Something that crops up whenever there is talk of J-League players transferring to Europe is how it will help to raise the level of the Japanese game.
Opinion may be split as to whether Yoshinori Muto should sign on the dotted line for Chelsea, for instance, but pretty much everyone agrees that for the 22-year-old to achieve his full potential he needs to move somewhere in Europe sooner rather than later.
While football – as Diego Forlan so concisely put it last year – is not a science, it is hard to disagree with the assumption that more players in the big leagues means more exposure to a higher level of football, improved levels of physicality and aggression, and greater appreciation of what it takes to be successful.
That, in turn, should have a knock-on effect for the national team, and as more and more players representing the country in international competition become used to competing against a wider variety of opponents, the Samurai Blue should be able to add a level of resilience and streetwiseness that has thus far been lacking.
Of course ‘Japanese football’ doesn’t just mean the full national team, and having more rounded, experienced players in the division will also benefit the J.League as a whole. Thus far this season we have seen the impact that a few years playing abroad can have on players who return to the J-League, with Takashi Usami – understandably so, with the goals flying in – the one getting the most headlines at the moment.
Gamba Osaka’s prolific marksman had a difficult time in Germany, predictably finding first team opportunities hard to come by at Bayern Munich, and then failing to make an impression at Hoffenheim. The experience was clearly beneficial for him, however, and since he returned to Osaka mid-way through the 2013 season he has cut a more authoritative, confident figure, as well as been far more ruthless in front of goal.
Gamba are not the only team benefiting from a new-and-improved version of an already talented J-Leaguer in 2015, and on Saturday another player who has grown after a spell overseas showed how he has developed as Kashima Antlers took on Vissel Kobe.
When I arrived in Japan, Mu Kanazaki was a member of an Oita Trinita side who inexplicably found a way to get relegated to the J2 League despite, alongside Kanazaki, having Shusaku Nishikawa, Masato Morishige, Akihiro Ienaga, and a young Hiroshi Kiyotake in their ranks.
At that time, Kanazaki was yet another technically gifted, skillful, but rather raw Japanese attacker, who clearly had something about him but all too often lacked the final product. He improved a little in that regard after transferring to Nagoya Grampus the following season – picking up a J1 winner’s medal to boot – before earning his chance overseas in 2012, when he signed for Nuremberg.
As with Usami, things didn’t go as well as planned in the Bundesliga, but Kanazaki wasn’t willing to call it a day there and took on the challenge of moving to the second division in Portugal, with Portimonense.
There he added a new string to his bow, finding the net 16 times in 47 games – the same total he had accumulated in his 153 J.League games for Oita and Nagoya combined.
That success has seen him return to J1 with a spring in his step, and he has taken back to the J-League pitches with no fuss whatsoever, slotting straight into Kashima’s style of play and, in the absence of Davi, effortlessly filling in at centre-forward. In addition to his vital injury-time winner in the recent triumph away at Western Sydney Wanderers, Kanazaki has also scored three times in the J1 thus far.
It is not just his goalscoring exploits which are benefiting Antlers, though, and the physical side of the game is now something Kanazaki seems to relish. He put in a wonderful performance in the 3-1 win away to Kashiwa Reysol on April 16th, holding the ball up and creating time and space for his teammates superbly, and he was a real handful for the Kobe backline from the first minute on Saturday as well.
Indeed, within half-an-hour he had already inflicted a war-wound on Jung Woo-young – who had to be bandaged up after a keenly-contested aerial battle – and forced the Vissel captain to pick up a yellow card after reacting quicker to a ball over the top and being tripped from behind by the South Korean.
Jung had no complaints about Kanazaki’s aggressive style post-match, but displaying such a combative nature in the J.League does leave players open to unwanted attention from the match officials. Antlers’ No.33 was booked midway through the second half for one physical challenge before receiving his marching orders in injury time after a something-and-nothing coming together with Shohei Takahashi. The Vissel defender’s reaction was embarrassingly over the top, but Kanazaki probably shouldn’t have given him the opportunity to collapse to the floor and roll around like a child who’d been told he couldn’t have any ice-cream.
Even so, you have to take the rough with the smooth, and if this leaner, meaner Kanazaki keeps delivering positive results as well then I can’t imagine Toninho Cerezo will be overly concerned with the odd discretion every now and then.