In the last two decades, Japan has clearly made some huge improvements in their football movement. Many players were able to take the leap to Europe or South America; the Japan national team featured in six consecutive World Cups after their debut campaign in 1998; some Japanese players left a mark all over the world, either because of their talent or thanks to their character (or both!).
Some of their stories started in small clubs, even by not playing in the top tier. Most of the Japanese players who have moved to Europe are in the offensive department: it’s not a mystery that Japan is able to produce a lot of interesting profiles in roles like offensive midfielders, wingers and full-backs. Goalkeepers and strikers are not abundant, but Japan is pretty much covered in those positions.
Especially the “10” role – whether you mean it like a technical winger or a crafty no. 10, maybe behind the main striker – saw a ton of promises rising through the Japanese football pyramid. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not playing in J1 League. Remember Shinji Kagawa? He featured in just 11 games in the first tier before moving to Borussia Dortmund and changing the course of his career, forever.
That’s why we’re here: this new column is called “Po10tial”, because this year’s J2 League has offered five solid profiles, with several traits in common. They’re young (every single player could be an option for Tokyo 2021), they’re mostly midfielders (sorry, no Kazuma Yamaguchi here, although he’s a really interesting player) and they all wear the magical number 10, bringing fantasy and delight to their fans.
The first protagonist is maybe the most obvious choice, since he has the longest pro-history of all the picks we made for this special column. He should probably somewhere else, but his career hasn’t brought him back to his birthplace, but rather to his professional home: Machida. Zelvia are rising as a club, keeping their J2 status and looking for some growth in the crowded Kantō area.
Featuring a talent like Taiki Hirato in their roster will surely help.
Class ’97, Hirato was born in Hitachinaka, right in the center of Ibaraki Prefecture (he’d be out of contention for Tokyo 2021, but the criteria of being born after January 1, 1997 was maintained despite the delayed Olympic Games). Given his birthplace and his love for football since a young age, he seemed destined to be part of the great Kashima Antlers family, where football is a matter of pride in the region.
He was just 10 years old when he entered the club, going through every possible youth squad. Actually, he attended the Kashima Gakuen High School to keep his dream close, sharing the locker room with other future Antlers (like Koki Machida and Yuki Kakita). The final passage came in 2015, where he featured in the Winter training camp, before finally joining the first squad.
2016 witnessed his first minutes on the pitch: in a dreadful J. League campaign, Kashima fielded many youngsters for the last two games. In his absolute debut in the pro-world, Hirato helped in a decisive way to grant Taro Sugimoto a goal against Júbilo Iwata. But despite Antlers’ success in that year – between the J. League Championship and the final of the FIFA Club World Cup –, Hirato needed more time on the pitch.
And that was where Machida Zelvia came into the picture. The club just came seventh the year before, not getting to the J2 playoffs for an inch. But they found a bright gem in Hirato, giving him the proper time to mature and develop his game. This happened for two years under manager Naoki Soma, the man who brought Zelvia back to J2 after two years of waiting in J3.
In general, Soma’s impact on Zelvia’s history seems still pretty solid: a promotion, the J2 status, two wonderful seasons (2016 and ’18) and a lot of glory for the players who have been there. As today, Yuki Nakashima is the second all-time top scorer of the second division; some played more pro-games than ever in their career and, in the final matchday of 2018, Zelvia were in line even to get direct promotion.
In all of this, Taiki Hirato grew without any hesitation. He developed his craft by playing in a different position from the start. Initially, Soma fielded as a central midfielder and Hirato ended playing just 33 minutes in six games out of the first 21 matchdays. Then, Soma opted to position Hirato on the flanks: either if he was playing on the left or on the right, the Antlers-loanee bloomed.
In 2017, Hirato scored three goals and six assists; this score exploded the year after, when he actually was on the race to be the MVP, by collecting eight goals, 17 assists and delivering a lot of magic for Zelvia fans. You could probably say that if Zelvia lived that 2018 season, most of the credit went to the young midfielder, who became a demiurge for Soma’s tactic plans on the pitch.
These performances brought Kashima to reconsider Hirato’s position, recalling the loanee back to Ibaraki and putting him on the roster. Unfortunately, his homecoming dance with his beloved club didn’t work as expected. Despite all the accolades gained in Machida, Hirato lasted just six months in Ibaraki, featuring in six games and collecting his first goal with Antlers in the AFC Champions League.
He had just a cameo in the league – 53 minutes (!) against Grampus – and little time on the pitch in the continental competition. For any possible reason, despite playing within the same formation (the 4-4-2) he experienced in J2, Hirato was never picked by head coach Go Oiwa, ending up being fielded as a right-back (!). At that point, going back to Machida was the only choice available. This time, for good.
Where is the potential?
The comeback to Zelvia has been good for Hirato. Soma was in charge for the last months of his long tenure and even if Machida didn’t thrive in 2019 (they came nineteenth on the table, barely escaping relegation), the prodigal son found his groove back. Already last year, Hirato helped Machida inverting the trend with his plays, assisting a crucial goal in Yamagata in the last match of the season to get the win and avoid troubles on the table.
The key-point from Hirato’s set of skills is about free-kicks: he’s really solid in that fundamental, being able to create chances with both of his feet, but especially with his right one. His free kicks were already a point of pride before going briefly back to Kashima, but in Machida this tool is a massive peril for opponents, who have come to know the danger caused by the no. 10.
Not only that, though, because Hirato proved to be a versatile player. When he was coached by Soma in Machida, he played in the 4-4-2, but as a side midfielder (mostly on the right flank, sometimes on the left one). As we mentioned, he also featured as a right-back in Kashima, a position where Antlers certainly had better options than an adapted midfielder (despite Daigo Nishi leaving that season for Kobe).
But when he came back to Zelvia, Hirato has been used as a second striker or offensive midfielder by the new manager, leaving the flanks to Jeong Chung-geun, promising Kaina Yoshio, Alen Mašović or Shuta Doi. Given that the option of two pure strikers wasn’t on the table anymore (despite having Yuki Nakashima, Mizuki Ando and Stefan Šćepović on the roster), Hirato was mostly put aside the main striker.
He found a new life as a no. 10. He’s way closer to the goal and he can contribute in a more effective way. You can see that already in the numbers: after 27 games of J2 League in this year, he scored seven goals – and there are some beauties in there, including the first goal of J2 League after the long break, against Tokyo Verdy – and assisted three more. He’s becoming stronger and stronger with the passing of time.
This might come from the new position, the sense of security to express himself on the pitch he might feel with Zelvia and, last but not least, the new manager. Ranko Popović came back to Zelvia after nine years, since he was the head coach of the first promotion to J2, when Machida came third in JFL and gained their pro-status. But the Serbian manager understood how Hirato needed to stay closer to goal to grow.
Seeing the former Kashima youngster playing with the no. 10, it feels like he’s too strong for J2 at this point of his career. And you have to wonder how much effort Zelvia will be able to put to keep him around for 2021.
A classical music that could go along with his YouTube comp
Can he fulfill his potential?
In a recent home match against FC Ryukyu, Hirato celebrated his 100th game as a professional player in J. League. It seems a lot happened to this young player: he’s still 23 years-old, yet he has seen much throughout his short until now-career. He grew up in one of the best youth sectors of the whole country, yet he didn’t find his space right when Kashima actually started selling players (and they sold many in the last two years).
In the end, he had to come back to a familiar environment and surely Machida fans will remember his contribution. They might also pass him down to history as one of the best players the Machida GION Stadium has ever hosted in his prime. But the real question is: will Hirato be able to match these performances also in J1, away from the only environment who has seen rising him until now?
It’s a tough one, because we’ve witnessed many talented players thriving with Antlers because they had “it”, the Kashima-mentality who brought this club to be one of the most successful in Japanese football history. There are solid talents – both home-grown or acquired – who failed with Antlers jersey or opted for other choices: Taro Sugimoto, Takeshi Kanamori or Atsutaka Nakamura.
If Hirato will be in that ranking, we’ll probably discover it in a few years. For now, we can just enjoy his magical plays in J2 and hoping that a bright future might await him.
We hope you enjoyed the first number of this new column. You might have guessed who’s going to come, but let’s hope these no. 10s will keep thriving in this compact, crazy and competitive season that J2 League is providing fans. See you soon for Episode 2!