The Meiji Yasuda J1 League is back! The winter break is over and now we get to see the best clubs in Japan battle it out for the coveted title, the brightest stars put on a show, and the high-flying drama of fights up and down the table.
It’s going to be a terrific campaign, so what are five things to keep an eye on this season?
The Kawasaki Frontale dynasty
Kawasaki Frontale have won four of the last five league titles, all while adding four other trophies to a silverware cabinet that is quickly bursting at the seams. They’ve broken league records for points and goals in a season, only to then break their own records. To say they have been dominant would be a gross understatement. This is a dynasty unlike any other we have seen.
Can Frontale continue this level of success, though? This could be arguably their toughest season yet, with Reo Hatate having left for Celtic FC in Scotland in the winter, joining recent European departees Hidemasa Morita, Ao Tanaka, Kaoru Mitoma, Koji Miyoshi and Ko Itakura. That is an astounding amount of talent to leave over the past few years, having shown how good they were at Frontale and attracted the attention of top clubs abroad.
That Toru Oniki has kept Frontale playing at such a high level despite so many players departing is a testament to his excellent management and the development, scouting and squad building of the club. If they can stay at the top this season, it will not just be another title for Frontale, but another proof point of what an incredible system they have built.
For as many players as Frontale have transferred, they still return the league’s joint Top Scorer in Leandro Damião, Miki Yamane, Shogo Taniguchi, Yu Kobayashi and many other tremendous players who have led them to several years of glory. Add on to that the arrival of Thai star Chanathip Songkrasin, who has been signed to bolster the front line too.
You can look at what Frontale no longer has and wonder how they can stay at the top, but one look at their roster also shows just how good they still are. They are a machine, and that machine is back to add to their dynasty in 2022.
Can Yokohama F·Marinos topple the champions?
Yokohama F·Marinos are the only team in the last five years to have beaten Frontale to the title and last season they emerged as the top challenger to the champions. At one point late in the season, they even got within three points of Frontale. They were an excellent team with a dynamic attack that looked the part of title contender, only to be thwarted by a record-breaking Frontale side.
This season, Marinos don’t just want to be a challenger; they want the title, and they have what it takes to do it. Their excellent defense now features Eduardo, who was one of the top center backs in the entire league at Sagan Tosu, while Katsuya Nagato has come in at left back to replace Theerathon Bunmathan. Marinos had the third-best defense in J1 last season and they can be even better in 2022.
The main question at Nissan Stadium is can they be as magnificent in front of goal without Daizen Maeda, who left for Celtic FC. Marinos replaced him as well as possible with Anderson Lopes returning to the J.LEAGUE, where he was previously one of the best strikers in the competition with Hokkaid Consadole Sapporo.
Marinos have continuity, belief, a potentially upgraded defense, and a retooled attack with a new striker. That may just be the recipe for a title when they make a run at claiming the throne in 2022.
Two new teams with something to prove
The newly promoted teams are always worth keeping an eye on as they try to move up and compete in the top flight but this season’s newbies are especially interesting.
Júbilo Iwata are one of the most successful clubs in the history of the J.League, capturing three J1 titles, three domestic cups, and being crowned champions of Asia. Recent times have not been as kind to them, with a pair of relegations to the second division, but they’re back in the top flight and ready to re-establish themselves among the top teams in the country.
Júbilo will be led on the pitch by 42-year-old Japanese football legend Yasuhito Endo but will be without Lukian who moved to Avispa Fukuoka over the winter after a tremendous J2 campaign last year for the Shizuoka side.
Kyoto Sanga may not have the trophy cabinet of Júbilo but they do have plenty of history, featuring stars like Park Ji-sung, Daisuke Matsui, and Kazuyoshi “King Kazu” Miura and winning an Emperor’s Cup in 2002. This year they return to the top flight with the newest stadium in the league, the beautiful SANGA STADIUM by KYOCERA.
Not everything is new for Sanga this season, though; they will feature a familiar face up top, the seemingly ageless wonder Peter Utaka. Utaka may be 38 years old but he is coming off a tremendous season with 21 goals in the 2021 Meiji Yasuda J2 League and remains absolutely deadly in the box.
On the other end of the pitch, Sanga will be backstopped by 23-year-old New Zealand goalkeeper Michael Woud, who is one of the brightest young goalkeepers in the region.
The goal for any newly promoted side is just to stay in the top flight and these two historic clubs have the talent and belief to do just that — and perhaps more.
International stars shining bright
There is no shortage of international stars in the J.League.
Andrés Iniesta is a global icon coming off an amazing 2021 for Vissel Kobe, rebounding from a difficult injury to lead the Ushi to a best-ever third-place finish.
There are several outstanding Brazilians in the league, led by Leandro Damião. The Kawasaki Frontale man scored 23 goals last season, helping push his club to another league title and tying for league Top Scorer honors. Diego Oliveira and Thiago Santana are other examples of reliable Brazilian strikers expected to have strong seasons once again for F.C.Tokyo and Shimizu S-Pulse, respectively. The Brazilian most worth watching may be Anderson Lopes, though, as the striker returns to Japan and will lead the line as Yokohama F·Marinos try to topple Damiāo’s Frontale for the title.
Another top international striker in the league is Urawa Reds’ Kasper Junker. The Dane’s three goals in the Emperor’s Cup helped his side win the competition and earn a spot in this season’s AFC Champions League. He also led the line in the league, pushing Urawa up the table as they turned into a potent attacking side with him up front.
Chanathip Songkrasin has long been one of the J.League’s standout players, having been named to the Best Eleven before. The Thai attacker has left Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and now features for Frontale, giving him the chance to win a title and play in the AFC Champions League.
The Australian duo of Mitchell Langerak and Adam Taggart are back at Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka. Langerak has been considered the standout goalkeeper in Japan since joining Nagoya in 2018, while Taggart is in the frame for the Socceroos’ potential FIFA World Cup squad should they get to Qatar in 2022.
There is always a strong group of players from the Korea Republic in the J.League - particularly in goal. The likes of Kawasaki’s Jung Sung-ryong, Sagan Tosu’s Park Il-gyu, Kashiwa Reysol’s Kim Seung-gyu, and Cerezo Osaka’s Kim Jin-hyeon are examples of proven Korean quality between the sticks in the J.League.
Needless to say, there is a litany of amazing international talent worth keeping an eye on across the J.League — from FIFA World Cup winners to the AFC’s next big stars, to some of the biggest names in Southeast Asian football.
New stars blossoming
Every player in the Japan National Team frame either plays for a J.League club or was once in the system of one. The league is where Japan’s stars come from, and every season brings us a few new prospects who break out.
No young player came into his own last season like Ryotaro Araki. The Kashima Antlers man had 10 goals and seven assists as a teenager in 2021, helping lead his team back up the table and into contention for continental qualification. He was sensational, contributing with his finishing, passing, movement and defensive work. That earned him his first call-up to the Samurai Blue, but he has yet to play for the national team. He could take another step up in 2022 and make clear he is one of the brightest young players not just in the league but the entire continent.
21-year-old Taisei Miyashiro spent last season on loan at Tokushima Vortis, where he did his best to keep the club from relegation. His seven goals were second-best on the team and he added two assists, presenting a constant threat whenever fit. Now, he is back on loan, this time at Sagan Tosu, where a season of fitness and growth can establish him as one of the most dynamic players in the league regardless of age.
Kosei Tani arrived at Shonan Bellmare on loan from Gamba Osaka in 2020 as a teenager and immediately proved himself not just to be a capable goalkeeper but one of the most exciting prospects in the country. He’s now entering his third season at Shonan, the undisputed starter and has been involved in the national team setup.
Elsewhere, Ryuya Nishio became a J1 regular last season for Cerezo Osaka. Now 20 years old, Nishio has a full season of experience under his belt and shows intelligence beyond his years at center back. He reads plays excellently, is calm on the ball and strong when he needs to be. He is still young but a potential star in the making for club and country — and perhaps drawing eyes from abroad much like former defensive partner Ayumu Seko, who is now in Switzerland with Grasshopper Club Zürich.
There will be more young players who blossom in 2022. The J.League is filled with so much talent that there are always surprise breakouts as youngsters make clear that are not simply a ball of potential or good for their age but a terrific player ready for senior-team stardom. They are the future of Japanese football, and they are bred in the J.League.