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.
After being in Niigata, we move South, going to the Tokushima Prefecture. That’s where the Vortis project has developed in the last four years under the hands of Spanish manager Ricardo Rodríguez, who built something unique and probably replicated only in certain clubs in the Japanese football hierarchy. One key-element in the roster to keep both fans and the ball at their feet is their young no. 10, who sees and provides for Vortis’ fortunes.
That someone is Masaki Watai, 168 centimeters of pure fantasy.
Right time, right place
Class ’99 and born in Fujinomiya (in the Shizuoka Prefecture), Watai attended the famous Shizuoka Gakuen High School. In a zone of Japan that gifted many talents to football, the high school featured Kazuyoshi Miura in the 80s and more recently several J. Leaguers (the last example is Reo Hatate, who though didn’t jump directly to the pro-world) before producing a talent like Watai.
Wearing the no. 10 of that team, the young offensive player emerged as one of the most interesting prospects in the Land of the Rising Sun. When Tokushima Vortis made their move in the Summer of 2017, Watai accepted their offer for a precise reason: “I decided that this style was going to be suitable for me. I think that an average J2 team kicks first and then opts to play, but Tokushima have a balanced approach”.
Watai already witnessed the first year of Rodríguez as a manager and opted to fit in that brand of football. The straight jump from high school to J2 League didn’t scare him; actually, the kid was happy to have realized a first dream of his and promised to improve as rapidly as he could. But his rookie year just served the purpose of adjusting to the environment, featuring in one Emperor’s Cup game against Tochigi SC.
His moment was coming, though. Tokushima lost Yatsunori Shimaya and Taro Sugimoto in the space of six months, so the club needed new heroes. Naoki Nomura and Koki Kiyotake came for it, but the young Watai finally stepped into the pitch to leave his mark. It took him a little bit of time to prove to Rodríguez that he was worth the risk: until Matchday 16, he played just three games and he was always subbed out pretty soon.
This until the game in Kanazawa, where the Spanish manager put Watai back in contention. He began a string of appearances by entering the game after the half-time, but he scored three goals in six games, while Vortis kept an excellent record in seven matches, racking up 14 points. It was the beginning of a first run to the Top 6, the declared goal after three years of hard work for the project.
While Iwao and Konishi were in charge of keeping the midfield tight and circulating the ball, Watai represented the key to connect the lone striker with the rest of the squad. Nomura had the same function, but the young no. 16 looked a way more associative player than the former Yokohama FC, who instead used to be a winger and prefers the last pass or to shoot himself from medium and long range.
From mid-August, the path seemed clear: Kawata as no. 9, Watai and Nomura behind him. It worked: the class ’99 becomes a clear starter, put up three goals and four assists while Vortis gained 36 points from the last 15 games. Unfortunately, the only stop was against Yokohama FC, a crucial one on the road to direct promotion; in the relegation/promotion playoffs, Shonan Bellmare snatched a 1-1 home draw and dreams had to be postponed.
Despite this, something stayed: Nomura did indeed jump the wagon and moved to Oita Trinita last Winter, but Tokushima kept the structure by replacing some of the key-pieces they lost. Nishiya, Kamifukumoto and Cvetinović were good choices, while the loan of Antlers-protégé Yuki Kakita gave more strength to the offensive department, providing the manager more than one choice upfront.
The final result? In a strange championship with a packed schedule, Vortis are flying high and they’re on the verge of potentially winning the title, looking for the second J1 promotion in their history. But if the first one felt random, this one could be well-deserved. Watai is crucial in this environment, because he has been solid in his sophomore season: at the moment we’re writing, he played 34 games, scoring five goals and assisting four.
But most of all, after Nomura’s departure, Watai has become the real demiurge of the project in Tokushima. Surely there are many key-elements all over the field – from captain Iwao to Konishi, from both wingbacks to the strikers –, but the current no. 10 of Vortis has developed into a fine piece for a title-contender. In second division, yes, but this anticipates the eventual leap to J1 and another possible improvement in his skills.
The enabler of an ambitious plan
In the flexible 3-4-2-1 of Vortis, Watai has always been considered one of the two behind the main striker. It’s rare to watch Rodríguez fielding two attackers, although having Kakita and Kawata on the same 2020 roster is not something that many J2 League clubs can afford these days. Same goes for the battery of offensive midfielders Tokushima feature this year: Koki Kiyotake, Kazuki Nishiya, Ryota Kajikawa and Yatsunori Shimaya.
Nevertheless, it’s Watai who stands out – alongside newcomer Nishiya – among the players who featured the most through this season. As we write, after 36 matches, the no. 10 is sixth in terms of minutes played (2256) and has definitely contributed to the club’s further rise in the table in this year. Among J2 players, he’s the fourth in dribbles, which is definitely the strong point in his skills toolset.
It’s not a case: his role model on the pitch? That Andrés Iniesta who’s now featuring at Vissel Kobe and that Watai might face next year. And you can see the influence the former Barcelona superstar had on how the class ’99 faces football on the pitch: he likes turns on the first touch, preferring the left side on the pitch, but he moves a lot off-ball. Watai has always the look towards his team-mates, searching for better-positioned players.
He definitely needs to put some muscles on and be more aggressive in the defensive phase, but once he’ll also match his immense creativity with a spot-on timing in passing, he’ll be a beautiful solo artist in a precise orchestra. With the excellent first control he has once he receives the ball, Watai seems fitted to keep growing and amazing fans over the country, especially in this system.
A classical music that could go along with his YouTube comp
The ultimate testament to Vortis’ project (and something more?)
A few games are missing to the end of the season. While J1 and J3 have already their champions with several games to go, it’s different for the second tier. There’s a three way-race to promotion: with no playoffs on the horizon, Tokushima Vortis have the upper hand in this fight, having the chance of managing a certain advantage and dreaming the return to J1 after seven years of absence.
In this scenario, Watai seems fundamental. He’s not a senator and there are more expert players compared to him even for J2, but the no. 10 appearst to be the cheat code in throwing the final attack to a goal that the whole city hopes to achieve. And not only the fans, but also the manager certainly relies on the will of coming through with his brand of football, after cycles of experiments and continue rebuilding.
Despite the young age, Watai reflects his game through his persona: you could certainly say he knows what he wants, otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen Tokushima when he was still in high school with a precise motive. At the same time, he needs a project where to play this kind of football. Tokushima can be that gig in J1, if Rodríguez will opt to stay and won’t leave for options that don’t currently look so good.
In the end, the fantasista realized he can flourish in certain conditions and we hope he won’t forget this, because his rise in this for now-short career has been possible keeping it real, knowing his place. He’s always been absolutely clear-sighted about where and how he should improve his game; once you have that kind of mindset, nothing is really impossible, if you match it with the talent he has.