Another Japanese youngster recently moved to the Premier League, and some of Takuma Asano’s former teammates had some advice for the striker before he completed his transfer from Sanfrecce Hiroshima to Arsenal… (日本語版はこちらです)
There goes another one.
Takuma Asano bade farewell to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in tears last month, unable to mark his last game for the Purple Archers with a goal but offering the customary emotional goodbye ahead of his participation in the Rio Olympics and then his transfer to Arsenal.
Such scenes are becoming increasingly common in the J.League at this time of year, as the division’s youngsters are whisked off mid-season to Europe to ‘realise their dreams’ and ‘help Japanese football grow’, etc. and so on.
Of course, a lot of these players are soon back home with their tails between their legs, and many Arsenal fans have already decided that Asano is destined to be a flop in north London – partly because they are frustrated with Arsene Wenger’s refusal to spend inflated fees on top-grade strikers, and partly because Asano is yet to prove himself at anything approaching the highest level.
That is unfair on the 21-year-old, but is something he is going to have to get used to if he wants to avoid joining the likes of Kensuke Nagai, Yuki Otsu, Yoichiro Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Takashi Usami as another full or U23 national team player to fail to make the grade in Europe (although Usami has, of course, been given a second bite of the cherry).
Mihael Mikic knows just how thick-skinned his now-former teammate will need to be once he arrives in England, and he joked that Asano may initially be helped by the fact that he doesn’t speak the local language.
“If he doesn’t score then a good point is he cannot read English,” the Croatian said with a smile after Sanfrecce’s recent 3-3 draw with Kashiwa Reysol. “Because it is not easy to live with that if your fans are so critical. I’m reading a lot and people don’t have respect for him already. But I think and hope these people will change their opinions.
“I already told him, ‘please don’t read the newspapers or the internet, don’t go to Twitter or Facebook, and don’t translate everything!’”
Mikic was laughing as he spoke but it was clear he meant what he said, and he firmly believes that if Asano can overcome the initial culture shock he can go on to become a big success in the Premier League
“He is hungry. That means he will take this chance; I believe he will take this chance. I really want that he takes this chance and improves more there, because Wenger is one special coach for a young player. My opinion is he is maybe the next Michael Owen. He really, really has this potential. If he starts scoring then he is unstoppable, in my opinion.”
A failure to hit the ground running is perhaps the biggest concern for Asano, and if he struggles to have an instant impact – more likely at another club in Europe on loan before he makes it onto the pitch at the Emirates– then it will take a huge mental effort to stay focused and demonstrate his true ability.
Peter Utaka agrees that Asano can’t afford to dwell on things and needs to keep his head up.
“I’ve prepared his mind for that already, because I played in Europe for more than 10 years and I’ve told him that it’s not like in Japan, no-one’s going to say to you, ‘no problem, no problem’ – it is a problem [for the fans], and there is pressure every game,” the Nigerian said.
“Every chance you miss could cost the game and could be crucial for you and the team, so you’re going to have to be ruthless in front of the goal. He knows that already, because I’ve told him, so let him prepare his mind because English fans don’t do criticism like Japanese fans (laughs). He’s going to get the shock of his life!”
Utaka agrees that having Arsene Wenger oversee his development is a huge plus for Asano, and hopes he is able to fully capitalise on this opportunity.
“I know Arsenal like to have young players and turn them into great players, so I think it’s a great move for him. There’s a lot of competition there for him but he just has to be focused and work hard and see the plans they have for him. I know he needs time to adapt, not just to the league but to living abroad, because this is his first time not in Japan, so it’s going to be a big challenge for him.
“Mentally he’s very strong and he’s a very dangerous player when he’s running behind the defence. He’s very hungry to score goals. He’s never satisfied; he always wants to score in training and in games, and if he doesn’t score he’s like, ‘my job is not done, I need to score’.”
Despite holding himself to the highest standards, Utaka is hopeful that Asano doesn’t get too weighed down by the expectations on him and has noticed an increased determination in the youngster since the move was agreed.
“He’s not nervous, he wants to go with his head high so he’s working the same, and even a little bit more. At the training ground I see him in the gym every single day. In training and in games he wants to score goals and go to Arsenal with his head high. He hasn’t changed but he wants to improve, he wants to add more quality.
“But he can’t put himself under pressure. He just has to be very cool-headed and focused to make sure he gets the job done when he gets the opportunity to play.”
At the end of the day playing and performing is the only thing that matters for Asano, and how well he is able to zone out the background noise will be key to determining whether he makes a success of this chance or not.