J1 League 2021 Season Preview

The J1 season is fianlly among us! Although it only feels like yesterday when we said goodbye to 2020 with Kawasaki Frontale lifting the league trophy for the third time in three years. It was an interesting season, which was interrupted by a pandemic, which not only halted football in Japan, but across the world.

It changed things for everyone. The league halted after one game for most from February up until it’s restart in July, fans were no longer allowed in stadiums, players had to remain in a bubble and endure contsant testing, there were concerns over clubs abilities to stay afloat financially and concerns whether the season would ever start again. Thankfully it did and once it got going again, it provided some incredibly entertaining games.

It also provided hope for most people. Those of us who are football fans, are dedicated to football in all forms. Whether that’s watching it, playing it, watching in person, meeting up with friends and fellow supporters. It helps people socially and mentally (sometimes – depends on who you support). So when there was no football at all across the world, people struggled and didn’t know what to do with themselves. I ended up replacing watching football, with collecting football shirts. Specifically of the J.League variety. So when football in leagues such as J.League and K.League began to announce their return, fans from all over began to flock to any semblence of the beautiful game.

Thankfully since then, football has returned for most. Although it might not be in the same way as before, it is a sign that things are getting better and moving forward. J.League was actually one of the first leagues in the world to start introducing fans back into the stadiums with reduced capacity. Temperature checks were taken prior to entry, hand sanitising stations were erected across the grounds, masks were made mandatory, fans weren’t allowed to sing, chant or fly flags and seats were taped off to maintain social distance. It wasn’t great and it wasn’t perfect but, it was something

Heading into this J1 2021 season, there is likely to be more of the same. But hopefully in time, we will see stadiums with full capacities, so we can see and hear the passionate fans of Japanese Football once again.

So for those of you who are interested in J.League football, whether you always were or whether you’ve become interested since 2020. Here’s my preview of every team for the upcoming 2021 season.

Avispa Fukuoka

Its Avispa Fukuoka’s first time back in J1 since 2016 when they were relegated to J2. However, its has been two decades since the side managed to stay more than one season in the topflight, with a pattern of spending one year in J1, before spending usually 3 or 4 trying to get promoted again.

Originally named Fujieda Blux and based in Shizuoka, the team moved to Fukuoka in 1994 and became Fukuoka Blux. After becoming champions of the Japan Football League in 1995, the side were admitted into the J-League, where they have played ever since and fluttered between the top two leagues.

Avispa (meaning Wasp in spanish) certainly had a buzz to them last year in J2. Despite only playing one league game before Covid-19 came into the fray, the side did not lose focus of their ambiitions to get promoted and got to work right away. After a mix of results, Avispa started to pick up form and get important wins against other title rivals. Their defence was a stalwart bastion last year, with the fewest goals allowed out of 22 teams. In the 42 games they played in the 2020 season, they only conceded 29 times and they went unbeaten in the last 10 games, allowing them to finish in 2nd place on 84 points. This was the same amount of points as league champions Tokushima Vortis finished on, however their goal difference was significantly better than Fukuoka’s.

Coming into this season, Avispa have managed to keep a hold of most of their players from last year. However, they have lost a key player in Spanish goalkeeper Serantes, who was intergal to the sides good defence last year, pulling off some match winning saves. It’s particualrly a suprise to fans and Serantes himself, as the club didn’t renew his contract at the end of the season. They also lost three players in other areas of the pitch due to them returning back from loan to their parent clubs. Keeping a core team is integral to a promoted side, as it allows a stable platform for teams to build from. They have added some good depth signings in areas where they are weak, without disturbing the core that they do have. But ultimately, some players which they have lost, they have not been able to replace like for like. However, they have kept manager Shigetoshi Hasebe at the helm which is very key for the side, as there was clear improvment in the team when he took over from Fabio Pecchia.

They have brought in Takumi Nagaishi from Cerezo Osaka on loan, who is a former Japan U-17 goalkeeper, but he has yet to make an appearance for Cerezo. So it appears unlikely that he may see much gametime. It is more likely that Masaaki Murakami who was backup last year for Serantes will be given the number spot for now. They have also brought in centre-forward Daiki Watari from Oita Trinita, centre-back Tatsuki Nara, Emil salomonsson from Hiroshima and Bruno Mendes formly of Cerezo Osaka, where he scored 20 goals in 58 appearances.

Heading into the 2021 season, I feel that Avispa will manage the adjustment back into the top division. I think for the start of the season, they mind find themselves towards the bottom of the table and flirting with a relegation position, however i feel they will in time find their feet within the league and be able to pick up wins when they need them and stay safe from the drop. I think this would be a happy result for the side, as previously mentioned, they have not managed to last more than one season in J1 since the turn of the century. This year should serve as building block for them and if they can maintain the good defensive record that they had in 2020 and manage to grab some 1-0 wins against the teams which struggled last year such as Vegalta, Shonan, Yokohama FC and fellow promoted team Tokushima, then I think the Avi will manage a longer duration in the top flight. However, they have a tough first match against Nagoya Grampus.

Cerezo Osaka

Cerezo Osaka, formed 64 years ago as Yanmar Diesel SC are another Osaka side which have seen success and have a deep history. However, unlike their cross city rivals, Cerezo’s success has not come in the J.League era. The Cherry Blossoms were a force in the 70’s/80’s under their original name, winning the Japan Soccer League in 1971, 1974, 1975 and 1980. They have also won the JSL Cup in 1973 (shared), 1983 and 1984. It wouldn’t be until 2017 when Cerezo Osaka would finally claim silverware in their new name, winning both the J.League Cup and Emperors Cup in the same year. They then went on to win the Japanese Super Cup the following year.

But despite some of these accolades, Cerezo Osaka have never won J1

Last year, saw Cerezo have their highest finish in three years, occuping 4th place as the league concluded and qualifying for a ACL playoff spot. Despite this, manager Miguel Angel Lotina stepped down from his role and has taken up the reins at fellow J1 side Shimizu S-Pulse. With that, Cerezo announced that they would be bringing back Brazilian manager, Levir Culpi to the club. A manager who has already had three stints at the club, his first for the 1997 season, followed by 2007-2011 and a very brief stay for Cerezo’s last few games of the 2012 season. Controversially, before coming back to the pink side of Osaka, he managed rivals Gamba Osaka for their 2018 season before he was let go after a poor run of results.

As questionable as the decision is to try your luck on a manager for the fourth time around, Cerezo’s transfers are just as questionable.

The Sakura’s have had alot of traffic both in and out of the club with a very interesting array of players and positions. It would take me a looooong time to go through each indiviudal transfer.

Some of the most noteable players coming in are Australian forward, Adam Taggart, previously of Suwon Samsung Bluewings in K-League, who may not have contributed much last season for the Korean side scoring 5 in 18. But he certainly made an impact in his first season, scoring 16 in 28. Hopefully Taggart can refind his form for the cherry blossoms, as one major depature for the side was striker Bruno Mendes due to his loan finishing. The Brazilian scored 15 goals last season, being the top scorer for the team. Dang Van Lam, a Vietmanese goalkeeper has joined from Thai League team Muangthong United, in what is also another interesting move. Van Lam is certainly a very talented keeper, but current Cerezo shotstopper Kim Jin Hyeon has not showed anything to suggest that he should lose his place as number 1. They have also brought in Dankler from Vissel Kobe in a brow raising move as well as numerous ‘average‘ J2 players who will not fill the gaps left by players before

Players need time to gel, develop trust, communication, undertsanding of each others skills and playing style. Ultimatley, I feel like this revolving door of bringing players in and out is going disrupt what Cerezo had going for them last season. Given the fact they also need to focus on securing a ACL playoff spot, on top of an already tight schedule, Cerezo will undoubtedly have a very interesting if not difficult 2021 season ahead of them. But that being said…..they could be a surprising dark horse

Gamba Osaka

Gamba Osaka are club rich in history and success, founded as Matsushita Electric SC 41 years ago before changing their name once they joined the J.League. They have won J1 twice in 2005 and 2014, they have won the J.League cup twice in 2007 and 2014, Emperors Cup winners four times in 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2015, Japanese Super Cup winners in 2007 and 2015 and won the AFC Champions League in 2008. It is quite clear to see why they are a well followed team in Japan. Despite these successes, it has been 6 years since the club last won some silverware.

Tsuneyasu Miyamoto took over at Gamba Osaka in 2018 and helped them rise from the depths of 16th place when relegation was looking likely, to finish in 9th. The Osaka side could have actually finished 6th, but lost on the final day of the season, with teams around them picking up results to finish above them. A year later after a slow start to the season, Miyamtoto helped guide them to a 7th place finish in 2019 and just last year for the 2020 season, Gamba finished 2nd. Gamba played incredibly well that season, despite what was once again a very slow start. However, title rivals Kawasaki Frontale were a force to be reckoned with and stormed the league, finishing 18 points above Gamba in first.

It is clear in his short two and half years with the club, that fan favourite and club legend Miyamoto has the backing behind him to go one step further with Gamba and hopefully challenge the aformentioned Kawasaki. The two sides did in fact just play each other in the Japanese Super Cup prior to the season starting, where it was very energetic and vibrant match, with the games seemingly heading to penalties at 2-2 before Kawasaki and Kobayaishi stole the glory.

Gamba have looked to strengthen their side during the off season and into the preseason with various arrivals and departures. Despite their high finish, Gamba could be quite passive at times and did not score that many goals surprisingly. So alot of their transfer buisness has been to look at developing their attack. Some of the most noteable are Leonadro Pereira from Sanfrecce Hiroshima, where he was top scorer whilst on loan from Matsumoto Yamaga and boasts an impressive 21 goals in 47 appearances whilst in J1 with 15 of them coming in 20 appearnaces whilst with Hiroshima. They have also brought in another brazilian striker in Tiago Alves from Sagan Tosu, who may not have the statistics to suggest anything spectacular and has spent time out at various clubs due to injury. However it is clear to see he is a capable player and argubably didn’t have the support he needed when at Tosu. Gamba have also looked to strengthen the midfield, bringing in former FC Seoul player Ju Se-Jong who usually plays centrally.

The most noteable depature has to be Ademilson (6 goals) who was a star player for the Osaka side last season, but had his contract terminated following an incident of drinking driving. Whereas centre forward Kazuma Watanabe (6 goals) has also left the club.

Gamba have lined up with a 4-3-3 in preason, so it looks likely for the side to focus on their attack as their defence was very impressive last season. They added depth to their side through bringing in players on free transfers, players returning from loan and also taken some players from their U-23 side. Gamba will need depth this season, due to the fact they will be playing in ACL (Asian Champions League) which does cause some concern. This is due to fixture congestion and the scheduling of the league due to the effects of Covid-19 on the 2020 season.

Gamba have had poor starts to the last few seasons, meaning they have had to gain ground on strong teams around them which is very difficult when you have clubs like Kawasaki in fine form. Teams around them have also strengthened with regular challengers Kawasaki looking better than last season and other teams such as Nagoya, Kashima, Hiroshima making good acquisitions and bringing in depth. Gamba’s first match is away against Vissel Kobe which they should be securing three points against, especially given the fact their next two games are against two of the teams mentioned just above. They have time just before ACL games start in April to build some momentum and hopefully get the energetic start to the season they have been after for so long.

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo founded 86 years ago as Toshiba Horikawa-cho SC. They are the only Hokkaido based football team to be playing in the J.League and for those unfamilar with the geography of Japan, Hokkaido is a large island north of mainland Japan. Despite being one of the oldest team in Japanese football, they have unfortunately not managed to win much during that time. Their only honours come from winning the All Japan Senior Football Championship in 1977, winning the Japan Soccer League Cup in 1981 (which they had to share with Mitsubishi Motors – Now Urawa Reds) and a Japan Football League title in 1997.

Since their promotion from J2, this is the sides longest stint in the top flight in their history since joining the J.League in 1998. Generally the side are in and amongst the lower end of the table, finishing usually in 11th/12th position out of 18 teams, other than the times where the team has found themselves in a relegation spot and ultimately fallen to J2.

Last season, they found themselves finishing the season in 12th place, in a season which had no relegation due to covid-19. Centre-forward Anderson Lopes led the side in goals scored, netting 9 times. Whereas his striking counterpart and Ex-Cardiff player, Jay Bothroyd scored 6. Sapporo were actually better than the teams finishing in 2nd, 3rd and 4th in terms of goals scored across the season, however, the issue with sapporo certainly lies with their defence.

Their current manager is Mihailo Petrović, who has been managing the side since 2018. Petrović has been in the J League since 2006, when he took the helm at Sanfreece Hiroshima. After 5 years with the side, he then joined Urawa Red Diamonds, where he was manager from 2012-2017. Last year, Petrović became the first foreign manager to achieve 200 wins in the J. League

This season I wouldn’t expect much different from Sapporo. There is going to be an additional two teams in the league, meaning that relegation spots open up from two to four this year. I feel that Sapporo will finish comfortably in and around mid table. They have brought in the likes of Gabriel Okechukwu, a 25 year old Nigerian striker from Wydad AC, who at the moment is abit of an unknown quantity due to the fact that he only made 7 appearances for the Moroccan side, after being out on loan last year. However, his stats when playing for other teams have been more impressive, 19 goals in 17 appearances for Water FC and 13 goals in 12 for St George’s. However those goals came in Nigerian football leagues and without discrediting them, J.League is a higher standard of football and potentially a very different type of style than Gabriel is used to.

Takanori Sugeno has always been a goalkeeper who interests me and has been playing J.League football all of his career. Even though, by goalkeeping standards he is quite small, he certainly makes up for it with superb agility, reflexes and commanding between his backline. The only downfall is that Sugeno is an aging goalkeeper and Sapporo may want to look at developing some youth prospects that could challenge for the number one spot. That being said I dont think he has done anything substantial to lose his place. But Sapporo have brought in Koki Otani from J2 outfit, Albirex Niigata and 21 year old Kojiro Nakano from Hosei Univeristy. So perhaps there could be an interesting competition for who starts between the sticks.

I do have a soft spot for Sapporo, whether its the badge, the football or the dedicated fans who fly to every away game. Their average squad age is 27, with quite a few players who are in their late 30’s that bring the average up. I think moving forward, the Hokkaido team need to look at developing some youth and homegrown players alongside the veterans, so they can pass on their experience and expertise.

Kashima Antlers

Kashima Antlers, one of the giants of J.League football and a club with alot of history and success both on a domestic and continental scale. Founded 74 years ago as Sumitomo Metal FC, they have won the J.League title a record eight times, the J.League Cup a record six times and the Emperor’s Cup five times for an unprecedented total of nineteen major domestic titles! The Antlers have also won the AFC Champions League in 2018. Kashima have finished in the top five of the league for over seventy percent of all seasons.

Kashima are also one of only two clubs to have competed in Japan’s top flight of professional football every year since its inception (the other being Yokohama F. Marinos).

Last year was seen as a relativley low finish for Kashima (5th), despite their lowest finish being 11th in 2012. But fans expect the side to always be in contention to qualify for ACL and challenge the likes of Gamba and Kawasaki for the title. This will be Antônio Carlos Zago second year in charge of the side and will have ambitions of taking them to the next step to try and win the title again.

Kashima have been fairly quiet during this transfer window both in terms of ingoings and outgoings. They have brought in two brazilian signings in the form of defensive midifelder Diego Bituca from Santos FC and 28 year old left winger Arthur Caike from Al-Shabab. They have noticeably brought in alot of young talent from locals schools and universities, which give an indication of the clubs direction and goal moving forward. But I think the key thing for Kashima, is that they have done really well to hold onto the core team that they have now. A few players have gone out, but they have been able to get in like for like replacements. They’ve kept the key men in their side and added depth to areas where it is needed.

I feel this year, that Kashima has to be counted amongst the favourites to challenge Kawasaki for that J.League title. The team have enough character, experience, youth and energy to focus on a push from last year and naturally don’t have the distraction and tight scheduling they would have, if they had qualified for ACL. Their sole focus can be on the league and hopefully collecting some silverware along the way.

Kashiwa Reysol

Founded 81 years ago as Hitachi SC. The club was formed in 1940 and was a founding member of the “Original Eight” of the Japan Soccer League (JSL) in 1965. Since the league’s inception, they have spent the majority of their existence in the top tier of Japanese football. They have been Japanese League champions twice in 1972 and 2011, and have won three League Cups in 1976, 1999 and 2013, and three Emperor’s Cups in 1972, 1975 and 2012.

They joined J1 in 1995, where they spent 10 consecutive years in the top division, before being relegated to J2 for the 2006 season. They have since bounced in between the two divisons, with their most recent promotion back to J1 in 2019, where on the final game of the year they beat Kyoto Sanga (My team) 13-1!

Last year was a brilliant year for Reysol who finished the season in 7th place and finishing runners up in the J.League Cup to FC Tokyo. Michael Olunga, their Kenyan striker at the time, was in fantastic form, registering 28 goals for his side and finishing the season as the leagues top scorer. Ataru Esaka was also in good form, scoring 9 for the season. This side was managed by Nelsinho Baptista, who joined in 2019 and had managed the side previously from 2009 until 2014 and led them to winning their first ever J1 title in 2011.

It is without a doubt that the reason Reysol did so well last year is because of the goals and attacking prowess the team had. Constantly looking to counter, hitting perfectly weighted through balls either over or past defenders into a space where Olunga could use his pace to swoop in and get 1:1 with keeper, hustling players off the ball. Kashiwa were very exciting to watch.

But that might change this season. Unfortuantley with the great successive season Olunga had last year, it was only natural that he was going to attract interest, so it came as no surprise that during the offseason that he left. But it was a surprise to see him join Qatari outfit, Al-Duhail SC. Without Olunga’s goals, the side would definitley not have finished has high 7th. But we can’t pin all success down to the Kenyan.

In an effort to fill the gap left by Olunga, Kashiwa have brought in 24 year old brazilian forward Pedro Raul from Vitória Guimarães B. Raul was on loan at Botafogo, where he scored 12 goals in 39 appearances. They have also borught in another brazilian in central midifelder Dodi, who has joined from Fluminese. As well strengthening in attack they have also looked at all areas of the pitch, adding defensive midfielders and centre backs to their list of acquisitions

Overall, despite the big loss of Olunga, I still feel that Kashiwa have enough about them and enough skilled and talented players to manage a good run in the league. With manager Nelsinho Baptista also still in charge, I think he’s got enough to lead them on to being a competitive side. A top 10 finish seems likely again for Reysol . I would be surprised to see them finish my lower than that

Kawasaki Frontale

Kawasaki Frontale where founded 66 years ago in 1955 as Fuijitsu SC. They are a side which have been under the radar of most until the last decade, where they spent most of their time in the J2 until they were promoted back to the top flight for the 2005 season and they have remained there ever since. Some of their honours include winning the J1 three times in 2017, 2018 and 2020, Emperors Cup win in 2020, J.League Cup win in 2019 and Japanese Super Cup in 2019 and 2021.

Kawasaki have become a powerhouse in the league, a team full of many talents and a very exciting side to watch.

2020 has to have been Kawasaki’s best season yet, finishing 1st and running away from the rest of the pack at times. There was no contest in who was winning the league. For a while it almost looked like they were going to go the entire season without losing a game. However, Nagoya Grampus soon burst that bubble. But don’t let that deter you away from the fact that Kawasaki lost only 3 games all season, scored 88 goals, had a goal difference of 57, won the league and emperors cup, won the league with a gap of 18 points and lastly, had a record 9 players in the J.Leagues best XI with only Olunga and Leandro preventing it from being a Frontale washout.

Not only did they achieve all of this success. But, I can’t describe to you how exciting and exhilarting it was to watch Kawasaki last year. The side has a mixture of players, comprising of young prospects, league veterans and national team starters. This array of players has allowed Frontale to develop a team full of skill, talent and depth that allows them to compete at the highest level, not only in just the league, but also in cup competitions and in the ACL.

During the offseason and pre-season the side have kept the majority of the team. They have been smart with their arrivals and departures, only letting go of players the team felt they did not need and bringing in players which compliment the current system and style of play, as well as depth. One of those signings coming in is Joao Schmidt from Nagoya Grampus who plays as a defensive midfielder. Even just watching Joao in his first match last week, I was impressed with how quickly he has settled into the team. He didn’t look out of place and worked very well with the likes of Ao Tanaka in midfield. He supported the transition going up the field and ensured he got back during periods where Gamba countered.

Kaoru Mitamo, Yu Kobayaishi, Ao Tanaka, Shogo Taniguichi, Jesiel, Leonadro Damiao and Akihiro Ienaga are just a few of the incredible players on their side. However, there is currently a lot of interest in Kaoru Mitamo from Europe and I feel this will be his last season in the famous Azzurro Nero colours.

Manager Toru Oniki has invigorated the side since joining in 2017. He knows what it is like to be at Kawasaki, playing for the side from 2000 to 2006 as midfielder. On retiring, he took up a job coaching the youth side for 2 years, before being given the opportunity to act as assistant coach from 2010 until 2016. It was when Yahiro Kazama stood down, that fans and media alike were calling for Oniki to be given his chance to manage the side he played 160 times for.

This season I fully expect Kawasaki to finish 1st again. Given the strength and depth that they have in the squad. Other top teams around them have strengthened around them, so I don’t expect it to be as one sided as last year and not to finish 18 points clear either. One thing Kawasaki have had elude them, is success on a contintental level and an ACL Champions Title might just be the goal they are focusing on next. Knowing Frontale though, they will want to win it all.

Nagoya Grampus

Nagoya Grampus, a team probably known by most oustide of Asia for being the team coached by Arsene Wenger prior to joining Arsenal and where ex-england international Gary Lineker played his final games of football. 1995 was their most successful year as a team, winning the Emperor’s Cup and finishing second in the J.League, with Dragan Stojković and Gary Lineker on the team. The 1995 success was eclipsed on November 20, 2010, when the club won its first J.League trophy, under the management of Stojković, the former player.

Nagoya have always been in J1 since joining the league in 1992, only dropping into the J2 for one season in 2017. However, during their time in the top flight, they’ve always been in around midtable or slightly slower.

But since 2019, there has been a resurgence within Nagoya and they are starting to look like a team which could compete with the other top clubs in the league. I feel like this upcoming year is potentially their best chance yet to win some silverware. This revitalisation seems to be down to manager Massimo Ficcadenti, who joined Nagoya in 2019 when he took over from Yahiro Kazama. Ficcadenti managed them for their final 8 games of the season where they finished 13th. Last year showed what life under Massimo would be like, taking them from a 13th place finish up to a 3rd place finish in 2020 and qualifing for ACL football.

Mateus is a key player for Nagoya and was a prominent and exciting force out on the wing, scoring 9 times for the side. Keeping him for this uncoming year is certainly a great move for them going into this season and ensures that energetic attack remains. But, you could argue that Nagoya focused too much on Mateus and expected him to be the target man, as opposed to their strikers. Grampus have added some depth and key players in Yasuki Kimoto from Cerezo Osaka who is very versatile, being able to play centre-back and holding midfield when needed. They have also signed Ryoya Morishita from Sagan Tosu and Keisuke Nagasawa from Urawa Reds. Nagasawa is a good depth signing who will hopefully show signs of improvement under a manager like Ficcadenti, who I’m sure will get the best of him. Manabu Saitō who usually plays on the left wing, has been brought in from Yokohama F Marinos and can be quality player on his day, but has spent some time out with injury.

Mu Kanazaki, Nagoya’s striker is currently out for 6 months with what appears to be an ACL injury. So in order to replace him they have brought in Yoichiro Kakatani from Cerezo Osaka, however he does does not have the greatest goal scoring record.

Nagoya still have Australian keeper Mitch Langerak who was fantastic for them last season. You could argue that he should have been in the 2020 team of the year, however Kawasaki dominated in that squad. Langerak obtained a J.League record in having kept 17 clean sheets last year. Defensively, Nagoya are perfect and that is the type of set up and system that Ficcadenti likes to play. The signings they have brought in suggest they are going to try to be more attacking and ensure enough depth to compete both in the league and in ACL.

Overall the team look excellent heading into this 2021 season. If they could sign a big name striker, then I would definitely put them as favourites to win the league. But i think a top four finish looks likely again for the side and i think most fans would be more than happy with that. They will certainly be a very interesting side to watch this season.

Oita Trinita

Founded 27 years ago, Oita Trinita have a huge following of fans that not only hail from the city, but also the entire prefecture. They started off life in the J.League in the J2 from 1999, where they stayed for four years before gaining promotion to J1 for the 2003 season. Oita remained in J1 for 6 years before facing relegation, but during that time they registered their highest ever finish of 4th in 2008, where they also won the J.League Cup as well. But since that high, Trinita have struggled to develop stability, spending the majority of the years being promoted and relegated between the top two divisions. They even spent a year in J3 in 2016. But have since worked their way back up to J1.

They finished last season in a respectable 11th place, where they saw a large mix of results throughout the year. Winning some shock games against big sides, but then losing to teams they should be getting three points against. Oita’s weakness last season was definitley their attack. They were 3rd worst in the league for goals scored, registering 36 goals for. Which is a huge contrast to 1st place Kawasaki with 88 goals.

One of the issues with Trinita last year is that they drew 10 of their games in a 34 game season, which if you look at it pessimistcally, they missed out on securing potentially an extra 20 points. This would have had them finish in third.

Compared to the rest of the teams in the league, Oita are a Japanese heavy team, with only two foreigners in the squad. During the off-season and pre-season they have let go a few attacking players, which is very questionable considering the side didn’t score many last year. They have brought in striker Shun Nagasawa, who has previously played at Gamba Osaka, Vissel Kobe and his last team Vegalta Sendai, where he scored 16 goals in 60 appearances. Oita have also brought in 25 year old centre forward, Arata Watanabe, from Albirex Niigata, who has 10 goals in 35 appearances. As well as adding additions up front, they have also brought in a few defensive signings in William Popp, a goalkeeper from Kawasaki Frontale and Keisuke Saka from Shonan.

This season, I feel that Oita will finish slightly lower than 11th this season. Possibly around the 13/14th mark. I don’t think they’ve done enough to improve on last year and given the fact that there are two extra teams in the league this year, they will have extra competition to compete with.

Sagan Tosu

Sagan Tosu are team from Tosu, in the Saga Prefecture and were founded 24 years ago in 1997. They were established as a new club that would take over as the football team to support in the prefecture, following on from Tosu Futures dissolvement. They played in the Japan Football League from 1997 to 1998, before being admitted into the new formed J.League. They started their J.League journey in 1999 as being a J2 side. They remained there until they gained promotion to J1 at the end of the 2011 season.

Some people may know of Sagan Tosu, as being the side Fernando Torres signed for prior to his retirement. Despite the excitement of ‘El Nino’ joining the Japanese side, he never lived up to the expectation put on him. Scoring 5 times in 35 appearances. That being said, Tosu did not have plethora of talented wingers that he may have been used to in La Liga to provide him with service

Tosu finished 13th last season, in a year where they scored 37 goals, fourth worst in the league, as well as conceding 43. All things considered this isn’t too bad when 11 teams conceded more. But perhaps Tosu’s biggest downfall last year was their inability to grind out results. The Sagan had 15 draws last year, in a season with 34 games. That’s almost half their games ending in draws. They actually only had 12 losses as well which is not bad considering 7th placed Kashiwa had the same amount. But again, it comes down to my point before about their inability to grind out results and a lot of the issues they had were up top. There just wasn’t enough going forward, with most of their draws finishing 0-0 or 1-1.

During the offseason, Tosu have been fairly quiet in both their ingoings and outgoings. They may be trying to emmulate Kashiwa’s success in unearthing a hidden gem in signing 27 year old Kenyan, Ismael Dunga who is a centre forward. They have also brought in another forward in Keita Yamashita from JEF United, in an interesting move. They have brought in some depth in defence and midfield, alongside Korean goalkeeper Park Il-gyu, who joins on a permenant basis from Yokohama F Marinos after spending the year on loan with Tosu for the 2020 season.

Despite this, I feel that Tosu are going to really struggle this year. There aren’t many quality players in the squad who can take games by the scruff of the neck and demand some leadership and cohesion within the side. They’re just very stagnated at the moment and I can’t see that changing this season. They have more competition with an extra two teams in the league and I feel that they will spend the majority of the season at the bottom of the table, occupying a potential relegation spot. They need to take more risks, 15 draws won’t cut it this season. They need to collect points from somewhere otherwise I feel the drop is inevitable.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, founded 83 years ago as Toyo Industries SC in 1938. They started their football playing in the semi-professional Japan Soccer League. They dominated the JSL’s early years, winning the title 4 times in a row. In 1981, they changed their name to Mazda SC. However, when the JSL was disbanded in 1992 to become the J.League, they dropped the company name and became Sanfrecce Hiroshima. The name Hiroshima, coming from the city they played in and Sanfreece coming from a portmanteau of the Japanese numeral for three, which is san. Frecce is an Italian word which means arrows. So Sanfreece = Three Arrows. The reason for this, is based on the story of the feudal lord Mōri Motonari who told his three sons that while a single arrow might be easily snapped, three arrows held together would not be broken and urged them to work for the good of the clan and its retainers. A principle that Hiroshima have incorporated into their club ethic, particularly given their history as a city which was hugely effected by the bombings in 1945.

During the 1969 season they took part in the Asian Club Cup, where they ended up in third place. They were the first Japanese club to particpate in the tournament. However, this focus on the Asian Cup, argubably cost them the league title to Mitsubishi Motors (Now known as Urawa). Although they won the JSL title a year later in 1970. They were the first team to do the double, in winning both the Emperors Cup and JSL in the same year. They were also the first of three “Invincibles”, undefeated champion clubs in Japan.

Apart from 2003 and 2008, Sanfrecce have been in J1 since 1992. In the last 10 years however, Hiroshima have been in very good form and found success in winning J1 three times in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

Last season, Hiroshima finished in a respectable, but perhaps disappointing to the fans, 8th place. They did not have any good runs in either the Emperors Cup or J.League Cup. They scored a total of 46 goals across the 34 games, conceding 37 and having a goal difference of 9. Leandro Pereira was the sides top scorer and also the leagues third top goalscorer with 15 for the season. Unfortuantley for Hiroshima, Leandro was on loan from Matsumoto Yamaga last season so he will not be returning ot the side this year.

In an effort to fill the gap left by Pereira however, they have signed striker Junior Santos from Kashiwa Reysol. Santos spent the 2020 season on loan to Yokohama F Marinos, where he scored 6 goals in 7 appearances. They have also brought back attacking midfielder Rhayner on loan from Tombense for his third consecutive season with the arrows. They have also added some depth in at defense and midfield, as well as bringing in goalkeeper Goro Kawanami from Vegalta Sendai.

Overall, I feel that they have managed to keep the majority of their core team from last year and have replaced well for some of the players they have lost. I would expect Hiroshima to finish in a similar position, if not possibly slightly higher up the table. After being unsuccessful on the cup front, Sanfrecce may turn their focus to a higher league finish and collect some additional silverware.

Shimizu S-Pulse

Shimizu S-Pulse are a club that were formed in 1991 and were a founding member of the J.League, being part of the “Original Ten”. At one point the club were incredibly unqiue and distinctive due to the fact their squad was entirely composed of players exclusivley from Shizuoka prefecture, focusing on homegrown and local talent. However, that is no longer the case.

Since the game turned professional in 1992, they are one of the most consistent participants in cup competitions, having made no ten final appearances: five times in the Emperor’s Cup and five times in the League Cup. Only Kashima Antlers, have made more final appearances. They have won both of these competitions once, and have also won the Japanese Super Cup twice and the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup once. Despite the club’s cup competition prowess, the J.League Division 1 title has so far eluded them.

Shimizu have always been in J1, apart from one season in 2015, where they were relegated to J2. However, they gained promotion back to the top division the year after. Since they came back into league however, they have not quite found the success or high placed finishes that they had around 10 years ago.

Last season saw S-Pulse finish the year in 16th place, their lowest ever finish in their history (minus the aforementioned relegation season). Fortuantley for Shimizu, relegation was not an option in J1 last year due to the effects of the Covid pandemic, however they certainly don’t want to be as laidback in 2021, with 4 possible relegation spots on offer. Their undeniable downfall last year was their defence. Conceding the most in the league with 70 goals scored against them in a 34 game season, which is almost conceding 2 goals every game! They only managed 4 clean sheets all year also. They did however score a respectable amount, actually bettering 2nd places Gamba Osaka with their 48 goals, compared to Gamba’s 46. Brazilian Carlinhos was their top scorer with 10 for the season, with Dutra Junior scoring 6 and Shota Kaneko scoring 5.

So far this year, Shimizu have been very busy in the transfer window. Signing an array of strikers and defenders to deal with the issues of last year. They have brought in a brazilian duo in centre forward Thiago Santana from Portugese side Santa Clara, scoring 30 goals in 35 appearances. They also brought in left back William Matheus from Coritiba FC in Brazil. Previously at J2 side Girvanz Kitakyushu, striker Akira Disaro has signed for S-Pulse who had 18 goals last year.

With all of these signings in mind, it is quite clear heading into the 2021 season that Shimizu are going to be attack oriented under new manager Miguel Ángel Lotina. Seemingly going with the principle, goals win games, which is absolutely correct. However, they must ensure that they don’t completley sacrifice their defence, otherwise a season similiar to last years may be on the cards and they may not be so lucky to survive relegation to J2.

Overall however, I feel that Shimizu have enough about them to remain in the league and finish the season in around 13/14th place. With all of this attacking power, they will certainly be an exciting side to watch.

Shonan Bellmare

Shonan Bellmare were founded 53 years ago in 1968 as Towa Real Estate SC, which was situated in Nasu, Tochigi. They recieved promotion to the JFL divison 1 in 1972. However, Towa Estate Development gave up their ownership of the club to it’s parent club which was Fujita Kogyo. Therefore they became Fujita Kogyo SC from then on and went on to win the JSL three times including two doubles with the Emperor’s Cup between 1977 and 1981. It was in 1993 however, when the team changed their name to Shonan Bellmare and had their application to the J.League accepted. But this was short lived. The club was forced to change their name to Bellmare Hiratsuka because J.League required the participants to designate only one city or town as their hometown and include its name in the club names at that time. The club initially struggled to cope with J.League opponents, finishing 11th out of 12 in the first stage of the 1994 season. However, they came back in the second stage and finished the league in 2nd place. With momentum on their side, the club won the 1994–1995 Emperor’s Cup, which helped qualify them for the 1996 Asian Cup Winners’ Cup, which they won by beating Iraq’s Al Talaba in the final. It was in 1995 that things really started to look up for the side, with Hidetoshi Nakata joining the side, alongside Brazilian Wagner Lopes and Korean Hong Myung-bo.

However once again things started to get difficult for Bellmare, as four of their players were selected for the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Which consisted of their top players, Nakata, Lopes, Hong and Kojima, leaving them weaker on the domestic front. Things went from bad to worse with main sponsor Fujita making the decision to discontinue their financial support in 1999, which forced the club to have no choice but release some highly paid players including Lopes, Hong, Nakata and Kojima. They finished bottom of J1 in 1999 and were relegated to J2.

Since then Bellmare have been on the upward trajectory. The ownership of the club was transferred to a community-owned organisation. They were allowed to fianlly change their name back to Shonan Bellmare.

Last year was an incredibly poor year for the side, finishing bottom of the league in 18th place. Fortuantley for them, relegation was taken off the cards in light of covid, meaning they were likely saved from the drop to J2. Shonan’s issues last year are seemingly down to their attack, being the lowest scoring side in the league with 29 goals. With their top goalscorer being Hiroto Nakagawa with 3 goals and has since joined J2 club, Kyoto Sanga. Defensively, they were actually better than five of the teams above them. But unfortunately defence doesn’t win games unless you score goals.

This season, I worry for Bellmare. They have spent a large part of their history in J2 with the occassional one year in J1. I don’t feel like they have enough strength or depth in the side. There isn’t anyone on the pitch that is trying to take control of games and no instrumental leader for the players to look to guide and motivate them. I don’t feel like current manager Bin Ukishima, has enough experience and charisma to boost his side. Since taking over the side in 2019, they’ve had their worst finishes to the season, minus the seasons which they were relegated. There may be a saving grace in bringing in centre forward wellington from Botafogo, who had 8 goals in 32 appearances, as well as right winger Welinton Junior from Portimonense. However, despite being 27, Welinton has moved only lasted a year at most clubs with very few appearances and not many goals. They have of course brought in some additonal signings in the form of a central midfielder, left back and wingers, but I don’t see enough from Shonan to survive relegation this year.

Tokushima Vortis

Founded in 1955 as Otsuka Pharmaceutical SC, they were first promoted to the old Japan Soccer League Division 2 in 1989. Despite the teams relative success, the pharmaceutical company owning the team were reluctant to professionalise them and forced the side to compete in the old JFL league. In 1997, they first sported a Vortis Tokushima name, but the lack of fan interest at the time forced them to go back to the corporate identity. It wasn’t until 2004 when they finally took on the name Tokushima Vortis and won the JFL. They were approved to join J.League and entered in at J2.

The first season in J2 was naturally a difficult one for Vortis, but they surprised many sceptics with their determination and quality of play. The team rose as high as fourth place, at one point, before slipping down the table later in the season to finish ninth. However since then, Vortis has been in J2, managing only one year in J1 in 2014 before being relegated back to J2.

Last season was an incredibly successful one for Tokushima. They finished the season in 1st place, earning automatic promotion to J1. In the 2020 season, Vortis scored 67 goals and conceded 33, leaving them with a 34 goal difference, which was enough to ensure they finished above fellow promotees Avispa Fukuoka who also finished 2020 on 84 points. Yuki Kakita was a key man for the side, leading the team and coming third in the league for most goals scored with 17.

Heading into this season however, they have had quite a few player departing the team, mainly strikers and attacking midfielders. They have managed to keep ahold of Kakita, however without the support and service of good talented players around him, i’m not sure he will be able to match the goal tally he achieved last year. Vortis have brought in Koki Sugimori, a midfielder from Nagoya Grampus, 21 year old brazilian Caca from Cruziero and Cristian Battocchio from Brest and previously Watford at the start of his career.

Despite these signings, I am worried for Vortis. They have lost alot of their attack and midfield and will be up against some top attacking teams in J1 which may take advantage of their inexperience in the top division as well as their fairly young defensive line. I would like to see the side survive another year in J1, but I can see them being relegated at the end of this 2021 season unfortuantley.

FC Tokyo

FC Tokyo, nicknamed the ‘Gas Men’ and originally founded 86 years ago in 1935 as Tokyo Gas SC. They were a side that didn’t arrive on the scene really until around 1991, when they were playing in the national leagues. In 1997, the Tokyo side became more competitive under new manager Kiyoshi Okuma, where he helped lead the team to finish in second place. The following year they won the JFL championship, but lacked the necessary qualifications to gain promotion to the J1 league, meaning they stayed in J2. But it was with this successive season that the Gas Men started to recieve interest from more companies and sponsors. Eventually all the interested companies across Tokyo, developed a joint company to back the club, with the aim of becoming eligible to join the J.League. In 1999 they became eligible and changed their name to FC Tokyo. They finished second in J2 and were promoted to J1. Despite people believing that the side would fail in the top division, they proved doubters wrong by winning their opening four games and finishing the 2000 season in 7th. They have played in J1 since, with only falling victim to relegation once in 2010, but were soon promoted the year after in 2011 and actually won the Emperors Cup that season also.

The illustrious J.League title has avoided them so far, with their closest chance coming in 2019 when they finished 2nd, despite topping the table for the majority of the season.

Last year, FC Tokyo would have had the same motivation and goals at 2019 to try and achieve their first J.League title. However, that dream fell short and the gas men finished 6th overall. Their season wasn’t completely without positives, as they managed to brush aside high scoring Kashiwa Reysol in the J.League Cup to be declared winners and make it trophy number 3 in that tournament. Their domestic season in J.League was okay, scoring 47 goals and conceding 42. They just lacked that little bit of vibrancy and excitement about them compared to 2019. Leandro and Diego Oliveira were the sides top scorers last year with 9 goals each.

Heading into this season, FC Tokyo have done well to keep ahold of the majority of their core team and are strong contenders I feel this season for a title challenge. Although I don’t feel that they will finish first, a good domestic run will be a boost for the club, who no doubt have their eyes on a ACL position and will hope to collect the J.League Cup for a second year in a row. Keeping Leandro, Oliveria and Adailton (who had 8 goals last year) is a huge bonus for the side, who look incredibly strong in attack. They’ve been smart during the offseason bringing in depth signings and looking to solidify their defence by bringing in the likes of Takuya Aoki, a defensive midfielder for Urawa Reds and centre back Bruno Avini from free agency. Manager Kenta Hasegawa, should certainly be a confident and happy man heading into the season.

Urawa Red Diamonds

Urawa Red Diamonds, arguably one of Japan’s most supported teams, with a large and passionate fanbase (which has occasionally been guilty of making some…outlandish and poor decisions at times). They were founded 71 years ago in 1950 as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries SC (Later named Mitsubishi Urawa) in Kobe before moving to Tokyo in 1958. In 1965 it formed the Japan Soccer League (JSL) along with today’s JEF United Chiba, Kashiwa Reysol, Cerezo Osaka, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and other clubs to become part of what was known as ‘The Original Eight’. Mitsubishi first won the JSL championship in 1969 and spent a long run in the top division up until the 1980’s. Mitsubishi were the first Japanese club to complete a domestic treble, when in 1978 they won the title, the Emperor’s Cup and the Japan Soccer League Cup. However, despite these successes they were relegated to the Second Division in the 80’s. The fall didn’t last long and they were soon promoted as JSL Division 2 champions in 1990, meaning they were ready and able to join the newly formed J.League. The side then dropped the name Mitsubishi and became Urawa Red Diamonds (Diamonds being a nod to Mitsubishi due to diamond shape of their logo) and they became part of the ‘Original Ten’ in joining the J.League in 1993. During this time, they also moved from being based in Tokyo to Urawa in Saitama Prefecture.

Their honours include, winning the J1 once in 2006, Asian Champions League twice in 2007 and 2017, J.League Cup twice in 2003 and 2016 and the Emperor’s Cup seven times in 1971, 1973, 1978, 1980, 2005, 2006 and 2018.

Despite their high finishes in the early years of the 2010’s, things have slightly fallen for the Red Devils in seasons of late. with last year being no exception, finishing 2020 in 10th place and not making much progress in cup stages. Urawa’s downfall last year was their defence, conceding 56 goals which is similar to what teams 8 places lower than them had. Their attack was slightly better with 43 goals scored. Both stats are not good enough for a team like Urawa. They finished their last 5 games of the season without a win. Their two centre forwards, Leonardo and Shinzo Koroki provided the majority of the attack, scoring 11 and 10 goals respectivley. However, since the end of 2020 season, Leonardo has been picked up Chinese Super League side Shandong Taishan F.C.

This season Urawa must look to improve on their defence. They have already brought in the likes of J.League veteran Daigo Nishi from Vissel Kobe in right back, and Daiki Kaneko from Shonan in defensive midfield to try and solidfy that back line. But even with bringing those two in, the defence is still shakey, particuarly with Thomas Deng out injured at the moment. There is also still the issue with the attack. They have not replaced Leonardo’s loss and Koroki who had 10 goals last season, is currently out injured. The Diamonds have brought in attacking midfielder Tatsuya Tanaka from Oita Trinita, but that won’t be enough if they haven’t got key strikers leading the line.

Urawa are too good of a team to find themselves towards the bottom of the table or even in a relegation spot. But i do worry for them in terms of where their goals are going to come from and how they will manage defensively. Despite coming into the club in 2019, I feel that Tsuyoshi Otsukin is not the type of manager who can turn things around at Urawa. Since he took over at the helm, Urawa have gone from finishing 5th in 2018, to 14th in 2019 and 10th in 2020. If things don’t start to improve for the side heading into this season, then i do feel like a change may be imminent and might just be what the side needs. That being said, their transfer window has been poor and Otsuki does not have much to work with in terms of a squad.

Vegalta Sendai

Founded in 1988 as Tohoku Electric Power Soccer Club. It was in 1999 when Vegalta joined the J.League after playing in the then named Japan Football League. When joining the J.League, the name Vegalta was chosen as recognition to the famous Tanabata festival in Sendai. With the names of the two celestial stars of the Tanabata legend, Vega and Altair being combined to form Vegalta.

They were first promoted to the top flight in 2002, but went back down the following season. They were promoted again for the 2010 season.

In 2011, despite a year which was ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami, Sendai achieved their highest position finish in J1, ending the season in 4th place. Things looked even better the following year in 2012, as Vegalta lead the table for the majority of the season. However, they fell short to Sanfrecce Hiroshima as they proved too strong. Unfortunately with an opportunity to seal the league, the side lost the penultimate game of the season to relegation battler Albirex Niigata. This loss cost them the title. Finishing the 2012 season in 2nd, their highest position in history.

Last season, Sendai finished 17th in the league out of a possible 18. Had this been a regular season that was unaffected by covid, there would have been a large possibility of Vegalta behind relegated. They scored just 36 goals across the 34 game season, 2nd worst in the league after bottom placed Shonan. They also conceded 61 goals across the season, once again 2nd worst in the league. Leaving them finishing the year with a -25 goal difference, which was the worst in the league.

So with nothing going right for the side at both ends of the pitch, it’s hard to be hopeful for Vegalta to turn this around any time soon. As mentioned throughout this preview, there are 4 possible relegation spots this year, leaving them even more vulnerable to drop back to J2 after 11 years in the top division. Particularly given the fact, that there are a lot of quality teams in J2 at the moment all vying for promotion.

However, I don’t want to be all doom and gloom on Sendai. The Miyagi side have just this month appointed Makoto Teguramori as their manager for this upcoming season. Previously manager at V-Varen Nagasaki, who looked favourites to gain promotion last year under Teguramori. But, ultimately fell just short on the final day and finished the season in 3rd, just four points short of automatic promotion. A big rise, compared to their 12th place finish the season before.

As well as bringing in Teguramori, they have also brought in various signings across the pitch. Firstly they have brought in 24 year old striker Takuma Nishimura on a permanent basis, after being with the side on season last year and originally with Vegalta back between 2015-2018. Since then he joined CSKA Moscow, where he scored 2 in 17 appearances. He had 3 goals last year for Vegalta when he was on loan in 20 appearances. I find the signing questionable, when it’s clear Vegalta need goals but perhaps Makoto can get the best out of him. Which may well be why the club have brought in two wingers in the form of Quenten Martinus, previously at Urawa Reds and Emmanuel Oti, previously at Portuguese side, Vizela. But they also brought another striker in Yusuke Minagawa from Yokohama FC. Who again is a questionable signing, when he only played 15 times in his two years with club, scoring no goals.

Vegalta have brought in some defenders during the offseason, mainly from J2 and J3 teams as well as some youth players from university sides. One acquisition was Yosuke Akiyama, a left back from Nagoya Grampus. But despite the signings that they have made, I can’t help but feel that this is the year that Vegalta return to J2. Their issues last year were with their attack and defence, and with the signings they’ve made, I don’t think there is enough there to make a difference for them. Unless Teguramori can somehow work some magic. I feel that fans would be happy just to survive relegation this year.

Vissel Kobe

Vissel Kobe, nickanmed the ‘Ushi’ or in english, the cows, are a side which were founded 55 years ago in 1966. When it was first founded the team was a semi-professional Kawasaki Steel Soccer Club in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. They were promoted to the then named Japan Soccer League Division 2 in 1986 and remained there until the league folded in 1992.

In 1995, the city of Kobe reached an agreement with Kawasaki Steel, who were the teams company and sponsor, to move the club to Kobe and compete for a spot in the professional J.League as Vissel Kobe. Which they did, relocating the team from Kurashiki to Kobe and joining the J.League and J1 in 1997.

Vissel is a combination of the words “victory” and “vessel”, which is a nod to Kobe’s history as a port city.

Minus two seasons in 2006 and 2013, Vissel have always been in J1 but have always had the illustrous title avoid them. They are a team that have finished most seasons around midtable and lower, with last year being no exception, finishing 14th. This finish is however, Kobe’s lowest in 8 years, when they finished 16th in 2012, which saw them relegated to J2.

Most people might have heard of Vissel Kobe due to have former premier league and la liga stars in the form of Lukas Podolski, David Villa, Thomas Vermaelen and Andres Iniesta, with the last two actually still at the club and playing well.

Like other teams in the league, goals aren’t necessarily an issue for Vissel, scoring 50 goals across the season. The 5th highest in the league, with 26 year old Kyogo Furuhashi scoring 12. However, similarly to other teams around them, they are conceding more than they score which is one of the reason’s they finished as low as 14th last year. Their form in finshing the year was quite poor, losing their last 5 and conceding 9. However, they did have to contend with Asian Champions League football as well in what was already a hectic and busy schedule due to the pandemic. *Side note – Teams that win the Emperors Cup qualify for ACL football regardless of their league finish*

This season I would expect Kobe to finish higher than 14th, possibly around the 10th/11th mark. They have managed to keep the majority of their attack from last year and have added a new addition in 20 year old centre forward Lincoln, from Flamengo. They have also added, Shion Inoue who is a midfielder from Tokyo Verdy and Nagisa Sakurauchi from Jublio Iwata. They have however lost alot of key players in their defence such as, Daigo Nishi, Dankler and Hirofumi Watanabe. So Kobe will be an interesting side to watch

Yokohama FC

Yokohama FC, a team that have very much risen from the ashes. Despite only being founded 22 years ago, their history techincally dates further back from that and there is a reason that the derby between Yokohama FC and Yokohama F Marinos, is one of the most hotly contested in Japan.

You see, before Yokohama FC, there was a club called Yokohama Flugels, who were arguabably one of the best in Japan. The Flugels were sponsored by two companies Sato Labs and ANA. However, in 1998 Sato Labs announced that it was pulling its financial support of the team and rather than dissolving the club, Sato Clubs met with the sponsor of crosstown rivals, Nissan Motors. It was then when Sato Labs and Nissan Motors met, that they decided that Yokohama Flugels would merge with Yokohama Marinos. Hence the reason why today they are called Yokohama F Marinos. However, the fans of Yokohama Flugels were furious and upset with this decision, so they refused to follow the team merging with their rivals. Instead, the fans created their own club called Yokohama FC in 1999 and became the first supporter-owned professional sports team in Japan.

Since joining J.League in 2001, Yokohama FC have spent the majority of their time in the second division (J2). The club gained promotion to J1 for the 2007 season, but were immediately relegated the following season. After twelve years in the J2 League, they returned to the top flight in the 2020 season, earning promotion the previous year.

In their first year back in J1 the Fulie finished in 15th place. Fortuantley for them, it was a season without pressure, due to the fact the league removed relegation for the season because of the covid-19 pandemic. The side were incredibly poor defensively, conceding 60 goals and only scoring 38 teams in a 34 game season.

Many people may know of Yokohama FC due to having 54 year old (yes you read that right) Kazuyoshi Miura, otherwise known as King Kazu playing for the side. Kazu shows no signs of stopping either, although he may not quite be the player he was 10/20 years ago. Used mainly as a subsistiute these days, he may not have the pace and speed to keep up with players around him. But, he certainly still has the skill and eye for goal when he gets the chance. Although this didn’t happen last year. Their top scorer last year was actually Masakazu Tashiro who is a centre back and managed 4 goals for his side!

Koki Saito was a player who shone in the side and had received interest from Europe during the 2020 season, including Barcelona. However during the offseason, Saito was sold to Belgian Proximus side (second tier) Lommel SK

For this upcoming season I do worry about Yokohama FC. There are four relegation spots this year and with the side struggling last year to find goals and keep them out, I’m not sure if they have it in them to stay another year in J1. They have brought in goalkeeper Yuji Rokutan from Shimizu S-Pulse, forward Kazuma Watanabe from Gamba, striker Sho Ito from Kashima and another forward in Cleve Kleber from JEF Chiba. It is clear that they are trying to focus on their attack this year, but defensivley I can see them struggling and wonder where they will get results from. Given their history and story however, I would love to see them become a strong J1 side.

Yokohama F Marinos

Yokohama F Marinos. If you want to know why they have the F in their name, then read the Yokohama FC preview above.

Founded 49 years ago in 1972, they are one of the most successful J-League clubs. They have won the J.League title four times and finished second twice. They have also won the Emperors Cup twice in 1992 and 2013 and J.League Cup once in 2001.

The team is based in Yokohama and was founded as the company team of Nissan Motor. The club was formed by the merger of Yokohama Marinos and Yokohama Flügels in 1999. The current name is intended to reflect both Marinos and Flügels. Yokohama F. Marinos is the longest serving team in the top flight of Japanese football, having played at the top level since 1982, also making them, along with Kashima Antlers, one of only two teams to have competed in Japan’s top flight of football every year since its inception.

The Mariners have always been in J1 since the J.Leagues inception and have finished usually in the top half of the table. Last year found them in a disappointing 9th, especially considering they won the league the year before. Goals weren’t an issue for the side, scoring 69 in their 34 games. However, they were incredibly poor defensivley, conceding 59. Junior Santos and Erik had 13 goals each for Yokohama FM, but have since left the club to either return to their parents clubs or move elsewhere. However, a player who has stayed and was a key man for them is Marcos Junior who scored 11 last season.

They have brought in forward Daizen Maeda and left winger Elber in order to fill the gaps left by Dantos and Erik, but have also added depth in the defence by bringing in Tomoki Iwata from Oita Trinita amongst a few other signing from J1 and J2 teams.

With finishing 9th last year, the tricolours will be looking forward into this season to improve on that and be title contenders once again. Some people do have questions marks over manager Ange Postecoglou’s style. However, it clearly worked when he took over the side in 2018 after leaving his role as Australia Manager, as he led Marinos to winning the title the following year.

Whilst I don’t think they will win the league, I certainly would expect them to finish higher this season and to try and pick up some silverware in the form of one of national cups.

Where to watch

Fortunately with each passing year J-League is getting more and more coverage. FreeSportsTV based in the UK regularly show games on a weekend with English commentary. If you’re unable to get FreeSportsTV, there is also the J-League’s official YouTube channel (https://youtube.com/c/JLEAGUEInternational) which shows both J1 and J2 games each weekend live, but do have Japanese commentary (personally I prefer it). They are also very quick with adding on highlights for games you may have missed on their channel.

Bet365 also show J-League games on their betting website and app. However they feature no commentary.

Additional information

If you’re interested in learning more about J-League, then I can’t recommend the following enough:

The J-Talk podcast – A English speaking podcast which provides hugely in depth analysis of games, previews, reviews, transfer talk and interviewed several times a week. The podcast covers all J1 League games, however there is also a J2 and J3 section called: J-Talk Extra Time which covers the same and is English speaking. The guys on the show are incredibly talented, knowledgable and friendly. So be sure to check them out on twitter and naturally on their podcast (https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-j-talk-podcast/id682488425)

Published by Charlotte Patterson

25 | #SAFC and #OCSC | Football Enthusiast | Asian Football Writer for @footballCFB ⚽️

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