As discussed in this column on Monday, yesterday evening’s J1 clash between Kashiwa Reysol and Gamba Osaka pitted the surprise league leaders against – taking into account the latter’s two games in hand – the side with the next most points available to them. Yet both clubs were shrouded in an amount of uncertainty, with Reysol’s mojo dented by a 3-0 home loss to Jubilo Iwata seven days previously, and Gamba forced once again to deal with the mid-season departure of their leading scorer. Even without such contextual seasonings, this match proved to be the highlight of a terrific midweek programme that delivered 33 goals in just nine games – the Osakans coming away from a modern J. League classic at the Kashiwa Soccer Stadium as 4-2 victors.
Both managers approached the encounter with similar interpretations of the 4-2-3-1 – the main real difference being the positioning of the central figure within the trio of attacking midfielders behind the lone forward. Visiting boss Akira Nishino opted to field Shoki Hirai, who will be expected to rediscover his goalscoring form of 2010 to cover the loss of Adriano, in the ‘hole’ – a move that naturally enabled Gamba to evolve into a front two whenever the roving movement of nominally left-sided Takashi Usami and, to a lesser extent, deeper-lying midfielder Yasuhito Endo dictated. On the Kashiwa bench, Brazilian tactician Nelsinho Baptista positioned compatriot Leandro Domingues significantly further behind evergreen striker Hideaki Kitajima, with the hard-working Junya Tanaka called upon to cut inside from the left and provide additional presence in the 18-yard area when required.
Kick-off to 40 mins: Both sides begin with 4-2-3-1; Futagawa denies space for Jorge Wagner
Akimi Barada, the third and right-sided member of Kashiwa’s supporting three, informed TBS television’s touchline reporter before kick-off that he and his teammates had been told to expect Gamba to control possession; thus breaking forward with pace and taking advantage of whatever chances fell their way would be key. The game indeed began in such a fashion, with the visitors passing the ball around confidently – Hirai even having a third-minute strike ruled out for offside – while the home side counterattacked and looked to cause problems via crosses and set pieces. Their strategy succeeded quickly; Jorge Wagner’s corner finding Tanaka unmarked to accurately fire a low, left-footed shot past Yosuke Fujigaya after ten minutes.
Before the opening goal had a chance to impact the flow of the game, however, Gamba restored parity with an equaliser that owed as much to individual skills as it did to the penetration of their passes. Usami dribbled past Tatsuya Masushima and Yusuke Murakami into the left-hand side of the Kashiwa area to square for Endo, who beat Naoya Kondo and Masushima again before slotting past goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno.
The sides then settled back into their natural rhythm, with Gamba seeing slightly more of the ball but always having to be wary of the quick break. To that end, Takahiro Futagawa was asked to perform a defensive duty in attacking midfield, hugging the right-hand touchline to deny Wagner, Reysol’s dangerous left-back, the room to burst forward. This was largely successful as Wagner went virtually unseen inside the visitors’ half for the opening 40 minutes. By consequence, the pitch became far more open along the Gamba left – not least with Usami’s tendency to cut inside – and much of the Kashiwa threat came through Barada. The 20-year-old proved equally adept at attacking Takumi Shimohira on the flank or closing inside for Murakami to overlap, and came close to scoring when his 25-yard effort flew just wide of Fujigaya’s left-hand post.
40 to 65 mins: Futagawa steps inside, allowing Wagner to break but creating more space for Gamba to attack
After an explosive opening 20 minutes, the next 20 were rather more ‘fascinating’ than thrilling, with the similarity of the two sides’ basic formations meaning every player had a natural marker and space for killer, final balls was at a premium. This changed dramatically five minutes from half-time, when Futagawa stepped away from the touchline. The immediate consequence was that Wagner could finally break forward, threatening twice in quick succession before the interval, but in doing so, there was suddenly much more space for the Gamba forwards to penetrate also. Hirai, Lee Keun-Ho, and Usami were able to operate more as a front three, rotating as necessary but usually with Hirai as the one to link with Futagawa and fill the space behind the Kashiwa left-back.
Perhaps Nishino decided to roll the dice, sensing that the 32-year-old Wagner would tire as the match went on. The Brazilian had been unusually withdrawn against Iwata, and rested during Golden Week when there had also been two matches to play within four days. In any case, the risk paid off. Almost immediately after the restart, Gamba right-back Akira Kaji made his first notable foray into the Reysol third – albeit mishitting his cross horribly – and was then involved again as the visitors somewhat fortuitously forced themselves in front five minutes later. Endo chased down an overhit Shimohira cross to play the ball back for Kaji, again in acres of space on the right-hand side, to fire in a left-footed shot that hit Lee Keun-Ho and fell kindly for Hirai to score his first of the season.
The end-to-end battle ensued, with Barada again shooting narrowly off target from inside the D, and Leandro creating space for himself on the left but firing tamely at Fujigaya. With the onus firmly on Kashiwa for the first time in the match, the visitors took advantage of the situation to counterattack effectively themselves. Breaking through the centre, Endo found Lee Keun-Ho completely open – again exploiting the space behind the retreating Wagner. The Korean appeared to miscontrol his second touch but blasted home from a tight angle to double the Gamba lead.
65 mins to full-time: Kashiwa switch to 4-3-1-2; Gamba counter by sitting Uchida ahead of back four
Staring down the barrel of a second home defeat on the spin, the league leaders quickly changed their gameplan in an attempt to recapture the momentum. Nelsinho sent on Masato Kudo and Akihiro Hyodo for Kitajima and Hidekazu Otani after 66 minutes; switching in the process to a 4-3-1-2 system with Barada now on the left of a reasonably flat midfield three, and Leandro pushed further forward in direct support of Tanaka and Kudo. The move paid immediate dividends – the Brazilian playmaker went close to scoring within 60 seconds of the substitutions, before getting the job done another minute later with a low shot that embarrassingly wrong-footed (the possibly unsighted) Fujigaya. Screw duly turned, Reysol continued to surge forward in numbers and created a quick succession of chances – Kudo missing twice when he ought to have done better. Wagner was withdrawn in a like-for-like swap with Wataru Hashimoto.
Supporters in Osaka have – not without reason – often criticised Nishino for his failure to effectively deploy substitutions in response to the changing nature of matches. A particular complaint has been his tendency to concede the initiative in protection of a narrow lead, and familiar sighs will have been heard when Lee Keun-Ho was replaced by defender Tatsuya Uchida with a quarter of an hour remaining. But on this occasion, the Gamba manager got his decision spot on. In the absence through injury of Tomokazu Myojin and Hideo Hashimoto, Uchida was positioned in the ‘Busquets’ position just ahead of the central defenders – right in the space of which Leandro had had free reign.
As @vinciperosaka astutely pointed out on Twitter, the tactical shift to a 4-1-2-2-1 not unlike that used by Takeshi Okada at last year’s World Cup would also prevent Gamba’s full-backs from being pegged back quite so much. Following a shaky five minutes in which the 19-year-old Uchida, making only the fifth league appearance of his career, adjusted to the pace of the match, the visitors were finally able to absorb the Kashiwa pressure and indeed found room on the flanks again. Hirai’s clever movement enabled Shimohira to burst forwards and, unchallenged, to hit an unstoppable rocket beyond Sugeno’s flailing right arm.
As Barada – or, perhaps more accurately, Nelsinho – had anticipated, Gamba did indeed have the greater share of possession for much of the match, with the hosts happy to concede this advantage in the hope of finding joy via their exciting quick breakaways. Throughout the first half, the tactic worked, with Reysol creating the better of few chances save for a missed sitter from Lee Keun-Ho following a clever Gamba free-kick. Ironically, it was when invited to attack more down Wagner’s flank that Nelsinho’s plan then unravelled. Kashiwa only really began to take the initiative after the visitors’ third goal – one can only wonder how things might have been different had they approached the match with the mindset of league leaders, rather than of a mere promoted side facing such seasoned challengers. It is still too early to claim the Kashiwa bubble has burst – they are still top, after all – but having previously conceded just four goals all season, Reysol have now shipped seven in two home games ahead of a tricky run of fixtures.
For Gamba, it was undoubtedly the performance of the season to date, and a welcome second win on the bounce following a barren month that involved elimination from the ACL at the hands of local rivals Cerezo Osaka. Despite an initial goalscoring spurt upon arriving in Japan with Jubilo in 2009, Lee Keun-Ho rarely looks as spectacular as the departed Adriano and, as his first half slip-up showed, is less reliable on a one-off opportunity. But his significantly higher work rate and selflessness – let’s be fair, with Adriano that’s not especially difficult – might just make him a far better fit as lead striker for the passing style of Gamba as a whole. The 4-2-3-1 with Hirai just behind looks promising; the only problem is who will fill the massive hole about to open up on the left. It is, at least, now anticipated that Usami will stick around for four more games – up to and including Vissel Kobe on 13 July – before completing his big transfer to Bayern Munich.