Two months ago, it was observed on these pages that Gamba Osaka had been through four distinct iterations within the first half of the current season to arrive at a position where, boosted by the arrival of the immediately prolific striker Rafinha and his natural understanding with Lee Keun-Ho, they could look to challenge for a first J. League title since 2005. As this prospect has grown increasingly realistic, Akira Nishino has arguably now shifted the side into a fifth movement, with greater emphasis on experienced players like Tomokazu Myojin and the pragmatism they can offer to ensure stability over spectacle.
Reigning champions Nagoya Grampus, meanwhile, appeared perfectly poised back in August to put their foot down and accelerate past the rest after a run of 16 games unbeaten took them to the summit of J1 with a game in hand on matchday 21. But their trademark consistency appeared to desert them thereafter, with a yield of just eleven points from the subsequent eight league matches and painful defeats to Vegalta Sendai, Shimizu S-Pulse, and fellow challengers Kashiwa Reysol. As a result, it was they who entered Saturday’s crunch battle with Gamba at the Mizuho Stadium in real need of victory to close the four-point gap that had opened up behind the Osaka team.
With four subtly distinct tactical phases, the encounter unfolded as a microcosm of the transitional nature of Gamba’s season. But the patterns that ultimately took hold of each phase only did so because of Nagoya goals arriving from practically nothing at the onset of the first three – thereby showing, above all else, that it is goals that decide football matches, not theory. The fact that it was Gamba who made the mistakes and Grampus who capitalised so decisively, meanwhile, is a promising indictor of the latter’s relative psychological readiness to aim for a second consecutive crown.
The starting line-ups on both sides were immediately notable for their lack of obvious width. Nagoya fielded the one out-and-out wide player in Yoshizumi Ogawa, but Jungo Fujimoto and Naoshi Nakamura serve as a comparatively narrow midfield pairing ahead of the deeper-lying anchor, Danilson, while Keiji Tamada’s natural inclination is to move inside in support of Joshua Kennedy. Despite essentially setting out in a 4-4-2, each of Gamba’s four midfielders was, by trade, a central midfielder.
Grampus took an early lead on just 11 minutes following a horrendous mix-up in the visitors’ defence, with a miskick by goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya allowing Tamada to steal in and square for Nakamura. But while their 4-3-3 gave the hosts a numerical advantage in the centre, Ogawa was forced deep before he could cause any threat on the left flank and received very little backup from either full-back.
Gamba, by contrast, were able to find a certain amount of joy in wide areas as they looked for an equaliser thanks to the industry of Hideo Hashimoto, played out of position on the right, and Lee Keun-Ho, the deeper-lying left forward. Both were afforded time and space by Nagoya’s rather withdrawn back four, and with Takumi Shimohira providing occasional support from left-back, they simultaneously quelled any inclination the opposing full-backs may have had to attack.
The leveller arrived on the counterattack with Lee Keun-Ho bursting half the length of the pitch down the left, attracting three defenders as he cleverly held the ball up before passing square to Myojin (via a fortunate deflection off Ogawa). Grampus were arguably in slightly greater control for much of the first half, but Gamba offered a more immediate threat in possession and consistently earned opportunities at corners as a result.
Second half (45-60 minutes)
Fortunately for the champions, their manager Dragan Stojković is a highly intelligent chap. The main instruction he left echoing in the ears of his players as they emerged for the second half was to play a higher defensive line, and press their opponents with greater speed and intensity. A collateral benefit was greater initiative for the two full-backs to push forwards. Within three minutes, a break down the right by Hayuma Tanaka had won a corner kick which – inexplicably – Fujimoto was able to curl directly into the goal in front of Fujigaya at his near post.
The quick strike gave Nagoya an advantageous platform from which to utilize the slightly revised shape of the side and take control of proceedings, without necessarily having to push for a third. As space became congested in midfield, their numerical advantage became a more significant benefit. Lee Keun-Ho was starved of possession in the areas where he had been a weapon for Gamba in the opening 45 minutes, while the potential advancement of Hashimoto and Shimohira was subdued by the fact that they now had more attacking full-backs to distract them.
Second half (60-75 minutes)
The second half would be perfectly trisected into three phases of fifteen minutes. Nishino recognised that failure to occupy the flanks was disastrous as Grampus exhibited such comfort in central areas, and was pushed into a double change on the hour mark. Gamba’s manager did not initially alter his formation, but instead introduced two players more naturally at home on the wing – Kim Seung-Yong and Takahiro Futagawa. The latter was a straight replacement for the tiring Hashimoto, only recently back from a lengthy injury layoff, while Kim replaced Shimohira with Takei retreating to left-back. In theory, this should have allowed the visitors to take more risks with greater aggression on either flank, pushing back the opposing full-backs and hurting the Nagoya shape as they did so. Takei had offered little impact at left midfield other than as an additional guardsman for Tamada, so it was quite sensible that he should be asked to do the same from a more obviously defensive position.
Before Gamba had time to see if their idea would work, however, they conceded again. Nakamura dispossessed Endo in midfield and, in doing so, created plenty of space to size up a dipping shot from 30 yards that comfortably beat Fujigaya – even if there were, again, question marks over the goalkeeper’s positioning. Width was much less of a concern for Nagoya with a two-goal lead; they could now simply close things up in central areas and frustrate their opponents.
Second half (75-90 minutes)
With a quarter of an hour remaining, Nishino brought on his trusty supersub, right-winger Hayato Sasaki, for Lee Keun-Ho. This instigated the most significant tactical switch of the match – at least, in terms of formations, if not actual effect – as Futagawa moved over to the left flank and the versatile Kim Seung-Yong came into a central position behind Rafinha in what was now a 4-2-3-1. Having rarely looked like testing Seigo Narazaki throughout the second half, Gamba had acknowledged that they needed to match Nagoya’s numbers in midfield and be a little more dexterous if they were to work their way back into the contest.
However, the change effectively only eliminated a disadvantage, without offering an obvious means with which they could exploit or surprise the Grampus players. Nakamura, who had rotated to decent effect with Fujimoto, was withdrawn simultaneously for forward Kensuke Nagai – while slotting into Nakamura’s midfield role as a starting point, the 22-year-old offered greater potential for fluidity as he swapped positions both with Fujimoto and, on the break, with Ogawa. Nagoya were happy to take advantage of Gamba’s greater need and counterattacked to score a fourth on 84 minutes; Fujimoto netting his second at the end of a quick team move – easily the best of the match – involving Kennedy, Nagai, and Tamada.
The 4-1 final scoreline was slightly harsh on a Gamba side who outshot their hosts and were rarely outplayed as such; victims instead of circumstance or, more accurately, their own stupid mistakes. Their advantage in the table over Grampus is now down to one point but, of greater significance, they have now been overhauled at the summit by Kashiwa. Victory this Saturday away to Montedio Yamagata – a side almost certain to be relegated – is essential, though given the Osaka club’s notorious unpredictability, it would surprise nobody if they won every other remaining game but lost there.
Nagoya travel to Omiya Ardija, whose relegation fears were eased by victory last time out in the Saitama derby with Urawa Reds. Stojković’s men have a comparatively moderate run-in but do face the toughest individual fixture, away to fourth-placed Yokohama F Marinos on the antepenultimate Saturday, of any of the three main title hopefuls.