East Asia Japan

OPINION – Now That Relegation’s Confirmed, What’s Next for Oita Trinita?

Oita Trinita’s 3-year J.League 1 stint has come to an end after the Turtles played out a 0-0 draw away at Kashima Antlers on Saturday, a result that ensured that they would never emerge out of the 4-team relegation zone in this season’s J1. Relegation’s never a good thing but one might see this coming from miles away after Oita had practically allowed talismanic defensive duo Tomoki Iwata and Yoshinori Suzuki to leave the club, while their recruitment front hasn’t been too convincing this time out. Football Tribe Asia‘s Krishna Sadhana looks at how his beloved local Japanese club Oita would have to rebuild themselves in time for a promotion push out of the J.League 2 next season…

To be honest with all of you, I’ve been planning to write this article for a while, after Oita’s 1-0 defeat away at Avispa Fukuoka in the Kyushu Derby on November 3rd ensured that the Turtles would have a mountain to climb should they wish to escape the J1 drop zone. A lot of pundits have predicted Oita to go down this season considering the number of good players that they’ve allowed to leave in the past couple of seasons and while the transfer window has seen them bring in a number of decent players on paper, the likes of Shun Nagasawa, Arata Watanabe, Asahi Masuyama, and Hiroto Goya, in the end, they weren’t able to muster the goods as the Turtles ended their top-flight tenure after three years.

I’ve predicted a season of struggle for Oita this year, with the Turtles engaged in a relegation battle, but I optimistically predicted that they would finish just outside the drop. Oita failed to do so, but at least they showed some fight in going down, thus denying some pundits’ predictions that Oita will finish at rock bottom this year.

So, what’s next for Oita? I have a few key points on how the Turtles should pick up the pieces, dust themselves off, and recover in time for the 2022 J2 season…

A New Man in Charge?

Ideally, I would want Tomohiro Katanosaka to stay as Oita head coach. Despite failing to keep Oita up this year, the man knows how to bounce back from adversities and drag the Turtles out of the abyss. After all, he was responsible for Oita’s meteoric rise from J.League 3 to J.League 1 in the course of three years, as well as setting themselves as a stubborn mid-table side in 2019 and 2020.

But unfortunately with relegation come the footballing vultures, and Katanosaka was already linked with the top job at both Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima. The allure of taking charge of one of Japan’s footballing behemoths could prove too much for good ol’ Katanosaka, and I expect him to pack his bags and leave for either one of the two in the off-season.

Should Katanosaka leave Oita, the man I think should take charge of the Turtles in 2022 should be someone with a good grasp of the J2, someone who can guide his team through the torrid Japanese second-tier, someone who knows the league like the back of his hand. Someone like Takuya Takagi.

Takuya is no stranger to J2 and Kyushu football. He was in charge of Oita’s regional rivals V-Varen Nagasaki from 2013 to 2018, even bringing them up to the J1 in 2017. He almost repeated the feat with Omiya Ardija in 2019, only to fall short in the promotion play-offs. With plenty of experience in the J2 underneath his belt and with plenty of local knowledge from his days at V-Varen, Takuya could be the perfect man to lead Oita in the J2 next season.

Sure he’s in a midst of a relegation battle of his own with SC Sagamihara, but thanks to him the Kanagawa Prefecture-based side still had plenty of fight in them left right until the business end of the 2021 J2 season, despite a lot of people writing them off to be relegated without a resistance.

Another likely candidate would be Tegevajaro Miyazaki’s Naruyuki Naito, who brought his side up from the 4th tier Japan Football League into the upper echelons of the J.League 3. Naruyuki’s Miyazaki side currently leads the Japanese third tier, but without a J2 license, they won’t be promoted into the second tier even if they win the J3 this year.

The prospect of playing in a higher league could entice Naruyuki to leave Miyazaki for a challenge in the J2 with Oita.

My third and final candidate could cost Oita some extra money, but he has a solid reputation in regards to Japanese football – Miguel Angel Lotina. The Spaniard has taken charge of three J.League sides – J2’s Tokyo Verdy and J1 sides Cerezo Osaka and Shimizu S-Pulse, and having been sacked by the latter, he would surely have a point to prove with his new team. Lotina also has plenty of experience in European football, particularly in Spain, where he had taken charge of the likes of Deportivo La Coruna, Real Sociedad, and RCD Espanyol.

Loan Gems and A Foray to Southeast Asia?

Oita’s finances weren’t as deep as their J1 rivals – this is a provincial club without the backing of conglomerates like Kawasaki Frontale (Fujitsu), Nagoya Grampus (Toyota), Gamba (Panasonic), Cerezo (Yanmar), Vissel Kobe (Rakuten) to name a few. Hence they were unable to bring in a swathe of star players into the squad, relying mostly on hidden gems, homegrown talent, and loanees. This was also the reason why Oita hasn’t added that many foreign players into their squad, in a league where the presence of foreign players could make a difference in a match.

Despite this, three foreigners have stood out amongst others in each of Oita’s three seasons in the J1 under Katanosaka – Thitiphan Puangchan (2019), Mun Kyung-gun (2020), and Henrique Trevisan (2021). Both Thitiphan and Henrique came in on loan from BG Pathum United and Estoril Praia respectively, while Mun was a South Korean goalkeeper who came through the ranks in Oita, before leaving the club for Daegu FC in his homeland before the 2021 season.

Oita’s tight budget meant that they’re unlikely to secure Henrique on a permanent contract come the 2022 season, but considering their recent record with foreigners, they should have little difficulty in figuring out another foreign hidden gem waiting to be signed on loan.

And should Oita wish to secure a foreign player on a more permanent basis, they could look no further into the Southeast Asian market, where in recent years players such as Chanathip Songkrasin and Theerathon Bunmathan have proven to everyone that players from the region can keep up with both their Japanese peers or their colleagues from Brazil or South Korea, for a price that is significantly cheaper than foreigners from outside the region.

While I was thinking about writing this article, a name came up to me that could potentially be an asset for Oita in the long term – Indonesian striker Ricky Cawor, who was a standout performer for the province of Papua as they won gold in the National Sports Week (PON) XX football event. Ricky finished the tournament as top scorer and his performances for his province attracted the attention of a number of foreign teams, namely a couple of Thai League teams whose identities were kept under wraps and EFL League One side Oxford United. I believe that Ricky to Oita could potentially elevate him as a footballer to the next level, considering the success that Asnawi Mangkualam had in the South Korean second tier as well as Ricky’s own desire of playing abroad.

However, Ricky was quickly snapped up by a struggling Persipura Jayapura side fighting off relegation in the Liga 1 Indonesia, meaning that the Ricky-Oita dream would have to be put on hold…for now at least. Perhaps the Turtles would fancy enticing Ricky once the 2021/22 Liga 1 season ends?

Other Southeast Asian players who I can suggest to Oita are Bordin Phala, a pacy winger who has become a mainstay at Thai League 1 side Port FC, and someone who has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Thitiphan, Chanathip, and Theerathon should he’s allowed to play overseas. There’s also Evan Dimas, a very reliable midfielder who has already experienced football outside of Indonesia thanks to a brief stint at Selangor FA, as well as Nguyen Thanh Chung, a very versatile defender who plies his trade with Hanoi FC, and Ramadhan Saifullah, a young Malaysian attacker who’s very capable of going toe-to-toe against senior opposition.

With the current rise of Southeast Asian football, particularly in Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, as well as the recent influx of Indonesian players going abroad, it’s safe to say that the stock on the region’s players is going higher and higher in each passing moment. Oita’s scouts will have a field day in trying to select who are they going to recruit, but one thing’s for sure, they could provide a much more budget alternative compared to their peers from more established footballing countries.

Keeping Their Prized Assets and Recruit the Right Talent

Oita’s biggest losses in recent years came from their inability to keep their hands on their prized assets, again due to their financial status being well below those of the J1’s elite.

Midway through the 2019 season, the Turtles lost Noriaki Fujimoto to Vissel, which was mitigated by the excellent form shown by Ado Onaiwu. Then before the start of the 2020 season, Onaiwu himself left Oita, returning to Urawa Red Diamonds after his loan with Oita had run out, only to be sold to Yokohama F. Marinos.

Interestingly the loss of Oita’s two most potent attackers did not affect the Turtles that much in 2020, finishing the season with 36 goals scored compared to 35 in 2019. However, their defense did show some concern after conceding 45 in 2020, ten more than 2019. And that was before both Iwata and Suzuki left.

Then the 2021 season saw all hell break loose. Iwata left for Yokohama F. Marinos while Suzuki left for Shimizu, leaving two huge gaping holes in the Oita defense. Kazuki Kozuka also jumped ship as he went to Kawasaki for the offer of free league titles every year, while Tatsuya Tanaka left for Urawa. Even Oita’s second-stringers, those reliable players to call upon whenever the main guys are having trouble, also left the club. After Yusuke Goto’s departure to Shimizu as well as the early retirement of Takuya Marutani in 2020, 2021 saw Kazushi Mitsuhira leaving the club for Ventforet Kofu in the J2.

Truth be told, even with Nagasawa’s 6 goals and Watanabe’s 5, in reality, Oita’s squad is a J2 squad without the presence of impact players such as Suzuki, Kozuka, and Iwata. Their current crop of defenders are sub-par and they’ve been missing the presence of players with a cold-blooded killer instinct in front of the goal like Fujimoto and Onaiwu this season, which contributed to their relegation.

The onus is on the Oita management to retain as many performers from this season for the next one, in hopes that they could deliver in J2. The likes of Naoki Nomura and Yamato Machida have shown flashes of brilliance in an Oita shirt, the former during the 2020 season while the latter this season, while Nagasawa, Watanabe, and Goya could be retained for a promotion push with hopes that they could rediscover their shooting boots in the second tier.

Additionally, Oita could dig into their own academy for some talented youngsters – as they did back in 2015 with Iwata, as well as raiding talent from their closest neighbors as they did with Kagoshima United back in 2018, having recruited Fujimoto from the J3 side during that year.

Once again, Miyazaki’s lack of a J2 license could entice their best performers to leave the club for a bigger challenge, and they could make that trip up the Nippo Main Line to the Showa Denko Dome to experience football at a higher level without having to wait for Miyazaki to obtain the necessary credentials.

The Oita rebuilding project will be a long and arduous one, which could rival their initial meteoric rise back in 2016-19. But the club must learn from the mistakes of the past to ensure that they would return back to the J1 promised land as soon as possible.