Always competitive and bringing their distinct brand of football to our shores, Albirex were found wanting last year in defence. With Tatsuyuki Okuyama in his second season in charge, can the new reinforcements push the Japanese towards a title challenge?
What happened in 2014?
Home ground: Jurong East Stadium, Singapore
Nickname: The White Swans
Last Season: 5th place
League Cup: Quarter-finalists
Singapore Cup: Quarter-finalists
The Japanese side pushed the league front runners all the way until the penultimate game of the season. With a shift in emphasis from possession football to direct attacking play, they reaped 51 goals in 2014, compared to 37 and 36 in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
That shift in playing philosophy brought out the best in Kazuki Sakamoto as he contributed 21 goals in the White Swans’ valiant title pursuit. They were let down at the back by comedic goalkeeping from Kenjiro Ogino and Kazuki Kishigami.
A team they particularly had difficulty beating throughout the season was Brunei DPMM, against whom they recorded a draw and four defeats in all competitions, including a quarter-final exit in the Singapore Cup. Their hopes of a second League Cup were also ended at the same stage by Geylang International.
A few key players, including skipper Itsuki Yamada and Kento Nagasaki, have been retained to form the core spine of the team for this season.
They have also recruited players with experience in the J-League, including midfielder Fumiya Kogure from their parent club and veteran goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa, to bolster their ranks as they look to make another tilt at the elusive league championship.
Their pre-season results have suggested they could run the likes of Tampines Rovers and DPMM close in the title race as they continue to pursue their attacking philosophy.
The Gaffer – Tatsuyuki Okuyama
The 39-year-old Japanese spent 2013 shadowing his predecessor Koichi Sugiyama before taking up the hot seat last year. Previously the head coach of Albirex Niigata Ladies back in Japan, he has demonstrated his capabilities in taking on the men’s game in his tenure so far.
An advocate of direct attacking football, the former defender has encouraged his players to shoot with confidence from various distances and that has translated to a glut of goals at the other end last year.
The Japanese boast one of the best flank combinations in the league with Itsuki Yamada and Kento Nagasaki looking to provide ammunition from the wings.
Several of their goals last season came through the flanks and with Atsushi Kawata providing additional service from there, the strikers can expect a consistent flow of service.
Their heightened urgency to push for goal often sees the midfielders conjure through balls down the middle. The ability to split defences often sees the forwards finding space to shoot in the final third; their versatility up front could be key to their title aspirations.
Into his third year in Singapore, goalkeeper Kenjiro Ogino has not convinced between the posts as he has frequently exposed himself as the weakest link in the eleven each time he is fielded.
Last season also saw the defence concede 40 goals, with only two clean sheets in 27 matches. With a new-look backline yet to convince in pre-season games, the midfield and attack could be burdened with the mission of “you score three, I'll score four” to ease that pressure.
With a constant influx of new players in the squad each season, the Japanese have been traditional slow starters as they would use the first two months to find their feet in Singapore before going full steam ahead once team cohesion improved.
Players to Watch
- Kento Nagasaki
Adept in central and right midfield, the 24-year-old will be spending his third Singapore season providing the thrust in the middle of the park.
His know-how of the local game and tireless running to cover every blade of grass will be invaluable to his new colleagues around him as he targets another massive contribution in the new season.
- Itsuki Yamada
One of the most outstanding Albirex players from last season, the 24-year-old skipper is capable of playing at centre or left-back, or in left midfield, providing Okuyama with a wide range of tactical options.
His biggest asset is in his trusty left foot as he often forays into the other half on the overlap to deliver pinpoint crosses, while never shirking his defensive duties at the back.
- Fumiya Kogure
Seconded from Albirex's parent club in Japan, expectations are high that the experienced midfielder can deliver in the middle of the park thanks to his J-League experience.
Deployed primarily in central midfield, the 25-year-old is expected to pull the strings and dictate play. His confidence in taking on older and rougher opponents could rub off on the rest of his teammates.
Gary's 2015 S.League Prediction: 2nd
Albirex have an improved squad from last season, but the strength of Tampines Rovers, a fragile defence and a potential lack of a sharpshooter to fill Kazuki Sakamoto’s boots could be their undoing.