Pulse Check: The J1 League 2020 Wrap-Up

By Justin Bodanac

It’s been a J1 season like no other – no goal-line technology, no VAR, no relegation, a five-month hiatus, 33 rounds across 25 weeks, league-wide coronavirus testing, a tangle of rescheduled fixtures, the welcome return of fans to stadiums and records broken at both ends of the pitch. Given the intense level of additional scrutiny and the narrow timeframe for completion, it is a huge accomplishment by the Japan Football Association, the clubs and the fans that the season managed to run its course and with such success. It’s time to take stock and assess how each club fared across 2020.

The Top

Kawasaki Frontale (1st – 83 points)

From the restart in July, Toru Oniki’s side were simply on another planet. Frontale used the five substitutions rule as a launch pad for a blistering onslaught of offensive football the likes of which the league has never seen before. Blessed with a raft of attacking options, Oniki was able to employ a 4-3-3 of rotating personnel and overwhelm opponents on a weekly basis, sealing Frontale’s third title in four seasons. To nab the title by thrashing second-placed Gamba Osaka 5-0 speaks volumes to the distance between Frontale and the rest of the league: a record 83-point haul, 18 individual goal scorers for 88 goals scored, a goal difference of +57 and four players within the league’s top ten scorers for 2020. These were real-life Manager Mode numbers. It was precise, dynamic, thrilling and relentless in equal measure. It was also a stunning farewell for one-club legend Kengo Nakamura, who retired aged 40 after 18 seasons, 533 games and 81 goals for the club. All the more incredible that he did so after rupturing his ACL in November 2019. Although it’s possible to fill an entire a team sheet with outstanding player nominations this season (Yu Kobayashi, Leandro Damião, Akihiro Ienaga, Reo Hatate, Miki Yamane et al.), nobody caught the eye quite like 23-year-old Kaoru Mitoma. The inverted left-winger shone consistently – whether starting or off the bench – to notch 13 goals and a league-leading 12 assists (the most G/A contributions for Frontale this season). He capped off a stunning season by scoring the only goal of the Emperor’s Cup final against Gamba Osaka on New Year’s Day – handing Frontale their first ever Double. With their blueprint for domination sorted, the natural progression is surely a committed tilt at the 2021 AFC Champions League. It would be a challenge to find a better team in Asia right now and Frontale fans have every right to look forward the next chapter.



Gamba Osaka (2nd – 65 points)

If Kawasaki Frontale achieved the title in unequivocal fashion, Gamba Osaka took second spot in an entirely different way – with a 0-2 loss to lowly Shimizu S-Pulse on the final day. Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s side looked like a statistical anomaly – a goal difference of only +4, they conceded 14 more goals than third-placed Nagoya, while scoring only one more. Brazilian striker and leading scorer Patric only bagged nine goals for the entire league campaign and yet their methods prevailed above all except arguably the greatest team in J1 history. Gamba had a knack for winning by narrow margins while losing by a lot, proving that context is everything when looking at the aforementioned stats. Perhaps their secret weapon was their exceptional away form with a league-best 12 wins on the road. Gamba took outright second spot almost without anyone noticing – it will be fascinating to see what they can do in the AFC Champions League next season away from home.

Nagoya Grampus (3rd – 63 points)

It’s hard to overstate what Nagoya Grampus has achieved in one season under Italian manager Massimo Ficcadenti. Nagoya survived last season under Yahiro Kazama by the skin of their teeth – one point above the relegation play-off spot, having conceded 50 goals. Ficcadenti has turned Nagoya into the league’s best defensive unit, with just 28 goals conceded and Aussie goalkeeper Mitch Langerak setting a new league record for most clean sheets in a season (17). Langerak and the central-defensive pairing of Shinnosuke Nakatani and Yuichi Maruyama played every minute of the season, forming an excellent understanding at the back. While Nagoya’s defensive performance was an outstanding achievement in its own right, the emergence of 26-year-old Brazilian winger Mateus as the creative fulcrum of the side was equally important. After spending last season on loan at Yokohama F. Marinos (making just eleven appearances), the left-footed winger shone this season bombing down both flanks, curling in exceptional crosses and free kicks, and leading the club in assists (eight) and goals (nine). The one area that Ficcadenti may need to address before the 2021 league/AFC Champions League tilt is the potency of the front three of Mu Kanazaki, Naoki Maeda and Gabriel Xavier, with Nagoya only twelfth in the league overall for goals scored.

Side Note: Nagoya’s 1-0 victory over champions Kawasaki Frontale in August included a clear and obvious goal for Frontale that was overlooked, as the linesman judged that the ball did not cross the goal line (although it did by quite a margin). One of the most tangible examples of how no technological assistance can have huge ramifications on the pitch. VAR and goal-line technology will be returning for the 2021 campaign.

Mitch Langerak for Nagoya Grampus

Cerezo Osaka (4th – 60 points)

Towards the end of October, Cerezo looked likely to have automatic AFC Champions League qualification sewn up. Yet Spaniard Miguel Ángel Lotina’s side managed to win just three of its final ten games – including losses to lowly Shimizu S-Pulse and Sagan Tosu – missing out on the final automatic slot to Nagoya by three points. It was a bitterly disappointing end for a side that played economic football to maximum effect so well earlier in the season. Captain Hiroshi Kiyotake led by example all season as the heartbeat of the squad (eight goals, eight assists), but leading goal-scorer Bruno Mendes’ omission for five of those final ten games due to a calf injury no doubt had a major impact on form. In encouraging signs for the future, 20-year-old defender Ayumu Seko won the J1 Best Young Player award; the first Cerezo player to do so since Takumi Minamino in 2013. But Cerezo’s studied brand of football was perhaps too restrained during times that key personnel weren’t available – and in light of the recent news that Lotina will be managing S-Pulse next season, the executive board might agree. Cerezo however received a welcome lifeline on New Year’s Day – Kawasaki Frontale’s Emperor’s Cup final victory has re-shuffled the card deck and opened a slot for Cerezo in the upcoming AFC Champions League qualification rounds. Kiyotake & Co. will no doubt do everything they can to make it count.

5. Kashima Antlers (5th – 59 points)

For the J-League’s most successful and storied club, a fifth-placed finish is an undoubted disappointment. That they could have achieved third place on the final day makes it even more agonising for Kashima supporters. But this must be tempered with the knowledge that Antônio Carlos Zago’s side started the season in their worst form in history – and their turn-around must be viewed as no small achievement. 29-year-old Brazilian striker Everaldo proved the spark that reignited their season, playing with genuine panache and becoming the second-highest scorer in the league with 18 goals. Kashima’s supporting cast of Ayase Ueda, Shoma Doe and Juan Alano also all made meaningful goal/assist contributions. While they may spend the off-season with the gnawing feeling that they should have done better, expect them to start on the front foot come the beginning of the next season in late February.

Kashima top-scorer Everaldo

FC Tokyo (6th – 57 points)

Kenta Hasegawa’s side ran hot and cold all season – peppering wins against top teams with disappointing losses against the bottom half. The club’s form was intrinsically linked to its Brazilian triumvirate of Leandro, Diego Oliveira and Adailton – and while they were the club’s three highest scorers, none cracked double digits. Hasegawa may need to find a way to wean his side off the form fluctuations of his foreign imports. Leandro was no doubt the standout performer for the club, offering creativity for surrounding teammates and posing a substantial goal threat (nine goals, five assists), but Oliveira and Adailton are both 30 years old and starting to show their age. AFC Champions League qualification would have been the aim for Tokyo but that possibility was well out of their control before season’s end. Still, FC Tokyo can take pride and encouragement in their 2-1 victory over Kashiwa Reysol in the Levain Cup final on 4th January this year – their first trophy in nine years.

The Middle

Kashiwa Reysol (7th – 52 points)

Nelsinho Baptista’s new boys can be highly commended for returning to the top flight in storming fashion and sustaining a high level throughout their campaign. But the headlines were deservedly all about one man – league MVP and league top scorer Michael Olunga. The 26-year-old Kenyan striker was simply a level above the competition, netting 28 times and guiding his team to a very respectable seventh. At 193 centimetres, he cut an imposing figure in the air and his run allowed him to play off the shoulder of the last defender with ease. But it was his economy of movement in the box combined with his ruthless efficiency in front of goal that proved such a successful combination. His ability to receive the ball under pressure and within two paces create an acre of space to shoot was unlike any other player in the league. Credit must also go to Ataru Esaka (nine goals, ten assists) for consistently supplying him with opportunities from midfield. Their loss to FC Tokyo in the Levain Cup final will sting and had Kashiwa not let so many teams back into the contest in the second half of games, they may have gone on to even greater heights this season. Furthermore, Olunga’s unexpected and extremely surprising switch to Qatari-based club Al Duhail SC just days ago has created a major headache for Baptista – who must now figure out how to replace the irreplaceable with only six weeks to go before kick-off.

League MVP and top-scorer Michael Olunga.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima (8th – 48 points)

It was a discouraging end to an inadequate season for Sanfrecce. Going winless in their last five games illustrated just how much their fortunes have changed since the glory days under Hajime Moriyasu, when they won the 2012, 2013 and 2015 J1 titles. Since his departure in 2017, Sanfrecce has struggled for consistency; firstly under Swede Jan Jönsson and now Hiroshi Jofuku. Brazilian striker Leandro Periera’s 15 goals made him the third-highest scorer in the J1– and Sanfrecce scored AND conceded the exact same numbers as fourth-placed Cerezo Osaka – but it was a case of too many draws and not enough wins. As a spectacle, the football was decidedly mid-table. Locking Periera down to a permanent deal from loanee club Matsumoto Yamaga has been a good start to the break, but Jofuku’s squad will need to find a greater edge to get back to the top.

Yokohama F. Marinos (9th – 47 points)

This was not in the plan. When Australian coach Ange Postecoglou was asked about his intentions after winning the 2019 J1 title, his immediate response was to defend it in a repeat the following season. But the tightly-packed 2020 schedule caught the Marinos cold – winning only three of their first ten games. From there – especially against the likes of a flawless Kawasaki Frontale – the title was all but gone. Marinos looked tired, lacked sharpness and perhaps had lost some of the hunger from the previous campaign. By the time Postecoglou got them ticking over late in the year, it was their run in the AFC Champions League that looked like a potential saving grace. But an exit in the Round of 16 to Korean outfit Suwon Bluewings (who would be relegated from the K1 League) put paid to that. For all their faults, the Marinos were second for goals scored this season – Brazilians Erik, Junior Santos and Marcos Junior all reaching double figures, with Kota Mizunuma totalling ten assists. But their defensive frailties were abundant – only three teams shipped more goals. A late season collapse – losing five of their last six matches – extinguished any slim hopes of a revival. It was a disastrous season to forget for a club that initially had aimed so high.

Ange with his struggling Marinos side.

Urawa Reds (10th – 46 points)

Coach Tsuyoshi Ōtsuki’s immediate departure at the end of this season is all the indication you need that the Urawa Reds executive board expected more from this campaign. After making the AFC Champions League final in 2019, prospects for 2020 were hopeful. 23 year-old Brazilian Leonardo was recruited from J2 outfit Albirex Niigata after scoring 28 goals the previous season. Aussie Thomas Deng also came into the defensive line from Melbourne Victory. Leonardo notched 11 goals in a commendable first season, but rarely played anywhere near 90 minutes and could at times cut a remonstrative or sulky figure. 34 year-old stalwart Shinzo Koroku also acquitted himself with ten goals but again played in a limited capacity. Urawa never seemed to acclimatise to the increased workload of the 2020 season – goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa was the only constant in the match day squad. One win in their last nine games all but sealed Ōtsuki’s fate as coach. He will be replaced by Spaniard Ricardo Rodriguez, who just guided Tokushima Vortis to the 2020 J2 title.

Ōita Trinita (11th – 43 points)

One club’s failure is another’s success. While some of the clubs above and below would consider mid-table to be a disaster, Ōita can be proud to have punched above their weight for two seasons running. With no South American/Brazilian imports on the books (unlike every other club in the league), Tomohiro Katanosaka’s side performed gallantly on limited resources. Ōita kept it together despite their meagre returns in front of goal (only Vegalta Sendai and Shonan Bellmare scored less) and ground out results with commendable defensive performances week after week. It was workmanlike – perhaps to a fault – but it was effective. Main outlets Tatsuya Tanaka and Yuya Takazawa scored just eight and six goals respectively. A strong run in September (winning five of six matches) all but assured them of avoiding the bottom three, while going unbeaten in their last four games of the season capped off a tough but admirable campaign.

Consadole Sapporo  (12th – 39 points)

Architects of their own special brand of chaos, Consadole Sapporo were an imminently watchable yoyo side this season. As prone to surge forward on a sniff as they were to commit a defensive catastrophe, Serbian Coach Mihailo Petrović’s squad played right on the edge of logical sense – great for neutrals, but a nightmare for fans. Brazilian striker Anderson Lopez and English veteran Jay Bothroyd were serviceable considering their limited game time, combining for 14 goals. Brazilian midfielder Lucas Fernandes and Thai winger Chanathip Songkrasin were the main outlets for supply with 12 assists between them. But the sheer lack of defensive awareness, coupled with goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno’s lust for high-risk situations, meant that the meagre productivity upfront was no match for the opportunities they gave opposing sides. Petrović – the 2018 J1 Coach of the Year – has now been coaching in Japan for fourteen seasons with various levels of success. Perhaps a younger less established coach would not have been afforded the same freedoms he has enjoyed this season.

The Bottom

Sagan Tosu (13th – 36 points)

New manager, same result. Sagan Tosu seems firmly rooted to this area of the table regardless of what it does. Whether it was the failed Fernando Torres experiment of 2018/19, or switching out former coach Massimo Ficcadenti for North Korean Myung Hwi Kim, nothing much seems to change – the same number of points as last season, albeit two rungs higher on the table. A lack of creativity up front seems to be the biggest issue for which Kim needs to solve before next season. An established striker or playmaker to help out 23-year-old super-sub Daichi Hayashi (nine goals mostly off the bench) might be the missing ingredient to take them out of their current long-term malaise.

14. Vissel Kobe (14th – 36 points)

Some teams over-perform on meagre resources. Vissel Kobe has created grand theatre out of the exact opposite – abject failure in the league despite owner Rakuten pumping in rivers of cash. Last year it was revealed that Kobe’s average player wage was 300% more than its nearest rival, with the vast majority of the league falling even further behind that figure. Perhaps Rakuten looks at it as a simple advertising exercise – forging sponsorship links with Barcelona in the process, expanding its profile worldwide, and creating a place for former Barça players to spend their twilight years basking in a new kind of adoration. But surely by now it’s all beginning to stink just a bit. Captain and star man Andres Iniesta had an injury-plagued season (four goals, six assists). 25-year-old forward Kyogo Furuhashi provided some solace with a return of 12 goals and five assists. But it was underperformance across the board. German manager Thorsten Fink fell on his sword in September and was replaced by former player and sporting director Atsuhiro Miura. After three wins on the trot it all fell apart and Kobe limped to the end of the season with 1W 1D and 8L in their last ten league matches. Crashing out to Korean side Ulsan Hyundai FC in the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League in mid-December was the only thing that could be considered a highlight in an otherwise damning campaign. Iniesta is currently recovering from surgery on his right leg after picking up a knock in the AFC Champions League, so will almost certainly miss the start of the 2021 season. Miura has six weeks to figure out how to make this side tick without him.

Andres Iniesta for Vissel Kobe.

Yokohama FC (15th – 33 points)

After a 12-year absence from top-flight football, Yokohama FC came back to the J1 and just managed to acquit itself on extremely limited resources. Football fans in the port city were buzzing at the concept of experiencing a top flight Yokohama Derby after so many years of fluctuating fortunes for its clubs – rewarding fans with a victory apiece. But the main talking point all season long was the continued and sustained career of 53-year-old legend Kazuyoshi Miura aka. King Kazu – the oldest J1 player ever with 763 professional career matches across thirty seasons and four countries. In truth, King Kazu played about 70 minutes across four appearances in the league, but social media ensured he was front-and-centre of the narrative. He even managed to overshadow the fact that 42-year-old Celtic legend Shunsuke Nakamura still plays semi-regular football for the club by recently signing a one-year contract extension. But with little to offer up front, a vulnerable defence at the back and 19-year-old standout forward Koki Saito off to Belgian club Lommel, it will be hard work for Yokohama to remain in the top tier beyond next season.

16. Shimizu S-Pulse (16th – 28 points)

Shimizu S-Pulse finished above Nagoya Grampus last season. That statement alone my not sound too shocking until you realise just how different their fortunes became over the 2020 campaign. Australian coach and Ange Postecoglou protégé Peter Cklamovski took the reigns in his first senior manager gig, with the hope that the 2019 magic of Ange-ball could be applied to a lesser side with a more limited transfer policy. With only three wins from his 25 games in charge, it became clear that wasn’t going to be the case. Cklamovski and S-Pulse diplomatically parted ways in November and aside from Brazilian forward Carlinhos (ten goals) and midfielder Kenta Nishizawa (ten assists) it was all pretty dire – especially defensively. S-Pulse conceded 70 times in the league – more goals than anyone else by a long stretch – at times looking more porous than a row of sea sponges. Which is why it makes sense that ex-Cerezo manager Miguel Ángel Lotina will be taking over for the 2021 campaign. The defensively astute coach’s first port of call with be shoring up the backline – and with Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda already announced on loan from Portuguese club Portimonense, it looks like the wheels are in motion.

Cklamovski in happier times.

Vegalta Sendai (17th – 28 points)

In perhaps the most unintentionally stinging criticism that could be levelled at any club, it was easy to forget Vegalta Sendai even played in the J1 this past season. No wins at home all season and a 17-game winless run from August to November. Coach Takashi Kiyama – who had decent success in the J2 with Ehime FC and Montedio Yamagata – has already departed and will be replaced by former manager and fan favourite Makoto Teguramori, who previously led them to a second-placed finish in 2012. All involved will be hoping for a return to the good old days.

Shonan Bellmare (18th – 27 points)

Shonan Bellmare gave the early impression that they were an unlucky if cavalier side in 2020. Upon reflection, it’s clear that this side has in fact been incredibly lucky to avoid the drop for five seasons running. This time, the lack of actual relegation was the saving factor. Defensively, Bellmare were not the disaster their position suggests, conceding 48 goals – 11th in the league. It was their league-worst attack that undid them time and time again. Norwegian forward Tarik Elyounoussi was an unmitigated disaster – scoring one goal all season. Prone to go on multiple extended winless runs throughout the season, Bin Ukishima’s side were granted a reprieve by the chaos of the pandemic and have it all to do to prove they belong in the top tier in 2021.

J1 LEAGUE TABLE

(19/12/2020)

#ClubMWDLPts
1Kawasaki F.34265383
2G. Osaka34205965
3Nagoya G.34196963
4C. Osaka341861060
5Kashima A.341851159
6FC Tokyo341761157
7Kashiwa R.341571252
8S. Hiroshima341391248
9Yokohama F.M.341451547
10Urawa R.341371446
11Oita T.3411101343
12C. Sapporo341091539
13S. Tosu347151236
14V. Kobe34991636
15Yokohama FC34961933
16Shimizu S-P34772028
17V. Sendai346101828
18Shonan B.34691927

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