Po10tial – Daigo Takahashi

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 last step of our journey brings us to the South, in the Fukuoka Prefecture. While Avispa are certainly eyeing the promotion to J1, the other team there did a great job this year. After coming back from J3 with a resounding title-campaign, Giravanz Kitakyushu led the table for some weeks and endured a wonderful season, playing an enjoyable brand of football and developing several talents.

Among them, Daigo Takahashi seems the readiest for an immediate leap to J1.

A rough ride

Class ’99 from the Kagoshima Prefecture (precisely from Yakushima: he was the first pro-player to make it from there), Takahashi bounced to the national attention because of his heroics when he was still very young. While he played for the Kamimura Gakuen High School, the young Daigo was observed not only by J. League teams, but also from sports shows, curious to understand where his talent would have brought him.

While he was certainly sad to let down some expectations in the national championship, Takahashi immediately landed a pretty good gig: after a struggling return to J1, Shimizu S-Pulse were eager to find some new talents. The cycle with Shinji Kobayashi was over and Jan Jönsson was hired to find a renewed direction, bringing the club to new heights and taking over in the fight for regional supremacy.

2018 was indeed a solid season, with S-Pulse coming eighth on the table and developing many young players, but for Takahashi it meant that the learning curve was just beginning. He featured in five J. League Cup games, but barely made the bench in the league. And unfortunately, the competition in his role was too much: Shirasaki, Douglas coming back to Japan, Shota Kaneko were all decent options.

Even when S-Pulse lost a lot of players in just one session – Shirasaki, Crislan, Murata and Mitchell Duke –, there was no space for Takahashi. He played again in the J. League Cup (three times, scoring though his first goal), but the Swedish manager wasn’t going to field him. Most of all, when Jönsson was fired in May ‘19 and replaced by Yoshiyuki Shinoda, nothing changed in terms of pitch-time.

Therefore, Takahashi understood it was time to find another way to emerge. Maybe by loan, to a place forgotten by football Gods. Or at least, it seemed so.

Blossoming like a sunflower

If S-Pulse were going down a terrible route, Giravanz Kitakyushu had been disappointing in the last years. In 2016, they got relegated from J2 after seven seasons; in 2017, with a new stadium opening (while also setting the new record for a J3 crowd against future champions Blaublitz Akita), results didn’t come. Things were so bleak that they closed the 2018 season in last place, while two Kyushu-based teams made it to J2.

Then the club opted to hire one of the best managers around when it comes to get promoted: Shinji Kobayashi, who had a pretty good resume in terms of bringing teams to the next level. He had done it several times, but it seemed trickier to reach this goal with Giravanz. But it took a former S-Pulse figure, crucial in recent years, to bring the best out of the young winger.

It wasn’t something granted or written in the stone. Surely, Takahashi has talent, but he admitted how moving from S-Pulse to Giravanz wasn’t easy. Sometimes though – both in life and on the pitch –, falling is actually necessary to then stand up and rise. It happened as well to the midfielder, who found a new life under Kobayashi and in his 4-4-2, which saw Takahashi playing as the main option on the right flank.

The addition of the S-Pulse loanee saw a different pace coming to Kitakyushu’s help: since Takahashi joined in mid-August, he scored seven goals in 14 games and debuted with one goal and two assists in a 3-0 away win at Hachinohe. Back then, Giravanz were in fourth place; they then ended up the season on a rise, winning the title and with Takahashi scoring in every important match along the way.

Two of his goals won “Goal of the Month” in J3. In October, this one against Grulla Morioka triumphed, while this curly effort at Gunma was more than just a match-winning magic.

With these premises and the head coach retaining his spot, Giravanz were able to persuade S-Pulse to let Takahashi staying one more year, still on loan. It worked for both parties: in the 4-4-2, the current no. 10 sometimes even played in a central role, but continued developing as a crafty regista on the right flank, exploiting his skills with his left-footed wizardry and being a key-member for the team.

On the other hand, Kitakyushu lived through a dream for the first part of the season. Not only Takahashi stood out as a bright talent, but he helped others developing further (e.g. Akira Disarò, Naoki Tsubaki or even Shuto Machino). He has been a solid piece for a playoff run, which didn’t turn into something more because Giravanz had solid limits and they came up in the second part of the season.

At the moment we’re writing, Takahashi scored eight goals and assisted seven, being one of the most searched players in the whole league in terms of received passes (fifth overall) and becoming instrumental for the rise of this team. It doesn’t even matter if Kitakyushu will enjoy a Top 6 finish in the end, because the journey was worth the trip after a long string of disappointing seasons.

Looking at the technical side, we hope Takahashi won’t become a mono-dimensional player, one of those known for mostly one play: in his case, the tendency of covering the right side of the pitch, storming through opponents and converging to the center before attempting a curly effort on the further post, which is a clear trademark of his game… but we know he can do so much more than this.

The usage of both feet appears solid for him, but the left one is the favorite, as you can see every time he looks for a shot from outside the area. Capable of dribbling and cutting the field with a pass for a team-mate on the other side, Takahashi represents an example of how you can work your way through the Japanese football pyramid with the right move or loan (e.g. Manabu Saito at Ehime FC in 2011 is another easy example).

A classical music that could go along with his YouTube comp

The prodigal son

Giravanz Kitakyushu surely bounced back, but it doesn’t seem like the love story between them and Takahashi will go on. S-Pulse deeply need him back at home, where he could be a factor at this point for a team that suffered a lot this year and didn’t have enough patience to support Peter Cklamovski’s project until 2021. With four relegations on the line in the next season, every inch of talent will count to avoid the drop.

We don’t know if Hiroaki Hiraoka will retain his spot on the bench, but in the 4-3-3 he engineered, Takahashi has an assured spot to become something more than a J2 wonder. Just like their manager, we don’t even know if S-Pulse will be able to keep everyone around: will Kenta Nishizawa stay, after another solid season? Will Shota Kaneko give up a move? The Brazilian contingent will commit to 2021? There are a lot of questions running around.

To these ones, a first answer could be bringing Takahashi back. He could link up with some talented players in the offensive department and develop his game even more. If he will overcome the J1 test, then he could also be ready to fly to Europe: he said once he’d like to visit France… well, the Ligue 1 could represent a solid chance to try the leap and understand if his skills can make it there.

Among the profiles we’ve analyzed, Takahashi’s is the least readable, but probably the one with the highest number of chances and ramifications. He could be JNT-material, a solid J. Leaguer or, in the worst of cases, dropping back to J2 in a few years if he won’t be constant and lucky (e.g. look at Hiroki Yamada). But that’s the beauty: it’s all up in the air and we’re ready to see what’s going to happen in his future.

And that’s it! The column “Po10tial” closes its curtain and it’s another solid milestone in this 2020 of articles. To resume the previous episodes, which featured J2 talents on the rise:

We wish the best to these talents, hoping they’ll shine also in 2021, whether if they’ll stick around in J2 or they’ll look for other opportunities in J1 or abroad. Enjoy the final two matchdays of the second division and, who knows, maybe one of these five talents will decide a crucial game in the next future.

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