Monday, 28 November 2011

The Squirrel's Eye View: You Wouldn't Blame 'em If...

Now that the J1 season is almost over and the Squirrels have confirmed their place in the J-League's top division for next year, the thoughts of many fans are turning to the all-important topic of changes to be made to the squad for 2012. In among all the possibilities of players to depart and arrive there is one particular overarching question that demands an answer, and that is:

Why on earth would any decent player with a modicum of ambition play for Omiya?

In seven years as a J1 club, Ardija have failed to make any significant on-field progress at all. For the seventh year in a row Ardija have ended up in a battle to avoid relegation. For the seventh year in a row Ardija will finish in one of the four places immediately above the drop zone. Despite having set in January what seemed a perfectly realistic target of 50 league points, Omiya under Jun Suzuki never looked like reaching that goal. Instead, the Squirrels went through another season of struggle that has included - with a single game still to play - just one home win. One. 

In summary, this is not a club that can realistically offer good or promising players the chance to develop themselves or to achieve any professional goals they might have. God knows I wish the situation was different but this is reality - and it has pretty much been this way for, well, seven years.

Here's another question. If you were Rafael, Omiya's top scorer and a player who has reportedly received at least one offer for 2012 from another J1 club, what would you do? Obviously there are matters such as money and family circumstances that affect a player's decision about a contract or a transfer, but leaving these things aside it is hard to imagine that Rafael would be satisfied staying at Ardija. He has managed to carve out something of a reputation for himself in Japan and while Rafa might not necessarily be the big star if he were to move to a different team, he'd more than likely be at a better club with better players and a better chance of finishing in a decent position. It's also hard to imagine that that opportunity will fall into his lap by staying at Omiya for another year.   

There are other players on the Ardija squad that you couldn't blame if they wanted to leave. Among the defenders, Shusuke Tsubouchi and Norio Suzuki have had hardly a sniff of the first team after impressing in 2010. Tsubouchi has picked up some playing time as a substitute and occasional starter - but while no-one would claim that he's the best player in the world, the complete non-appearance of Suzuki has been more difficult to understand. Given that Tsubouchi, Kazuhiro Murakami, Daisuke Watabe, Kim Yong Gwon, Arata Sugiyama and Daigo Watanabe have all been chosen ahead of him at one time or another, Suzuki must be our seventh-choice side back. Really? Why would someone stick around to be that far down the pecking order?

Wide midfielder Keigo Higashi, signed last winter from Oita Trinita, has played a good deal more than was anticipated pre-season, when it was felt that he would gradually be phased in as a longer-term replacement for veteran Chikara Fujimoto. To give Jun Suzuki some credit he has at least recognised that U22 international Higashi brings something different to the team, but the relationship between coach and player hasn't always been plain sailing. 

Higashi is clearly an ambitious young man and at this point in his career, he needs above all to consider whether or not Omiya is really the club that can help him to become a member of the full Japan squad. So do we have a track record in taking good young players to the next level? No, we emphatically do not. The Squirrels have achieved extremely limited success when it comes to bringing kids on from the Omiya youth set-up - and as for full international honours, well, there's always Daigo Kobayashi's single appearance in a friendly five years ago to, er, boast about. That's something for Higashi to consider when he's on one of his trips with the cream of Japanese football's young crop.

Someone whose career seemed to go into reverse in 2011 was another wide midfield man, Jun Kanakubo. After a very encouraging rookie campaign last year things looked less clear cut for the former Ryutsu Keizai University student following the arrival at Ardija of Higashi, but even so Kanakubo can hardly have expected to start only three league games. Like Norio Suzuki, he's not a world beater but he's got skill, some speed and a more than respectable free kick. The fact that Hayato Hashimoto is now being selected ahead of him must tell Jun Kanakubo all he needs to know about his future at Omiya: if a mid-ranking J1 team were to come in with an offer, he'd be crazy not to take it. 

There's only one place to finish an article like this and that is with Naoki Ishihara. Condemned to be a super sub apparently due to Jun Suzuki's twisted logic that no other member of the squad is good enough to play the role, what is certainly true is that no other member of the squad is as good a finisher or as natural a goalscorer. Top scorer in 2010, Ishihara has this year been omitted from the team in favour of players that either were less capable (Rodrigo Pimpao) or were being deployed in a position that they really weren't much good at (Lee Chun Soo). In some senses it would be astonishing if Ishihara doesn't leave and if he does, I for one would be willing him on to prove Suzuki wrong. 



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