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Talent Radar

J-League: Top 5 Young Players in 2016

From Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura and Hidetoshi Nakata, to current Japanese internationals, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa right up to the 2015 J-League Rookie of the Year, Takuma Asano  – Japan and its professional league have long since proven to be ripe with prodigious talent. 

At we strive to keep you abreast of the superstars of tomorrow and as such, with the 2016 Meiji Yasuda J-League season having recently concluded, Steven Davies has compiled the Top 5 Meiji Yasuda J1 League players U-22 for 2016.*

*This list comprises players from J1 clubs who were under the age of 22 for the duration of the 2016 Meiji Yasuda J1 League season.

5. Takahiro Sekine // 21 //  Urawa Red Diamonds // Midfielder (Right/Left)

Tsurugashima-born, Takahiro Sekine came to prominence when the then 18-year-old made his first team debut for Urawa Red Diamonds in a home tie against Montedio Yamagata in the 3rd round of the Emperor’s Cup on 16th October 2013 – replacing Shinya Yajima in the 69th minute and playing 21 minutes despite still being a youth team player.

Having formally graduated from the Urawa youth set-up in January of the following year, Sekine would go on to feature on 29 occasions, scoring three goals and adding one assist while 2015 would see the talented winger, who despite being right footed can operate down either flank, rack up a further 42 appearances in all competitions and find the back of the net on eight occasions while adding nine assists.

While not attaining the heights of 2015, the Japanese U23 international enjoyed a productive season nonetheless in 2016 – notching a pair of goals and eight assists during his 45 appearances in all competitions.

Despite starting the season slowly – recording two assists over the course of the first stage of the season along with a solitary goal in a 4-2 loss away at Sanfrecce Hiroshima on 18th June, the second stage of the 2016 campaign saw Sekine deliver on a more consistent basis – adding a further four assists and another goal – heading home the opener after just eight minutes of an eventual 4-1 home victory over Shonan Bellmare on 6th August.

Despite being right-footed, Sekine also showed his versatility by playing on the left of midfield instead of his customary position on the right for much of the latter part of the campaign as the 21-year-old put the disappointment of being omitted from Makoto Teguramori’s Japanese U-23 side that travelled to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio by helping Urawa reach the J1 League Championship Final. Having appeared as a substitute in his side’s narrow first leg victory, Sekine was named in the starting line-up and played more than an hour of the ultimately unsuccessful 2nd leg against eventual champions, Kashima Antlers before being replaced by Yoshiaki Komai in the 61st minute.

4. Shinnosuke Nakatani // 20 // Kashiwa Reysol // Centre Back

Having graduated from the Kashiwa Reysol youth set-up at the start of 2014, 20-year-old centre half, Shinnosuke Nakatani made a number of appearances for the J-League U-22 Selection in the third tier before eventually being handed a top flight debut by the club on 22nd October 2014 where, despite being right footed, he played the full 90 minutes against Gamba Osaka at left back before starting four of the last five games of the 2014 season at centre half – a position which the current Japanese U23 international would gradually make his own over the next two seasons – making 64 appearances in all competitions to date.

Despite his tender age, Nakatani – a native of Sakura, Chiba, has developed into an vital cog in a young Kashiwa side with 2016 seeing the talented centre half miss just six matches in all competitions – racking up 37 appearances and two goals along with being a part of a defence that kept twelve clean sheets to help the former two-time league champions to an eighth place finish in the overall standings. Nakatani also earned international recognition – being named as an alternate for Makoto Teguramori’s Japanese U-23 side that travelled to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

 3. Yuma Suzuki // 20 // Kashima Antlers // Striker

Having graduated from the Kashiwa youth system at the start of 2015, Chiba-born striker, Yuma Suzuki spent much of the year turning out for the J-League U-22 Selection in J3 – scoring three goals and adding two assists in eight matches before being handed his first team debut in the 2nd round of the Emperor’s Cup in a home tie against FC Ryukyu on 9th September where he replaced Masashi Motoyama in the 87th minute of a 3-1 victory for the hosts before going on to feature a further ten times over the remainder of the season – finding the net twice. Suzuki also made a cameo appearance as a substitute – replacing Atsutaka Nakamura in the 69th minute of Kashima’s J-League Cup Final triumph over Gamba Osaka on 31st October.

2016 proved to be the breakout campaign for the 20-year-old who made 42 appearances for the eventual champions, scoring nine goals and adding four assists in all competitions.

The then 19-year-old Suzuki would make his mark early – heading home the only goal in the 72nd minute to earn Kashima a narrow away win at Gamba Osaka on the opening day of the Meiji Yasuda J1 League First Stage on 28th February three minutes after having replaced Shuhei Akasaki.

Having spent the first half of the season making cameo appearances from the bench, the second stage of the season would see Suzuki rewarded with much longer stints on the field and, as his minutes increased, so too did the 20-year-old marksman’s goal return – scoring four goals in five games from mid-August to mid-September, despite lining up for four of these games on the right wing.

The versatile Suzuki would become an integral part of Masatada Ishii’s plans as the season wore on and, having replaced Yasushi Endo 21 minutes earlier, drew the decisive penalty in 79th minute of the second leg of the 2016 J1 League Championship Final that Mu Kanazaki duly converted to tie up the scores on aggregate and consequently secure a record eighth J1 League title for the league’s most decorated club by virtue of away goals.

The victory meant that Kashima would host the FIFA World Club Cup – a competition in which Suzuki also made his mark despite appearing three times from the bench. The talented young forward would set up Mu Kanazaki for Kashima’s second goal two minutes from time in their 2nd round victory over Mamelodi Sundowns FC before scoring the host’s third in their semi-final triumph over Atletico Nacional to set up a show piece final against UEFA Champions League holder’s, Real Madrid – a match in which the 20-year-old would also appear – replacing Shoma Doi in the 88th minute with the game locked at two apiece before Kashima capitulated to the Spanish giants with Cristiano Ronaldo completing his hat-trick by adding a brace in extra time.

2. Kosuke Nakamura // 21 // Kashiwa Reysol // Goalkeeper

Having graduated from the youth system at Kashiwa Reysol in January 2013, Kosuke Nakamura’s breakthrough arrived during a season-long loan at second tier promotion chasers, Avispa Fukuoka in 2015. Having made a handful of appearances for the J-League U22 Selection in 2014 down in J3, the talented young ‘keeper made his senior bow in a narrow away victory at Jubilo Iwata on 29th April in which the then 20-year-old also posted a clean sheet. In all, Nakamura would record 15 clean sheets in 23 games while conceding just eleven goals before unsurprisingly being recalled by parent club Kashiwa Reysol and installed as their number one ahead of the 2016 campaign.

Despite making a few mistakes towards the end of the season – which are so often par for the course with young goalkeepers, the 21-year-old shot stopper has had a season to remember, helping Kashiwa to an eighth place finish in the overall standings – posting thirteen clean sheets in 32 outings in all competitions and conceding on just 36 occasions.

His outstanding reflexes combined with a commanding presence that belies his tender age along with his ability to come off his line and sweep up behind his back four when the situation requires drew inevitable similarities with a young Manuel Neuer. Like his German counterpart, Nakamura is held in high regard by those involved with the international set-up, having represented his nation at various youth levels as well as making two appearances at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio where he was drafted in by Makoto Teguramori to replace Masatoshi Kushibiki for the second group match against Colombia after the young Kashiwa Antlers ‘stopper had conceded five in Japan’s opening Group B encounter against Nigeria on 5th August and would post a clean sheet in Japan’s narrow victory over Sweden in his country’s final group game before bowing out of the tournament.

It is unusual for a goalkeeper to receive so much recognition at such a young age but the praise bestowed upon the shoulders of Kashiwa’s talented young shot-stopper is very much justified with the 21-year-old having all the attributes required to become the best goalkeeper Japan has ever produced.

1. Yosuke Ideguchi // 20 // Gamba Osaka // Central Midfielder

2016 has been a standout year for Gamba Osaka’s 20-year-old Yosuke Ideguchi who, in addition to claiming the New Hero Award of the Levain Cup, was named J-League Rookie of the Year at the recent end-of-season awards – becoming only the second Gamba player to win the honour after Takashi Usami picked up the prestigious award in 2010.

Having graduated from the Gamba youth set-up in March 2014, Fukuoka-native, Ideguchi was faced with the colossal task of breaking into Gamba’s star- studded midfield trio of Yasuhito Endo, Yasuyuki Konno and Shu Kurata. However, Gamba manager, Kenta Hasegawa showed great faith by handing the then 17-year-old his first team debut just a month later during a J-League Cup victory over Sagan Tosu on 16th April where the midfield starlet would play the full ninety minutes and appear as a substitute in the following cup match against Kashima Antlers a month later before gaining further experience by turning out in a handful of games for the J-League U-22 Selection in the third tier while Gamba secured a cup double – overcoming Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the final of the J-League Cup on 8th November before dispatching Montedio Yamagata in the final of the Emperor’s Cup just over a month later.

After beginning the season with the J-League U-22 Selection in J3 – where he also notched his first senior goal during a 2-1 win over SC Sagamihara on 12th July, Ideguchi made great strides in the second stage of the 2015 J1 campaign. Showcasing impressive composure and technique for one so young, Ideguchi appeared 20 times for Gamba in all competitions and played the full 90 minutes of the side’s losing effort in the Suruga Bank Championship (the annual intercontinental match contested by the reigning champions of the J. League Cup and the Copa Sudamericana) against River Plate on 11th August.

But Ideguchi truly came to the fore for Gamba in 2016 – making 34 appearances in all competitions and finding the back of the net on four occasions. Having begun the year on a successful note by playing 78 minutes of Gamba’s second Emperor’s Cup triumph in as many years after replacing Koki Yonekura after just twelve minutes of play as the defending cup holders overcame Urawa Red Diamonds in the final on New Year’s Day, the talented midfielder also represented his country at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio – starting the 2-2 draw with Colombia on 8th August before replacing Shinzo Koroki in the 77th minute of Japan’s win over Sweden in their final Group B match three days later, while 2016 also saw Ideguchi receive a call-up to the full national team from Vahid Halilhodzic.

Like his predecessor as J-League Rookie of the Year – 2015 recipient, Takuma Asano, it will surely be only a matter of time before this outstanding young talent departs with a raft of top European clubs eager to secure the gifted 20-year-old’s signature in the near future.

Steven Davies

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