No goals in Sendai

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Christ, these lazy bastards go AWOL for months on end and then have the audacity to update their page off the back of a goalless draw in Sendai??”

You would be quite right in thinking that, however, I’m not actually gonna talk about that game for 2 reasons. First being that I didn’t watch a single second of the game due to being held hostage by my wife and her need for an uninterested man’s opinion on ladies shoes, and secondly because there were no ruddy goals and we saw our 4 point lead get cut down to a 2 point lead as we head towards the next round of games. Also, this boring YouTube clip will do a better job than I ever could anyway…

That said however, you’ll be pleased to know that somewhere else, a lovely Scotsman by the name of Jamie McCourt has taken it upon himself to blog his thoughts on how our boys are doing. I must admit, I am rather glad he did because it’s not only a wonderful read but it also gives me something else to type about after forcing you all to subject your eyeballs to that YouTube vid above. Be sure to give him a follow and check out his awesome blog!

I am re-posting Jamie’s season digest here in the hope that more people get to read it and because I know that some people are too lazy to click on links! Take it away Jamie!!

Yokohama F. Marinos fans have enjoyed season 2013 thus far. With their side 4 points clear at the top of the J-league division 1 and just 8 games left to play, they could be set to celebrate their first league championship win in a decade. But how have Marinos maneuvered themselves in to such a position in the league? For an aging side that finished season 2012 in 4th and a fair distance off the pace, just how have they managed to move themselves up the table in such a short space of time?

2012 Proved to be a frustrating season for Marinos supporters, with the side failing to pick up a victory in their first 7 league games. 14 Draws over the course of the season, more than any other team in the league, left them hovering around the middle of the table for the majority of the season. Results were mixed, victories over eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima and third placed Urawa Reds displayed the potential this side had, but a failure to win consecutive games meant Marinos were doomed to a season of mediocrity. A late rally saw Yasuhiro Higuchi’s side finish a respectable 4th, level on points with Sagan Tosu but a whole 9 points behind Hiroshima. The form shown over the course of the season, coupled with the loss of promising youngster Yuji Ono to Standard Liege of Belgium, left fans with the feeling that their side could be set for a challenging season ahead and a tough battle to achieve one of the three Asian Champions League places afforded to J1 clubs.

Only the most optimistic of supporters could have predicted what lay ahead for the Kanagawa club. In a total reversal of the previous season, Marinos picked up the maximum eighteen points available from their first six games of season 2013. With striker Marquinhos hitting six goals in the opening four games and captain Shunsuke Nakamura in inspired form, the team scored eighteen goals in first first six games of the season, including a 5-0 destruction of Shimizu S-Pulse away from home. An away defeat to Albirex Niigata in round 7 derailed Marinos, who were unable to pick up another victory in their next four games, but the team returned to winning ways in spectacular fashion on a Saturday afternoon in Nagoya. With Marinos fighting back to lead 2-1 after conceding from a Josh Kennedy penalty, referee Yuichi Nishimura offered Grampus a lifeline by awarding a soft penalty for a foul on Nagoya forward Keiji Yamada. With Kennedy off the field, Yamada stepped up to hit the penalty but a heroic save by keeper Tetsuya Enomoto gave the team their first win in five and silenced Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic who had been animated on the touchline following the penalty award. This save proved to be the turning point in the season for Marinos and marked a return to winning ways, with the team going on a run of good form after the victory, losing just one of the next eleven games.

But how has Yasuhiro Higuchi turned a side who drew fourteen games over the course of season 2012 in to the favourites to lift the title? A quick glance over the number of appearances made shows that a relatively small pool of players have regularly been selected with, incredibly, just those players that make up Higuchi’s preferred starting XI making more than 7 starts over the course of the 26 games games played this season. It is no surprise then that the change in fortunes for his Marinos side is more of a natural progression than a transformation, with Higuchi displaying a great deal of trust in a small group of proven players.

Like any good side, their success has been built on a strong defensive foundation, one that has been in place for some time. With the tightest defence in the league last season, conceding just 33 goals, defenders Yuzo Kobayashi, Yuji Nakazawa and Yuzo Kurihara have played together regularly since 2011, and the return of 40-year old Brazilian left-back Dutra in 2012 has proven another successful move by Higuchi. His nigh on stubborn commitment to this back four, along with the acquisition of central defender Fabio in the off-season from S.C Sagamihara and the clever utilisation of promising full-back Yuta Narawa, has allowed Marinos continue their strong defensive form in to 2013 conceding just 26 goals so far. A remarkable feat especially when you consider that the combined age of the back four often reaches 132 years.

Higuchi’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation has largely proven successful this season and this is in no small part due to the use of club legend Shunsuke Nakamura in his favoured ‘number 10’ position, playing just off lone-striker Marquinhos. With 9 goals in 26 games so far, the former Celtic star is experiencing something of an Indian summer in his footballing career at 35 years old. Undoubtedly, the success of Nakamura is in part due to the role played by defensive midfielders Seitaro Tomisawa and Kosuke Nakamachi. The cover both players offer to what is an aging defence has proven pivotal and allows both full-backs to bomb forward with confidence, a key feature of this Marinos side. Tomisawa in particular has proven himself a key-player for Higuchi with each of his 3 goals scored so far this season opening the scoring in Marinos wins, including a 30-yard rocket away to current champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima in round 8. His influence on the league leaders was made all the more evident in his absence, when Marinos lost two out of three games whilst he was ruled out through injury.

This season has also marked the arrival of young attacker Manabu Saito to a wider audience of J-league supporters. Having returned from a successful loan spell at Ehime FC in J2 at the beginning of season 2012, Saito showed glimpses of his ability throughout last season, scoring 6 goals and impressing Marinos fans with his close control and strength, particularly when cutting inside from the left. 2013 Has seen Saito hit his most impressive form, scoring a goal of the season candidate against Omiya Ardija and earning himself a call up to the Japanese national squad for the East Asian Cup. With the World Cup on the horizon, Saito will be hoping to impress national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni and has gone someway to repaying the faith shown in him already by scoring a delightful goal against Australia. Playing on the opposite flank from Saito has been Shingo Hyodo, whose energy and direct style of play has been key for Marinos this season. With the ability to play in the centre of midfield, Hyodo uses his superior awareness to drift inside and create space for full-back Kobayashi to move in to. This tactic is replicated on the opposite flank with the rampaging Dutra often pairing up with Saito in the final third, creating space in the channels and pinning the opposition back.

Attacking play is enjoyable to watch, of course, but a natural goalscorer can often prove to be the difference between an average side and one that aspires to be the best in the country. Step forward Marquinhos. The 37-year old Brazilian has been in tremendous form this season, netting 16 goals in 25 games, his best return since winning the title with Kashima Antlers in 2008. Benefiting from the service provided to him by Saito and Nakamura in particular, Marquinhos has provided a useful foil for his team mates and could prove to be the cutting edge that pushes Marinos over the line in the coming months.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. The apparent inability of Marinos or their close rivals Urawa Reds and Sanfrecce Hiroshima to capitalise on the mistakes of their respective championship opponents could give the impression that this is a league no one wants to win, with the top three sides dropping points at an alarmingly regular rate. Rivals Omiya Ardija kept pace until they embarked on an unprecedented 8-match losing streak, which was only snapped when they (of course!) defeated Marinos themselves.

Also, looming over the Nissan stadium this season is the very real possibility of a sporting sanction in the not too distant future due to the alarming deficit with which club are currently operating under. Without a sizable cash injection from owners Nissan, Marinos could find themselves penalised for apparent mismanagement of finances under rules put in place by the league. Whilst this situation is still avoidable, what cannot be avoided is the ravages of time. With the highest average age in the league, this season could prove to be the last roll of the dice for many of the current Marinos starting XI, with Nakamura, Nakazawa, Marquinhos and Dutra all 35 or over. There’s also the question of how happy members of the squad will be with the clear lack of game time being offered to them? These issues, coupled with the increasingly real possibility of Manabu Saito leaving the club for pastures new in January, mean this season could be the last chance Marinos fans have to see their club lift the title for a considerable period of time, a fact almost acknowledged during last weekends home victory over Shimizu S-Pulse when Marinos fans unfurled a banner highlighting their desire to “win the title with Shunsuke”.

With a 4 point lead, there is little doubt Marinos are favourites for the title at this late stage in the season. Games against second placed Sanfrecce Hiroshima at the Nissan stadium on October 19th and a final day showdown away to bitter rivals Kawasaki Frontale could prove pivotal in the run-in. With a fully-fit squad and key players in good form, Marinos fans will be hoping their side can take advantage of favourable conditions and grasp their chance to “win it with Shunsuke.”

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