At last, weekend football has returned to our lives. J-2 has reconvened, the first of the J-League’s tournaments to do so. In the interest of preventing further spread of COVID-19, matches were rescheduled to keep travel to a minimum and as a result, Vedry’s home opener was now the season’s first leg of the TOKYO CLASSIC, putting them against rivals FC Machida Zelvia.
Since the Verdy training grounds had also been closed to visitors as a precaution against the virus and no information had been released to the media about injuries, the starting lineup included many surprises. The team’s new marquee signing, Yoshito Okubo, was left out of the squad due to an injury picked up after activities had resumed. Leandro was also absent, despite having recently participated in training.
The tail of Verdy’s formation on this day consisted of Takahiro Shibasaki in goal, along with Masashi Wakasa, Shohei Takahashi and Tomohiro Taira as a back three. Yuta Narawa also joined the back line when the team was not in possession and played farther forward when in attack, making for an overall asymmetric shape. Meanwhile, Joel Chima Fujita sat at the base of midfield with Yuhei Sato and Haruya Ide in front of him. Shion Inoue was registered as a forward and played a free role, often dropping into midfield, while Jin Hanato occupied the front line, accompanied by the team’s leading goal-scorer from the previous year, Junki Koike, on the right wing. The latter was assigned the role of providing extra width to the formation, in order to stretch the defense.
The match began in the worst possible way. In the 3rd minute, Hirato was allowed to face forward with the ball in the right corner of the Verdy penalty area and the defense were made to pay for a moment’s hesitation when the Machida player curled a stunning midrange shot into the top left corner to give the opposition the lead. Following the opener, Verdy would maintain possession for nearly the entire match. Moving the ball well and stretching the defense, they pushed several times into the final third and put pressure on goal by attacking from the wide areas. One might see this as a sign that the opposition were content to sit back and allow Verdy to move the ball, but on this day, the team did not merely exchange aimless passes. There was a clear intent to earn a goal and the players moved the ball in every direction as they evaded pressure and looked for opportunities to play through balls behind the defense. In the 22nd minute, Ide lifted the ball into the box for Hanato to head down at the post. Inoue then pounced on the loose ball and dribbled before hitting a midrange shot, injecting an extra air of threat to a team had previously been known for trying to pass the ball into the back of the net. While they failed to earn a goal, Verdy continually involved multiple players in the attack, moving the ball with quick touches, and creating several opportunities. The back three also did well to maintain a high defensive line, with both Takahashi and Taira frequently recovering loose balls and when the half came to a close, Verdy had earned 70% of the possession.
At half time, the manager made his first move, bringing on Kanya Fujimoto to make his return to the pitch for the first time since August 11th of the previous season. Koike was also taken off and replaced with Ryoya Yamashita. Both of these substitutions would have an immediate impact. In the 51st minute, Fujimoto, now wearing the captain’s armband, played an inch-perfect through pass with his left foot, creating space for Yamashita to run on the right and drill a low cross in front of goal. With the keeper unable to leave his line, the ball reached the far post and was met by an unmarked by Hanato, but the Verdy player was unable to control his shot and saw his effort fly over the bar. Verdy had now spurned a big chance, but they still controlled the pace of the match. In the 56th minute, Hanato’s post work drew a foul and earned the team a direct free kick that was taken by Sato. However, his effort could not quite get past the opposition wall and reach the goal. In the 32nd minute, Taira played a long ball from his own half to Narawa who had burst forward with acres of space on the wide left. Narawa played the ball down first time to Sato, who in turn chipped to Hanato. Hanato then played the ball with impeccable timing to the feet of Narawa. who had made a late run into the box. Narawa seemed to be trying to turn his defender by breaking to the left, but in the end, he faced a difficult angle and his shot on goal was saved by the keeper.
Although Verdy continued to control the play and push up from the back, they approached the 45-minute mark of the second half still down a goal. With the clock just having entered into additional time, Narawa received the ball in a deeper position and floated a tentative long ball forward. Hanato was able to receive the pass, while fighting off a defender challenging from behind, and spotted Yamashita preparing for a run to the inside. Hanato then hit a perfect heel pass through the legs of the defender and as Yamashita attempted to control the ball with his first touch, a late challenge impeded his run and gave Verdy a penalty kick in the dying minutes. It was the recovered Fujimoto who set the ball at the penalty spot. Although the timing of his run up was slightly out of synch with the referee’s whistle, his low effort still managed to beat the keeper and find the left corner of the net to earn the team a draw.
Today’s match came four weeks after the resumption of regular team activity and despite the hard training and injuries to several key players, the match still provided evidence of the club’s progress in achieving Manager Nagai’s goal of ‘always painting the same picture, no matter who is on the pitch’. In particular, Hanato’s performance was key, as his activity on the ball created several opportunities for shots on goal. Despite missing a big opportunity himself, it was also Hanato’s tricky pass that led to the penalty which enabled the team to earn an equalizer. Ide, who played on this day in a role similar to a false 9, also stood out, contributing with not only his passing but also his ability to maintain precise control as he ran at the defense, providing an extra dose of attacking threat. While the team had chances to earn the full three points and some frustration remains, the match was also evidence of rapid improvement in style. Now, the players must embark on a series of away matches and pile up victories before returning home.
Your thoughts on the match?
We gave up a goal in the opening minutes, which was not part of our plan, but I think the players did well to express the kind of football we want to play. They did so for the full 90 minutes. I’m glad that we were able to pick up a point, thanks to the late penalty kick, but in terms of controlling the ball and what must be done after that, we’ve been trying new things since the mid-point of last season and there is still a lot of improvement to be made on our precision and ability to break down the defense.
Can you tell us why key attacking players like Yoshito Okubo and Leandro were left out of the squad?
It was a condition problem. I don’t think either of them are in too terrible a state. We hope to have them back as soon as possible.
During the first half, you played with a back three and two holding midfielders during buildup. Shion Inoue was registered as a forward, but he was used in central midfield, while Yuhei Sato seemed to be playing as more of a shadow striker. Can you tell us your intent?
I think it might appear differently to different sets of eyes. Compared to how we usually line up, it was probably a bit more flexible of a system, at least on the left side. That mostly had to do with the fact that Machida defend in two blocks, with a strict 4-4-2, and I made slight adjustments to the way we lined up so we could have a better chance of breaking them down. As far as Shion (Inoue) and Joel (Chima Fujita) are concerned, again it will look different to different sets of eyes, but in certain situations they played as a double pivot and in others, we aimed to play Shion as a false free man, or at least an extra free man. It was a difficult task for Shion and with that in mind, I thought he performed wonderfully, especially in the first half.
How did you feel about playing in a remote match (empty stadium)?
It was a strange feeling and I had worried about how it would affect the players’ motivation, but I am happy to say that they all had a positive attitude. In terms of how it affects the work of the coaching staff, it’s a lot easier for our voices to be heard and we can issue direct instructions, which made things easier. Still, it’s the fans that make the J League what it is and I think it is best for the players when they can take the pitch in front of an audience or supporters.
Certainly, it does make it easier for your instructions to be heard, but can’t the other team hear them as well? Did you have any worries about that?
It did concern me, but I want the players to understand what I require of them and what vision I have in mind. I know they can hear me in these circumstances, so I can’t help but express myself. It’s true that the opposition will hear everything, but I always tell the players to engage the opposition in what they’re doing, anyway. At times, I even purposefully allow myself to be heard.
Kanya Fujimoto made his first official appearance since his injury last season. Can you tell us why you decided to wait until half time to bring him on, what instructions you gave him, and how you rate his ability to convert that penalty kick under pressure?
He had been injured and undergoing rehabilitation for a long period, so we want to be as careful as possible. He is one of the players on the team with a 100% understanding of the kind of football I want us to play and deserves to be a core member of the squad. I will continue to be careful with his minutes, but as long as he is on the pitch, there is no doubt that the team’s performance will improve, so we are looking forward to seeing more of him. As far as the penalty kick was concerned, he is the captain and the coaching staff don’t assign kickers, so I’m sure the players decided that he should take it. Of course, I was confident that he would convert and he did so, earning a result for the team. I’m truly happy for him. In terms of half-time instructions, I know that he is excellent at playing through passes, so I told him from what areas of the pitch I wanted him to do so, as well as when and in what fashion. In addition, just before leaving the locker room for the second half, I pulled the players in a circle and talked about how Kanya was playing his first match in 7 or 8 months, so let’s do our best to make it a positive return. The veteran players did a good job of spreading that message and I think it put us in good spirit to begin the second half.