There was a lot to be excited about about Cerezo Osaka heading into this year. But Kenyu Sugimoto wasn’t really one of them. Fast forward six months, and Cerezo’s number 9 is making quite a name for himself, even the crowded corps of Cerezo’s high profile players. Regular writer and Mondofutbol‘s Gabriele Anello looks at the peaks & troughs that happened on the route to Sugimoto’s current lofty status.

 

May 2016: Cerezo have just lost against exciting Renofa Yamaguchi (sigh). A tough 4-2 home loss after being ahead. And while Cerezo is still in play-off zone, they’ll need all 1st stage to figure out the situation. In this scenario, there’s a kid – no, a man at this point – who still hasn’t found his way. He’s probably been one of the most lauded kids in Japanese football, but no one has really seen anything in him.

His name – which caused a lot of frustration in many Japanese football fans – is Kenyu Sugimoto. He has scored ONCE in 15 games in the second division. One year later, despite the fact that all the odds were against this scenario, everything has changed.

Golden boy (really?)

Sugimoto is part of that ’92 generation – Usami, Saito, Miyaichi – who should have ruled Japanese football, but instead has under-delivered. Nothing inherently wrong about that, but a bright destiny awaited Sugimoto. Born in Ikuno-ku (one of Osaka’s wards) and raised by Cerezo’s florid youth ranks, Sugimoto was highly praised for his performances. He was even in the Japan squad for 2009 U-17 FIFA World Cup and he scored a goal against Brazil.

Of course, many Japanese pro-clubs were after him, but he chose to stay in Osaka. Cerezo let many talents go in those years – from Kagawa to Kiyotake to Inui –, but they needed a new hero, since Yoichiro Kakitani was still “learning about football & life” in Tokushima. When Sugimoto debuted with the first team – 23rd July 2011 against Shimizu S-Pulse –, he needed only one month to score his first goal. There were high expectations for him but Cerezo let him go on loan to Tokyo Verdy for the 2012 season.

Unluckily for him, it was the 2012 season that labelled him as “over-rated”. He scored five goals in 18 matches with Tokyo Verdy, forcing Cerezo to call him back, but four goals in four matches of Emperor’s Cup weren’t enough for the expected leap. With years going by, he never exploded as some people predicted; instead, he even left Cerezo at one point, joining Kawasaki Frontale in 2015 as a back-up for Yoshito Okubo.

Scoring 11 goals in 90 league matches seemed a good reason to let Sugimoto go elsewhere.

The darkest hour

And there wasn’t only that motivation: many fans were surprised to see Sugimoto called-up for 2012 London Olympics by Takashi Sekizuka, since the head coach left home talents like Ibusuki (it seems like ages have gone by…) and Haraguchi (not the same position, but still…). Yes, he wasn’t the starter – Sekizuka picked Kensuke Nagai for a blistering counter-attacking style, which actually worked –, but still this choice raised many eyebrows. I did write about Sugimoto one year ago this sentence on JLR, celebrating those London kids and their 4th place in 2012:

«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. […] Sugimoto is back to Osaka for the third time, but we are still waiting for his first season in double digit of goals…»

Moreover, it was indeed true. Sugimoto played a decent J1-season with Frontale (especially in the first half of 2015 season: four goals out of 11 J1-matches, only four of those played for the whole 90 minutes), considering his competitors in the role were Okubo, Yu Kobayashi, Renatinho and Funayama. In addition, newly hired Japan’s head coach Vahid Halilhodzic even considered him, calling him up for a training camp in May 2015. But when Renatinho left for Guangzhou R&F and Sugimoto was supposed to take a step forward, he missed his chance.

So, no other choice than going back to Cerezo, which in the mid-time got relegated in J2. Sugimoto’s first half of season in Osaka – two goals in 19 games – almost killed his career. Having 24 years-old, no one was excepting anything more from him. Than… something changed.

Ken’yu? Yes, he can

From MD19 to the end of the season, Sugimoto scored 13 goals (plus 6 in Emperor’s Cup, though 5 of them came against R. Velho), dragging Cerezo to the playoffs and then to promotion to J1. It wasn’t easy and most of all was certainly a surprise, since Sugimoto even showed some signs of anger due to poor Cerezo’s results until there (the main goal for 2016 season was DIRECT promotion). After that, in 2017 Sugimoto has already scored 8 goals in 18 matches, being probably the most important man for new Yoon’s Cerezo.

Moreover, Cerezo now is leading the table, while last year they weren’t even able to defeat Kamatamare Sanuki. What changed?

First of all, a change of position. Sugimoto has been tested in several positions up front, from winger to second striker, passing through – of course – the central forward role. He didn’t seem to find his place, but this finally happened in the last year: he’s a strange kind of “9”, who prefers to play near to his team-mates, being capable of scoring even from out of the last 16 meters. In their 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 picked for this return in J1, Cerezo found Sugimoto to be the key-man.

Secondly, there was certainly a mental switch. I wouldn’t credit it to Kiyoshi Okuma, who struggled to give his shape to the squad. Instead, Yoon Jong-hwan might have done something. If you remember, we’re still talking about the man who brought Sagan Tosu in J1 and leading the table in August 2014 (then he was fired: three years have gone by and I still don’t understand why they did it). Yoon worked well not only on the squad (Cerezo’s leading the table), but mostly on some players (like Yamamura, Kakitani and Yamaguchi): Sugimoto was though the biggest beneficiary of this change of managerial style.

And now? Now we wait and see. Sugimoto has scored a brace in the Osaka derby and he was instrumental in the victories against FC Tokyo and Kashiwa Reysol. If he keeps this scoring-form (it’s a big “if”, given the past), he might be a target for Japan national team. In December Japan will play the EAFF Asian Cup, suited for experiments. Has the time come to evaluate this kid?

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