In late November of 2014, Yokohama F-Marinos made the announcement that Yasuhiro Higuchi, our coach since 2012, would be stepping down at the end of the season. With his last game taking place against FC Tokyo at Ajinomoto stadium on December 6th, F-Marinos fans backed their departing leader and asked to see ‘more Higuchi fist pumps’ (see below) before a season that had ultimately proven disappointing drew to a close. A passionate manager, I think it’s fair to say that Higuchi’s tenure at Marinos Town has been a successful one overall, and between the agonisingly close title campaign of 2013 and the Emperor’s cup victory on the first day of 2014, it’s my belief that fans will remember him fondly. But just how did Higuchi come so close to picking up the title with F-Marinos? How did he manage to turn around a side that had finished mid table for the vast majority of the preceding decade and take them to within 90 minutes of their first league championship since 2004? I’ll attempt to explain just that, and look at why season 2014 took such a turn for the worse, culminating with his decision to leave the side at the end of the year.
As with any worthwhile project, the foundations of Higuchi’s F.Marinos side were solid. Defensive stability and a possession game were honed in season 2012, his first year, and ultimately the key to our successes in 2013. F-Marinos have finished with the lowest number of goals conceded in the league in two of his three seasons at the helm, and that stability is as a result of two factors; consistency of team selection and his preference to play two deep-lying defensive midfielders. For a considerable time prior to his arrival at the club, Yuji Nakazawa and Yuzo Kurihara made up the heart of the defence and Higuchi never sought to change this. With Yuzo Kobayashi playing well at right-back in the season prior to his arrival, the coach brought club legend Dutra back to fill the left-back berth, despite observers suggesting that combining the ageing Bomber and Dutra was not the smartest of moves. Higuchi was never overly ambitious with either player, and very obviously played them within their limitations, as the players they were at the time and not the players they were a decade ago. Dutra, who was prone to a rampage up the left-wing throughout games, was always covered by one of the two defensive midfielders, with either one drifting over towards his left-back slot so as not to leave Bomber exposed. With Dutra retiring in 2014 and Bomber showing the first real signs that he too may be a waning force, change will come under new leadership. That back four will, however, be remembered as a vintage F.Marinos defence in the years to come.
The protection offered to the defence by the two sitting midfield players cannot be overstated. Preferring a 4-2-3-1 formation, Higuchi set out to concede less goals from the off, sacrificing men in attack in the process. In a league in which defensive solidity and balance is often exchanged for something of a battle charge towards the opposite goal, a disciplined defensive midfield pairing would stand us in good stead, and leave us much less susceptible to the counter-attack. The height and physical presence of Seitaro Tomisawa alongside the steady Kosuke Nakamachi afforded both our wingers and full-backs the opportunity to move forward safe in the knowledge that they had adequate cover. Nakamachi, for me, was the weak link in the midfield, and brought much less to the team than his team mate Tomisawa. Despite offering up impressive performances there when deputising, Shingo Hyodo was never given the opportunity to partner ‘Tomi’ as a sitting midfielder, instead playing as a winger more often than not. A loss to the side, as his energy and ability to read the game still is a real asset to the team when deployed there.
For all that he brought to the club, Higuchi had his faults. He was a stubborn coach in his team selection, and proved himself over time to be almost totally inflexible tactically, failing to revert from his preferred 4-2-3-1 despite often having a lack of players to fill the positions required. Football fans the world over will look at their own beloved side and spot the frailties or opportunities for improvement. At every club, there’s a young player in the squad that shows promise, and it’s always a travesty that he isn’t playing more. “If the coach would only listen to us!”. F.Marinos fans, more than most, have spoke of such players throughout the reign of Higuchi. Matsumoto Sho, Takuya Kida, Andrew Kumagai, Jin Hanato, Fabio, Yuta Narawa…. I could go on. All young players, all worth a run in the side, almost all not given a real opportunity to establish themselves in the team under Higuchi. In fact, it could be argued that the only young player really given an opportunity at the club during his tenure was Manabu Saito, who no doubt impressed in 2012 but really broke through in 2013 after the departure of Yuji Ono.
In season 2013 Higuchi proved himself loyal to a fault when it came to his preferred players. He knew who he felt his best options were and he picked them, for better or worse. Over the course of season 2013, 9 players in the first-team squad started over 30 of the 34 J-league matches, with Bomber starting every match of the season. Despite the long summer break offering the players some respite a lack of rotation would ultimately cost us dearly, and by September, 6 months in to the season, we looked a spent force. Almost every remaining fixture was a grind to watch. We picked up a handful of 1-0 wins, with our 37-year old striker Marquinhos failing to hit the net once in the final 3 months of the season. If not for some resolute defending, coupled with the influence and goals of captain Shunsuke Nakamura, our title challenge would have crumbled by October as opposed to late November. Our players were out on their feet, yet Higuchi made no effort to offer them any rest. We surrendered the top-spot with a whimper on the final day of the season and fatigue was, in my opinion, the biggest factor. Higuchi could have rotated his squad without losing too much quality throughout the season, but chose not to. He showed his limitations as a coach in doing this. Ultimately, the season would offer some success in the form of the Emperor’s cup victory on New Years Day against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the side that had pipped us to the title just weeks before. I enjoyed that game, but it felt somewhat hollow given the events of the previous month, in truth. The first league title in a decade, what looks to have been Shunsuke and Bomber’s last real attempt to win the title in otherwise illustrious careers, had slipped from our grasp. It cannot be argued that, whilst Higuchi had done well to take the side to the summit of the table for so long, he was ultimately a large factor in our inability to cross the finishing line and claim the title.
Season 2014 never really got started for F.Marinos. After picking up 3 victories in the opening 3 ties, we failed to win another game for 7 rounds. By the time we finally picked up 3 points with a home victory over newly-promoted Gamba Osaka, any real hope we had had for the season had vanished. Our league position could have been worse, but the evidence on the pitch suggested our players had lost their appetite. Our signings over the close season boasted some well-known players from around the league, but had failed to remedy our biggest issue; putting the ball in the back of the net. Jungo Fujimoto, Yuta Mikado, Ito Sho, Takuro Yajima and Takumi Shimohira were signed, with Sho set to take up the role of Marquinhos, who had left to join Vissel Kobe, as our solo striker. To place such a responsibility on the shoulders of a relatively unproven young striker was a risk, but quite how much input Higuchi had in these signings is difficult to say. As with many other J.League clubs, F.Marinos transfer dealings can be strange, and are often shrouded in mystery. It appears that in the close season prior to season 2014, the club sought out what they believed was best value for money when dealing with agents, rather than what was evidently required in the starting line-up.
Seemingly learning from his mistakes in 2013, Higuchi did in fact rotate the side a little more in 2014, but did principally stick to his trusted players. Whether it was due to injury, or just the sheer volume of matches to be played over the course of the season, most of the squad players were at least involved in some first team fixtures, with Fabio and Dutra, who had been dropped since the beginning of the season, both coming in to play in the ACL ties. Despite this rotation, performances on the park were poor. We were patchy; winning games we had no right to win only to follow them up by losing in ties we should have won convincingly. The introduction of Brazilian forward Rafinha in the mid-summer break gave us a shot in the arm, and the muscular forward looked like the exact type of player we needed to convert our chances, but injury put paid to any hope of a mid-season revival, with ‘the RAF’ heading back to Brazil in early October with a foot injury forcing a premature end to his season. With Rafinha out, there was no one to turn to for goals and after picking up two wins and a draw in our final three league matches, F-Marinos finished a mediocre 7th in the table, 4 points behind our rivals Kawasaki and 12 points off of top spot.
When the news broke that Higuchi was leaving I was left feeling a little torn. The frustrations felt watching the side for the previous 15 months in particular were set aside to be replaced by a feeling of gratitude. Of course, Higuchi was a frustrating coach to support at times for the reasons I’ve noted above, but he was a passionate guy and a likeable character. It can’t be disputed that he was overly reliant on a small group of players, but what a group of players they were, and look at what he almost accomplished with them. He created a vintage F-Marinos side and for that we will remember his time at the club fondly. We at Tricolore Pride wish Yasuhiro Higuchi all the best in his new position at Ventforet Kofu and look forward to welcoming him back to the Nissan Stadium later in the season!
The Higuchi all-time XI:
1. Who was the best player to play under Higuchi at F-Marinos?
Tony: Nakamura Shunsuke.
Jamie: Yep, I agree.
2. Who was the best young player to play under him?
T: 24-year old Manabu.
J: Either one of Manabu or Yuji Ono.
3. Most improved player?
T: If not Manabu then Hyodo Shingo.
J: Tomisawa. Whilst we have better players, I don’t think anyone has grown in to their position more under Higuchi. A guy who was a bit of a journeyman before joining but really came in to his own in 2013. Solid, vocal, tough-tackling and passionate, Tomi has grown in to a great player for us and someone we missed greatly when he was out injured in 2014.
4. Your favourite game during his time as manager?
T: Coming back to win against Reds at Saitama stadium in July 2013.
J: Kawasaki Frontale 0 – 3 Yokohama F.Marinos in May 2014. Shunsuke crosses the ball, Bomber volleys it in.
5. The worst game of his spell as manager?
T: Round 31 of the league in 2013 when we lost 2-1 to Nagoya at home is tied with the final game of that season against Kawasaki.
J: Yokohama F.Marinos 0 – 2 Albirex Niigata. 30th Nov 2013.
6. Your fondest memory of Yasuhiro Higuchi?
T: The Emperor’s Cup win at Kokuritsu on New Years day 2014. A wonderful day!
J: The fist pumps.
Photo credit: F-Marinos.com