With the world’s eyes fixed on Japan during the Rugby World Cup, you’d be forgiven for thinking that football has taken a back seat. But beyond the obvious skills of Takefusa Kubo in LaLiga, the Land of the Rising Sun has been developing a number of other outstanding young starlets.
To prevent this being an entirely subjective piece on the best young talents in Japan at the moment, written by a local football analyst, it has been completed in consultation with fellow J League analyst and Football Radar colleague, Sam Robson.
Takefusa Kubo | Real Madrid
Where else can I begin than with Takefusa Kubo, one of the many young stars to be wrapped up, packaged and slapped with a label bearing Lionel Messi’s name. Garnering that tag when he first joined Barcelona – before heading back to Japan – it has taken on a new context since his return to LaLiga in the white of Real Madrid.
The move to Los Blancos left a particularly nasty taste in the mouth for the Catalan giants, who first identified him aged eight but were forced to send him back to the J League after being found guilty of transfer violations by FIFA. Earmarked as a player of high potential, the plan was for Kubo to return with first-team experience under his belt and then continue his rise within the walls of the Camp Nou.
Alas, Real Madrid swooped in, offered a far more lucrative contract, and nabbed him. Still not considered ready to usurp the likes of Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale, he was swiftly loaned to Real Mallorca to gain much-needed experience in new climes after impressing during pre-season, when various Real stars lauded his talent.
As you might expect, a player that is burdened with the Messi label is small, diminutive and has the ball seemingly glued to his foot. Kubo is the type of player that will bring you to your feet when he’s on the ball, his speed of thought, dazzling feet and fearless running at opposition defenders difficult to predict, let alone stop.
But while these types of players can flatter to deceive more often than not, Kubo’s rise has been dramatic and he’s adding substance to his sublime style.
He was the youngest player to score in the J League (the J3, in fact) aged just 15 years and ten months, then grabbed a goal on his first start in the J1 aged just 17 while on loan at Yokohama F. Marinos. While a regular at J1 table-toppers FC Tokyo this season, he was able to deliver four goals and four assists in 13 games – a more than decent return for a player yet to turn 18.
His latest challenge at club level had been at Real Mallorca, acclimatising far faster than anyone could have imagined and forcing his way into the first team well ahead of schedule. Some pundits in Spain have suggested he’s Mallorca’s best attacking talent. As you might expect, he is already capped at senior level for Japan and hopes are high that he can usher in a new era of dominance for the Samurai Blue.
Hiroki Abe | Barcelona B
In the wake of the Takefusa Kubo saga, there might be cause for you to shed a tear for poor Barcelona, but before you pull out that handkerchief, know that Hiroki Abe is quite the talent. Barcelona signed Abe this summer from Kashima Antlers and, thankfully for president Josep Maria Bartomeu, there no requirement to shout and contest with FIFA; he was already 20.
As you may have already noticed, a certain Catalan club are popping up rather regularly in relation to young Japanese talent, though this shouldn’t be considered a major surprise given the fact that they have three academies in the nation and partnerships with J League clubs, both official and unofficial.
Abe is best described as a confident, unpredictable winger. He has lightning feet and pace to burn so can exploit any small space given to him. Even if a defender thinks they have shut him down into a corner, he regularly shows the trickery to be able to wriggle out of it. It’s this unique knack to make something of nothing that attracted Barcelona to him.
In the words of Sam Robson: “Bar Kubo, Abe is probably the most technically gifted young Japanese player of the past five years.” Indeed, Bartomeu has already stated that he is a player that was acquired for entirely sporting reasons and that he has the potential to become an important player for Barcelona.
Currently residing in the Barcelona B team, where he recently grabbed his first goal, in Japan he has already gone a long way to proving himself. He had clocked up 49 J1 appearances for Kashima, was the 2018 J League Rookie of the Year and is an AFC Champions League winner, where he announced himself with a string of impressive performances.
Ritsu Doan | PSV
Perhaps the biggest talent from the extremely prolific Gamba Osaka supply chain, Doan is a player who has already gone a long way to establishing himself. He was noted as “the beginning of a new generation for Japanese football” by Ben Mabley as part of the Guardian’s Next Gen series way back in 2015. From there he has gone from strength to strength, swiftly getting his move to Europe with Groningen in 2017 after only a handful of games for Gamba, and then moved to PSV this summer.
Following in the footsteps of another Groningen alumnus in Arjen Robben, Doan is a left-footed player who likes to play on the right. Therefore, much like the fleet-footed Dutchman, you will often find him cutting onto his favoured left to create a bit of space to launch a long-distance flyer or thread a pass to one of his teammates.
Despite a lack of experience, he adapted quickly at Groningen and made an instant impact: by the end of his first season he had scored nine goals in 29 games and was described as the “jewel of the Eredivisie” by manager Hans Nijland. His rapid development continued and, by the beginning of the next season, he was arguably Groningen’s best player and had earned himself a place as a nominee for the Trophee Kopa in 2018 amongst luminaries such as Kylian Mbappé, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Consequently, his move to PSV in the summer shouldn’t be considered that much of a surprise (he was linked with Manchester City too). He has already made a decent start at PSV where he has edged himself ahead of record signing Bruma. Manager Mark van Bommel, a man who knows a thing or two about the top end of the game, has reserved praise for his technical ability and is excited about his development as he bids to fill the gap left by Hirving Lozano’s departure.
Takehiro Tomiyasu | Bologna
With Japan’s frontline looking extremely healthy with the bright young sparks of Kubo, Doan and Abe, ball-playing defender Takehiro Tomiyasu is adding some much-needed balance. It’s hard not to get too carried away with the youngster but he really is class personified.
Tomiyasu came through at 16 at J2 side Avispa Fukuoka as a composed holding midfielder. Despite his tender years and playing a position usually dominated by more experienced pros, he demonstrated the requisite positioning and tactical nous for the role, rarely looking out of place both defensively or mentally.
It was no surprise in Japan when he made his first move to Belgium – less so when it was to Japanese owned Sint-Truiden. Tomiyasu quickly established himself as first choice at Sint-Truiden playing as a right-sided centre-back, earning enough plaudits in one season to attract interest from big hitters Bologna, who settled that £8m seemed a worthwhile gamble.
Since his move to Bologna, he has surprised fans outside of Japan and Belgium. Siniša Mihajlović has opted to play him at right-back and he’s demonstrated his adaptability in more way than one: adjusting to a new culture (a culture amused when he bowed before entering the pitch at his first training session), a new, more competitive league, and indeed a new role.
Regularly tucking in to a more central position, which no doubt has aided his bedding in, he exhibited his all-round game in a video that went viral of him bursting forward with the ball, drifting past opposition players with ease. It should be noted that any highlight reel of Tomiyasu will show him performing flicks and tricks that are not all that common amongst your archetype centre-back.
To say he hit the ground running would be an understatement: he was voted Bologna’s player of the month for August, and although he has since had a few more difficulties with form and fitness, at 20, to have already started eight games for a side hoping to challenge for Europa League football, it’s fair to say he is doing something right.
In the blue of Japan he has already established himself and was arguably the nation’s best player at the 2019 Asian Cup. As Robson states, “He will be Japan’s first-choice centre-back for the next ten years.”
Koki Saito | Yokohama FC
Finally we have Koki Saito. As an analyst who focuses on the Japanese second tier, it would be remiss of me not to crowbar a player from the J2. Still only 18 and perhaps a little earlier on his development curve, Saito’s achievements are paltry compared to the more established names above. He is currently on the peripheries of the starting line-up at promotion challengers Yokohama.
Saito first came to prominence last season when he became Yokohama’s youngest ever player, coming on in a league match against Gifu aged 16 after flourishing for the Japan under-17s. Unsurprisingly, most of the news reports at the time were about how his seven minutes on the pitch were shared with Kazu Miura, who is 34 years his senior.
Koki is a quick and lively forward player, another one on this list who can get the crowd going with dazzling feet that stupefy defenders. It’s a trend amongst the new generation of Japanese stars to be exceptional on the ball. He has shone through the national team age groups, lighting up the Japan under-19s at the AFC Championship in Indonesia, scoring three goals in the group stage. He was subsequently moved up to the under-20s, becoming the youngest representative in that squad at just 17.
At Yokohama this season he has shown progress and had a rich vein of form in the middle of the season, however, the emergence of Matsuo and Nakayama has reduced him to appearances off the bench in recent weeks. But, at such a young age, to expect consistency would be a little fanciful and healthy competition can only benefit his development.
For me, if Yokohama achieve promotion and Koki can hit the ground running next season, I see no reason why he can’t finally grab the headlines off King Kazu. He certainly has the talent to become an important player for Japan in the years to come.
It is clear that Japan is bursting at the seams with young talent, players who could take the nation from dangerous underdogs to genuine power. Much like the rugby team, this dramatic rise hasn’t come about by chance or coincidence. There has been a concerted effort by the footballing authorities to look to the long term with a clear aim in place: World Cup champions in 2050. Or perhaps a bit sooner if the likes of Kubo have anything to say on the matter.
By Charlie Houghton @FRsoccerCharlie