Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Agent Orange: Another Damn Halfway Report, pt Deux - I'm Not That Into You

Part two of my halfway report... let's dig in!

9. Sanfrecce Hiroshima Writers seem to like to use the ninth place/tenth place cut-off line as a guide to who is a real contender for the championship and who is relegation fodder. I gotta tell you that is crap. Exhibit A is Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who after a blazing hot start (five wins, four draws and one loss with a +7 GD), the wheels have come off the Hiroshima Express. In their most recent stretch, Sanfrecce is 2-1-5 with a -8 GD and an astounding eighteen goals allowed.

On the road, they have played a style similar to Montedio Yamagata, with no real drive to score. Part of that has to do with the absence of Hiroki Mizumoto, who after a wasted 2010 at Kyoto Sanga was having a good 2011 until he was lost to injury relatively early in the campaign. His replacement, Kohei Morita (an old Omiya friend and - dirty bastard - scorer of the lone goal in the match at NACK5), is 35 and was essentially out of the league at the start of the year. It's not just the defense though, as strikers Hisato Sato and Tadanari Lee have both been less than effective as of late. I'd argue that Sanfrecce are much closer to the bottom than they are to the top.

8. Vegalta Sendai Like a lot of teams in J1, Vegalta lacks the one dependable goal scorer that will get them something when they need it most. More than any other squad, it seems Sendai relies on the counter and the grace of officials to put them in good positions for free kick opportunities. The game is really out of their control. That, however, is not the real problem with Vegalta. It's understandable that the squad would be sort of an emotional rollercoaster considering what went on in March, but - and it's a giant but - the squad was like this last year.

Remember back in March/April 2010 when people were talking them up after the Kashima Antlers win and the draw against Gamba Osaka? Then they lost big to Shimizu S-Pulse and went on a fourteen-game winless streak. Now, following another loss to Shimizu, they are on a six-game winless streak after having been unbeaten for the first twelve matches. Emotion is good for a while but you have to settle down and play. To their credit, the squad is a pretty good defensive unit and the effort is there so if they can get one player hot they could sneak into the money positions.

7. Shimizu S-Pulse Kashiwa Reysol is getting all the credit as the surprise package of 2011, but a word should be given to Shimizu who not only brought in former Iranian head man Afshin Ghotbi to replace a long-time coach, but also turned over virtually an entire starting XI (seven actual starters and four bench players). After all the turmoil, the squad finds itself in seventh, one spot behind their final place last year and far above the expectations given in pre-season.

I haven't seen too much of S-Pulse this season but if I had a criticism of them, I'd say it's that they don't have the athleticism to keep up with the top squads in J1. The teams they lost against (Vissel Kobe, a pre-Mizumoto injury Sanfrecce, Kawasaki Frontale, Kashiwa and Cerezo Osaka) all have weapons that can get past the back lines and attack. The Shimizu back four, anchored by Eddy Bosnar, is just not fast enough right now. When they are able to control the pace and flow of the game they usually are successful. I should add that Daigo Kobayashi has not contributed much and is a huge dropoff from Shinji Ono (suck it Daigo!).

6. Jubilo Iwata If Urawa Reds wants to see a blueprint for rebuilding with veterans and youth, they need only look south to Shizuoka and Iwata. After purging some talented but ill-fitting pieces Jubilo has managed to blend National Team stalwarts Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Ryoichi Maeda and Yuichi Komano with a plethora of young attacking players to create one of the J-League's more dynamic squads. Even with the loss to hyperthyroidism of Ryohei Yamazaki, the team has not missed a beat. Where the trouble with Jubilo seems to lie is in the middle of the defense. The volante play and the centerbacks, while being a major improvement on last year, still lack the talent to really compete for a championship.

5. Gamba Osaka If I gotta say it, you really haven't been paying attention. To paraphrase the former Clinton campaign slogan, "It's the defense, Stupid!". Maybe Gamba coach Akira Nishino is trying to dupicate the feat performed by his 2005 Championship-winning squad, who allowed 58 goals while scoring a whopping 82. This time the scoring hasn't been bad, with a league best 38 in sixteen games, but at the other end the team is hemmorhaging a league worst 33 - even worse by percentage points than Avispa Fukuoka - while not recording a single clean sheet.

The team defense, anchored by much-maligned goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya and the twin towers of Sota Nakazawa and Kazumichi Takagi, weren't very good last year. And backup Satoshi Yamaguchi wasn't the answer in 2009. Maybe the answer wasn't raiding Albirex Niigata in 2009 for Pedro Junior, or Cerezo at the close of 2010 for Adriano, or Thespa Kusatsu this year for Rafinha. Maybe it's time Nishino actually went out and got some defensive talent.

4. Kawasaki Frontale To a lesser extent, Kawasaki suffers the same disease as Gamba. The centerbacks have been less than stellar this year. What determines the results for Frontale is really who is holding the whistle during the matches. When you get a guy like Yoshida as referee, Junichi Inamoto is allowed to play as physical as he likes. Another ref and the former international mid is a bit neutered and less effective in his play. His ability to clear people out of the middle is the key to their success.

The midfield also has seen problems when Kengo Nakamura is missing or off his game. Luckily for Kawasaki, one of the best pickups of the offseason was Yokohama F Marinos castoff Koji Yamase, who has responded to suggestions of his demise with a very workmanlike five goals and five assists. How the midfield holds up and the backline copes will be key to Kawasaki's hopes of finally breaking through for a championship.

3. Nagoya Grampus The defending champs shook off a rough start and bad losses to relegation candidates Ventforet Kofu and Urawa Reds to string together a twelve-game unbeaten streak. It seems like the Grampus squad is starting to get the focus back that had them winning thirteen out of fourteen matches against the bottom six teams in J1 last year.

The two problems with Nagoya right now have to be their penchant to drop points at home (tying after leading against both Omiya and Urawa) and their physical well-being. Only three of their players have played a full slate of games this year and the team is winning with erratic netminder Yoshinari Takagi in for world class keeper Seigo Narazaki. Talented attacker Mu Kanazaki has been injured the entire season and other key pieces have been out with various ailments (older ACL squads Gamba and Kashima have faced similar struggles). The focus now looks back and a run of luck with health could see Nagoya hitting their stride and re-claiming the title.

2. Kashiwa Reysol It's a little hard to criticize a team who came up from J2 and has perched themselves at the top of J1 for virtually the entire half-season. Kashiwa uses a unique 4-2-2-2 to stifle play and choke off the attack of opponents. After a blazing 7-1-1 start (the single loss being a fluke to Montedio Yamagata) cracks have begun to show, especially in the back line.

Kashiwa is still getting wins (five of the past nine) but the losses are sending warning signs. In the four losses, the team gave up three, three, four and five goals. Teams are starting to figure out that if you get to Reysol early, you can knock them out of the ball control game. The real test for Nelsinho's squad will be how they handle playing against teams who have seen the coach's scheme at least once, starting with back-to-back games this week against Vegalta in Sendai.

1. Yokohama F Marinos I've seen Yokohama play three times this year and I've come away unimpressed. While it would be a great story for Shunsuke Nakamura and Yuji Nakazawa to lead a merry band of journeymen and starlets to a J-League title after Marinos embarrassed themselves at the close of 2010, I don't think they can do it on their own.

Some things have been very good, especially the play of goalkeeper Hiroki Iikura, and the combo of Kazuma Watanabe (the Watanabe brother that actually can play soccer) and Yuji Ono has shown flashes of brilliance. But it seems that the team has been a bit flattered by the results. I'm not confident that the left-side pairing of 33-year-old Nakazawa and 35-year-old Yasuhiro Hato can continue to hold for an entire season (Chikara Fujimoto was able to exploit the matchup a few times... yes, Chikara!). But if there is a year for a team like Marinos to win the league, it's this year.

Extra Time - My Best and Worst XI coming tomorrow.



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