Urawa Reds manager Volker Finke could barely conceal his disbelief at reaching the season’s halfway mark on 34 points. But with his team stuck on the same tally one month and three straight defeats later, the German’s caution seems well founded.
An oppressive haze of deja vu has settled around Saitama Stadium along with the summer heat, and what was billed as a rebuilding year to set the former champions back on the right track is beginning to look like one step further into the wilderness.
Losses to rock-bottom Oita Trinita, Shimizu S-Pulse and a 3-0 home hiding by Nagoya Grampus suggests Urawa’s excellent start to the season was merely smoke and mirrors. The suspicion remains that unless money is spent, things will get worse before they get better.
Reds finished a disastrous 2008 in sixth place, and with no new signings over the offseason, Finke’s reputation for nurturing young players during his time at Freiburg made him an attractive choice to usher in a new generation.
The campaign got off to a promising start with teenagers Naoki Yamada and Genki Haraguchi immediately promoted to the first team, and Finke’s tough preseason training regimen helped revitalize underperforming players such as Robson Ponte, Naohiro Takahara and Keita Suzuki.
But in the absence of any transfer activity, Finke has had to be creative. Midfielders Hajime Hosogai and Nobuhisa Yamada have filled the fullback positions, while a fresh batch of youngsters has been elevated from the youth ranks.
As the season has progressed, however, the limitations of this parsimonious approach have been exposed. While Haraguchi and the outstanding Yamada have had little trouble making the step up, their young teammates have looked out of their depth.
Takuya Nagata was given the run-around on his debut against Vissel Kobe in June, while Shunki Takahashi endured such a torrid time against Grampus that he was substituted after little more than half an hour.
Of course it is too much to expect all young players to fit in so quickly, but if the club refuses to spend, it places a huge responsibility on their shoulders.
Center back Marcus Tulio Tanaka made his feelings known after the club sold two-time World Cup player Alessandro Santos to Nagoya earlier this month, saying: “I can’t wait around three years for players to mature.”
Indeed he cannot. Urawa’s core personnel are not getting any younger, and it will take more than just Yamada and Haraguchi to carry the baton when the time comes.
Urawa’s lack of a middle generation could become a real problem. Only Hosogai featured in Japan’s Beijing Olympic squad, while winger Tsukasa Umesaki has not played at all this season due to injury.
There was a time when players such as Kawasaki Frontale’s Hiroyuki Taniguchi and FC Tokyo’s Yuto Nagatomo would have represented prime targets to bridge the gap between veterans and green rookies, but the club seems determined to look for an in-house solution.
But if Reds are serious about rebuilding for the future, they may have to flash the cash to help things along the way.