Arsenal new-boy Takuma Asano gets chance to shine in European football
While Arsenal were snubbed by Leicester's Jamie Vardy, Arsene Wenger has taken inspiration from the Foxes by signing a Japanese striker. If Takuma Asano is half as successful as Shinji Okazaki, Arsenal fans may finally have an Asian player to cheer on the pitch.
Asano, 21, will be hoping to make an impression where the likes of Junichi Inamoto and Ryo Ryo Miyaichi failed in London. Fast, flexible and feisty, he was far from the biggest name with Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the J.League. Just like fellow Japan stars Okazaki and Keisuke Honda, he came through the country's high school system, one that has little equivalent elsewhere in football terms. He joined Hiroshima at the right time as the team, not a traditional powerhouse, started to become dominant in domestically.
"Takuma is a talented young striker and very much one for the future." ��https://t.co/vO5SNftMwd- Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) July 3, 2016
Sanfrecce won a first championship in 2012 and have lifted the trophy twice since. Coming into a settled setup has certainly helped, with club coach Hajime Moriyasu a big influence. The highly respected coach is approaching five years in the job and has gradually given the attacker, who can play anywhere along the attacking midfield line, more and more minutes.
His breakout season came in 2015 when nine goals not only helped the Purple Archers to another title but won him the individual prize of J.League Rookie of the Year. By then, he had made his international debut. His first action came in last summer's East Asian Cup, a fairly low-key tournament that does not include Japan's European-based stars.
In June, he played with the big boys, including Okazaki, for the full 90 minutes in a 2-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, just days after coming off the bench to score his first international goal in a 7-2 thrashing of Bulgaria. The performances pointed towards more international opportunities coming his way during qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
Before that it is the Olympics and Japan will be aiming to go at least one better than the fourth place achieved at 2012. After that comes the big move to Europe. A couple of years ago, Asano may have been able to get a United Kingdom work permit but the tightened rules that came into place a year ago make it almost impossible now. That means a loan deal in Europe (assuming the three years in the European Union needed to get an automatic UK work permit is unaffected by "Brexit").
The record of English Premier League teams loaning out Asian players for visa reasons is mixed. Both Miyaichi of Arsenal and Manchester United's Dong Fangzhou did pretty well while in their respective temporary homes of Feyenoord and Royal Antwerp but neither the Japanese nor Chinese winger impressed when back with their parent club.
Asano could be different, though, and if he succeeds with the Gunners, he will be the first Asian player to do so.
While Inamoto and Miyaichi excited fans with their arrival in England, there was even more excitement in South Korea in 2011 as Park Chu-young, a huge name back east, surprisingly signed for Wenger in 2011. The striker played just seven minutes more in the league than "Ina", in a move that almost destroyed his career.
If there is not much glee among Arsenal fans about this new signing, then it is probably for the best. Japanese journalists were certainly delighted when Inamoto joined, as were Koreans over Park. The initial excitement quickly died down, however, and especially in Park's case frustration crept in.
It's better to start with low expectations in Europe and Asia. Fans in Japan will keep an eye on his progress but there won't be teams of journalists on local city beats like happened when Shunsuke Nakamura signed for Celtic in 2005.
The important thing is that Asano gets some playing time at a decent European level. Anything else is a bonus -- and for Arsenal too. This is not a commercial signing as there will be little benefit from Japan unless the player makes his way into the starting XI at the Emirates, or close to it.
It is a punt on a young prospect and assuming it does not go badly, Asano gets a European move and Arsenal should at least get their money back if he does reasonably well.
But if he does very well then Shinji Okazaki may just get a run for his money as the Premier League's poster boy.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.