After 13 games in 2013, Shonan Bellmare had just nine points and were in 16th place – the position in which they would ultimately finish the J1 campaign. Over the course of the year they only managed to pick up six victories and tasted defeat on 21 occasions. They ended the season without a win in their last eight games, losing each of the final six.
Fast forward a year-and-a-half, and after emphatically claiming the J2 title to secure an instant return to the top tier things are far brighter on the Hiratsuka coast. Cho Kwi-Jae’s side are steadily establishing themselves as a J1 team to be reckoned with, and have already picked up twice as many points as they had at this stage of their last top flight campaign.
The recent 4-0 win over struggling Shimizu S-Pulse – their fifth league victory in 2015 – was a mature, composed, and decisive performance which demonstrated how the team has grown since 2013. The players haven’t changed all that much – six of the starters at BMW Stadium last Saturday were involved two years ago – but there is a newfound sense of belief and trust amongst them.
“When we have the ball the level of stress has gone,” head coach Cho Kwi-jae said after the game, when asked for the biggest difference between then and now.
“The number of players we have who can make the rhythm when we have the ball has increased. For a football player that is an incredibly good thing. You have to be able to defend, but when you have the ball you need players who can head towards the opponent’s goal.
“Two years ago maybe we were able to set-up well defensively but once we had the ball we struggled. Now, although there is still an element of that stress, it is not the same as it was then.”
Indeed, although on paper swatting aside a team in such poor form as Shimizu may not look like a big achievement, the game was fairly evenly contested for the first 45 minutes and the visitors actually started the brighter of the two sides.
While Shonan of two years ago may have been content to settle for a point, though, the current side is made of more adventurous stuff, and with Cho urging more aggression and tension at half-time his players stepped up to the plate with an expansive and clinical second half display that produced four goals.
“That’s the way Shonan play,” Kaoru Takayama, who found the net twice, said post-match. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, we won’t just sit back and try and soak up pressure.”
The assuredness of his players on the ball referred to by Cho was evident in Takayama’s second goal, a cool, calm, and collected clipped finish in the 85th minute which he dispatched with no fuss despite having missed similar opportunities earlier in the game and in Bellmare’s previous match away to his former club Kashiwa Reysol.
“I didn’t really think about [the previous misses],” he said. “Of course I missed against Kashiwa but I’ve spoken to the goalkeeping coach and worked on it in training, so in that respect I had confidence coming into the game. In the first half I wasn’t able to score but didn’t worry about that and thought I’d get another chance, and I’m glad I could score it when it came.”
Having the confidence to look ahead rather than dwelling on mistakes or poor results is a fantastic trait to have, and Takayama’s outlook reflects that of the team as a whole. There was a spell between Rounds 5 and 9 when Shonan lost four games in five, for instance, but they rode out the storm and now the ship is sailing smoothly, with the side unbeaten in its last four J1 games and having kept clean sheets in each of the last three.
“Recently we’ve had a very good mental condition,” said Daisuke Kikuchi, who, like Takayama, was involved in the 2013 campaign and also found the net against Shimizu. “I’ve been enjoying each game and I think the fact I am able to enjoy playing games on this stage in J1 is the biggest thing.
“It comes from training too, and there’s a really good atmosphere in the team. Even after games we lose the players all speak positively. Whether we win, lose, or draw I feel that the level of the team is improving and that’s the best thing.”
Like his coach, Kikuchi thinks the team is now better suited to its environment.
“I think it’s completely different,” he said. “Two years ago we were a bit nervous which meant that in some areas we couldn’t show our ability. Now there is a real feeling that we are able to do so.”
If they can maintain their strong spirit and continue to attack with such verve then Shonan won’t be needing to worry about the relegation battle this season. In fact, it would appear that for Cho and his team the only way is up.