Introduction

The 29th season of the J.League was won, yet again, by Kawasaki Frontale who have now won 4 times out of the past 5 seasons. They still have some way to go to overcome Kashima Antler’s record of 8 league titles but this is still a monumental achievement. At the other end of the table, due to there being no relegation last season because of COVID having a huge impact on match day revenue from loyal fans, this season saw 4 teams relegated as Japanese football deals with an unprecedented 20 team league (promotion from J2 was still in effect) along side another packed schedule that had to allow for a 1 month break due to the Olympics. These four unlucky teams ended up being Tokushima Vortis, Oita Trinita, Vegalta Sendai, and Yokohama FC. On the domestic cup front, Nagoya Grampus won their first title in 11 years with a victory over Cerezo Osaka in the League Cup while Urawa Reds won the Emperor’s Cup in a tight game against Oita Trinita. Yet again, all J.League teams disappointed on the international front, especially Kawasaki Frontale, as no Japanese team even got to the semi-finals!

Unlike in the mid-season review, I’m going to switch it up and talk more about the teams/players and tactics first and then dive into the data. It’s been a bit of a struggle trying to balance things out from the tactical and data perspectives, just from my Twitter interactions I get a feeling my audience is very diverse so it’s hard to decide in what kind of “voice” I want to write these blog posts in. But anyway…

Let’s get started!

League Table

Click to show R code!


 r
# library(dplyr)
# library(knitr)
# library(kableExtra)

file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/jleague_2021_END/jleague_table_2021_end_cleaned.csv")

jleague_kable_table <- jleague_table_2021_cleaned %>%
knitr::kable(format = "html",
caption = "J.League 2021 - Final League Table") %>%
kable_styling(full_width = FALSE,
bootstrap_options = c("condensed", "responsive")) %>%
"Expected Goals" = 3)) %>%
column_spec(1:2, bold = TRUE) %>%
row_spec(1, bold = TRUE, color = "white", background = "green") %>%
row_spec(2:3, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "lightgreen") %>%
row_spec(4:16, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "white") %>%
row_spec(17:20, color = "white", background = "red") %>%
add_footnote(label = "Data: FBref.com & Football-Lab.jp | Note: 4 teams relegated to return J1 to 18 teams in 2022",
notation = "none")

jleague_kable_table



J.League 2021 - Final League Table
Result Goals Expected Goals
Team W D L Pts GF GA GD xG xGA xGDiff
Kawasaki Frontale 28 8 2 92 81 28 53 64.98 35.11 29.87
Yokohama F. Marinos 24 7 7 79 82 35 47 71.29 44.31 26.98
Vissel Kobe 21 10 7 73 62 36 26 50.65 43.40 7.25
Kashima Antlers 21 6 11 69 62 36 26 60.23 36.59 23.64
Nagoya Grampus 19 9 10 66 44 30 14 38.08 36.10 1.98
Urawa Reds 18 9 10 63 45 38 7 48.79 44.80 3.99
Sagan Tosu 16 11 11 59 43 35 8 44.16 43.66 0.50
Avispa Fukuoka 14 12 12 54 42 37 5 42.75 41.76 0.99
FC Tokyo 15 8 15 53 49 53 -4 47.16 49.67 -2.51
Consadole Sapporo 14 9 15 51 48 50 -2 58.14 54.00 4.14
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 12 13 13 49 44 42 2 48.72 43.89 4.83
Cerezo Osaka 13 9 16 48 47 51 -4 54.45 49.48 4.97
Gamba Osaka 12 8 18 44 33 49 -16 44.12 62.59 -18.47
Shimizu S-Pulse 10 12 16 42 37 54 -17 42.52 43.13 -0.61
Kashiwa Reysol 12 5 21 41 37 56 -19 49.17 46.02 3.15
Shonan Bellmare 6 16 15 37 36 41 -5 42.94 46.09 -3.15
Tokushima Vortis 10 6 22 36 34 55 -21 37.24 46.74 -9.50
Oita Trinita 9 8 21 35 31 55 -24 35.72 54.99 -19.27
Vegalta Sendai 5 13 20 28 31 62 -31 36.90 63.84 -26.94
Yokohama FC 6 9 23 27 32 77 -45 35.11 66.88 -31.77
Data: FBref.com & Football-Lab.jp \| Note: 4 teams relegated to return J1 to 18 teams in 2022

For this blog post I would ideally use data from WyScout, InStat, etc. to take advantage of their detailed stats (expected goals, progressive passes, etc.) especially to look at player-level data and match that up with my own notes from watching the games. Unfortunately, all of that costs $. I do all of this as a hobby and I can’t justify the expense (not just the$ but also the time to make full use of purchasing an account). So, I am only using data from free websites which do not have as much detail. Thankfully, I have been able to find a bit more on a player and team level from a variety of new sources this season. Once again, a big arigato to websites like Transfermarkt, Sporteria, Football-Lab, FBref, and more! As always, you can always check where I got the data from my taking a look at the bottom corners of any viz.

Going forward, I’ll be relying heavily on the TACTICALista app (NOTE: only works on Chrome browsers) to create tactics diagrams/animations. You’ll see a lot of them in the team summary sections and I urge you to check it out, it’s really great. For those of you familiar with my previous work, I would’ve liked to remain on brand and create soccer-related diagrams/animations with {ggplot2} and {gganimate} but… that would’ve taken a loooong time so I opted to use a program that’s actually built for this kind of thing.

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!

Performance Change: Points

The teams with the largest points increase were Yokohama Marinos and Vissel Kobe. Marinos’ 2020 went rather horribly, as their famed press kept getting broken way too easily and their defenders were left vulnerable on the counter (very much like Manchester City in the 2019/2020 season) on top of the condensed schedule taking its toll on the squad.

Vissel Kobe on the other hand had sneaked into the Asian Champions League in 2020 due to winning the Emperor’s Cup in 2019. Going toward the final few months of the season it really did seem that Kobe had absolutely no interest in the league and were just making preparations for the condensed group stage and knock-out stage of the Champions League at the end of the 2020 season.

It’s quite notable that Kawasaki Frontale improved upon their brilliant 2020 season, with the obvious caveat that there were 4 more games to play in 2021. Nevertheless, it is important to note that by Matchday 34 this season, Kawasaki had already accumulated 1 more point than their 2020 league total of 83 points!

Other teams that notably dropped a significant amount of points compared to last year were the two Osaka clubs, Gamba and Cerezo. I’ve talked last year of how Gamba’s results were unsustainable and their actual mediocre-to-just-OK performances seem to have caught up with them this year. For Cerezo, a rather unnecessary style reverse from Lotina back to Levir Culpi (returning for a 4th time in the dugout which is worth a whole blog post in of itself) as the Cerezo front office disagreed with the playing style of Lotina. Which really makes me question the Cerezo front office’s decision to hire Lotina in the first place, it’s not like they didn’t know his style of play!

Urawa’s resurgence under Ricardo Rodriguez can be summed pretty succinctly by their 17 point increase. To contextualize this better, as all teams played 4 more games this season, Urawa went from 1.3 Points per Game in 2020 to 1.6 Points per Game in 2021. In any case, the Reds jumped up the table to 6th (and fighting for 3rd for a good chunk of the season) from a mediocre mid-table position in 2020.

But that’s enough about last year…

Discussion Points from the Mid-season Review

At the end of the mid-season review I threw out a couple of discussion points. Now that we’re at the end of the season, I can go back and talk about them! What happened? Did things work out? Find out below!

• Can Kawasaki keep up their form to win a 2nd straight league title, if not remain undefeated?

Short version: Didn’t quite remain undefeated but ran out as comfortable winners yet again.

Long version: Even before Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma went there was quite a bit of uneasiness among Frontale fans who, while not being able to put a finger on exactly why, didn’t feel as though Kawasaki were dominating the match as they did in the 2020 season. Even though the xG charts don’t match up with my recollection of their games, it personally felt like to me that they were “grinding” out wins a lot more this season.

• Can Gamba Osaka dig themselves out of the hole they created themselves?

Short version: Yes.

Long version: It wasn’t pretty but they did manage it. Gamba started scoring more goals in line with the quality of shots they were creating (which wasn’t much but still) which helped a very mediocre defense that stayed mediocre for most of the season. Whatever the performances, the important thing is they did survive and with Katanosaka coming in as the new manager, Gamba will likely improve from here on out as their squad (when fit) is more than capable of being in the upper half of the table.

• Despite the losses in key personnel, can Vissel Kobe and Yokohama F. Marinos provide Frontale with some kind of challenge for the title race?

Short version: No and no.

Long version: Marinos not only lost Ado Onaiwu but then lost Hatanaka for the last 11 games of the season. This meant some shuffling around on top of the changes that Kevin Muscat wanted to implement, which ultimately didn’t pan out at all as Marinos sputtered in the last few games of the season. On the other hand, Kobe did a really good job integrating Osako and Muto into the team to replace Furuhashi’s output. Even still, the points gap was far too big and some poor losses to FC Tokyo, Kashiwa Reysol, and Marinos leaves Kobe with a few more things to tweak if they want to challenge for the title next season.

• Will Nagoya be able to find a way to score more goals? (Update: Can new striker Jakub Świerczok hit the ground running?)

Short version: Yes.

Long version: Not only did Świerczok score 7 goals in 9 starts (14 total league appearances) but also his presence allowed other players to score as well. You can see Nagoya’s xG and goals numbers shoot up from when he got his fitness up to speed to start games consistently. More details will follow in the Nagoya section.

• Can Kashiwa move on from the losses of Michael Olunga and Ataru Esaka by fully integrating their new Brazilian imports?

Short version No.

Long version: No, they still managed to create a good amount of chances per game to offset their rather bad defense but they also had the rub of the green in quite a few games in my opinion. Their new Brazilian imports were very hit and miss while Matheus Savio was rather disappointing after returning from loan.

In the next section I’ll go much deeper into some of the teams that I found interesting this season. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go in-depth on every team so only about 13 teams are covered here (and two of the promoted sides have much smaller sections). I’ll be focusing more on the teams that I couldn’t go into depth in the data viz sections instead.

Teams & Players Report

Kawasaki Frontale

Another year, another title! Kawasaki’s 4 league title in the past 5 years means that they are now the most dominant team over any 5 year period in the history of the J.League. Their 92 points is a record in the J.League, although it should be noted that this is in an unprecedented 20 team J.League season, meaning there were 38 games played. As I mentioned previously, after Matchday 34 in October, they had already picked up 84 points, 1 point more than their total in the 34 game 2020 season!

I feel that in lots of games, even when Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma were still around, that they weren’t necessarily poor but struggling especially in attack. But the fact that they have such decisive players, the individual quality of Damiao’s finishing, Jesiel’s 1v1 defending, Joao Schmidt/Kento Tachibanada’s awareness and anticipation, etc. has gotten them over the line in many games this season where the scoreline may have flattered them. They are just a juggernaut that just keeps grinding and grinding through opponents. Even though it did feel like they struggled, overall they have been able to continuously create good chances while not letting the opponent carve out many quality chances. Well, until the final few games of the season but that was after their title victory was already confirmed.

Cup competitions is where things went very awry for Frontale as they were dumped out of all cup competitions… all without losing a game in normal time! The big challenge for Frontale this season was a serious run in the Asian Champions League, a competition where despite their domestic dominance, they have never really gotten to grips with in the past. This year proved so again as they were dumped out by Ulsan Hyundai. Injuries to key players such as Reo Hatate, Shogo Taniguchi, and Ryota Oshima hit at the worst time but with Kaoru Mitoma and Ao Tanaka’s departures still fresh on everybody’s mind, the narrative shifted toward the latter rather than the former. What made things especially worse was this all happened right after getting dumped out in the League Cup on away goals just a week prior. In the past month, hopes of a double were dashed as Kawasaki Frontale completely forgot their shooting boots and let Oita Trinita steal a monumental result to reach the final of the Emperor’s Cup on penalties.

This season most of Kawasaki’s goals came from “crossing” game situations with a league leading 26 goals (8 more than the next best team) followed by goals from “short passes” (19 goals, tied for first in the league).

The above makes sense when you realize that Kawasaki’s game plan is to get the ball into the “pockets” (the half-space areas inside the box) for crosses and cut-backs to create and score from high quality chances. As they are also one of the best teams playing quick combinations in tight spaces through the midfield and even against packed defenses in the box, Kawasaki are able to get into these positions frequently.

A more direct approach is something we saw in the second half of the season as Frontale may instead play a through ball or long pass for Marcinho (who has been a pretty good replacement for Kaoru Mitoma, even if a bit one-dimensional) to chase and dribble. This can be done by aiming for gaps left between defenders as Kawasaki’s Full Backs or midfielders pull wide to drag opponent defenders toward the sideline. In the below example Marcinho does both!

Once they have players in and around the box to lay siege to it, Frontale players create space to not only pass in triangles in wide areas but also spread the ball from half-space to half-space.

The midfielders, wingers, full backs, and the ball-near midfielders all rotate around as Frontale patiently seek out optimal positions inside the box for a cut-back.

Or for crosses into the far post or through balls from the edges of the box inside the area for late midfield runners.

There’s been quite a lot of turnover in the squad, especially in midfield. Joao Schmidt had been a fantastic addition to the midfield void left by Hidemasa Morita’s departure to Santa Clara in Portugal. However, he has completely disappeared from the squad since September and Kento Tachibanada, who had only played a minor squad role up to that point (notably playing Right Back a few times to give Miki Yamane a rest), took over with aplomb. What was very surprising to most was how great he looked, almost as if it was he who had been playing in the single pivot role all season and not Joao Schmidt up to that point. He is fantastic at recovering loose balls and starting attacks or being more pro-active and getting involved in pass interceptions and tackles as well. The other new signings in midfield were curiously absent in the second half of the season as both Koki Tsukagawa and Kazuki Kozuka barely got any minutes. It was rather surprising to see manager Toru Oniki preferring to keep playing Daiya Tono or Akihiro Ienaga in the box-to-box roles in Frontale’s midfield three instead.

Of course, the main star of the midfield (with apologies to the perennially overlooked Yasuto Wakizaka…) is Reo Hatate, heavily linked to Ange Postecoglu’s Celtic FC. To make things very clear, his main position is in midfield (although he started off his career as a winger) and not as a Left Back. It was mainly due to Kyohei Noborizato’s injury at the tail end of the 2020 season and the beginning of the 2021 season that he was required to play there. Reo Hatate is a versatile box-to-box midfielder, able to make smart runs into the box and position himself well in the half-spaces to progress the ball from midfield and into the final 3rd or penalty box. When in-and-around the box his good ball control in tight areas allows him to combine with the strikers and wingers to create chances while his 2.11 shots per 90 and chipping in with 5 league goals also points to his abilities as a direct goal threat.

Hatate has also showcased a lot of great touches, smart use of his body to protect the ball, and dribbling which I can’t really do justice with these diagrams/animations so you’ll just have to watch actual footage of him. On the defensive side of things, he is very active defensively as part of a midfield unit that is probably the best team at counter-pressing in the league.

In regards to chance-creation, Right Back Miki Yamane got 12 assists this season (most in the league), doubling his number from the 2020 season. I talked in the 2020 season about how he was the best low-key transfers in the J.League on Twitter but this season he’s turned that up by another notch into Trent Alexander-Arnold territory (while still playing as a more traditional attacking Full Back)! His performances in the past two seasons have earned him a deserved call up to the national team.

Another special player is veteran Akihiro Ienaga, whose wicked left foot from the Right Wing has created or scored many goals throughout his time at Kawasaki, where he has played a part in all four of Kawasaki Frontale’s league titles. Ienaga had an interesting quirk at times where he would drift over to the complete opposite wing to create overloads and use his underrated ability to play with his back to goal to progress the ball into the final 3rd when Frontale were having problems in midfield. Unfortunately, as fit as he is, he is also 35 years old now which leads me into talking about squad turnover.

While Reo Hatate’s seemingly inevitable exit puts a spanner in the works, its not all bad as long-term casualty of the treatment table, Ryota Oshima may just be able to fill in provided he can get back to his best. He looked a bit shaky after coming back after such a long time out but he slowly started to improve his form in the last few games of the season. Also, players like Koki Tsukagawa and Kazuki Kozuka still exist despite their disappearing act in the 2nd half of the season while Daiya Tono might be able to emulate Reo Hatate’s career path by being converted full time into a midfielder from a winger (Tono has appeared in midfield a few times this season already).

Out on the wings, Ten Miyagi and the aforementioned Tono can continue to gobble up more minutes alongside Marcinho while there is also the question of where the returning Taisei Miyashiro will fit in after a very good campaign with relegated side Tokushima Vortis (7 goals and 2 assists playing out wide or as a striker). The need to fit in Miyashiro becomes all the more apparent with only Kei Chinen able to fill in as the striker when Leandro Damiao is out as Yu Kobayashi has been mainly playing out wide on the right in his super-sub appearances this season.

An unfortunately big gaping hole is still in defense as Jesiel has been struck down with a major injury. With Shogo Taniguchi, Kazuya Yamamura, Kyohei Noborizato, and Shintaro Kurumaya are all close to or over 30 there will be a need for some reinforcement especially as Reo Hatate might not be around to provide cover in the Full Back positions as well.

Another triumphant league title for Kawasaki Frontale but they will hope to dispel their cup competition curse in 2022.

Vissel Kobe

After giving up on the league in the 2020 season to fully focus on their maiden Asian Champions League campaign, Vissel Kobe surprised many this season by keeping caretaker manager Atsuhiro Miura permanently and he has finally been able to find a way to incorporate Andres Iniesta in a way that tries to mitigate his lack of mobility. However, the main star of this side up to the halfway point of the season was Kyogo Furuhashi, who continued his fine form in 2020 (12 goals and 5 assists) into 2021 by tallying up 15 goals and 2 assists in just 20 games. He took 82 shots, which amounted to around 4.21 shots per 90. At the end of the season, this tally still left him as the 6th best and tied 3rd best in the league for these metrics despite only playing half a season!

I don’t want to keep repeating all the superlatives I’ve showered him in the past so please refer to the mid-season review for a more detailed analysis of him as well as Ryuho Kikuchi (who was probably my favorite defender in the league this season).

Vissel Kobe started the first few months of the season without Andres Iniesta and looked quite the better for it, lining up in a functional 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 with Furuhashi generally leading the line. As Iniesta worked himself back into fitness however, it became apparent something needed to be done as… well, there really wasn’t a way of not playing him for various reasons. After some trial-and-error including him playing as a #10 in a 4-2-3-1, what manager Atsuhiro Miura stumbled upon was the 4-4-2 diamond!

How do Vissel Kobe play?

• Andres Iniesta at the tip of the diamond.
• Sergi Samper at the base (with Yamaguchi and Leo Osaki as rotation options), drops between Center Backs in the build-up and allow Full Backs to push high and wide.
• Two strikers of different profiles: Target man that can also drop to receive, the other to make movements behind the defense to stretch the gap between the opponent defensive and midfield lines. First performed by Kyogo Furuhashi and Douglas, in the latter half of the season these roles were performed very well by Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto.
• Cover all 5 lanes of the pitch with various rotating players: Strikers, Midfielders, or Full Backs.
• Quick 1-2s/Wall passes to escape pressure and create space.

There was a short period between Kyogo Furuhashi leaving and Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto getting back to fitness/integrating (around August-September) where Kobe looked very flat. In years prior Kobe had been accused of being very much a “possession for possession’s sake” team and unfortunately that reared its ugly head again in this period. Everybody wanted to receive to feet, there was only one slow tempo, and due to a variety of reasons Iniesta was playing deeper which mean that Kobe were also quite vulnerable on counterattacks during this time, among other defensive problems. In these matches only Gotoku Sakai and Ryo Hatsuse, the Full Backs, were the ones trying to make behind the defense and it just wasn’t great to watch.

However, with Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto fully integrated into the team by October, this changed significantly with more vertical and horizontal movements by the strikers accompanied by Iniesta playing at the tip more often than not. The fantastic ability of Muto and Osako to settle long balls, beat players physically, and hold-up the ball with their backs to goal allowed Kobe’s midfielders to push up to support. As a result Kobe were able to gain a foothold in the opponent’s half and then start spreading wide or switch field of play and advance into the final 3rd. The players within the “diamond” built better chemistry with each other over time and the rotating midfielders helped create “spaces” better by dragging tightly wound blocks apart and increasing the distance between opponent’s supporting players with their wider range of movement. These gaps could then be exploited by players looking to receive between the lines.

It also helps that players like Daiju Sasaki became much better at making runs deeper into the spaces vacated by strikers and midfielders dropping deeper.

Andres Iniesta has been excellent in his role at the tip of the diamond, with full freedom to drift around and provide a +1 in various parts of the field. This position means he doesn’t have to cover large amounts of space to position himself properly in defense most of the time and he can instead focus on finding space in for the next attacking phase (mostly focusing on cutting out the closest passing lane around him). As the highlights below might show, he’s still got it when coming up with great through balls and dribbling under pressure in tight areas.

Their structure defensively, especially against fast transitions, still isn’t great, however. Sergi Samper for all of his attributes, also isn’t the most mobile and with Kobe’s tendency to press up high it can leave him a bit vulnerable as he has to cover a lot of ground that he isn’t physically suited for. Other times the diamond can be shattered by opponent players receiving in all of the gaps that can appear between players, this is especially more apparent when Kobe’s high press is broken through quickly or Kobe turn the ball over right after they started their attack and players are still mid-movement in attacking transition.

With Kobe’s Full Backs providing the width and pushing up very high, Ryuho Kikuchi and the other Center Backs have to do a lot of covering to defend the spaces left behind by the marauding full backs.

I still do feel as though this Kobe side need another defensive midfielder as their other options this season were Leo Osaki (a Center Back), Tatsunori Sakurai (a youth player), and Hotaru Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi has been used the most in this role but I do feel as though that’s a waste of his talents in higher areas of the pitch. With Takahiro Ogihara’s arrival from Marinos confirmed, it does look like Yamaguchi will continue as the back up option, as Ogihara is more of a passer and Ogihara’s weakness in Marinos’ midfield is/was similar to Samper’s: a distinct lack of mobility.

Not every transfer turned out like Yoshinori Muto and Yuya Osako with Ayub Masika and Lincoln turning out to be duds this season, with Masika even leaving the club in the summer. Lincoln has shown flashes of potential as he endured a hard season of getting acclimatized and some injury problems so much more is expected of him next season. Kobe fans will also hope to see improvements from Shion Inoue, who earned a move after sparkling in J2 for Tokyo Verdy while the young star, Tatsunori Sakurai, finally made his debut this season. Bojan looked exciting, but as many would have guessed by now, he suffered yet another injury in late October which ruled him out for the rest of the season.

Now the time is ripe for Vissel Kobe to mount a title challenge next year. A full pre-season for the summer arrivals and strengthening the squad for another ACL run through Rakuten’s slush fund will have Kobe fans salivating for some more silverware to add onto their solitary Emperor’s Cup in 2019.

Note: Vissel Kobe have strengthened their squad by adding Marinos’ midfielder Ogihara while Tomoaki Makino has come in to replace Thomas Vermaelen leaving on a free.

Shimizu S-Pulse

Miguel Angel Lotina’s vision to revitalize S-Pulse did not come to pass as his rigid 4-4-2 did not inspire at either end of the pitch. Key defender, Yoshinori Suzuki, got injured for nearly 6 months in May and while the quality of shots they conceded were low for the most part, teams were still able to find a way to score eventually. S-Pulse’s bend-but-don’t-break strategy didn’t work at all as they conceded the most goals in the league (16) in the final 10 minutes of games.

Despite S-Pulse being able to suppress the quality of shots as they packed their own box, they also let in more than double the league average from set pieces (20) and above league average from open-play crosses (12).

At the other end of the pitch things were hardly any better as despite Thiago Santana being a huge hit with 13 goals, the next highest goal scorer were 8 different players tied at a paltry 2 goals… and 4 of the 8 players were defenders! On top of that he never scored more than once a game and you can start to understand S-Pulse’s problems in attack.

To sum up: when you’re not great defensively, pinned in your own defensive 3rd for large chunks of games, and on top of that you’re really only ever going to score at most 1 goal, you are walking an extreme tight rope every game hoping that variance doesn’t kill you. And for most of the season S-Pulse just kept rolling awful outcomes (offensively and defensively) and its cost them dearly.

With Lotina under hot water there was a lot done during the summer transfer window to solve their problems. In came Benjamin Cololli and Noriaki Fujimoto to bolster the attack while in defense a veteran stop-gap Center Back was signed in the form of Hiroshima’s out of favor Akira Ibayashi. However, the most notable and surprising transfer was of Sagan Tosu’s Daiki Matsuoka, a Japan youth international and a large part of Tosu’s success in the first half of the season.

These signings did a number of positive things. In the first half of the season, Thiago Santana’s strike partner was Yuito Suzuki, who is more of a dribbler and ball progressor via carries rather than an out-and-out striker. He still has some work to do in regards to his passing and shooting but is very good at receiving on the half-turn and finding pockets of space in between the lines. Due to S-Pulse’s problems in the build-up and just getting hemmed into their own half, both players would drop to receive the ball a lot. This not only exacerbated S-Pulse’s problems getting out of their own half but also meant they had no presence up front for runs in behind the opponent defense nor were they available for holding up the ball from long balls or clearances. Most of Thiago Santana’s hold-up play was done on the halfway line or even below which was not optimal.

With the arrival of Cololli and Fujimoto, however, this meant Fujimoto would play up front along side Santana while Cololli and Yuito Suzuki would play as the wide midfielders. This allowed S-Pulse to have more options in between the lines as Yuito Suzuki was still very good at finding space but more crucially allowed Santana to stay up top and push defenses back toward their own goal. This then had the knock-on effect of S-Pulse being able to get more numbers into the final 3rd.

S-Pulse also became a bit better in possession with Ronaldo’s passing range and Daiki Matsuoka connecting defense to attack but even with these improvements, they couldn’t make the better chances created count and poor results continued. The final straw was a 0-4 loss against FC Tokyo off a run of 6 losses in their previous 10 matches which led to Lotina tendering in his resignation.

Even with the big investment over the summer, the team really failed to get tangible results until the last few matches of the season. There lies big questions ahead over who their new manager will be and the S-Pulse front office will need to get it right as many vultures will be swooping for potential targets such as Shuichi Gonda, Daiki Matsuoka, Thiago Santana, and Teruki Hara.

Note: S-Pulse have confirmed that caretaker manager Hiroaki Hiraoka will take the reins permanently next season.

FC Tokyo

It was yet another disappointing year for FC Tokyo, to add to a poor 2020 season where the only solace was winning the League Cup. The “Morishige as a #6” experiment that was ran out in the latter half of the 2020 season proved poor and was quickly done away with, leaving Kenta Hasegawa without a lot of ideas besides leaning on the creativity of the Brazilian “O Tridente” (Leandro, Adailton, and Diego Oliveira) in a 4-2-3-1.

The end result was a season of “Jekyll & Hyde” performances. Lowlights include the 5 game losing streak that nearly cost Hasegawa his job earlier in the season in April/May and the horrific 0-8 loss to Yokohama Marinos in November which led to Hasegawa’s actual departure from the team.

In the mid-season review I talked about how unbalanced the squad was in terms of age, and with Yuto Nagatomo coming back it only got worse.

A good chunk of the minutes are being taken up by 30+ year olds such as Hirotaka Mita, Keigo Higashi, Kensuke Nagai, Yojiro Takahagi, Masato Morishige, and the Brazilians except Leandro not getting any younger. I would like to imagine a few will be released, especially in light of new management and change in playing style (more on that later). At the bottom left corner you can see a boat load of various young players playing some minutes as FC Tokyo scrambled to fill holes in the squad from injury problems throughout the season, especially at full back.

At the beginning of the season, things looked OK at full back with Hotaka Nakamura looking dependable and while question marks remained over Ryoya Ogawa on the defensive side of things, he was still a positive contributor in attack. Meanwhile there was hope that players like Takumi Nakamura and Makoto Okazaki would improve as good squad players throughout the season. Unfortunately, a season-ending injury for Hotaka in early April would spell the beginning of a curse over the full back positions. Takumi Nakamura, Makoto Okazaki, and converted midfielder Takuya Uchida all filled in to extremely poor results at Right Back and it became clear a different solution was needed. That solution turned out to be a surprise as Kashif Bangunagande stepped up to the plate, coming into play Left Back and forcing Ryoya Ogawa over to the right with some very promising performances (for a full review of Kashif, please see the mid-season review where I wrote an entire section on him). During the summer transfer window, Junya Suzuki was also plucked from J2 side, Blaublitz Akita but the jury still remains out on him as he also got injured after a run of games. While the return of Yuto Nagatomo was welcome in a side completely devoid of fit full backs, in the medium-to-long term it really doesn’t strike me as a good transfer considering the fact that when all players are fit, FC Tokyo have 6 players for 2 positions (and this is leaving out Makoto Okazaki and Takuya Uchida).

While FC Tokyo have had success with blooding in their youth players in the past few seasons with Shuto Abe, Go Hatano, Ryoya Ogawa, and Tsuyoshi Watanabe being the highlights, it was clear that there were quite a few players that clearly didn’t have the necessary quality to be playing at the J1 level.

Kyosuke Tagawa will really need to step up next season as most of FC Tokyo’s attacking players age out in the coming years. Despite beating his personal goal record (4 goals when he was a 17 year old for Sagan Tosu) by scoring 5 goals this season, he definitely could be scoring more as he is extraordinarily quick, presses a lot, and gets into good scoring positions (his misses against Gamba and Frontale come to mind). FC Tokyo fans will have to hope that since he is always getting into good positions, that the goals will come and that he will also be another player that would hopefully stop getting injured.

Leandro is a real “maverick” of this team, his fantastic creativity and set piece delivery are the main positives but his disciplinary issues and frosty relationship with now former manager Kenta Hasegawa have soured the past two seasons. His strengths come from his ability to find space between the lines, exploiting the gaps opened up by other attackers such as Diego or Nagai pushing the opponent defense lines deeper toward their own goal. This is especially potent on the counterattack where his almost telepathic understanding with Brazilian teammates Diego Oliveira and Adailton shines.

Now that Hasegawa is gone, the main question is will Leandro get along with the new boss?

Continuing on the discussion on the squad age is the issue of Central Midfield. I wasn’t a particular fan of Takuya Aoki’s signing but although he hasn’t exactly been amazing, he also hasn’t really been the problem for FC Tokyo this season. Aoki will count himself lucky as he really was the main benefactor of the “Morishige as a #6” project being scrapped very early in the season as he was able to build a not flashy but functional partnership with Shuto Abe in the middle of the park. Even in the intermediate term it’s not optimal… but in terms of his performances they’ve been … mediocre-to-fine. Nevertheless, age is still an issue with the only real backup being Hirotaka Mita and an experiment to play Keigo Higashi there ended predictably poorly. With younger options such as Manato Shinada and Arthur Silva looking as though they won’t quite cut it at this level, FC Tokyo will be desperate to secure a young/prime-age midfielder. My list for potential signings include Tatsuki Seko (unlikely due to suitors from much better teams than FC Tokyo) or out-of-favor Urawa signing Daiki Kaneko (largely dependent on whether Ricardo Rodriguez still considers him as a depth option if Urawa make it to the ACL next season). (NOTE: FC Tokyo have confirmed the signing of 28 year old CB/CM Yasuki Kimoto from Nagoya Grampus)

Besides the much-heralded return of Nagatomo to the capital club and to a lesser extent the emergency signing of Junya Suzuki, I haven’t talked a whole lot about the other signings made by FC Tokyo. Ryoma Watanabe came from J2 side Montedio Yamagata as an attacking midfielder capable of playing on either side (but mostly from the right wing). It was a stop-start campaign due to injury but he has looked decent and one would hope he’ll be one of the main players FC Tokyo build around in the medium term. Bruno Uvini was signed to much fanfare but for some incomprehensible reasons which will most likely never be known, he hardly got a kick of the ball all season. While he had a slow start due to his delayed arrival due to COVID immigration protocols, the fact that he only played a grand total of 51 league minutes was very perplexing to nearly all FC Tokyo fans. Joan Oumari was brought back after being released last December because of Uvini’s delayed arrival and was OK for the most part. It’s quite clear what you’re going to get from Oumari: strong in aerial/ground duels, decent passing from his left foot, but a lack of pace that needs to be compensated for by the rest of the team (unfortunately in certain games that protection was no where to be seen). With Uvini’s continued absence, the Lebanese international played significant minutes and even replaced Tsuyoshi Watanabe as Morishige’s primary CB partner at the tail end of the season.

So, the Kenta Hasegawa era is over and a new dawn arrives for FC Tokyo on and off the pitch with the takeover of the club by social networking company “Mixi” and the arrival of Albirex Niigata manager and ex-Barcelona academy director, Albert Puig. As one might expect from a former Barca man, Puig’s Albirex Niigata side were all about possession, which is a drastic change of style from the Hasegawa reign. With such a major change in philosophy, the next few transfer windows will become even more important adding on to all the squad age issues that I’ve highlighted throughout this section. The main questions then are, who will benefit and who will miss out?

A very large cloud hangs over the fate of the three Brazilian players who all look more suited to the fast transition game employed by Hasegawa. There is still some possibility that Leandro could fit in but regardless of the stylistic fit, both Diego and Adailton are over 30… It will be hard for FC Tokyo to make too many changes in just the winter off-season so it still looks likely that a good chunk of the squad, regardless of fit, will stay on.

Sagan Tosu

Sagan Tosu started the season off red-hot and then slowly simmered away from around the half-way point of the season both in terms of xG and goals. The attack was fairly consistent throughout but in defense they went from 3rd best in the league around the midway point to 6th best in the league without their numbers changing too much (0.938 xGA per Game to 0.94 xGA per Game). The average shot quality conceded didn’t drop but one can look at the graph to see how they did have a bit of a rocky time defensively whereas they were a bit more consistent in the first half of the season.

A key point to Tosu’s rise and… stumble were the mid-season departure of two key players, Daiki Matsuoka (Shimizu S-Pulse) and Daichi Hayashi (Sint-Truiden). Incoming transfers were Ryohei Shirasaki and Kei Koizumi from Kashima Antlers, both players who are very versatile which on paper made them perfect to fill in different roles within the Tosu system. However, it wouldn’t prove to be so straightforward.

So how do Sagan Tosu play?

• Out of possession: 3-5-2 or 5-4-1
• In possession: 4-4-2 or 3-4-3
• Most of positional changes on the Left as Left Wing Back Yoshihiro Nakano moves into midfield to occupy the left half-space while the Left-sided Center Back becomes a Left Back to keep the width on the outside lane.
• Different variations can occur depending on how the opposition is set up.

While Tosu usually played with two strikers in the first half of the season, this sort of stopped after Daichi Hayashi left for Europe. In the second half of the season they usually only had one act as a target man (Noriyoshi Sakai or Keita Yamashita), with the other “striker” can be an extra midfielder as well depending on the opposition (Yuto Iwasaki, Ryohei Shirasaki, or Tomoya Koyamatsu). This variability is why in possession Tosu can look like they have a front 3 or 2 supporting midfielders behind a lone striker as well.

In center midfield is usually from left-to-right, Keiya Sento, Yuta Higuchi, and then a revolving cast of one of Ryohei Shirasaki, Kei Koizumi, Toshio Shimakawa, or Tomoya Koyamatsu. With the major positional rotations occurring on the left side, it is usually Sento and Higuchi playing as a double pivot or spread out in the half-spaces (Sento on the left, Higuchi on the right) to combine with the strikers or wing backs. If an extra player is needed to evade the opponent’s press in the build-up phase, one of the midfielders is tasked to drop into back line (in the half-spaces rather than splitting the Center Backs usually) .

Most of the time Tosu use short, quick passes and cut apart opposition blocks in between the lines. They can also launch it long to the likes of Noriyoshi Sakai when needed. Tosu also have a high work rate off the ball and they use their high press to win the ball and counter quickly as they are very good in attacking transitions.

In previous sections you might have noticed that Tomoya Koyamatsu pops up anywhere from wing back, to midfield, to up top. I really do think he is one of their best players and his versatility allows him to pop up in all sorts of spaces in a team where fluidity is important to create numerical mismatches and create quick passing sequences into the final 3rd and box.

On the defensive side of things, especially in the latter half of the season, Tosu have been a bit too easy to carve right through the middle as there really isn’t a defined defensive role player there. With how the players in the double pivot can move wider toward the half-spaces and sometimes to make runs out wide ahead of the wing backs, a gap can appear due to the lack of midfield cover in rest defense which can leave the two Center Backs exposed when a Tosu attack breaks down in the attacking or middle 3rd of the pitch. This poor record in defensive transitions can partly explain why Tosu gave up the 2nd most goals from “through ball” situations in the league according to Football-Lab as whoever is covering in the middle in front of the defenders has a large amount of area to patrol.

In terms of off-season transfers, a lot of teams will no doubt have eyes on various Tosu players. Young Center Back/Full Back hybrid Shinya Nakano and Ayumu Ohata impressed on the left this season and at the young ages of 18 and 20 respectively, the Japanese youth national team members have a lot of upside. The midfielders, Yuta Higuchi and Keiya Sento will also be prime targets while Eduardo has turned quite a few heads with his defensive prowess this season.

The fate of the manager Kim Myung-Hwi is up in the air due to the power harassment investigation that hung over as a dark cloud over Tosu’s otherwise bright season. While there may be lots of turbulence ahead, its not an unusual situation for Tosu and they’ll have to once again rely on their famed youth academy to provide replacements next year.

Yokohama F. Marinos

Yokohama Marinos looked to be in top form in Ange Postecoglou’s 4th season in charge. However, Europe came calling in the form of Celtic FC and the Australian left for a new challenge in June. Hideki Matsunaga largely kept the ship sailing for a month with 4 straight wins until Kevin Muscat took over the reins in late July. Despite a red-hot start, something seemed a bit different about Marinos and some poor games in September-October all but ended their hopes for catching up to Kawasaki Frontale. Nevertheless, the team still finished fairly comfortably as the second best team in the league in both results and in performances when taking all of the games into account.

Marinos’ attack was once again the highlight, finishing the season with the most amount of goals scored, one goal above champions Kawasaki Frontale. This was, in part, helped by a astounding 8-0 victory over a woeful FC Tokyo side in November, however. Interestingly, Marinos scoring a league-record 19 goals in the last 10 minutes of the game, highlighting how their relentless attacking pressure took its toll on weary defenses.

How do Marinos play?

• Marcos Junior between the lines and providing support on either wing as +1 option for overloads.

• Full Backs inverted in the half-spaces, positioning themselves in gaps in opponent’s midfield to receive directly from Center Backs.

• Wingers keep width and stretch the gap between the opponent’s Full Back and Center Back. Can dribble inside in possession.
• Winger on ball-far side makes diagonal runs into the box toward the far post for crosses and cut backs.

With so much movement happening between players, this has led them to be a bit vulnerable in counterattacking situations especially when they are caught in transition with the Center Midfielders supporting the play out wide or making their own runs into the box from the half-spaces. Usually their intense counter-press can prevent crises, while Marinos’ Center Backs are very comfortable in dealing with 1v1 situations as they are as adept in physical confrontations as they are on the ball in possession. Nevertheless, the role requires considerable mobility and decision-making which is why Tomoki Iwata excelled in the role mid-season until he was forced to partner Thiago Martins in defense following Shinnosuke Hatanaka’s injury.

A key part of Marinos’ attack is Daizen Maeda, who is more of a player that gets on the end of moves or attacking sequences as a finisher rather than as a creator. When he was primarily playing on the Left Wing in Postecoglou and Matsunaga’s time at the helm, his crossing on his weaker left foot was still decent enough though. Just his sheer speed to get on the end of what would be hopeless balls for many players allowed Marinos to keep the pressure on the opponent and even if his crosses weren’t successful, it was still useful in facilitating chances to win loose balls and counter-press to keep the opponent pinned in their defensive 3rd. It’s not just his speed but the good timing of the runs as well as he hardly gets called offside relative to the amount of sprints he makes. His diagonal runs cutting inside are hard for defenders to track because he can wait until the very last second before changing direction and bursting into the box to either post or central in the 6 yard box. When it comes to his involvement in the build-up, Maeda doesn’t do a whole lot when moving deeper, mainly keeping it simple with a lay off or pass, simply waiting for the right time to strike with his running. What’s changed the most from the section I wrote on Marinos in the mid-season review is Kevin Muscat’s preference for using Daizen Maeda as a Striker rather than out on the wing. With Muscat’s emphasis on having Marinos pin the opponent in their own half, Maeda’s running is needed centrally to push the opponent defense line back to gain territory and allow more Marinos players to push into the final 3rd.

Yokohama Marinos’ transfer dealings were a mixed bag with Ryo Miyaichi and Kenyu Sugimoto struggling… unsurprisingly to most J.League fans but on the other hand Tomoki Iwata (after a tough start), Elber (although he tailed off a bit under Kevin Muscat), and Leo Ceara have all been quite good. Leo Ceara was good both as a creator and goal scorer after a slow start but also due to the presence of Ado Onaiwu hogging the spotlight and playing time. The Brazilian finished the season with 10 goals and 5 assists in 14.9 90s.

Out on the wing, super sub Kota Mizunuma had a phenomenal year despite only getting 1 start in his 36 league appearances as he finished the season with 3 goals and 9 assists in just 7.8 90s! Meanwhile, Teruhito Nakagawa slowly put his injury woes behind him as he finished the season with 2 goals and 7 assists.

With Kevin Muscat really establishing his mark on the team in the final few months of the season as well as the departure of coach John Hutchinson, the big question is how exactly will Muscat evolve this clearly talented team?

To start things off there are lots of incoming and outgoing transfers to be made as the manager has had time to assess the squad. With Daizen Maeda looking very likely to leave, on top of existing squad options Marinos have acquired winger Takumi Nishimura from relegated Vegalta Sendai. Things are likely to get shaken up in midfield with the departure of Takahiro Ogihara to Vissel Kobe leaving the Yokohama side a bit bare in central midfield with only Takuya Kida, veteran Takuya Wada, the young Kota Watanabe in the squad, especially more so as Tomoki Iwata looks likely to remain at Center Back with Hatanaka still some time away from recovery. While Center Back options are still up in the air, beloved Thai defender Theerathon Bunmathan has moved back home to Thailand which has led Marinos to pluck Left Back Katsuya Nagato from rivals Kashima Antlers to replace him.

With a return to the Asian Champions League next season, Kevin Muscat has his work cut out for him to assemble a squad that can compete on multiple fronts.

Note: Marinos have acquired Tokushima’s Joel Fujita to replace Ogihara. A really exciting transfer!

Kashima Antlers

Kashima Antlers finished the season in 4th, on 69 points. 10 behind 2nd place Marinos and 23 behind champions Kawasaki. To say that this season was a disappointment would be an understatement for a team that was being ear marked to challenge for the title in Antonio Zago’s second season at the helm. A big mix of things went off in a terrible start to the season with star striker Everaldo misfiring in a major way as he went from scoring 18 goals from 18.54 xG in the 2020 season to just 1 (one!) goal from 8.26 xG!

By their metrics it looked like Kashima were just under-performing xG on the attacking end while opponent teams were just really good at finishing their chances in the beginning few matches right around to where Zago was fired after a Matchday 8 draw against Consadole Sapporo. Results improved after Naoki Soma took charge but to me it just seemed like they started to actually score the chances they had been consistently creating since the beginning of the season and a certain Brazilian striker was injured during this initial managerial “honeymoon” period which I also think helped. As the season went by, the underlying numbers and the actual numbers aligned for the most part without too much changes from Naoki Soma (aside from toning down the press by a couple of notches).

One of the highlights this season was the continued growth of Ryotaro Araki and Ayase Ueda (started together up top in 12 matches). With 10 goals and 7 assists for the former and 14 goals and 1 assist for the latter, both have earned call ups to the national team (Ueda for the Olympics and Araki for the friendly game in late January next year).

Ayase Ueda’s movement is top notch, whether it is to create space for himself, dropping deep to receive, or opening up passing/dribbling lanes for his teammates. 4.21 shots per 90, 3rd best in the league and scored his 13 non-penalty goals from 10.2 non-penalty xG. Ueda’s 0.13 xG per Shot 0.52 non-penalty xG per 90 show how much of a consistent threat he was inside and outside the box.

Ryotaro Araki has improved on his good rookie 2020 season, where he scored 2 and assisted 2 (in minutes equivalent to 10.1 90s), starting a majority of league games and being named the “Best Young Player” in the league. He is constantly looking for good spaces to receive and is a threat on the dribble or through passing when on the ball.

(Big thanks to James Yorke for procuring Araki’s radar viz for me)

Kashima are an interesting team in that even if they aren’t playing well on either side of the ball… they have several players that sparkle, suddenly, in certain moments and in those moments of brilliance they can completely turn the tide of the game by scoring a goal! These “moments” players include Diego Pituca, Juan Alano, Arthur Caike, and Ryotaro Araki who can turn something from absolutely nothing.

On the defensive side of things, their blocks of 4 are tasked with sliding from side-to-side quite heavily. Although under Naoki Soma they don’t go with the extremely high pressing system Antlers had under Zago, they still like to squeeze the opponent in their build-up. Either trapping them along the sidelines or luring them into the central areas, Kashima are filled with players who are very strong in tackles and physical duels that allow them to regain possession and then counterattack effectively.

Against Kashima’s 4-4-2, the opposition usually tries to switch the ball quickly before this sliding can occur, however they still have to contend with Kashima’s strong Center Backs, Ikuma Sekigawa and Koki Machida, who have usually been equal to the task of covering large amounts of space and bumping opponents off the ball with their speed, aggression, and strength. The two young Center Backs were partnered up in defense consistently in the last few months of the season following Tomoya Inukai’s injury in October. The pair have been absolute rocks in defense while also being very good passers to start attacks as well.

The key for Kashima’s opponents then, isn’t only forcing the Center Backs out wide to cover, but then pushing up other players in support to make runs into the vacated space to take advantage of Kashima’s Center Backs’ absence in central areas. Even in those cases, Kashima’s Center Midfielders are usually able to cover those gaps.

A surprise for me was how good Keigo Tsunemoto looked defensively in his first professional season. He is strong at 1v1s and was a good counterbalance in the 2nd half of the season for the returning Left Back, Koki Anzai (Portimonense), whose advanced positioning on the left wing meant that someone had to be slightly more conservative on the opposite side.

In regards to potential ins and outs… Everaldo, given his very high wages (in the higher echelons of J.League players) and the fact that he is already 29, might even make sense to let him go. Especially if they can just bring back Yuki Kakita (on loan from Vortis) into the team as a younger, cheaper replacement with a good goal scoring record and a slightly different profile compared to Ayase Ueda. Ryotaro Araki will be on the eye of many European teams as his first full season proved even better than the cameos he made in the 2020 season.

Rene Weiler comes in as the new manager for next season and a lot of expectation will be on him to get Kashima back into the ACL and challenging for the title as this squad is more than capable of it.

Shonan Bellmare

Bellmare just about survived on the last day of the season. They could have clinched their survival weeks beforehand but a limp draw while being one man up for most of the game against Hiroshima as well as losing an absolutely vital clash against fellow relegation candidates Tokushima Vortis at home meant that they had to better Vortis’ result on the last matchday of the season. Shonan’s final match against Gamba, which ended 0 - 0 really was a good summation of their season, they really had trouble scoring despite creating lots of good chances throughout and being “relatively” secure at the back.

Just looking at “goals for” and “goals against”, Shonan finished the season with -5 goal difference. A team with only a single digit negative goal difference don’t usually get relegated! You can just flip through past league tables in most leagues on Wikipedia or something to check! In the J.League, Kashiwa went down with -7 GD a few years ago, a bizarre set of teams in the 2012 season, and FC Tokyo -5 in 2010.

Out of the 15 games where their xG difference (Shonan’s xG for a match minus the opponent’s xG) was positive, they only won 2 and drew 9 of those games. While a good chunk of this may just be due to the game state of their matches, i.e. the opponent took the lead early and therefore Shonan racked up a lot of chances (both in terms of quality and quantity of shots) because the opponent was happy to sit back on an early lead (as one example of the effect of game state on xG). For those curious, here is a great thread on how game state can impact xG when looking at La Liga numbers.

Despite their continuous finishing woes, with the change in manager mid-season to Satoshi Yamaguchi, Shonan were able to swing games more to their favor by improving their defensive record, even if results still didn’t go their way. Many tight games lost by a solitary goal while some harsh VAR decisions didn’t go their way either in the first half of the season.

How do Shonan Bellmare play?

• 3-5-2 formation with their midfield 3 arranged in an inverted triangle.
• Long passes or switches of play to Wing Backs to gain territory in the opposition half or defensive 3rd.

As you’d expect from their playing style, Shonan Bellmare scored 13 goals from crossing situations and 8 from set pieces.

• Multiple “waves” of players shifting over to support: Center Midfielders, ball-near Center Back, and Striker(s).

• Depending on the opposition and the pair of strikers Shonan are playing: One or both strikers make runs in behind to push the opponent’s defense line deeper while the other searches for pockets of space to receive on the half-turn or with their back-to-goal.

• Close support of players allows for counter-pressing when Shonan lose the ball or when opponent is in build-up phase.

• The three-man midfield is tasked to cover a lot of ground, shifting over from side-to-side. When opponents are able to quickly switch play and work their way up the field however, this can leave Shonan’s defense exposed and force their high line to retreat.

Some examples:

• High line, high press.
• Strikers playing with their back-to-goal and play lay offs to forward-facing midfielders in close support.
• 3rd man runs from the Wing Backs.

• Shonan’s aggressive Center Backs follow Sapporo’s forwards dropping to receive the ball.
• After a bit of a scuffle with one of Shonan’s strikers also pressing back, they are able to regain possession on the half line.
• Taiga Hata is already starting his run from a deep position from the moment the ball is won.
• After some build-up, Shonan are able to play Hata through the left. The pass is a bit strong but Hata has the speed to catch up and make the cross.

For a more general overview of how a 3-5-2 works I recommend this video explaining the principles of the formation using RB Leipzig as the example from Carlon Carpenter.

In terms of Shonan players, I already did a pretty in-depth profile on several players in the mid-season review but I’ll go over some of them again here.

Following the managerial change from Bin Ukishima to Satoshi Yamaguchi, Hirokazu Ishihara’s role in the team changed as he moved from Center Back to the right-sided CB. Kazuki Oiwa was swapped in as the central defender as Yamaguchi preferred Oiwa’s strength and dueling ability to Ishihara’s build-up play in the central role. As the right-sided Center Back, Ishihara positioned like a Right Back at times, utilizing his long range passing from a better angle to hit diagonal switches or for the strikers up top (sort of like Akito Fukumori for Consadole but on the right side). However, some game-defining errors on his part meant that in the closing stages of the season, Ishihara lost his place on the team altogether. Shonan fans will hope that he will grow from this experience.

Taiga Hata finished the season pretty strong playing down the left wing although it took a bit of time to get back up to speed as he missed the first third of the season. He’s been very good in his role at wing back, and also acting as a “safety valve” for defense through his lightning quick recovery pace and physicality. Only talking about his physical traits would do him a disservice as his decision-making has been good too from knowing when to rush up-field to close down an opponent full back and when to hang back or retreat. Hata is very alert and switched on during both attacking and defensive transitions, the timing of his overlapping runs being a huge asset to Shonan Bellmare this season (some examples of which I showed in the previous section).

Satoshi Tanaka is another player I’ve talked about at length in blog posts and on Twitter. His biggest strength is still his ability to take possession of ball when it is loose or in direct duels vs. opponents by lunging and getting his body in between the ball and the opponent. When on the ball he is tasked with keeping things ticking, recycle the ball after regaining possession, and shifting over from side-to-side as the reverse option for players out wide in the half space or centrally. This season Tanaka has been able to show more of his ability to play through balls in the attacking 3rd while also making late runs in the half-spaces in these areas too. He can’t perform the latter often because he is the defensive pivot in a three-man midfield, but his decision-making and risk calculation has been very good in these situations. I wouldn’t be surprised if he can play as more of a box-to-box midfielder in the future too.

I’ll make note of yet another new young player to shine for Shonan in the latter part of this season, Taiyo Hiraoka. He has taken up one of the center midfield roles with aplomb, taking over from veteran Naoki Yamada. Very good dribbler with close control in tight spaces around the box as well as being a progressive ball carrier in the half-spaces from deeper areas of the field.

Now, even with safety secured for another season, it’ll be another tough offseason as bigger teams in J1, if not Europe will be looking to pluck their best young talents away. With the return to a 18 team J.League the big question for Shonan is: how long can they keep this up?

R.I.P. Riuler Oliveira, who passed away due to a heart attack in late November.

Nagoya Grampus

Although Nagoya won silverware in the form of the League Cup, there would be some disappointment among people who expected a lot more in both the league and the Asian Champions League. With a lot of the early hype surrounding a two-horse title race between Nagoya and Kawasaki, those hopes were dashed in a double-header between the teams in April/May that led to disastrous defeats (the games were supposed to be Matchday 12 and 22 respectively but was re-scheduled in this weird fashion due to the Asian Champions League group stage postponement). Their defensive record remained stellar like the previous season, however the same problems in attack remained.

In cup competitions, a lot of eyes were on their first ACL appearances since 2012 but it would end in disappointment as Nagoya went out pretty limply against eventual runner-up Pohang Steelers in the quarter finals. Even still they did get farther than the rest of the Japanese teams. While Nagoya also went out in the quarter finals in the Emperor’s Cup, they came out of the season as worthy winners of the League Cup, their first piece of silverware since their first and only league title in 2010.

Nagoya were given quite a scare when one of the bedrocks of their defense in Center Back and captain, Yuichi Maruyama, suffered an ACL injury in May and was ruled out for the season. However, some shrewd transfer business assuaged this loss as Kim Min-Tae came in on loan from Consadole Sapporo. He took to Nagoya’s defensive unit immediately and helped them to conceding only 30 goals, 2nd least in the league. His acquisition also allowed Yasuki Kimoto to keep filling in as a Center Midfielder instead and lessen the burden on the squad in general (especially as Takuji Yonemoto was also ruled out for the season with an injury in late September).

Although Yoichiro Kakitani playing up top had some merits (chance-creation and as part of the first line of defense), it was still very apparent that Nagoya lacked a goal scorer especially with Mu Kanazaki not coming back into the team until very late in the season and Ryogo Yamasaki also flattering to deceive in front of goal. In the summer, Nagoya’s answers were answered with the arrival of Jakub Swierczok. His strength coupled with his fantastic finishing ability (see his goals against Gamba Osaka in late November for a sample) reinvigorated Nagoya Grampus as he scored 7 goals in 9 league starts (8.7 90s). Elsewhere, Yuki Soma had a very good year despite only playing minutes totaling up to 18.2 90s with 8 assists in a season where his performances earned him appearances in the Olympics. In Center Midfield, Sho Inagaki had his best season ever with his everlasting stamina, defensive actions, and knack for scoring goals earning him a national team debut and a place on the “Team of the Season”.

Some bad news have hit Grampus fans since the season ended as contract negotiations broke down with manager Massimo Ficcadenti, which led the club to hire former FC Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa. Ficcadenti has built quite a good foundation especially in defense, so Hasegawa should have a solid head start compared to other new managers coming into the 2022 season. Another massive blow came in mid-December as it was reported by the Asian Football Confederation announced that Jakub Swierczok had tested positive for some illegal substance in Nagoya’s ACL quarterfinal vs. Pohang Steelers. He is banned from playing in any competition until further investigation is complete.

Note: Not long after writing this section, it was announced that regular wide midfielder, Naoki Maeda, would move on loan to FC Utrecht until the summer. Another blow for Kenta Hasegawa before he even steps into the dug out!

Urawa Reds

It was a rough start to the season for Urawa Reds, as the squad was still full of players who either weren’t good enough or were the right tactical fit despite a busy winter transfer window. This led to some oddities such as veteran midfielder Yuki Abe playing at Right Back while promising midfielder Akihiro Akimoto ended up making a lot of appearances at Left Back. A lot of Urawa’s transfer business was from J2 as new manager Ricardo Rodriguez used his experience in the 2nd tier of Japanese soccer to pick up some hidden gems such as Yoshio Koizumi and the aforementioned Akimoto while talent from J1 such as Tatsuya Tanaka and Daiki Kaneko notably struggled to hit the ground running. Meanwhile the Saitama club’s recruitment from the university teams were very fruitful with the acquisitions of Tomoaki Okubo and Atsuki Ito. Even so what really got Urawa going were the signing made in the summer transfer window with the arrivals of Danish league pair Kasper Junker and Alexander Scholz, Japan international Hiroki Sakai, Yuichi Hirano, and Kashiwa star Ataru Esaka.

How do Urawa Reds play?

A lot of emphasis is made on occupying all 5 lanes of the field with the Full Backs in particular being tasked to keep the width. Ryosuke Yamanaka took a while to get used to the demands of the new system but with his return to the starting line-up in October he was very good as a outlet on the left flank.

It is quite remarkable how Yuichi Hirano became such an integral in the build-up in a short amount of time. With his movements to drop into the defensive line, it then gives space for Yoshio Koizumi and Ataru Esaka to drop into pockets of space in midfield to receive and then turn to lay the ball off to progress into the final 3rd. Koizumi is equally comfortable with either foot and he has been very good at being able to switch the ball to the far side from either half-space that he drifts into to receive.

Ataru Esaka has been brilliant playing nominally in the “Striker” role but really he is more of a drifting #10 or a false #9, popping up into gaps between the lines and either turning of laying the ball off to deeper players in support.

For all their good build-up however, a consistent problem when the likes of Kasper Junker or Shinzo Koroki (a.k.a. actual strikers) aren’t playing is that there wasn’t enough threat from players making runs in behind the defense so they couldn’t get into the box easily in the first half of the season. Especially with Koizumi and Esaka playing as the “double false 9s”, it’s become absolutely vital that the Red’s wide midfielders can make diagonal runs into the penalty area and push the opponent back toward their own goal. In general, they need their wide midfielders to become a bigger goal threat and while Takahiro Sekine and Koya Yuruki have improved throughout the season in this regard, they need to be contributing even more.

Another reason why Ricardo Rodriguez has persisted with the Koizumi - Esaka “false 9” pairing is due to their work rate and understanding on the defensive side of things. They work together really well in cutting out passing lanes, forcing passes backwards, and then launching short counterattacks in the opponent’s defensive 3rd or midfield.

Other players who have impressed is Atsuki Ito (I personally was a bit skeptical of him at the beginning of the season but he’s won me over now) who is very active defensively in terms of pressing, tackles, duels, and all sorts of defensive actions but on the other hand isn’t much in the way of a ball progressor through carries or passes.

Zion Suzuki actually managed to wrest the Goalkeeper position away from veteran Shusaku Nishikawa until an unfortunate incident regarding registration forced him to sit out and lose his place as Nishikawa had a really good run of form throughout the rest of the season.

Urawa have progressed a lot further than some fans expected as I don’t think many were expecting the Reds to be in the fight for a Asian Champions League spot for a good chunk of the season already. What should be relieving for Urawa fans is that even for all of Ricardo Rodriguez’s emphasis on his footballing philosophy, he has shown a willingness to change the tactics to get the result like in the game against Yokohama Marinos. The Spanish manager has been quite good at finding solutions when the usual methods of build-up don’t work (ex. 2nd Half adjustments in the Kashima game in November) but the fact remains that they don’t score enough goals even if they are able to improve upon getting the ball into the final 3rd in games where they’ve initially struggled. Unlike quite a few managers in the J.League who are quite rigid in their philosophy, this bodes well for Urawa who will be facing many difficult challenges in the league and the ACL next year as they were able to win the Emperor’s Cup in December.

Gamba Osaka

This was truly a season to forget for Gamba as club legend Tsuneyasu Miyamoto was fired after 10 games that were marred by both poor performances exacerbated by a COVID breakout which lead to enormous fixture congestion that would trouble Gamba until the final months of the season. In addition to the COVID situation, Gamba faced an injury crisis as well, most notably to players out wide in defense and midfield. Pretty much everybody except Masaaki Higashiguchi, Takashi Usami, Shu Kurata, Kohei Okuno (who had to fill in at wingback in many games), and Patric all had to miss a sizable chunk of games for one reason or another.

This year the coin flips just didn’t land their way in tight games like it did in the 2020 season as they severely under-performed relative to their xG in the first third-to-half of the season. Even so, neither Gamba’s xG per 90 nor their average shot quality were any good, with their 0.99 xG per 90 and 1.67 xGA per 90 being the 8th worst and worst in the league respectively.

While slightly above league average in xGA per Shot, they were giving up a league worst over 16 shots per game as opponents peppered Masaaki Higashiguchi’s goal. They were giving up nearly 2 shots per game more than the 2nd worse team in the league on this metric, the woeful Vegalta Sendai.

Both Miyamoto and caretaker Matsunami tried many different approaches (some of which were definitely forced by the lack of personnel available to be fair), as they switched between 3-5-2, 4-4-2, and 4-3-3 constantly. Whatever the formation was, defensively Gamba were really poor as their pressing structure was non-existent, particularly awful examples that come to mind were the Tokushima Vortis game in August and the Consadole Sapporo game in October. It wasn’t until Takashi Kiyama came in to help Gamba in the last few months of the season did Gamba settle on a 4-4-2 and things began looking slightly better, especially in defense.

Takashi Kiyama implemented a very solid 4-4-2 mid-block with Yuki Yamamoto and Yosuke Ideguchi as the double pivot while the wide midfielders were chosen for their work-rate rather than their creativity as they were tasked with a lot of tracking back and supporting their full backs. This has meant Wellington Silva, a very useful progressive ball carrier to become the odd one out. Even so, opponents were able to find gaps in Gamba’s new found armor as smart opponents would find ways to create mismatches in Gamba’s pressing shape and also exploit gaps between the blocks of 4 in midfield and defense.

There isn’t much structure in terms of the attack, as Gamba mostly rely on star man Takashi Usami popping up into pockets of space to combine and play 1-2s, particularly toward the left side where he has good chemistry with Hiroki Fujiharu and Yuya Fukuda. There is also the tried and true tactic of lumping it to target man Patric to lay it off for advancing midfielders.

What amounts to a plan is a by-product of Gamba’s defensive scheme as they try to press and make interceptions centrally. From there, one of the center midfielders would try to play up-field as quickly as possible. Gamba is very good in these attacking transitions with Usami and the wide players suited to ad-lib-ing their way into the final 3rd and then the box.

These counterattacks can be effective on the occasions Gamba decide to take the risk of throwing men forward but otherwise they have trouble when they are forced to lay siege to their opponent in the final 3rd and/or box.

So what happens now? Survival has been achieved and it is very likely Oita Trinita’s manager Tomohiro Katanosaka is going to be coming in to take over (the announcement not being made yet as Oita are still in the fight to win the Emperor’s Cup). Despite all the injuries in the past season there is a lot of clean up of a rather bloated squad that needs to be done. The injury prone Yuji Ono will most likely leave while Kim Y.G. has already left. Shinya Yajima, while a useful squad option is nowhere near the quality of a team aspiring to be challenging for the ACL places, yet alone a title. Lots of questions surrounding the Brazilian strikers (the ones not named Patric) as they got injured in the last few months of the season and hadn’t really inspired confidence before that. On the other hand, some positive news are some of the young talent that will be hoping to take another step up next season such as Hiroto Yamami who I have been impressed with on his cameo appearances while there’s still room to grow for the likes of Yuya Fukuda, Yota Sato, and Kohei Okuno.

Avispa Fukuoka

Avispa Fukuoka were the surprise of the season for me, more so than Tosu, but really this is in part due to my ignorance of J2. Manager Shigetoshi Hasebe has been able to stick to his solid 4-4-2 system despite losing some key defensive talents in the off-season such as beloved goalkeeper Jon Ander Serantes and Takumi Uejima who returned to Kashiwa after his loan period ended. Up top saw a rotating cast of big hard working strikers such as Bruno Mendes in the first half of the season, followed by John Mary to complement the existing duo of Yuya Yamagishi and Juanma Delgado. The latter three strikers would contribute with 5 goals each. In midfield, Hiroyuki Mae won many admirers from other J1 teams with his great defensive work-rate while in defense, Emil Salomonsson gave Miki Yamane a run for the best Right Back in the league.

Their attack was very poor and averaged 0.84 xG per game which was the 3rd worst in the league but when you have such a rock solid defense that only gave up 0.9 xGA per 90 (4th best record in the league) then there really shouldn’t be too many complaints! For a newly promoted side, with no where near the amount of investment for a regular J1 team, it’s simply a job well done!

Tokushima Vortis

As for the other promoted team from J2, Tokushima Vortis did not fare as well as they have been sent straight back down on the last day of the season. It was a tough gig for Dani Poyatos coming in as the new manager of a promoted team especially as his actual arrival into the country was delayed due to immigration protocols due to COVID. Even after his arrival, the team just did not get going with a series of consecutive defeats throughout the season dragging them back into the relegation battle time and time again. They did show some spirit after changing to a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 from their regular 4-2-3-1 in the last few games of the season. A victory over Shonan in the second-to-last matchday of the season sent Vortis on a do-or-die mission against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but those hopes were dashed despite Shonan only drawing with Gamba as Vortis were defeated 2-4. Despite the disappointing end to the season, many Tokushima players made a good account of themselves at the top level. Besides quality players such as Yuki Kakita and Taisei Miyashiro who were only at Vortis on loan from the top J1 clubs, I particularly liked the performances of rampaging Right Back Takeru Kishimoto (5 goals, 2 assists), tricky dribbler Kazuki Nishiya, and the midfield trio of Tokuma Suzuki, veteran Ken Iwao, and the young Joel Fujita. Considering how much worse the other relegated teams are compared to Vortis, I can imagine the Shikoku-based side would be in a good position to come back up next season but of course, there are no guarantees.

Data Visualizations

U-23 Table

Click to show R code!

 r
file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/jleague_2021_END/jleague_age_utility_df_2021_end.csv")

jleague_age_utility_df %>%
filter(age <= 23, min_perc >= 0.5) %>%
arrange(desc(min_perc)) %>%
select(contains("name"), age, -fname, minutes, min_perc) %>%
mutate(min_perc = min_perc * 100) %>%
tidyr::unite("Name", first_name, last_name, sep = " ") %>%
rename(Team = team_name, Age = age, Minutes = minutes,
% of Total Minutes Played = min_perc) %>%
knitr::kable()



Name Team Age Minutes % of Total Minutes Played
Taiyo Koga Kashiwa Reysol 23 3325 97.2
Kosei Tani Shonan Bellmare 21 3060 89.5
Hirokazu Ishihara Shonan Bellmare 22 3061 89.5
Yuya Oki Kashima Antlers 22 2970 86.8
Takumi Mase Vegalta Sendai 23 2836 82.9
Go Hatano FC Tokyo 23 2790 81.6
Tatsuki Seko Yokohama Fc 23 2782 81.3
Satoshi Tanaka Shonan Bellmare 19 2671 78.1
Tomoki Takamine Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 23 2635 77.0
Takuma Ominami Kashiwa Reysol 23 2607 76.2
Takahiro Akimoto Urawa Red Diamonds 23 2580 75.4
Ryuya Nishio Cerezo Osaka 20 2556 74.7
Taisei Miyashiro Tokushima Vortis 21 2556 74.7
Teruki Hara Shimizu S-Pulse 23 2553 74.6
Shunki Higashi Sanfrecce Hiroshima 21 2475 72.4
Yuta Goke Vissel Kobe 22 2451 71.7
Keisuke Osako Sanfrecce Hiroshima 22 2430 71.1
Ayumu Seko Cerezo Osaka 21 2353 68.8
Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 23 2341 68.5
Ryotaro Araki Kashima Antlers 19 2293 67.0
NA CacÃ¡ Tokushima Vortis 22 2276 66.5
Atsuki Ito Urawa Red Diamonds 23 2263 66.2
Daiki Suga Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 23 2239 65.5
Keigo Tsunemoto Kashima Antlers 23 2132 62.3
Koki Tachi Shonan Bellmare 23 2081 60.8
Hisashi Appiah Vegalta Sendai 23 2073 60.6
Yuito Suzuki Shimizu S-Pulse 20 2009 58.7
Tomoya Fujii Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 1857 54.3
Chihiro Kato Vegalta Sendai 22 1835 53.7
Daiki Matsuoka Sagan Tosu 20 1830 53.5
Shinya Nakano Sagan Tosu 18 1790 52.3
Shuto Machino Shonan Bellmare 22 1784 52.2
NA Ezequiel Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 1782 52.1
Ayumu Ohata Sagan Tosu 20 1767 51.7
Ayase Ueda Kashima Antlers 23 1754 51.3
Yuya Takagi Yokohama Fc 23 1754 51.3
Reo Yasunaga Yokohama Fc 21 1738 50.8

Leading the pack are mainly defensive players, with Taiyo Koga, Kosei Tani, and Hirokazu Ishihara playing close to or nearly 90% of total league minutes. The first attacking players to appear are the likes of Taisei Miyashiro who shined on loan from Kawasaki Frontale, Midfielder-turned-Left-Back-turned-Striker Takahiro Akimoto, as well as “J.League Young Player of the Year” Ryotaro Araki, and Sapporo rookie Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa. The latter two’s performances this season have earned them a call-up to the national team for the January 2022 game vs. Uzbekistan. As you may have noticed there are quite a few players from the relegated or bottom-half teams which may be a good chance for some of the bigger teams to swoop in for some bargains!

Here are the image links for each team:

Avispa Fukuoka

I mentioned them in the mid-season review where I talked about how they have a squad full of peak-age and veteran players. This has very much been a “win now” cycle for manager Shigetoshi Hasebe as they have climbed their way up from J2 to finishing very comfortably in mid-table this season. There is some worry that other J1 teams might take fancy to players like Hiroyuki Mae which might leave them in a tight spot, especially with the complete lack of young talents within the squad that look ready to replace any departures.

Kashiwa Reysol

A quick glance at Reysol’s profile tells a story of their season… constant chopping and changing of personnel and formation as manager Nelsinho scrambled to effectively manage a team that lost their two star players in Ataru Esaka and Michael Olunga. The replacements that came in were… mediocre to put it nicely and many were discarded within months of arrival due to poor form or in the case of Pedro Raul, disagreements with the manager. With Reysol surviving the relegation battle, supporters will hope for a better off-season and some kind of road map for the future.

Consadole chart is a bit elongated by outliers in regular goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno, fan favorite Jay Bothroyd (who sadly returned to England at the end of the season), and Shinji Ono (who you might remember for his UEFA Cup exploits with Feyenoord 20 years ago!). Aside from those veterans, Sapporo have a vibrant squad of exciting talent both young and in their peak. Most notably is Thai superstar Chanathip Songkrasin, dazzling dribbler Takuro Kaneko, and Japan international (or at least a called up for next year’s friendlies) Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa. While Consadole Sapporo play attractive football, they never really look like challenging for any titles and the vultures will be circling in the off season for some of their bright young players like Kaneko and Ogashiwa.

Oita Trinita

It was nearly a fairy tale end to Tomohiro Katanosaka’s reign as Oita Trinita’s manager as the Kyushu based side valiantly fought as underdogs for the past few seasons in J1. Their run culminated in an Emperor’s Cup final appearance this December as they nearly took Urawa Reds to extra time but their luck ran out as they had to settle for 2nd place. A lot of question marks arise now with both their relegation and the loss of their charismatic manager.

Time Interval

Ideally I would use a 15 minute interval so I could get rid of that one weird section straddling both halves (40-50th minute) but this was the easiest data set I could get. What’s noticeable from this data set is that the good teams generally know how to close out a game and don’t concede many goals in the last 10~20 minutes.

Here are the image links for each team:

Avispa Fukuoka

Avispa kept things tight at both ends of the pitch to start games. They scored quite a few goals late on and were relatively good at shutting teams down in the final 20 minutes as well.

Kashima Antlers

Interesting pattern that they just seem to give up more goals (but also score quite a few themselves compared to the league average) as more time passes during a game.

Sagan Tosu

Tosu’s players seem to only stick around to play for 80 minutes out of the 90.

Scoring Situations

Ideally, I would have data that concerns all shots or xG accumulated from different match situations as that would mean a much larger sample of data to power any insights (as goals are only the end result and may not give us information about a team’s actual performance).

Here are the image links for each team:

Yokohama FC

Bottom club Yokohama FC were woefully bad at defending crosses (tied 3rd worst) and set pieces (tied worst in the league) which spelled their doom.

Vegalta Sendai

Vegalta Sendai scored 15 goals from set pieces, which was the 3rd highest in the league but the fact that 48.4% of their entire goal total (highest proportion in the league by some margin) came from these situations paints a very vivid picture of their struggles to score goals from open play. Their set piece prowess unfortunately didn’t extend to defending them as they gave up 17 (3rd worst in the league) and a majority of their goals conceded came from these situations (and crossing situations) as well…

Nagoya Grampus

For a team that prides itself on defensive solidity, Nagoya will be disappointed at how many goals they gave up from set piece situations. While allowing 9 goals was still below league average, it contributed to 30% of their goals conceded (3rd worst in the league). All the more weird in that they were quite good at preventing goals from open-play crosses. A further investigation into their set piece defense as well as shooting opportunities (and not just looking at goals) from these situations will be needed to bolster their league renowned defense for next season.

Cerezo Osaka

Cerezo scored 17 goals from set-pieces, the 2nd highest total in the league.

Team Shot Quantity: Shots per 90 vs. Shots Against per 90

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. I’ve reversed the order of some of the stats in these next few plots so that in all cases the top right is best and bottom left is the worst teams when looking at their respective stats.

Games involving the busiest teams in both attack and defense such as Cerezo Osaka or Consadole Sapporo might be ones to watch for neutrals wanting to be entertained. Of course, the number of shots don’t really give any description of the actual quality of these chances so in the next section I’ll dive a little deeper into some expected goals stats and how we can use shot quality and quantity to look at things in greater detail.

Team Shot Quality (Expected Goals): xG per 90, xG per Shot, etc.

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.

Note: This is still the first season I’m using these stats (also the first season this is even available) so I’m still evaluating whether I am OK to continue using this xG model going forward. Of course, the fact that this is one of the few xG models for Japanese football that’s available for free does tie my hands somewhat.

Combining shot quantity and shot quality numbers gives you a much better idea about a team’s performance on either side of the ball. For instance, while Urawa were giving up a bit above the league-average number of shots, the actual quality of shots were quite low, showing that they were good at suppressing chances from good goal scoring positions and possibly forcing teams to take shots from outside the box or other poor positions.

Both Vissel Kobe and Urawa Reds playing more carefully and trying to craft shots from good positions, even if at the expense of shot quantity. While Kawasaki Frontale and Marinos were able to take good quality shots and many of them, which makes sense given their dominant positions in the league table this season.

On the other hand, teams like Kashima Antlers and Marinos, who are well known for their aggressive pressing styles seem to give up fewer shots than your average J.League team but when they do give up shots, they were usually of better quality. It is quite possible these are coming from situations where these team’s press is broken and opponents are able to attack in speed and numbers.

Rolling Averages: Goals vs. Goals Against & xG vs. xGA

NOTE: Unfortunately, the expected goals values include penalties, so please be aware of that when reading these graphs.

Here are the image links for each team:

Expected Goals & Expected Goals Against:

Fun to watch as a neutral!

FC Tokyo

An up-and-down-and-up-and-down season for FC Tokyo…

Kashima Antlers

Kashima finished off the season quite strong defensively, only allowing 8 in the last 10 games of the season which includes 4 straight clean sheets in the last 5 games.

Vegalta Sendai

Vegalta’s attack was consistently bad while a defense that was even worse led them down into J2.

xG Difference

A new chart type based heavily on a StatsBomb visualization to have a slightly different way of looking at overall team performance in a season. xG Difference is pretty much the same thing as Goal Difference except that we use xG and xGA rather than goals and goals against. This lets us see very quickly which teams generally outperformed their opponents in terms of quality of chances created to quality of chances conceded based on a xG model.

Click to show R code!

 r
file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/jleague_2021_END/xGDiff_all_matches_per_team.csv")

create_xGD_plot <- function(data, team) {
the_team <- rlang::enquo(team)

xgd_filtered_df <- data %>%
dplyr::filter(team_name == !!the_team) %>%
dplyr::select(team_name, opponent, md_act, contains("goal"), contains("xg"), -xG_graphic_link)

xgdmed <- round(unique(xgd_filtered_df$xgd_med), 2) xgdvar <- round(unique(xgd_filtered_df$xgd_var), 2)
xgdsd <- round(unique(xgd_filtered_df$xgd_sd), 2) teamname <- unique(xgd_filtered_df$team_name)

xmax <- round(max(xgd_filtered_df$xG)) ymax <- round(max(xgd_filtered_df$xGA))

# fill_pal <- c('#67001f', '#b2182b', '#d6604d', '#f4a582', '#fddbc7', '#f7f7f7', '#d1e5f0', '#92c5de', '#4393c3', '#2166ac', '#053061')

xgdiff_plot <- ggplot2::ggplot(xgd_filtered_df,
ggplot2::aes(x = xG, y = xGA)) +
ggplot2::geom_abline(slope = 1, intercept = 0, size = 1.5) +
ggplot2::geom_point(aes(fill = xGdiff), size = 15, shape = 21, color = "black", stroke = 1.5) +
ggplot2::scale_x_continuous(limits = c(0, xmax)) +
ggplot2::scale_y_continuous(limits = c(0, ymax)) +
ggplot2::scale_fill_gradient2(low = '#67001f', mid = '#f7f7f7', high = '#053061',
midpoint = 0, name = "xGD") +
ggplot2::labs(
#title = glue::glue("{teamname}: xGD Var {xgdvar}, Std {xgdsd}"),
title = glue::glue("**{teamname}**: Expected Goal Difference (xGD) per Match"),
subtitle = glue::glue("J.League 2021 Season (Matchday 1 - 38)\nMedian: {xgdmed} | Variance: {xgdvar} | Standard Deviation: {xgdsd}"),
x = "xG (Expected Goals)",
y = "XGA (Expected Goals Against)",
caption = "Data: Sporteria | Created by: Ryo Nakagawara (Twitter: @R_by_Ryo)"
) +
ggplot2::theme_minimal() +
ggplot2::theme(text = ggplot2::element_text(family = "Roboto Condensed"),
plot.title = ggtext::element_markdown(family = "Roboto Slab", size = 35),
plot.subtitle = element_text(family = "Roboto Slab",
size = 33),
plot.caption = element_markdown(hjust = 0, size = 25),
legend.title = element_text(size = 35),
legend.text = element_text(size = 30),
legend.key.size = unit(40, "points"),
axis.title = element_text(size = 30),
axis.text = element_text(size = 30))

return(xgdiff_plot)
}

create_xGD_plot(xg_clean_all, "Kawasaki Frontale")




Kawasaki Frontale

Clearly a class above.

Yokohama FC

A very consistently bad season all around for Yokohama FC. Although a lot of their performances did pick up in the 2nd half of the season, they had dug themselves too large of a hole to climb out of.

Tokushima Vortis

Some decent performances along with many more games that were on a knife’s edge (in which they lost more often than not), but when they were bad they were really bad.

Player xG

Now let’s dig a little deeper and look at individual-level stats.

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 some players that have scored more goals during the season may not 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. I’ve elected not to show the “shots per 90 vs. xG per shot” plot this time around because I feel that really needs the context of all the other players in the league to get a proper grasp of how good/bad players have been. Having only 20 data points doesn’t really let you do that.

Goals vs. xG

The clear highlight here is… Everaldo. After a sterling debut season in the J.League where he scored 17 non-penalty goals from 17.78 non-pen xG, a lot of big things were expected for him as Antonio Zago’s Kashima Antlers hoped to challenge for the title at the beginning of this season. Unfortunately, Everaldo had a real cold streak in front of goal… In the end, the Brazilian finished with a solitary goal from 8.76 xG despite taking 80 shots, the 9th most in the league. His place was taken by rising star, Ayase Ueda who also shows up here having scored 14 goals from 10.97 xG from 82 shots. At the opposite end of the spectrum, joint-top goal scorers Leandro Damiao and Daizen Maeda finished the season on 23 goals apiece, from 13.6 and 18.3 xG respectively.

Conclusion

So that concludes another great year of the J.League season. Despite the potential of many possible challengers, Kawasaki Frontale easily shrugged them off to win another championship. Other clubs made great strides coming up from J2 and others labored heavily under a multitude of changes to their teams. Next year will see the return of J1 to 18 teams and hopefully will be a bit easier schedule-wise for all despite the early start due to the winter 2022 World Cup. Next season will see the return of some historic J.League clubs in Jubilo Iwata and Kyoto Sanga for the first time in 2 years and 12 years respectively. For a nice review of Jubilo’s season I hand things over to this piece from J.League Regista. On a personal note, I finally felt comfortable enough to watch a live match in a stadium after I got fully vaccinated in September. So I’ll conclude this blog post with some pictures from the Yokohama FC vs. Vissel Kobe game and the Emperor’s Cup Final between Urawa Reds and Oita Trinita. Try to spot Iniesta in the first picture!

See you next season… Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Some English-Language J.League Content! ======================================= - [J-Talk Podcast](https://jtalkpod.podbean.com/): Weekly roundups and discussion of all the J1, J2, and J3 soccer action! - [FC Tokyo Kai-guys](https://fctokyokaiguys.wordpress.com/): FC Tokyo content in English. - [Gamba Osaka English blog](https://gambaosakaenglish.blog/): Gamba Osaka content in English. - [J.League Regista](https://jleagueregista.wordpress.com/): Special features on players and teams, past and current. - [Dan Orlowitz](https://twitter.com/aishiterutokyo), [Sam Robson](https://twitter.com/FRsoccerSam/), [Michael Angioli](https://twitter.com/Michael_Master) on Twitter for general Japanese soccer news. - …and more!