After winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles, Shinji Kagawa left Dortmund for Manchester United to achieve his childhood dream of playing in England. However, encouraged by his remarkable success in Germany, an increasing number of Japanese players are following in his footsteps and moving to the Bundesliga.
Taking note of the historical success that Dortmund achieved with Kagawa (and the unprecedented profit made off of him), more German clubs have started looking to the J. League for players to add to an an already blooming list of Japanese footballers like Makoto Hasebe, Takashi Usami and Atsuto Uchida. This season, there are three more joining Bundesliga teams: Hiroshi Kiyotake, Hiroki Sakai, and Takashi Inui This piece will look at their careers, their skills, and what they can accomplish in their first season of top-flight German football.
After beginning his career with hometown club Oita Trinita, Kiyotake was bought by Cerezo Osaka in 2010 as a direct replacement for Dortmund-bound Kagawa. In his first season, Kiyotake immediately became an integral part of the first team, playing in 25 league matches and forming an excellent midfield duo with Inui. Newly-promoted Cerezo finished in 3rd that season, one point behind glamorous rivals Gamba, and qualified for the AFC Champions League. In 2011, Cerezo suffered from a mild case of second-season syndrome in the league, finishing in 12th. Kiyotake, however, was excellent, scoring seven league goals, and was named to the J. League Best Eleven. He also scored four times in the Champions League, as Cerezo advanced to the quarterfinals. In 2012, he was enjoying another successful season in Osaka before he was snapped up by Nurnberg.
Kiyotake has 9 caps for the senior international team, most recently featuring in a World Cup qualifying win over Iraq. This summer, he was one of the outstanding players on the Olympic team that made it to the bronze medal game, beating pre-tournament favorites Spain along the way.
As a player, Kiyotake has similar qualities to Kagawa. He’s agile and has fantastic technical ability. He plays excellent short passes and scurries around the middle of the park, acting like a moving piece of plywood that teammates can play the ball off of, confident they will get a perfect pass back. Though he prefers short passes, which he can slip through defenses at acute angles, he does have the ability to play balls over the top, which he showed to set up Japan’s winning goal over Morocco at the Olympics. He also has a fantastic shot and is equally adept at curling shots from either foot or uncorking from deep. Though he isn’t fast over long distances, he moves quickly, and can easily get away from defenders. Unlike Kagawa, he doesn’t regularly wander deep into the box to finish off moves. Instead, he uses his excellent sense of timing and makes runs to arrive at the top of the box. This isn’t to say he’s a deep-lying playmaker, because he does like to play close to the forwards, but he is more like a number 8 than the number 10 role that Kagawa prefers.
As indicated by the fact that he has started both league matches so far this season, Kiyotake will likely have a crucial role at Nurnberg this season. He’s already taking the corners, one of which was headed in by Tomas Pekhart against Dortmund, and Nurnberg will likely look for him to shoulder the creative burden as they try to improve on last season’s 10th place finish.
In 2010, Kashiwa Reysol gained promotion to J1 and young Sakai was just being introduced into the first team. The following season, Kashiwa took the J. League by storm, remarkably winning the title and Sakai was one of the outstanding players on the team. He was named the J. League Rookie of the Year and joined Kiyotake in the J. League Best Eleven. That winter, Kashiwa took part in the FIFA Club World Cup and advanced to the semifinals, beating Auckland City and Monterrey (pens) en route. They were beaten 3-1 by Santos in an engrossing match, in which they stood toe-to-toe with the South American champions but were undone by three spectacular goals. Sakai scored Kashiwa’s lone goal.
On the international level, Sakai has made four senior appearances and was also on the Olympic team this summer. He started at rightback in the first match against Spain, and notably limited Jordi Alba to being just a defender, but was injured late on. After being deputized by Stuttgart’s Gotoku Sakai, he returned for the knockout matches.
Sakai is fast and, at 6 feet, tall for a fullback. Defensively this allows him to keep up with most forwards he faces and steal possession with long-legged challenges. Furthermore, his speed allows him to carry the ball out from his own half with ease. In the Olympics, he impressively negated Spain’s high pressing when he got the ball by just putting his head down and outrunning the pressure. In attack, Sakai provides excellent width and plays fantastic curling crosses.
Currently, Sakai is behind captain Steve Cherundolo in the rightback pecking order. He didn’t featured in either of the Bundesliga matches, however he did play in the 5-1 Europa League win against Slask Wroclaw, coming on for Cherundolo in the 70th minute and finding Szabolcs Huszti with a cross for Hannover’s fifth. While Cherundolo will continue to be first choice, Sakai will probably get a good number of games as Hannover balance Bundesliga and European schedules. And with Cherundolo 33 years old, Hannover are certainly looking to nurture Sakai as their rightback of the future.
Like Kagawa and Kiyotake, Inui’s journey to the Bundesliga began with success at Cerezo Osaka. After struggling to secure a first team place with Yokohama F. Marinos, Inui was loaned to Cerezo in J2 to gain experience and the move was made permanent a year later in 2009. That season, Inui formed a tremendous midfield with Kagawa, and Cerezo blitzed J2 to finish in second and gain promotion. Inui scored 20 goals and Kagawa an incredible 27. The following season, Cerezo finished third in the J. League, and Inui and Kiyotake formed an impressive midfield. Before Kagawa left for Dortmund, there was a brief period when all three were on the same team, however they were never all on the pitch at the same time. The following summer, Inui moved to Bocum in 2. Bundesliga, and in his first season he scored seven league goals. Bocum finished in 11th, but Inui’s outstanding performance did not go unnoticed. He was snapped up by Eintracht for 1.2 million euros and handed the number 8 shirt. For the national team, he has four senior caps but has not been selected on any tournament squads.
Inui is an attacking midfielder with outrageous technical ability. In addition to the standard compilation videos of him gliding past hapless defenses, you can watch Inui demonstrate his skills in a juggling tutorial on YouTube. In it he shows off his trademark move, the Inui Tornado, which has led to countless videos posted by kids of their imitations. On the pitch, Inui also has great passing vision and an excellent shot. He loves to cut in from the left to curl in shots with his right.
So far this season, Inui has started both matches on the left of the 3 in a 4-2-3-1. Eintracht will look for big contributions from him as they try to at least stay up in their first season back in the top flight. So far, they’re off to a great start with maximum points. Inui was credited with an assist against Hoffenheim when his pass found Alex Meier who’s shot took a massive deflection into goal.