Japan's Yoshinori Muto setting the Bundesliga alight at Mainz
Yoshinori Muto continued his impressive start to his European career by scoring a hat trick in Mainz 05's 3-3 draw away to Augsburg on Saturday. The Japanese international turned down a transfer to Chelsea in favour of a move to the Bundesliga, and his decision is bearing fruit in the form of both playing time and goals.
Muto was born in Tokyo and began his career in the youth ranks of the capital-city club FC Tokyo. He left in 2010 to pursue an academic career, in economics, at Keio University, but continued to play football and re-joined the club in 2012 while continuing his studies. He was handed his first-team debut by Ranko Popovic in July 2013, but it was the following year, under the guidance of Massimo Ficcadenti, that he really started to make his mark.
The young forward scored 13 goals in 33 appearances en route to earning himself a place in the league-wide Team of the Year at the end of his full debut season in the J-League. He made an even more impressive start to 2015, with 10 goals in 17 appearances during the first half of the year as FC Tokyo ended the first phase of the championship in second place.
His form impressed European onlookers, including Chelsea, who reportedly offered somewhere in the region of £4 million for his services. But Muto instead chose to follow the more well-trodden path for Japanese players with a move to the Bundesliga, where he signed a four-year deal with Mainz 05 to replace his outgoing compatriot Shinji Okazaki, now of Leicester City.
"The Premier League is a great league, but I'm not ready to play for Chelsea yet," he explained. "I don't want to hurry myself and want to develop steadily. The German first division is one of the best leagues in the world. I can face remarkable players from across the globe and it will help me develop."
The 23-year-old has certainly not looked out of place during his early months in Germany, with a tally of six goals and one assist representing a very solid return from 11 appearances. He opened his account with a double over Hannover in week three, scored another in the defeat away to Werder Bremen and then became only the second Japanese player in history to score a Bundesliga hat trick with his treble against Augsburg on Saturday.
Muto did not represent Japan at youth level but has already made 17 appearances for the senior national team, of which six have been starts. He scored his second goal for the Samurai Blue in last month's 1-1 friendly draw away to Iran and will now hope for further opportunities to prove his worth to recently appointed coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Muto is a bright, quick and persistent forward who consistently looks to unbalance opposition defences with his incisive dribbling, movement and combination play. He has a good knack of getting himself into goalscoring positions inside the penalty area and displays a competitive edge. Indeed, there are shades of Barcelona's Luis Suarez in his relentless pursuit of penetration.
-- Quick and incisive
-- Bright and active movement
-- Persistent and hard-working
-- Inconsistent first touch
-- Erratic finishing
-- Limited passing range
Tackling: Most of the pressure he puts on defenders is indirect. He makes less than one tackle per match on average.
Marking: Consistently makes things difficult for opposing defenders. Harasses at every opportunity and is always alert to a moment of indecision or lose of control that may allow him to nip in and win the ball. Sokratis Papastathopoulos may have ended up on the winning side when Borussia Dortmund travelled to Mainz last month, but he certainly didn't enjoy his personal tussle with Muto, who didn't allow him a moment's rest throughout the 90 minutes.
Heading: He stands below six-foot but has a solid leap on him and can be a decent threat inside the penalty area from the right kind of delivery.
Close control: Capable of quickly manipulating the ball away from challenges in tight confines. Changes direction swiftly and possesses a good little burst of acceleration that in combination with a decent touch and strong determination makes him a dangerously incisive dribbler in and around the penalty area. His first touch is, however, inconsistent, with his haste to move forward with the ball often leading to a loss of possession.
Passing: Much of his combination play with teammates involves short and sharp interchanges in close quarters, and he has not yet shown himself to be a good passer of the ball in other situations. Indeed, he sometimes looks a little lost when receiving the ball against well-set defences where there is not an immediate passing option available to him.
Positioning: Currently utilised as a lone central striker at Mainz, having previously played as a wide forward or second striker with FC Tokyo and the Japanese national team. Regardless of his starting position, he makes good use of the channels and is very effective when playing on the shoulder of the last defender. Alert and highly active in his movement. Regularly looks to get his body in front of a defender before spinning away.
Crossing: Occasionally provides decent low crosses into the area, but this is far from a regular occurrence. He is far more likely to cut infield towards goal on the dribble or on the back of a one-two than put the ball into the box.
Finishing: An assertive if occasionally erratic finisher, whose ability to fashion and get into good positions is currently more impressive than his ability to consistently finish chances. Strikes the ball quite cleanly and generates good power when doing so.
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What The Experts Say
Former FC Tokyo coach Ranko Popovic: "He has something different to all other players because he comes from a good family, he has good education, he was at university. A very smart, intelligent guy. He has something that you cannot learn."
Japanese international teammate Keisuke Honda: "He has good speed, he looks fresh and [brings] a new style. We've never had that kind [of striker] in the Japanese national team. I agree [that he's not a typical Japanese striker], so I like him."
Mainz coach Martin Schmidt, following Muto's double against Hannover: "He showed today why we signed him. Right now, he is building the foundation for what should be a brilliant career in Europe."
Muto's decision to join Mainz currently looks a good one. He is already proving a handful for Bundesliga defences and can only be expected to improve as the season progresses, particularly as he fine-tunes his understanding with the likes of Yunus Malli and Pablo de Blasis. Even at this early stage, he looks a good replacement for his compatriot Okazaki.
The 23-year-old has less than two full seasons worth of senior appearances to his name and still has plenty of room to develop from here. He looks to have the necessary skill-set, intelligence and desire to push on and become a consistent goalscorer in European football and a regular for Japan at international level. Give it a couple of years and Chelsea are unlikely to still be the only Champions League club interested in securing his services.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.