The Danish Twirl

Can a single game resume a whole experience? Maybe it can. May 18, 2022: Urawa Red Diamonds are losing 3-0 at home against Yokohama F. Marinos. A solid display by Kevin Muscat’s squad, with even Ryo Miyaichi scoring his first J. League goal ever. A loss would have even worsened Urawa’s situation, who are doing fine in ACL, but put together just two wins in 12 games (all at home, against relegation candidates Shonan and Iwata).

This until a man saves the day. After a bleak first half for all the team, the striker with the no. 7 puts together the miracle. First a composed finish in front of goal, then another strike (after Matsuo’s backheel provided one of the best assists of the season), and a final tap-in from a few meters to provide the completed comeback. It’s just a point and Reds have still the same problems, but there are positives to take from such a night.

We won’t go too long on Reds. They’re surely struggling, but whoever is pitching the idea of changing Ricardo Rodríguez is probably from the same party who thought sacking Miura at Kobe was a solid idea, only to end up with kind of the same struggles. In the case of Urawa Reds, it’d be even more dangerous: the club was at the same point last season and look how it ended up.

But if RR’s plans need time to be properly adjusted, the real protagonist here doesn’t need that time. He ignited the league when he came, then he found some struggle in finding back his starting spot. We don’t know if Kasper Junker is meant to stay in Saitama, but in his day he’s unstoppable. And he’s probably one of the best foreigners J. League has ever assured itself in the last decade.

The Continental Experience

How did he come this far, though? Junker is a class ’94, born in Vejle, Denmark. Randers are the team who launched him, but incredibly he couldn’t find the net for three years. Not even a loan to Fredericia helped. And when he signed for firstly AGF, then Horsens, Junker couldn’t really improve that much his production.

Taking everything into account, Junker scored 10 league goals in 103 games, distributed throughout five seasons. Not the best scoring record you can remember. And despite a few caps with the young selections from Denmark (U-20 and U-21), Junker – the highest-paid signing in Horsens’ history – couldn’t unlock his true potential. At this moment, Kasper took another decision: leaving Denmark.

That’s where Norway and the Eliteserien enter the scene. A loan to Staebaek was meant to help the striker, with the option of being bought out. It worked: Junker scored six goals in 12 games, closing the year with a hat-trick against Mjøndalen. This was enough for one of the most important clubs in the country, Bodø/Glimt, to be convinced and sign him right away for the 2020 season.

Now Bodø/Glimt are well-known, after their European runs and an amazing brand of football exported outside of Norway. Back then, they were building this awareness. Junker helped in doing so by scoring 27 goals in 25 games. Fun fact: he also scored his first European goal. Against AC Milan, at San Siro. It wasn’t worth a win but surely raised some eyebrows.

If you look at this video, you can see Junker’s awareness in the penalty box, although he doesn’t look as elegant as today.

The Eagle Has Landed

When Urawa opted to bring Junker in, there was a solid reason: Reds had a massive problem in the striker position. Shinzo Koroki was (and he’s!) one of the most decorated strikers in J. League strikers, but he didn’t suit Ricardo Rodríguez’s plans. Same you could say of Kenyu Sugimoto – no need to add further words – or Kosuke Kinoshita – who, fun fact, played at Stabaek too. Yuki Muto could have been a nice fit, but the form wasn’t the same as 2-3 years prior.

Junker arrives in May and just takes the league by storm. An electric beginning sealed already on the first game: in a J. League Cup match that ended in a 3-3 draw at Reysol, Junker immediately finds the net. He repeats himself four days later, in the home debut at the Saitama Stadium: one goal to seal the win against Vegalta Sendai. It’s the beginning of a run of five goals in five matches, which grants him the “Player of the Month” award in May 2021.

It’s a paradox how the best exemplification of this domination comes from a game that Urawa lost, but twice. Due to the unauthorized use of a player, Reds witnessed their 2-3 home defeat against Shonan revert to a 0-3. But the fear in Shonan defenders’ eyes couldn’t match the beauty of Junker’s brace, especially for the second goal of that strange night.

On a rebound from a Nishi’s clearance, Junker offers a “pared” to Yoshio Koizumi, immediately sprinting to the other end of the pitch. Koizumi, an educated and gifted player, just knows he’s to release the Danish. Laser pass beyond two Shonan defenders, who chase Junker, but it’s no use. The no. 7 reaches the limit of the penalty box and draws a soft lob that overcomes Tani.

A few minutes later, in a raptus of empowerment, the Danish striker will also hit the post.

Junker closes the year with 16 goals in 32 matches and the win in the Emperor’s Cup. Nevertheless, a problem started to surge with the arrival of another Summer signing – Ataru Esaka from Kashiwa Reysol. The Danish saw his minutes decreasing. And there wasn’t any change in that tendency throughout 2022. But why?

Blessing in Disguise

The first reason could be technical. Throughout his Japanese times, Ricardo Rodríguez appreciated a certain kind of strikers: the agile ones, who once would have even deployed as a secondary striker. Atsushi Kawata, for example, is that kind of player. Yuki Kakita, in a certain way, follows the same pattern. On the other side, Peter Utaka scored six goals in 18 games with Vortis, but didn’t stay and switched alliance to Kofu the season after.

And that would also explain another move RR used: Esaka has been fielded as a “falso nueve”, playing a light line-up. Just like in basketball the “small-ball” option has become the rule, Reds have preferred to follow the same pattern. It’s not an accident that Esaka played 985 minutes in J1, while Junker has roughly the same minutes as David Moberg Karlsson… who, though, joined the team in March after entering the country.

Furthermore, Reds are splashing the transfer market. They recently brought in Alex Schalk from Servette, who can play both as a winger and striker… but with all the offensive players Urawa have on the flanks and for the no. 10 role, Schalk has been used as a lone striker. And now there are also rumors confirming that Bryan Linssenthe no. 9 from Feyenoord – could be on the move to Saitama after the UEFA Conference League final.

In our head, this further acquisition would mean Reds are ready to move on from Junker. But can you really move on from such a striker, with nights like this? Furthermore, it’s not just a technical matter: Junker is really living his life in Japan, like the foreigners J. League should feature (e.g. Emil Salomonsson). Junker integrated himself within the Japanese environment (just look at this exchange with Matsuo, which should deserve a prize).

Whether he’s going to stay in Saitama or move somewhere else (there were rumors of a Kobe’s offer last Winter, but even there it’s too crowded), Junker is a resource for the league, which needs more players and characters like him. Especially on those nights worthy of hat-tricks.

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