Japan are in desperate need.
Germany won the World Cup in Brazil with a 36 year old up front and Japan passed themselves to death in the group stages without one.
Alberto Zaccheroni, the newly departed Japan coach, had four years to find a striker after inheriting a squad that had performed admirably in reaching the second round at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He failed.
New Japan coach, Javier Aguirre, inherits the striker quest. Japan have been looking for one for a generation or more. Not since the legendary Kunishige Kamamoto (80 goals in 84 internationals) retired in 1977 have Japan had a talismanic striker.
The J.League celebrated its twentieth anniversary recently. It has produced numerous attacking midfielders but no out-and-out goalscorer of international quality.
A multitude of socio-cultural factors have been blamed for Japan’s famine. Everything from the hierarchical social structure to the popularity of the Captain Tsubasa comic/cartoon series (Tsubasa is an attacking midfielder) have been used to explain the striking lack of forwards.
Here Das Wunderkind profiles three young stars who could end Japan’s wait for a striker and provide Aguirre with the answers Zaccheroni could not find.
Yuya Kubo: BSC Young Boys – 久保裕也: BSCタングボーイス
Yuya Kubo is from Yamaguchi in the far west of Japan – closer to Seoul than Tokyo. He joined Kyoto Sanga, 400km from home, and was in the first team within two years.
The 20 year old Young Boys Bern striker has shown maturity throughout his career and has an unblinking assassin-like calm in front of goal.
Strikers are a rarity in football in that they are encouraged to be selfish – for them greed is a forgivable sin. Japanese players are often accused of being too polite, afraid to take decisive action. Their strikers are attacked for a lack of appetite, passing when they should shoot, anorexic when they should be gluttonous.
Not so Kubo. He is always prowling, stalking the space between defences for a glimpse of goal. Like all good strikers he is constantly waiting for a chance, ready to pounce on any sign of weakness.
Comfortable with his back to goal and playing short on the edge of the box, it is in the penalty area that Kubo really comes alive, he is a clinical finisher and selfish when he has to be.
Borussia Dortmund were heavily linked at the end of Kubo’s debut season in 2011. He scored 10 goals in 30 second division games and played a starring role as Sanga reached the Emporer’s Cup Final where they lost to FC Tokyo. The goals that the 18-year-old scored in the semi-final and final raised his profile significantly.
Two months later he received his first call up to the full Japan squad. Although he didn’t select him for the friendly against Iceland Alberto Zaccheroni praised Kubo’s performances in training.
Kubo has played for Japan from Under 16 level through to Under 19. In 18 Under 18 and Under 19 games he scored 25 times. But thus far the Iceland call up has been his only involvement with the full Japan squad.
After his standout debut 2012 was disappointing. Kubo scored just once and found himself on the Sanga bench as his form wavered. Kyoto stuck by him, reasoning that a teenager’s performances are bound to fluctuate, class being permanent rather than temporary. They rewarded his emergence with a new contract to ward off a growing list of interested foreign clubs.
2013 saw Kubo’s form return and in the first half of the year he scored seven times. By this stage Kyoto had received a number of transfer offers but it was Young Boys who concluded a deal in June 2013. They had been heavily linked over the preceding 18 months and come close to taking Kubo to Switzerland in previous transfer windows.
Kubo left Sanga with 18 goals from 66 games and the club’s blessing.
Having spent the entirety of his J.League career in the second division Kubo felt ready to test himself at a higher level. Young Boys provided the opportunity.
He started his European career in stunning form scoring three times in his first four appearances in the Swiss Axpo Super League. The jump from Japan to Europe has tripped many Japanese players but Kubo hit the ground running.
Young Boys used Kubo conservatively, sometimes from the bench, sometimes starting, often on the left side of attack. It was in central areas that he really shone however. In all he played 37 times in his debut season scoring nine goals.
Kubo has been joined in Switzerland by another Japanese forward. Yoichiro Kakitani left Cerezo Osaka for FC Basel this summer and there are big things expected of the former wonderkid.
Kakitani was a prodigious young talent who nearly went off the rails. A make or break long spell at lowly Tokushima Vortis eventually proved the making of him.
He scored 21 goals in the 2013 J.League season and after a stellar performance at the 2013 East Asian Championship became an integral member of Zaccheroni’s Japan squad.
Kakitani was being increasingly linked with a transfer to the Bundesliga but as the World Cup grew closer his form deserted him. He played once in Brazil and was one of the principle World Cup disappointments for Japan.
The move to Basel will hopefully invigorate him. Kakitani has the skill and technique to prosper in Europe, his mentality has been questioned in the past but he appears to have the personality to succeed. He is one of the more interesting players to move to Europe this summer.
If he can match Kubo’s Swiss start then he should feature prominently when Aguirre selects his first squad. If Kubo continues his development then he could very well join Kakitani at the top of Japan’s attack in the not too distant future.
Genki Haraguchi: Hertha Berlin – 原口元気: ヘルタベルリン
Genki Haraguchi could never be accused of lacking fight.
The new Hertha Berlin signing has had to battle consistently high expectations since being identified as a future star while still a primary school student.
He also once dislocated a teammates shoulder during a training ground bust up. It is fair to say that he is not backward in coming forward.
This becomes immediately apparent when watching him play.
Haraguchi does not waste time waiting for chances to come to him. By Japanese standards he is extremely direct, a proactive forward who prefers the shortest route to goal. He is not afraid to take the initiative and shoot from long distances or acute angles.
Like many Japanese youngsters Haraguchi grew up playing futsal as well as football. Unlike many Japanese footballers he has retained the inventive and forceful finishing that the small sided game breeds. Chips, feints, top corner blasts – many of his finishes would not look out of place on a futsal pitch.
One of his most famous goals saw him beat three Omiya Ardija defenders, lose his balance and yet, on his hands and knees, almost lying on the pitch, somehow smash a left foot shot past an astonished keeper. Haraguchi in full flight is a direct and forceful runner, capable of finishing when a goal seems impossible.
Haraguchi joined his local club Urawa Reds aged 12 and progressed rapidly through their youth ranks to the point that he was troubling the first team shortly after his seventeenth birthday.
Bayern Munich were keen to recruit him but he decided to stay with Urawa and was soon training full time with their top team. He made his debut two weeks after turning 17.
Haraguchi was beginning to fulfil his long prophesised potential.
From the start of his first full season to the moment he left six years later, Haraguchi was a virtual ever present in the Urawa side. Often stationed on the left of a front three or roaming behind a central forward he enjoyed his best season for goals in 2013 when he hit 11 from 33 J.League games.
He has played three times for Japan, with his debut coming in 2011, and was often mentioned by Zaccheroni as an impressive prospect. But he was never able to force his way into the Italian’s thinking consistently. Something was not quite right.
The aforementioned disciplinary problems are alleged to have been a factor in Haraguchi failing to be selected for the Japan squad for the London 2012 Olympics. It is hoped that the move to Germany will help him mature and his game blossom further.
There was a feeling in Japan that Haraguchi needed to test himself outside the confines of the J.League. He has the style and character to adjust to a new environment and his initial involvement with Hertha suggests that he will blend well with his new teammates.
Aguirre has said that he needs to teach Japan to be more aggressive. In Haraguchi he has a player who needs little invitation to fight. He has been battling his entire career and shows little sign of stopping now.
Kosuke Kinoshita: SC Freiburg – 木下康介: SCフライベルク
In the latter months of 2012 Kosuke Kinoshita faced a tough decision. He could sign professional forms with Yokohama FC, his boyhood club who were desperate to keep him, or he could move abroad.
Many young players in Japan face similar choices but few choose to leave at such a young age; Kinoshita is different.
In January 2013, after rejecting Manchester City, he signed for SC Freiburg in Germany aged 18.
Kinoshita is a tall, elegant striker. He has all the technical attributes that stereotypically define Japanese players – sophisticated technique, excellent close control, pace – it is his mentality that sets him apart.
He has an understated confidence and belief in his ability – as his keenness to test himself in alien environments has shown. When he left Yokohama he spoke passionately about his longstanding ambition to play abroad.
Kinoshita has a wise head on his young shoulders and has played with maturity throughout his fledgling career.
His game is characterised by intelligent movement and good decision-making. Although a striker of rare gifts he is not overly greedy. His shot conversion rate is high; when he can’t score he usually passes. Whether cutting in from the left or from a central position he offers a consistent goal threat.
Kinoshita trained with Freiburg and Manchester City in 2012. They were both keen for him to sign.
City are known to be in the market for a young Japanese player to help boost their profile in Asia. Their parent company, City Football Group, recently entered into a corporate relationship with J.Leauge team Yokohama F Mariners. Kinoshita is not the only Japanese youngster to have trained with the blues of Manchester.
With the strict work permit conditions in the UK it is difficult for English clubs to buy players from countries outside the EU like Japan. Kinoshita had contact with City as far back as 2011 when they received his video and CV. Had he signed for them it is likely Kinoshita would still be on loan at some European satellite waiting to satisfy British visa conditions.
In the end the prospect of faster first team integration swayed his thinking and Kinoshita moved to Germany. Freiburg had an average of 22.9 last season, the third youngest in the Bundesliga, and are famed for offering chances to young players.
After joining up with the Freiburg youth squad in January 2013 Kinoshita smashed seven goals in his first 14 Under 19 games. The noises from the Freiburg hierarchy were positive, they had found a player of great promise.
Kinoshita was promoted to the reserves at the start of last season and it looked like his meteoric rise would continue. But a persistent back injury put pay to that. He managed only six reserve games in a hugely frustrating campaign.
An injury free pre-season this summer suggests Kinoshita is now ready to get his career back on track. His contract expires at the end of the current season and if he can re-find the form he showed at the beginning of his German adventure then Freiburg will certainly look to extend it.
Any potential first team involvement seems a way off. Freiburg appear well stocked for strikers at the moment and Kinoshita’s first task is to show that he has overcome any growing pains – he needs consistent game time.
As he leaves his teens he approaches a crucial time in his career. Some optimistic pundits have predicted Kinoshita will be leading the Japan attack by the next World Cup in Russia in 2018. Japan, perhaps more so than Freiburg, need him to fulfill his undoubted potential.
Kinoshita is an intriguing prospect. He has shown that he is not afraid of taking big decisions. Time will tell whether he made the right one when he left Yokohama.
Looking back is not an option. Japan’s most forward thinking young forward must continue his upward momentum.