In the second part of our look at what happened to the 2012 London Olympic squad, @NelloSplendor and @sushi_football take a look at the midfielders & forwards that coach Sekizuka took to the capital of the UK.
Club at the time: Borussia Mönchengladbach (GER)
Current club: Kashiwa Reysol
If we have to pick one that could have seen his career changed from London 2012, it’s for sure Yuki Ōtsu. Wonderboy of Kashiwa Reysol’s youth ranks, Ōtsu accepted the offer from Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer of 2011. That move should have been another successful challenge taken by a Japanese player after WC2010. Instead, Favre never believed in Ōtsu, who left Gladbach after one year.
Yet, his Olympics were amazing. Winning-goal against Spain, another goal against Egypt in the quarter-finals and a stunning rocket to open Japan’s account in the semifinal against Mexico. In the end, Japan lost both the semifinal and the bronze medal-match, but it seemed like Ōtsu had found his pace again. But those 20 days were a mere illusion. Ōtsu signed for VVV-Venlo, the Dutch club which saw the rise of Keisuke Honda and Maya Yoshida. This move, though, didn’t work for Ōtsu, who left Netherlands after two and a half seasons, sealed by a relegation to 2nd division. Today Ōtsu is again in Chiba, wearing Kashiwa shirt again.
Club at the time: Cerezo Osaka
Current club: Nagoya Grampus
One half of the Cerezo Osaka midfield partnership, Ogihara looked like a player comfortable on the ball when he played in Sekizuka’s U23 side. He was trusted, alongside Hotaru Yamaguchi, to protect the back four, and help start attacks, something that he did well in that set-up. Ogihara was exposed a bit in the semi-final against Mexico, and had a poor game in the bronze medal affair against Korea (although, to be fair, no-one covered themselves in glory in that game).
Still, the disappearance of Ogihara from even being mentioned as a potential international starter has been a bit puzzling, but it seems that his experience since 2012 has been closely aligned with Cerezo Osaka: high expectations, but an almost unfathomably bad effort to live up to them. Ogihara got plenty of game time in 2013 & 2014, but the situation the club found itself in in 2014, one of the favourites for the league but ended up relegated, didn’t lend itself to anyone coming up smelling of roses.
Not only that though, he failed to distinguish himself in J2, a feat which two or three years before would have been unthinkable. This year, he was pushed out of the starting lineup by the admittedly rather good Brazilian midfielder Souza, and Kazuya Yamamura. Add to that fact the return of Hotaru Yamaguchi and you can see why he needed a fresh start. Nagoya (as well as Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who were allegedly sniffing around for his signature) are banking on him returning the form of London 2012 and before, but it takes quite a leap of faith to imagine that that is going to happen.
Club at the time: Shimizu S-Pulse
Current club: Vissel Kobe (on loan from Shimizu S-Pulse)
Here we are: when you talk about Olympics, there’s always an odd name (I’m hoping to not be in 2020 talking to you about Ado Onaiwu). In the first part it was Ando; this time, it’s Muramatsu. He could play a full-back and midfielder, but he played just the third (and unimportant) game against Honduras in the group stage. After a JFL breakout, he was brought in to Hiratsuka to play for Shonan; then he signed in 2011 for Shimizu S-Pulse, where he featured a lot, but he never shone. In fact, Shimizu loaned him in 2014 to Tokushima Vortis and this year to Vissel Kobe. At 26, a former JNT-man (yes, he was called-up under Okada) is ready for J2 football. Meh.
Club at the time: Omiya Ardija
Current club: F.C. Tokyo
Despite sharing the same team of Manabu Saito, Takashi Usami and Hiroshi Kiyotake, Higashi was the one wearing the number 10 of Japan in London 2012. Four years have gone by and we can say that MAYBE it wasn’t the right choice. At that time, after seeing him at the Olympics, I thought to myself that a bright future was expecting him. He was a good part in Sekizuka’s squad and he had some resemblance to Claudio Marchisio: a box-to-box player, really good in finding the net. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. He signed for F.C. Tokyo in 2013, but he never had the quality to leap to JNT with Zaccheroni. He’s 25 and he has still time to progress, but it’s hard to tell how much of a possibility that will be.
Club at the time: Cerezo Osaka
Current club: Cerezo Osaka
It seems like nothing has changed for Kenyu Sugimoto, yet a lot has moved in the last four years. Liked by Sekizuka, but not so much by the fans, Sugimoto is a promise who never fulfilled his potential. Raised and launched by Cerezo Osaka, he scored just three goals at Nagai Park before wearing number 9-shirt with U-23 in London. He played three games at London 2012, not scoring: like always. When he returned in Japan, he was loaned to Tokyo Verdy (J2), return to Osaka to witness Cerezo’s relegation to J2 and then disappointing everyone as back-up striker in Kawasaki. Sugimoto is back to Osaka for the third time, but we’re still waiting for his first season in double digit of goals…
Club at the time: FC Hoffenheim (GER – on loan from Gamba Osaka)
Current club: FC Augsburg (GER)
Just some days ago, Takashi Usami left Gamba Osaka – this time for good – in a tearful celebration in front of his fans at Suita City Football Stadium. It was a deserved goodbye, since Usami was instrumental in Gamba’s return to J1, the 2014 triple, and the almost-winning run in 2015 AFC Champions League. Now, on his “worst” year since the return in Osaka, he’s been bought by Augsburg.
It’ll be a second chance in Bundesliga. In those London days, Usami tried to shake off the disappointment from his loanee-year at Bayern Munich, where he scored just one goal and was only lightly considered by Jupp Heycknes. Not even the second try to Hoffenheim went well.
Nemo proheta in patria said the Latin, but for Usami it was exactly the opposite. Now it’s time to shine again, but in Europe, where Sekizuka used him for too few minutes in London during the Olympics, prefering Otsu and Nagai to him (even Sugimoto, but let’s ignore that…).
Club at the time: Nagoya Grampus
Current club: Nagoya Grampus
Speed demon Nagai burst into the wider footballing consciousness when he dashed clear off the Morocco defence and sent a perfect lob over the keeper to give Japan a late 1-0 win at St. James Park. Another goal followed against North African opponents as Nagai started Japan on a path to a 3-0 win over Egypt at Old Trafford. That was to be as much joy as Japan would have though, as defeats against Mexico and South Korea meant that Japan finished fourth in the tournament, although Nagai could genuinely say that he had had a good tournament.
An unsuccessful stint at Belgian Jupiler League side Standard Liege was his “reward” for his good showing in London, but after only a handful of appearances he returned to the bosom of former club Grampus in the hopes of rekindling the spark. He’s been ok, but nothing more. In his defence he’s played in a team that has looked stale and unimaginative for the best part of three years, and a team which is battling relegation this year. Nagai’s afterburner pace is still there, but he doesn’t seem to have developed his end product. Still baby faced, but now 27 years of age, Grampus are going to rely heavily on him to get them out of trouble. Is he up to the task? If he channels his inner 2012 Olympic self, he’ll give the team from central Japan a fighting chance.
Club at the time: 1. FC Nürnberg (GER)
Current club: Sevilla (ESP)
Well, he’s probably the most underrated player of Japanese football in the last years. He achieved so much in these four years, yet he’s a “second option” in JNT. In that summer 2012, Kiyotake was a starter for Sekizuka after leaving his beloved Cerezo Osaka (where he continued the “number 8-dynasty”) and signing for 1. FC Nürnberg in Bundesliga.
If his display in London was good, Kiyotake was even more important for his two German clubs than Japan U-23. He was fundamental for 1. FC Nürnberg and he was the playmaker for Hannover 96: despite those two clubs were both relegated, his skills were noted by Sevilla, which just bought him (and he asked for n° 10 shirt, just left by Reyes). Japanese football owes a lot to Oita Trinita and its youth ranks: Kiyotake is just another demonstration of that.
Club at the time: Yokohama F.Marinos
Current club: Yokohama F.Marinos
The “Yokohama Messi”, Saito was in the midst of a very good season when he was called up for the U23 Olympic squad, having scored four goals in the first half of F.Marinos’ season. The small and slight of frame Saito had cut his teeth at J2 club Ehime FC, where he spent time on loan. Much like Yoichiro Kakitani, who also spent time on loan in J2 before becoming a “star” at Cerezo Osaka, the spell in J2 helped Saito toughen up and upon his return became an important member of the F.Marinos squad.
In London, Saito, coupled with Kensuke Nagai, gave Sekizuka some decent, pacey counter-attacking options. His pace came to the fore in the quarter final against Egypt when, after coming on to replace the injured Nagai, he latched on to a through ball from Keigo Higashi, outpaced Egyptian defender Saadeldin Saad and was brought down from behind. As last man, Saad was shown a red card, and that effectively ended the contest. He was back on the bench again for the semi-final, only coming on in the final 10 minutes to try and salvage something given that Japan were 1-2 down at the time. It wasn’t to be as Mexico went on to clinch a 3-1 win, and Saito wasn’t to be seen in bronze medal game.
Saito has ability, no doubt about it. Given the right system I believe he can be a game changing presence, but Yokohama F.Marinos are perhaps not the team that can give him the freedom he wants. Perhaps he’s more selfless than he needs to be, as he does an awful lot of tracking back and defending. If he didn’t have to do that, and instead focused on his trickery and skills against opposing full backs, he could be a very very good player.