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The standout performers of the 2020 J-League

With the latest edition of the J-League having concluded this month, who were the standout performers during the 2020 season?

Despite the issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 edition of the J-League has reached a conclusion with Kawasaki Frontale winning their third title in four attempts. Missing out on qualification for the AFC Champions League proved to be a blessing in disguise for Toru Oniki's side as they romped to the top-flight crown by an 18-point margin. Frontale took their foot off the gas once it became clear that they would not be stopped in regaining their title, but they were still able to amass 83 points from their 34 league matches, also scoring 88 goals in the process. Champions Yokohama F Marinos, on the other hand, finished down in ninth spot.

Just like you can benefit from researching your betting odds, Frontale's success came partly due to their goals coming from more than one source. For a team which netted with such regularity, it is unusual that none of their players scored more than 14 times, but having Yu Kobayashi, Leandro Damiao and Kaoru Mitoma almost evenly share out their contributions in the final third proved decisive in the title race. While Michael Olunga won the golden boot by a remarkable 10 goals, it made little difference that the free-scoring Kenya international scored 28 of Kashiwa Reysol's 60 strikes because he was not suitably supported by his teammates.

Although Olunga has dominated his fair share of the headlines, Mitoma arguably deserves greater recognition. Many of the 23-year-old's appearances have come from the substitutes' bench this season, but he was still able to chip in with 13 goals and 12 assists. Those tallies came from spending just 52% of Frontale's league campaign on the pitch, all of this coming in his first season in the J-League. Frontale will want to keep hold of the winger in the long term, but everything is pointing to the player being eventually presented with an opportunity abroad.

As far as players arriving from abroad are concerned, there has recently been a Barcelona connection with Thomas Vermaelen, Andres Iniesta and Sergi Samper all making the switch to Vissel Kobe. While they helped their club reach the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League, it was a different story as far as the J-League was concerned as the Cows only finished in 14th position. Vermaelen suffered with injuries during his stint at Camp Nou so it was perhaps no surprise that the Belgian only featured in 14 top-flight fixtures, but Vissel would have expected the veteran to contribute to more than four wins. Midfield pair Iniesta and Samper played more regularly in the centre of the pitch, with the former contributing four goals and six assists from his 26 outings. Samper, a more defensively-minded player, chipped in with two assists from the same amount of games.

England also had a representative in the J-League in the form of the much-travelled Jay Bothroyd. The one-cap England international, now 38 years of age, has spent the back end of his career competing in Asia, and he defied his veteran status to still net six strikes and provide two assists from his 22 appearances for Consadole Sapporo, who ended the campaign in 12th position.

In terms of which teams improved the most during the 2020 season, Nagoya Grampus are the clear winners. Having only finished one point above above the relegation playoff spot in 2019, Grampus recorded 26 more points than a year earlier. The stunning change in fortunes led to the club sitting in third place in the final table, earning a spot in the AFC Champions League playoff round. Although they scored the same amount of goals than in 2019, the defence went from conceding 50 times to 28, edging out Frontale for the best record in the division.

Grampus ended the season by avoiding conceding a goal during their final 443 minutes of action, while a run of five clean sheets from their closing half-a-dozen matches moved them to 17 shutouts for the season. Despite many members of the first-team squad contributing at some point during the season, particular credit should go to the likes of goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak and defensive duo Shinnosuke Nakatani and Yuichi Maruyama, each of whom were ever-presents in the J-League and the domestic cup.

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