It definitely wasn’t a Leicester City style fairy tale, but our unfancied title win last season puts us in a strange position going into season five. Despite media predictions, reputation and our finances suggesting we are still a stable mid-table club, I believe we’ve defied that to secure ourselves as one of the best four sides in the nation. Our title win should have gone a long way to confirming that, but in the second half of the season it could be said that we weren’t even a stable mid-table side, we were a very poor one. That would need to be rectified immediately if we were to challenge again, but with two separate Asian Champions League campaigns to navigate, plus the cup competitions, we were going to be spread pretty thin.

Transfers

Kenta KikuchiD/WB L, 26(4) apps, 1 goal, 5 assists, 6.96 avg rating. 

With Ko Matsubara leaving on a free, we needed some genuine competition for Ryoya Ogawa at left-back. Kenta is a massive upgrade in this regard, although the £550k we paid for him is probably a touch expensive. He played a good amount of football, especially in the cups, and always offered a solid if not spectacular level of performance.

EzequielAM RLC, ST C, 53(4) apps, 10 goals, 13 assists, 7.02 avg rating. 

Ezequiel was our most expensive signing of the season, with a fee of £1.5m rising to a potential £1.8m. I felt we were light of a really strong left-winger, and I targeted Ezequiel in particular because he has Japanese nationality and we currently have too many foreign players to include them all. More of a creator than a goal scorer, Ezequiel put up decent numbers but is prone to a barren spell. Nevertheless, he had a good impact and I believe he can kick on next season.

Athon Janthapan-SankammuanGK, 34(2) apps, 37 conceded, 15 clean sheets, 6.85 avg rating.

As I mentioned in my previous post, a new goalkeeper was our most pressing concern. I’ve been very fortunate to find Athon, who at 19 is already our best goalkeeper, remarkably is the second player we’ve had who has been on the NXGN Top 50 list, and most importantly is from Thailand meaning he qualifies as non-foreign. 

£950k still feels like a fairly large outlay at this point, but this deal will undoubtedly prove to be a bargain. Interest from Europe is bound to come, and with an £8.5m release clause we’ll make an excellent profit should he move on. He started the season excellently, before losing all form and eventually his place to Santiago Mele. He won it back though, and ended the season strongly. The only way is up next season.

Nestory IrankundaAM RL, ST C, 23(3) apps, 12 goals, 5 assists, 7.13 avg rating.

Almost all of my transfer dealings were done with the intention of trimming down the number of foreign players we have. That went out of the window when I found that Nestory was available on a pre-contract and willing to swap the A-League for the J-League. He joined half way through the season but made an immediate impact, bringing a fresh impetus and genuine quality.

Ebenezer Akinsanmiro – M/AM C, 2(3) apps, 2 goals, 0 assists, 7.03 avg rating. 

I do love a late in the season luxury signing. Ebenezer was offered to me by his agent and has great pedigree, playing 9 league games and making a handful of substitute Champions League appearances for Inter Milan before his release. Although naturally comfortable further forward, I am training him to play as a Segundo Volante, as I start to become more certain that we’ll lose talisman Takui Fukui eventually.

There were two very notable sales that need to be mentioned. Yousef Qashi left for Al-Wehda for a fee of £2m, pure profit as he was signed on a free. He often played well and I enjoyed his versatility, but with the surplus of foreign players we found ourselves with, he felt the most expendable. The other was Oscar Bobb, a truly sad tale. After playing five games at the back end of season four, he broke his leg in a pre-season friendly and was out for five months. While returning to full fitness, he pulled his knee ligaments and was out for another month. Just as he was looking close to a return to first team football, Al-Gharafa came in with an offer. After a bit of negotiation a deal for £4.3m rising to a potential (but likely) £5.5m was agreed. I’d probably have struggled to pass up that money for a fully firing Bobb, but to turn it down for a player recovering from a long-term injury and who hadn’t found his place in the side yet would have been insane.

League Performance

The media were starting to take us seriously, making us 12-1 fifth favourites for the title. I honestly thought that was fair; with our poor form at the end of last season combined with the extra fixture congestion we were going to face, I didn’t fancy us to defend our title.

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We got off to an inconsistent start. 

Our first four games were actually very good; all of these sides are generally strong and we were unfortunate to lose to Marinos in a nervy game. The next four were a nightmare though. All four were highly winnable games, two against newly promoted sides, and we looked pretty toothless in all of them. At the end of this run we were ninth in the table and already well off the pace.

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From there we went on a bit of a run, the sort of form we’d shown in the first half of our title winning campaign. This took us to second, and although Kawasaki Frontale were now just two points ahead of us, I still didn’t have faith that we wouldn’t run out of steam again. I felt confident that we could go on and secure a top four finish, but I didn’t consider us genuine title contenders.

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This was exactly the sort of run that I felt was holding us back from retaining our title. All of the games that we dropped points in are tough fixtures, but to win things you need to beat the teams around you, and we weren’t able to do so. The Kawasaki Frontale double header was an incredible blow, in an instant we dropped behind by six points and two positions.

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Our run-in needed to be perfect, and it almost was. With the toughest of our fixtures already behind us, one blip against Kashiwa Reysol prevented a nine game winning run. Technically, we were in a four way title race; ourselves, Kawasaki Frontale, Marinos and Vissel Kobe could all still win it, although Frontale were strong favourites having been top since game week six.

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Inexplicably, Frontale went on an absolute horror run, collecting just six points from their final nine games. This had opened the door, but not just for us.

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Vissel Kobe, perennial mid-table dwellers in the save so far, had also been almost perfect and with one game left were favourites for the title. We could still win it, but we needed to win and hope for a massive favour from bottom side Machida Zelvia.

As you can see above, we did our part, with a nervy 2-0 win away at Hokkaido Sapporo. Sadly, Vissel Kobe also held up their end of the bargain. They left it late to grab the win, with Rio Nitta (ironically a player who will join us on a pre-contract next season) scoring in the 93rd minute. However, a draw would have been enough for them due to goal difference, and they prevented Machida Zelvia from even having a shot on target.

At several points throughout the season, if you had told me we’d still be in contention on the final day I’d have laughed. Ironically, we actually finished this season with more points and a better goal difference than last season when we won the title. However, the main aim at the start of the season was to secure a top four finish, and we’ve done that comfortably. I look back now to the Kashiwa Reysol game and ponder what could have been, but truthfully we need to get more ‘hardened’ and find a way to grind out some draws in games we’re currently losing.

Cup Performance

Super Cup

As league champions we were given the opportunity to retain our Super Cup title, facing off against Emperor’s Cup winners Yokohama FC.

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An absolutely rampant display saw us run away with our second Super Cup in two seasons. Yokohama saw more of the ball but were completely ineffective with it, only registering one shot on target. On the other hand, we were ruthless. Thomas Amang started the season exactly as we’ve come to expect with a brace, and there were really impressive debuts from Athon Janthapan-Sankammuan, Ezequiel and academy player Yuki Sekine.

Emperor’s Cup

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Once again, a relatively poor showing in the Emperor’s Cup. Two routine wins against lower league opponents and a blockbuster tie against Gamba Osaka saw us into the Quarter Final where Yokohama FC got their revenge against us. As is often our Achilles’ heel in cup games, we were unable to hold our lead and conceded a 92nd minute equaliser which took us into extra time. By this point the momentum was entirely with Yokohama, and they grabbed a winner to send us packing.

J.League Cup

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Our League Cup campaign was a far better showing. J3 side Gainare Tottori were dispatched with consummate ease, before a blockbuster tie with Nagoya Grampus saw four extra time goals before we progressed on penalties.

From there we dominated the first leg against Shonan Bellmare, meaning our pitiful second leg performance was irrelevant. The Kyoto Sanga Semi-Final was an amazing tie. We absolutely dominated the first leg, but didn’t want to take progress for granted so didn’t rotate as much as we may have normally. This turned out to be a wise decision as we went 2-0 down and started to feel a bit shaky, before roaring back with four quick goals. We did concede yet another late goal to take the shine off slightly, but by then the tie was more than secure.

This saw us into our second J.League Cup Final of the save, and this time we’d be taking on Yokohama F. Marinos.

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Despite going behind and having slightly less of the ball we always looked like the better side in this one, and deservingly brought home the League Cup trophy.

Asian Champions League

As I mentioned in the last post, the way the Asian Champions League runs in conjunction with our domestic season is a nightmare. So as long as we keep qualifying for the tournament (fingers crossed) we’ll have to cover half of two separate campaigns in each post!

2026/27 Knockouts

As covered in the last post, in our first Asian Champions League campaign we topped our group and were rewarded with a Second Round tie against Thai side Bangkok United.

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We were wasteful in the first leg, and Bangkok punished us with two quick fire goals to steal the game from us. In the second leg though we were much more like it, with a dominant display to see us through.

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Next up were familiar foes Yokohama F. Marinos. I wasn’t sure how to feel about drawing a fellow Japanese side. On the one hand, facing a side I was more familiar with meant we were less likely to be caught by surprise, but I was also aware of the quality they have and know they’re capable of beating us.

Securing an away victory in the first leg was a huge boost, and in the second leg we managed the game to perfection, not allowing Marinos a single shot on target as we secured our passage.

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The Semi-Finals were absolutely heartbreaking. 

We had the better of a tense first leg, but a draw wasn’t a massive injustice. Coming back to Japan and taking the lead within a minute was an incredible start to the second leg, but I never felt one goal was going to be enough. We huffed and we puffed, but couldn’t get that second goal. In what seems to be our biggest problem recently, we conceded yet another crucial late goal, with a 94th minute equaliser taking us to extra-time. Lee Dong-Geong then put Suwon ahead in the 97th minute to deny us a place in the Final at our first time of asking. 

To add insult to injury, Suwon went on to win the tournament, beating Al-Duhail of Qatar 6-2 in the two-legged final.

2027/28 Group Stage

Five months after our devastating Semi Final exit, it was time to dust ourselves off and go again, as the Group Stages rolled around once more. This time around we were drawn to face Jeonbuk of South Korea, Muangthong United of Thailand, and Cong An Ha Noi of Vietnam. As recently beaten semi finalists I was confident of progression, but both Jeonbuk and Muangthong have reached the knockouts at least once during the duration of this save.

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Progression was fairly straightforward, with four wins from our first four games almost guaranteeing at worst a best runner-up place in the next round. The defeat to Jeonbuk in Korea meant top spot was up from grabs, but with just a draw needed we were good enough to go to Thailand and see it out. 

We don’t know who we’ll face in the next round yet, but from taking a look through the completed group stages I can see there have already been some huge shocks. 

Neither of last season’s finalists will be in the knockouts, with Suwon finishing second in their group to Kawasaki Frontale, and Al-Duhail coming third in a group that Al-Ittihad progressed from. Fellow eliminated semi-finalists Esteghlal of Iran also finished third in their group, while Saudi giants Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli will both be disappointed not to progress when they are paying multiple players over £300k per week.

Youth Intake

After last season’s slightly underwhelming youth intake, I was hoping to get back on track with some excellent prospects this time around. Sadly, I have so little faith in this year’s crop that they’re barely worth talking about. I’ve signed the players that are seen to have the most potential, but by my eye test I don’t expect many (if any) to make the grade here.

Rimu Kinoshi (AMC), Ryoya Shimizu (RB) and Fumiya Yoshimura (CM) are all 1* Current Ability Players that are rated as 3.5-4.5* Potential Ability players, but they have so many glaring weaknesses in key attributes for their roles that the task of developing to the level required already feels insurmountable. 

Behind them we have Hideki Kano (GK), Takanori Yagami (DM) and Sota Iwase (CB) who actually look like better players at this stage, but if the coaches are to be believed won’t reach the same level as their peers.

The ‘Danny Birchall’ List

Once again, we round off with this year’s additions to the ‘Danny Birchall’ list. As the seasons roll on the list is already getting fairly long, so I may have to start being a bit more selective of who I include going forwards. However, this season sees two new names inducted, so that we can see just how good they were at this point in the save. 

Yuki SekineDM, 34(13) apps, 3 goals, 7 assists, 6.92 avg rating. 

Yuki was one of the smorgasbord of players I identified as being ready for first-team involvement, and has comfortably had the biggest impact of those promoted this year. Starting the year as a substitute/rotational option for Rihito Yamamoto, but once we switched back to the 3 DM system Yuki was able to establish himself as a starter, playing as the deepest of our defensive midfielders. This put a huge amount of pressure on him to protect the back four, and despite a few poor games he mostly did this with aplomb, while also contributing some assists as the season progressed. 

Athon Janthapan-SankammuanGK, 34(2) apps, 37 conceded, 15 clean sheets, 6.85 avg rating.

As I mentioned in the transfers section, Athon was brought in with a view to him being our long-term number one. He started fantastically, before a huge drop in form saw him lose his place to Santiago Mele. He did eventually win his place back though, and had some strong performances towards the back end of the season. I’m intrigued to see what his attributes look like at this point, considering he has been rated as one of the best 50 wonderkids in the world. Surely he’s too good for us to keep hold of?!

So another season in the books, with another title challenge and two trophies to show for it. Next season the aim is to win back our title, and hopefully to have another strong showing in the Asian Champions League, all while trying to integrate more of the incredible young talent we have at the club. Until next time…

Author

  • adam_otbfm

    Adam, known in the Football Manager (FM) realm as @adam_otbfm, is a fervent gamer and content creator. With a penchant for football simulations, Adam delves into the intricacies of FM, sharing his findings on his blog "On the Break." His creative ventures include replicating football legends like Kaka in the virtual pitch, showcasing a blend of nostalgia and modern gameplay. Adam's musings extend to social platforms like Twitter, where he actively engages with the FM community, sharing his gaming journey with @SJK_Seinajoki. His insightful content and avid participation enrich the FM community, making him a valued member in this virtual football world.

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