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Club Overview: Kashima Antlers
Kashima Antlers

I know a group of our readers here are gunning for Kashima Antlers, so I thought I'd do a quick preview of them first. If you have requests about what team you'd like to read about, leave a comment or email me. These will be on the top of my preview to-do list.

If you followed this blog from the start of the 2005 season, you may remember that Kashima had taken a comfortable lead off the rest of the league by mid-season last summer. They were so far ahead, that observers of the J-league were already using them as an example of how the 1-stage format could be detrimental to the health (ie. keeping the interest and excitement levels among supporters up through to the end of the season) of the league.

But then the football fates had played a trick on us; Kashima ran out of steam, couldn't find the points they needed, and Gamba Osaka crept up and hopped over them to the top of the table. In fact, as we all saw, things stayed very exciting indeed through to literally the very last minute of the season last year. You could not have written a more perfect script if you had tried.

The 10th Time's the Hardest?

For Kashima, all the talk about the nailbiting thrills of the last round is salt on the wound. They had it in their hands to take the league, but gave it away. It was to be their 10th title, and what a quintessential moment it could have been for the club in manager Toninho Cerezo's 5th and last year there. He, with his cheerful and boyish demeanor, has been a well-loved personality in the league. And no question he had the helm during some of Kashima's best days.

>>Click to see photos of the players, staff, and president, at Kashima Jingu (Shinto shrine), to perform prayers asking for a successful and healthy season. (Most of the J clubs do something like this)

2005 Standings
League: 3rd place
Nabisco Cup: eliminated in group rounds
Emperor's Cup: eliminated in quarterfinals

Biggest New Names

No question, new manager Paulo Autuori (from Sao Paulo FC >>click to see video interview) is the biggest buzz. Everyone is wondering what a Club World Championship-winning manager will do with stagnating Antlers. Two things are very clear: 1) he will definitely keep on the tradition of the club and maintain a very Brazilian style to the football played there, 2) with little in the form of acquisitions, the roster will not look too different from last year. I am curious to see what kind of strategic and psychological change Autuori brings to the team in the coming months.

Atsushi Yanagisawa's reverse rental from Messina is obviously another point of interest. We have seen so little of his play in the last two years, the only impressions coming from his national team appearances, that this will be a good chance for everyone to see just how he compares to the J standard after being in Italy. From what I've seen of him on the national team, he has definitely gotten physically stronger in his time in Europe. And if you remember last year, after the WC qualifier against North Korea we saw a slight shift in Yanagisawa's long-standing philosophy of "forwards are not just goal-getters". (>>Read post on this story section under "NT Version Upgrade?")

The Gold is in the Goal

Kashima's style has always been to play a balanced game of passing football. With their traditional 4-4-2 system, they have been characterized as a club that prefers to win with a solid and stable 1-0, who know how to read the game and control the flow of time. The problem in recent years has been in finishing. They created all these pretty opportunities, but it would not give them a comfortable lead, and either they got caught on counters or lost some patience as time ticked away.

Takuya NozawaWith only one true striker on the team in Alex Mineiro, the character and destiny of this team will probably be determined by the 1.5ers.. I call them 1.5ers because these players play somewhere between the front line and the midfield -- players like Masashi Motoyama, Masaki Fukai, Takuya Nozawa (see pics). These guys can play as forwards and offensive halfs essentially swirling around the top half of the pitch, helping to set up playsMasaki Fukai as well as running overlapping set-ups with Ogasawara and Motoyama to finish with goals. In particular, people are looking to last year's rookies Nozawa and Fukai to further improve on their goal contributions from last year. They have shown a keen attitude towards goals, and their speed and technique blossomed last year with this club. I especially like to watch them play because they bring a quickness and speed that creates variety in tempo, with dribbling and well-aimed shots from difficult angles. Last year they had nothing to lose, but this year the pressure will be greater for them now that expectations have been set.

And people also want to see Chikashi Masuda and Shinzou Kouroki come into their own; these two compete for Motoyama and Ogasawara's positions. What Yanagisawa's sudden return to the club will do in terms of starters, I can't say. It will be interesting to see how Autuori mixes and matches his front line -- and more importantly if his choices come through with goals.


Free and corner kicks have played a big part in Antlers' strength in the past, and it will not be any different this year with Ogasawara and defensive midfielder Fernando. Long and mid-range shots from these two as well as left sideback Toru Araiba and defensive midfielder Takeshi Aoki will also add accent to the attack.

Defense the Flavor

Daiki IwamasaOf course Kashima wouldn't be Kashima without their defense. Goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata is considered one of Japan's best, and is 4th in line with the national team. However last year his silly mistakes left a bigger impression on me than any good saves. His momentary lapses in focus had created a number of ridiculous errors -- especially his poor clearances when an opponent player is putting pressure on him before his kick.

Perhaps the player considered most deserving of having a chance at the national team is centerback Daiki Iwamasa see pic. Standing 187 cm tall (85 kg), he is a solid and strong presence for Antlers. He played 31 games last year and scored 4 goals and many feel he can contribute in the same way Marinos' Yuji Nakazawa does to the NT. Usually with this kind of physique, we tend to see players who compare unfavorably in terms of agility, but Iwamasa is not one of them.

Pre-Season Match: Ibaraki Derby on Feb 26
Mito Hollyhock (J2) 1-2 Kashima Antlers

A frustrating game held in the rain, this PSM served to point out Kashima's troubles rather than reassure the team. With Mito defending heartily, Kashima could not find their passing rhythm in the muddy pitch, and just barely won.

The most obvious change to the formation was the shape of the midfield -- from a 4-4-2 box to a flat, with the two midfield sides taking a very high position so that it looked more like 4-2-4. They used these high sides for crosses in; however the quality of the shots and last passes are still wanting.

After Mito equalized in the second half, it seemed to light a fire under the players, and thereafter ensued a barrage of attacks frustrated by a focused Mito goalie. But their persistence paid of when a one-touch sequence between Fukai and Arabia allowed a cross to go in -- and Tashiro was brought down inside the box for a PK. The PK was deflected, but Fukai got a foot ont he rebound for the winner.

Still, it looks like this is Auturio's new shape for the team. This game took place when Motoyama and Ogasawara were with the national team, so I am curious to see whether the team can find better quality with them in.

No Time No Change

Like other teams that have to go through preseason training without several of their top players, Kashima has been making their adjustments to the new maanger without their playmakers Ogasawara and Motoyama for most of this past month. I don't think we will see drastic changes reflected in the first game -- Autuori will probably try and keep the base as it was from last year, and the only real opening I see in terms of opportunities for nonstarters is in the rightback position. I've read that though veteran Narahashi is expected in that spot, he is bothered by injuries. If he is not able to play it would be a chance for newcomer Atsuto Uchida, 18 years old, who played consistently in that position in the National Youth team.

Considering they have a new manager and little time to practice altogether, it may be a blessing in disguise that they did not have much movement in/out with their players. From what glimpses I caught of Autuori in action, he is not a bouncy boyish persona like Cerezo was. None of the regular starters are safe -- I expect he will be a tough one and won't impress easily.
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