Crossroads

Last week has been intense for J. League neutral fans. Like every Winter, several players have left their beloved clubs or they’re going to retire. There’s a new era coming especially at Urawa Red Diamonds, where the project of Ricardo Rodríguez is shaping the squad in a different way. This meant that some senators are out: among them, Yuki Abe will retire, while Tomoya Ugajin and Tomoaki Makino will be searching for a new gig.

And particularly Makino – a unique figure in J. League’s last decade, who took part as a secondary option to the life of the national team – will be tough to replace. His antics, his career, and his experience aren’t easily replaceable before the eyes of neutral fans (just took his final appearance as a Red Diamond in Nagoya as an example). On the horizon, though, there might be a possible candidate.

He’s a strong center-back, although he can not count on the same ballistic skills Makino boosted in his early career. He just concluded his third professional season, but his leap forward in terms of potential has been evident to many observers, especially since it came within a team which didn’t rely on a steady defense. He transformed the club’s fortune with his performances.

Spectacular in his display of emotions, tough until the very last minute, Ryuho Kikuchi has become a reliable center-back in one of the best teams of this 2021 season. And it wasn’t meant to be from the start: probably that’s why you readers voted him as the “Most Improved Player” of this year in our “Regista Awards” for the top-flight.

The light in the dark

Born in 1996 in the Iwate Prefecture, Kikuchi wasn’t supposed to be here. He started playing football when he was 7, but he almost gave up when the clock struck the fatidical hour on March 11th, 2011: back then, the young Ryuho was attending Kamaishi Municipal Kamaishi Junior High School when the Great East Japan earthquake hit the region. It seemed the end, since there were no more conditions to play football for a kid.

Then an improbable hero came along: Kazuyoshi Miura. In fact, the Japanese legend was already playing for Yokohama FC and helped the region by opening a football school in Kamaishi. Before debuting as a pro, Kikuchi always underlined how that helping hand changed his history: with that episode, the young kid was able to enroll in the Aomori Yamada High School program.

To join them, he had to adapt: at that time, Kikuchi played as a wide midfielder, but the level was too high, and he volunteered to convert into a center-back. That move changed again his career, making some waves at the National High School Tournament of 2014. Back then, Kikuchi moved way South to proceed with his career, attending the Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences.

Against all odds

Throughout those four years, Kikuchi had a first chance of representing Japan through the 2017 Summer Universiade, where Japan won the gold and the university kids made a name for themselves. Despite this (and unlike many of his team-mates in that adventure), only Renofa Yamaguchi offered him a pro-contract for the 2019 season. Kikuchi didn’t fumble and signed with them.

The 2019 season was a mediocre one for Renofa but playing under manager Masahiro Shimoda – country-wide known as a solid developer of young talents – helped Kikuchi not only become the first J. League player from Kamaishi, but also a solid prospect to sign. In fact, in a strange twist of tales, Vissel Kobe offered him a spot in the 2020 roster, finally opting for young Japanese players in their squad.

He wasn’t meant to play that much, since Vissel started the season under Thorsten Fink with Osaki, Dankler and Vermaelen as main starting options. Albeit that was the plan, a lot changed throughout the season: Fink was replaced mid-season and some things changed. The run in the league was abysmal, but the continental stage gifted some lifelines and Kikuchi found more pitch-time (five games out of seven in the ACL bubble, only 14 in J1).

Unleash the beast

With this renowned awareness, Kikuchi locked his starting spot for 2021. It was clear how Atsuhiro Miura – the former sporting director, who took the job in June 2020 – clearly preferred developing internal resources and the former Renofa represented one of them. Kikuchi – who sees David Luiz as his role model, although the two players have some differences between them – filled the starting role with his skills and his personality.

Many might have noted that his screams propelled into stadiums throughout this season, especially when Vissel were playing at home and after a line clearance or an important tackle. The center back turned into a physical player, who even found his first goals with Kobe: he bagged five in 2021, even fundamental ones (like the one way into stoppage time to snatch a draw against champions Kawasaki Frontale).

Kikuchi was second in the squad for J1 games and minutes played (37 and 3,285, only G. Sakai featured in all of them), testifying his crucial role for Vissel. We’d add Kobe should search for someone to partner him rather than still relying on the Belgian international. Now what for 2022? His name hasn’t come up, but Kikuchi would deserve at least a call-up for the national team.

Moriyasu can already count on Yoshida, Tomiyasu, Itakura and maybe Hiroki Ito, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Kikuchi overcomes a hurdle judged as impossible. His young career is already a first test that he’s good at it.

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