7 – Yasuhito Endo
If Endo can play further forward instead of sitting in defensive midfield this season then I think he can have a great impact on the team. That is not to belittle his effect anyway, as he is always composure and assured but you do always feel that a man of his stature could have given more to the team last season when we needed it. His best appearances came when he was pushed behind the striker and was given freedom to play. Give him that chance and we shall see him at his best. Adding a few more goals to his tally would be easier in that position too and you would expect him to do so. And of course it will be no surprise to see him voted into the J1 Best Eleven come December…
10 – Takahiro Futagawa
An honest, hard-working and loyal player to Gamba, Futagawa is coming towards the end of his career. This does not stop him putting in quietly brilliant performances on a regular basis, albeit lasting usual an hour or so. I expect to see him playing a significant role again this year but will be hoping to see his space taken by the likes of Abe and Omori – that is not to say I would not be happy to see Futagawa playing, but he needs to start ceding his regular position. When he does play, I expect the usually top level of performance. His abilities all over the pitch will be needed back in J1.
11 – Shu Kurata
He was on course to be our player of the season in 2013 before getting injured for around 15 weeks and Shu did not seem quite back to his top level on his return. I expect him to play on the wing behind the striker and work a lot in attack and defence, switching around when going forward. He will be in the starting eleven more often than not and it will be extremely interesting to see if he can recapture his form of 2013. Shu has had plenty of time since October to get match fit and I am sure he will be raring to go come March 1st – and I am 100% he will be wonderful once again.
13 – Hiroyuki Abe
Abe had an on/off season in 2013. He started off promising enough but then alternated between good and poor performances. Injuries cut his season down towards the end of the season but he has been in good form during pre-season, netting in 3 of the 4 games. If Abe can keep his fitness I am sure he can be as good as he was in his first season in 2012, but also be a regular starter. His work ethic will be very important and whilst I do not expect him to start every single match, I do expect that when he does starts, he will be giving us good performances more often than not. I’d expect him to start the games where tracking his marker on the wing will be pivotal to our success.
15 – Yasuyuki Konno
It finally seems plausible to believe that Konno will be a full-time holding midfielder. Pre-season has seen him start, more often or not, along side Tatsuya Uchida in the volante position. His play in “defence” was a nuisance and wore the team down more than anything else but his play in the midfield was excellent. Hopefully he can stay in midfield and live up to the hype and expectation that he joined with two years ago. He can be a superb asset back in J1 and should command the midfield. He will need to help along Uchida or Okazaki (if either of them partners him) and take responsibility as the main man there, starting attacks as well as breaking them down. If he stays in midfield, I am expecting a productive season from Konno.
17 – Tomokazu Myojin
I honest believe this will be Myojin’s final season as a professional footballer. He often does different training to the rest of the squad and was injured for more than half of the season last year, also losing his regular starting position to Tatsuya Uchida. That is not to say that Myojin cannot be useful – on the contrary, he will give us a level-headed, experienced approach if and when he plays. You cannot play professionally for 18 full years having picked up 480 league appearances without being a great player. Unfortunately, Myojin seems to have lost that edge that once made him a wonderful player. I have no doubt that he will be pivotal at some point or another and we need his experience back in J1.
19 – Kotaro Omori
Omori took his time breaking into the first team last season but did extremely well from that moment on. His full-debut was foreshadowed by brief substitute appearances that underlined his potential and his debut against Vissel Kobe showed a tenacious and eager player ready to stake his claim. He bagged assists after assists and finally scored his first professional goal against Kyoto Sanga. I think he will be given more chances this year to develop and become a key figure in the team – whether he will be starting often is another question. I am sure that when he does start, he will take his chance. He will get better game after game, and I cannot wait to see that.
25 – Kenya Okazaki
His slim chances of starting games in 2014 was hampered even further by picking up an injury in training that will put him out for the best part of 2 months. Despite all of that though, I doubt Kenya will be starting many games when he is fit. He will likely be a bench warmer and as it is his season year with Gamba now, he needs to start asserting his presence onto the starting eleven on a regular basis. Whether he will be able to do this, I am not sure as there is Konno, Uchida, Endo and maybe even Myojin ahead of him in his preferred position. He will be a useful squad player nonetheless but he should be aiming for higher and better than that. Performances against Tochigi SC and Giravanz Kitakyushu give me hope that he can be a good player.
27 – Tatsuya Uchida
He had a rather wonderful year in 2013, didn’t he? Uchida broke into the team as a midfielder for the first time as was pretty much a regular in the starting eleven thanks to that faith put into him by Kenta Hasegawa. His stints in the team were cut short whenever Konno and Endo joined together in defensive midfield but with the move of Endo behind the striker, Uchida claimed the position as his own, ahead of rookie Kenya Okazaki. I think Uchida will be in the starting eleven more often than not but he will need to be patient and show more control of the midfield – he was overwhelmed by stronger midfielders in J2. Only just turned 22 though, he will definitely get his fair share of chances and he has to take them with Myojin, Konno and Endo all viable candidates to take his spot.