It took a second for the ball leave his foot, ricochet off the Anfield turf and nestle into the back of the net. Blink and you would have already seen him wheeling off to celebrate. The technique was impeccable, his body angled just the right way, his legs stretching taut and his foot hitting the ball cleanly with his laces.
In just a second, Takumi Minamino announced his name to the Anfield choir.
The Kop is rarely stunned into silence, but Minamino’s volley was one of those candid moments. On the touchline, Jürgen Klopp stood transfixed and nodded his approval. He rubbed his chin and admitted to himself he liked what he saw.
It wasn’t just Minamino’s goal that caught the eye during Liverpool’s Champions League clash with Red Bull Salzburg. The Japanese attacker was a perpetual nuisance. Minamino would scuttle through the thicket of Liverpool defenders on plenty of occasions as his side surged forward to claw back the Reds’ advantage, and he would set his teammates up on platters.
On another day, Minamino’s threat would have yielded his side at least a point if not all three. But on that fateful evening, it would merely transform his future.
In the dressing room, the Liverpool players purportedly raved about the diminutive Japan international and urged Klopp to bring him to Anfield.
A couple of months later, Liverpool would heed their wishes and sanction a £7.5m move for the Red Bull Salzburg star. In the process, Minamino became the first Japanese player to represent the club. It was a testament to the character of the boy from Osaka.
Minamino always had a great hunger for football. As a kid, he defied his brother’s orders and followed him to training, playing against players older and stronger than him. Even at such a young age there were signs of his talent and determination.
His coach at the time, Keita Yoshikawa, recalled Minamino as follows in an interview with Coerver. “Takumi was a rare being who could continue to work even at higher levels.”
At Cerezo Osaka’s academy, Minamino would stun managers and coaches with his explosive style of play. He’d pester his opponents and fight for the ball as if his life depended on it. And he’d usually top the scoring charts, too. Even in Japanese football, which is heavily concentrated on team-work and hard-press, Minamino stuck out like a sore thumb with his aggression and skill.
The Brazilian, Levir Culpi, who was in charge of the Osaka-based club liked what he saw. The stern and tactically astute boss developed an advanced youth system at Cerezo which saw him establish some of the finest Japanese talent in recent memory, including Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyokate and Takashi Inui.
Among them, Minamino was the youngest debutant. He was still in high school when Culpi sent him on as a substitute against Omiya Ardija on a wet turf soaked in heavy rainfall. Culpi told the young 17-year-old to play in a somewhat unorthodox role. Minamino had become accustomed to playing as a centre-forward, but in Culpi’s 4-3-3 system he’d play on the flanks.
The sudden shift helped to hone Minamino’s defensive skills. Recalling the event, Minamino looked back at his spell in the first team as a time of growth. “In the youth era, I had never played on the side, so at first I was puzzled. Even when I was playing a game, I sometimes felt that I was far from goal, and I don’t know how to defend.”
During the early days, his impetuous style would often get him in trouble with Minamino earning two red cards in just three seasons at Cerezo. It would be a steep learning curve for the youngster. Of course, Minamino’s game isn’t simply just about pressing and his defensive work-rate.
The Japanese attacker fell in love with Ronaldo during the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by Japan. He honed his skills based on the Brazilian and has developed an impressive repertoire. Blessed with agility and pace, he can slalom past defenders with ease.
Having shown his pace and exciting talent at Cerezo, at Red Bull Salzburg, Minamino learned to channel his hunger and aggression for the ball into tactical pressing. Former coach Peter Zeidler described Minamino as an incredibly meticulous player to Goal: “He’s very disciplined and always wants to do everything exactly as it is explained to him.”
In Salzburg, Minamino matured. He learned how to press, when to tackle and how to keep his cool. Looking back at his performance against Liverpool in the Champions League it’s clear his formative experiences in senior football under Culpi’s rigid defensive system and Salzburg’s extensive coaching helped to shape his career.
Jesse Marsch, the current Red Bull Salzburg manager, echoed a similar sentiment when speaking to ESPN. “He (Minamino) understands football, he understands how to make final plays and tactics. Knowing Taki, he’s a guy who has so much drive and will find a way to get better every day.” Marsch believes “it’ll only be a matter of time” until Minamino is successful at Liverpool.
There have been small glimmers of Minamino’s talent already in his fledgeling Liverpool career. His avid pressing has often opened up pockets of space in his brief cameos. Minamino has shown he is not afraid to get stuck in with some zealous challenges in the FA Cup ties against Everton and Shrewsbury.
He’s looked composed on the ball too, and exudes flair. His best performance so far has come at Stamford Bridge where Minamino managed two interceptions, three tackles, three dribbles and created one key chance against Chelsea. That is exactly the type of performance Klopp expects from his attackers. The German lauded Minamino’s contribution in the aftermath of the match, and admitted the team “could have used him much more often”.
Of course, that will come with time. Some of the current Liverpool squad were slowly bedded into the team. Think of the likes of Andy Robertson, Fabinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who had to bide their time to settle in an already cohesive side.
Minamino is well poised to emulate the aforementioned players. His explosive style, pace and astute tactical awareness makes him the perfect player for Klopp’s system. He’s also a fighter and a leader. At Red Bull Salzburg and for the Japan national team, Minamino has developed a knack for scoring important goals and making vital contributions in key games.
In 2018, against a Uruguay lining up with Diego Godín at the back, Minamino scored a brace to help his country to a famous 4-3 victory. He scored in the final of the Asian Cup in 2019 and has netted in every single one of his appearances in Japan’s World Cup qualification campaign for 2022. That’s five goals in four games. His record of 64 goals and 44 assists in 199 games for Red Bull Salzburg is mightily impressive, too.
True, he might never become the ultimate star at Liverpool with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané or Roberto Firmino ahead of him in the pecking order, but his versatility and understanding of the game will make him one of the best deputies the club could find, someone in the same ilk as Dirk Kuyt or Luis García.
If there can be anything extracted from his career so far, it’s that Minamino is a player who is prepared to work hard and put in the extra shift to ensure he meets expectations. The motivation will be even greater at Liverpool considering he admitted in a 2015 interview his “dream” would be to work under Klopp.
Minamino said it himself he has “nothing to lose” at Anfield but he could be set for a bright future if he maintains the same attitude that has taken him from Osaka to Anfield.
By Bence Bocsák @BenBocsak