was superb in defence & attack, Shoji, Ono & Sisinio while not dictating the play as they are used to doing, did the simple things well (and props to Shoji for standing up to Andrew Kumagaya – that is what a captain does).

But of course, Kazama gets the headlines. He led the line well, dropped off cleverly before exploiting the gaps he had created. It was the performance that Oki had in mind when he started the season playing Kazama up front. I’ll admit I was sceptical, because I thought that Koya would be too slow to get into the area. He’s a clever, skillful player but not blessed with the kind of pace that role needs, but what his intelligence does do is that it makes him aware of spaces and he took full advantage in the JEF game. It was a much needed win because the season was slowly starting bog down and supporters were starting to get a bit nervous and looking over their shoulders at Sanuki, Kumamoto etc in the relegation battle. The next question was could they build on the JEF win?

 

FC Gifu 2-1 Ehime FC

A game of two halves (as someone famous once said), Gifu were electric in the first half but more subdued in the second half, and only just came away with the three points.

Unsurprisingly, Oki stuck with the same starting line up that beat JEF the previous week, and the team started really well and dominated the first half. Koya Kazama opened the scoring wit ha beautiful right footed curler from around 20 yards, but the goal owed so much to the energy and pressuring of Kyogo Furuhashi. Furuhashi harried & chased, and ultimately dispossessed an Ehime defender near the halfway line which set Gifu off on the counter attack. The ball made its way to Sisinio who in turn found Kazama, who had cultivated some space for himself right on the edge of the area. He received the ball while opening his body and was able to curl a beautiful shot past Ehime’s young Korean goalkeeper Park Seong Su. A fabulous finish, but one which owed a great deal to the energy of Furuhashi. Gifu could, and should, have enhanced their lead but had to settle for a single goal lead at the break.

 

The second half was a different story. Ehime came out a bit more fired up and started to close Gifu down a bit more when they had possession. Sisinio went off after just five minutes of the second half and that seemed to affect the way Gifu played. Ehime were well in the game and it came as no surprise when they leveled things up with 12 minutes to go. Gifu were caught sleeping from a quick free-kick, and the resulting cross found Ehime forward Koki Arita completely free in the middle of the area to head past Victor. Arita is a good striker at this level, but there is no way he should be completely unmarked in the box – really poor defending.

It nearly got so much worse for Gifu just two minutes later when Ehime’s Shuto Kojima found himself in space in Gifu’s area. His shot beat Victor, but not Daiki Tamori, who had shuffled himself on to the line behind Gifu’s goalkeeper, who cleared the ball away.

That was to prove a crucial turning point as Gifu seemed energized by that event and upped the pace to first half levels. Koya Kazama nearly grabbed his second after taking down a sensation long ball from Fukumura, only to see his goalbound effort excellently blocked by Ehime defender Nobuhisa Urata. The first resulting corner was cleared, but the second was brilliantly delivered by Yuto Ono, and it found the head of veteran striker Hiroaki Namba who headed the ball into the roof of the net. His celebrations tell you all you need to know about how important that goal was to him – and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mind the yellow card given to him for taking off his shirt.

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Gifu held on for four minutes of additional time to claim a much needed and confidence boosting home win. It wasn’t easy though – the second was tough watching for the supporters because it seemed like Gifu let Ehime back into the game. One thing that struck me during the game was that while possession is key for the style Takeshi Oki wants, it sometimes negates the need for incisiveness. For example, there were quite a few times that Gifu got in behind Ehime but players, instead of taking a chance and heading towards the danger-zone, too often stopped in their tracks & played the ball back to start the process off again.

Gifu look so dangerous, as I said in the JEF review, when they stack either side and isolate the opposition full back. They did it plenty of times on Sunday, but too often they didn’t take advantage of it. It seems churlish to demand more after consecutive victories, but I  would like to see more chances being taken in the final third. Get the ball in the area, shoot quicker etc. Of course, if nothing is on, get the ball back to creative players like Shoji & Sisinio who can create things out of nothing, but once we get the opposition turned around, we have to exploit it. We did it well in the first half, but in the second half the will to do it seemed to fade a bit. Maybe it is tiredness – this team has played a lot of minutes this season, and trained a lot this summer so it would not be a surprise to see some kind of fatigue set in.

 

But there is some tough sledding ahead. Here is the immediate future for Gifu:

  • Mito Hollhock (A)
  • Renofa Yamaguchi (A)
  • Avispa Fukuoka (H)
  • Nagoya Grampus (H)

Mito are unbeaten at home since the first day of the year; Renofa are fighting for survival; Avispa are looking for automatic promotion while Nagoya are local rivals and also going for promotion. This is a tough September, so it was crucial that Gifu took advantage if these games against teams with little to play for. The next game, at Mito, will be tough, but Gifu will go into it with confidence after these two victories – let’s hope that September can be like our April, when we went unbeaten. If that happens, it will be something to write home about!IMG_2342.JPG

You win some, you lose some (and you draw some)

It has been a busy start to August for FC Gifu. Here’s a recap of what has transpired so far.

FC Gifu 2-0 Thespa Kusatsu Gunma

Welcome to the Yuto Ono show!! Ono stepped in for suspended captain Yoshihiro Shoji and put in an excellent performance. He was highly responsible for Gifu’s opener, winning the ball through pressure in the midfield before feeding Alex, the Brazilian striker shifting the ball on to his right foot before calmly shooting past Gunma’s ‘keeper.

Gifu continued to dominate, chances falling to Kazama, Alex & Yuki Omoto, but couldn’t add to their lead. The home side were indebted to Victor as the Spanish ‘keeper preserved Gifu’s lead when he saved from Tatsuki Kobayashi’s close range effort. Gifu still went forward in search of the killer goal and came so close when Koya Kazama’s shot cannoned back off the inside of the post – had it gone in it would have been just reward for an enterprising performance on the right hand side of Gifu’s attack. When Gifu’s second goal did come, it came from a very unlikely scenario. Yuto Ono’s near post corner kick was left by two defenders, leaving Gunma keeper Niekawa with no reaction time as the ball sneaked in at the near post. Ono could barely hide his surprise, running away laughing and saying to the assistant that he it was lucky. Still, it was highly deserved for an industrious performance from the Number 23.

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I spoke to him after the game. “Lucky goal! Lucky kick!” Modest, but accurate. I told him not to say it, but I think he was still laughing too much to listen. Incidentally, before the game Victor said he’d be happy with a 2-0 win, and that is exactly what he got! It was a much needed win for Oki & co, the supporters were getting a bit frustrated with things, especially after the Machida defeat, but this win appeased them a bit and showed that Gifu can win home games they dominate.

 

V-Varen Nagasaki 2-1 FC Gifu

I don’t think either side did enough to say they say deservedly won the game, but the way in which Nagasaki took the three points left an incredibly sour taste in the mouth.

Nagasaki took the lead from the penalty spot after Takayuki Fukumura was adjudged to have pulled down a Nagasaki forward, although the referee conveniently decided to ignore the blatant pulling of Fukumura’s shirt that led to the Nagasaki forward being able to get in front of Gifu’s left back. Gifu leveled thanks to a fantastic strike from Brazilian striker Alex, crashing the ball into the top corner after a break down the right from Kyogo Furuhashi. It was a truly excellent strike that was somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the game.

A game which looked like it was idling towards a draw was suddenly injected with excitement & controversy as in the fourth minute of additional time Daiki Tamori was adjudged to have brought down Nagasaki defender Ryutaro Iio – although I’ll leave it for you to decide what actually took place. Yoshihiro Shoji obviously didn’t understand because he thought the whistle was for a free kick. Substitute Keita Nakamura thumped the ball in off the post to give Nagasaki a scarcely deserved win.

I ran into Sisinio & Takayuki Fukumura the day after and when I spoke to them about the referee Fukumura just laughed (I don’t know if he speaks English but he clearly understood what Sisi & I were talking about). Sisinio, usually so talkative, just kind of shrugged his shoulders and laughed. “What can you do?” he said. Exactly. What can you do?

Alex’s goal was probably the only bright point to come out of this game for Gifu. If he continues to bang those kinds of goals in, he’ll be an asset for us. The rest of it was much of a muhcness, lots of passing but not that many chances created. Nagasaki weren’t much better, but they find themselves in the top six. I think it speaks more to the division than the level of Nagasaki’s team.

 

FC Gifu 1-1 Fagiano Okayama

A frustrating draw after dominating the entire second half. The first half was a more even affair with Okayama’s direct & physical style paying dividends when Park Hyun-jin scored after a bout of penalty area pinball, the cause of which was a long throw from Eiichi Katayama.

Gifu goalkeeper Victor was in fine form in the first half, making two or three very fine saves, but it wasn’t all one way traffic as Yoshihiro Shoji went very close to leveling things right on the stroke of half time, but his curling effort from the edge of the area went just wide.

In the second half, Shoji was pushed a bit further forward and that was the catalyst for Gifu to dominate. Kensei Nakashima, the on-loan Yokohama F.Marinos forward who replaced the injured Alex very early in the first half, had two or three very good chances to score but failed to hit the target with two of them, and saw Okayama ‘keeper Ichimori turn a powerful shot away. It looked to be heading for another highly frustrating home defeat until the captain intervened, heading in a clever cross from Yuki Omoto to give Gifu a deserved share of the spoils.

It is difficult to understate the influence of Shoji on this game. He was outstanding in the second half when he was given a more advanced role. His off the ball running created problems for Okayama’s defence, and his willingness to be physical, as in holding the ball up and inviting others into the play was something that Gifu have missed. When Shoji & Sisinio get into that kind of groove – Sisinio was once again excellent pulling the strings in midfield – Gifu look more potent. Sisi came off with muscle cramps towards the end of the game, a sign that the summer heat is catching up with him, but I suspect he’ll be fine for tonight’s trip to Roasso Kumamoto.

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One man I doubt will be ok is Alex, the forward came off after just two minutes of the Okayama game with what turned out to be an upper thigh injury. He said after the game that it would probably be a minimum of one week before he can get back to running full pelt, so that would rule him out tonight and make him very iffy for Sunday’s tilt with Kamatamare Sanuki.

With Alex presumably out, there is one foreigner spot free and it has Henik’s name on it. He started off the season at centre back but hasn’t really played since the 4-6 defeat by JEF United. His absence coincided with the emergence of Alex up front, but I think Gifu could benefit from a bit of meanness & toughness in either central defence or just in front.

Roasso will present a decent challenge  – they only just lost to Nagoya and have beaten JEF & Tokyo Verdy at home recently. I think they’ll pose a very physically demanding test and I expect lots of crosses for the centre backs to deal with. There is a slight rumour that Victor has picked up an injury, I don’t know the veracity of it, but hopefully he can come through and play.

Elsewhere, personally I think it might be a good chance to rest some starters. Yushi Nagashima doesn’t look the same player he did at the beginning of the year, he’s not influencing the games as much as he did when he was fresh and so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him on the bench. I think Yuto Ono has earned a place in the side so I think he would be a very able replacement. I think Nakashima will start up top and hopefully he will be able to capitalize on chances that come his way. I’ll put his missed chances down to rustiness last time out – to be fair to him he hasn’t played regular football for a while and so it’ll probably take a little time for him to get up to speed but Gifu really need a sharp point to their attacks and Nakashima comes with a decent reputation.

Other players who could look to feature are Jun Suzuki (as Fukumura has played almost constantly), Kentaro Kai and Go Iwase.

Hopefully Gifu can kick on tonight and start a run of good results.

Half Time Report

Last Sunday’s 0-1 defeat at Avispa Fukuoka marked the halfway point of the season in J2. FC Gifu find themselves in the relatively familiar position of 18th, despite initial optimism that this year could be the year where Gifu aren’t actually involved in a relegation battle. More on that later, but first some first half of the season stats.

  • League position: 18th
  • Highest league position:
  • Goals scored: 30
  • Top goalscorer: Kyogo Furuhashi & Yushi Nagashima – 5
  • Most assists: Kyogo Furuhashi – 6
  • Most appearances: Victor, Yoshihiro Shoji, Takayuki Fukumura – 21
  • Goals conceded: 33
  • Biggest win: 3-1 vs Kamatamare Sanuki
  • Biggest defeat: 4-6 vs JEF United

 

Goalkeeper

Victor Ibanez came in in the winter and immediately took possession of the first choice goalkeeper slot. I wrote in detail about Victor in a previous post, but to summarize, he is a modern goalkeeper whose ethos fits in with what Gifu want to do. He’s comfortable on the ball, distributes it well, and is eager to set up counter attacks. His shot stopping is getting better and I expect him to get better as the season continues.

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He’ll do better when he can fully communicate with those in front of him. Speaking of which….

 

The Defence

With 33 goals conceded in 21 games, you would say there are some problems. One thing too bear in mind is that ten goals came in just two games (the 4-4 with Nagasaki, and the 4-6 against JEF, so those are slight outliers). But there are issues that are yet to be resolved. Who are the first choice CB pair? Henik & Aoki? Henik & Tamori? Abe & Aoki? So far manager Takeshi Oki has tried a number of different combos, but one thing is pretty clear: Gifu lack an absolute commander of a CB – someone like Calvin Jong-a-Pin, Masaaki Iida, Andre Bahia. I know those are some of the best defenders in the league, but that is what is missing. Gifu have much of a muchness in terms of central defenders, all roughly around the same height, same pace, same strengths & weaknesses. I’d like to see young Kentaro Kai given a chance, especially given that Masaya Tashiro was sacked after a drink-driving incident – Tashiro was marked as an important piece of Gifu’s defensive jigsaw before the season.

At left back, Takayuki Fukumura is entrenched. He gives Gifu some good attacking options (his goal against Shonan Bellmare came from him surging forward) but his attacking intents sometimes leaves his other defenders exposed, especially given that Kyogo Furuhashi (more on him later) likes to go beyond the last defender. This means that he rarely offers defensive cover, which leaves the space left by Fukumura unguarded.

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At right back, on-loan Hideyuki Nozawa has recently taken on that role from Yuki Omoto. Omoto is much more useful in attack, where he can use his blistering pace to get behind defenders. Nozawa is a midfielder by trade, but Oki wants as many ball players in the team as possible and so has found himself at right back. It doesn’t look particularly natural for him, but I suppose he’s only played five times there and is still getting used to it. I’d like to see a specialist right back come in, but that seems incompatible with Oki’s wishes – ball playing and ball skills are more important than anything else.

 

The Midfield

Gifu have quite rightly won plaudits for the way they want to play possession football. Their ball possession (average 63% per game) and number of passes (average 693 per game) are the league’s best. The first choice midfield of Yoshihiro Shoji, Sisinio & Yushi Nagashima are footballers first & foremost. They want the ball, and they want to do nice things with it.

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What Gifu lack in midfield is a screen. Yoshihiro Shoji is probably the closest Gifu have with regards to a “screener” skill set, but someone like Henik (for example) could simply sit in front of the back four and try and break up opposition attacks before they make it to the defensive line. But again, Oki doesn’t want to sacrifice his footballing philosophy – and I understand where that comes from. The midfield is a conduit for football, not to be used to destroy oppositions. While it may cost Gifu some games, ultimately I expect this approach to pay off, I think you can only keep good footballers down for so long and the skills that Sisinio, Nagashima & Shoji have are too good to stifle.

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Yuto Ono has come in more as the season has progressed, and he is a good back up plan to have. I thought Junichi Paulo Tanaka & Koya Kazama might have had more time but I think Oki prefers pace on the wings. Paulo & especially Koya are more thoughtful, deliberate players that rarely go behind defences. When they are on form, they can both be assets for the team – witness Paulo’s goal at Nagoya – but I think they will have to wait until Omoto or Furuhashi either get injured or need a rest to get back into the side.

 

The Forwards

Kyogo Furuhashi has been excellent in his advanced role on the left. He has five goals, and could easily have had double that. If he works on his finishing, he could be a real player for Gifu. His pace is incredibly difficult to defend against, and he seems to take good running angles to take him away from defenders. He needs to gain a bit of composure when he gets into shooting/assisting positions but the potential is clearly there. As it is with Yuki Omoto. I could say exactly the same things about Yuki as I said about Furuhashi. Pace to burn, but composure is an issue. If/when he sorts them out, he is going to be an outstanding right sided forward.

I feel Gifu work better as a unit when there is a centre forward in the lineup. Hiroaki Namba is probably the best for this position, as I haven’t really seen enough of Cristian or Ryo Takiya this year to say whether they can fill the role or not. I think they need a centre froward because Gifu tend to create a lot down the wings, but there is nothing more frustrating than a great cross going in but no-one being there on the end of it. Gifu need a focal point and I think Namba is the man for that job.

 

What’s to come?

Hopefully a quick rise up the table. As of this moment, Gifu aren’t in any relegation danger, but they need to pick up a few wins pretty soon. Gifu’s upcoming fixture list looks like this:

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There are winnable games on that slate, and with three home games from the next four it would be a good time to regain some kind of semblance of home form (Gifu haven’t won at home since the end of April).

Gifu should be looking up, as opposed to down, but supporters have been in this position enough in the past to know that

 

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.