If you had to choose the best youth sectors in Japan, which clubs would you name? Kashima Antlers. Kashiwa Reysol. Gamba Osaka. Sagan Tosu, for sure, in the last years. But there’s a club who loves to develop talents and mostly to keep them for themselves while they’re rising: Cerezo Osaka. From Inui to Kiyotake, from Kagawa to Minamino, not forgetting the ones currently shining (Seko, Nishio, Nishikawa, Nakajima, Fujio).
For all this concentration of talent, there are players who left to find their way somewhere else. If you look through the ones who wore the jersey of the U-23 team in J3 in its five years of existence, you can find profiles who found success somewhere else: Rei Yonezawa, Masaki Okino, Mizuki Ando. And then there are players who got stuck somewhere in the football ladder.
Among the ones inserted in this last category, there was once a class ’97 with 44 games and 15 goals in the U-23 team. With those goals, he’s still the third goal-scorer all-time of Cerezo Osaka U-23, just behind Yonezawa and Nakajima. Despite these performances, his career seemed lost at a certain point: two loans weren’t enough to prove his value in front of goal. Until something changed.
We can’t probably wrap our heads around this, but now – just two years after all those doubts – Takeru Kishimoto hasn’t just rebuild his career, but he completely transformed himself into a valuable asset. Little detail: he still plays near the goal, but to defend it. In spite of transitioning to the position of full or wing back, his instinct in front of goal has been useful for Tokushima Vortis this season. But there’s more than that.
One among many
Born in Nara, Kishimoto was part of another wave of talents produced by Cerezo Osaka. Actually, the young forward featured in the first year ever played in J3 by the U-23 team. And while he never found real space with the senior team – he racked up only three caps in the J. League Cup –, he had solid stints in J3, scoring those 15 goals and leaving a solid impression.
And that didn’t happen only with a Cerezo jersey: Kishimoto made the squad for the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship, where Japan triumphed after penalties in a tight clash with Saud Arabia in the last act. He scored in the semi-finals and that squad had future Japan national team members in it, like Nakayama, Tomiyasu, Iwata, Itakura, Miyoshi and Doan, plus several current J. Leaguers.
The next step felt natural: the striker had to go on loan and Mito HollyHock represented the upcoming challenge. Despite playing 38 games, though, Kishimoto scored just three goals and Mito rely on other profiles up front (like Jefferson Baiano, who scored 11 goals and then signed for Montedio Yamagata). The club didn’t confirm his loan, sending him back to Cerezo Osaka.
Nevertheless, the pink side of Osaka still believed in him and opted for another loan, always in J2. One bad season can happen, especially if you’re 21 years old. Little did Kishimoto knew about how the next destination would have changed his career once and for all.
Tokushima, the place to be
Vortis were coming from a turbulent season, the worst of the four years spent by Ricardo Rodríguez. The lab implemented by the Spanish manager suffered a slump, with the club finishing just eleventh in 2018. With the usual reshuffle of players coming and leaving, Kishimoto signed on loan in the hope of finding the same pitch time and maybe more goals to show for.
It was clear from start, though, that Rodríguez had other plans for Kishimoto. Although the Cerezo loanee started some games as a forward, the head coach preferred other players up front, like Nomura, Kiyotake jr., Oshitani and most of all Atsushi Kawata (who then scored 13 goals in just 30 games). Kishimoto featured, but as a side midfielder, because Rodríguez wanted probably to exploit his runs to support the attacking process.
And that’s where the Spanish manager has put a spell on Kishimoto. He surely has transformed the career of many players in four years in Tokushima – ask Ken Iwao or Shota Fukuoka –, but the evolution of Kishimoto is probably the biggest technical legacy he left there: Vortis didn’t lose hope on him, actually they signed him with a permanent move already in August 2019. Why? Because they had a plan.
There’s a “Zambrotta scenario”, like we’d like to call it: instead of keep persevering on a forward who wasn’t working, Rodríguez gradually pushed Kishimoto back in the field. First winger, then wing back and in the end right back. Against all odds, it worked marvelously: Kishimoto served seven assists in 2020, scored two and most of all he was a pillar for the J2 champions in their run to J1.
Future, a land of opportunities
And that’s where 2021 became unbelievable. With the departure of the Spanish manager and the delayed preparation without Poyatos, we thought Vortis would have immensely suffered this shift. Especially players like Kishimoto, who owe a lot to Rodríguez and his staff for turning their careers around. Instead, the former Cerezo forward found a renovated strength to do even more than before.
Now playing as a stable right back, Kishimoto he featured in all the J1 matches from this season, having already bagged three goals. Among them, the first goal in the topflight since 2014 – at Oita –, a crucial one to seal a three wins in a row-run at home – against Vegalta Sendai – and last week a nice chip to clinch another three important points in the relegation fight, this time in Hiroshima.
There’s no MIP (Most Improved Player) Award in the J. League, but we’re truly convinced Kishimoto would be in contention. When he was celebrating the goal against Sanfrecce, under the pouring rain, he looked relaxed and satisfied. A little bit like Tim Robbins when he escapes the prison in “The Shawshank Redemption”: the no. 15 of Vortis seemed calm, finally free from all his (technical) worries, fully aware of his strengthened tactical identity.
And here’s the bitter part. The national team is going to play a tour de force in these two weeks and we were hoping to see way more J. Leaguers taking part in these qualifiers: unfortunately, there wasn’t space for them. But if there was some, Kishimoto would have deserved to be there. Can you name many right backs better than him now in J. League? It’s hard, isn’t it? When you have wings, though, you can overcome any hurdle.