2024 J.League season preview: A new era for Sanfrecce

2024 J.League season preview: A new era for Sanfrecce

Michael Skibbe has worked wonders since joining as Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager in 2022. He led the club to a third-place finish in his first season, with a J.League YBC Levain Cup crown and Emperor’s Cup final appearance to boot. Then, he followed it up with another third-place finish last season.

So what does the German have up his sleeve as Sanfrecce open their brand new stadium, Edion Peace Wing Hiroshima? Let's start with last season ...

2023 review

After beginning the campaign winless in their first three matches, the Viola took off and never looked back. Five straight wins followed and they spent the rest of the season trying to jockey their way into the top three. They managed that in the final two weeks, securing third place and a spot in inaugural AFC Champions League 2.

Sanfrecce had the league’s second best defense, conceding just 28 goals in 34 matches, and they were nearly as good at keeping the opposition off the scoresheet away from home as they were in Hiroshima.

If there's room for improvement, it's on the attacking end as the team managed to score 42 goals all season - a mark that was 18 fewer than champions Vissel Kobe and 21 fewer than runners-up Yokohama F·Marinos.

Key loss

Nassim Ben Khalifa - Sanfrecce managed to keep a lot of talent in the winter but one player they will go into 2024 without is Ben Khalifa, who proved to be a valuable player off the bench.

While Ben Khalifa only scored two goals and had two assists last season, each of his four goal contributions either tied or won a match to notch the Three Arrows points. It came a year after he scored five times, often in clutch fashion as well.

Key addition

Yuki Ohashi - Sanfrecce didn't have a double-digit goalscorer last season and landing a reliable striker was an offseason priority. Enter Ohashi. The forward scored was the league’s seventh-highest scorer with 13 goals and he added three assists too for a Shonan Bellmare team that didn’t offer tons of opportunities going forward.

Ohashi alone greatly improves the Sanfrecce attack and gives them a chance to have a front line that matches their outstanding back line.

Goal for 2024

Get a new era off on the right foot by challenging for a title.

After back-to-back third place finishes, there’s no doubt that Skibbe has established a foundation in Hiroshima that puts them among the best teams in the league. Now the challenge is finding the little bit extra to push them over the top and put them in the middle of the title race.

Adding Ohashi will certainly help bolster the attack as he adds to the mix alongside the likes of Mutsuki Kato and the Brazilian trio of Marcos Júnior, Douglas Vieira, and Ezequiel.

Where this team shines, though, is its steel in the midfield and defense. Next Gen J.League star Makoto Mitsuta has been superb in his first two campaigns, adding two-way tenacity in front of a very composed backline led by Sho Sasaki, Hayato Araki, and club legend Tsukasa Shiotani.

That's to say nothing of the enormously talented Keisuke Osako in goal, who plays far beyond his 24 years.

Enthusiasm couldn’t be higher in Hiroshima after the last couple seasons and with a new stadium opening.

It's truly a new era for Sanfrecce and the fans will hope it comes with a fourth J1 crown.