Scoring 101

It’s a torrid night at the Arechi Stadium. We’re far away from the current times, where Franck Ribéry – basically a Balon d’Or winner in 2013 (the jury has decided otherwise on that matter) – is wearing the jersey of Salernitana for an improbable season. It’s July 2019, and there’s no trace of professional players around the pitch.

In fact, it’s the final of the football tournament at the Universiade, which is taking place in Naples. Unfortunately, the San Paolo isn’t available, so matches have been played around Campania, with the final in Salerno. And after a thirsty semi-final – won only after penalties against the hosts –, Japan are crushing Brazil’s velleity of a gold medal. It’s 3-0 for the Samurai Blue after 70 minutes and it’ll end 4-1 to clinch another piece of silverware.

In the last-ever appearance of football in the Universiade, the young kids from Japanese universities can count on a granitic no. 9. He’s a class ’98, fresh of his first caps with the senior team. He scores a hat-trick: a penalty kick, plus two timely runs through the Brazilian defence. He looks gracile, but his positioning and sense of awareness in the last 18 meters is unmatchable at these levels.

It’s a torrid night, with back-then youngsters Reo Hatate and Kaoru Mitoma just scratching the surface of their talent. Same goes for the protagonist of our story: that night, Ayase Ueda proved that something was in there. Something to follow closely, nurture and develop.

That gracile kid grew a little – both in age and physically – and he’s now a prime candidate for the no. 9 spot of the national team in the upcoming years.

A kid, a fan, a future champion

Born in Ibaraki, it’s curious how Ueda isn’t actually from Kashima, but from Mito. Nevertheless, Antlers kept an eye on him since a young age, seeing him joining the Hosei University in 2017. It’s a little regret for Ueda, who wanted to join a professional club straight after the high school. The problem? His 170 centimetres and a slender body type weren’t considered good enough.

He gave it another shot after just two and a half years in the university. Never mind what said before: he scored a lot of goals, bringing Hosei University to winning the All Japan University Football Championship after a 42-years-drought. Antlers couldn’t just ignore these progresses, so they opted to sign Ueda as a special designated player already from 2019 season.

In fact, Hosei University had to let him go way earlier than predicted. Ueda part ways with them in July 2019 and the forward himself was pretty aware of what he achieved in his 30 months with Hosei: “I have done what I could here”. In his first press conference after joining officially Antlers, he doesn’t hide himself, proclaiming his love for the club. Standing besides him? Osamu Suzuki, the man in charge of scouting for Kashima.

These are the same scouts who scooped Caio, Yuma Suzuki, Gen Shoji and many other talented players throughout the last decade. Could they be wrong with such confidence? Because Antlers are rarely known for making mistakes in this department. And this confidence was justified despite what happened a few weeks earlier.

Only mistakes make you grow

Even before becoming a pro, Ueda had actually a lot of experience with the national team under his belt. He played the 2018 Toulon Tournament, the Asian Games from the same year (scoring in both the semi-finals and the final), the 2019 U-23 AFC Championship and the Universiade. But there was even something more.

After a rushed year – with the FIFA World Cup in Summer 2018 and the Asian Cup six months later –, JFA needed a B-team to face the Copa América in June 2019. Hajime Moriyasu opted to pick mainly U-24 players, but he went even further. He chose Ueda to feature in the final 23, the first member to still attend university and be called up since January 2010 (when Takeshi Okada called Kazuya Yamamura and Kensuke Nagai for an AFC qualifier).

But do you remember how we valued Ueda’s performances in that competition? The opening game against Chile was an embodiment of “what ifs”: four clear cut chances – which Ueda helped creating with his sense of position within the penalty box, his poacher instinct –, but all squandered due to poor finishing. To many fans, it felt frustrating that a university kid couldn’t seal any of those chances after a row of “almost no. 9” starting.

In the end, though, that night showed in perspective what Ueda could do. He needed to be more physical and efficient in front of goal, but he was already able to value the spacing between his opponents and the right moment to find a breach among his rivals. It’s something you cannot teach; you have to be born with that.

Practical example? This goal against Marinos, which will lead Antlers to an incredible comeback in Yokohama. Besides Doi’s wonderful ball-through, Ueda seizes an opportunity for a run alongside his opponent. The ball is pretty fast, but he’s able to catch it and immediately shoot to beat Takaoka.

A second coming

It’s not an accident if the settlement within Antlers lasted very little. Even if he featured in just 13 league games in 2019, he found the net already four times (including a winner that almost jeopardized Marinos’ run to the title). Once Sho Ito and Serginho both departed to other ventures, Ueda found more space, despite Everaldo’s rookie year in Japan was impressive and fundamental for Antlers’ fortunes.

Ueda became a super-sub, scoring 10 goals in 26 league matches. With a little caveat, though: in 2020, the back-then no. 36 played just 1151 minutes. That means one goal every 115 minutes: an otherworldly score, to which even head coach Antonio Carlos Zago couldn’t renounce. In the final part of 2020, Zago started fielding Everaldo and Ueda together, with the latter hitting the post in the final game against Cerezo: one inch away from an ACL spot.

When Everaldo’s performances dipped dramatically this season (going from 2649 minutes to just 1470 this season in J1), Antlers didn’t have any worry left. Ueda ate minutes from the Brazilian (rising up already to 1564 and there are three games left) and replaced his missing offensive production, helped as well by the rise of Ryotaro Araki.

Most of all, Ueda learned one further lesson: he’s becoming more and more lethal, converting into goals even possible misses or mistakes in front of goal. He bagged 13 in 2021, he developed a more physical approach to football (forget the gracile kid seen in Copa América: his upper body almost doubled and he regularly clashes against defenders, often winning duels) and he even refined his technical properties in the midtime.

Another great example: right positioning, turn on himself to avoid pressure by Grolli, and a great shoot to seal the deal in the J. League Cup against Fukuoka.

Despite this, Moriyasu has for now overlooked his return. It’s bizarre how Antlers produced the two best candidates for a no. 9 spot in the last years: Yuma Suzuki has been ignored by the national team without a particular reason, while Ueda featured in the 2019 EAFF E-1 Championship to then disappear from any call-up. Japan wouldn’t be in such offensive thirst with Kyogo Furuhashi as a striker, but the reality is currently different.

Even in the Tokyo Olympics of last Summer, Ueda seemed a last resort, rarely used by Moriyasu. Unfortunately, the majority of Japanese center-forwards isn’t as physically savvy and technically gifted as Ueda, who deserves a shot both in Japan’s senior NT and possibly in Europe. Only time will tell if next Christmas will see Ueda still in Japan, whether if it’s a club or national team-related.

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