Outsider no more

I don’t know how you felt watching Japan v. Mongolia a few days ago, but when Hajime Moriyasu send out the list of players for the international break, we felt conflicted. Sure, there were a lot of J. Leaguers, but we expected a fully Japan-based squad for a friendly game against South Korea and a World Cup qualifier with a team that lost 6-0 the first leg to Japan.

Instead, several players had to travel from Europe throughout a pandemic that’s still not over. A dumb decision, but most of all a useless one, given how this kind of commitments would have been faceable by J. League players. Furthermore, the final scores gave even more proofs about it: although the U-24 needed some players as well to test, Japan easily defeated 3-0 South Korea and crushed Mongolia with an historical 14-0 home win.

Many players enjoyed the spotlight, especially in the second game. Miki Yamane debuted with a goal after 10 minutes on the pitch; Kyogo Furuhashi bagged a brace; many had their first taste with the Japan national team. Among them, we found very solid interpreters of the current championship: the list is long, but we have to name Ataru Esaka, Yasuto Wakizaka and Hayao Kawabe. Professionals who deserved at least one cap.

Among them, there’s one who doesn’t share the same bracket, but who’s been fundamental in reversing the fortunes of a historical J. League team. Last but not least, in the goal fest against Mongolia, he clinched a brace in his debut with the Japan football team. A chance which unlocked itself just because Riki Harakawa got injured. Nevertheless, it has been a fair honor to concede.

It was indeed the moment to celebrate Sho Inagaki and his rise: doing otherwise would be unfair.

From one Winter in Kofu

Born on Christmas Day in 1991, Inagaki was actually a product of FC Tokyo’s youth sector, since he’s born in Nerima and wore the red and blue jersey until the U-15. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to go beyond that level and enrolled himself in the Teikyo High School first and then to the Nippon Sport Science University. In both cases, he wore the no. 10 and probably was a very different player to the one we’ve been used to know.

But there was already a clear trait in his style of playing: absolute dedication to the game. That’s why Ventforet Kofu thought of signing him in 2014, when back then-head coach Hiroshi Jofuku needed some fresh forces for his midfield. In his 3-4-2-1, the manager felt immediately the chance of integrating the young Inagaki in the battle.

This fighting spirit reflected on the mileage ran over the field, since Inagaki chased the ball for an average of 11 kilometers per game in 2015. He was pretty open about it: “I was the best member of my elementary school when I had to run the marathon”. And he wasn’t bothered by the obscure defensive work requested to him in Kofu: “I know my team needs it, I like to shine in the position”.

Someone even started to think about him as a low-budget version of Javier Mascherano in the J. League. For Ventforet, anyway, the bet paid off, since throughout the three seasons Inagaki played in Yamanashi Prefecture, the club was able to retain their J1 status, even when Jofuku left Kofu to come back to FC Tokyo. Unfortunately for them, many eyes were set on Inagaki.

Sho Inagaki didn’t forget: he sent a text to Kofu for thanking the club after he got the call from Moriyasu.

To Hiroshima and beyond

Despite the successes in their dynasty, Sanfrecce Hiroshima had to see many players leave for different clubs (mostly Urawa Red Diamonds, let’s be honest). At the same time, though, there’s a club that Hiroshima like to deal with: Ventforet Kofu. In fact, some players made the jump directly from there: Yoshifumi Kashiwa, Sho Sasaki, recently Yuta Imazu… but also Sho Inagaki.

Not even knowing about it, the midfielder picked the right club. Sure, it wasn’t easy to settle in the last year of Hajime Moriyasu as the head coach of the club, but Inagaki found his way to embrace the transition in Hiroshima. Once there was the change in the dugout, Jan Jönsson started giving the former Kofu midfielder a lot more time on the pitch which helped Hiroshima avoiding worst troubles in the table.

Then, in 2018, Sanfrecce hired indeed Jofuku, who couldn’t believe to find many of the players he coached throughout his epic run in Kofu. Things improved right away for Inagaki, who booked his spot in the starting eleven. He featured in 33 league matches and Sanfrecce had an amazing run, ending as runners-up on the table. Once healthy, he kept the same presence rate in 2019.

Furthermore, Inagaki evolved as a player: after some seasons in J. League, he shifted his style of play, crafting his skills. For example, in a game of 2019, Inagaki accomplished a particular feat: with 83 passes against Oita Trinita, he achieved the holy grail of passing, touching a 100% rate of success. Last player to do it with at least 80 passes on a game? Kazuyuki Morisaki, two years before, still with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

The engine of Nagoya

If we’re used to be unenthusiastic, but reliable on Hiroshima, all other sets of feelings come in place when we mention Nagoya Grampus. An emotional rollercoaster, who got rid of Yahiro Kazama in 2019 to move on. And to do so, they hired Massimo Ficcadenti, eager to start again after the end of his experience with Sagan Tosu. After saving Grampus from relegation, the Italian head coach wanted a few players to turn the ship around.

And they came. If you look at the players added in the roster, some of them were fundamental for him: captain Yuichi Maruyama and Takuji Yonemoto (whom were both coached by Ficcadenti in Tokyo), Yutaka Yoshida (whom was coached by Ficcadenti in Sagan Tosu) or bringing back Mateus and Yuki Soma. At the same time, though, you could say the system helped this player shining.

With Inagaki, instead, it felt the opposite: the midfielder helped the system flourishing at the peak of its possibility. It felt like Inagaki was the missing piece Ficcadenti was looking for: the results proved him right, because Nagoya came third in 2020 and now look as the most credible rival in the title run to Frontale. In this extraordinary campaign, Inagaki featured in all the league matches.

But this wasn’t enough, because in 2021 he started even to score goals. Sure, Nagoya keep thriving despite the lack of a real no. 9, but we were used to see the offensive players scoring. Instead, Inagaki joined the party and in a brutal way (just look at his goals against Kobe and Antlers).

This brought to the unthinkable: seeing his debut at 29 years and three months old. He was the sixth oldest member of the squad, but also the oldest debutant in a long time. No problem: he entered in the second half against Mongolia and scored a brace. For someone who has played everywhere on the pitch, starting this year with a call-up and a brace with Japan isn’t just a success, but it might be the start of something even bigger.

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