Friday, 04 December 2020

Yokohama F.Marinos rank as one of the traditional powers of Japanese football, with a long tradition that dates back to their formation in the 1960s, as the club team of the Nissan Motor Corporation. The Nissan team battled with Yomiuri Club (the forerunner of Tokyo Verdy) and Mitsubishi Motors (Urawa Reds) for dominance of the JSL, and these three remained near the top of the heap right up until the formation of the J.League. Although Kashima Antlers' near-upset of Verdy in the 1993 season came as quite a surprise, no one batted an eyelash when Marinos knocked Verdy off their perch in 1995 and became the first team other than Verdy to win a league championship. It seemed that the pecking order of the old JSL would persist in the J.League. But the Yokohama team, like their next-door neighbors in Kawasaki, would go through some dramatic changes following this initial success.

When the J.League kicked off, most of the top teams established a character that bore similarities to, and maintained relations with, one of the leading football nations. This often reflected the nationality of the coach or top foreign players, but it also was fostered through formal ties between the J.League club and club teams in the other country. Whereas Verdy and Antlers developed a very "Brazilian" character, and the Reds always had a strong German influence, in Marinos' case, the original bonds were with Argentina. To mark its birth as an independent club, Nissan FC adopted the name "Marinos" -- Spanish for "sailors" -- as an allusion to Yokohama's long history as one of the nation's top ports.

As the team prepared for the J.League's inauguration, in 1993, Yokohama already had a solid base of talented defenders from the Nissan FC days, anchored by "Mr. Marinos" Masami Iihara, who held the record for most national team caps at 123, until Yasuhito Endo passed him. However, the team's attack was less impressive, so Marinos used their contacts in Argentina to acquire an entire strike force from River Plate, featuring the legendary Ramon Diaz, Ramon Medinabello and David Bisconti. These three prolific scorers propelled the team to its first league championship in 1995, but since all three were getting on in years, the team was not able to follow up on this success. Ramon Diaz retired and returned to Argentina, to coach at River Plate, and Medinabello followed close behind. Davic Bisconti was unable to carry the team's forward line on his own, and subsequent attempts to bring in Argentine or Spanish talent failed to pay off. Though they never fell too far out of contention over the latter half of the decade, Marinos entered what could be described as a "rebuilding phase", which focused much more on domestic talent.

At the end of the 1998 season Marinos' cross-town rivals, Yokohama Flugels, were disbanded amidst great turmoil and acrimony. As we describe elsewhere on this site, the fallout in terms of fan reaction and emotional turmoil was tremendous. Officially, Marinos absorbed their local rivals. Ten Flugels players moved across town and the club added an "F" to the middle of their name in an awkward (and ineffective) effort to win over former Flugels fans. In reality, though, the rivalry was too fierce for more than a handful of fans to cross the divide, and the divisions within the team were also unresolvable. On paper it looked like the "F.Marinos" had the material needed to build a dynasty, but on the pitch, the divisions and dissension quickly began to show through.

Despite being tapped by nearly all of the pundits to breeze to victory in 1999, F.Marinos instead sank into a slump, posting their worst single-stage result ever (7th) in the first half of the year. In 2000, the team tried to put things back in order by returning to its Argentine roots, hiring former Argentina and Tottenham Hotspur star Oswaldo Ardilles as the coach. Ardilles had already served one stint in Japan, at Shimizu S-Pulse, and many thought that he would be just the sort of guiding hand the team needed to put the divisions and distractions of 1999 to rest. F.Marinos did perform well that season, capturing the 1st stage title. However, in the League Championship Series they fell under the hooves of ashima Antlers, who were galloping towards their historic championship treble.

Perhaps the disappointment of falling just short of victory in 2000 shattered the team's morale. Or perhaps the divisions in the team that had been papered over by Ardilles simply came back into the open, after this loss. Whatever the case, the F.Marinos off-season in 2000-01 was nothing short of a disaster. Flugels veterans Hideki Nagai and Atsuhiro Miura jumped ship to join Tokyo Verdy, signing new contracts for less money than they had been receiving in Yokohama. Team management suddenly became stingy, and released all of F.Marinos' high-budget foreigners. Worst of all, individual players seemed to be overly preoccupied with their own personal careers, continuously stoking rumours of a move overseas even when there was only the faintest hint of interest from a foreign club. Ardilles was fired at mid-season, and F.Marinos looked to be completely at sea. In the end, the team came within a hair's breadth of being relegated in 2001. The next two years were a gloomy time in the city by the bay.

Nevertheless, the club had always possessed a solid core of talent, and the financial support of Nissan Motor ensured that the team's monetary resources are usually among the best in the league. Once management finally overcome the stinginess that it displayed in 2000 and 2001, F.Marinos were able to return to the ranks of top contenders. Perhaps the smartest move the team made was to hire former Japan National Team coach Takeshi Okada, and put him in charge of the task of building a true contender. Okada agreed, but only if the team would give him complete freedom to rebuild in his own image.

The first thing Okada did was to abandon former ties to Argentina. With the addition of players like Tatsuhiko Kubo, Yoo Sang-chul and Yukihiko Sato, Okada had all the tools he needed to create a champion, and his fine coaching skills did the rest. Yokohama had to fight off strong challenges from a host of contenders, but they managed to win both stages of the 2003 league competition and emerge as uncontested champions. They followed up this success with a narrow win over Urawa Reds in the J.League Championship Series, in 2004, to claim their third league crown.

When the J.League adopted a single-stage format, in 2005, many thought that F.Marinos would be the top contender to claim a third consecutive title. But the "magic" that Okada worked in 2003 and '04 seemed to wear off. The divisions that had always existed in the team began to resurface, and though the team's underlying talent kept them competitive, the loss of key players like Ahn Jung-hwan (to France) and Tatsuhiko Kubo (to injury) kept YFM out of the championship picture. When coach Okada took the fall for this malaise, and was fired in 2006, the team entered the most difficult period of its history.

Perhaps F.Marinos would have fallen from the top ranks even if they had been well coached. For one thing, the top players were beginning to get along in years, and the team had to start making the change of generations. By 2006, this team relied far too heavily on players who were on the wrong side of 30. Injuries also had their impact, particularly recurring knee ailments which kept midfielder Koji Yamase -- once viewed as the successor to Shunsuke Nakamura -- from playing more than a handful of matches between 2006 and 2008.

But regardless of how great the challenges may have been, there can be no question that poor coaching contributed greatly to F.Marinos' malaise over these seasons. Okada's successor, Takashi Mizunuma, was simply a former F.Marinos player who landed a coaching job after retirement. He never really exhibited the skills to serve as a head coach and the team's performance under his brief reign underline that fact. In 2007 F.Marinos appointed Hiroshi Hayano, who was in the coaching chair when the club had won its 1995 title, but this is rather misleading. Jorge Solari had led the team to the 1st Stage title, and Hayano took over in a caretaker's role after Solari was lured away to coach Rosario Central, in Argentina. Under Hayano's actual tutelage F.Marinos finished third in the 1995 2nd stage, and then plunged to eighth place in 1996. His results in this second coaching stint were not much better, with the team finishing seventh.

But the real disaster came in 2008. F.Marinos management turned to a former Jubilo Iwata boss, Takashi Kuwahara, who had difficulty getting the players to adopt his intricate, possession-style football at first, and failed to produce immediate results. In retrospect, it would seem that the head office panicked and made the short-sighted decision to relieve Kuwahara of command, but his replacement, another inexperienced assistant named Hiroshi Kimura, promptly led the team deep into relegation territory. The basic talent and veteran pride that still resided in key players like Yuji Nakazawa, Naoki Matsuda and Hayuma Tanaka eventually rescued the team from a spell in the J2, but the reward that the veterans received was to be dangled as trade bait at the end of the 2008 season. Tanaka was the only player to be sold, but the clear lack of support from the head office, and the complete lack of coherent vision from the coaching staff, affected the team's performances throughout 2009, leaving them once again to finish mid-table, just a stone's throw from the relegation battle.

Despite the poor final results in 2009, there were some signs of promise as young players began to emerge with the talent and energy to ignite the team. They only managed to catch fire on a handful of occasions, but at least fans could see that there was some hope for the future. During the off-season, the team conducted their long-delayed management house-cleaning, installing former club player and Japan NT ace Kiyoshi Kimura (no relation -- and no comparison -- to Hiroshi Kimura) as the head coach for 2010. Kimura's arrival was like a breath of fresh air through long-musty corridors. His first comments to the media never got translated into English by anyone who could capture the right degree of cheek and self-critical (yet confident) sardonica, but domestic fans could only grin with admiration when he described his plans for the team.

"I'm going to start out from square one. When you have a team that is worse than zero, square one is the best place to start." And regarding the team's attacking inconsistency: "Of course the players can't score goals. They're terrible. How can you score goals if you're terrible? I hope we can build a better team, but that work can't begin until all the players realise that they're completely rubbish."

Over the next few seasons, both the F.Marinos coaching staff and its top management seemed to lose the clarity and careful planning skills that made the team a title contender during the league's first decade. Coach Kimura's refreshing candour -- even though clearly tongue-in-cheek -- ruffled too many feathers, and though he did clear out some of the old wood and dust that had accumulated after the departure of Takeshi Okada, he stepped on too many toes to remain in place for long. His successor, Yasuhiro Higuchi, had better relations with the players and front office, and managed to boost the team onto the fringes of the title chase, but after winning an Emperor's  Cup title in 2013 his team lost direction, and this prompted club bosses to relieve him of the job at the end of 2014.

Though Marinos had a number of talented youngsters coming up through the ranks, the emotional core of the team still revolved around grizzled veterans like Yuji Nakazawa, Yuzo Kurihara and Shunsuke Nakamura -- extremely "intelligent" players who rely on skill and tactical vision more than athletic prowess. By the mid 20-teens though, these players had moved so far down the slope of their careers that then-coach Erick Mombaerts had to spend most of his time at the helm pushing veterans out the door and trying to develop replacements.  

The Marinos organization has a good revenue stream and a huge, though fickle fan base. Over the years, their financial resources have allowed the team to remain competitive even during transition periods. But since the departure of Okada way back in 2005, the team lacked the coaching vision and organization needed to remain in the top tier. Seventh-place finishes in both 2014 and 2015 were a pretty good indication of how much the team needed new team leaders to take over from the ones who inspired the Yokohama "Golden Age".

The Seagulls finally located such a leader in 2018, when former Australia national team coach Ange Postecoglou arrived to launch Yokohama's next Golden Age. Postecoglou brought with him a very offense-oriented game plan which relies on intense ball pressure from one end of the pitch to the other, launching quick attacking thrusts as soon as they win possession. It took the Aussie gaffer about 12 months to locate the sort of young, hard-running players needed to implement his strategy.  

In particular, the Postecoglou philosophy requires an agile and ball-savvy goalkeeper to serve as the last line of defence -- a "keeper/sweeper", so to speak. Veteran Hiroki Iikura was unable to fill this role effectively, and was punished many times over the course of 2018 when opposing teams caught him too far out, and lobbed embarrassingly casual shots into the Yokohama net. The team finished 12th, and conceded 56 goals over the course of the season -- 15 more than the team's previous worst! Conversely, a young and inspired attacking unit led by Marcos Junior, Teruhito Nakagawa and Edigar Junio tallied 56 goals on the plus side -- also a team record.

The pieces all came together in the 2019 season. Korean goalkeeper Park Il-Gyu, signed from third-tier FC Ryukyu, proved to be perfectly suited to the sweeper/keeper role. Together with young defensive prospects like Dusan Cvetinovic and Shinnosuke Hatanaka, the Marinos managed to limit opponents to 38 goals in 2019. While still a weak result compared to the traditionally stingy defense of Yokohama teams past, Postecoglou's high-risk / high-return game plan produced 68 goals -- an average of two per game! Marcos Junior and Nakagawa finished the season tied for the Golden Boot, with 15 goals apiece, and the Bay City Gulls secured their fourth league title.

The outlook for 2020 is positive, though one suspects that it will be harder for the team to remain atop the heap. Last season Yokohama was able to focus solely on the league crown, but in 2020 they must also negotiate the pitfalls of ACL play for the first time in seven seasons. Depth could be a problem for the team, particularly now that opponents know what to expect, and will have devised game plans that specifically target the Marinos' defensive shortcomings. To make matters worse, several key players could get calls to the 2020 Olympic Team, which will add to the burden. If the Marinos keep their eyes on the domestic prize, they have more than enough firepower to remain in the title chase. But one suspects that Ange will want to at least make a bid for continental glory. History shows that this typically has an adverse effect on domestic success.

Fans in the Bay City will be pleased with the direction Postecoglou is taking the club. However, Marinos still have not completed the change of generations, particularly in deep midfield and on defense. It will be interesting to see what Ange will do to fill out the roster, and whether he will release veterans like Ken Matsubara, Tadanari Lee and Yuzo Kurihara. If the Seagulls can attract a few more domestic stars to the Yokohama flock, this Golden Age could surpass even the Okada era, in terms of title success. 

Team Results for 1993-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 3 11       7 29 24 +5
1993 (2nd) 3 10       8 31 24 +7
1994 (1st) 9 8       14 29 35 -6
1994 (2nd) 3 14       8 44 26 +18
1995 (1st) 1 17   1   8 47 38 +9
1995 (2nd) 3 15   1   10 39 37 +2
1996 8 14   0   16 39 40 -1
1997 (1st) 5 7 3 1   5 31 31 0
1997 (2nd) 3 8 4 0   4 42 28 +14
1998 (1st) 4 10 1 0   6 39 21 +18
1998 (2nd) 4 10 1 0   6 40 27 +13
1999 (1st) 7 6 2   1 6 31 20 +11
1999 (2nd) 3 8 2   2 3 30 15 +15
2000 (1st) 1 10 0   0 5 32 21 +11
2000 (2nd) 5 7 1   1 6 24 24 0
2001 (1st) 15 3 0   2 10 13 24 -11
2001 (2nd) 10 4 2   3 6 19 20 -1
2002 (1st) 2 8 3   3 1 28 11 +17
2002 (2nd) 6 5 2   1 6 16 16 +0

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 1 32 10 2 3 29 16 +13
2003 (2nd) 1 26 7 5 3 27 17 +10
2004 (1st) 1 36 11 3 1 26 13 +13
2004 (2nd) 6 23 6 5 4 21 17 +4
2005 9 48 12 12 10 41 40 +1
2006 9 45 13 6 15 49 43 +6
2007 7 50 14 8 12 54 35 +19
2008 9 48 13 9 12 43 32 +11
2009 10 46 11 13 10 43 37 +6
2010 8 51 15 6 13 43 39 +4
2011 5 56 16 8 10 46 40 +6
2012 4 53 13 14 7 44 33 +11
2013 2 62 18 8 8 49 31 +18
2014 7 51 14 9 11 37 29 +8
2015 (1st) 6 26 7 5 5 21 17 +4
2015 (2nd) 5 29 8 5 4 24 15 +9
2016 (1st) 11 22 6 4 7 21 19 +2
2016 (2nd) 7 29 7 8 2 32 19 +13
2017 5 59 17 8 9 45 36 +9
2018 12 41 12 5 17 56 56 +0
2019 1 70 22 4 8 68 38 +30

*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.