After the excitement of undergoing an ultimately successful fight against relegation at the end of their inaugural J1 season, Omiya Ardija came into 2006 with lofty ambitions: a top seven finish and fifty goals scored, proclaimed the management, eager to progress the club towards a more stable position as top division contenders. Money was spent - indeed, budgets were blown - to boost the squad across the board, younger players loaned out to pick up more playing time elsewhere, replaced in the main by experienced J1 campaigners of apparently higher quality. All looked set when the new season got underway at the beginning of March for a campaign of real development and progress away from being one of the division's also-rans.
So what's gone wrong? Struggling in the league, failing to find the net regularly, eliminated at the preliminary round stage of the Nabisco Cup and with the highest profile close season signing already having been shunted out of the door as an acknowledged disaster - all this is a long way from the 2006 that Squirrels fans had been anticipating. And speaking of supporters, the target stated three months ago of a 12,000 average crowd already looks hopelessly unrealistic, as Toshiya Miura's team have turned in one unconvincing display after another while the Red half of Saitama have raced towards the top of the league.
The World Cup break in the J1 programme therefore provides an opportunity for the coaching staff to work with the players and - it would seem - for two new foreign signings to be made, presumably at least one of whom will be a striker. Go! Go! Omiya Ardija, meanwhile, has seen extensive discussion of Toshiya Miura's tactics amidst a series of incoherent performances, but would like to revisit the individual profiles presented at the start of the season in the light of the results achieved to date. With midfielders and forwards to follow in due course, to begin with the defenders and, first, the goalkeepers...
Which thus far means Hiroki Aratani. The stats show he was one of the least reliable keepers in J1 last year and, while bare statistics don't necessarily tell the full story, it's probably true to say that Aratani fails to convince as a consistent J1 net minder of the required quality. A reasonable enough shot-stopper, he nevertheless has a tendency to flap at free-kicks that should be kept out, his concentration on occasions goes missing and moreover he does little to inspire confidence as a truly dominant force in his own penalty area. Aratani's main deputy now is new signing Koji Ezumi, but the 27-year-old former Oita Trinita man's first-team duties have so far been restricted to the Nabisco Cup. As was suspected, Ezumi's arrival from Kyushu has pushed Tomoyasu Ando down the pecking order to third choice.
Moving on to the defenders, Seiichiro Okuno's year so far will one that is baffling Squirrels fans; for he seems simply to have disappeared. Most recently selected for the first team against Oita Trinita on 22nd April, he was an unfielded substitute in the derby match with Urawa a week later but since then has moved off the radar completely, not only making way for Daisuke Tomita in the team but indeed also not even being selected as a sub.
With the club issuing no indication that he is injured, one is left to assume that Okuno has fallen out of favour with Miura, a bizarre situation for the club captain to be in. Tomita himself, on the other hand, continues to work hard - an unsung hero, perhaps, but developing a reasonable enough partnership with Toninho in the centre of defence and also possessing the flexibility to play in wide positions when required. Whether his reputation has actually been boosted this season is debatable, but Tomita has done well to force himself into the first team picture when other players were brought into the club.
As for Toninho, the big Brazilian clearly deserves credit for notching up his 200th J-League appearance for the Squirrels, a phenomenal achievement and one that pays tribute to his loyalty and commitment as a servant of Omiya Ardija. But there are rumours that his fitness is not now all it could be, combined with evidence that his all-important reliability is no longer the strong card that it was - put simply, Toninho seems to make more mistakes than he used to. More positively, however, after a shaky start Yukio Tsuchiya is developing as a player upon which defences can be built. His positional sense and awareness have bloomed, he's quick, versatile, good in the air for someone who isn't the tallest and fears about a poor disciplinary record have so far proved unfounded, even though he's got plenty of steel in the tackle.
Signed with Tsuchiya from Kashiwa Reysol, Yasuhiro Hato has slotted into the right back position in place of Takuro Nishimura and, although he undoubtedly brings experience to the team, in all honesty it's not clear whether the one-time Japanese international actually possesses greater quality than the popular Nishimura, who has spent some weeks unavailable through injury. Hato is an unfussy player, well-organised and solid, but at times looks uncertain as to how best to link up with his team-mates, especially when the chance is there to get forward and play a more attacking role.
Yosuke Kataoka has made most of his first team appearances in more of a midfield role and will therefore be considered in the next of these pieces, while Yasunari Hiraoka as a mainly central defender and Kazuyoshi Mikami on the left-hand side have slipped towards the fringes of the squad.