2020 brought another exciting, if temporarily suspended, season of Japanese soccer with the 28th season of the J.League managing to complete all of its games amidst the backdrop of COVID-19. Kawasaki Frontale went on a barn storming run to win the title with 4 games left and accumulating 83 points (both J.League records) as many of the previous year’s top teams struggled with a compact schedule due to the numerous Asian Champions League schedule changes. Still, there’s absolutely no doubt that the men in blue & black deserved the title.

J.League 2020 Table
Result Goals Expected Goals
Team W D L Pts GF GA GDiff xG xGA xGDiff
Kawasaki Frontale 26 5 3 83 88 31 57 82.21 35.05 47.16
Gamba Osaka 20 5 9 65 46 42 4 49.44 56.95 -7.51
Nagoya Grampus 19 6 9 63 45 28 17 40.29 37.43 2.86
Cerezo Osaka 18 6 10 60 46 37 9 42.87 47.60 -4.73
Kashima Antlers 18 5 11 59 55 44 11 61.03 42.64 18.39
FC Tokyo 17 6 11 57 47 42 5 50.66 41.72 8.94
Kashiwa Reysol 15 7 12 52 60 46 14 46.04 52.05 -6.01
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 13 9 12 48 46 37 9 47.91 39.17 8.74
Yokohama F. Marinos 14 5 15 47 69 59 10 61.54 46.14 15.40
Urawa Reds 13 7 14 46 43 56 -13 48.86 61.64 -12.78
Oita Trinita 11 10 13 43 36 45 -9 40.05 44.40 -4.35
Consadole Sapporo 10 9 15 39 47 58 -11 53.21 51.88 1.33
Sagan Tosu 7 15 12 36 37 43 -6 42.47 44.06 -1.59
Vissel Kobe 9 9 16 36 50 59 -9 51.51 48.18 3.33
Yokohama FC 9 6 19 33 38 60 -22 37.33 60.42 -23.09
Shimizu S-Pulse 7 7 20 28 48 70 -22 43.59 54.50 -10.91
Vegalta Sendai 6 10 18 28 36 61 -25 40.60 58.14 -17.54
Shonan Bellmare 6 9 19 27 29 48 -19 34.54 52.02 -17.48
Data: FBref.com & Football-Lab.jp \| Note: No relegation in 2020 season

There’s not a whole lot of good free data available for the J.League, especially advanced stats so I haven’t been able to do too much on this blog or on Twitter besides some simple stuff using transfermarkt data. However, I’m finally writing about the J.League now because in the past month or so I was able to find some good data websites! This is more of an analytical piece than an R tutorial so I won’t be showing all of my R code here. I will post the code used to create most of the graphics as well as the data sets in my soccer_ggplot Github repo as per usual (R code is here).

This is more of a brief survey of the stats than an in-depth review of every team (breadth over depth). I won’t talk about the viz for every team in each section but I have provided links to the viz images for every team. I’ve also included links to the actual data for every section so that you can go exploring yourself! I’ll be using data from websites such as Transfermarkt, FBref, and Football-Lab. Please see the bottom right caption on each viz for details.

I’ll be very happy if any J.League bloggers (as long as there’s no pay wall or anything) want to use any of the viz I’ve made in this blog post with proper credit along with a link to their work (as I’d love to read more English J.League content). Some of the viz can be created for J2 and J3 teams as well so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want me to do so!

This blog post will cover:

  • Squad Age Profiles
  • Goal Scored/Conceded by Time Intervals
  • Goals Scored/Conceded by Match Situations
  • Team Shooting
  • Team-level xG
  • Individual-level xG
  • Bonus: xG Timeline and Shot Map for Kawasaki Frontale vs. Gamba Osaka
  • Random Rambles: My own general thoughts on ~8 J.League teams about this past season and speculations about next season.

Without further ado,

Let’s get started!

Squad Age Graph

First, let’s go through some of the squad compositions and playing time for J.League teams this season. These viz tell you the age of each player and what percentage of all possible league minutes they played in. It’s a good quick look at how teams are built and how minutes are distributed across different age groups within a squad.

Here are the image links for each team:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Shonan Bellmare |

The data for this section is titled: “jleague_age_utility_df_2020.csv”.

Using this data you can also get a quick look at some of the most promising young J.League players, purely from the “if they’re good enough, age doesn’t matter” perspective. The criteria I chose was “less than or equal to 23 years old and has played 60% or more of total league minutes” but you can play around with the data yourself if you want by using the link above.

Many of these players have already secured moves to bigger teams since the season ended last month (Iwata to Marinos, Koki Saito to Lommel SK, Keiya Shiihashi to Reysol, and several others played their first season with a “big” J.League club this past season) or will already be on the radars of some teams in Europe. A lot of the players shown below have already played for the national team at the Copa America back in 2019 as well (where Japan brought a U-23 team to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics that would’ve happened if not for COVID). The more keen observers of youth soccer reading this blog post would recognize some of these names from the Japan team that excelled at the 2019 Toulon Tournament.

Name Team Age Minutes % of Total Minutes Played
Taiyo Koga Kashiwa Reysol 22 2969 97.0
Keiya Shiihashi Vegalta Sendai 23 2754 90.0
Daiki Hashioka Urawa Red Diamonds 21 2745 89.7
Tomoki Iwata Oita Trinita 23 2700 88.2
Daiki Matsuoka Sagan Tosu 19 2689 87.9
Ryoya Morishita Sagan Tosu 23 2470 80.7
Shunta Tanaka Consadole Sapporo 23 2435 79.6
Tsukasa Morishima Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 2428 79.3
Daiki Kaneko Shonan Bellmare 22 2398 78.4
Tsuyoshi Watanabe FC Tokyo 23 2392 78.2
Hirokazu Ishihara Shonan Bellmare 21 2382 77.8
Tatsuki Seko Yokohama FC 23 2355 77.0
Teruki Hara Sagan Tosu 22 2350 76.8
Yugo Tatsuta Shimizu S-Pulse 22 2307 75.4
Mitsuki Saito Shonan Bellmare 21 2264 74.0
Kosei Tani Shonan Bellmare 20 2250 73.5
Yuki Kobayashi Yokohama FC 20 2234 73.0
Daiki Suga Consadole Sapporo 22 2225 72.7
Ayumu Seko Cerezo Osaka 20 2217 72.5
Ao Tanaka Kawasaki Frontale 22 2182 71.3
Yuya Oki Kashima Antlers 21 2160 70.6
Shuto Abe FC Tokyo 23 2131 69.6
Takuma Ominami Kashiwa Reysol 23 1980 64.7
Koki Saito Yokohama FC 19 1941 63.4

Anyway, let’s take a look at the playing time distribution for some J.League squads this past season.

We can take a quick look at the average (mean) age of J.League squads with Shonan and FC Tokyo the youngest and Yokohama FC as the oldest. This is just taking all squad players who played any amount of minutes so it is a bit skewed (King Kazu and Shunsuke Nakamura for Yokohama FC for example).

Team Average Age
Yokohama FC 29.28125
Kawasaki Frontale 28.22727
Urawa Red Diamonds 27.89286
Cerezo Osaka 27.39130
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 27.36000
Vissel Kobe 27.30769
Shimizu S-Pulse 27.26667
Oita Trinita 27.20000
Kashiwa Reysol 27.06452
Nagoya Grampus 27.04762
Consadole Sapporo 27.00000
Sagan Tosu 26.50000
Vegalta Sendai 26.50000
Yokohama F. Marinos 26.40000
Kashima Antlers 26.33333
Gamba Osaka 26.31034
FC Tokyo 25.83871
Shonan Bellmare 25.53125

FC Tokyo

FC Tokyo along with the condensed schedule as a result of their ACL campaign also had to contend with key starting XI players leaving during the season, such as Sei Muroya (Right back, Hannover 96) and Kento Hashimoto (Center midfielder, FC Rostov) along with a major injury to captain Keigo Higashi. This led to a large contingent of youth players being brought into the fold such as Manato Shinada (defensive midfielder), Takuya Uchida (wide midfielder), the (unrelated) fullbacks Hotaka and Takumi Nakamura, Shuto Abe (center midfielder), Kyosuke Tagawa (forward), Taichi Hara (forward), and Go Hatano (goalkeeper). Some of these players like Shuto Abe, Go Hatano, and the Nakamuras really stepped up and have definitely staked a claim in the starting XI this season and onward, which bodes well for the long term.

On the other hand, it is worrying that the Tokyo Gasmen only have two players in the “peak age” bracket (Muroya and Hashimoto having left early in the season while Yajima barely played and has now left the club), Arthur Silva and Leandro, along with the fact that a lot of key players (Morishige, Diego, Mita, Nagai, Takahagi, etc.) are all well past 30.

Shonan Bellmare

The Hiratsuka side have an extremely young core of players including Mitsuki Saito, Daiki Kaneko, Kosei Tani (on loan from Gamba - extended for next season) that really turned heads with good performances that belie their age. However, a lot of these players are being plucked away by stronger J.League clubs or even European teams in the case of Mitsuki Saito (Rubin Kazan), Toichi Suzuki (Lausanne), Daiki Kaneko (Urawa Reds), and Yamato Wakatsuki (FC Sion). It’ll be a big task for Shonan’s recruitment team to continuously find players as quickly as they are selling them (their track record in recent years has been very good though).

Kawasaki Frontale

Veteran goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong played every single minute of every single league game for Kawasaki. He is one of only eight other players to have achieved this feat alongside fellow goalkeepers Masashi Higashiguchi of Gamba Osaka, Shusaku Nishikawa of Urawa Reds, Kim Jin-hyeon of Cerezo Osaka, Mitch Langerak (Nagoya Grampus), along with several defenders of the two latter teams - Matej Jonjic, Yuichi Maruyama, and Shinnosuke Nakatani!

We can clearly see how well-balanced Kawasaki’s squad is, their good recruitment strategy paying off in the past few years. Even without any continental commitments the Kanagawa side utilized their depth very well, especially in attack, as players like Kaoru Mitoma, Tatsuya Hasegawa, Akihiro Ienaga, Yu Kobayashi, Manabu Saito, and Leandro Damiao frequently rotated in the attacking trident without a drop in quality. We frequently were able to see Mitoma coming off the bench to terrorize tiring J.League defenses in the 2nd half with his dribbling and pace.

It took until late August for long time veteran Kengo Nakamura to make his return from injury but he was still able to make his mark having contributed to another league title and Emperor’s Cup victory before his retirement.

All eyes will be on Kawasaki next season and it’ll be interesting what in/out transfers happen as some young stars (Ao Tanaka? Kaoru Mitoma?) could leave while some reinforcements in defense will be critical with the ACL schedule and a 20 team J.League next season.

Goals by Time Interval

In my search, I managed to find data about the number of goals scored in 10 minute intervals. If you can also find data about game state (was the team winning/losing/drawing when they scored a goal?) somewhere to go along with the data below, I think you’ll be able to gain some really good insights.

Here are the image links for each team:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Shonan Bellmare |

The data for this section is titled: “interval_goaltimes_all_df_jleague_2020.csv”.

FC Tokyo

FC Tokyo seems to have a bad habit of losing concentration at the end of the 1st half / beginning of the 2nd half (based on my experiences watching the team I feel like its more of the former?). Tokyo games also don’t produce many goals at either end in the first 10 minutes of a match. Is it just chance or by design?

Kawasaki Frontale

Champions Kawasaki scored lots of late goals compared to the league average and were also extremely good at keeping it tight at the back after the hour mark!

Shimizu S-Pulse

Lots of late goals scored by Shimizu, knowing their performances this season I surmise it being most likely consolation goals after their opponents took their foot off the gas in the final 10 minutes. Unfortunately, things were still very leaky at the other end as well!

Kashiwa Reysol

For Kashiwa we get a really interesting visualization, a real game of two halves. Extremely good 1st half defensive performances paired with a league average or below league average performance in the 2nd half.

Yokohama FC

For J1 returnees Yokohama FC, performances on both ends of the pitch really tanked near the end of their games…

Goal Situations

It’s nice to know when goals were scored during a game for different teams but just as important is how teams scored goals. Different data providers have different definitions for “situations” so I’ve translated (to the best of my ability) the terms used by Football-Lab below:

  • Through Ball: Any goal scored from a through ball.
  • Short Pass: Passes below 30 meters in length (Set plays, crosses, through balls not included).
  • Long Pass: Passes over 30 meters in length (Set plays, crosses, through balls not included).
  • Set Piece (Direct): Free kicks and corner kicks that directly resulted in a goal.
  • Set Piece: Any goal scored within 10 seconds of the set piece being taken.
  • Penalty: Any goal scored from a penalty.
  • Loose Ball: Any goal where the goalscorer gained possession of a loose ball (balls off the post/bar, clearances, blocks included).
  • Dribble: Any goal where the goalscorer took a shot following their own dribble.
  • Cross: Any goal from crosses (set pieces excluded).
  • Other: Any goals that do not fit with any of the above definitions.

You can turn this data into a series of tables to check out the stats from different situations and see how your team compares in the league like below for “crossing” situations:

Team Goals Against Total Goals Against Proportion of Total Goals Against League Average Goals Against
Urawa Reds 17 64 27% 9
Vegalta Sendai 16 61 26% 9
Yokohama Marinos 15 59 25% 9
Vissel Kobe 14 59 24% 9
Shimizu S-Pulse 13 70 19% 9
Gamba Osaka 11 42 26% 9
Yokohama FC 10 60 17% 9
Kashiwa Reysol 9 46 20% 9
Kashima Antlers 9 44 20% 9
Sagan Tosu 9 43 21% 9
Shonan Bellmare 9 48 19% 9
FC Tokyo 8 42 19% 9
Kawasaki Frontale 7 31 23% 9
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 7 37 19% 9
Consadole Sapporo 6 58 10% 9
Cerezo Osaka 5 37 14% 9
Nagoya Grampus 5 28 18% 9
Oita Trinita 4 45 9% 9

As mentioned before, all the data sets are uploaded in the soccer_ggplot Github repo. The data for this section is titled: “jleague_2020_situation_all_df.csv”.

Here are the image links for each team:

|Kawasaki Frontale | Gamba Osaka | Nagoya Grampus | Cerezo Osaka | Kashima Antlers | FC Tokyo | | Kashiwa Reysol | Sanfrecce Hiroshima | Yokohama F. Marinos | Urawa Reds | Oita Trinita | Consadole Sapporo | | Sagan Tosu | Vissel Kobe | Yokohama FC | Shimizu S-Pulse | Vegalta Sendai | Shonan Bellmare |

FC Tokyo

FC Tokyo scored considerably more than league average from through ball situations, which makes sense given Tokyo’s style of play of long counter attacks led by Leandro, Diego, and Adailton.

The gaping hole in defensive midfield after Kento Hashimoto left and filled in by Yojiro Takahagi (who showed he definitely is not a lone defensive midfielder) is probably good reason why Tokyo conceded the most goals from conventional “short pass” situations, although you would want to see a shot/pass map of chances conceded to confirm (I wish I had that kind of data). Otherwise, most Tokyo fans would recognize some of the poor marking and inattentiveness in defense being the probable reasons for conceding so many from “cross” and “loose ball” situations.

Yokohama Marinos

Despite Marinos’ defensive frailties this season, their great possession play was left intact from last season as their 69 goals scored was only bettered by champions Kawasaki and nearly a third of these coming from “short pass” situations. Their Achilles’ Heel proved to be defending crosses as they conceded more than a quarter of their 59 goals conceded (tied 4th worst in the league) from that type of situation.

Nagoya Grampus

The team with the best defense in the league conceded well below league average in almost every situation category.

Shimizu S-Pulse

Shimizu conceded the most amount of goals in the 2020 season having let in a whopping 70 goals. At the other end they were the 2nd most lethal team in the league from set pieces, only 1 goal behind Kawasaki Frontale with 15 goals.

Team-Level Shooting

In the previous few sections we got to know a lot about the goals that J.League teams scored. However, in a sport like soccer/football goals are hard to come by, they might not really accurately represent a team’s actual ability or performance (even if ultimately, it’s the end result that matters). To take things one step further I was able to gather data from FBref.com on shot quantity to dive a bit more into team performances.

The data for this section is titled: “jleague_2020_shooting_df.csv”.

Of course, as this is only looking at the quantity of shots, we can’t really tell about the actual quality of them from this chart. When we analyze a team’s performance all too often we only look at their results when its really their process (quality of chances created/conceded over multiple games) that we want to focus on. This is where we can use expected goals (xG) models to look at the quality of shots taken/conceded by teams (and individuals, which we’ll get to in a later section). Usually, you’d take a rolling average over 10 matches to plot out xG, xGA, xGDiff (expected goal difference) to assess teams performance over the course of the season but I don’t have data at that granular level so I’ll be showing some viz using the end-of-season numbers instead.

Team-Level xG

So, what exactly is expected goals (xG)? Expected goals is a statistic where a model assigns a probability (between 0 and 1) that a shot taken will result in a goal based on a variety of variables and is used for evaluating the quality of chances and predicting players’ and teams’ future performances. A xG model only looks at the variables up to the point that the player touches the ball for a shot. Post-shot xG models covers the information about where in the frame of the goal the shot went (“post” as in all the information after the player touches the ball for the shot) but I won’t cover that here.

For some quick primers on xG check the links below:

The following two sections use xG data from Football-Lab. I’m not privy to all of what goes into their model but the explanation page on their website (in Japanese) tells us about some of the information they used:

  • Distance from goal?
  • Angle from goal line?
  • Aerial duel?
  • Body part used?
  • Number of touches? (one touch, more than two touches, set plays, etc.)
  • Play situation? (Corner kick, direct/indirect free kick, open play, etc.)

So, the usual variables that you might recognize from other xG models are being considered.

The data for this section is titled: “team_xG_J-League-2020.csv”.

xG vs. xGA

Instead of the “Top-right Messi” thing we see in many soccer analytics graphs, we get “Top-right Kawasaki”! They were far-and-away the best side in both the offensive and defensive sides of the game this season, 2.42 xG per game and 1.03 xGA per game.

What’s interesting here is to see Kashiwa below league average in terms of their xG numbers despite being the team that scored the 3rd most goals (60, behind Marinos and Kawasaki) in the J.League this season. A lot of this can be attributed to Michael Olunga’s great finishing record (scoring far more goals than the xG model expected an “average” striker would score) which we’ll explore in the next section for individual xG leaders.

Individual-Level xG

The following is based on a sample of the top 20 or so expected goals leaders as evaluated by Football-Lab’s xG model, so unfortunately players like Erik Lima and Kyogo Furuhashi miss out despite the fact that they’ve scored more goals than some of the players that appear below. You’ll also want to look at shot maps where xG values and shot locations are plotted on a field but unfortunately I don’t have that granular data, although I’ll show a team-level example in the next section.

The data for this section is titled: “jleague_2020_individual_xG.csv”.

Goals vs. xG

We can chart out how well this small sample of J.League players finished their chances in comparison to their shot quality (as quantified by the expected goals model).

Michael Olunga again leads the pack, having scored ~9 goals more than what Football-Lab’s xG model expected an average league player to score from the chances Olunga took. The 2nd highest top scorer, Everaldo, very slightly underperformed his xG numbers, scoring 17 non-penalty goals from 17.78 non-penalty xG. Kaoru Mitoma also showed a very clinical side to his game having scored 13 goals from an xG of only 8! Out of this selection of players the Kawasaki winger had the highest overperformance by scoring ~160% of his xG.

Shot Volume vs. xG per Shot

In this chart I compare shot volume per game against shot quality per shot for the sample of J.League players provided by Football-Lab. Using this data we can begin to understand whether a player is taking and/or scoring from high quality chances (close to the goal and at a good angle) or shots from outside the box or at bad angles and compare them with their shot volume output.

Kawasaki Frontale vs. Gamba Osaka xG Match Report

As a little bonus viz, I personally re-watched the title-deciding match between Kawasaki Frontale vs. Gamba Osaka and collected shot data from the match footage with the help of the Expected Goals Calculator app created by AkademiScouting. To get the expected points (xPoints) I used Danny Page’s calculator. In addition to getting some more experience manually collecting this kind of data, after using the app I am now completely fluent in Turkish… at least for football related terms!

This viz will be familiar to those of you that have seen the match report viz I do for European leagues, courtesy of understat.com’s data, you can see a thread for Liverpool’s league games - here.

Random Rambles

This last bit will be some scatter shot musings on various J.League teams. I’m incorporating some transfer rumors and my own speculations as well so take these opinions with a pinch of salt!

FC Tokyo

Next season will see the return of Diego Oliveira (in time for the Cup Final? - Update: No, but they won it anyways!) while they still have Nagai, Leandro, and Adailton all ready to go in attack. The two youngsters (well OK, they’re 23 now) who were mainly competing as rotation options for the 4 aforementioned players, Taichi Hara and Kyosuke Tagawa, still need to improve more to break into the starting XI on a consistent basis. There are also plenty of rumors of Hara heading to Gornik Zabreze in Poland which might give Kazuya Konno a better chance after some bright cameos near the end of the season. It will be interesting where exactly the latest signing (as of January 13), Ryoma Watanabe, will fit in. For Montedio Yamagata last season he primarily played on the Right Midfielder/Winger where he contributed 7 goals and 5 assists so he could fill in Taichi Hara’s spot in the rotation on the wings or he could be another wide option in a 4 man midfield as well.

The other major addition to the team in the off-season, Takuya Aoki, is clearly supposed to fill in the defensive midfield void that plagued FC Tokyo last season. Along with the most likely departure of Joan Oumari (which is a bit disappointing for me), it looks like Morishige will be moving back into CB alongside Tsuyoshi Watanabe after doing a pretty decent job as the “6” in the last few months of the season. I’m not quite so sure about Aoki, especially as he’s on the wrong side of 30 as well so I can only hope that it’ll be better than some of the poor performances Takahagi and Shinada did there last season.

As I showed in the “Squad Age Graph” section, this Tokyo team is very old, especially in center midfield with Mita and Higashi also on the books. The only under-30 central midfielders are Manato Shinada, Arthur Silva, and Shuto Abe - of whom only Abe can be said to be a truly nailed on starter! Out wide (in terms of wide midfielders rather than the group of strikers/wingers discussed at the beginning of this section) there is a bit more youth with Kazuya Konno, Takuya Uchida, and the aforementioned Ryoma Watanabe.

In defense it’ll be Tsuyoshi Watanabe partnered by Morishige while neither Joan Oumari or Daiki Niwa’s contracts have been renewed as of yet so I’m intrigued as to who will become the new rotation options especially as youth prospect Seiji Kimura (who played 3 full league games last season) is heading to Kyoto on loan next season. So it seems like FC Tokyo will actually use the versatile Makoto Okazaki after all, when despite being brought back from loan last season he ended up not playing a single minute.

On a brighter note for the “Gas Men”, the team has plenty of options at fullback with the two unrelated Nakamuras (Takumi and Hotaka) performing admirably after Sei Muroya left for Hannover last season. On the left side, Ryoya Ogawa remains as a main cog in defense while Kashif Bangunagande will be hoping for more opportunities after receiving his debut back in September.

In goal the future is bright with Go Hatano making a good case for a starting role for Japan in the delayed Olympics this year after some good-to-great performances filling in for the injured Akihiro Hayashi since late October. With Hayashi only returning from injury this summer, Hatano has a really good chance to consolidate the starting position for club and country (U-23) for years to come. Regular 3rd option Tsuyoshi Kodama will provide back up duties in the mean time.

All in all the squad composition for next season is still no where near set with center back options in particular looking thin. Whether that means Oumari and/or Niwa renewing (which looks unlikely given the scuttlebutt) or a dip into the transfer market remains to be seen. In the medium-to-long term I am still concerned with how old this team is especially in center midfield and Tokyo’s best players up top besides Leandro are all over 30 as well. There is still a rather glaring gap between the veterans and the younglings as seen in the Squad Age graph viz although players like Ryoya Ogawa, Tsuyoshi Watanabe, Ryoma Watanabe are getting close to that “peak age” section.

As an aside, I did a few tactical breakdowns/match notes for FC Tokyo games this past season:

Kawasaki Frontale

We saw how the ludicrous schedule for ACL teams impacted Marinos, FC Tokyo, and Vissel Kobe this past season so how will Kawasaki Frontale fare with ACL commitments? With Kengo’s retirement, Hidemasa Morita leaving for Europe, and backup Hokuto Shimoda leaving and with Joao Schmidt from Nagoya and Kazuki Kozuka from Oita coming in to replace them, there has been quite a lot of churn in Frontale’s midfield engine room.

While Kawasaki have been very good in the transfer market, it still won’t be easy if Kaoru Mitoma or Ao Tanaka leave for Europe this winter or in the summer. Some backups in defense (another CB and/or possibly fullback) would help the team cope with a busier schedule next season as having Reo Hatate (who also rotated in midfield and on the wing) fill in at LB wasn’t ideal, even if he did do all right there.

Gamba Osaka

Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s promising managerial career continues as the team from the blue half of Osaka finished 2nd, although a rather distant one at that with a giant 18 point gap separating Gamba from Kawasaki Frontale. Starting out in a 3-5-2 before moving to a 4-4-2 later in the season, a lot of their problems have centered on finding the right balance in midfield. Problems there have had repercussions in both attack and defense, which was compounded when Yosuke Ideguchi got injured in November. Yuki Yamamoto and Shinya Yajima didn’t work too well as a holding pair, most glaringly seen in losses to Kawasaki in the league and Emperor’s Cup final.

Up front, Takashi Usami and Patric complement each other well and with backup striker Kazuma Watanabe leaving and Ademilson fired for drunk driving it will be interesting how Kazunari Ichimi fits into Miyamoto’s plans after good loan spells with Kyoto Sanga (J2) and Yokohama FC (J1). However, Gamba only scored more than 2 goals in a game once last season (4-1 win against Sendai) and 16 of their 20 league wins were by a single goal margin. They need to be able to score more goals as those are very fine margins that aren’t necessarily sustainable over multiple seasons. Especially when you consider the fact that given their “shots against” and “xGA” (expected goals against) statistics, their defense isn’t as great as you might be led to believe to actually hold onto slim leads (although having Higashiguchi in goal does help).

With a good balanced squad as seen in their Squad Age profile with many promising youth players raring for an opportunity, the onus is on Miyamoto to fix their tactical issues to fight a closer title battle next season.

Cerezo Osaka

All things considered a good season from the purple half of Osaka although they just missed out on a ACL place by 3 points. Unfortunately, their more defensive style under Miguel Lotina (tied 3rd least amount of goals) wasn’t favored by the higher ups and he was dismissed to much uproar from Cerezo fans. For the fourth time, the Cerezo front office have brought in Levir Culpi for a more “attacking” brand of football. It’ll be interesting what kind of shake-up Culpi will bring as Cerezo have one of the oldest squads in the J.League and key players from last season such as Eiichi Katayama, Yasuki Kimoto, Yoichiro Kakitani, and Bruno Mendes have already left the club. Incoming transfers as of January sees Adam Taggart (like-for-like target man swap for Mendes?) and Riki Harakawa to the Osaka club while the “prodigal son, Shinji Kagawa, returns!” campaign by the front office won’t stop anytime soon.

Yokohama Marinos

Swashbuckling Marinos had a much harder season this time around as their grueling schedule as an ACL team took a toll on their pressing ability and the cohesiveness of their starting XI as a unit due to squad rotations and injuries. Although they conceded the 3rd most goals in the league, they maintained their attacking flair with 69 goals scored (2nd best in the league only behind league winners Kawasaki). Marinos’ ACL campaign also ended in disappointment as they couldn’t finish off Suwon Bluewings in the 1st half as the Korean side eventually came back from behind to win the Round of 16 clash.

Although surprisingly letting Junior Santos move on after a good season notching 13 goals, Marinos have brought in Oita Trinita’s Iwata to help shore up their back line in a good start to their transfer window, with the host of departures especially up front you’d expect another Brazilian import to be coming in soon.

UPDATE (1/12/21): Erik left as well so I do wonder if Ado Onaiwu might be given the starting striker role from next season onward.

Nagoya Grampus

An impressive season especially in defense as Grampus let in the fewest goals in the league with just 28 going past Mitch Langerak. The Aussie goalkeeper and the fantastic back four of Yutaka Yoshida, Shinnosuke Nakatani, Yuichi Maruyama, and Shumpei Naruse also kept a J.League record of 17 clean sheets out of 34 games! However, there is still some work to be done as Nagoya need back-up striker or better replacement for Mu Kanazaki. It was very clear after Kanazaki’s injury that Nagoya really struggled to score goals with none of Naoki Maeda, Ryogo Yamasaki, and Hiroyuki Abe really able to fill in to score chances created by the clever Mateus and Gabriel Xavier. Although they still managed to grind out results to finish 3rd (having only conceded 3 (THREE!) goals in the last 10 matches of the season), if they can solve issues up front Massimo Ficcadenti’s side will be in prime position for a title fight next season.

UPDATE: Since I started writing this up Nagoya have acquired Yoichiro Kakitani from Cerezo Osaka and Manabu Saito from Kawasaki Frontale. It’ll be interesting if Kakitani can rediscover his form there as he hasn’t been at his best in the past few years. They’ve even reinforced their already formidable defense with the acquisition of center back Kimoto from Cerezo as well!

Shonan Bellmare

It was another disappointing season for the Hiratsuka side who finished bottom of the league. Even still, their ability to assimilate young promising players into the J.League is notable with Mitsuki Saito and Daiki Kaneko capturing a lot of attention this past season. They join a long list of departures from the club (to Rubin Kazan and Urawa Reds respectively) after also letting go of Toichi Suzuki (Lausanne Sport) and Yamato Wakatsuki (FC Sion) earlier in the season. With an unprecedented four teams slated for relegation next year it will be a huge task for manager Bin Ukishima to overhaul this squad on a budget and lead them to safety. They have gotten started with the incoming transfers of veteran midfielder Shuto Yamamoto and defender Shintaro Nago from Kashima Antlers. A lot of eyes will be on which teenagers, such as Taiga Hata and Satoshi Tanaka, could be the next players to step up and then be snapped up by bigger clubs.

Vissel Kobe

Despite winning the Emperor’s Cup last January, terrible league form led to the “mutual consent termination”/sacking/etc. of Thorsten Fink (yes, the former Bayern midfielder). The German was replaced in the dug out by sporting director Atsuhiro Miura who, as of now, looks like he’ll be continuing in the role next season. Their league form gave the impression that they gave up on it to focus on the ACL quite a few months before their campaign restarted in December. Although they advanced to the semifinals, Kobe’s maiden continental campaign ended in heartbreak and a painful injury to Iniesta. This past league season has left Kobe as an organization, from top to bottom, with quite a lot of thinking to do.

They need to balance trying to squeeze out what remains of Iniesta’s time as a player there (up to 2 seasons at most?) with some more medium~long term plans for success going forward. These include figuring out their playing style (moving away from the slow turgid possession football they’ve been trying these past few seasons) and to make transfer decisions that fit with whatever style and manager they ultimately choose. A lot of their best players bar Kyogo Furuhashi and Sergi Samper are close to or over 30 (Hotaru Yamaguchi, Gotoku Sakai, Daigo Nishi, Leo Osaki, and Andres Iniesta). While they’ve also focused on developing younger players as well (with Yuta Goke, Takuya Yasui, and Ryuho Kikuchi seeing a decent chunk of game time last season), it remains to be seen if they can be relied upon immediately. The “Rakuten Rovers” have a very important off-season ahead.

Kashiwa Reysol

Well, the main story is definitely Michael Olunga leaving for Al-Duhail in rather odd circumstances. Kashiwa Reysol had to scramble to release an official statement after Olunga was photographed by the Qatari side’s social media warming up for a league game! This leaves a gaping hole in Reysol’s attack as Olunga accounted for nearly half (28 of 60) of Kashiwa’s goals this past season. Reysol’s xG numbers aren’t actually all that great and were reliant on Olunga’s elite finishing ability as he scored 150% of his xG numbers (as seen in the individual goal leaders section). This is made even worse by the fact that their defensive numbers aren’t very good to fall back on either with slightly below league average shots against per game and xGA per game.

Their immediate back up option in Hiroto Goya (who is the only player in the Kashiwa squad that gets anywhere near Olunga’s 4.91 shots per 90 with 4.07, although with having only played 10.1 90s as per FBref) doesn’t seem like someone who can fully replicate Olunga’s scoring output. I really do wonder if there was no way they could have kept Junior Santos (who permanently moved to Hiroshima weeks earlier) after he impressed on loan at Yokohama Marinos this past season. There is the option of playing Cristiano up top with Ataru Esaka playing as the 10 which still leaves players like Hiroto Goya, Hayato Nakama, Yuta Kamiya, and new signing Ippei Shinozuka having to drastically increase their shooting and scoring output to make up for Olunga’s departure.

On the positive side though is the acquisition of Sendai youngster Keiya Shiihashi, who’ll look to supplement Kashiwa’s aging center midfield of Masatoshi Mihara, Hidekasu Otani, and Richardson while Reysol will also hope Sachiro Toshima can get back into good form after a bad injury ended his season back in September.


It was an extremely turbulent J.League season but all games were played without any cancellations. There will be 20 teams next season due to promotion but no relegation throughout the J.League pyramid. It looks like it will be a tough schedule for all teams to navigate (even more so for ACL clubs again), especially if there are any more COVID enforced quarantines like what we saw happen to Kashiwa Reysol and Sagan Tosu this past season.

Next season will see the addition of Tokushima Vortis and Avispa Fukuoka. Tokushima Vortis will be making the step up into J1 since the 2014 season as champions of J2. Unfortunately, their man with the plan, manager Ricardo Rodriguez will be taking the helm at Urawa Reds instead next season (if you’re interested the J-Talk Podcast had an interview with him in December, link). Avispa Fukuoka return after relegation in the 2016 season.

This blog post gathered data from a variety of sources to create some insights about teams and individuals in the J.League this past season. Although I do think that a lot of my speculations and theories on some of the patterns/quirks seen in the data could be confirmed if more granular data were available. To be honest, for better analyses and more solid evidence-based conclusions, it might be time for me to finally cough up the money for a WyScout/InStat account!

For tactical write-ups, this past season I focused on one team (FC Tokyo) while also slowly starting watching more games of other teams (I mainly took notes on Kashiwa Reysol and Kawasaki Frontale). I hope to release this kind of content for other teams when the J.League resumes!

Even with the doom and gloom it turned out to be an entertaining season of soccer in Japan as although Kawasaki Frontale wrapped up the title early, there was still a lot to play for the rest of the pack up until the final matchday. I hope this blog post was informative as well as entertaining and encouraged some of you to watch the J.League.

Thanks for reading and see you next season!

Some English-Language J.League Content!