When I found out, that the author, Naoshi Arakawa, behind 'Your Lie in April' had decided to make a sports manga, moreso a women's soccer manga - I was not enthused, it was definitely not the direction I wanted to see him take his talents, so I wrote the series off and decided on finding something else.
Somewhere down the line,
I read an interview, where he explained his reasoning behind ending up with this setting and this genre, and I felt compelled enough to at least give the first chapter a chance - especially since he said that he wanted to use this medium to
create awareness about a subset of people that he felt were treated unfairly. I ended up finishing all the available chapters in 2 days, even buying a subscription to Crunchyroll to get the last few available chapters - I have never paid for any service prior to this.
The setting in the manga is following a few girls' transition from middle school soccer to high school. Many common sports manga tropes are present, such as some characters being compelled to join teams together to undertake a challenge, some seeking motivated colleagues on the field etc. And when executed gracefully, these tropes add to a great foundation - which is definitely the case here.
We mainly follow 3 characters with very distinct backgrounds.
Midori Soshizaki, a proven talent who is looking to create her own team without riding the coattails of other people,
Sumire Suo, a 1-dimensional rough gem, whose team was never able to come together,
And Onda Nozomi, a girl who resorted to practicing with boys, as her middle school never ended up creating a women's soccer program due to lack of interest.
The 3 girls end up at the same high school, in a team that has never gone very far in their local league, despite having other girls with some ambition to them.
The thing that Arakawa has improved from his previous work, is learning to let different characters breathe and develop them both under individual focus, but also in parallel and it really shows. We get insights into several side-characters, while resting some of the main characters in terms of focus - while still managing to develop their story at the same time. The teams and the world around them also move in a very realistic setting, both in terms of progression and interaction, which I should not reveal, due to its very spoilery nature, but I will state that while many claim that for example something like Haikyuu, another contemporary shonen sports manga, is a somewhat believable work of fiction - I personally felt that it left a lot to be desired in terms of how fast some teams improved.
In terms of story, we definitely are limited due to the setting - our characters mainly develop due to interactions with opposing teams on the pitch or the social life around school. A commendable aspect to the manga is the fact that we are not exposed to 1-dimensional adversaries, and you will definitely find yourself pulling and hoping for some upsets in directions you would not expect in the beginning. This is can be attributed, to the stellar introductions and in every way the opposite of contrived, uses of flashbacks. In the 1400 pages I have read, I did not ever catch myself thinking, that characters felt samey and I would even go as far as to claim that this is one of the shonens with some of the most multi-dimensional characters. The only criticism in regards to characters is, that majority of the adult characters we are exposed to regularly are sadly mostly 1-dimensional, for understandable reasons as they do serve as plot-devices most of the time.
Being a monthly licensed manga, the art is very consistent in qualities, which means that you can always expect to see very stunning depictions of characters in believable proportions which meaningfully add to the plot of the manga. The renditions of the action and the field, the close-ups of the highlights and the reactions and faces of the girls are close to some of the best you are going to get in these genres, and definitely add some compelling emotion to all the experiences our characters go through. That being said, while everything in the middle looks great, the backgrounds usually are just either a football pitch with some basic uninspired scenery, except in few widespread shots - the pages themselves are not masterpieces, but the consistently great quality of the characters and actions themselves definitely leave nothing to be desired.
As I hinted at in the beginning, this manga may be part of my favourites from a perspective of enjoyment while reading it, being in the leagues with likes of JoJo6, Cross Game, Ping Pong etc. What you will find here, will be a great foundation with some compelling (both likeable and unlikeable) characters in every corner of its universe. An actually realistic depiction of people, sports and the interactions around them, without all the melodramatic jazz that some people might associate with Arakawa's work. Definitely among the best in my opinion, having read almost all sports mangas in the top 300 list - where I would rank it ahead of shonens like Oofuri, DnA and for now (since it is still on-going) confidently behind greats like Slam Dunk and Cross game.
Naoshi Arakawa, like many other mangaka, said that his motivation for working is because he enjoys story-telling and he definitely knows how to suck all the attention of a reader like a pro.
I whole-heartedly recommend that you at least try 1 chapter, if you are even somewhat into these genres or the previous work of Arakawa - and while nothing of YLIA is present, the reasons you had for reading it are. After all, it only took 1 chapter for me to get hooked.