Mr. Do It All

It’s the final whistle at the Todoroki Stadium. You have to wait for a couple of minutes, but the news is in the air: just a few seconds and Kawasaki Frontale will have clinched the J1 title with still four games to play.

When the news comes, everyone is happy. The Brazilian group is celebrating, as well as many Japanese protagonists of the team. Only one man is down on the ground, filled with tears of joy, but maybe also cherishing the accomplishment of another achievement. It’s the same pose he had a few weeks ago, still at the Todoroki, when he provided one crucial goal to defy Shonan Bellmare in stoppage time.

It’s been quite a week for Reo Hatate. Just to put it in perspective:

  • November 3, Wednesday: he features in the game against Urawa Red Diamonds. The final 1-1 home draw seals the fourth league title in five years for Kawasaki Frontale (and the third for Hatate: someone might say the second, officially), giving us the outlook of a real dynasty.
  • November 4, Thursday: Hajime Moriyasu finally realizes how Hatate could be useful in the Japan’s NT squad and gives him his first call to the Samurai Blue.
  • November 5, Friday: the rumors about a possible transfer to Celtic – to join Ange Postecoglou’s project in Glasgow – rapidly intensify (although J. League players are an easy target since the Aussie revolution began).

It’s incredible how Hatate has become a better player, especially this year, taking all kinds of responsibility, both tactically and technically. He’s been a silent resource, a Swiss knife that Oniki utilized in every possible way. And now, he might be on the verge of moving to Europe, which would be only deserved.

But the fun fact is that probably 18 months ago no one would have predicted it. Not at least in this manner.

Believe in yourself

Looking back, it’s incredible how Frontale were able to stack this amount of talent in the last 3-4 years and make it count when it was time to find new heroes. We’re witnessing the greatest Japanese football team in club’s history and most of it comes down to these kids, who were just promises in 2018 and now are fully functioning members of the organization.

We talked about Mitoma, many have talked about Ao Tanaka, and there will be time to mention Yasuto Wakizaka as well. Besides, the link among them is still fresh, as you have witnessed in the title celebrations last Wednesday. Nevertheless, Hatate seemed like the less likely to develop in such a strong way.

Class ‘97 from the Mie Prefecture, Hatate had to move to play football at a relevant level. First the Shizuoka Gakuen High School, then the Juntendo University in Tokyo, where it was announced that he would have joined Frontale in 2020 (after being picked as a special designated player already from 2018). Back then, Kawasaki had already their talents ready to be launched.

Young and unknown.

Meanwhile, Hatate was regarded nationwide as one of the top talents in the country (although no one offered him a pro-opportunity before going to Juntendo). He played two Summer Universiade editions, winning both titles. In 2019 he even scored in the final against Brazil. He also made some waves in the Toulon Tournament of the same year, where Japan lost only at PKs to Brazil in the final.

Tactically savvy

Initially, it didn’t appear like there was too much space for Hatate. In February 2020, the competition was fierce in his role, but that’s exactly why the young kid picked Frontale as a first step for his career: “If I can make it there, then the rest will be just a consequence”. Then Oniki opted to exploit something Hatate learned already throughout his time at the Juntendo University.

The young winger was fielded mostly as a substitute or in the J. League Cup, but he played many games and on both flanks. Then Oniki tried him as a possible midfielder, since Frontale had to manage too many wingers in the roster: Mitoma and Ienaga started, while Manabu Saito and Taisei Miyashiro were the replacements, with even Yu Kobayashi playing on the flanks from time to time.

Then, something even stranger happened. Frontale featured long-time-favorite Kyohei Noborizato as the starting left-back, which granted the no. 2 a place in the Best XI of 2020. Nevertheless, once the title was sealed, Oniki started experimenting he didn’t like too much Shintaro Kuruyama as a back-up, so Hatate started playing as a left-back in the final games of the 2020 season.

2010s promoted in football the image of the “left-back-regista” (e.g. Marcelo), where technically gifted left-backs were able to start the play from behind. What if you’re tactically a winger/forward and you can instead convert chances as a left-back with just a run through the field?

It worked: the speed and the dribbling skills of Hatate matched the role, although he needed more stability defensively. This worked so marvelously that Oniki used Hatate in that position to clinch the 2021 Emperor’s Cup and basically never looked back, until problems in the midfield forced him to change (again) the situation.

Furthermore, Hatate has played a lot as well as a midfielder after Ao Tanaka left for Germany. What’s next for Hatate? Striker? Center back? Goalkeeper?

The ultimate ductile player

The stats in 2021 are speaking for themselves: 33 games played in four different competitions, five goals and three assists. With one major improvement, beyond the ductility: in 2020, the no. 30 played 1476 minutes in J1. The now no. 47 – with still four games to take place – has already bagged up 2188 minutes in 2021, always starting the matches he took part in (he’s sixth for minutes played among Frontale players).

On top of that, Frontale developed Hatate, but he’s been crucial for Kawasaki’s fortunes. Thanks to his Dirk Kuyt-esque inner strength, Frontale didn’t have to really buy anyone once Mitoma and Tanaka left this Summer. The addition of Marcinho and the development of Ten Miyagi were just complimentary, as well the intermittent presence of Ryota Oshima (always hit by injuries). Hatate covered all these weaknesses.

If he’s really on his way out to Glasgow, the club will have to replace him not with just one player, but with two or three, since Hatate clearly hid some cracks on Frontale’s wall. Surely Kawasaki can (and should) boost their roster with a couple of acquisitions, but Reo Hatate represented a lifeline for Oniki and his plans.

Now what? Whether he stays in Japan or not, Hatate will live an exciting 2022: a possible European chance, new opportunities with the national team, and maybe a spot for Qatar 2022 (if Japan qualifies)? Everything’s possible for someone like him. He can really do it all.

11 thoughts on “Mr. Do It All

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