Friday, 08 December 2023

The Urawa Red Diamonds, more commonly referred to as the "Reds", have a long and star-studded history as one of the most influential clubs in Japanese football, yet in the first decade following the launch of the J.League, the team struggled. Despite fanatical home town support and a decent record over the years, they repeatedly broke the hearts of loyal fans by failing to bring home a title. Even in more recent years, as the team has emerged as one of the J.League's "powers" and certainly the wealthiest club in Japan, the Reds have not achieved the sort of championship success that their big budgets might warrant.

The Urawa Reds make their home in Urawa, a gritty industrial city just north of Tokyo, and they boast the loudest and most boisterous fans in the league. Even when the team's performance on the pitch was less than convincing, Urawa fans have been loyal and vocal in their support (and occasionally in their anger, at lost matches). The Reds were formed in 1951, as the club team of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Even back then, they were referred to by their fans as the "Red Diamonds" in reference to the red diamond trademark of Mitsubishi that they wore on their uniforms. The Reds were a dominant team in the JSL during the1970s and early 80s, when the team was coached by Kenzo Yokoyama, who would later serve as national team coach. Under his guidance the team won the Japan Soccer League championship four times, in 1969, 1973, 1978 and 1982, and finished second in 1970, 1971, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977.

However, this impressive run ended just prior to the formation of the J.League, and by 1993 the Reds were already on a downward slide. Urawa managed to remain competitive for a few more years by bringing in two talented Germans -- Guido Buchwald and Uwe Bein -- but when Buchwald retired the team seemed to lack the necessary spark to win matches. The low point was reached in the1999 season, when Urawa suffered a great many misfortunes and injuries to key players, including the loss of star midfielder Shinji Ono for nearly two-thirds of the season. The team floundered, and went into their final match needing three points to avoid relegation to the second division. The team fought valiantly for a win, but it was only in overtime that they managed to get the victory goal. The team was demoted on mere goal difference, and was forced to spend a year in the second division.

Despite this disappointment, Urawa's fans remained as loyal and as loud as ever. Following the match that sealed their fate for relegation, fans stood for nearly an hour as the cold night closed in, chanting over and over: "We Are REDS! We Are REDS!". Despite being relegated to division 2, Urawa outdrew every other J.League team -- including the first-division clubs -- during the 2000 season, packing Komaba Stadium for nearly every home match. In 2001, the team opened Saitama Soccer Stadium, a new 63,000-seat state-of-the-art facility which served as one of the venues for the World Cup. The combination of a huge fan base and a large stadium ensured that even in Division 2, the Reds always had plenty of cash. Following their recovery to the J1, the team embarked on a program of player acquisitions that would elevate them into the upper ranks of J1 contenders.

Yet despite the team's huge bankroll, the Reds continue to break their fans' hearts on a regular basis. They did win the Nabisco (league) Cup in 2004, but missed out on a league championship title by the narrowest of margins for three consecutive years, in 2003, 04 and 05. Reds alumnus and fan favourite Guido Buchwald took over as head coach in 2004, and chose as his assistant Gert Engels, who took both the Yokohama Flugels and Kyoto Purple Sanga to Emperor's Cup titles. Together, the two Germans led the team to its first title, the 2004 Nabisco Cup, but that success was overshadowed by a loss to Yokohama Marinos in the championship series, later that year. In 2005, the Reds put together a team that looked like a formidable power, but the sudden departure of their scoring ace, Emerson, in midseason, sent the team into a slump at a key point in the season, and the team ended up falling just one point shy of the league title.

Naturally, Reds fans would never be fully satisfied until their team brought home the championship, and they certainly deserved the satisfaction of a title, given their tremendous support of the team over the years. So in 2006, Urawa again pulled out its money clip and signed several more stars such as the Brazilian striker Washington, and Shinji Ono, who had finally returned from Holland after a spate of injuries. The team made it clear that it would spare no expense to put together the most competitive team possible, and this time it finally paid off. Although the title chase went down to the final week of the season, a capacity crowd at Saitama Stadium watched as the Reds finally brought home the league trophy by defeating the reigning champions, Gamba Osaka, in the final match.

The Reds produced such a groundswell of enthusiasm in 2006 that their coffers filled to overflowing, and the team responded by padding their roster in the offseason with players like Yuki Abe. In the eyes of the domestic sports press they were almost universally expected to claim another title in 2007. They certainly started the season well, not only climbing to the top of the league table but also cruising through the qualification round of the Asian Champions League. With Holger Osieck taking Buchwald's place as coach, the team was less adventurous, but it seemed that they had plenty of talent to dominate the J.League for another year. But the ACL campaign proved to be a real drain on the team's energy, particularly since Osieck insisted on using his best players in almost every match. In mid-November the Reds stood at the pinnacle of success, lifting the ACL trophy for the first time ever. But over the subsequent month they went into a tailspin of unprecedented proportions, losing a 12-point lead to hand the League title to Kashima on the final day of the season, when all they had to do was beat the already relegated Yokohama FC. To top it off, the Reds closed out the season by losing an Emperor's Cup match to J2 minnows Ehime FC.

Following their humiliating performance at the end of the 2007 season, Urawa responded with the simplistic sop that all wealthy clubs have fallen victim to at one time or another -- they tried to throw money at the problem. But while the Reds' deep pockets made them the biggest "winners" in the off-season acquisition sweepstakes, picking up top-drawer talent like Naohiro Takahara, Edmilson and Tsukasa Umesaki, very little thought was expended on considering how each player would fit into the overall structure. As often happens in the J.League, the Reds found it impossible to fit all of the egos onto the same pitch. The season started off with a disastrous 0-3 loss to Yokohama Marinos, which cost coach Osieck his job before a full month was in the books. Gert Engels did his best to pick up the pieces, but the disarray was already unmistakable. Naturally their vast reserves of talent kept the Reds competitive, but internal dissension exacerbated by intense pressure from their suddenly impatient fans took its toll. The Reds were knocked out of the ACL by Gamba Osaka, at the semifinal stage, and their hopes of a domestic title evaporated at about the same time, in late October. By the end of the season the Reds were floundering in seventh place, due to a combination of disappointment, internal dissent and foolish management decisions (the team brought in Engels' intended replacement to watch a match in mid-November without even mentioning to Engels or to the players that their coach would not be around the following season!).

Since they still possess one of the strongest cash flows in Japan, the Reds are a perennial contender. But it is clear that the team is in serious need of an "attitude adjustment". Players and fans alike seem to have grown complacent, and expect titles to fall into their lap based merely on the size oftheir bankrolls. As they discovered in both 2007 and 2008, the Reds will have to earn every piece of silverware they get. Just as importantly, the team management and coaching staff needs to do a much better job of carefully planning player acquisitions, and then using their personnel effectively. Buying a player just because you have the money to afford it is something that can often backfire, especially if the talented players languishing on your bench start to create an unhealthy friction in the locker room.

The Reds began to rebuild their team structure in 2009, with coach Volker Finke taking over as head coach and beginning the transition to a younger lineup. This produced a certain amount of dislocation and disruption, due to his refusal to coddle the team's "stars". Among other losses, NT star Tulio Tanaka departed due to his inability to get along with Finke, and several other high-profile players also looked for alternative clubs. But on the whole, the Finke interlude helped Urawa get back to the basics. His greatest contribution was to focus on the issue of what was best for the team, rather than who had the "seniority" and "star power" needed to claim a starting spot.  Throughout 2009 and 2010, coach Finke continued the process of "rebuilding", and by the end of the 2010 season it looked like the team was finally starting to develop a young and talented base.

Unfortunately, as is often the case for a "rebuilding" coach, Finke was not able to survive the disappointment that fans felt for the team's sudden drop out of title contention. After three years in the limelight, the Reds dropped to midtable for three seasons, and by the end of 2010 there was too much pressure for the team to resist a change. But despite losing his job as head coach, the German boss managed to make some important progress in developing a roster of young talent. Sadly, that talent would almost all be squandered over the next few year as the Reds stopped focusing on youth development, and decided to try to just buy up every talented player in the league. 

Finke's replacement, Zelijko Petrovic, was a complete disaster as a coach. The Serbian midfielder had played for the Reds for several years in the late 90s, and knew the organization. However, his tactics were not well suited to the J.League, and he almost completely ignored the young players Finke had been developing. By October, with the team hovering just above the relegation zone, he was sacked and assistant coach Takashi Tsutsumi played a caretaker role for the rest of the season.

The next to take hold of the reins at Urawa was also named Petrovic, but Mihailo -- a Czech who had spend the preceding six years as head coach of Sanfrecce Hiroshima -- was so different from his namesake that few even recall the previous Petrovic. Mihailo Petrovic was the man who pioneered the unique "3-6-1" formation that many teams in Japan now employ. It is quite unique in the manner in which it compresses the formation, and could not be mistaken for the "3-4-3" that teams in Europe have sometimes adopted, even if that is the best comparison in terms of the positioning of players. Other coaches have modified Petrovic's main concept, and most would agree that it is actually his successor at Hiroshima -- Hajime Moriyasu -- who has achieved the greatest success with the 3-6-1. Nevertheless, Petrovic's influence shook up the underperforming Reds organization and turned Urawa into a much more competitive team. After finishing 15th in 2011, the Reds shot up to third in Petrovic's first season, and have remained in the top third of the table ever since.

Though few would dispute the claim that Petrovic has built Urawa into a much stronger team, there are plenty of negative perspectives to consider, as well. Despite the largest budget in the league, the Reds have yet to win a major trophy under Petrovic. The only piece of silverware they have claimed in his four (going on five) seasons at the helm was a First Stage title in 2015. Various analysts will offer a variety of explanations for this disappointing record, but one of the most important factors, in our opinion, is the fact that excessive trading activity prevents the team from developing chemistry.

As soon as Petrovic settled in at Urawa, he started using the Big Red Checkbook to buy players that he had formerly coached at Sanfrecce. The first to arrive were Tomoaki Makino and Yosuke Kashiwagi. Ryota Moriwaki soon followed, and Tadanari Lee and Shusaku Nishikawa  arrived in 2014. A rift quickly developed between the "Old Reds" players and the "former Sanfrecce" clique. Throughout 2013 and 2014, the team rode a roller coaster of spurts and slumps, because every time they ran off a string of good results, personal animosity and competition for starting spots would erode the team spirit and suddenly the team would be on another losing skid. It was not until 2015 that Petrovic had eliminated most of the players who came up through the Reds youth programme. Volker Finke's efforts were now totally undone. On a positive note, this largely eliminated the internal friction, allowing the Reds to play with somewhat better chemistry.

Even so, the team continued to accomplish far less than the sum of the individual parts. In his final full season in Urawa (2016) Petrovic led the team to a second-stage title, but the Reds collapsed in the postseason playoff, losing to Kashima Antlers and prolonging their title drought. Considering how much money the team spent over the course of the Petrovic era, it is remarkable that the drought continued so long. But perhaps this is just an illustration of the old principle that "money cant buy you happiness." In his final half-season with the club, Petrovic led the Reds to the latter stages of the ACL knockout round. Domestic disappointments cost the gaffer his job midway through the campaign, but experience and a little bit of luck carried Urawa through to the title. Reds secured a second Asian crown with a 2-1 aggregate victory over Al-Hillal.

Petrovic's legacy will always be a disappointing one, but his departure demonstrated just how much internal friction and poor management had damaged the team. In 2018 former Kashima Antlers coach Oswaldo Oliveira stepped into the coaching spot vacated by Petrovic midway through 2017. The Brazilian gaffer did manage to lead the team to an Emperor's Cup crown, in early 2018, but as the Red Rhinestones gradually lost their glitter, the te4am slipped further and further down the domestic table. Oliveira was sacked in 2019, following a poor start to the domestic campaign. His replacement -- Otsuki -- was a long-time member of Urawa's management team, but lacked any real experience as a head coach. The Reds retained enough experienced veterans to battle all the way to the ACL finals, but collapsed at the final hurdle. Meanwhile their focus on Asian success was having a debilitating impact on domestic results. Only a late surge pulled them clear of relegation danger. The Reds finished 2019 in 14th place, their worst finish since the start of the Petrovic era.

The Saitama Red Army is starting to chafe at the team's continuing failure to produce results commensurate with the amount of money the Reds have squandered on talent, over the past decade. Key players like Tomoaki Makino, Shinzo Koroki, Ryota Moriwaki and Yosuke Kashiwagi have hung up the cleats, and without a large influx of youth, the Reds will find it hard to stay in title contention. Urawa continues to have the best cash flow in the J1, but fans are starting to drift away due to the lack of any real success. Urawa needs a new direction, and a new set of starters, if they hope to return to title contention.

Team Results for 1993-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 10 3       15 11 34 -23
1993 (2nd) 10 5       13 15 44 -29
1994 (1st) 12 6       16 26 43 -17
1994 (2nd) 11 8       14 33 51 -18
1995 (1st) 3 15   3   8 41 34 7
1995 (2nd) 8 14   0   12 44 38 6
1996 6 19   2   9 51 31 20
1997 (1st) 9 6 1 1   8 25 24 1
1997 (2nd) 7 8 1 0   7 26 21 5
1998 (1st) 7 8 1 2   6 28 23 7
1998 (2nd) 3 11 0 0   6 32 17 15
1999 (1st) 13 3 0   4 7 21 33 -12
1999 (2nd) 14 4 1   1 9 18 25 -7
2000 (J2) 2 23 5   3 9 82 40 +42
2001 (1st) 7 6 1   1 7 24 22 +2
2001 (2nd) 12 4 0   3 8 20 24 -4
2002 (1st) 11 3 2   1 9 21 24 -3
2002 (2nd) 8 4 4   1 6 20 14 +6

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 6 24 7 3 5 25 23 +2
2003 (2nd) 6 23 6 5 4 29 19 +10
2004 (1st) 3 25 7 4 4 30 24 +6
2004 (2nd) 1 37 12 1 2 40 15 +25
2005 2 59 17 8 9 65 37 +28
2006 1 72 22 6 6 67 28 +39
2007 2 70 20 10 4 55 28 27
2008 7 53 15 8 11 50 42 +8
2009 6 52 16 4 14 43 43 +0
2010 10 48 14 6 14 48 41 +7
2011 15 36 8 12 14 36 43 -7
2012 3 55 15 10 9 47 42  +5
2013 6 58 17 7 10 66 56  +10
2014 2 62 18 8 8 52 32 +20
2015 (1st) 41 12 5 0 39 17 +22
2015 (2nd) 4 31 9 30 23 +7
2016 (1st) 3 33 10 3 4 26 16 +10
2016 (2nd) 1 41 13 2 2 35 12 +23
2017 7 49 14 7 13 64 54 +10
2018 5 51 14 9 11 51 39 +12
2019 14 37 9 10 15 34 50 -16
2020 10 46 13 7 14 43 56 -13
2021 6 63 18 9 11 45 38 +7
2022 8 45 10 15 9 48 39 +9

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.