Gōtoku Sakai: Stuttgart’s Rising Star

Ask any knowledgeable football fan. They’ll tell you that if you want to see the future stars of the football universe as they develop, the Bundesliga is the place to go. From Bernd Leno to Marc-André ter Stegen; Mats Hummels to Holger Badstuber; Julian Draxler to Mario Götze; the Bundesliga is rife with burgeoning talents to keep an eye on.

Understandably though, a few young players slip through the cracks of the ever watchful mainstream football media. This is where the Bundesliga Fanatic comes in. To find out about all of those young stars in the making that aren’t yet burning as brightly as those above, this is the place to go.
Right now, we’ll take a look at VfB Stuttgart full back Gōtoku Sakai.

Be prepared for Philipp Lahm comparisons. Sakai himself tries to emulate the German standout. And though their similarities haven’t been talked up in the papers yet, they may be coming soon to media outlets near you.

Born in New York City and bred in Japan, Sakai made his start in football in 2009 for the J-League’s shining example of fan culture, Albirex Niigata. After 86 appearances for Albi, he made the move this past January to Stuttgart at age 20 (much like a certain Herr Lahm) on an 18 month loan.  (Stuttgart do have an option to buy.  Sakai’s current valuation on the tranfer market is estimated between 2.6 and 3 million euros).  Slight of build though he may be Sakai is comfortable at either full back spot, running out eight times at right back and six times on the left owing to his competency both feet, his threatening forward runs, and maturity surpassing his age in defence.

Making his first appearance for die Schwaben in February, Sakai went on to hand out an impressive four assists in 14 games, all while pacing Stuttgart in pass interceptions and successful tackles since his arrival. If WhoScored.com is to be believed, all of this led to Sakai being outperformed by only Borussia Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek and the ambidextrous legend Philipp Lahm himself as far as full backs go with an average match rating of 7.27. Not bad company.

Naturally though, there is room for improvement. His pass completion percentage is middling at 74% and sometimes he finds himself foolishly caught out. Happily, things such as these can be improved with match experience; and while both issues saw steady improvement as he became integrated with the team, further progress can be reasonably expected in his upcoming first full season in the German top flight.

With an eye cast toward the future, it is safe to say that the body of work he has created since making the switch to European football should see that he stays in the southwest of Germany long after his loan expires next summer. VfB Stuttgart appear to have found themselves a fixture at the back for years to come.

As to which country the young Sakai will pull a shirt over his head for internationally, nobody knows as of yet. While he did represent Japan at the U-20 and U-22 levels, not to mention playing excellently at this summer’s Olympic Games for the Samurai Blue, because he has not yet turned out for the full national team, Sakai remains also eligible to play for the United States (his place of birth) or Germany (the country of his mother’s passport).

No matter whom he represents though, Gōtoku Sakai is going to do some country proud—just as he does already for the VfB faithful, whether you, the media, or indeed Phillip Lahm knew it already or not.

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Niko Friedrich is a 21 year-old student by day and football writer with a soft spot for the German game on a warm Sevilla night. Find him on Twitter @NikoFriedrich even if he barely knows how to use it.

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