Sagan Tosu may not have the financial heft of some of their top-flight rivals, but that makes it all the more remarkable that they are set for their 13th consecutive season in the Meiji Yasuda J1 League. This is a club consistently punching above its weight, but will 2024 be the year when they break back into the top half for the first time since a 7th place finish in 2021?
The 2023 campaign was one of Sagan’s more difficult seasons since their J1 debut in 2012. A couple midsummer weeks in 8th place proved to be the outlier as they spent much of the year in the bottom half of the table, but they still were never really threatened with the drop.
After several years as one of the standout defensive sides in the league, they slipped at the back in 2023, with 47 goals conceded. That, however, was counterbalanced by a — perhaps subtly — excellent attack that scored the fifth-most goals in the league. Yoichi Naganuma added 10 tallies to that total and Yuji Ono notched nine of his own to lead a dangerous Sagan frontline.
Yuji Ono - The departure of Ono to Albirex Niigata is a big blow to Sagan, who relied on him for creative thrust and finishing in 2023. Not only was he a threat in front of goal, but he often dropped deep to help Sagan progress the ball forward and his intensity in the press was valuable as well. Ono brought so much to the team that Sagan may have to rely upon multiple players to pick up the slack rather than hope for a like-for-like replacement.
Seiji Kimura - Sagan’s success was long built on defense, but that wasn’t the case last season. They’ll be looking to stabilize things at the back in 2024 and Kimura could be the man to help put things right in defense.
Sagan have a phenomenal record taking young players from other clubs, giving them a bigger role and watching them shine. Kimura could be the latest after coming over from FC Tokyo on loan. He’s physically gifted and the 22-year-old could use his move to Sagan to send his career into hyperdrive.
Goal for 2024
Sagan should be aiming for modest improvement this season and netting themselves a mid-table finish.
A 14th-place performance last season means Sagan are only a few good results away from that; conversely, however, they are only a few bad results from the relegation zone.
Keeping the attack humming without Ono will be a challenge, but equally the focus must be on ensuring the backline improves. For Tosu, that means refreshing their rearguard and developing the next generation of defenders.
Whether that’s Kimura, Kim Tae-hyeon (who has come over from V-Varen Nagasaki), or an academy product waiting in the wings, the kids will need to be a key ingredient in Sagan’s success, as has been the case for years.
It won't be an easy challenge, but after all these years one thing is clear: You shouldn't bet against Sagan Tosu figuring out a way to punch above their weight in J1.