Seven weeks ago, David Villa’s first J. League goal in front of an enthusiastic home crowd led even the most cynical of observers to wonder whether this could be the year that perennial underperformer Vissel Kobe would finally put together a campaign worthy of its arsenal of European talent.
Life, as they say, comes at you fast.
Missing from Saturday’s game against Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium — in addition to the injured Villa and former Barcelona star Andres Iniesta, whose absence was more of a mystery — was Juan Manuel Lillo, the Spanish manager having parted with the club by mutual consent after the team’s embarrassing 4-2 loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Lillo, who was touted as a master tactician and a highly influential figure in the development of former Barcelona and current Manchester City tactician Pep Guardiola, earned a 3-1-3 record this season, on top of a 2-3-1 record to end the 2018 campaign, before deciding that this “difficult decision” was “the best choice” for his family.
Those results aren’t exactly setting the world on fire, but neither should they be cause to hit the eject button, especially with many in the media touting positive developments on the pitch for Kobe since Lillo’s arrival.
Nor does it make much sense for Vissel to turn back to Takayuki Yoshida, who had steered Kobe into contention for an ACL spot before Iniesta’s arrival, as Lillo’s replacement.
While he isn’t the first bench boss to get a second chance in charge of the same club, it’s not yet clear that in the last eight months he’s gained the ability to manage the circus that Vissel is rapidly evolving into.
Things aren’t much clearer on the pitch. Striker Lukas Podolski, one day after announcing his resignation as team captain on April 16, tweeted: “Stop expecting loyalty from people who can’t even give you honesty,” sparking speculation as to whether the comment was directed toward one of his Vissel teammates or to former coach Lillo.
The brash German, who is known for his occasional abrasiveness toward the Japanese press, was downright loquacious after Kobe’s 1-0 loss to Urawa, speaking in the mixed zone for nearly 12 minutes.
“I’ve always stressed communicating face-to-face, but as a team we’ve struggled to create stability,” Podolski said. “It’s disappointing that we’re not able to contend for a title in the state we’re in. We can’t win in those conditions we need to figure out how to get out of that situation.”
Another question mark in the squad is midfielder Sergi Samper, the Barcelona academy product who can match Iniesta’s rhythm but has struggled to fulfill a more defensive role.
On top of placing a larger burden on Vissel defenders such as the unreliable Leo Osaki, whose error led to Shinzo Koroki’s penalty kick on Saturday, Samper’s presence as the team’s seventh foreigner has often forced South Korea international Kim Seung-gyu out of the starting goalkeeper position. While Kim has given up just three goals in his four appearances, 24-year-old Daiya Maekawa has allowed considerably more, with 10 conceded in his four starts.
Vissel’s struggles again put into focus the challenges facing the club in its much-ballyhooed “Barcelonification” under chairman Hiroshi Mikitani. The Rakuten owner’s desire to emulate the Spanish club is no secret, and he was effusive in announcing Barca’s summer tour to Japan just three days after Lillo’s departure.
“As you know, the world is paying attention to this match,” Mikitani told a Thursday news conference at a Tokyo hotel, going on to claim that “Vissel Kobe has three former Barcelona players who played central roles at the club.”
That’s statement that doesn’t quite hold water, with Samper having played just one first-division game for Barcelona and over 100 for the club’s reserve team.
But Mikitani, who did not take questions from the press and left shortly after his photo session with former Barcelona defender Eric Abidal, seemed far more interested in touting the blockbuster friendly between Barcelona and Chelsea than discussing the state of his J. League club.
Taken as a whole, the events of the last week don’t necessarily portray Vissel as a club deep in crisis (for a better example, see Cerezo Osaka’s 2014 campaign around this time), but it is certainly a club that is lost in the woods and in need of a steady hand.
It appears that the man tasked with pulling his teammates out of those woods will be Iniesta, who was handed the captain’s armband on Tuesday and will be backed by vice-captains Daigo Nishi and Hotaru Yamaguchi, both of whom joined Vissel this winter.
With 26 rounds left in the campaign, there’s unquestionably still plenty of time to turn things around. But if Iniesta faces his old Barcelona teammates in July representing a squad mired in the bottom half of the standings, he surely won’t be the only one wondering if this grand experiment is capable of producing a successful result.