East Asia Japan

OPINION: The 2020 J.League 1 Season Prediction (6-11)

With the 2020 J.League 1 season kicking-off on February 21st, Football Tribe Asia’s Krishna Sadhana took the unenviable task of predicting how the league table would look like come the end of the season. For the next three days starting from yesterday, Krishna will give his prediction on how the J1 teams would fare in 2020, which includes relegation, cup wins, and AFC Champions League qualification.

For today, Krishna will predict the teams that will finish from 6th place to 11th place, i.e. the lower part of the top half as well as mid-table! Sit back and enjoy the predictions that may or may not come true.

DISCLAIMER: The following slideshow is an opinion piece and inevitably not all of us would agree with the predictions written here. Feel free to share your thoughts on what’s your 2020 J1 prediction through our Facebook and Twitter!

6. Kashima Antlers (J.League Cup Winners)

Time to be honest with you lot. Kashima are a team in transition right now. Sure they only have one major loss - Serginho trading the Kashima Soccer Stadium for the Chinese League One with Changchun Yatai - and they've gotten themselves a plethora of quality signings - the likes of Rikuto Hirose from reigning champions Yokohama F. Marinos, Ryuji Izumi from Nagoya Grampus, and Tatsuki Nara from Kawasaki Frontale comes into mind - but its the change of the man in charge of the team that has affected the Ibaraki side the most.

A lot of Kashima's successes can be credited to Go Oiwa, who had been a part of the club since 2011. He was assistant coach from 2011 to 2017, before becoming the main man from 2017 to 2019. And during that time he oversaw some of Kashima's finest moments in the spotlight - as Masatada Ishii's number two, Go helped Kashima to the 2016 J.League 1 title before doing one better as he and Masatada guided the team to the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup final, battling bravely against Spanish giants Real Madrid before losing 4-2 after extra time. After Masatada's departure in 2017, Go was given the gig as head coach and he did not disappoint at all. Though Kashima failed to win the league during Go's tenure, they did capture the most coveted prize in Asian football, the 2018 AFC Champions League title. And although the Ibaraki side failed to win any trophies in 2019, they still manage to lit up the 2019 J1 title race and qualify for the final of the 2019 Emperor's Cup. But it was defeat to Vissel Kobe in the latter that became the straw that broke the camel's back and Go decided to step down from his role come the end of his contract.

Replacing Go in the Kashima hot seat is Antonio Carlos Zago. The Kashima job is the 50-year old's third tenure outside of his native Brazil and his first overseas tenure as a head coach, having served as an assistant coach at both AS Roma of Italy and Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine. With the introduction of Zago, Kashima's players must adapt themselves to the Brazilian's tactics and strategies as he inevitably has ideas that differ from what the Kashima's players had learned underneath Go and judging by the performance that they churned out during their embarrassing AFC Champions League play-off exit at the hands of Melbourne Victory (a side that is currently third from bottom in the A-League table and have failed to win their last 5 A-League matches), Kashima still has a very long way to go before they could gel together as a unit underneath Zago's leadership.

So, with that car crash of a performance in mind, I don't think Kashima will have any say in the title race in 2020. They're still adapting themselves to the new head coach, although they still have the quality necessary to avoid a dramatic decline in performance once the league kicks-off. They will still be fighting it out in the top half of the table - after all, they still have Leo Silva, Shoma Doi, Ryota Nagaki, and Atsuto Uchida - but they won't be challenging any league titles this time out. I predict a solid top-half finish for Zago's men...but nowhere near the summit where the big boys are duking it out for the title.

Additionally, I also think that Kashima will have a say in this year's J.League Cup - a competition where teams don't bother to send out their strongest teams and instead play their kids. Kashima's early exit from the ACL meant that they will be playing in the initial stages of the J.League Cup, where they will become the big fish in the small pond (did I get that analogy right?). With the heavy hitters not joining in until the knockout stages and teams saving their best players for that stage, I think that a team of Kashima's stature should at least get something out of this competition. They'll coast through the initial stage, struggle a bit in the knockouts, and claim the J.League Cup title. But hey, it's football. This prediction may end up backfiring on me horribly but who knows?

Last season: 3rd

Player to watch: Shoma Doi. With over 100 appearances to his name, Shoma has been the heartbeat of Kashima's midfield engine. Expect the midfield general to resume his duties in the middle of the park and churn out more impressive performances in 2020. Definitely a very important component of the Kashima engine that keeps the entire thing running.

7. Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Sanfrecce had a solid 2019 where they finished 6th on the table, so I'm fancying them to continue with that consistency and remain competitive in the J1's top half. Hiroshi Jofuku has done a great job with the men in purple ever since he took over in December 2017, overseeing a 2nd place finish in 2018 and the aforementioned 6th place finish in 2019, the latter season having Sanfrecce being consistently in the top half of the J1 table. Sure Sanfrecce had a knack of dramatic declines before (I mean champions in 2015, 6th in 2016, and 15th in 2017? Really?) and they are indeed declining since their runners-up finish in 2018, but I don't think Jofuku's going to drive Sanfrecce into a ditch as his predecessors did.

Transfers-wise, Sanfrecce have retained a significant bulk of their players from 2019, with top scorers Yoshifumi Kashiwa and Douglas Vieira set to don the purple of Sanfrecce in 2020, while the likes of Tsukasa Morishima and Hayao Kawabe are also staying at the Hiroshima Big Arch. Leandro Pereira, who scored 4 times in just 9 appearances for Sanfrecce on loan from Matsumoto Yamaga, has earned himself an extension on his loan contract, with fellow Brazilian loanee Rhayner receiving the same extension as well. Both players are set to represent Sanfrecce again in 2020, thus giving Jofuku pretty much the same set of options as he had last year. The only notable exits from Sanfrecce this time out are Sho Inagaki, who went to Nagoya Grampus, Patric, who made a return to Gamba Osaka after his loan contract with the Kansai side was made permanent, Kyohei Yoshino, who has departed for Vegalta Sendai, and Daiki Watari, who's off to Oita Trinita. Adding more options to Jofuku's attack is Ryo Nagai, who made the switch to Sanfrecce from recently relegated Matsumoto, while midfielder Kohei Shimizu, who was on loan from Shimizu S-Pulse last year, saw his contract made permanent.

Last season: 6th

Player to watch: Douglas Vieira. The Brazilian was Sanfrecce's second top scorer with 7 goals, regularly leading the attacking line for Jofuku's men. Both Morishima and Kawabe are vital in unleashing Vieira's potential, while Leandro Pereira would happily partner him up top should Jofuku decides to go with two up-front. Be on the lookout as Vieira's set to terrify more defenses in the 2020 J1 season!

8. Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

Mihailo Petrovic is a miracle worker. He has transformed Consadole from a regular yo-yo club that went back and forth between J1 and J2 into a force to be reckoned with. Right now the Northerners are enjoying their longest spell in the top flight ever since their promotion in 2016 and apart from an 11th place finish in 2017, Consadole have finished in the top 10 positions of the J1 table in the past two seasons. This coincided with Petrovic's arrival at the Sapporo Dome, with the former Urawa Red Diamonds head coach transforming the once perennial underachievers into challengers for the J1's elite.

Other than Petrovic, two influential figures behind Consadole's rise are the "Jay and Jay" combination, the devastating partnership between Chanathip "Jay" Songkrasin and Jay Bothroyd. The younger Jay, the 26-year old Thailand international, has been phenomenal since he joined Consadole from SCG Muangthong United. Arriving initially on loan during the second half of the 2017 season, Chanathip's performances for Consadole has convinced the club's higher-ups to sign him on a permanent basis, and the diminutive winger has established himself as a constant threat to defenses all across Japan. The older Jay, on the other hand, is a seasoned veteran of English football, with spells across the Premier League and Championship splashed on his CV. 37-year old Bothroyd joined Consadole around the same time as Chanathip from Jubilo Iwata, and he has established himself as the driving force behind Consadole's offensive power despite his aging legs.

Of course, we shouldn't forget the immense contributions of the other Consadole players as well - Musashi Suzuki, Lucas Fernandes, and Anderson Lopes helped out the two Jays in attack, while Kotaro Shirai and Takuma Arano solidified the midfield. In defense, we have Akito Fukumori, Ryosuke Shindo, and Kazuki Fukai, while Korean international Gu Sung-yun played his role as goalkeeper quite excellently for Consadole.

For 2020, Consadole have done little changes at all to their squad, much to the delight of the supporters. The only two notable transfers that the Hokkaido-based side has done are making Lucas' loan deal permanent as well as bringing in Thai goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan from Belgian side OH Leuven on a 2-year loan. Kawin is projected to become Consadole's new number one goalie to replace Gu, who's planning to return to South Korea next year on a temporary basis to play for Sangju Sangmu FC (or in other words, mandatory national military service). Considering the overwhelming success that Chanathip has brought to Consadole, it's interesting to see whether Kawin would deliver the same amount of impact to the team.

Last season: 10th

Player to watch: Or rather in Consadole's case, players. It's interesting to see whether the "Jay and Jay" combination would create more magic in 2020 as they did in the previous two seasons. Both Chanathip Songkrasin and Jay Bothroyd have been devastating for Consadole with the help of their teammates, and I predict that the two Jays would create more damage in 2020.

9. Kashiwa Reysol

Last time Kashiwa won the J2 and got themselves promoted, they ended up winning the goddamn J1. Kashiwa's class of 2011 was simply phenomenal, the first promoted team to win the Japanese top-flight outright in their first year back in the big time. Since then, Kashiwa has established themselves as a force in the J1 with regular finishes on the top half of the league table, until their sudden and abrupt relegation in 2018. But now they're back, as J2 winners, and with Nelsinho Baptista, the same mastermind who won them the top-flight in 2011, at the helm. Will they win the league again?

Not a chance.

Not because Kashiwa are poor or anything, it's simply because times have changed. Back then the J1 was more balanced, more of a "who's wants it more" type of competition. Basically, anyone who shows more grit and determination would end up winning the whole damn thing. But not these days. Nowadays the gulf between the J1 elite and everyone else becomes more and more apparent, and we can now identify the teams who will be in the title race quite easily after a few months.

Despite this, I'm still throwing Kashiwa into the mix for those top-half finishes. Purely because they have a decent squad - even until today they've managed to retain a good portion of that talented squad from that disastrous 2018 season. A cocktail of disastrous appointments, inconsistencies, and humiliating results contributed to that talented squad's relegation in 2018, and appointing Nelsinho was the best thing that the Kashiwa management has done in the light of this crisis. I believe I've written a lot about Kashiwa's transformation underneath Nelsinho in another article and I'm quite pleased that the Kashiwa management hasn't done any drastic changes to the squad in the run-up towards the 2020 season.

Ryuta Koike (KSC Lokeren) is the only notable exit from Kashiwa in 2019 and they've managed to keep a number of key players for 2020. The likes of Kosuke Nakamura, Ataru Esaka, Yusuke Segawa, Michael Olunga, Cristiano and Matheus Savio will be wearing Kashiwa's proud yellow jerseys in the 2020 J1 season, with the latter having his loan contract made permanent. Nelsinho had done incredible things in the past and I believe that with the same squad that won the J2 last season, he could turn Kashiwa into a competitive force once again, with another top-half finish on the cards.

Last season: 1st (J2)

Player to watch: Michael Olunga. The Kenyan international was quite underwhelming during Kashiwa's disastrous 2018 season, but in 2019 he showed his true colors as a deadly striker and a nightmare for defenses everywhere. His most noticeable feat from last season was scoring a staggering 8 goals as Kashiwa destroyed Kyoto Sanga 13-1 on the final day of the 2019 J2 season. Combine Olunga with seasoned veteran Cristiano up-front and Kashiwa will have one of the deadliest attacks in the league.

10. Gamba Osaka

The blue-and-black team from Suita have been quite...unremarkable after the departure of Kenta Hasegawa. After finishing 10th in 2017, Kenta left Gamba for FC Tokyo, with his replacement being current head coach Tsuneyasu Miyamoto. Sure Miyamoto has led Gamba to two top-half finishes with 9th in 2018 and 7th in 2019, but not before he put Gamba fans through literal Hell. 2018 saw Gamba spending most of their time in the relegation zone before a late surge at the end of the season saw them finish 9th (granted 17 of those games in 2018 was underneath the stewardship of Levir Culpi, but Miyamoto had quite the torrid start with Gamba back then), and while things have calmed down (slightly) in 2019, Gamba have never actually threatened the elite teams above them, hovering consistently either in the lower reaches of the league's top-half, mid-table, or the upper reaches of the league's bottom-half.

Alright, forget unremarkable. Gamba post-Hasegawa are mad as badgers.

Which is why I'm just going to play it safe and predict a 10th place finish for Miyamoto's men. But not after an emotional roller-coaster that may or may not see Gamba flirt with relegation repeatedly. Or an extremely stagnant season that sees Gamba stuck mid-table throughout the season. Who knows. I don't, I just predict things here. I might be wrong and these might horribly backfire on me come the end of the season.

But in all seriousness, Gamba's squad for 2020 has some talent. Both Takashi Usami and Yosuke Ideguchi, both of whom had experiences in European football (although the latter's European adventure was curtailed by injuries) are still there, so are Kosuke Onose, Shu Kurata, Genta Miura, last season's top scorer Ademilson, and of course, club legend Yasuhito Endo, the latter still aging like fine wine at the ripe old age of 38. Notable additions include the return of fan-favorite Patric from Sanfrecce Hiroshima on a permanent deal after a brief loan stint last year and Gen Shoji, another player with European experience, from Ligue 1 side Toulouse.

I hope that Miyamoto could utilize the talent in his squad properly as I can see this team fighting it out in the top half of the table. It's just the matter of consistency...and not scaring your fans with relegation battles like in 2018. But again, this team is mad as badgers so I think 10th is a fair place for them due to the sheer unpredictability of guessing where this team would finish. But one thing's for sure - I guess Gamba will have to endure another season of being underneath the shadows of their crosstown rivals in pink if you know who I mean.

Last season: 7th

Player to watch: Ademilson. The Brazilian scored 10 goals for Gamba in the 2019 season and he's practically the focus of his team's attack. The return of Patric would create some competition for him for a spot in the starting lineup or otherwise create a deadly partnership should Miyamoto decides to play a formation with two strikers.

11. Urawa Red Diamonds

"But Krishna, have you lost your mind? 11th? For a team who barely escaped relegation and flopped really hard in 2019? Are you crazy?"

Yes and no. I could have easily placed Urawa in the lower reaches of the J1 table for 2020, but remember, 11th alone is a huge disappointment for a club of Urawa's stature, and a finish that low would solidify the team's fall from grace. The only reason why I didn't place Urawa in yesterday's slideshow is that because of two things. Firstly, they've made two important signings in Leonardo from Albirex Niigata and Thomas Deng from Melbourne Victory. Secondly, Tsuyoshi Otsuki's men will have no continental commitments this season, which means that they could focus their efforts on the league for 2020. Remember - despite their awful league performance in 2019, they did reach the 2019 AFC Champions League final against all odds, so the fighting spirit's there, it's just the matter of dividing your focus and priorities.

Also, fun fact, I could've placed Urawa slightly higher, but they've decided to chuck Ado Onaiwu away to Yokohama even though he's being groomed as the heir to the aging Shinzo Koroki. Until today I have no idea why Urawa decided to let such a talented youngster go just like that. Onaiwu was immense for both Renofa Yamaguchi and Oita, especially with the latter as it dispels any doubts that he might not be able to do it in the top flight. To be denied the chance to become Koroki's successor like that...must be devastating for Urawa fans who are hoping for some quality ammunition for 2020.

Speaking about quality ammunition, let's talk about Leonardo. The Brazilian is a proven scorer in the Japanese leagues, scoring 24 times for J3 side Gainare Tottori before bettering his tally with J2 side Albirex, scoring 28 times for the club and earning himself the title of J2's top scorer for 2019. And moreover, Leonardo's still 22 years old, which means that he still has a lot of room to develop and grow as he is yet to hit his peak. It seems that with the goalscoring burden being placed on Koroki's shoulders in 2019, the Urawa management decided to bring in Leonardo to ease the burden on the aging player, in other words, Leonardo is set to be groomed as Urawa's primary striker.

Thomas Deng, on the other hand, should help solve Urawa's defensive woes. Despite boasting the likes of Tomoaki Makino and Daiki Hashioka, two decent players who performed well in 2019, Urawa's defense has conceded 50 goals throughout the 2019 J1 season. Despite being only 22 years old, Deng has established himself as one of the A-League's premier defenders, having represented Melbourne Victory since 2015. Throughout his time with the Big V, Deng has won both the 2015 FFA Cup and the 2017-18 A-League Grand Final, earning himself the captain's armband for the Australia U-23 national team. A solid defender despite his youth, Deng would surely help Urawa ease their defensive woes in the upcoming 2020 season.

Having failed to qualify for the AFC Champions League, Urawa have one less competition to worry about, meaning that they could pour all of that focus and hard work to domestic competitions. One might argue that Urawa's continental commitments last year was contributing to their atrocious domestic form, and it is hoped that with the lack of ACL action, Urawa could focus their efforts on improving themselves domestically for 2020.

For a team as established as Urawa, a repeat of last year's domestic performances will be considered a massive embarrassment. Their 14th place finish in 2019 is their lowest since 2011, where the Saitama-based side finished a lowly 15th. I do sincerely hope that they'll bounce back from the horrors of 2019 - after all, this is a very talented side - but I would see them struggle massively. There will be an improvement over last season's finish, but it's a mid-table finish for you lot.

Last season: 14th

Player to watch: Shinzo Koroki might be disappointed not to be mentioned here, but I think his role as Urawa's goal-getter will slowly be taken over by Leonardo. Instead, let's go for Daiki Hashioka. Despite a disappointing 2019, Hashioka has shown flashes of composure and maturity for a player of his age, and the 20-year old was instrumental in Urawa's Asian campaign last year. Be on the lookout for this young defender as he works together with the likes of Makino, Deng, and Mauricio Antonio as they try to safeguard Shusaku Nishikawa's goal.