After the departure of previous coach Toshiya Miura, Omiya Ardija supporters were hopeful but uncertain as to how Robert Verbeek would fare as his replacement. Three-and-a-half busy weeks and five games in to the new season, though, it now seems like the right time to step back and briefly consider how successful the Dutchman's first steps into the world of the J-League have been.
The opening match of the 2007 campaign, at Gamba Osaka, proved an object lesson in how sloppy mistakes can be punished in J1. A tight, disciplined Squirrels performance looked likely to frustrate one of Japan's most potent forward lines and so earn what would have been an excellent point - until moments from time, when Yosuke Kataoka's lapse in concentration was immediately exploited for Bare to crash a shot past Hiroki Aratani. This heartbreaking defeat was then followed by two poor displays and deserved losses against both FC Tokyo and Oita Trinita, after which Omiya fans could have been forgiven for thinking that Verbeek had brought about no modifications at all to Miura's team.
Squirrels coach Robert Verbeek cracks a joke to waiting reporters
For the old problems of 2005 and 2006 still appeared to loom large over the toothless Squirrels: a cautious approach denied opportunities to strikers who in turn seemed drained of confidence and initiative. And the upshot of all this, of course, was a lack of goalscoring threat, frequently enabling the opposition to take the upper hand secure in the knowledge that Ardija were barely capable of putting them under any kind of sustained pressure.
This feeling of a lack of development was heightened by the similarity of tactics adopted by the incoming coach, who - although making a number of changes to the first team personnel - stuck with a 4-4-1-1 formation very much in the image of his predecessor. The one spark of light in those first three games came from the totally unexpected source of a Yasuhiro Hato left-wing overlap and cross that enabled Kota Yoshihara to head in a fine consolation goal in the 3-1 defeat at Oita.
Kota Yoshihara opens the scoring against Kashiwa Reysol
With injuries to Leandro and Seiichiro Okuno almost immediately stretching the available central defensive cover, Verbeek was by then due a bit of luck. This came in the form of a break in the league programme and a Nabisco Cup fixture against crisis club Yokohama F Marinos, fresh from appalling defeats to Yokohama FC and Vissel Kobe. Hato again supplied a centre, with Daigo Kobayashi providing the headed finish to defeat the confidence-free Marinos.
A win, a goal for 2006 hero Daigo and the first team selection of Kota Yoshihara combined to ignite the Squirrels' season, a fact not lost on the away support at Mitsuzawa as they celebrated with the players and their new coach. Verbeek's willingness to reward the commitment and determination of Yoshihara has added further zest to the recent displays of a player left out in the cold by Toshiya Miura - and if the evidence of his late substitute appearance of the weekend's 2-1 victory over Kashiwa Reysol is anything to go by, it has also put a rocket up the underperforming and replaced Enilton. But it was goals from Yoshihara and Chikara Fujimoto that offered the team a huge gulp from the refreshing cup of self-belief.
2-0 Ardija, courtesy Captain Fujimoto
One curious contrast between this season and last is that thus far, no Ardija goals have been scored from set pieces. In 2006, free kicks and corners from the likes of Daigo and Hayato Hashimoto frequently offered a route to goal where otherwise none could be found - meaning that chief amongst fans' favourite fantasies was a team that could engineer goals from open play on a regular basis. The Squirrel Nation's other dream, of course, was a reliable 15-a-season goalscorer, which makes all the more puzzling coach Verbeek's remark after the Reysol game that he was pleased that the team's goals were coming from throughout the side and not just the front players.
All of which means that it has been - understatement coming up - a mixed start to 2007 for Robert Verbeek and Omiya Ardija. Indications are that Daigo Kobayashi's knock against Reysol was not too serious, but on the other hand there has been no actual confirmation that he will be fit to play this coming weekend, when the J-League schedule re-commences with a tough but winnable game at home to Shimizu S-Pulse. Thus far, Verbeek's squad has just about been able to absorb Okuno and Leandro's injuries (together with that of the apparently permanently incapacitated Naoto Sakurai), but it goes without saying that Daigo's loss for any period of time would be of far greater significance to the development of the Squirrels' season.
As for now, however, after the Nabisco Cup games there is at least reason for cautious optimism amongst the orange supporters. Daisuke Tomita has performed solidly in the middle of defence since returning to the starting XI, Hato has managed two more assists already than he achieved in the whole of last year and all the evidence points to Kota Yoshihara being quite simply desperate for the next match to come round, so motivated is he to perform and score. But with the forthcoming return to the bread-and-butter of J1 action, climbing away from the foot of table now becomes the absolute priority.