Where it all went wrong in 2012

There is no doubt that everyone knows why Gamba Osaka was relegated last season – I have decided that I will compile the reasons into one article. We know that on-the-field play caused the relegation in 2012, yet we must also highlight the off-field choices and actions that dated back to the previous season which created the mess that was Gamba Osaka in J1 this year. Additionally, I’ll look at what has to be done with the team, the management of the club and what Kenta Hasegawa must do in order to right the wrongs so that Gamba can return to J1 for the 2014 season.

Oh how things could have been different if Akira Nishino was still in charge. Having finished outside of the top three twice in his ten-year reign (one of which Gamba ended up as comfortable Asian Champions and winners of the Emperor’s Cup), there was a great deal of consistency from Nishino’s teams over that decade. Not having watched any of his team’s football over that time, I cannot judge the situation too much but it is clear from the fans that when he left, something died with that team.

Yet what compounds his non-contract renewal more than anything else was the choice of manager after that. The club decided on Wagner Lopes, a neutralised Japanese-Brazilian citizen and former Japanese international. Why he was wanted over many other experienced, preferable and potential (although not offered) candidates is interesting. And also confusing, seeing as he did not hold the equivalent licence to manage a team in Japan. What made the situation even more laughable was that Gamba had been talking to him for a length period of time before they announced Nishino had been relieved of his duties. This blunder forced Gamba to rethink; this led them to having Lopes as a “coach” whilst José Carlos Serrão, a team-hopping manager, took the reins of the team – which ended in five games, as you should know.

These errors of judgement and the lack of acceptance to keep stability over change leads back to the board and the club’s management system. Most of the finger-pointing goes to Kikuo Kanamori. The club president played a huge part in the just-detailed fiasco, as well as shifting around the inner-workings of the club, only to revert those that he had moved around back to their original positions after the sacking of Serrão and Lopes. The ones he did move around were reluctant to change their position in the first place; instead of finding someone to fit the job, he tried to make the job fit that someone. His resignation at the end of the season shows just how much he failed to get it right after making a bold statement at the end of the 2011 season. Furthermore, why was Masanobu Matsunami given leadership of the club instead of finding someone with some experience of league? It sounds like I am repeating what I said earlier, but it is true, isn’t it?

All this aside, the transfers out of the club would have damaged any team. The loss of experience, goals and that extra steel in the team cost Gamba big in the end. Everyone talks about Lee Keun-Ho as the greatest loss during the winter transfer window but you only have to look at Satoshi Yamaguchi to see where Gamba went wrong. The leader at the back with bags of experience (championship winner in 2005) was replaced by Yasuyuki Konno. One big difference in their style of play is that Konno is not a leader. Yamaguchi was not replaced sufficiently enough – a partnership with Konno instead of his departure would have reinforced that susceptible back-line. Instead, Konno was paired with Niwa, Kim, Nakazawa and Iwashita – all erratic and none of them a leader, compounded by the constant changes at that heart of the defence.

Nevertheless, the triumph in the ACL for Ulsan Hyundai struck the fans of Gamba the most. Lee Keun-Ho, Kim Seung-Yong, former loanee Rafinha and the hardly played Lee Seung-Yeoul, all of whom had left between the end of the 2011 season and the summer transfer window of 2012, highlighted a football equivalent to a “brain-drain”. After Lee Keun-Ho left, Rafinha’s goals at Gamba dried up – their partnership was unrivalled and Rafinha was lost without him. Lee’s goal input also made Gamba suffer as a new strike force had to be made. Akihiro Sato, who turned out to be one of the best signings of the season, was forced to watch at the start of the season with Paulinho and Rafinha working together. Lee Seung-Yong, coupled with the loss of Hideo Hashimoto, took away more experience but also a bit of flair from the Gamba midfield.

The transfers in were not so appealing to the eye. Konno was the big one, but as I said above that failed to a point. The loan returns of Terada, Niwa and Kurata did not help the team, although Kurata was the shining light out of the three, scoring some great goals and was one of the more expansive players in the team. The loans of defender Eduardo and goalkeeper Takeda were a waste of time. Eduardo was injured for most of the season and was never played when we was fit, whilst Takeda for some reason could not oust Fujigaya from the goalkeeping spot when Kimura was injured. The transfers of strikers of Paulinho and Sato had mixed results. Whilst Paulinho was starting, he never really showed any consistent class up front whilst Sato was working hard and getting the goals, penalties and assists he deserved. His injury and its effect on the team will be discussed later.

The summer signings had two positive incomings with Leandro, who scored fourteen in fifteen to finish third in the scoring table and Ienaga, who was on the bench for half of his loan spell but contributed five goals in twelve appearances, filling Sato’s space in the team but with fewer assists. Iwashita was a topsy-turvy signing, being very comfortable but easily exposed at times. The critic of the attack-minded signings is that, even though Leandro was needed, another defender should have been added to the team to ensure stability instead of the rocky defence. The winter transfer market all over again.

Given that Gamba was the overall top-scoring team in the division, you would have thought that normal service was resumed in defence. And it was. But this time, it was worse. Having the second worst defence was always going to take its toll on the position in the league. This season, the parity between goals scored and goals conceded was only three. Compounded with an early season run where Gamba scored one goal in just four games, as well as being destroyed by Kashima 5-0, tells you all you need to know. There was a lack of belief that they could achieve a point, let alone a win and they was always susceptible to conceding, having only four clean sheets all season and only one 0-0. All four of those clean sheets came away from home, with that 0-0, two 5-0 wins and a 4-0 win. Add a sequence of twelve games where there was only one win between the end of April and the start of July speaks volumes of a team without the means and know-how of getting a no-hassle win.

It was during this sequence that Gamba were mainly dropping points late in matches or giving away too many early leads. Throughout the course of the season, nine points were lost in the last minutes of matches (taking into account that 3-2 defeat to Tosu when they were 2-0 up). Additionally, points were lost late in games against Niigata, Hiroshima, Tokyo and Iwata. The mid-season was the worst part but it was never rectified. Gamba was also guilty of giving away early leads, particularly Nagoya (ended 2-2), Kashiwa (lost 6-2) and Tokyo (lost 3-2). It took the team too long to get into a rhythm, and when they did it was too late. We also have to take into that Matsunami could never settle for a point and went full-out to get all three, only to be reduced to none. His inexperience at that point cost Gamba dearly. If he had just settled for one instead of three, Gamba would have been mid-table and comfortable if results had gone as they had after this period.

And now a section dedicated entirely to Fujigaya, the man who could have been voted as player of the season for any of the other seventeen teams in the division. How many bloopers had he dropped in the season? The 5-0 defeat to Kashima, the 3-2 defeat to Tokyo, the 2-2 draw with Kashima, the 2-1 defeat to Sendai, just to name a few, cost Gamba valuable points in the race to avoid relegation. Yet this problem was nothing new. His crimes, along with a constantly changing back-line at centre-half with no leadership, accumulate the last two paragraphs completely. Although Kimura took part in that twelve game, one win record, his performances prevented Gamba from being humiliated and destroyed. He looked confident, he believed in his abilities and it was a shock that someone who had been at the club so long had been warming the bench instead of that master of disaster. Only a cruel leg-break during a training session cut his short-lived cameo and Gamba’s hopes of having a steady goalkeeper dreams to pieces. How things could have been so different is an apt statement for the whole season.

Yet it was not just his injury was costly for Gamba as the season wore on. Two other very important injuries spring to mind. The first is the series of injuries for Akira Kaji. During the periods that Kaji was injured, Matsunami punted for three different right-backs – Tatsuya Uchida, Takuya Takei (MF) and Keisuke Iwashita (CB). Uchida is only twenty but came in at the time where Gamba could not stop losing and he joined in with mistakes and errors – a lot to ask of a young player who had doubled his tally of appearances in his five game spurt of appearances. Takei was the main make-shift right-back when central defenders were also short. He was a steady member of the back four but it was easy to tell that he was not accustomed to the role and was easily stifled against strong left-sided plays. Iwashita made his debut at right-back and looked steady, and he seemed better there than at centre-half during his loan spell. He was erratic at times, no less against Niigata, giving away a last-minute penalty which levelled the game to 1-1. Kaji’s presence was a reassuring sight for a Gamba fan, but that meant shifting Iwashita into centre-half. Those defensive frailties again…

Although the defensive issues were a constant problem, it was the partnership between Leandro and Sato that was a wonderful sight for Gamba fans. During the time that they were both on the pitch together at some point in a match, Leandro got eleven and Sato got five. Towards the end of the season, Sato missed out due to injuries and mainly came off the bench, only to break his leg too (along with Kimura and Nakazawa). His goals were covered up by the work of Ienaga but his work ethic and assists (six in total, more than half in the second-half of the season) were the greatest loss. My favourite Sato game was when he came off the bench to replace the mediocre Paulinho. Gamba was 1-0 down against Omiya, but he won the penalty for Leandro to equalise and his determination set-up Kurata for the third goal. This cameo appearance did not earn him man-of-the-match, but it signified his importance to the team, even in his first J1 season. I hope he makes a speedy recovery so that Gamba can have him available once more.

His loss meant that there was a reliance on Leandro to get the goals. Although he finished as the third top scorer in only half a season, five blanks in the last seven games piled on the pressure to the other players to get in on the act. The belief was that Gamba would be okay as long as we had Leandro. Even I, as a fan, was too naïve to think this because even though the rest of the team filled the void when he did not score, that defence (again?!) was too weak to sustain a winning or drawing position. When he scored, Gamba at least got a point. With seven blanks by Leandro, Gamba only took seven points. Over reliance on him was a big downfall.

One of the more interesting facts is that Gamba did not lose a home game in their last seven. Their last defeat at home was against Yokohama F.Marinos, a 2-1 defeat to one of those last-minute goals, which was in the middle of July. In the remaining seven games, Gamba scored eighteen, conceded eleven and did not keep a clean sheet (through the whole season too, as mentioned). Points were dropped against Niigata, Hiroshima and Tokyo late in games whilst points were clawed back against Cerezo and Kashima. If they had converted one of those draws into a win, I would not be writing this now.

This is my long explanation to why Gamba was relegated. Now I want to make a few pointers as to what Kenta Hasegawa, the reported new manager of Gamba, should be doing in order to get the team back to J1 within one season, as well as some finer details that need to be ensured.

Not knowing much about Hasegawa, I looked at his record as manager at S-Pulse which shows that he has what it takes to get Gamba back to J1 for 2014. His seasons with Shimizu S-Pulse were fairly consistent in terms of points and position (except his first season) so we should be pretty confident that he can do the job. However, we all know that he will have to put in a lot of hard work to create his own team whilst battling against players departing. Given that Gamba have made offers to buy Leandro and hope to continue loaning Ienaga, I wonder whether he stated that he wants Leandro and Ienaga. He needs to have control of the team in order to be as effective as possible.

He needs to keep players like Fujiharu (offer from Sendai), Leandro and Ienaga but also allow younger players like Abe, Omori and Uchida to get more games as they all have a great chance to improve in J2 rather than J1. Abe was one of the better players when he got a chance, scoring a couple of goals and doing the hard, nitty-gritty work when asked of him, whilst Omori looked assured on the ball but only got a chance to play when Gamba was cruising to massive wins. 2013 is the season where we have to maybe phase out Myojin, Futagawa, Endo, Kaji (the older guys) – by decreasing their playing time – because we need to rejuvenate the team as they will not last forever and the players mentioned just need to get time somewhere as they have all shown glimpses of their potential – plus the older guys will be knackered with all those extra games in a shorter period.

Moreover, the resignation of Kanamori is a positive step too because the management was really poor last season which is partly why we are where we are. You’d expect that they have learnt from their mistakes but you never know in Japan.

News is Sidiclei (title-winning centre-half in 2005) has been offered the position of defensive coach. I only watched him in the 2005 final match when Gamba won the league and you could tell then that he was a top defender who read the play extremely well. I am sure that if he does join, we might just see a tighter back line but this should not take away from the shining front line that we have.

It looks like we have plenty of money to get the job done in a year but if we try to get into the ACL then we deserve not to be promoted next season. We must beat Cerezo to keep face in the Emperor’s Cup derby (23/12/2012) but I’d rather us focus on J1 during the 2013 season in J2 rather than have qualified for a competition that is not popular anyway and has serious problems with travelling – is not worth the cost, time and commitment for the team who have to put J1 as their main target for the coming season.

And let’s not forget that J2 is seriously competitive and promotion is not guaranteed, even if we do hold onto Leandro and Ienaga for the whole of the season. Don’t expect it – there are teams like Vissel Kobe, Kyoto Sanga, Tokyo Verdy and JEF United that will be the main power houses with Gamba but you only have to look at last season’s table to see that Yokohama F.C., Fagiano Okayama and Giravanz Kitakyushu, along with other former J1 teams such as Montedio Yamagata and Avispa Fukuoka, can all upset Gamba on their day, along with all those additional games and travelling requirements. It will take a strong, deep squad to get back to J1 in just one season.

And with that, you can now finish this long article, but I hope at least it has been interesting to you and please give me some pointers to your opinions too.

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