Five months have commenced since the opening match of the season. Crowds have now returned to Ajinomoto Stadium and the team have the opportunity to present a game of football to all those who support Tokyo Verdy. With no wins yet this campaign, the players surely took heart from once again being surrounded by the faces of their supporters and every round of applause that accompanied good play would prove to be perfect fuel for the battle.
With the team in the midst of a series of consecutive matches, adjustments were made to the squad. At the back, Matheus was selected to make his home debut, while Shohei Takahashi also returned to the starting lineup after serving a match ban. In midfield, Joel Chima Fujita, who had started the previous game on the bench, stepped in at libero to support the front central midfield pair of Yuhei Sato and Tatsuya Ide. Finally, Shion Inoue, who had not hid his frustration at being subbed at half time in the previous match, was chosen to play not in central midfield but at left wide striker.
It was Verdy who controlled the ball in the opening minutes. The players maintained exquisite spacing on the pitch and moved the ball at an up-tempo pace, pinning back the opposition. When they did lose the ball, the team defended high up the pitch, without retreating, enabling them to continue a high-pressure attack. Up to that point, the play mirrored the previous three matches since the break, when the team were unable to secure a positive result. However, it became clear from halfway through the first half that things would be different this time. It was a set piece that lit the first embers of the blaze. In the 21st minute, the manager signaled a set piece drill and Sato sent his free kick to the far side, where Junki Koike headed down and set up Ide for a first-time shot that nearly found the target. In the 29th minute, a series of passage was exchanged between the center and wide areas that stretched the defense, allowing space for Ide to shed his marker with a feint and fire a fierce midrange effort. The shot was deflected by the keeper, but Ide’s advantage in quickness over the opposition would propel the entire team. In the 33th minute, Ide switched the play to the opposite side, where Koike played the ball down with his first touch and the covering Sato picked up on the second ball and drilled a low, quick pass into the space in front of goal. With the defense unable to clear, Masashi Wakasa met the ball with a run, but his placed shot was just off course. In the 36th minute, Yuhei Sato lost possession but immediately pressed from a high position to win it back, subsequently spotting Inoue making a run into space and splitting the defense with a through-pass. Inoue’s shot attempted to catch the goalkeeper off his timing, but the ball struck the keeper’s legs and rolled clear of the net. Still, Verdy had not merely maintained possession and had instead found the seams needed to break down the defense and put enough numbers forward to potentially finish off their moves. Those efforts would bear fruit in the 37th minute. After Sato began a move from midfield in the center of the pitch, exchanging short passes with Hanato and Fujita to draw the defense, Hanato dropped back into space between the lines to receive the ball and quickly played it to the supporting Ide, who spotted Inoue making a well-timed run behind the defense and found him with an equally well-timed through pass. Inoue then watched for the goalkeeper to leave his line and coolly played the ball into the right corner of the net with his right foot, giving Verdy the lead for the first time this season. It was a beautiful goal that symbolized the players’ belief in their unique style.
Moments later, however, the opposition would equalize at the end of the half from a corner kick and the team went to the locker room once again recognizing the dangers of football.
With Sato picking up an injury in the first half, Koki Morita was brought in after the break, but the pace would not let up. As the half began, Verdy kept the ball without easily giving it up, occasionally relying on back passes to recycle the possession and controlling the initiative. In doing they so, they continually generated chances and seemed to be able to recreate their attacking moves at will. In the 11th minute of the second half, Hanato moved into the channel and secured the ba11 at the post before finding playing a through pass toward the right side, where Koike had made a run. A cross was then played in that drifted to the far side and was retrieved by Narawa, who beat the closing defender with his dribble and fired a shot at goal, only to see it battled away by the goalkeeper with an excellent save. Two minutes later, the team executed a nearly identical move. Hanato turned with the ball and played a pass behind the defense for the running Koike. The latter looked up just as the ball was at his feet and drilled a strong, fast-moving pass across the face of goal with the inside of his foot. On the far side, Inoue made a run on his defender’s blind side and met the ball with a stunning shot that gave Verdy the lead once more. This time, Verdy would not let up after claiming the advantage. In the 66th minute, good pass work saw the team penetrate deep into opposition territory, where Inoue received the ball just left of the penalty area and played it back to Ide with his heel. Ide took out his marker with a series of feints and then cut inside to hit a curling shot that just crept inside the right post and found the top corner of the net, immediately putting Kofu in a big deficit.
With Verdy having shown the ability to repeatedly execute their attacking patterns, it was their substitutions that would next prove effective. In the 75th minute, Mizuki Arai was brought in for Ide and with his first appearance of the season, the forward would prove the catalyst to securing the win. Receiving the ball from the right side after a series of speedy passes, Arai looked to test his first touch by launching into a skillful dribble and playing a cross into the box. The ball jut failed to find Hanato, but the defense was also unable to clear, allowing the charging Wakasa to leap feet-first at the ball and volley the ball beneath the keeper into the net. Moments later, in the 78th minute, Verdy would give up a goal of their own after failing to clear a ball in from the wide areas, but even then, they did not merely retreat into their own half. Instead, the team proved once again that the best defense is a good offense and dominated possession until the final whistle, winning 4-2 for their first victory of the season.
While it would be unfair to say the team lacked motivation during the two matches played in empty stadiums and the one match with no visiting support, today being the first time that they would play in front of home supporters on their own turf seemed to have hardened the players’ resolve. In particular, the team had already demonstrated their potential by achieving 70% of the possession in their previous three matches, but today they showed the determination to continue with their philosophy of attractive football by settling for nothing less than a positive result. The numbers tell the story. In their four games since the season began, Verdy's shots on goal were in the single digits on each occasion. Today, however, the players fired 16 efforts. These were not mere potshots. Each attempt came after pulling the opposition out of their shape, breaking down the defense and setting up a clear opportunity.
With the fans still facing restrictions on how they show their support at the stadium, the players clearly wanted to entertain and encourage them by displaying exciting football for the full 90 minutes. They achieved that objective. The confidence built in their style over the three matches since the resumption of play has now also given them the courage to threaten the goal. For their next match, Verdy hit the road again and will once more try to please their companions, this time watching on DAZN, with an even more sophisticated attacking display.
Your thoughts on the match?
For us, the biggest joy was finally getting to play in front of our home supporters. In terms of the match, we had been achieving the style we aim to play with over the last few match matches, but there had been a lot of frustration, both within myself and among the players, about the way we ended moves. Today, however, the players continued doing what they had done well so far and I feel like the supporters provided us that last push needed to create the finish. Kofu are also a team with a high-level attack and it was a difficult match, but I think the players did brilliantly until the final whistle.
You began with a back four. Was that because you expected the opposition to line up with a back five?
Naturally, whether the opposition came with a back five or a back four was a very important part of our game plan, so we prepared to deal with either one.
Today, you seemed to achieve one of your major objectives by effectively exploiting your opponents’ game plan. Do you feel this was this because of the particular matchup you had or was there a change in your approach?
It went according to plan, but I think the players did a good job of breaking the stagnation that had built in our attack. What I emphasized in the locker room was that if we are going to play with 70% of the possession, it is very important to always be in the right positions. However, that emphasis was expressed in a way that they understood that they could stray from position in the finishing zone. The players understood the meaning of my words and their intent very well.
Shion Inoue had two goals today. How did you rate his play and what do you continue to expect from him?
I believe that I am more aware than anyone else of his ability and potential. He always performs well, but today he did brilliantly by achieving a clear impact with his goals, in addition to the usual things he does so well. Still, I think he can do even more.
What advice have you given to Inoue?
A lot of it has to do with where he stands on the pitch. In the last match, he struggled a bit to find space in central midfield. Today, I think starting him on the left, where his position was clear, probably helped. In terms of advice, a great manager like his previous coach, Lotina, expressed his potential by calling him “Verdy's Messi”. Personally, however, I think I would rather see him become Verdy's Iniesta.
What did you hope to achieve by having him switch positions with Haruya Ide during the match?
Shion (Inoue) had struggled in central midfield during the previous match, so I had him start on the left wing today. However, he is fully capable of performing in central midfield, so I told him, Haru (ya Ide) and the side attacker Nara(wa) that they could rotate positions. I’m a rather old-fashioned person, so when I subbed him at half time in the previous game, it wasn’t because he been played poorly, it was more about changing the team’s approach. However, I noticed that he was crying at half time, which is rare for him. When I saw that, I had the instinctual feeling that he would have a big impact the next time he played. And today, he did a wonderful job, scoring two goals. Shion proved to me, once again, that there really are football gods watching over us.