In its chosen hashtag for the season (#2020の主役は誰だ), the J. League literally asks “who will play the lead role in 2020?”
That’s never exactly been an easy question to ask, but it’s become especially difficult in recent years. The league’s supply of reliable stars has steadily decreased as more Japanese players — well over 50 at this point — make their way to Europe at increasingly younger ages.
As a result, it’s unlikely that any of the league’s Best Young Player recipients will ever go on to win Most Valuable Player: In the last decade, only 2019 recipient Ao Tanaka has yet to make the leap overseas (though it’s surely coming, perhaps as early as this summer), and six of the remaining eight Japanese recipients are still in Europe.
The MVP prize has instead gone to “lifers,” players such as Kengo Nakamura, Yasuhito Endo and Yu Kobayashi, who began their careers as J. Leaguers and will end them much the same way.
Samurai Blue legends like Nakamura and Endo in particular are esteemed members of a generation shrinking with each passing season. As the J. League’s direct relationship with Japan’s national team grows ever fainter, what fans are left with is an unpredictable spectacle that will be well worth following for its quality of play and sheer excitement when it kicks off Friday.
If the English Premier League is a paint-by-numbers Hollywood blockbuster with all the stars you’re accustomed to seeing on the big screen doing exactly what you’d expect from them, the J. League has become a Wes Anderson film: a cast all too eager to subvert expectations and a script that is alternatively baffling or hilarious — but always moving — set against a backdrop of riotous color and sound.
Marinos’ ‘Boss’ confident
Ange Postecoglou’s unapologetic attacking style hit the J1 like a freight train last season as Yokohama F. Marinos romped to their first league championship since 2004.
But the coach known to fans and players simply as “the Boss” says he’s only focused on his team playing better than it did last season, and not on becoming the first Marinos manager since Takeshi Okada to defend the crown.
“People think I’m spinning a yarn, but it’s really what I believe,” Postecoglou told The Japan Times at the league’s annual kickoff conference. “Today I’ve had 100 questions on being champions and being the hunted, but it wasn’t my focus last year to be champions.
“My ambition was to play the best attacking and aggressive football we could, and we did, and that made us champions.”
Among Marinos’ savvier pickups this offseason are striker Ado Onaiwu, whose 10 goals for Oita Trinita led the Kyushu club in its surprising ninth-place finish, and effective veteran midfielder Kota Mizunuma, who scored seven times for Cerezo Osaka.
But some of the front office’s most important business involved players who participated in last year’s title run.
Defenders Theerathon Bunmathan and Thiago Martins both signed permanent deals with the Nissan Stadium residents after arriving on loans, and striker Edigar Junio, who scored 11 goals before missing the second half of last season with an injury, extended his loan from Brazil’s EC Bahia.
In those players, Postecoglou sees a family capable of carrying each other through a grueling campaign and his unwavering philosophy.
“To play our football you need certain characteristics as a person, not just as a player. They need to be brave, and to know that we’re going to make mistakes,” the former Socceroos manager said. “The players have bought into that. There’s a comfort in that, a safety in saying ‘You know what, he wants us to go out on a limb every week, but if it doesn’t work out, he’s not going to leave us on that limb, he’s going to bring us back into the nest.’
“When players feel that they’re likely to be less inhibited when we play our football.”
Contenders eye throne
Hot on Marinos’ trail will be FC Tokyo, the club that came tantalizingly close to winning its first-ever J1 trophy before a midair stall in the final weeks of the 2019 campaign.
While the Olympics will force Tokyo to repeat the eight-game road trip it endured during last year’s Rugby World Cup, the club’s well-traveled supporters will benefit from half of that stretch taking place against neighboring Kanto clubs.
While a big-name replacement for midfielder Takefusa Kubo never materialized, Kenta Hasegawa’s squad will be boosted by the arrival of three experienced foreigners in Brazilian midfielders Leandro (from Kashima Antlers) and Adailton (from Jubilo Iwata) as well as Lebanese defender Joan Oumari, who has spent time at Sagan Tosu and Vissel Kobe.
Leandro and Adailton lined up alongside returning striker Diego Oliveira to form a potent triple threat in Tokyo’s early pair of Asian Champions League games, but even with talisman Kensuke Nagai available as a substitute, the question that has plagued Tokyo for many seasons still floats above Ajinomoto Stadium: If Plan A doesn’t work, what is Plan B?
It’s likely that Kawasaki Frontale, led by 2019 rookie of the year Tanaka, could mount a serious attempt at their third J1 title in four seasons — an accomplishment previously achieved by Kashima and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
But one of the more convincing arguments for title contention could come from the Kansai region, where Kobe may have figured out that it’s better to have the whole be greater than the sum of its parts instead of the other way around.
German manager Thorsten Fink inherited a mess when he arrived at Noevir Stadium last summer, with a locker room in disarray after Spanish manager Juan Manuel Lillo hit the eject button and temperamental attacker Lukas Podolski relinquished the captain’s armband.
But Fink’s tactics brought the team back to stability, safety in the middle of the table, and an impressive win in the Emperor’s Cup final to bring Vissel its first trophy and maiden Asian Champions League appearance.
Now with Podolski gone and striker David Villa retired, the squad can coalesce around Spanish superstar midfielder Andres Iniesta, striker Kyogo Furuhashi and his new up-front partner Douglas, who has hit double-digit goals in his last three J1 seasons including 14 at Shimizu S-Pulse last year.
More Thai players arrive
Consadole Sapporo have become Southeast Asia’s most popular J. League club, with Thai midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin inspiring hundreds of fans from his homeland to visit the Sapporo Dome over the last couple seasons.
He’ll have another compatriot joining him in the form of goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan, who arrived on a season-long loan from Belgium’s OH Leuven and is expected to play the role of understudy for current netminder Gu Sung-yun as the South Korean prepares to fulfill his mandatory military service in 2021.
“This season will be about Kawin learning our system and style,” Consadole president Yoshikazu Nonomura told The Japan Times. “Chanathip came to Japan by himself, but I think having the two together will be a good influence on both of them.”
Nonomura, who is beginning his eighth year in the position, touted the impact that Consadole’s progressive signings of Southeast Asian players have had on both the club and Hokkaido as a whole.
“When I came seven years ago I said that if we don’t become a big club, we won’t become a strong club,” Nonomura said. “In order to become a big club, you need various people to understand the value of a soccer club, and how Consadole is viewed in Asia is very important in that regard.”
Kawin isn’t the only Thai arrival this year. Teerasil Dangda, the veteran striker who spent a productive season with Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2018, has joined S-Pulse on a permanent deal and knows that he will be a key figure not only in new manager Peter Cklamovski’s plans, but in the J. League’s marketing efforts in his homeland.
“This year will be a special season. With the four of us playing in Japan, Thai fans will become very interested in the league,” Teerasil told The Japan Times. “I’ve read online that a lot of hardcore Thai soccer fans plan on coming to Japan and seeing all of our teams, and I think the popularity of the J. League will increase in Thailand.”
Wooden spoon candidates
Just as one team must finish top of the table, another must finish in last place. This season that role seems all but destined to be filled by Sagan Tosu, a team that has often managed to punch above its weight across eight J1 campaigns but now finds itself in dire straits.
Kim Myung-hwi will start the year in charge of the Kyushu outfit for the first time after coming on as a mid-campaign replacement in the last two seasons and just barely guiding the team to safety on both occasions.
He doesn’t have much to work with: Mu Kanazaki, who scored a team-high seven of Tosu’s 32 goals last season (third fewest in the J1), is the only decent striker left in the squad, with Yuji Ono (Gamba Osaka) and Isaac Cuenca (Vegalta Sendai) among many players who have moved on to greener pastures.
The club’s biggest problem is its perilous financial situation. After cosmetics manufacturer DHC ended its eight-year run as Sagan’s uniform sponsor, the second big sponsorship departure in two years following Cygames Inc., the club was unable to find a permanent replacement and named a local newspaper as a stopgap in early February.
Without a sudden influx of funds — and a year of inspired performances by the young players and J2 castoffs who will compose the core of the squad — it seems unlikely that fans at Ekimae Real Estate Stadium will be able to enjoy the J1 for much longer.
Most would favor Yokohama FC to be the other clear relegation candidate, but in truth Takahiro Shimotaira’s squad is surprisingly interesting, if not evocative of a title contender. At worst, Yokohama won’t be thrashed as frequently as it was in its last top-flight campaign in 2007, but in the best-case scenario the team seems more than capable of escaping direct relegation and even ending the season in safety.
The attention of foreign media will gravitate to Kazuyoshi Miura, who will turn 53 just days after Yokohama’s season opener, as well as fellow former national team stars Shunsuke Nakamura and Daisuke Matsui. But players like goalkeeper Yuji Rokutan, defender Yuki Kobayashi and Norweigian striker Ibba have the potential to create some magic at Mitsuzawa Stadium.