In the second of their cruel streak of five consecutive mid-summer matches, Verdy gave a dominant performance in a victory away against Avispa Fukuoka, clearing the mood of frustration that had hung over the squad since their loss to FC Ryukyu. Just three days later, the team now hit the road again to face Mito Hollyhock.
Verdy’s starting lineup was unchanged from the previous week, but the biggest talking point was the presence of Yoshito Okubo, who had been recovering from injury since the restart and now made the bench for the first time.
Even with the good news indicated by the return of the team’s oldest and most experienced player, the squad made a slow start to the match. The ball-side pressure applied by Mito was faster and more intense than any team Verdy has faced so far and the players seemed to lose their poise, enduring several counter attacks after giving up the ball. In the 3rd minute, the team allowed a free shot on goal after a counter-attack. On the other end, in the 11th minute, Haruya Ide overpowered his marker and used his individual skill to fire a shot on goal that went straight into the arms of the keeper. In the 18th minute, the team faced a pinch after an opposition counter, failing to stop Mito’s quick transition from defense to attack and allowing another unmarked shot on goal that went just left of the post. From the midpoint of the half, a series of Mito set pieces kept Verdy pinned to their area and unable to carry the ball high up the pitch, forcing a negative cycle in which the opposition quickly regained possession after simple clearances. In the 33rd minute, the opposition were granted several powerful attempts on goal after a corner kick, but Verdy covered well with plenty of numbers in the box and somehow managed to keep the ball out of the net. The first signs of a positive turn came at the end of the half. Hanato ceased fighting on the front line and dropped back to get involved in the buildup, allowing the Verdy attack to probe spaces between the lines with more up-tempo pass work and effective balls into the final third. In the 43rd minute, a series of lateral passes stretched the defense and created space for Yuhei Sato to fire a mid-range shot, but it unfortunately drifted off target. The team thus entered the break with the score remaining at 0-0.
Looking to improve on their poor rhythm in the first half, the manager gave detailed instructions to each player on their positioning and replaced Junki Koike with Koki Morita, the latter of whom would prove key to reclaiming the momentum.
Morita would begin making a difference from the opening minutes of the second half. Playing in a similar role to Hanato by dropping deep to help with the buildup and occasionally drifting into wide areas to provide an outlet at the start of moves, he helped the entire team push up into higher positions. True to his assignment as a free man, Morita did not confine his play to the front and initiated attacks from a variety of areas on the pitch, providing appropriate support to his teammates that enabled them to effectively move the ball. The Verdy player also made occasional runs into space and in the 57th minute, he got behind the defense and was brought down by a trailing defender for a direct freekick. It was the 59th minute and Sato went for goal, sending a sharply curling ball that hit the Mito wall but had enough power to continue, changing course to wrong foot the keeper and find the net. It was a goal that had been difficult to imagine after the difficult period they endured in the first half and it gave the team renewed confidence. The players began to enjoy their football and complete passes, patiently evading the Mito press. In the 64th minute, the players exploited gaps in the opposition spacing to send left-side attacker Takayuki Fukumura in free on goal, but the shot was unfortunately blocked by the defense. In the 81st minute, Morita’s clever ball control initiated a counter-attack that ended with Rihito Yamamoto running at the defense and swinging his foot for a shot. The ball was initially deflected but quickly picked up by Hanato, who beat his defender with a dribble and hit a powerful right-footed effort that cannoned off the right post.
Moments later, the Verdy bench would make another move, bringing on Okubo for Hanato and Naoto Sawai for Sato in the 82nd minute. Ryoya Yamashita also entered the game in place of Shion Inoue in the 86th minute. These decisions would prove to be key once again. Soon after taking the pitch, Okubo began to run hard in defense and also gradually became involved in play near the goal, hitting final balls or beating his defender to try a shot of his own, helping shift the momentum back in Verdy’s favor. In just 15 minutes on the pitch, Okubo made the difference and urged the squad forward at a time when they would be forgiven for retreating. This enabled Verdy to defend their one-goal lead via a sustained attack that used up the clock. Finally, in the 94th minute, Okubo began a move that went through Yamamoto and then to Yamashita, who had made a run behind the defense. The young speedster wasted no time in displaying his pace as he carried the ball into the box and coolly chipped a shot into an area that was difficult for the keeper to extend his hand to, tallying his first goal as a pro. Verdy had thus earned the victory, not via defensive tactics but by attacking until the very end.
Despite seeming on the verge of a loss in the first half, the players showed the ability to rebound in the second half and grabbed hold of the game themselves by making adjustments. With those adjustments leading to deeper confidence, the players on the pitch may be able to use their experience to deal with the coming difficulties presented by the schedule that awaits. The return of Okubo, who pushed the team to defend their lead via attack at the finish, should also prove big. It will be exciting to see how his presence will add depth to the team’s play style. Either way, with wins in the last two matches, Verdy have demonstrated their potential to become even stronger and play even more entertaining football.
Your thoughts on the match?
We’ve had so many games lately, so I first must say how happy I am that despite the difficult schedule, the players have done everything that’s been asked of them. They’ve really reminded me of what a great group we have. In the first 30 minutes of the first half, we were pushed back by the opposition press and they had the momentum. We then made some changes to our spacing and positioning and after that, I think we gradually began to achieve our style of football. Not only did the players carry out the instructions I gave at half time, but the substitutes all showed a great understanding of their roles and how they should respond to the way the opposition were playing. On top of that, our marquee player, Yoshito (Okubo), has now returned and given us a powerful new piece that will make us all stronger. I’m excited to see how our play improves. Finally, I want to single out Yamashita for getting his first J-League goal today. He participated in our Spring training camp as part of the practice squad and then trained with us again at year’s end. I’ve heard that he had offers from other teams in J3, but he wanted to play for Verdy and continued taking part in our practices. During that time, in practice and in training matches, he showed us his strong points and always gave 100%. Today illustrates that players like that will always earn results and that the football gods are watching. I really want to thank all the players today for their efforts.
You spoke to a lot of players during the water break in the first half, but what instructions did you give to Fujita specifically?
I spoke to him mainly about the opposition formation. The other team’s approach effects our positioning and the way we carry the ball, so I wanted him to make some minor adjustments in that aspect. The libero position where he plays is especially important and if he is even one meter out of place, it throws off our entire shape, so I went into specific detail.
Morita contributed a lot after coming on in the second half. What duties did you assign to him?
The first thing was to create numerical advantages in midfield. In addition, I noticed that their two central midfielders were marking Ide and our anchor position, rather than playing as a true central midfield pair, so I told Koki(Morita) to take advantage of that space with his free role. And of course, when the team passed the halfway line, I told him to make runs behind the defense. Those are all things that I had him do when I coached him on the youth team, so I think he has a better understanding than anyone else and he did a truly brilliant job.
Since the team struggled for long periods of the match, this must have been a very big three points to pick up.
I have high ambitions for this group and I ask a lot of them, In this game, other than the first 30 minutes of the first half and a total of 15 minutes in the second half, I give them a passing grade. Of course, when we consider that our objective is to dominate 80% of the match over the full 90 minutes, we didn’t do quite well enough, but we also managed to keep a clean sheet in difficult circumstances. In addition, I think the fact that we got a goal when we needed to finish the game off is a real sign of growth. And while this applies to the attackers and midfielders as well, I want to compliment the back line for maintaining their concentration for the full 90 minutes. That is something I feel strongly.
Is there anything you can tell us about Okubo’s injury after the restart and why it demanded so much time for him to recover?
It was not an injury that he could fully recoup from in a single day. Even at this point, I had to discuss things with the medical staff before we finally reached a decision. Yoshito himself has been telling me for a while that he wants to play and he doesn’t care if he does further damage. However, losing him permanently would be a huge blow for us. That he is able to join us now means that the team’s quality will definitely improve and I look forward to watching his performances.
Okubo showed his experience with the way he helped the team end the match.
Although the footage was from the match against the Ivory Coast that took place before the World Cup, at the end of our pre-game talk, we watched some video and talked about how Yoshito played in the World Cup and was the leading scorer in the J-League for three years straight. Obviously, he understands our football, what we talk about in terms of game design, how to end matches and how to finish. I was truly able to entrust him with the end of the match and watch without any worry. I thought he was excellent.