The 2021 Market Report – J1 League

When the Winter is about to end, we’re usually talking about the big transfers within the first Japanese division and the talents who left J1 to search for fortune in Europe. Well, this time it didn’t happen: the major switches didn’t take place – although some interesting figures have changed reality, like Manabu Saito or Yoichiro Kakitani – and many talents opted to stay in Japan.

Just think about how we were probably expecting Kyogo Furuhashi and/or Kaoru Mitoma to take the leap to the Old Continent. They seem both ready: if there were some doubts about the Frontale prodigy, the brace in the Japanese Super Cup was enough to dissolve them. Instead, both stayed, just like other talents (e.g. Ao Tanaka is another name we expect to see to Europe within the next 12 months).

This might have happened because either no one has watched the J. League in 2020 or because Japanese clubs have maybe finally matured the will to keep hold of their talents if there’s not a proper sum on the table to let them go (we hope the latter is the right hypothesis). Nevertheless, some interesting moves happened within the Japanese soil, with possible repercussions onto the next season.

There are many that we had to left out of our shortlist, but we’ll mention some of them. Some J2 figures – Kenta Fukumori, Shun Nakamura, Daihachi Okamura, Mutsuki Kato and Ryoma Watanabe – might go some places. Tatsuya Tanaka might find another leap in performances under Ricardo Rodríguez, while Han Ho-gang could be the story of the season if he’ll overcome the double jump from a dominant J3 year to the impact to J1.

Even in case of a drop, Yokohama FC might have already a safe resource to face J2.

Like for J2, no loans considered here, although some of those operations have been interesting. At the same time, no permanent moves or returns will be considered (although the names of Emil Salomonsson and Yota Maejima, if you want to consider a couple of possible stars in the full-back role, could be interesting). It’s gonna be a long ride, so let’s start profiling these 10 players.

10. Toshio Shimakawa | Oita Trinita » Sagan Tosu

We’re crazy about this player for two reasons. First: he’s an excellent pianist. You should really check his Instagram account, because he could have counted on a Plan B if football wasn’t going to work. Secondly, and that’s why we’re here, his football career actually saw a slow, but steady rise. It took him a long time to find his way back to the top of the Japanese football hierarchy.

A football product of Kashiwa Reysol’s youth sector, Shimakawa featured in the roster of Vegalta Sendai for five years, but he didn’t play even once. He was loaned to Tokyo Verdy, but it didn’t work. He found some pitch-time in Akita, where Blaublitz included him in their roster for JFL and then bought him for their J3 adventure. Then Renofa Yamaguchi, Tochigi SC, two years in Kofu and another two with Oita Trinita.

And that’s where he found his rhythm, once and for all: a solid holding midfielder, Shimakawa was the key to balance the offensive and building from the back-asset that Trinita have held. Sagan have a different approach, but they needed this kind of player alongside revelation Daiki Matsuoka. With also Toshiki Takahashi and Ryang Yong-gi not getting any younger, Shimakawa will be fundamental for Sagan.

09. Yuta Imazu | Ventforet Kofu » Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Here’s a personal bet. Yuta Imazu comes from Ventforet Kofu, where he played for three years: born in 1995 and a son of the Minami-Alps, the defender started a right-back and then became a center-back, growing more and more under the guidance of Akira Ito. Imazu needed some time to adjust to the tactics of the new head coach, but in the end he did it and his 2020 was remarkable.

The joy of scoring your first pro-goal against the continental champions.

In the mind of Hiroshi Jofuku, Imazu isn’t probably among the starters for now. The three center backs should be captain Sasaki, Nogami and Araki, but the manager of Sanfrecce Hiroshima proved to be capable of adapting and launching new faces. The count of the center-backs in Hiroshima is low and they might need Imazu sooner than later. Once in the starting eleven, he might retain his spot at the expense of more expert team-mates.

08. Quenten Martinus | Urawa Red Diamonds » Vegalta Sendai

The winger was gloomy in knowing that his adventure with Urawa Red Diamonds was over. Under Tsuyoshi Otsuki, the relationship never took off and Martinus featured consistently only at the end of the season, when 2020 already proved to be anything but Urawa’s year. He opted to started somewhere new and ended up in Sendai, where the club desperately looked on the market for a source of offensive firepower.

After Cuenca’s injury last year, it’s gonna be interesting to see a trio potentially composed by the former Barcelona, Takuma Nishimura and Martinus himself. The winger is up for his sixth season in J. League and he’s one of the most known foreigners in the championship: after the solid experience in Yokohama and the bittersweet stint in Saitama, Sendai could be the right place to be to turn 30 and rejuvenate his career.

07. Kazuki Kozuka | Oita Trinita » Kawasaki Frontale

Full disclosure: he’s a baller. The only place where this concept wasn’t clear was Albirex Niigata, where the club gave him the first opportunities to play in the pro-world, but let him feature just 16 times in all the competitions over three seasons. Instead, someone else understood the potential of the kid born in Mitsuke, Niigata: Nobuhiro Ueno had him both at Renofa Yamaguchi in 2014-15 and with Ventforet Kofu in 2018.

Kozuka shone without looking back, proving to be an elegant and clever offensive player. This granted him a move to Oita Trinita under Tomohiro Katanosaka, where he confirmed his value in J1, although some injuries halted his growth. Now he’s off to Kawasaki Frontale, where he could fit easily one of the mezzala spots if Oshima shows to be injury-prone once again or if someone will ever snatch Ao Tanaka.

With the AFC Champions League to play and just 26 years old, Kozuka could prove his effectiveness in Oniki’s plans and Frontale would have recruited another solid profile from opponents in J. League.

06. Riki Harakawa | Sagan Tosu » Cerezo Osaka

Despite two good seasons, more than one person in the board of Cerezo Osaka didn’t look happy to play the gritty football implemented by Miguel Ángel Lotina. And while the Spanish coach is off to S-Pulse to make a revolution for his new club, Cerezo came back to the origins. We’ll have time to talk about how much we think this has been an insane U-turn, but Riki Harakawa seems to fit the new narrative on the pitch.

After two years of Okuno, Desábato and Fujita, the pink side of Osaka assured themselves a wonderful offensive interpreter, of whom we’ve already talked about in our column “Blanklisted” (read here). If we can imagine Harakawa thriving under Lévir Culpi’s tactics, we have some doubts on how much this move could affect the faith of the club in years to come. It’s easier to imagine Harakawa shining in this mentality, though.

05. Joel Chima Fujita | Tokyo Verdy » Tokushima Vortis

In all the confusion circling around Tokyo Verdy in the last decade, one thing seems to be sure: their youth sector is still working. Shion Inoue signed for Vissel Kobe and most of their youngsters stayed put for 2021, but there’s a major household name who was tipped to leave and opted for a surprising choice. We expected Joel Chima Fujita to scour some opportunities abroad, while instead he chose just to level up.

In fact, the promising holding midfielder joined Tokushima Vortis, who are the clear winner in this situation. We don’t see this relationship lasting for more than one year, but Vortis needed a new face alongside captain Ken Iwao in the center of the field. Yudai Konishi has become a solid central midfielder, but we don’t know if that setting would be a sustainable line-up for Tokushima in J1.

Instead, featuring Fujita will give Vortis better balance than before, also because the arrival of Dani Poyatos will change a little bit of things. Meanwhile, Fujita can experience the top-flight for the first time in his career and learn more before thinking of a possible leap to Europe.

04. Daigo Nishi | Vissel Kobe » Urawa Red Diamonds

This is a really interesting signing. At the age of 33 years old, Daigo Nishi is one of the most expert players in J. League. He hasn’t had the same chance of others to feature in the Japan national team (just two games, one in 2011 and in 2019!), but the caliber of his quality is a top-level one. He grew up in the North, a treasure from Hokkaido: born in Sapporo, flourished in Niigata, he then became champion in Ibaraki with Antlers.

After those years, he signed for Vissel Kobe, where he and Gotoku Sakai represented the best pair of full-backs the league could witness. Unfortunately, Kobe’s plans didn’t work out and now Nishi doesn’t seem to have anymore the physical level to be a top player… but it doesn’t have to be that way. He’s a clever individual – in the “J-Talk Pod”, Alan Gibson (@JSoccerMagazine) underlined how he studied English all season long to enrich himself – and Nishi knows how useful he could be for Reds.

That comes in play as well because Urawa are now coached by Ricardo Rodríguez. If the Spanish head coach will try again to implement the 3-4-2-1 we’ve seen in Tokushima, they already have the wingers to do so (Tatsuya Tanaka, Yamanaka, Ugajin, maybe Yuruki). What if Nishi could become a “silent regista”, like Fukumori in Sapporo? Could he feature as the right-center back in their line-up, building the play from the back?

It’s a tasty development to follow. And it could be worth a lot for Reds in 2021.

03. Ryoya Morishita | Sagan Tosu » Nagoya Grampus

Nagoya Grampus had a terrific season in 2020, clinching an AFC Champions League spot with their third place-finish. But what they were lacking last year? Probably just two things: a real striker and a piece to complete the defense. About the no. 9, Mu Kanazaki is still around, Yoichiro Kakitani just joined the club and Ficcadenti’s tactics proved to be efficient when wingers and/or offensive players comply with his instructions.

But what about the right-back position? In the four back-defense, four out of the five spots looked more than booked. Langerak on goal, captain Maruyama and Nakatani as center-backs and Yoshida as a left-back. But what about the other flank? Kazuya Miyahara was initially the starter, but he contracted COVID-19 throughout the season, disrupting his season. The Italian head coach then tried different solutions.

That’s where we have to talk about Ryoya Morishita, who’s probably the best addition the club had this Winter. He’s one of the few promising youngsters that Sagan Tosu couldn’t keep around for this year. A generational talent, Morishita had a bursting rookie year, playing 33 matches and scoring three goals. Can he repeat himself in Nagoya? Because if he can, a place in the Japanese national team is probably taken by him.

02. Yoshinori Suzuki | Oita Trinita » Shimizu S-Pulse

Like Harakawa, we talked about Suzuki in our column “Blanklisted” (read here), but there’s something more here. We won’t talk about his time in Oita, because it’s already well-resumed in our previous piece, but Trinita aren’t just losing their captain and one of the historical profiles who helped the club in its renaissance. After seven seasons and three different divisions, Suzuki went further than that.

He’s a clear asset, a defender capable of building from the back and a talented one. S-Pulse haven’t had this kind of player in years and Lotina has to implement his tactical beliefs on a solid backbone: you can build a new squad around Suzuki, since he’ll be a clear starter in the next season. A reliable and efficient player on both sides of the pitch is the cornerstone Shimizu need to grant themselves a way brighter future than 2020.

01. Tomoki Iwata | Oita Trinita » Yokohama F. Marinos

With this number one, you can clearly witness a pattern in this special table. Four of the ten players we picked are from Oita and that’s because Tomohiro Katanosaka – like we said in 2019, when he was awarded the “Best Manager” prize – built more than just a team. He built a system, where players develop, thrive and mostly leave. Iwata is no different from the others three cases in his past, but he might face an even more promising future.

Iwata is just 23 years old, but he has six whole professional seasons under his belt. He featured in the whole arc of Japanese professional football and he developed fast, learning something new every year. He debuted in the Japanese football team – during the 2019 Copa América – and he’s now joined Yokohama F. Marinos, where Ange Postecoglou could theoretically made him the best defender in the country.

The thing we like the most about Iwata is his all-round attitude: he was fielded as a center-back, but he could also feature as a right-back or a wing-back. He can play with both feet; he has scored and assisted goals and he looks way more complete than other players currently playing at his level. With Postecoglou switching to a three-back defense, we could see Iwata becoming the most valuable piece of this architecture.

Given how Hatanaka and Thiago Martins are already used to this way of playing, the former Oita defender will have to adapt, but he’ll be quick. This could be another breakthrough season for him, although we wonder how much of a further margin of development he has. Look no further than Iwata, though, if you’re looking for another revelation year from a Japanese player in 2021.

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