12th Man

When in 2019, Marinos won the J1 League under Ange Postecoglou, neutral fans probably envisioned a fierce battle between two dynasties: Frontale’s and the one in Yokohama. Instead, we got blistering domination by Toru Oniki and his crew, who just steamrolled through the last two seasons to write records over records. Basically, the best team J.League ever witnessed.

But 2022 changed it all. Yes, Frontale slipped and had a mediocre Winter transfer window, not replacing the pieces lost last time around. And yes, Yokohama lost Ange Postecoglou, who’s building another dynasty, but in green and white, in Europe. Marinos started again with another Australian protagonist, Kevin Muscat. And they brought in a lot of players last January.

Especially up front, since they had to replace the goals of Daizen Maeda, the joint top-scorer from last year. They needed something different. They brought Léo Céarà in 2021 – a useful Swiss knife from the bench – and Anderson Lopes this Winter, who quickly realized how leaving Sapporo for China was a dumb move and backpedaled back to Japan signing for Marinos.

Both have been good, but there’s one player who outpaced expectations, becoming the 12th man of a team in need of variety in the offensive department. The two Brazilians are two no. 9s; Elber, Ryo Miyachi (bless him for his unlucky strike of events), and Teruhito Nakagawa are wingers. But there’s one player who can fit both pairs of shoes… and that player, my friends, has been Takuma Nishimura.

Made in Sendai

Yet, Nishimura wasn’t expected to be here. Born in 1996, Nishimura needed a long time to emerge with his first team: Vegalta Sendai. His roots are in Nagoya, he grew up in Toyama in High School, but then moved to Miyagi Prefecture, where Makoto Teguramori’s cycle was just over, and new faces were approaching. First the brief Graham Arnold’s stint, then a long reign with Susumu Watanabe.

Nevertheless, Nishimura wasn’t playing. He racked up just 7 games in two years between 2015 and 2016. His greater contribution actually came with the J.League U-22 team, back then featuring in J3. He played 14 times and scored one goal in a 3-0 away win at YSCC. Funny enough, back then he shared the pitch with future J.Leaguers like Ryosuke Shindo, Koya Yuruki, and Koji Miyoshi. He even experienced a small trial abroad with SC Fortuna Köln.

But when 2017 hit, things changed. He found his first goals (4 between J1 and J. League Cup). And 2018 was crucial because Vegalta lost Crislan and Sota Hirayama retired. They brought in Rafaelson, Ryo Germain and Takuma Abe, but Nishimura left his mark. He wasn’t starting matches that much: that year he played 24 matches in J1, but only 16 from the beginning.

Nevertheless, he found the net 11 times, plus 3 in the Emperor’s Cup and 5 in the J. League Cup. 16 goals: he was on a roll. After the World Cup break, he had scored 5 goals in 8 matches. Vegalta were eighth on the table, and they were having a good run in the Emperor’s Cup (which they eventually lose in the final against Urawa Red Diamonds). But Nishimura won’t be there.

Europe, back and forth

In fact, in what was a wave of attention toward Japanese players after the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Nishimura went abroad. CSKA Moscow wanted to give another try to a Japanese player, after Keisuke Honda’s times a few years back. Unfortunately, it’s tough to tell if that was a good “footballing move”. Surely, Russia was a place to be four years ago, but maybe the stacked offensive department of CSKA didn’t really give Nishimura the space needed.

Yes, he played in the UEFA Champions League (in total, two minutes against Roma and Real Madrid). Yes, he scored a couple of goals in the Russian Premier League. But there was no way to get the continuity he needed to thrive. Nishimura was already 22, he couldn’t afford to stay on the bench. In the end, in 17 months, he played 23 games in all competitions with CSKA Moscow and scored just 4 goals. Too little.

That’s why he left CSKA in January 2020 and moved to Portimonense on loan (with an option to buy), a sort of safehouse for Japanese players in Portimão. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, because COVID-19 was starting to enrage throughout the world. Therefore, Nishimura preferred the option of coming back to Japan, to live that difficult time in his own country.

The main way back was Vegalta Sendai. Nishimura had some injuries that limited him, but he helped as he could. Three goals in 2020, six in 2021. There was something in there, though, because last season’s five wins of Vegalta in J1 see an 80% contribution from Nishimura, whether was a goal or an assist. He couldn’t stay in J2, so someone smart at a big club thought it would have been good to scoop him over.

Yokohama, the place to be

Yokohama F. Marinos needed to expand their choices for a title run. And that’s why Nakamura was brought in. He was meant just another card from the deck, but Nishimura found his space in the 4-3-3 of Muscat, being fielded both as a winger and a no. 9, and he can also play as a second striker. Especially due to a congested schedule – Marinos played ACL early –, Muscat needed as many cards as possible.

What you appreciate about Nishimura is that his technical skills – he’s a gifted lad – are not as massive as others, but he’s a dedication and a tactical savviness that reminds other theoretically non-talented forwards we’ve seen in Japan these years. The master of this art is surely Shinji Okazaki, but Mao Hosoya too looks like belonging to that school of seeing football on the pitch.

Nishimura scored some crucial goals: a brace against Vissel Kobe, a strike of four goals in four matches at the beginning of the Summer (in a six wins-run by Marinos), plus one goal in the Emperor’s Cup and two in the AFC Champions League. These performances awarded him a call by the Japan national team for the EAFF E-1 Championship, which Japan won also thanks to a brace from him in a 6-0 win against Hong Kong.

And now? Now Nishimura is really close to lifting the first club trophy of his life. With five points advantage and six games to play, it’s Marinos’ title to lose, honestly. The next six games are all against teams outside of the Top 8. It’s not impossible to see Yokohama celebrating already the title in the last home game against Gamba Osaka on Oct. 29th. Maybe with a goal by Nishimura, who knows.

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