Nagoya Grampus’ challenge for the J. League title last season may have come as a shock to most observers, but manager Dragan Stojkovic insists he saw it coming all along.
Grampus was one of the J. League’s original members, but the club had become synonymous with underachievement over the years with only two Emperor’s Cup titles to show for all its financial muscle and big-name arrivals.
Not much looked set to change when Stojkovic took the helm at the start of last season, despite his pedigree as one of the best players ever to grace the league. The Serbian was embarking on his first managerial assignment, and talent looked sparse on a squad that had just lost star midfielder Keisuke Honda to the Netherlands and was coming off the back of yet another mediocre campaign.
But Grampus confounded its naysayers with a deserved 2-0 win over Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium on the second week of the season, and took its title challenge all the way to the final day before eventually settling for third place and an Asian Champions League berth.
While onlookers scratched their heads, Stojkovic looked satisfied that his methods were taking root.
“I was not surprised because I believe in my work and I believe in my philosophy,” he said. “My target was to make Grampus a well-organized team that plays well defensively and offensively.
“I am not here to promise anything. I can’t promise results, but I can say that my team will play attacking football, modern football. Most people were surprised to see Grampus fighting for the title, but watching from the start it was not a surprise for me.”
Tactical discipline and crisp movement were the hallmarks of Grampus’ play last year, and Stojkovic intends to carry on in the same vein once the new season gets under way on Saturday.
“We really enjoyed last year with our style,” he said. “We played attacking football and I think it was a success that we made it into the Asian Champion League and we played to the last game for the title.
“Now we want to continue with our style. We don’t want to watch the back, we want to watch the front. And I believe we have the talent to go forward.”
The manager’s squad has been bolstered by the arrival of striker Davi, who hit 16 goals last term for a Consadole Sapporo side that was relegated months before the end of the season.
The Brazilian should form an explosive partnership up front with Keiji Tamada, creating a different dynamic to the aerial power Frode Johnsen brought to the Grampus attack last year.
Stojkovic is unconcerned at losing the Norwegian to Shimizu S-Pulse, insisting that Davi can help the team cut a more incisive route toward goal.
“Davi is a player who is 24, and we needed someone who is able to penetrate any time,” he said. “We were not able to score last season. Five games in a row we had draws.
“It was a massive advantage for Kashima, and this was the main problem. To win or to draw is a really big difference, and I hope Davi can help this.”
Success, however, also brings new tests for Stojkovic’s fledging managerial skills. Participation in the ACL means he will have to juggle his squad to satisfy increased demands, but the manager is happy to cross that bridge when he comes to it.
“People talk about our schedule but I don’t have the power to change our schedule,” he said. “My job is to always put the best 11 players on the pitch.
“I have to care about the balance of the team, and the rotation will come. That is something that is necessary. I am not so crazy that I would only use 11 players. This is my job and I will do my job to put out the best 11 players at that moment.”