It is hard to think of another manager in football who has burst on to the scene in the same way as Lee-Ah Wenger.
Granted, that statement isn’t particularly “out there” considering that at his first-ever press conference he was unveiled as the illegitimate son of one of the greatest managers the world has seen.
On top of that, add the fact that he has not yet celebrated his 25th birthday.
And, of course, that he lifted the J-League title in his debut season.
Even then-young pretenders like Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly, Graham Taylor or Eddie Howe managed to win a top-tier title in their debut season before the age of 30 – and for those who immediately look to mock the Japanese league as substandard, remind yourself of the fact that it is one of the stronger divisions in Asian football.
Wenger Jr led his Nagoya Grampus side to the title with games to spare last season, yet his achievements in his second season have been, incredibly, called into question as his side saw their title defence fade away as Kashima Antlers won the J1 by nine points.
Does leading a side to second place in the table constitute a failed season, given that Nagoya were shock winners the season before and not perennial title-challengers? It would be a harsh man to suggest the season was a failure – especially given that they won the Champions League and the Emperor’s Cup.
Wenger Jr actually did a treble of sorts last season – the Super Cup, taken far more seriously in Japan than the Community Shield in England, plus the top continental competition as well as lifting the prestigious main cup. Yet, some people in the media are suggesting that this young man was a one-season wonder. As Josefin Bjorkland from Guts Casino said, “Wenger made it clear that he wanted to win the J-League last season and punters backed him. He didn’t win it, so that is a failure no?”
How can this be the case?
Wenger Jr himself has already admitted that the 2021 season feels somewhat hollow, despite the trophy haul.
The nine-point gap flatters Kashima Antlers, though it is unlikely to be remembered when the new season gets underway.
At one point, the Antlers led by 12 and Nagoya, free of Champions League commitments for a period of time, started clawing their way back into the race – to the point where had Nagoya won the September league clash they would have narrowed the gap to four points. The controversial 2-1 loss, with Antlers’ second goal not being ruled out by VAR despite clearly being offside, turned it back into a gap of ten.
Frustratingly for Wenger Jr, his team’s two-leg victory over their big rivals in the Champions League semi-final led to the Antlers losing three of their remaining seven league matches. Nagoya lost four of their seven – the title was there to be won, certainly an opportunity missed.
Yet, Wenger Jr’s men remained focussed on claiming the Champions League and enjoyed the end-of-season run out in the domestic cup, when the pressure was truly off.
We are going to take the time here to analyse the 2021 season for Nagoya Grampus and look to give a more balanced verdict on whether Wenger Jr did actually suffer from a second season syndrome.
It cannot be denied that Wenger’s dealings in the early season transfer window affected their start to the J-League season.
Clearly, Suzuki was a massive hit – a £375,000 outlay on the Sapporo striker led to 17 goals as the partnership with Troy Parrott gelled quickly.
However, Wenger probably trusted that his players from last season would not have their heads turned by the big Arab money being offered to them – the loss of Eduardo Neto after Fothe 2-1 win over Urawa saw three straight J-League defeats and the first time Wenger Jr had looked panicked in the job. Neto had joined Al-Ettifaq for £275,000 having forced his move through. A big part of Nagoya’s game had departed, his experience instantly missed.
Wenger had also let other experienced heads move on before the season had started – Sugimori and Tanabe went for less than £100,000 combined where their wise heads were worth more than money could buy.
Following the three defeats, Wenger reacted quickly bringing in the big Brazilian defender Morato on loan from Benfica and splashing £1.3m on left midfielder Kunimoto from Shimizu. In fairness, they went on to be two important players for the side throughout the season.
The mid-season window damaged Nagoya once more – club captain Mateus Santos headed to Kuwait and young central defender Sugawara went on strike to force his move away from the club. There were suspicions that Nagoya were not capable of keeping their best players.
Wenger’s focus has been on buying the best young talent in Japan and he needed them to be ready quicker than expected – and they were not.
Off the field
Wenger made it clear when he took over that his work off the field was as important as on it – the club have invested in growing the support team massively, the first-team alone have nine Continental Pro qualified coaches now. Wenger has been pushing for each coach to improve themselves since day one, and this has fed through the club. There are now ten scouts, making sure that no young Japanese talent is missed and the club invested around £6m in signing under-19 players in 2021.
However, a small crack seems to have appeared – Wenger was disheartened that he only got a two-year extension on the same money after he pushed for a three-year deal with a sensible increase. This did not go unnoticed by Urawa who were prepared to offer Wenger a significant contract to take over – Wenger declined.
On top of this, the club have prioritised a new stadium – not needed – ahead of continuing to develop the training facilities and then had the temerity to publically suggest Wenger was behind target in their aims of having the best Academy in Japan.
This, along with losing the league title, had Wenger assessing whether he could see a long-term future in Nagoya – he eventually signed the two-year deal but it left a bitter taste.
On the pitch, it has been a clear shift in personnel rather than a shift in style.
The 442 with two deep-lying midfielders is still very much Wenger’s go-to shape. The high-pressing approach has not been toned down, even with the long away trips in Asia.
However, Wenger did make a mistake in believing that Maeda could be converted from a winger into a starting deep midfielder in this system, following the departure of Eduardo. Once Wenger accepted that and brought in Yonemoto (another heading to the Middle East), the team pushed on and almost made it a title-race.
Equally, the defence was not as watertight as the previous season – rarely did we see Nagoya drop points once they got ahead. This season, they dropped 15 points from winning positions and were behind eight times more this season – teams knew they could get at them.
Wenger rotated personnel to find the winning combination and looked to integrate the best of his younger players quickly. The young defender Shoji will go on to be one of the best players of his generation but he struggled at times in his rookie year. Ikeya was a revelation off the bench with his ten goals, but his path will be blocked once again with Parrott being secured on loan for a third season.
If anything, Nagoya headed into the season too light on players meaning they could not rotate enough with the right quality to maintain a challenge on all fronts.
The concern is that Wenger Jr has not learned from his mistakes – the registration for the AFC Champions League has been and gone and the club have one goalkeeper on their books. Benfica are unlikely to allow Morato to come back to the club for 2022, meaning Nagoya only had Nakatani as a senior centre-back. This led to another panic buy, paying £4m for Antlers key man Machida – something that has not impressed the fans.
Kubo is loan once again from Real Madrid and Parrott, 32 goals last season, returns from Tottenham so there is some genuine world-class talent but the squad is unbalanced.
They do not have the quality in defence or in central midfield to challenge for the title – though they could still rectify that before the league season starts. As for the Champions League, they will have to hope for a weak group and a generous first knockout draw before any further new signings can be registered.