It was probably in the best interests of everyone at Sanfrecce Hiroshima that Hajime Moriyasu stood down as manager on Tuesday, but that should not obscure the debt of gratitude that the three-time J. League champions owe him.

Moriyasu, who led Sanfrecce to three titles in the space of four years from 2012-15, quit his post following a 4-3 defeat to Urawa Reds on Saturday that left Hiroshima second-from-bottom in the first-division table at the halfway point of the season. Sanfrecce have won twice, drawn four and lost 11 times in 17 games.

Sanfrecce began the campaign with realistic ambitions of challenging for the title but soon fell into a slump, drawing their opening game before losing the next four and firmly entrenching themselves in the relegation zone.

Results never picked up and Moriyasu’s team headed into Saturday’s game at Saitama Stadium on the back of three straight losses. Sanfrecce put in a spirited performance to come back from a two-goal halftime deficit and lead Urawa 3-2 in the 72nd minute, but two late goals from the home side meant Hiroshima ended the game empty-handed.

“If you compare it with the previous game then we definitely played much better, but in this business you have to at least take one point if you can’t get three, otherwise it all counts for nothing,” said Sanfrecce midfielder Yoshifumi Kashiwa. “I can’t really say anything good about it.

“We’re not winning but even in a difficult situation like today we were fighting with everything we had. Every player left it all out on the pitch. But when you fight like that and still lose, you’re lacking something. You have to keep going right until the very end.”

The extent of Sanfrecce’s demise this season has come as a surprise, but the signs that the glory days were over had been there for some time. The departure of team talismans Hisato Sato and Koji Morisaki at the end of last year may seem like an obvious place to start pointing fingers, but in truth the club’s failure to adequately replace a string of outgoing strikers was far more damaging.

Sanfrecce began the 2016 season with Sato, Takuma Asano, Peter Utaka and Gakuto Notsuda all at the club, but all four were gone by the start of the current campaign. Failure to reach an agreement to retain Utaka — last season’s J. League joint-top scorer — hinted at problems to come, and although Brazilian striker Patric has recently been signed from Gamba Osaka, former Kashiwa Reysol forward Masato Kudo has been a disappointment.

For a club of such limited means, however, perhaps it was just a matter of time before Sanfrecce stopped punching above their weight. The club’s debut league title in 2012 came as something of a surprise, with Vegalta Sendai their nearest challengers, while success in 2013 owed much to Yokohama F. Marinos’ inability to hold their nerve with the silverware in sight.

But the fact that Moriyasu was able to cope with a steady outgoing of players over the years — mostly to Urawa — and still rebuild and win so convincingly in 2015 was a testament to his skill as a manager. Sanfrecce topped the overall table that year with a record points total, scored the most goals, conceded the least, and beat Gamba in the championship final for good measure.

For the five-year reign of such a respected figure as Moriyasu — who also made 216 J. League appearances for Sanfrecce as a player from 1992-2002 — to come to such an end is sad for all concerned. But it says volumes about his character that he took the initiative and fell on his own sword rather than hanging on and denying the team a fresh start.

“In the professional world, results are everything,” Moriyasu said in a statement on Tuesday. “I’m very sorry that I couldn’t produce results that would make everyone happy.”

Perhaps not this season. But he had already done more for Sanfrecce than anyone could have ever asked for.

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