Monday, 4 June 2012

Agent Orange: Omiya In June, Jun Not In Omiya

In a move that was probably more shocking than it should have been, last week Omiya told Jun Suzuki that his services as coach were no longer required. It's a popular decision among Squirrels fans and one that is not hard to justify. After an offseason in which the team added high-profile signings such as U23 Korean attacker Cho Young Cheol and creative midfielder Carlinhos, expectations were high for Ardija to do well in 2012 - or at least better than the hot mess that we've seen on display for the first three months of the season. It's easy to pile on to Suzuki because honestly he deserves it.

However, in another sense it's a bitter pill to swallow. After coming in to replace Jang Woe Ryong in mid-2010, Suzuki did an admirable job in saving the team from relegation and a long-term date with J2 purgatory. In fact it was probably one of the most underrated coaching jobs in J-League history. When Suzuki arrived Omiya was floundering. After an emotional 3-0 win against Cerezo Osaka to start the season, the team had gone on to flatline with an eight-game winless streak. Rafael was out, Chikara Fujimoto was (conveniently) out at the same time and the pairing of Naoki Ishihara and Yoshihito Fujita was not producing the goals. Defender Taishi Tsukamoto's cancer prognosis was in a far more dismal state than it is today.

Jun Suzuki took over a squad that had tuned out Jang, wasn't playing as a team, and looked entirely rudderless. It started small, with a much-needed 2-1 win over eventual relegation victims Kyoto Sanga, hit a couple bumps and got better. Suzuki used the absolutely useless Nabisco Cup competition to give extended looks to afterthoughts in the Jang regime like Takuya Aoki, Daisuke Watabe, Shusuke Tsubouchi and Shunsuke Fukuda. He made some bold and controversial decisions in shifting 2009 MVP Mato Neretljak and North Korea World Cup vet An Yong Hak out the starting lineup. These moves would lead to some good results against Urawa Reds and Shimizu S-Pulse. It looked like Suzuki had stabilized the team.

Unfortunately, Omiya would be hit with another emotional gut punch when the league announced that club president Seigo Watanabe and company were inflating attendance numbers. Rumors were floating around that the team would be forced to give up league points or face automatic relegation. After a few very bad performances including a 5-1 loss to Gamba Osaka, the team fought back from a 2-0 deficit - and the first of many controversial calls to go against them, a good goal called as a no-goal - to tie Kawasaki Frontale.

Another of what would be a string of comebacks happened the next week when Suzuki's future whipping boy, Naoki Ishihara, scored the go-ahead goal and put away Montedio Yamagata. The squad edged FC Tokyo and Vissel Kobe in the last couple of weeks to finish at a team-high twelfth. Jun Suzuki would be the only Omiya coach to end with a winning record (10-6-9) in a J1 season. He did a great job in 2010 and nobody should take that away from him. 
His problem came in 2011, when he started to implement his philosophy of "possession football". Combined with new general manager Takeyuki Okamoto, Suzuki looked to put his brand on the squad. Specialists like Neretljak and Ishihara were cast out in favor of guys who were more conducive to a flexible system of ball control and position change. It meant that talented midfielders like Keigo Higashi and Kota Ueda would see more of a role on the squad. Unfortunately, it also meant that mediocre players like Daigo Watanabe and Lee Chun Soo would also feature because they could (allegedly) play multiple roles to a competent standard instead of being great at one position.

Early in 2011, the team was getting results but the rot in the offense and along the backline was starting to show. Blowout home losses to S-Pulse and Frontale would see Suzuki switch to a more negative and boring style. Long-time Omiya players who had seemed destined for the reserve squad like Yosuke Kataoka and Hayato Hashimoto found themselves back in the starting lineup, playing the same overly cautious, mistake-prone style that had led to Ardija hovering around the relegation zone in previous years. Everything old was new again in the Squirrel Nation. 
Suzuki took part in another extravagant offseason in 2012, signing four new starters to the squad and retooling the entire left side of the field. Unfortunately, the Omiya braintrust did little to address weaknesses in scoring and the right back. Opposing teams were figuring out that if they were patient, they could sit back and counter and the Ardija defense would give them room to operate. The Squirrels front six rarely break through on offense and a truly dismal start to the season by Rafael and Higashi has helped the team stumble to fifteenth place.

The first option hasn't worked and with the jettisoning to Sanfrecce Hiroshima of Ishihara, a second option is non-existent. It showed in the final game of the Suzuki era when he opted to make defensive-minded replacements while losing 3-0, rather than throwing on more attacking players like Jun Kanakubo (not used until 75th minute), Masahiko Ichikawa (an unused sub) and Shintaro Shimizu (left in Shiki). It was bad decision-making and a sign of weakness on the part of the manager. Most damning for Suzuki was the fact that, unlike in 2010, everybody knew this Ardija team was incapable of coming back from a deficit and was generally boring no matter what the outcome. 
Suzuki's last official task was overseeing the reserves lose 3-1 to his former team, Albirex Niigata. The Swans themselves have hardly thrived since his departure and now sit in seventeenth place, looking likely to be in J2 next year. Young striker Shimizu goes down in the books as the last Ardija player to score during Suzuki's tenure. 
Part of me is happy that Jun Suzuki was relieved of his duties. Even the wins were not very enjoyable. However, the main emotion I have about the whole situation is disappointment. Suzuki was the first coach Omiya had in J1 with a respectable resume. The team went from Toshiya Miura (who had no J1 experience) to Robert Verbeek (hired because his brother was a respected coach) to non-licensed Satoru Sakuma. Yasuhiro Higuchi came in after a few mediocre seasons at Montedio Yamagata and was replaced by Jang Woe Ryong, who had been awful in stints at Consadole Sapporo and Tokyo Verdy. Suzuki was the first "real" coach we hired. And he succeeded... and then failed. 
I guess I'll just end with thank you and goodbye. There's not a lot of anger or schadenfreude with his dismissal. It feels like it's the right time for him to go. And the right time for us to worry about the next person to take the job.        



Matsu 4 June 2012 at 21:11  

The story on the wires this evening says that Ardija has hired Zdenko Verdenik, who has formerly coached both JEF United and Yokohama Flugels (not to mention a plethora of club teams in eastern Europe). He lasted just over a year at both places, but he also faced a tougher ask than what he faces at Omiya (where survival will probably be enough for most fans, at least this season.

My recollection of him at JEF suggests that you can expect more of the same conservative, dreary football that most of your previous coaches adopted, though at least he has a bit of skill in tactical play and (perhaps) may get slightly better performances from players that Suzuki didnt seem to know how to use properly - like Cho, Higashi and Hasegawa.

Furtho 4 June 2012 at 23:34  

He seems to have been the only candidate that the club considered. The fact that the Ardija youth team coach in situ, Inoue, worked with him at JEF is presumably a help although of course this was a decade ago.

I'm guessing Verdenik must be a cheap option and that the sacking of the highly-paid Suzuki has mopped up too much of the budget for many other alternatives to have been considered. The management and decision-making at Omiya continue to be quite bewildering.

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