The new Premier League season gets underway on August 8th, and 2015-16 will see another Japanese international aiming for success in England, with Shinji Okazaki having finally made the switch to Leicester City from Mainz.
In the last few years a handful of players have tried and failed to make a telling impact in the division, and while Maya Yoshida has done well to establish himself as a semi-regular at Southampton, the likes of Tadanari Lee, Shinji Kagawa, and Ryo Miyaichi have all struggled to demonstrate their true ability in the English top flight.
Okazaki differs slightly from that trio in that he is already 29, has five years of Bundesliga experience behind him, and has long been established as Japan’s first-choice striker. Leicester were chasing his signature for some time and hopes are high in Japan that the former Shimizu S-Pulse man can hit the ground running at the King Power Stadium.
Rob Tanner, who covers the Foxes for the Leicester Mercury newspaper, suggests that expectations are a little more muted in the city itself, although he thinks from what he has seen of Okazaki in the Bundesliga that he is suited to the style of play in England.
“I knew that City had been chasing him for a year because Nigel Pearson told us,” he said. “His goalscoring record isn’t sensational but he fits the mould of a Pearson striker as he is very hard working and mobile.”
Of course Pearson is no longer coaching the side, with former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri having been appointed to replace him on July 13th. Quite how that affects Okazaki remains to be seen, but Tanner doesn’t think the change should cause too many concerns.
“I think everyone has a clean slate and he will have to impress Ranieri in training and pre-season like the rest of them. Obviously, the fact that Pearson had pursued him for a year at least meant he was highly rated and it is uncertain how Ranieri rates him.”
Leicester fan Mayur Bhanji actually thinks the arrival of ‘The Tinkerman’ may benefit Okazaki.
“Even though Okazaki is a Pearson signing, I actually think he’ll get more of a chance with Ranieri – a foreign manager who faced difficulties of his own when he came to English football,” he said. “He may turn out to be a father figure for him and help him settle down and concentrate on his football.”
Even so, Bhanji admits that he is a little unsure as to where Japan’s No.9 will fit in.
“I think like most Leicester fans the reaction was ‘do we really need him?’ Leicester signed [Andrej] Kramarić in January and he’s taking time adjusting to the Premier League, but you can see he’s a very talented player. The Foxes have the likes of [Leonardo] Ulloa, [David] Nugent, [Jamie] Vardy already there too. And of course Okazaki will take time finding his feet in English conditions.”
One player he could look to for advice in that respect is Yuki Abe, who spent a couple of seasons at Leicester when they were in The Championship between 2010 and 2012. Abe, like Okazaki, is more of a steady than spectacular player, although that served him well in England where players who give their all for the team are always appreciated by supporters and teammates alike. Bhanji, for one, was a big fan of the current Urawa Reds captain.
“He was one of my favourite players at Leicester. Sven [Göran Eriksson] used to like to play two holding midfielders when he was manager and Abe did a lot of the ‘dirty’ work in front of the defence. His distribution was excellent and he settled into the city well. He was almost a [Dietmar] Hamann type player – never flash but an important player in the team.”
Tanner also has fond memories of Abe’s spell in the midlands.
“Yuki was quite popular with the fans and had his own song,” he recalled. “He was an industrious player and also incredibly polite to everyone. I think he just struggled to settle in England and was allowed to leave pretty soon after Pearson returned to the club.”
In order for Okazaki to avoid his four-year deal being cut short it is vital that he sets out of the traps quickly and takes any opportunities that come his way.
“Give his all and play his heart out,” is Tanner’s advice to get the supporters onside. “English fans will always back a trier who gives 100 percent, but a few goals early on in his career won’t go amiss.”
“Quite simply he’ll have to score goals and be up to pace with the league. The fans will give him a chance but he’ll have to work hard, show for the ball and of course score goals for himself.”
Okazaki has done that throughout his career, but doing it in the Premier League will undoubtedly be his toughest challenge yet.