In a messy calendar year, Japan had to measure themselves with the Second Round of the Asian qualifiers to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In that stage, Hajime Moriyasu had the chance of testing several players against weaker opponents, like Myanmar, Tajikistan, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan. But there were as well two friendly games in the first part of the year. One of them was the first match of 2021, against South Korea.
In a friendly game (which isn’t that friendly at all), Japan obliterated the Taeguk Warriors 3-0. It was a chance to witness how Miki Yamane could be useful as a starter; to testify the debut of Ryoya Ogawa, Hayao Kawabe and Yasuto Wakizaka. But there was more: another celebrated J. Leaguer had the chance of debuting with the Samurai Blue. Little detail? He was about to turn 29.
In fact, the protagonist, in this case, had a better resume in J. League, having been there since 2015. That was the year of his debut in Gunma, where he scored 13 goals in his rookie experience with Thespakusatsu. And then Omiya Ardija for a couple of seasons, absolute baller in Chiba with Kashiwa Reysol, and then the departure last Summer. Direction? Saitama, where he joined Urawa Red Diamonds.
If it was for him, maybe Ataru Esaka would have stayed longer with Reysol, where he was the no. 10, the most talented player, and the technical pillar in a tough 2021. Nevertheless, the last chance to take a leap in his career – shortly after wearing the Samurai Blue shirt for the first time ever – pushed him away. And that transfer won the “Best Signing” category in the 2021 Regista Awards for J1 League, so… let’s jump on it!
Made in Gunma
Class ’92, Esaka attended the Ryutsu Keizai University before joining Thespakusatsu Gunma for the 2015 season. It didn’t take long to understand the talent was there: the rookie dragged the club out of the relegation zone thanks to his performances (he was fielded both as a left winger and as a striker). He bagged 13 goals, including against the promoted teams in that year, Júbilo Iwata and Omiya Ardija.
In fact, head coach Hiroki Shibuya took notes and brought Esaka with him in J1. The offensive ductility of the sophomore was enough to make him indispensable for Omiya’s production in front of goal: Esaka double his minutes in the second part of the 2016 season, while scoring six goals (including against Urawa Red Diamonds and Kawasaki Frontale) and rounding up his tally to eight in his first J1 experience.
Ardija lost the run for an ACL-spot at the last minute, but that 2016 was the best season in the club’s history. Unfortunately, the following year didn’t follow the same trajectory: Esaka kept playing and contributing to the offense (seven goals in 34 matches), but Omiya faced the drop to J2, and they’ve not come back still from that moment. At that point, the former Gunma prodigy needed another challenge.
A lesser hero
At that point, Esaka opted to join Kashiwa Reysol. It seemed a move of common sense: the Chiba-based clinched a fourth place in 2017 season; they had a core of young talents, and they were ready to take the final step. But again, football surprised Esaka: despite the new no. 10 continued to perform on the pitch (nine goals in 33 games), Kashiwa dropped to J2. A second relegation, back-to-back: inexplicable (or maybe not).
This time, Esaka didn’t jump the ship: he stayed with Reysol to bring the club back to J1, alongside many players. It worked: after a first struggle, Kashiwa dominated the league by winning the J2 title. Esaka contributed with 11 goals, and found some continuity even in a COVID-oppressed season. Alongside Michael Olunga, Esaka formed an exciting duo, capable of any offensive threat and who brought Reysol close to winning the J. League Cup.
It felt like Esaka gave his best in 2020. And maybe he was expecting more from the club, who let Olunga go to Qatar (for a good sum, we must address that) and left him a little bit alone up there. Reysol had problems scoring all season long, and even when they found a solution – in this case, Pedro Raúl –, everything dissolved quickly. With so many crossroads not turning his way, he might have felt it was time for a change.
A new life
The “deal in heaven” struck when Urawa Red Diamonds came forward. It felt both parties could benefit from this: Esaka would have been a key player in an upper table-reality (or at least, they have that plan in their mind) and Ricardo Rodríguez needed an alternative to the sudden explosion of Kasper Junker (Shinzo Koroki seemed on his way to Sapporo and Kenyu Sugimoto went on loan to Yokohama F. Marinos).
In the end, it was a solid intuition: Esaka allowed the Spanish head coach to field a “false 9”, capable of running through mid-spaces, but also able of playing as a link for the other offensive players. It’s not an accident if the former Reysol featured a lot as a striker rather than as a “10” behind Junker. Since September, the Danish striker played no more than 45 minutes per match since Rodríguez couldn’t renounce to both Esaka and Koizumi.
Esaka revealed himself as a card to play and he’ll surely be a part of this team in 2022, when Reds will be called to improve again and look for a Top 4 finish. Meanwhile, he debuted with the national team: what’s next? After almost 300 official games in his career in just seven seasons, the eighth will see Esaka turn 30. The Samurai Blue might be gone, but one of the J. League key figures is ready to take the stage as a protagonist.