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2017 Meiji Yasuda J1 League: Top 5 U-22 Players of the Season

Steven Davies sits down and takes a look at, who in his opinion, have been the best of a bright group of U-22 players in the Meiji Yasuda J1 League in 2017

From Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura and Hidetoshi Nakata, to current Japanese internationals, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa right up to the 2016 J-League Rookie of the Year, Yosuke Ideguchi – Japan and its professional league have long since proven to be ripe with extraordinary talent.

At we strive to keep you abreast of the superstars of tomorrow and as such, with the 2017 Meiji Yasuda J1 League season having recently concluded, Steven Davies has compiled the Top 5 Meiji Yasuda J1 League players U-22 for 2017.*

*This list comprises players from J1 clubs who were under the age of 22 for the duration of the 2017 Meiji Yasuda J1 League season.

Kento Misao // 21 // Kashima Antlers // Defensive Midfielder

It is safe to say that 2017 has been a breakout year for 21-year-old, Kento Misao.

Born in Musashino, Tokyo, Misao turned out for local junior side, Yokogawa Musashino before joining the youth ranks of Tokyo Verdy.

Despite being just 18-years-old, the defensive midfielder was named on the bench for the first team on two occasions towards the end of the 2014 campaign before becoming a fixture at the heart of the Verdy midfield the following year – appearing 41 times in all competitions, after making his senior debut in the home draw with Cerezo Osaka on 8th March 2015.

Despite his side having missed out on a promotion play-off place by just two points, Misao would be offered the chance to make the step up just prior to the start of the following campaign in the form of a move to Kashima Antlers which was completed on 12th January 2016.

Despite enduring a frustrating season in which he appeared just eleven times in all competitions as his new side won both the J1 title and the Emperor’s Cup, 2017 has proven to be a breakout year for the 21-year-old, who, having played a cameo role in the early weeks of the campaign, eventually evolved into a mainstay in the Kashima engine room. He made 33 appearances in all competitions and was credited with three assists over the course of the year while also notching his first goal at senior level – tapping in the opener two minutes after the restart in his side’s 2-1 victory at Consadole Sapporo on 29th October. The reigning league champions ultimately came up short in their quest to claim a second J1 crown in as many seasons, being edged out on goal difference at the top of the final standings by Kawasaki Frontale.

Having previously represented his country at U17, U18 and U23 level, whilst also being part of the squad that reached the last 16 of the 2013 FIFA U-17 Word Cup in the United Arab Emirates, Misao capped a remarkable 2017 by making his full international debut. The national team coach, Vahid Halilhodzic brought the Kashima midfielder off the bench to replace Yosuke Ideguchi in the 66th minute of a 4-1 defeat at the hands of near-neighbours, South Korea in the East Asian Football Championship on 16th December.

Shinnosuke Nakatani // 21 // Kashiwa Reysol // Centre Back

Having graduated from the Kashiwa Reysol youth set-up at the start of 2014, centre half, Shinnosuke Nakatani made a number of appearances for the J-League U22 Selection in the third tier before eventually being handed his top flight bow by the club on 22nd October 2014. Despite being right footed, he played the full ninety 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, developed into an vital cog in a youthful Kashiwa side. He racked up 37 appearances and two goals as 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 in 2016.

This past year has seen Nakatani continue where he left off. The 21-year-old made 35 appearances in all competitions, as Kashiwa came within a whisker of qualifying for the play-off stage of the AFC Champions League while also reaching the last four of the Emperor’s Cup before losing out in extra time to Yokohama F. Marinos.

Nakatani has also earned international recognition – being named as an alternate for Makoto Teguramori’s Japanese U23 side that travelled to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio after making his debut at U23 level in a four-goal victory over South Africa earlier that year.

Yuma Suzuki // 21 // 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 U22 Selection in J3. He scored three goals and added 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. 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 Suzuki 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 replacing 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. 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. 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 before scoring the host’s third in their semi-final triumph over Atletico Nacional. This set up a show piece final against UEFA Champions League holders, 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.

The young forward would continue his momentum into the new campaign – finding the net sixteen times in his 44 appearances in all competitions for a Kashima side who, despite securing the Japanese Super Cup thanks to an 83rd minute winner from super-sub, Suzuki in a five-goal thriller against Urawa Red Diamonds on 18TH February, would eventually lose out on a second league title in as many years to Kawasaki Frontale by virtue of goal difference.

Yuta Nakayama // 20 // Kashiwa Reysol // Centre Back

Despite being promoted from the Kashiwa youth set-up at the start of 2015, Ibaraki-born, Yuta Nakayama would spend the majority of the year turning out for the J League U22 Selection in the third tier.

However, 2015 would also see the young defender receive his senior bow from Reysol coach, Tatsuma Yoshida – being named in the starting XI of a narrow loss to Vietnamese outfit, Binh Duong at the Go Dau Stadium in an AFC Champions League Group E encounter on 6th May. He went on to make his league debut as a 68th minute substitute in a 1-0 victory over Gamba Osaka on 23rd June.

Yet it wouldn’t be until the following year that Nakayama would truly make his breakthrough at senior level, appearing 32 times in all competitions in a season that saw him fill in at left back for much of the first half of the campaign before later establishing a youthful central defensive pairing with fellow starlet, Shinnosuke Nakatani. The young defender would also find the back of the net for the first time at senior level when his header put Reysol one-up five minutes into an eventual six-goal thriller with Sanfrecce Hiroshima at the Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on 13th July. He went on to repeat the feat a few weeks later, heading his side back onto level terms in the 68th minute of a losing effort against Yokohama F. Marinos on 6th August.

Having become a fixture a first team level, 2017 saw the talented 20-year-old take centre stage, making 38 appearances in all competitions as Kashiwa narrowly missed out on securing a place in the play-off stage of the AFC Champions League. They also came agonisingly close to making the final of the Emperor’s Cup, losing 2-1 after taking eventual finalists, Yokohama F. Marinos to extra time in their semi-final encounter on 23rd December.

Having made his debut at U20 level for Japan in a 3-2 victory over Honduras on 16th May 2017, Nakayama, who having previously represented his country extensively at both U18 and U19 level, would be named in coach, Atsushi Uchiyama’s squad that reached the last 16 of the 2017 FIFA U20 World Cup in South Korea. He played every minute of his country’s four matches and be named as captain for three, including their narrow loss in extra time to eventual finalists, Venezuela in Daejeon on 30th May.

An impressive campaign was capped off with Nakayama succeeding Yosuke Ideguchi as J-League Rookie of the Year.

Yosuke Ideguchi // 21 // Gamba Osaka – Joined Leeds United (On loan at Cultural Leonesa) // Central Midfielder

Having graduated from the Gamba youth set-up in March 2014, Fukuoka-native, Yosuke Ideguchi was faced with the colossal task of breaking into the Osaka-based outfit’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. He appeared 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 U22 Selection in the third tier while Gamba secured a cup double.

After beginning the season with the J-League U22 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 ninety minutes of his 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, 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. He started 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. 2016 also saw Ideguchi receive a call-up to the full national team from coach, Vahid Halilhodzic.

While 2016 proved to be a standout year for Ideguchi who, in addition to claiming the New Hero Award of the Levain Cup, became just the second Gamba player to be named J-League Rookie of the Year after Takashi Usami collected the prestigious award in 2010, 2017 saw the young midfielder move to the next level. He became a mainstay in Halilhodzic’s side throughout the latter stages of qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia after making his full international debut as a 53rd minute replacement for Hotaru Yamaguchi in a friendly encounter with Syria that ended 1-1 at the Ajinomoto Stadium on 7th June. Ideguchi would also get off the mark for his country by netting the second in Japan’s 2-0 victory over Australia eight minutes from time in their FIFA World Cup qualifier in Saitama on 31st August before his 93rd minute strike helped his country to a narrow victory over North Korea in their opening match of the East Asian Football Championships on 9th December.

Despite Gamba enduring a mediocre season on the field – finishing a disappointing tenth in the eventual standings, Ideguchi’s impressive return of five goals and nine assists in his 39 outings in all competitions served to put him on the radar of a number of European clubs, interest which culminated in Leeds United snapping up the promising young midfielder on 3rd January 2018 before loaning him out to Spanish second tier outfit, Cultural Leonesa for the remainder of the campaign the following day.

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Steven Davies

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