Archive for January, 2023



As a Brighton native who has spent over a decade covering the J.League, Kaoru Mitoma making global headlines on account of his recent form for an excellent Brighton and Hove Albion has been a rather strange experience… (日本語版)

That is partly because of the ease with which the former Kawasaki Frontale man has adjusted to life in the Premier League, but also because when I was growing up the Seagulls were not a very good team at all.

The club spent the majority of my childhood bouncing around the lower tiers of the English professional pyramid, and I distinctly remember that on school holidays I would attend Albion soccer schools in the park adjacent to their former home, the Goldstone Ground, at the end of which participants would be given a few complimentary tickets to upcoming games against the likes of York City and Hartlepool United in the hope that those of us supporting giants like Manchester United and Liverpool might be tempted to switch our allegiances.

Defeat in the 1990-91 Division Two (now The Championship) play-off final against Notts County was the closest the club came to the top flight of the game in my youth, and they very nearly dropped out of the professional leagues altogether in 1997, ultimately surviving by the skin of their teeth after a nail-biting 1-1 draw away to Hereford United on the final day of the season.

Despite preserving their league status, the following 15 years would bring plenty of other challenges though – predominantly on account of having to survive without a permanent home between 1997 and 2011, first being forced to ground-share with Gillingham (70 miles north of Brighton) and then needing to host games at the Withdean Stadium athletics venue for over a decade.

Since moving into their new home at the Amex in Falmer 12 years ago the club has found far surer footing though, earning promotion to the Premier League in 2017 and then steadily building upon that success in each subsequent season – which is where Mitoma comes in.

Brighton’s recent triumphs have in no small part been built upon intelligent scouting in places other clubs aren’t looking, with the former Frontale man one of many players to have blossomed after being recruited and carefully integrated into the team.

Having established himself as a regular under Roberto De Zerbi after the Italian succeeded Graham Potter as Brighton manager in September last year, Mitoma has consistently showcased the ability that Japanese and Belgian fans were treated to in recent years, seemingly not flustered at all by the fact he is now doing so on perhaps the most demanding stage in the world game.

And for all the statistical analyses and increasingly elaborate breakdowns of his contributions doing the rounds on social media, you only really need to watch Mitoma move around the pitch – both in and out of possession – to appreciate how special a talent he is.

Rarely, if ever, flustered in possession, he is incredibly economical in his use of the ball and there is absolutely no fat to his game – every touch serves a purpose, and he isn’t interested in making any that don’t somehow contribute to progressing his team’s attacks. In addition to that he is also incredibly effective with his final ball, either when teeing up a teammate or, as against Leicester City last weekend, when looking to convert a chance himself.

This was just how he performed during his season-and-a-half with Frontale – although the fact that his time in the J.League coincided with the outbreak of the Coronavirus and restrictions on spectators and media activities means that too few people were able to see or speak to him in the flesh during that period, giving it something of a dreamlike quality when considered now.

Kawasaki announced in July 2018 that the Tsukuba University prospect – who had previously been developed in the club’s academy system – would be joining their 2020 first team squad upon completion of his studies, but while the fresh-faced youngster was highly-rated after announcing himself to the Japanese football world with a sensational solo effort for Tsukuba in their Emperor’s Cup second round victory away to Vegalta Sendai in 2017, nobody expected him to make quite such an immediate impact in J1.

Little did we know.

Mitoma found the net for the first time on just his fourth league appearance – capitalising upon a mistake by Shonan Bellmare’s Hirokazu Ishihara before dispatching coolly from just inside the area 20 minutes after coming on as a replacement for Reo Hatate – and then proceeded to register almost a goal every other game as he struck 30 times in 62 matches across all competitions before departing for Brighton in August 2021.

He wasn’t quite so prolific during an initial year on loan in Belgium, but eight goals in 29 games as upstarts Royale Union Saint-Gilloise finished top of the regular season rankings was a solid return and enough to convince Brighton that he was ready, and his sparkling form since arriving on the south coast has been so good that fans don’t seem especially bothered about the departure of star forward Leandro Trossard for Arsenal. 

What is vital now is that Mitoma doesn’t rest on his laurels on account of the hype swelling around him. In a questionnaire conducted by Frontale ahead of his first season he said the thing he pays most attention to during games is ‘staying calm’ while also listing his motto as ‘practice makes perfect’, so with that and his career trajectory so far in mind it seems there is little danger of the man who spent his first pay-cheque on dinner with his parents losing his focus.

He certainly seems level-headed enough to ignore distractions and concentrate only on that which is important – much like when he is dribbling at full tilt at an opposing full-back – and if he is able to maintain his current level of performance longer term then he quite clearly has the potential to reach even greater heights – perhaps higher than any Japanese player before him.

That would sadly (for this correspondent, at least) ultimately require a move to a richer and more prestigious club than Brighton, but for now it’s fantastic to see both thriving. Long may it continue.


The kids are alright

The All-Japan High School Football tournament yet again provided a great start to the new year, with the semi-finals and final serving up three very entertaining games at Tokyo National Stadium complete with some lovely football, a few errors – which always add to entertainment levels – and more than enough drama to ring in 2023. (日本語版)

Eventual champions Okayama showed what they were made of in their semi-final against the highly-fancied Kamimura on 7 January, coming from behind twice to draw 3-3 before maintaining their composure from 12 yards to progress 4-1 after a penalty shoot-out. 

Higashiyama also needed penalties to emerge victorious from their semi-final against Ozu later the same day, drawing 1-1 and then exhibiting similar perfection as they converted all of their kicks to win 4-1 and ensure that either they or Okayama would be celebrating a first ever championship.

In some quarters Kamimura and Ozu was perhaps seen as the preferred final pairing because of their star players and pedigree, but on the balance of each 90 minutes Okayama and Higashiyama were worthy finalists. Both were better organised and more rounded teams than their opponents, with Kamimura and Ozu arguably having more talented individuals but lacking overall cohesion – something especially clear in the dichotomy between Kamimura’s slick attack and porous defence.

In Shio Fukuda Kamimura certainly possessed one of the biggest draws in the competition, and the Borussia Monchengladbach-bound striker showcased his full range of abilities on the frontline with some expert hold-up play and a keen striker’s instinct in front of goal – reacting fastest to pounce on a rebound after Okayama goalkeeper Jin Hiratsuka could only parry Reo Kinjo’s shot from the edge of the area to tie things up at 1-1 after the impressive Yuma Taguchi had given Okayama an early lead.

Fukuda went close on a couple of other occasions as well, but ultimately Kamimura paid the price for conceding three and then four minutes after scoring their second and third goals before losing their nerve and missing two of their three penalties to fall at the final hurdle.

There were fewer goals in the second semi-final, but we were treated to an absolute peach by Keita Matsuhashi, whose first touch for his 63rd-minute equaliser was exquisite and left him with the relatively simple task of tucking home from close-range.

Mizuki Sato then stepped up to the plate in the penalty shoot-out, managing to outfox the Ozu kickers without resorting to Emi Martinez levels of gamesmanship and leaving Matsuhashi with the opportunity to pace out his effort and decisively slam home to send his team into the final.

“Mizuki had made the saves, so I felt at ease before I took my kick and just made sure to hit it cleanly,” Matsuhashi said afterwards.

Two days later a moment’s silence was observed for Pele ahead of kick-off, and the Brazilian legend would have approved of plenty of the play over the subsequent 90 minutes, as both teams looked to play proactively and make things happen.

The pitch looked a bit pot-holed after being torn up by the All-Japan University Rugby Championship final on the previous day, and with that in mind Okayama got us off to a fitting start by punting the ball immediately forward from kick-off and having four players charge down their left wing to contest it (a tactic Higashiyama went on to mimic in the second half).

Both teams looked to mix things up between neat build-up play and more simple balls sent directly in behind, and Okayama drew first blood in the 25th minute when Takuto Imai’s cross was turned into his own net by Higashiyama captain Rikuto Shintani.

Higashiyama held their nerve after that blow and gradually worked their way back into the game though, and while Matsuhashi earned a reputation for his long throws during the competition he showed he has much more in his locker than that. The 18-year-old is a little reminiscent of Urawa Reds’ Ken Iwao and is a calm and classy operator in the middle of the park, getting himself out of a tight spot on the right flank at one point with a lovely Cruyff turn that instantly bought him time and space that never looked available.

He mentioned after the semi final that he had dropped into a deeper-lying position after starting his career as a more attack-minded player on account of his not scoring enough goals, and that was evidenced in the 41st minute as he got the execution all wrong on the bobbly pitch and skied high and wide to waste a promising break.

Three minutes later he showed what he can do so well, however, feeding a smart ball in behind for Keijiro Kitamura to tear onto and cut back for Renji Sanada to steer clinically home from the edge of the area and send the teams in tied at the break.

Okayama came out the sharper at the start of the second half though, and after Higashiyama left-back Yuma Nakazato set the wheels in motion for their second goal by rather carelessly heading a long ball from Hiratsuka in-field, possession was worked to the opposite flank and Kyogo Kimura – all 165cm of him – headed home clinically to make it 2-1.

In the 74th minute Higashiyama very nearly pulled level again, but despite arriving in perfect time to meet a Sanada cross and beating Hiratsuka Reiya Sakata saw his header cannon back off the bar, and having survived that scare Okayama wrapped up the win with five minutes to play as Kimura again found space in the box to steer home and seal the title for his school.

Almost every player in blue and black dropped to the turf as the ecstasy and exhaustion overcame them at full time, with match-winner Kimura going on to say he is hoping to turn professional one day. On the basis of this year’s competition, he and several others certainly have bright futures ahead of them.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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January 2023