J. League is on the rise and surely the recent COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped the developing trajectory of the league, which – as we said in the pre-season – was clearly set up to go even higher in the upcoming months. Despite the outbreak, though, J. League is trying to manage the situation and games have resumed in the last weeks, which brings us to the point of this new special column.
In the style of recent years, we fear that sometimes the narrative about J. League has been too focused on the main heroes and less on who we would call “sparring partners”, who are represented by truly important players for certain sides and featured in many successes of some clubs in the last years. Think about the defensive backbone of Sanfreecce Hiroshima, senators at Kashima Antlers throughout 200s or members within Kawasaki Frontale.
Under the surface, though, there’s a multitude of decent, if not solid players to be discovered. And you need a closer look to really get a grip on them: that’s why we involved again a friend of this project – J. League Stats (you can find and you should follow him on Twitter by the name of @J1tokei) – to scour the unsung heroes of the top tier, the ones we don’t often talk about.
The column is called “Blanklisted”, joking on the “blacklist” term and twist it to our favor. Because yes, sometimes you could be one of the most efficient players of the league and still get overlooked by many fans. No shakedown, no suffering, but simple and plain indifference. For Episode 3, we progress with our Southern journey: after Osaka and Oita, we stay in Kyushu, but we head West.
Sagan Tosu have been a constant presence in J1 since 2012, when they surprised everybody on their maiden season and almost got an ACL-spot in the process. Their last years haven’t been really enthusiastic, but there’s a player who stands head and shoulders above everyone else: that someone is Riki Harakawa, no. 4 of Sagan and real saving grace of the club in the last couple of years.
Before the spotlight
Class ’93 and born in Yamaguchi, Harakawa started from the local club, when Renofa weren’t yet the team we know today. The small Riki began from their youth ranks, sharing that time with another well-known profile in Japanese football, Yuya Kubo (born in the same year and in the same city). Their performances didn’t go unnoticed and Kyoto Sanga opted to sign them both for their youth ranks in 2009.
If 2011 was the breakout year for Kubo – capable of featuring in a team who played the Emperor’s Cup final –, it took more time for Harakawa, who indeed joined the first team the year after. Moreover, he played just 11 games in all competitions in two seasons, since Kyoto were trying to push promotion under manager Takeshi Oki. The young midfielder needed a loan to actually have his own breakthrough season.
That’s where Ehime FC came in play. Harakawa was loaned to a small team like the one back then-managed by Kiyotaka Ishimaru. It’s not like Ehime shone that much – they came 19th in the table –, but they managed to stay away from troubles and gaining 15 points on the relegation/promotion playoffs-spot. After this year, it was time to come back, since Ishimaru was named the head coach of Sanga and wanted Harakawa in the roster.
Unfortunately, Kyoto enjoyed the return of the young midfielder for just one season. While Sanga had a good year – coming fifth and drawing the playoffs semifinal against Cerezo Osaka, ending their promotion run –, Harakawa showed he could make the leap to J1. That’s why Kawasaki Frontale opted to buy him for the upcoming year, although the story won’t go as planned.
In the last year of that emotional (and spectacular) rollercoaster called “the Yahiro Kazama park of wonders”, Harakawa crumbled. At 23 years-old, he had other players who were preferred in his position – Ryota Oshima was exploding, Eduardo Neto was necessary to keep everything in its place – and Kazama even tried him as a side-back. After just eight games played, he opted to leave on loan, even if Frontale changed their coach.
The chance to shine
And that’s where Sagan Tosu came into the scene. Back then coached by Massimo Ficcadenti, Harakawa endured a new kind of football: he switched from a super-offensive team – where he probably was just one option among many – to a more defensive team, in which Harakawa represented the most creative player. With both Takahashi (Yoshiki and Hideto) and Akito Fukuta covering him, the midfielder was finally free of playing his own brand of football.
Ficcadenti, of course, couldn’t be happier about it, since Harakawa enjoyed a wonderful debut season at the Best Amenity Stadium: seven goals, mostly from set pieces. He had that something Sagan needed to stay above the relegation line. Even when Ficcadenti was let go and Kim Myong-hwi came in, Harakawa remained a key-player for the starting eleven, the main hope when you needed something different.
This is something resonating also from the stats of our friend from “J. League Stats”, who helped us tracing Harakawa’s figure on the pitch. Looking at some data, it seems clear how much Sagan depends on Harakawa’s creative genius. His numbers in 2019 were fundamental to avoid the drop for Tosu:
- 48/184 crosses, with a 26.9% accuracy (the fourth biggest accuracy for crosses in J1).
- Sagan Tosu attempted the second highest number of crosses in J1 2019, heavily relying on those. Harakawa’s 184 crosses make up over 30% of their cross attempts and this highlights his importance and how his high accuracy was pivotal to their chance creation.
- 42 key passes (highest number for Sagan).
- 7 big chances created (highest number for Sagan).
- 6 direct free kicks taken, scoring two of them (joint-most in J1) and keeping five of those six FKs on target (83,33% of accuracy).
Despite 2020 seems the worst season in Sagan’s history – for many reasons, from the economical situation to the COVID-19 recent outbreak, passing through a poor roster –, Harakawa is still delivering somehow:
- 12/32 crosses, with 37.5% of accuracy (highest for Sagan).
- 10 key passes (second most in Sagan).
- 9/13 successful dribbles (second most in Sagan).
- 11 shots*, with 27.27% on target (highest number of shot attempts in Sagan).
The rise of Harakawa in Kyushu hasn’t been accidental, just like Ryan explained us in a quick resume:
“Part of a stellar crop of young talent representing Japan at the 2016 Olympics that included the likes of Shoya Nakajima, Takumi Minamino, Wataru Endo and Ryota Oshima.
Riki Harakawa was a rising star once upon a time not so long ago. Today, he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the above-named and perhaps fairly so, given their vastly differing career trajectories. And yet, in his contributions for struggling Sagan Tosu, the technical excellence that took him to those heights surface every so often.
As the numbers will tell you, Harakawa’s importance to this Sagan side cannot be understated – with him leading the way in most facets of attack. Ball progression, chance creation and shooting ability – Harakawa excels in most areas required of an attack-oriented central midfielder.
But perhaps his greatest suit—and one he can still stand toe-to-toe with his former teammates in—is his uncanny, magnificent ability from set-pieces. Sagan’s chief corner and free kick taker hasn’t quite gotten as many chances to dispatch that outstanding quality in his gifted right boot from dead ball situations this season. But when he does, you better believe he’ll take it in style.”
The present and the future
At 27 years old, we don’t know if it’s too late for Riki Harakawa to try the leap to Europe. It might not be like that, honestly, since the quality is there, it’s tangible and it wouldn’t make the jump to the Old Continent too hard for him. At the same though, because of his age and collocation on the Japanese football landscape (we guess Sagan received already some offers in the last years for his services, but he never left, not even this Winter), it seems pretty probable to see him staying.
Just like other players who could have tried the leap and didn’t. As for quality and role on the pitch, two names come immediately to mind: Yasuhito Endo and Youske Kashiwagi. Both stayed with their respective clubs, although the latter switched from Sanfrecce Hiroshima to Urawa Red Diamonds. Both were creative players in the prime of their career and opted anyway to be loyal.
Strangely he played for the U-23 team and he featured in the Rio Olympics, but he never had a chance to wear the Japan national team’s jersey for the senior side. And that’s a shame, because even in his current squad, Harakawa can find players who did (like Teruki Hara, Hideto Takahashi and Yohei Toyoda). We hope for him to have a future shot at this, maybe even as an overage player for Tokyo 2021.
Meanwhile, Harakawa faces a tough season and a lot of questions for the future: will he stay in Sagan despite this strange situation? Will he be enchanted by other opportunities and try the European football? Or will he stay in Japan, but with a different team? Hard to know at this point, but surely he’s been and he’ll be one of the ones to watch when J1 football is around.