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. The fourth protagonist of this column might be a little misplaced, but there’s a reason why.
Kenta Nishizawa is certainly one of the most exciting talents Japanese football has to offer today, but Shimizu S-Pulse are struggling and other players have probably broke through the media outlets throughout this 2020 better than him. That’s why it’s nice to write a piece about him, telling his story and reminding how he’s the best talent around among the ones home-grown by Shimizu in the last years.
Before the spotlight
Born in 1996, this Shizuoka-rooted prodigy actually grew up in the city capital of the homonymous Prefecture, bleeding orange blood since his childhood. It’s not an accident if Nishizawa has been involved with S-Pulse since when he was a little kid, featuring already in the youth ranks of the club by the time he was six years old. Like many would say, it was meant to be for him.
Despite this long militancy, though, it wasn’t possible for him to be immediately promoted to the top team. In 2015, the club probably thought he wasn’t ready, so Nishizawa joined the University of Tsukuba for four years. In his sophomore year, the football club of the university was outstanding, packed with talent and ready to rock the world at the upcoming All Japan University Football Tournament.
It wasn’t just a matter of strength, though, because University of Tsukuba has won the tournament nine times and reached the final four times, being the second-highest winner in the history of the competition (behind Waseda University). In the 65th edition of the competition, University of Tsukuba crushed the opposition, scoring 18 goals in just four games and conceding only one goal in the process.
The 8-0 win in the final put the stamp on this domination and the squad racked up all the awards (even the Fair Play Award!). While Júbilo Iwata’s Seiya Nakano won the MVP Award, Nishizawa was elected the best midfielder of the competition, while also scoring one goal in the final. In his third year, he also contributed to the amazing run in the Emperor’s Cup, reaching the fourth Round by knocking out Vegalta Sendai and Avispa Fukuoka in the process.
2019 was his rookie year in the pro-world, but it felt a little like a breakthrough season. Shimizu struggled to stay out of the relegation zone and lost a couple of key-pieces in the offensive department: in the Winter, Ryohei Shirasaki left for Kashima Antlers, while Koya Kitagawa tried the leap to Europe by joining Rapid Wien in Austria. Apart from the extraordinary season of Douglas, S-Pulse struggled to find new light in front of the goal.
And that’s where Nishizawa came in play: he first started to play in the J. League Cup, but then debuted on May 18th against Oita Trinita. June was the key-month of his rookie year: he scored the winning-goal in injury time both at home against Marinos and away in Nagoya. From that game, he started to play for 90 minutes, becoming a fundamental member of the starting eleven.
The chance to shine
From there, Nishizawa gave an enormous contribution to S-Pulse’s salvation run last year. Marinos won the title, but incredibly left six points to Shimizu and Nishizawa decided also that game. Then he bagged two braces – against Nagoya, again, and Shonan – to get the MVP of the Month Award for September. It was a spark that became a full lightning, a thunder giving new life to S-Pulse.
Shimizu came through an important change in the last Winter, since Yoshiyuki Shinoda – the manager who made Nishizawa debuting into the pro-world – left at the end of the season to make room for Peter Cklamovski, former assistant coach for Ange Postecoglou at Marinos. The game plan has changed a lot, but Nishizawa is surely an important weapon, since he has been the only player to be fielded all league games this season.
This is something resonating also from the stats of our friend from “J. League Stats”, who helped us tracing the growth of Nishizawa on the pitch. Looking at data, you can feel how the no. 16 is a crucial asset for S-Pulse’s future, already going through the numbers from 2019 season:
- Nishizawa scored seven goals and helped with three assists in 23 matches (only 18 of those games saw him starting).
- The young winger was S-Pulse’s second top scorer and second overall goal contributor (in terms of goals plus assists). Douglas is off to Kobe, so…
- 40 key-passes (highest number in S-Pulse).
- 7 big chances created (second-most in S-Pulse).
- If you take those numbers per 90 minutes, these chance creation numbers only get more impressive: 2.18 key passes per90 (ninth highest in J1) and 0.38 big chances created per90.
- 27 shots (16 of them were on target) | 33.33% goal conversion | 59.3% shot accuracy
- Third-highest amount of shots taken in S-Pulse, provided though with the best shot accuracy and highest goal conversion.
In 2020, his relevance for the game plan hasn’t changed despite the change of manager (all but the first data were provided by September 18th, 2020):
- Three goals and five assists in 18 games (12 of those matches saw him starting).
- Joint highest assist provider in J1.
- 38 key passes | 3.43 key passes per90, which is the second most key passes per90 in J1.
- 2.53 accurate crosses per90 (the fourth-highest number of accurate crosses per90 in J1), with a 27.72% accuracy.
- 19 shots (10 of them on target), with a 52.6% shot accuracy. Nishizawa has the second highest amount of shots taken with S-Pulse.
- 6 big chances created, the highest amount for the club and the sixth-best in J1.
This development is something we should keep an eye on, just like Ryan explained us in a quick resume:
“The circumstances surrounding the emergence of Kenta Nishizawa in the Japanese top-flight have, at the very least, been inopportune. Embarking on his maiden campaign in J1 in 2019, the then-23 years-old was fast-tracked into a struggling S-Pulse side that had just seen the loss of one of their chief attacking outlets in Koya Kitagawa.
This was a gap the plucky winger proved to fill and then some – giving the side a much-needed added dimension with his turn of pace, directness and flair in the final-third.
Despite his stellar half-season, Nishizawa’s efforts circumstantially failed to receive the recognition they otherwise would’ve; being born in ’96, he was just over the age criteria for the Olympic side for the then-looming 2020 Games. With talents like Meshino, Kubo and Maeda earning high-profile moves to Europe and the cream of the domestic U-23 crop impressing with the Olympic setup, Nishizawa was in a precarious position where his efforts were very much eclipsed by those of his compatriots.
To make matters worse, S-Pulse would later lose two more vital components in Ko Matsubara and Douglas, all while undergoing a managerial switch going into the 2020 season. Fast-forward just under nine months later and Nishizawa stands as one of the league’s top chance creators, trading his sharpshooting prowess from the season before for an eye for a pass and an overwhelmingly cultured crossing technique.
Thriving under the expansive philosophy of Peter Cklamovski, Kenta Nishizawa looks well on his way to bigger things in J1 and perhaps even beyond.”
The present and the future
S-Pulse are currently under a rebuilding. After the promotion under manager Shinji Kobayashi and the eighth place aced in 2018, the club struggled to find a real identity. Unlike their neighbor rivals, Júbilo Iwata, they found a solid response back then – when they were relegated to J2 – to the question “How can we rebuild the club?”. Unfortunately, the almost totality of those pillars from that renaissance is gone.
But if Júbilo are now back again in J2 (and we have a few doubts in pointing them as a sure thing back in 2021 in J1 League), S-Pulse have to avoid the drop. This year won’t be a problem, since relegations were wiped out from this year’s regulations, but Clamovski and his staff need to pull everything together in order to have a better season that this one. In this scenario, keeping Nishizawa around will be crucial.
Despite this, we’re sure some scouts have already laid their eyes on him: the no. 16 is 24 years-old, he looks ready for the leap to Europe and we’re certain that many clubs from second-tier European championships – like Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal or even France – would be lucky to have him in their roster. But will S-Pulse be able to keep him around as long as they need?
As Ryan pointed out in his analysis, t’s a shame he won’t be selectable for Tokyo 2021 – although he might be picked as an overaged player –, but Nishizawa looks like good material also for the national team. It’ll be maybe tough to find space in a role where there’s abundancy, but there’s one thing for sure: this young lad shouldn’t be overlooked, because the talent is there.