ANALYSIS: Despite missing stars, Nanami drives Jubilo Iwata to next level

After a successful 2017 season in which Jubilo Iwata finished sixth, the club’s best result in the last 12 years, fans began dreaming once again of a team competing for titles as they did in the club’s golden years of the late 90’s and early 00’s. But despite high expectations, the start of the 2018 J1 campaign threw cold water on the hopes of the Yamaha Stadium faithful.

The season began with two defeats, while in the seventh round Jubilo handed Gamba their first victory in over half a year. Besides inconsistent performances at home, the team’s starters have also been played by injuries. Brazilian forward Adailton and Uzbek midfielder Fozil Musaev, for instance, will miss most of the season with torn knee ligaments. Shunsuke Nakamura’s return will take another week or two due to a pulled calf muscle. Left-back Guilherme has been banned from the clubhouse due to his scandalous sending-off against Yokohama F. Marinos last week.

Little by little, however, optimism has returned to the blue side of Shizuoka. Jubilo are still struggling in front of their home fans, but they recorded the third straight away win in a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Kashiwa Reysol last Saturday, climbing to a season-best sixth place.

Hiroshi Nanami, with his pragmatic but efficient approach, has been finding solutions inside his own roster. Hiroki Yamada, who had not impressed since his return from Germany, and Takuya Matsuura, who started the season on the bench, are delivering in the absence of Nakamura and Adailton. It was them who created the equaliser against Reysol, with Matsuura’s individual skill tearing through the opposing line and creating space for Yamada’s finish – his first goal of the year.

Despite the 1-1 halftime scoreline, Jubilo controlled the action. While Reysol could rarely put together a string of passes in the opposing half, Jubilo were better at occupying spaces, possessing the ball in dangerous areas, and creating more plays. In the second half, it appeared that the home team would finally wake up. Reysol gained control of possession and took nine shots in the last 45 minutes (in contrast to their two first half shots), but only two were on target and both were easily caught by Kaminski. Three went wide and another five were blocked. Jubilo’s defence were caught off guard with Reysol’s long balls in the opening minutes, but did well in the remainder of the match.

In fact, defence remains Jubilo’s strong point. The team had identical 8-5-4 records both home and away campaigns in 2017. Away from Yamaha they were especially strong, conceding just 11 goals in 17 matches. This year too, the defence has functioned better in games which would theoretically bring more pressure, with just five conceded in six away matches.

Jubilo have been a second-half team, deciding their matches in the final 45 minutes. They held on firmly when the momentum reverted in Reysol’s favour and, again making use of individual skill, scored the goal that settled the contest six minutes from full time. With Yamada and Matsuura already taken out, the spotlight went to Daigo Araki (ironically, a Reysol academy product), who broke through on a counter-attack, got past an out-of-position Yuta Nakayama and delivered a pinpoint cross to Kengo Kawamata. The well-positioned 184-centimetre forward gave defender Ryuta Koike no chance to cover his mark and headed home the game-winner.

At 45 years old, Nanami is a relatively young manager who has charisma, modern ideas and tactical variation. He tends to favour a three-back system, but also plays with a four-back formation when necessary. Step by step he has improved Jubilo’s level. His playing style may not be the most pleasing to the eye, but this could be exactly the attitude that Japan needs in big tournaments. If Nanami continues to evolve as a manager, he could perhaps become a strong contender to oversee the Samurai Blue in the future.

Tiago Bontempo is a Brazilian journalist specializing in Japanese football for Globo. He can be found on Twitter at @GunnerTNB