The prodigal son

After a strange start – where they defeated Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo on the opening day, but then struggled to find that form again –, Kashiwa Reysol now seems on the right direction to be the squad that many J. League passionate fans forecasted to be the dark horse in the run for an AFC Champions League spot, if not even for the title. We were convinced Marinos would have been unbeatable, but reality is showing otherwise.

If Kawasaki Frontale have such a deep roster to win it all, featuring several choices in different roles, you can say kind of the same for Reysol. Especially up front, the squad feature all the heroes from last year’s promotion from J2 – Michael Olunga, Cristiano, Yusuke Segawa and Ataru Esaka –, to whom the club added some solid signings throughout the last Winter transfer market.

We mentioned in the pre-season how the work done by Kashiwa was pretty good, adding parts where the performances weren’t as excellent as the ones in the offensive department of the pitch. That’s why Reysol signed Kim Seung-gyu (to put some pressure on Kosuke Nakamura); that’s why they saw many solid players joining, like Ominami, Mitsumaru, Kitazume and Takahashi.

As we mentioned in the pre-season retelling Nelsinho’s trajectory with the club (here), we also talked about the additions of Kamiya and Goya. But instead, we probably said too few things about another purchase: Hayato Nakama, the all-rounder coming from Okayama. It wasn’t just another add, but a long-waited return, which had to wait almost a decade to become true.

And, well, Nakama did indeed his best to deserve such a welcome back. But after the delay due to COVID-19, it seems Nakama has found a way to emerge and be absolutely fundamental for Nelsinho, who now might have a unexpected tool to climb the table.

He wasn’t messing around in 2019.

The beginnings

This piece, in the end, was already in our minds: if he would have stayed in Okayama, we would have written anyway about Nakama, because his resumé looked way too particular to be ignored. Until last February, he had only played in second division and we dare to say with a pretty solid score. But he was a product of the prosperous youth ranks at Reysol, who welcomed and developed him between 2005 and 2010.

Nelsinho was the manager back then of a club which was just coming back to J1 – they won the J2 title in 2010 – and the Brazilian head coach probably already spotted the kid, who was pretty promising. The club opted to send him and another Reysol protegé, Kosuke Taketomi, both to Roasso Kumamoto, still in the second division. Their destinies, though, looked really different in the end.

Taketomi is a couple of years older than Nakama and that’s why he already tasted a J2 field with Reysol, also scoring in his only appearance with the club. Taketomi stayed for two seasons on loan and then came back to the home club, while Nakama indeed joined Roasso straight up with a regular contract. He even missed his graduation ceremony in high school because he had to be on the bench with Roasso for a game.

The midfielder stayed for four seasons and no one from Reysol – who, meanwhile, became J1 title-winners and collected many trophies under Nelsinho – really made a step forward to have him back at the club. So Nakama built his own career, becoming a pillar for Kumamoto before manager Takeshi Ono took over. Under him, Nakama wasn’t regularly starting and so he had to move on. Somewhere else.

Anchor in Kagawa

Kamatamare Sanuki have been a more than unique presence in J2 League for five seasons. On their first year in the second tier, they had to retain their status by winning the 2014 promotion/relegation playoffs against Nagano Parceiro after coming 21st in the table. It was a tough debut, but the addition of Nakama and the steady guide of Makoto Kitano turned the club into a wonder story from 2015 onwards.

It might sound strange, but Kamatamare indeed avoided relegation-related positions in the three seasons where Nakama was there. The midfielder was initially on loan, but he quickly found his way to make himself crucial for the Kagawa-based club. Over his three years-stint with the squad, he scored 12 league goals, with the highest amount of seven in 2016. It wasn’t unusual to see him scoring solid goals.

Last but not least, Nakama was able to be used in many positions, playing 117 out of the 124 games he could have played in the three years at the Pikara Stadium (in the first year, he couldn’t play against former team Roasso Kumamoto because of a clause in his contract). Winger, mezzala, side midfielder, holding midfielder, as a no. 10… heck, even as no. 9! Kitano knew he could count on him to shape his squad.

We think it’s not accident if Kamatamare Sanuki got relegated in the exact season when Nakama wasn’t any more in the roster. Yes, because the midfielder – back then 27 years-old – opted to stay in J2, but with another team. And while Sanuki suffered a tough relegation – strange to see, but alongside the other former team of Nakama, Roasso Kumamoto –, the midfielder was ready to experience the peak of his J2 form.

Prophet and captain

Fagiano Okayama are a classic team in second division. They started their run in J2 League back in the 2009 and they had a couple of tough seasons while familiarizing with the new league, but then they achieved great things. Their magical season was 2016, when they touched the 10,000 people of average attendance and reached the playoffs final of J2 League, losing promotion only in the final against Cerezo Osaka.

Even the technical guide didn’t change that much throughout the pro-history: first Satoshi Tezuka, then five years under Masanaga Kageyama and then Tetsu Nagasawa. He’s back to FC Tokyo right now, but he was back then at his fourth season in Okayama and Fagiano looked sharp. Adding Nakama – the footballing version of a Swiss knife – to an already settled and tranquil environment made all the difference of the world to both parts.

Nakama unlocked again his scoring vibes, adding eight more goals in his personal J2 count, always counting on his tactical ductility. Nagasawa opted to not use him on the flanks, but rather giving him several tasks in the middle of the pitch. Central midfilder or one of the two behind the striker, Nakama even played as a no. 9 when Nagasawa didn’t deploy neither Shingo Akamine nor Kazuki Saito in the game.

And while certainly 2018 was satisfying, 2019 saw Nakama stacking up his chips on the development of his craft. Nagasawa left Okayama and Kenji Arima came in; given his results with YSCC a few years ago, we weren’t rating him so highly, but the move worked indeed and Okayama snatched another solid campaign, ending ninth in the table and collecting several solid wins (e.g. winning on Reysol’s home soil).

In the meantime, Nakama also took control of the captaincy in place of central defender Yusuke Tanaka and scored an amazing count of 15 goals and six assists, being probably the silent MVP of the last season. He scored some amazing beauties, but most of all gave Arima shockers that sometimes saved the day (like when he almost single-handedly won the game in Yamaguchi).

At that point, at the dawn of being 30 years-old, staying in J2 wasn’t an available option anymore.

Now what?

Like the protagonist of a Bildungsroman, Nakama suddenly came back to Reysol this Winter. Among the many additions of the club, the midfielder took the no. 33 and look confident about his chances, while also admitting that he also thought of quitting football when he indeed moved to Okayama. Instead, it became time to give it back to the place where everything started, even thinking of a possible championship run.

While he didn’t play on opening day, there’s a strange tendency which repeated itself already in Kagawa and Okayama: once Nakama got the starting eleven, Reysol did get better than the previous games. Kashiwa started with a win on opening day, then lost three games in a row when Nakama just entered the game. In the first game where the midfielder started – against Shonan Bellmare –, Reysol found back their winning ways.

Not only that, because Nakama also scored his first goal in a Reysol jersey with a magnificent volley. But he wasn’t done there, because the yellow-black side of Chiba enjoyed two more wins, scored 12 goals in those three games and the no. 33 himself featured in the scoresheet in all three matches. In this 4-2-3-1 line-up – less offensive than the 4-2-4 of last year –, Nakama started as a left midfielder and found his groove.

A young Nakama in a Reysol uniform, a decade ago.

Nakama appears to be a unique profile not only because of his history, but mostly because of his football skills. He has the relentless determination of Shinji Okazaki, the tactical awareness of James Milner and the high football-IQ of Dirk Kuyt, Maybe those comparisons might sound a little bit forced, but the midfielder is indeed a unique box of tools from where Nelsinho can fish without any fear.

Last but not least, it wasn’t granted for Nakama to find such space in a high-profile offensive department like this. But just like for every adventure he faced, this once young kid coming from Higashiagatsuma, Gunma has become a man and matured a lot throughout this decade. This is his chance, the one which a prodigal son should take to leave his mark on a more than bizarre season.

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