March ended on a sour note for Gamba as we slumped to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Sagan Tosu. Whilst we showed good signs in the game, we did not get the points we would have wanted and maybe on another day would have collected. Yet the reaction from some fans was incredulous and downright ridiculous. Having gone from a respectable draw against current J1 champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima which should have been a win to a tough defeat to Tosu, fans have gone from positivity to complete negativity in the space of a week. With some fans berating the manager, demanding Gamba’s well-known style of football of the all-out attack style and slating players for having a bad game and the thoughts turning to a relegation battle already, I wanted to have my say on a whole bunch of things. The title speaks for itself if you wish to read no further as this piece is pretty long, but my thoughts are interesting, if I do say so myself.
So let’s start with how March went. Out of 6 games in all competitions, we were equal in all in terms of wins, draws and losses. In the league, we took 5 points from the 5 games in a difficult-looking start to the season and we ended the month in 14th place. To be honest, things could have been worse à la 2012 season. Even years when Gamba have finished high in the table, we have had similar starts to the season. Given that we played 2 teams difficult to beat be it home or away at Banpaku and then the away trips were against recent difficult teams to face at their own ground, 5 points is a respectable haul with some encouraging signs in terms of growth in the team.
Now if we compare out points against that of 2012 against the same teams with the same home/away fixture, this is what we get:
- Urawa (H) – 2012, 1-2 Loss; 2014, 0-1 Loss (no change)
- Niigata (A) – 2012, 1-1 Draw; 2014, 2-0 Win (+2 points)
- Sendai (A) – 2012, 2-2 Loss; 2014, 0-0 Draw (+1 point)
- Hiroshima (H) – 2012, 1-1 Draw; 2014, 1-1 Draw (no change)
- Tosu (A) – 2012, 4-1 Loss; 2014, 2-0 Loss (no change)
That is a total of 3 extra points over the same fixtures against the same sides. If this is a step backwards then I quit football. We did not help ourselves against Sendai or Tosu where we should have had maybe 3 more points given the way we played/should have played whilst we were robbed of all 3 points against Sanfrecce thanks to a dive to win a penalty. All in all though, 5 points is rather decent all things considered and I would have taken that at the start of the year, being realistic with the fact that 2014 was not going to be one where the team strolled back into the league and did a Kashiwa of 2011.
The fans on the other hand expected Gamba to be back to the top of the league and fighting for it at the start of the season. Firstly, you can blame the club, manager and players for this – the points target that was announced before the season started, a whopping 70 in all, was ridiculous, unrealistic and only helped to fuel the fans’ expectations and put the players under unnecessary pressure. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Gamba need the financial gains of the ACL and a top 4 finish to keep sponsors with the club because a drop back to J2 would dent all the hard work of the last year but that does not mean you need to try and achieve something that is impossible. Even in the J.League where anything and almost everything is possible, Gamba getting 70 points is about as likely as Kamatamare Sanuki winning J2 this season.
Furthermore, people fail to recognise that even though the manager, Kenta Hasegawa, has put himself under pressure to succeed, we only have to look at the squad to see why we will not do as well as he hopes and in order to effectively analyse this, I have to bring up another complaint made by Japanese fans after the Tosu game – the attacking football that Gamba fans got used to during the decade Akira Nishino was in charge of the team until the end of 2011.
Fans have to understand that a new manager will have his own style of football and with Kenta Hasegawa, this is very evident. Compared to the “old” Gamba, this current team is a bit more controlled with how it plays football. The start of the season has shown this, with 2 clean sheets but 3 shut-outs against us, with us scoring just 3 goals in 5 league games and conceding 4 – the stronger defence will help us when we are not playing so well to scrap out points (i.e. the Vegalta Sendai game this season). This can of course be attributed to the lack of the injured Takashi Usami, but people expecting Sato and Lins to carry that burden are completely insane. The reason for this is simple. Sato was injured for a year and has only started a handful of games since his return – it will take him time to get back to his top level. And even if he did, he is not a player who will score for fun as well as only having a year of experience in J1. Lins on the other hand is brand new to the league and the team and whilst he may have come from Brazil with high expectations on his shoulders, it takes foreigners time to get used to the country, the language, the team etc. He has shown some great performances but we will be seeing the best of Lins next year – getting to double figures would be an achievement this year. Naoki Ogawa has just been promoted from the youth team and is more an attacking midfielder than a striker so what can you expect? We can blame the manager for getting rid of the likes of Paulinho, Rocha and Hirai at the end of last year but he made his choices and will stick by them. With basically a new front line that has hardly worked with each other before, the lack of goals is somewhat understandable. Even when Usami comes back next month, by the time he gets up to speed, the World Cup break will be upon us. We do need a bit of his magic but we cannot rely fully upon him. For the time being, Hasegawa needs to pick his preferred partnership up front and stick with it.
Then you look at the number of players who were with Gamba in 2011 when this “Gamba style” was still in effect. 11 in total, and Endo, Futagawa, Usami (for half the year), Myojin and Kaji can be said to have been regulars that year. Kim, Fujiharu, Kawata, Kimura, Uchida and Omori were hardly used and therefore the team is not the same as it was back then. You can even argue that half of the players from this year’s squad are in their first proper season in J1 (not being regulars in previous J1 seasons) and even then some of them will still not be regulars. We lack a lot of J1 experience in the side, particularly in terms of depth with a bunch of young promising players in the squad and the experience this year will be tough but can only make them stronger. Sure the first team is full of J1 experienced players but dig deeper and that really is not the case. Kenta Hasegawa is making his own team and probably still does not know what his best eleven is, as shown by the changes he makes every game, so he needs time to work that out – we need to give him that time and be patient.
Of course we can blame the manager for getting rid of a fair share of players with J1 experience, the likes of Takei, Hirai, Fujigaya etc. come to mind, but the positive thing is the youth system being used. Giving 17 year-old Yosuke Ideguchi his professional contract a month into the season, as well as bringing in Yuto Uchida and Naoki Ogawa at the start of season, shows that the manager is willing to give youngsters a chance to learn if not play in the first team yet. Whilst Takaharu Nishino has had to bide his time on the bench, Tatsuya Uchida has started 3 of the 6 games so far whilst Omori has shown that he does have what it takes to become a regular starter. This takes time. Time is what is needed. Hasegawa got it wrong to put pressure of the team because his actions with the team show that we are a squad in progress.
One of the big problems I have with the fans from the weekend was being critical of players like Oh Jae-Suk and Tatsuya Uchida. Let’s start with the latter, who came on for Myojin just after the hour and he came on as Hasegawa wanted to regain control of the midfield and get attacks going, which is what Uchida should be aspiring and be able to do. This was a positive change but fans slagged off the move because Myojin was doing okay. The manager was trying to improve the game in our favour and if we had not lost and had gone on to get a point or three, nobody would have complained. Football is fickle, but I can kind of understand their point – bringing on Futagawa or Kurata and putting Endo in midfield might have been better, but giving a young player a chance shows that the manager has confidence in that player. What I do not understand at all is the criticism thrown at Oh Jae-Suk. For God sake, it was his first ever start in J1 and everyone was expecting him to be as good as Kaji or Yonekura despite the fact that he is blatantly 3rd choice and only came in because the two were injured. He did not even have a bad game but someone had to be a scapegoat and you cannot slate a loved player like Iwashita, can you? Who was at fault for the first goal, by the way. You have to give such players, like Uchida, Omori, Nishino, a chance and take their performances with a pinch of salt. When they play well say “good job”, when they played badly say “he will learn from this”, because they undoubtedly will. To be honest I am surprised Oh Jae-Suk is still around but he played all right on the weekend – if he keeps getting chances, he will show why Hasegawa brought him in in the first place. Support the lad and let him play the football that he has been dying to show since he bloody turned up!
The lack of patience by some fans in shocking. Blame Hasegawa for the points total target, blame him for not bringing in an experienced replacement for Usami, blame him for the lack of goals but stick with the manager. Anyone can tell you we are not as strong as everyone thinks and that is clear enough but to believe we are going to be in a relegation battle after one month is pushing it considering the fixtures we have had and the good signs we are showing. The games against teams at our level like FC Tokyo, Shimizu S-Pulse etc. will be what put us in such a position or not. The first 7 fixtures were as hard as they could get really, so 5 points from 5 games is fine. Getting some overall better performances would be nice and consistency with the team selection is important, but we have not been that bad.
What we have to do now is stop all this complaining, be realistic, patient and support the team and the manager, letting go of all this nostalgic crap from 2011 and before. This is not the same Gamba Osaka. This is a weaker, younger and much more fragile team. I believe that the manager will get it right in the end and I do not believe we will get relegated. Sure we might struggle for a bit but things do look good – especially in goal, where Higashiguchi has been immense. He will be a big difference for sure. I believe the team will go in the right direction and all these players without J1 experience are going to face good and bad times but the team will be better next year. You just have to buckle up for those difficult times and enjoy the good times. Start judging the team when we hit the World Cup break and how we start after it. It is the club’s fault so many fans are expecting big things but the fans should know their team and its weaknesses if they are true supporters. I am not worried, I am just annoyed with how blind and ignorant fans are. Maybe this piece will clear your mind a bit and focus you to the right level instead of passing the season with rose coloured glasses. Nobody said J1 was going to be easy but the fans can make it easier but just being supportive and looking at the good things for once – leave the bad things to the manager, who is only trying to do the best he can.
Have faith, trust the team, believe in the players and enjoy everything they give us.
WE ARE GAMBA OSAKA!