Last week, Verdy took part in the last match of their mid-summer series of five consecutive games and saw their recent streak of wins cut short after a 1-2 loss to the league’s second place team, Giravanz Kitakyushu, in a highly competitive encounter. Afterward, the team were given a rare week-long break before the first game of yet another series of five consecutive matches. Their opponent was Kyoto Sanga F.C., a team that had inflicted heavy losses to Verdy at home and away in the previous season. The players thus took the pitch on home turf looking for revenge and the start of a new winning streak.
The key man on this day was Yoshito Okubo, making his first appearance in the squad for a home game. Okubo took his place at the free man position and played the important role of helping the team dominate the flow of play. Meanwhile, Koki Morita and Rihito Yamamoto lined up at the front of central midfield, along with Joel Chima Fujita at libero. Together, the three academy graduates formed a young midfield core that would look to establish control. At the back, Masashi Wakasa started on the bench out of concern for his condition and in his place, Naoya Kondo was given his first start of the season.
In the opening minutes, the opposition pressed from the front with great intensity and Verdy responded by first playing the ball to the front before trying to connect passes in midfield. This enabled the back line to gradually push up as the team attempted to establish control of the momentum. As soon as they pushed up, however, the opposition played simple passes behind the defense and Verdy were pinned back several times in their own third. The players thus found themselves unable to escape the pressure with passing alone and struggled to develop a good rhythm. In the 9th minute, the team suffered a scare when a corner kick from the left was met with a header at the near post, only to drift just wide of the right post. Despite the difficult start, however, the team’s struggles were only temporary. With the Kyoto players already starting to show signs of fatigue, their pressing became less coordinated and Verdy’s patient pass work began to push them back, first by moving the ball into the wide areas and then, when the opportunity was right, by finding space to receive the ball in the middle. The improved tempo of Verdy’s passing would soon create an opportunity when Okubo received the ball on the right side and drew a foul from the defense for a free kick. The set piece was taken by Takayuki Fukumura and the position was reminiscent of his successful kick against Avispa Fukuoka. As Fukumura’s in-swinging ball made its way into the box, Kondo just failed to get a touch in front of goal but Junki Koike had also made a run behind him and met the pass first time to send it into the back of the net. It was indeed a replica of the previous goal against Avispa Fukuoka.
In the 33rd minute, the ball was played into the Verdy penalty area, to the diagonal right of goal, and headed down for a first-time volley. However, Matheus responded to the tricky effort with impeccable timing and rescued the team with a good diving save. Verdy struck back in the 34th minute and a corner kick from the left was played short and then returned to the kicker, Fukumura, who turned to face forward and carried the ball in on goal before hitting a fierce shot with his left foot that struck the post. The team now had complete control of the momentum and in the third minute of additional time before the break, Fujita played the ball into space behind the defense on the wide right and Koike made a perfectly-timed run to beat his defender and receive the pass, working his way into the penalty area right of goal. When an additional defender came to close him down, Koike laid the ball off with a reverse pass and the supporting Yamamoto controlled with his first touch and then curled a shot into the top left corner with his left foot, earning his first goal as a pro and giving the team a two-goal lead.
At half time, the manager challenged the players to earn a third goal and ensure full control of the match. In response, the players attacked from the opening whistle. Just after kick-off, Verdy broke down the left side of the defense and Okubo called for the ball in space. However, the pass was late in arriving and a closing defender was able to block the shot. In the 60th minute, Okubo was taken off for Yamashita and the latter would respond minutes later in the 66th minute by breaking on to a 25 meter through-pass from Fujita to the left side and continuing his run in on goal. Despite earning a 1 v 1 with the goalkeeper, his shot would ultimately go wide of the right post. Afterward, Kyoto would earn control of the possession for an extended period, but Verdy maintained a tight shape with no gaps in defense. On the contrary, the team had several chances on the counter and were poised to set up the finish, only to see their final balls escape a touch in the box. Shion Inoue also had an opportunity before the final whistle but his shot was a hair off target. Even so, the team’s combative approach in attack and defense enabled them to control the play and earn the full three points from the match.
Having returned to the starting lineup and made his home debut, Okubo aided the team today by dropping into midfield and providing extra poise to an attack that had been in too great a hurry to get forward. These efforts enlivened the team’s pass work and gave rhythm to the attack. Before the opening goal as well, it was his physical play that earned the free kick and provided an opportunity at a moment when the team needed it most. The forward’s vast experience combined well with the talent of Verdy’s young midfield and the signs are brewing for a positive chemical reaction. Now, we will hope to see this process develop with even greater quality as the team prepare to face Jubilo Iwata.
Your thoughts on the match?
As the first of another series of five consecutive matches, this game was, in our minds, the start of the fourth quarter of our season. From that perspective, I am happy to say that the players made a promising start with a brilliant performance and hard work. This was a good victory for us and I felt strongly, once again, that we have a brilliant squad of players. We did a lot of analysis of the way Kyoto play and determined the areas where we needed to get forward, where to make passes from, and which players to target as we tried to break them down. With only a short amount of time, we worked on these things in training and I am very happy to see the way the players executed according to plan and achieved an excellent result. After I was named manager of the top team last year, we suffered a very bitter loss to Kyoto on their turf and I’m someone who never forgets the taste of that kind of defeat, so I’m grateful to the players for allowing me the chance to make up for that. With that said, we have another match to prepare for, against Jubilo, and we must work hard to continue elevating the quality of our football. Next, I’d like to say congratulations to Rihito (Yamamoto) for scoring his first goal. Today, the entire squad, including those on the bench, performed very well and I think that comes down to the work hard work that is put in during training by every player, even those who don’t make the squad, as well as our ability to share a consistent image of how we want to play. I would like to express my gratitude to all the players and to our entire staff, who have also been working hard. Finally, since this was a home game, I’d like to say thank you to our fans who continue to offer us support and encouragement, even in hard times and under the current limitations placed on them in the stadium. We will continue to do our best.
Can you tell us why you decided to grant Okubo his first start since play resumed and Kondo his first start of the season?
First off, I’m genuinely happy that (Kon)Do has completed his long period of rehabilitation and returned to the pitch after his injury. In terms of what he brings to the team, he has been the leader of our defense since last season and I had no hesitation or worry about naming him to the squad. I also note that Kyoto’s forwards had great physical strength and I felt that Kondo would be the best suited for that matchup. He more than met my expectations and contributed greatly to the win, today. As far as Yoshito (Okubo) is concerned, we all know what a great player he is and I wanted everyone to get a chance to see his ability and brilliance in action. In particular, since the opposition played with five at the back, it was necessary for him to target the middle of their three center backs, what we call the number three position, and force their line to drop deep. He also needed to aim for space behind or drop into space himself in front of the defense. He did all of that as well as one expects from a player of his caliber. Since we field a lot of young players in our squad, it makes me happy to have veterans like Do and Yoshito, who I can trust to perform well. I am grateful to them.
Can you explain why you substituted for Narawa midway through the first half?
It was a bit unexpected, but we always have a lot of plans at the ready and I’m glad we were still able to proceed with the game smoothly.
It seems like Fujita is making more key passes at the midpoint of moves, setting up his teammates to play a final ball.
Since early spring, we have been working with him in training on new passing lanes and demanding that he try and play the ball forward more. One of his strengths as a player is his ability to absorb knowledge and grow at a fast pace. His growth recently has exceeded our expectations and I am very satisfied with his performances, not only today but in other matches as well.
In the first half, Kyoto were able to pull the defense from left to right and create numerical advantages on the open side. Is that part of the reason you inserted Wakasa into the match?
There was just a bit of trouble and while it was half an accident, it was also one of the plans we had at the ready and I think he did a great job of responding to our needs. I think the fact that we never had any big seams open up is proof that the players did very well.
Sato has started the last two matches on the bench. Is your intention to save him so that he can change the momentum of the match mid-way?
We prepare a lot of different plans and I’m grateful to say that in midfield, we have a wealth of players who can express my football vision on the pitch. In a sense, I am confident no matter who I insert into the lineup. That means that I am able to consider different ideas for when to use Yuhei (Sato) and at what position by thinking about how we match up with the other side or who will perform best where. That goes not only for him but for all the players. I compose my plans while imagining what the opposition will do and as the manager, having so many excellent midfield players to choose from and so many things to think about before each match is something to be grateful for. I know that no matter who I send out, they will meet our demands.