30 is the Magic Number

Not three, as De La Soul, amongst others, sang about. No, if you ask Urawa Reds supporters where the magic in their team lies, a large majority of them will say it lies at the feet & in the brain of their unassuming, laid back number 30 – Shinzo Koroki. In a team full of striking options, Koroki has assumed the mantle of talisman, scoring 12 times in 16 league appearances this year, and also making hay in the ACL.

But who is he? And how did he arrive at this current lofty status? Regular Regista investigator @nellosplendor goes deep to find out about the J.League’s current top scorer. Enjoy!

In a few weeks, Japan will mark their destiny within both club and international fields. Japan will definitely have a semi-finalist in the 2017 AFC Champions League, since Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Red Diamonds will face each other to gain a spot in the top two of the “Eastern Conference” (or Top 4 in the competition). In addition, the Japan national team will have two fundamental matches to snatch a ticket to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup: a win against Australia will be enough, but after the 1-1 draw against Iraq optimism isn’t exactly spreading between Japanese football fans and Halilhodzic’s days as head coach will probably end anyway after June 2018.

Yet, we need – as a football movement – a hero. Because right now the real heroes of recent years – Kagawa, Nagatomo, Kawashima, Hasebe, Honda (!) – are all struggling for different reasons. Meanwhile, the new faces have either disappointed (Usami, Kurata, Kashiwagi), been left behind (Muto, Shibasaki, Kanazaki), had a hard time (Kiyotake or… Uchida. Do you remember him? Injuries free, today he’d be easily on course for the top five for caps) or have just been ignored (Kosuke Nakamura is STILL WAITING for his first cap with Japan and Yu Kobayashi is playing the best football of his career). Despite the emergence of Kubo, Haraguchi and some other kids, they will not be enough to sustain Japan into the next World Cup.

If you scroll down the all-time scorer’s table in J1, you’ll find a new entry in the Top 10. This year, this centre forward reached a milestone of 110+ goals in the top-flight, well divided between two of the most important clubs in the history of Japanese football. He played with Japan NT a very long time ago, but it may be his time to shine again, despite having passed the 30s-limit: JFA should really consider Shinzo Koroki for the next games and immediate future.

Miyazaki bomber

Miyazaki – both the city and the prefecture – has not so much representation in the sport. There isn’t a pro football team and there are not so many players from that zone: alongside Masahiko Inoha – more famous for a crucial goal against Qatar in 2011 AFC Asian Cup than for his career – we have Shinzo Koroki. He has been good since he was a kid, but at one point he even thought of quitting football. He didn’t like hierarchy, so he stopped practising for a while: only the strong intervention of Hiromi Matsuzaki – manager of the club at Hosho High School – prevented him from leaving.

He was only 18 when he entered Kashima Antlers. A dynasty, the greatest club in Japan. But Koroki wasn’t scared. He waited a long time to enter in the rotation, but his patience was well-placed: in his first three years as a pro, Takayuki Suzuki, Masaki Fukai and most importantly Atsushi Yanagisawa left the club. This created some space for Koroki, who inherited Yanagisawa’s no. 13 and began to be a starter from the 2008 season. He went on to score double-digits just twice in J. League, but he was there when Kashima needed him – especially in 2009 when he scored four goals in the last three games of the season to clinch the title, including the last one for a 1-0 away victory in Saitama against Urawa Reds. Alongside Marquinhos as a second striker, they were an effective duo in front of goal.

Even when Kashima became less relevant, Koroki was there. It is strange how he never appeared in the Top XI of the season, but still he won so much due to his cleverness and completeness as a striker.

Shinzo Koroki’s 2009 season.

A True Guarantee

Unfortunately, Kashima had some troubles performing and some kids – like Yuya Osako, Shoma Doi, Yasushi Endo, plus a legend like Juninho, (bought from Frontale) – were growing too much to be left on the bench. In the end, he became a historical element of Antlers at only 26 years-old, but he wasn’t so important anymore (despite his 15 goals in 44 games of 2012). On top of it all, Kashima wanted to give some space to its youngsters, since Antlers’ youth ranks were (and still are) really good. The end of his contract in 2012 also marked his goodbye to Ibaraki.

Where to start again, though? Offers were not missing, since Koroki’s profile was still good. Urawa Red Diamonds tried for him, after they had recovered thanks to the work of Mihailo Petrović. Koroki became a new Red, but most of all Petrović re-invented the career of Koroki. He could have played as second striker, just like in Ibaraki, but the Serbian manager wanted him at the top, as centre forward. In the end, it was the best solution for everybody: Urawa plays a different formation – 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-1-1, instead of Kashima’s 4-4-2 – and Koroki fits better in this orchestra.

Numbers justify this choice: Koroki scored 51 goals in J. League with Urawa in four years (13, 12, again 12 and 14), which put Koroki in the all-time Top 10 list of goal-scorers in the top-flight. Maybe Koroki would have gotten there anyway, but he has done it faster and stronger than he could have done it with Kashima. Urawa is still missing something, since they have only almost won trophies (or they choked: take your pick), but Koroki is actually one of the keys to lift some silverware.

His 2017 season is even going better, since he has scored 15 goals out of 22 games in all competitions. And the season is far away from the end.

Some goals happen not because Koroki scores, but because Koroki begins and finishes plays like this one.

Like Yoshito, he has evolved

Just like in 2014, with regards to the national team, we face a similar situation. At that time, still Yuya Osako was supposed to be the starter as centre forward in the 4-2-3-1 of Zaccheroni. In addition, Zac confirmed his trust in Yoichiro Kakitani, who could have played two positions. Yet, the head coach didn’t want to pass on Yoshito Okubo’s scoring form and so was he called up for the World Cup in Brazil. In the end, Okubo scored a wonderful goal in a friendly game against Zambia and nothing more, except for a blind miss against Greece. Zac took his chances, but it didn’t play out as he expected. However, it was probably the right gamble: Okubo never played with Japan in qualifying games, but he won the goal-scorer title in 2013 with Kawasaki Frontale.

This time is not so different from four years ago. Yuya Osako has grown in Koln, but he should still be one of two choices (I believe he’s a second striker, but who gives… a lighter “9” is welcomed). In addition, Asano, Kobayashi and Muto could be in the contention, but the time is now for Koroki. His performances with Urawa definitely deserves a closer watch, even if it comes after the two crucial games against Australia and Saudi Arabia (at that time, we’ll know if Japan will be part of 2018 FIFA World Cup or not).

This could work also as redemption for Koroki: Takeshi Okada considered him during his second stint as Japan NT head coach, but he didn’t call him up for South Africa. Zaccheroni called him once, just to let him play 19 minutes in a friendly game against Peru. It took 4 years to see him again with Japan, but this time for 2015 EAFF Asian Cup: despite all the experiments by Halilhodzic, Koroki hasn’t impressed and he was cast aside another time. In summer 2016, Teguramori called him as over-aged player for 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, but Japan didn’t progress.

Of course, the future – I mean, past the 2019 AFC Asian Cup – shouldn’t be about Koroki. Yet, Yuya Osako can’t be the only one to shoulder this burden as centre forward. Halil could relocate Okazaki from right to centre, but Zaki isn’t having the best of times (despite this, I really hope he will be in Russia, because a “joker” is always useful). However, we have to admit Koroki should be closely watched. Those 16 caps – without any goal scored – don’t match the performance in J. League: it’s a worthy cause to investigate, especially if it means Japan can have a “sniper” on its roster.

Once again, a great piece from Gabriele! What do you think? Do you think Koroki deserves national team recognition again? In any event, he’s going to have a very good shot of finishing as the top goalscorer in the J.League this year.

If you don’t already, you should be following Gabirele at @nellosplendor and he writes for Mondo Futbol. I highly recommend you give them a look.

One thought on “30 is the Magic Number

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