New squad? No problem for Albirex
Albirex eye clean sweep again despite being hit by changes to S.League rules
Albirex Niigata have retained only two players from last season's quadruple-winning squad - partly due to the S.League's new rules - but coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga doesn't think that will stand in the way of their title aspirations.
The White Swans will be almost exclusively an Under-23 squad this year, under the S.League's new youth-centric policies.
Last season, among their 11 most frequently used players, five were above the age of 23.
This year, they are allowed to register only one player above the age of 23. The rest of their squad will be made up of nine Under-23 players and up to 13 Under-21 players.
They have also taken up the option of signing two Singaporean Under-23 players, recruiting playmaker Adam Swandi and goalkeeper Shahul Rayyan.
In their 21-man squad this season, only two players - 20-year-old forward Hiroyoshi Kamata and 38-year-old goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa - were part of last season's all-conquering squad.
The new squad arrived in Singapore last Friday night and started their pre-season training under the blazing morning sun at Jurong East Stadium yesterday.
Speaking after the energy-sapping session, Yoshinaga believes that having to start almost from scratch is no excuse for not aiming high.
The 49-year-old told The New Paper: "When we selected the players, we had a briefing to tell them what we achieved last year to encourage them to continue what the club have been achieving.
"These players are young and have lots of potential, so we will build up the confidence towards retaining our titles starting from our first training today.
"We'll definitely have to work hard to get there, but we're looking to build them individually and as a team, and ultimately to win all the titles that are on offer again."
It is deja vu for Yoshinaga.
In his debut season last year, he also had to start with an almost entirely new squad. But his side repeated their quadruple feat of 2016 nonetheless.
He added: "Last year, we retained six players (from the 2016 squad), but only four of them were in the first 11.
"This year, we retained only two, so I don't think there's much difference.
"What's important is that the team understand the coaches' concept and what they want to achieve.
"Once they've understood that, we can build a team that is strong enough."
Amid the sea of blue at yesterday's training, Adam definitely did not look out of place despite being the only local footballer.
In fact, the other Japanese players had familiarised themselves with him so well that his name was frequently heard during ball possession drills.
The 22-year-old said: "Training was pretty good and the other boys actually welcomed me quite well.
"Some of them who can speak English talked to me at the start of the session and made me feel like I'm part of them."
To ensure that he will be able to keep up with his new teammates, Adam started training early last month.
Besides training thrice a week with his personal trainer, he also clocked sessions with Albirex assistant coach Keiji Shigetomi, who has been here since early January.
Adam said: "Keiji has given me a rough gauge of how the style of play is going to be like, so I think it's not going to be much of a problem."
However, he admits there's still much work to be done.
"I still have to adapt to their level of football...
"Their passing game is also quite fast-paced."
Asked if he had learnt some Japanese to ease into the squad, he grinned sheepishly and said: "Of course.
"I've learnt how to say 'good morning' (ohayo gozaimasu) when I see everybody.
"During training, the assistant or head coach, or even the players will also try to translate the instructions for me.
"But if not, I'll observe what they're doing and try to follow."