This is an extract from the June edition of J-League Magazine
I don’t think anyone expected the table to look like that as we entered the summer break of the 2019 J-League season.
Back in January, when Lee-Ah Wenger was announced as the new manager of Nagoya Grampus, not even the most ardent of fan would have believed that Nagoya would be considered ‘summer champions’ of Japan.
Most of the pundits were predicting a car-crash – the son of Arsene Wenger would be exposed as a fraud, too young to command the dressing room, too tactically naive to make an impact at senior level. Many thought he would be long gone by now.
Yet, after 16 matches, Nagoya Grampus top the J-League – three points ahead of Kashima Antlers with a superior goal difference. Antlers have a game in hand.
But how can this be?
The J-League is notoriously tight traditionally, and that is looking like the case in 2019. But not since Dragan Stoijkovic lifted the title with the club in 2010 have a side appeared from absolutely nowhere to announce themselves as contenders.
Chasing them are the three of the four most recent champions – Kashima Antlers (2016), Kawasaki Frontale (2017 and 2018) and Gamba Osaka (2014). For Nagoya to be leading the way is utterly unexpected.
What makes it even more unbelievable is that Wenger Jr hasn’t spent big in the transfer market. His only first-team addition is Tottenham Hotspur loanee Troy Parrott.
As you can see from the below, Nagoya are bottom of the ‘net spend’ table.
Granted, Antlers have also been thrifty in their spending but this leads us to the annual wage bill comparison.
By rights, Nagoya should be finishing mid-table which, looking at their squad, is a much more realistic outcome.
So the club haven’t spent big and are not spending anything like the £29m Vissel Kobe are putting in the back pockets of Andres Iniesta and David Villa. And yet they lead the way.
Tactically, top scorer Parrott has himself likened Nagoya’s playing style to Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone and we can understand that comparison.
Nagoya have lined up in a 4-4-2 shape for each match this season, with both the central midfielders (typically Brazilian duo Joao Schmidt and Eduardo Neto) sitting in deep-lying areas. Both wide midfielders are expected to invert, allowing the space for the full-backs to push on. The front two, former Man City striker and ex-Brazilian international Jo alongside young Irish international Parrott have seen their partnership flourish in recent weeks, nominally to a tweak in Jo’s role.
The Brazilian was asked to press high earlier in the season and seemed to be spending more time focussing on the defensive side of things than creating and taking chances.
There was a noticeable shift in style against Vegalta Sendai at the end of April – Jo seemed to be taking a much deeper-lying forward role, providing a link between Nagoya’s defensive-minded midfield and Parrott who was, as ever, playing on the last man.
You can see in the heatmap below, the change in Jo’s positional play. On the left, we have it from Nagoya’s stunning recovery against Frontale where they were 2-0 down only to win 4-2. On the right, we have the heatmap from 2-1 win over Antlers in March.
Wenger Jr’s little tweak has made Jo far more effective for the team – since then he has registered three goals and three assists in six league and cup matches, the same amount as in the previous 14 games.
Alongside him, the goals of Parrott have been crucial.
Wearing the number 10 shirt adorned by Gary Lineker and the aforementioned Stoijkovic, Parrott is starting to pick up pace in Japan. He had to wait until his sixth start to score his first goal, but since then has been firing them in.
A key part of Parrott’s development is that he gets 60% of his shots on target. With Nagoya only averaging 11 shots on goal a game, having such a high-percentage is crucial – the kid is now in that position of when he gets the ball, you expect him to score.
But it’s not the Grampus attacking play that is the reason they are topping the table. It is the defensive side of their game which is drawing the comparisons to Atletico Madrid and have given the side a foundation upon which they can build.
Australian goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak is the reason the club are top – it is as simple as that.
His 89% save percentage is positively crazy, comfortably the highest in the league. His 11 clean-sheets are equal to the side who have conceded the fewest amount of goals, Cerezo Osaka.
The oddity with Nagoya is that they are not particularly tight at the back (depending on how you analyse it) as Langerak is called into action 3.71 times per match. Yet, he only concedes a goal every other game. With his contract up at the end of the season and it looking unlikely he will renew, Wenger Jr needs a plan and fast.
In front of Langerak, Wenger Jr has opted with the young central partnership of Nakatani and Sugawara. Whilst you cannot compare them to Leicester City’s Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in their famous title-winning season of 2015/16, there are similarities. They keep it simple, try to defend what is in front of them and do not dabble in any playing out from the back.
With one 24 and the other 19, if they continue to develop then Nagoya could well have a partnership there for the next decade.
It isn’t all perfect for Wenger Jr, though.
One of the biggest frustrations he will have is the inconsistent form of Naoki Maeda on the right of midfield.
Maeda was expected to be the star Japanese player for the side this season but he has failed to deliver.
As you can see in the comparison below, in the short amount of game time Aoki has been given since replacing Maeda, he has had almost the same total impact.
Aoki runs further, has a better pass completion %, more shots on target per match and completes more crosses. With Wenger Jr being big on the statistical side of the game, it is understandable why he has lost patience with Maeda – a fan favourite.
The question is, will Nagoya go on and win the title? Honestly, probably not. Antlers and Frontale have deeper squads and are more experienced in the business of silverware. But, Nagoya could still disrupt things and a top-four finish (enough to qualify for continental competition) has to be the minimum expectation from here.
But, with many of the key men out of contract at the end of the season, Wenger Jr has to be putting the hours into fixing Nagoya’s traditionally poor recruitment and have some top targets lined up. Losing Jo and Langerak at the end of the campaign could be crippling for 2020.
Season grade to date: A-
Predicted final finish: 3rd