Sendai 2-1 FC Tokyo
J1 Matchday 6
Another odd-goal loss last Saturday, our fourth in a row in the league, saw us tumble into the bottom half of the table, and makes our consecutive wins to start the season feel like months ago. Two quality second half finishes from Kakuda and Wilson gave Vegalta a 2-0 lead by the hour mark, and though Tadanari Lee (benched for what reason?) pulled one back with 12 minutes to go we couldn't make our late pressure count and find an equalizer.
The overall performance wasn't bad, and I don't think we've played particularly badly in any of the run of defeats to be honest, in fact I'd argue we didn't get the rub of the green in the first two of them, away at both Cerezo and Yokohama, but we appear to be fairly brittle mentally, especially after going behind in games. There seems to be a lack of calmness in the team after conceeding, Oita in the league and Kashima in the Cracker Cup aside, with players pressing just a little too hard to play the perfect pass, or missing the target on presentable chances, when it seems our opponents always take theirs when they come (get your violins out).
Despite the title of this post, I don't think we need to panic, but a few things need to be ironed out formation and personnel-wise, and it might be time for Mr. Popovic to make some tough decisions.
I love the manager, and have had several great chats with him since he took over, but I feel at times his blind loyalty to the likes of Lucas and Aria Hasegawa has gotten in the way of him putting our best XI on the park. I know there have been mitigating factors, like yet another injury to Naohiro Ishikawa and the failure of Hiroki Kawano to carry on his preseason form, but it seems like he's trying to fit round pegs into square holes at times.
Lucas is an icon of the club, second only to Amaral amongst foreign players in the eyes of all supporters, but the fact he is still being asked, no, counted on, to do so much out on the flank is a huge worry, when by this stage of his career he should really be the sort of player we can bring off the bench, up front, in bursts. Aria is just a massive enigma, capable of the sublime (his finish for the 3rd against Kashiwa for example) but also still prone to going missing for large stretches of games. He's still young-ish, but again, he's not a wide player, and the manager will just stick him anywhere to get him in the team.
The elephant in the room is the form of both Hideto Takahashi and Yuhei Tokunaga. You can't drop either of them, especially Tokunaga as Hokuto Nakamura is injured and Kenta Mukuhara, a better defender than Hokuto, is with Cerezo on loan this season, but both have been uncharacteristically sloppy, and Takahashi, who really seemed to be coming on as a passer, has gone miles backwards in that area of his game.
Up front, the solution is simple to me: Tadanari Lee MUST start up front, and Keigo Higashi MUST play in the hole behind him. Sorry Kazuma Watanabe, you've got five goals in the league already, but you'll have to get used to coming off the bench again. Mr. Popovic has fallen into the same trap as last year with Kazuma, when his (fairly) fluky hat-trick against Tosu saw him get a run of starts in which he did absolutely nothing. On his day he is a good-to-excellent J1 striker, but he's too hit-and-miss to be a permanent fixture in the XI.
Lee is the best striker, and natural goal-scorer, we have, and he needs to be the focal point of the attack, with Higashi, who has produced a couple of excellent performances in the hole but looked lost when played out wide, behind him. Now we don't know the reasons behind Lee's benching at Sendai, or whether he's had any problems with the manager etc., but for us going forward he and Higashi will give us the best chance to score goals, and win games.
There have been positives of course: Kosuke Ota has been generally sound at left back and Takuji Yonemoto has continued his development into one of the better holding mids in J1, but there is room for improvement almost everywhere else, and hopefully that, along with three points, will come this Saturday afternoon at home versus Nagoya.