After ending the season’s first leg with a record of 7 wins, 7 draws and 7 losses, Verdy now plunge forward into the second leg. The venue that marked the occasion was Ajinomoto Field Nishigaoka, a stadium known for seating fans close to the pitch and one that has been friendly to the team’s record in recent years. Their opponents for this must-win encounter were Giravanz Kitakyushu, a fellow attacking side against whom Verdy had fought a much-anticipated match earlier in the year, only to be overpowered in defeat on that occasion.
In the previous match, Verdy created several chances in the early minutes and many of the players were left with the bitter impression that the result would have been different if they had finished their opportunities. The stage for their revenge turned out to be the first match of the second leg and with victories looking more and more out of reach in the past three fixtures, a game against the league table leaders was also a chance to generate momentum for a push up the table in the second leg.
After being absent from the squad last week, Takayuki Fukumura was back in the starting lineup this time, while Yuhei Sato took the place of Haruya Ide, who was suspended for the match. Sato’s partner at the front of central midfield was Rihito Yamamoto and Joel Chima Fujita played behind them at the libero position.
Kita Kyushu applied pressure from the front in the early minutes. As in the previous match, they followed their high press by attacking Verdy on the short counter after winning the ball. In response, Verdy moved the ball at the back to pull the opponents’ high line forward and looked for spaces to make quick attacks and push back themselves. The first chance came in the 14th minute, after the team defended a long ball from the opposition and Sato took possession, quickly playing a through pass down the right side of the pitch. Yamashita then broke free with the ball and took a shot on goal, only to see it blocked by a defender. In the 17th minute, the opposition breached the middle of the Verdy defense and were in on goal, but Masashi Wakasa blocked the shot, deflecting it onto the post. The second ball fell loose in the box and another opposition attacker attempted to follow up, but Tomohiro Taira was first to extend his legs and just managed to get a touch on the ball to send it clear. In the 19th minute, the opposition failed to effectively clear a corner kick from the left side and Yamamoto retrieved the second ball inside the penalty area, finding space for a left-footed shot. Although the effort was off target, it managed to find its way to Shohei Takahashi, who had made a run into the box and headed the ball into the back of the net. However, Takahashi was flagged for offside and the goal was disallowed. After the opportunity, Verdy continued to carry the ball deep inside the Kyushu half and the players’ individual positioning was outstanding, enabling them to exploit gaps and create numerical advantages as they pressured the goal. With the team gradually gaining improving their rhythm and tempo, the first turning point of the match would arrive. It was the 23rd minute and a move began at the back that moved through Matheus at goalkeeper, on to the left side, and then to the right side of the pitch, where Yamashita used his speed to carry the ball forward on a deep run. As the ball was played back to the supporting Fujita, the latter drilled a pass to the feet of Koike, who was fighting for position inside the penalty area. Koike’s first touch left his defender stranded and before the ball could be cleared, he slid onto it and sent an effort into the left corner of the net to give Verdy the lead.
With the goal in hand, Verdy did not let up on their attack. In the 30th minute, Yamashita got behind the defense and had a chance to shoot after receiving the ball unmarked. His effort was aimed at catching the keeper off his line, but a defender desperately tracked it down and was able to clear. In the 35th minute, a gap opened in front of the Verdy goal and a Kyushu player had an opportunity for a free effort, but Wakasa cleverly closed him down from behind and extended his leg to change the course of the shot and avert the danger. The game remained as intense as ever as the first half came to a close. In the 40th minute, Yamashita broke free on the counter and although his first attempt was blocked, Fujita retrieved the ball for a shot, only for his placed effort to go wide of the right post. Even then, Verdy did not let up. In the 42nd minute, Sato ran onto a through pass from Shion Inoue and found himself 1 v 1 with the keeper to the left of the goal. However, the keeper managed to block his placed effort and send it drifting wide right of goal.
Having grasped the momentum, Verdy maintained a high gear as the second half began. In the 50th minute, a beautiful Verdy move would create the clearest chance of the match. After resetting an attack that began on the right side, Taira opened the play to Sato on the left. Sato played a first-time pass forward to Koike, who returned it as the former ran in support. Sato then hit a pass into space at the front for Fukumura, whose subsequent first-time ball into the middle was in turn played by Inoue first-time into the space to the left of goal. Sato made the run onto the ball and after pulling a marker wide, the Verdy man played a lateral pass across the face of goal to the far side, where Fukumura was unmarked and had his eye on the ball. However, it was just out of reach of his foot and the chance was lost. Still, the players had moved the ball freely with organic single touches and left Kitakyushu ball watching as they were completely broken down. Another chance came moments later. In the 51st minute, Yamashita again found space down the right on the half-counter and hit an early cross toward Koike, whose run had taken him from the left side into the center of the box. Koike then tried a placed header, but the effort was kept out by a fine save from the goalkeeper. From that point, Verdy would focus on evading the opposition pressure as they looked for occasional chances to get forward. However, they gradually began losing the second ball and found themselves pinned back in their own area on more occasions. Still, the team remained patient and did not allow any easy opportunities. In the 80th minute, a Kitakyushu effort on goal would pass between the defenders, after an in-swinging cross from the right side, but Matheus responded well to knock the ball off course as it was headed for the left corner.
With Verdy still determined to build on their lead, the manager inserted Yoshito Okubo in the closing minutes to try and invigorate the attack and he would answer by playing inviting balls in front of goal and leading the team forward once again. The players also remained patient in defense and stood firm as the opposition threw numbers forward. In the end, they were able to defend Koike’s goal and earn their first three points in four matches.
After dropping points and playing in a way that did not meet their high standards over the last three matches, Verdy responded on this day by stunning their opponents with stylish attacking play and firmly making the adjustments necessary to recover confidence in their style. It was also a match in which the manager’s constant emphasis on “observing the opponent” took on clear meaning. Now the players will look to further refine their precision and immediately start piling up the points.
Your thoughts on the match?
This was our first match of the second leg and a game against a team that inflicted a bitter defeat on us just a month ago. There was still some frustration left after last time, so today was our chance for revenge and the players were all well motivated as we prepared for the match. On top of that, the players also did a brilliant job of executing our plan from the opening whistle and although I find myself thinking this after every match, I was reminded that we have a really great squad. To some degree, the way Kitakyushu moved the ball was what we planned for and our job was to think about where and how we would win possession. After that, it was about finding the right timing to start what we refer to as our contra (counter) attacks and that was something that we discussed during the short time we had for training or meetings. I think the players did very well. If I were to be greedy, then of course I would have wanted the game to be closer to our ideals, such as achieving greater possession and dominating the play for the full 90 minutes. I do feel like we could have played our game a bit longer, today, but as in the match against Kanazawa, I think it’s a sign of progress that our players pulled together around our back line and held a clean sheet. Everyone truly played as one and showed the toughness necessary to prevent them from scoring. I bow my head to the excellence of our squad and I’d like to point out what Matheus said when he received man of the match. His comments were, “I’m not in a position to receive the award, because it was really the entire defensive line that pulled together to defend the goal.” I think he’s exactly right. Our objective is for every player to participate in attack and every player to participate in defense. From now on, we will work to raise our quality in those aspects and play every game as it comes. Overall, I’m just grateful that the players showed the fight necessary to beat the table leaders, Kitakyushu. I should also note that we played today’s match on what is sacred ground for us, at Nishigaoka, and on behalf of the team, I want to say thank you to the supporters for their passion and the strength they provided us. Lastly, we will do our best to prepare well for the next match.
Were the formation and style you played with today something you prepared in advance as an option, or were they tactics prepared specifically to deal with Kitakyushu?
We know that teams are researching the way we play and it was something I had in the back of my mind, or something I knew was an option, and I think the players did brilliantly to understand what I asked for and take another step up in our development.
What was your game plan for the final 15 minutes, including the substitutions you made?
I wanted us to gain control of the ball, pin them back and aim for a second goal, but the opposition were really putting a lot of numbers forward, so inserting (Kon)do was a way of dealing with their aerial threat from set pieces. That much was part of my plan. I think the players in the middle did very well.
Can you tell us why you lined up as a 4-3-3 in defense, rather than your normal 4-4-2?
It was the result of scouting Kitakyushu. In addition, I knew that their side backs took up very high positions, so to make efficient use of the space behind them, I left our wide strikers up front. Today’s formation was both about defense and how it could lead to attack.