Mr. Ductility

October 13th, 2019: Axis Bird Stadium in Tottori. It’s an afternoon with not too much in play: the kids from Gamba Osaka U-23 are ready to face Gainare away. The match will end in a 2-2 draw, which left almost everything unchanged on the table. The reserve squad was also the chance to see back on the pitch players who were injured o didn’t have too much space in the first team.

Just to make a list: David Concha featured four times that season. Takahiro Ko, already seen in the senior team, played three times. Hiroki Fujiharu, a walking totem at Gamba, took part in two games. And among the players who featured once, there was a player who indeed was playing in Tottori that afternoon. As a central defender, and that’ll remain one of the just seven matches where he wore a Gamba jersey.

On loan from Frontale, he was lighting up defenses in J2 just a few years before. He was an interesting no. 10, who had a striking start with Mito HollyHock and a decent intermission in Yamagata. Then the signing from Kawasaki, the small pitch time given him by Toru Oniki, and the transformation into something else: a bench warmer, not playing anymore as an offensive midfielder. In fact, that Tottori afternoon, he played as a… center-back.

Who would have thought that three years later that same player would have become the key player for a promoted team, the current top-scorer of J1, and one of the few reasons to watch a team predicted by most fans to end up relegated again to J2? Yuto Suzuki has a peculiar career and he’s just turned 28 a few weeks ago. It’s a mystery how he ended up here, grabbing national headlines after his brace at Sanga.

A real “Fantasista”

Life should have brought Suzuki somewhere else. Born in 1993 in Yokohama, his father Yasuhito was a soccer coach and that helped the young Yuto featuring for several youth ranks from J. League clubs, like Oita Trinita, Kashiwa Reysol, and Yokohama F. Marinos. Until 2011, he had a chance to join Marinos, but in the end, the chance vanished, and he then signed for Mito HollyHock in 2012.

Coached by Tetsuji Hashiratani, Suzuki stayed in Ibaraki for four years. He developed into an interesting offensive player, having his best season in 2015: 31 caps and nine goals in all competitions. He then caught the eye of Montedio Yamagata, who signed him for two years, living through another solid season in 2017: 31 apps and five goals, just enough to make another leap. This time, to J1.

Under the new course of Toru Oniki, just crowned champions Kawasaki Frontale brought Suzuki back to Kanagawa. Sure, as a backup player, but they did. Unfortunately, after a positive first season, Suzuki went out of the radar fast. He won a J1 title and a Japanese Super Cup, but struggled to find more space on the pitch. Most of all, he wasn’t an offensive element anymore: Oniki fielded him as a right midfielder and even as a full-back on both flanks.

That’s where the chance to move on loan to Gamba Osaka came in mid-2019, when Suzuki joined them in the attempt of finding more space under Tsuneyasu Miyamoto. But even there, it didn’t work: 108 minutes in J1, fading fast from rotation. And even with the reserves team, besides that afternoon in Tottori, Suzuki never played more than that. It was to resettle somewhere else.

Rock-bottom

The perfect opportunity came with Matsumoto Yamaga, a solid club fallen back to J2 after just one season and was ready to fight back. Unfortunately, the successor of Yasuharu Sorimachi – the beloved coach who guided Yamaga for almost a decade – didn’t work out. Keiichiro Nuno lasted just a few weeks, before being replaced by Kei Shibata to turn things around.

Incredibly, though, Suzuki started with a massive performance in the opening match: one goal and the assist for the winning goal of Sakano in Ehime. But even in Yamaga, despite the hiring of Shibata did indeed turn the ship around for Matsumoto, Suzuki was established as a right midfielder or right wing-back, living through a decent season after the slumps experienced with Frontale and Gamba.

But Matsumoto didn’t retain him, so Suzuki was looking for a new challenge. And he found one in Shizuoka, where Júbilo signed him for 2021. Iwata finally found a stable guide in Masakazu Suzuki, but no one probably saw what was coming. After becoming a solid team and being forecasted with a Top 6 finish, Júbilo won the whole thing with a grit-and-grind approach, being nothing but dull. But it worked.

In this approach, Suzuki was indubitably the key member of the team. Sure: Miura, Endo, Lukian, and Yamada all played an important role, but no one embodied the spirit of that game plan better than Yuto. The no. 17 was initially fielded as a center-back. Some thought the manager must be gone mad: indeed, it was a calculated risk, which paid in the long run and turned Iwata into a dark horse for the J2 title.

The real star in Iwata

Having featured in so many roles, in the end, paid for Suzuki: a player with such ductility could theoretically play in all the roles of the 3-4-2-1 implemented by Masakazu Suzuki. Starting as a center-back, Suzuki split himself between that position – alongside captain Oi and first Hiroki Ito, then Norimichi Yamamoto – and the right wing-back role, where he showed the peak of his performances.

He scored eight goals (with two braces) and served six assists: absolute madness. And he didn’t stop there, since he already provided three goals in his first J1 season in three years, taking for a few hours or days?) the top-scorer title. In the process, he also helped granting Iwata their first J1 win in three years, with the three points in Kyoto that will represent a key win in the relegation race.

He’s ready for J1. Iwata are probably going down anyway, but Suzuki got in the process a solid replacement on the bench. When Masakazu Suzuki left for health issues, we were worried the complete change of tactics would have squandered the work done in the last 18 months. Instead, Júbilo hired Akira Ito, the magician who made Kofu a juggernaut in J2 and who basically played with the same system at Ventforet.

Ito is a good match for Suzuki, and it’s been proved already. The rest is up to him; we have the feeling, though, this is just the beginning.

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