Dancing Shoes

Rebuilding isn’t easy. Ask any US Major franchise how it is to start again. Ask even J. League teams how it is to start over – like Shimizu S-Pulse or Kashiwa Reysol did after a relegation to J2. Among them, there’s a team who’s going through the third rebuilding in just five years: Cerezo Osaka. After the trophies under Yoon Jung-hwan and the “grit-and-grind” times under Lotina, 2021 saw the return of Lévir Culpi.

It was strange and it’s early to say if it worked or not. In terms of results, Cerezo swung from a firing start to a disappointing end of the first stage, going through some success now in the ACL. They’ve a huge batch of talents, both from the past and for the future, especially up front. Just think how Hiroshi Kiyotake, Motohiko Nakajima, Jun Nishikawa, plus Hirotaka Tameda and Toshiyuki Takagi are among the available options.

But there’s one more, the most lethal. He has shined particularly in the last two years, adapting both to J1 and to the switch from Yamagata’s fun brand of football to Lotina’s strict tactics. Actually, he was surprising in 2020 and he’s confirming himself with his performances even this year, debuting both on the continental stage and in the national team. Roughly three years ago, he was playing university football.

Whether he plays for Lotina or Culpi, it doesn’t matter. Tatsuhiro Sakamoto has found a way to dance, no matter the case. And while he puts his dancing shoes against defenders, the ball is still with him and the world at his feet.

(Another) missed prophet in Tokyo

Ironically, Sakamoto should have been somewhere else. Class ’96, the kid was born in Tokyo – precisely in Higashimurayama – and actually featured in FC Tokyo’s youth ranks until the U-15 team (alongside another current prodigy: Yoshio Koizumi). Once enrolled in the Maebashi Ikuei High School, he found some exceptional team-mates: other than Koizumi, Daihachi Okamura (now in Sapporo), Tokuma Suzuki (at Vortis), Ryoma Watanabe (before he moved to Germany) and Shun Yoshida (now at Trinita).

That team came as runners-up in the soccer championship reserved to high schools, and then Sakamoto opted to join Toyo University. He stayed there until September 2018, when J. League clubs started sniffing around his talent. Montedio Yamagata got the better of other teams and convinced Sakamoto to join as a Special Designated Player. He didn’t play any game in 2018, but it wasn’t a problem.

2019 was his rookie year. And the only one in Yamagata, because he immediately made an impact in J2: he featured in all league matches, scoring seven goals and providing four assists in the process. Yamagata had a striking first part of the season, even leading the table before running into a negative streak of results. Nevertheless, Sakamoto was capable of leading the team offensively at just 23 years old.

In the 3-4-2-1 designed by Kiyama, Sakamoto was among the two midfielders behind the lone striker, whether if that was Jefferson Baiano or Shuhei Otsuki. It was manifest how J2 was too easy for him: take the half-way goal against Ehime FC or the plays in the playoffs’ semifinals against Omiya Ardija. He was clearly above average, with a great vision and solid striking skills from distance.

From Zero to Hiro

Just like in an old Paolo Nutini’s song, Sakamoto “put some new shoes on and suddenly everything was right”. Leaving Yamagata after just one season could have been risky, especially given how it’s hard to adapt to Lotina’s tactics. And it worked because there was something we didn’t know about Sakamoto.

In his rookie year in Yamagata, we probably imagined him as a “classic 10”, while Lotina immediately switched him to another position. The 4-3-3 born the year before needed two creative wingers to balance the defensive asset by the Spanish manager. One was lock and loaded: captain Hiroshi Kiyotake, who had a splendid return in Osaka as the offensive pillar of the club after his years in Europe.

On the right wing, though, Cerezo had Kota Mizunuma, who though joined Marinos in Winter 2019-20. Therefore, Sakamoto had responsibilities right away to fill that void. But he did even better, because he gave something Mizunuma didn’t have: dribbling skills. While the current Marinos right winger has stamina and a certain flair for goalscoring, the newly arrived from Yamagata brought chances creation as his main perk.

We would go beyond the 33 games played, with two goals and nine assists. Sakamoto has this unique, masterful skill of “dancing” on the sideline, mostly the right one. Playing by inverted feet, Sakamoto heads towards his opponent like he’s going to the bottom line. Then, just like a ballroom dancer, stops, feints and gives the impression that’s breaking through with his favorite foot.

Case in point.

At that point, the defenders are mostly disoriented. And Sakamoto has even more choices: either putting a chocolate cake for a team-mate, mostly for an easy sitter on the second post, or changing direction with another feint and going full throttle until the end. No problem for him: the right foot works properly, and the lefty is just for higher-caliber numbers.

Now what?

If Sakamoto has become an incredible resource for Cerezo – he can play both as a winger or a no. 10, although Culpi’s tactics don’t include that role –, he could also become an option for the national team. Given his performances with the pink side of Osaka, the winger was called up by Hajime Moriyasu and played a couple of games in the World Cup qualifiers.

It’s sure that Moriyasu a deep, strong batch of wingers and offensive players to choose from – to make a quick list: Mitoma, Kubo, Miyoshi, Ito, Minamino, Kamada, Furuhashi, Doan, possibly even Okugawa, Haraguchi and Nakajima –, so it won’t be easy for Sakamoto to find some room for himself. Surely, though, he’ll be in the conversation for Qatar 2022, especially if he might move to Europe.

And we personally don’t see why that shouldn’t happen. It’s not like Cerezo are short of wingers: as we established at the beginning, they did have a long list of talents and they would be fine. Kiyotake plus Sakamoto is the best combination for them, but not the only one available. Seeing Sakamoto in a European championship – Netherlands comes immediately to our mind for a winger – would be satisfying.

There are still 18 months to Qatar 2022. For now, other players seem to have a better chance of being there with the Samurai Blue, but we wouldn’t rule out Sakamoto. His rise from Yamagata to his current status has been so quick that we got dizzy. Just like the opponents he likes to jest with his dancing moves on the right side of the field.

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