After being starved of playing time with German giants Bayern Munich, Cronan Yu reveals how Japan’s Takashi Usami is finding his form on local shores once again...
"The Japanese are disciplined, hard-working and obedient toward the team. They have speed, technique, and discipline" - Felix Magath
For many football fans, Japanese starlet Takashi Usami is not exactly a household name. While most Asian youngsters continually dream of plying their trade amongst Europe's elite in the near future, the versatile attacker has been there and done that. For a player who is only 22 years of age, the realisation of his potential no longer lingers upon the hypothetical 'if', but the imminent 'when'.
How the tables have turned.
Nowadays, there seems to be an air of expectancy when it comes to producing talented footballers for the European stage. One does not need to look any further than Yasuhiko Okudera. While many may know of him as the former president of English side Plymouth, in the eyes of Japan's footballing fraternity, Okudera was a pioneer for the local game — a Messianic figure in many respects.
Indeed, Okudera's feats most notably at FC Koln, Hertha Berlin, and Werder Bremen opened the floodgates for the continual influx of local talent on the European stage. Japanese football, for that matter, is all the better for it.
The consistency of Keisuke Honda and the meteoric rise of Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund are just two modern examples of Okudera's legacy in action.
So while in some respects the aforementioned duo continue to struggle with consistency on the pitch, it seems almost coincidental, if not fateful, that their natural successor, Usami, would be creating shockwaves back home. With each performance, the attacking phenomenon finds himself edging closer to a permanent European move.
Usami's rise to almost-superstardom back home is a tale of hard work and good fortune. Born in Kyoto, the attacker joined Gamba Osaka's U15s side in 2005 and was promoted to the U18s side two years later.
By 2009, the then 17-year-old had already established himself as the nation's 'next big thing', and not only represented his club in the J.League but also made an unforgettable debut in the Asian Champions League and scored against FC Seoul. An ill-fated U20 World Cup campaign in the same year had little impact on Usami's ambitions.
A successful 2010 J.League campaign, in which Usami established himself as a part of the starting XI on a regular basis as he scored 11 goals in 37 appearances in all competitions, saw his stocks rise as the attacker caught the eye of some of the Bundesliga's best sides. He was subsequently named the J.League's best young player.
Indeed, Usami is your prototypical 21st-century attacker and his typically refined Japanese technique in conjunction with his quick, fleet-footed nature and his vision to pick a pass from in advanced positions caught the eye of Bayern Munich and he swiftly moved to Bavaria on a year-long loan deal.
His loan spell though was, at times, underwhelming to say the least. His departure after the loan spell was consequential of several factors. Despite mostly training with the first-team, then-coach Jupp Heynckes was reluctant to use the youngster in an 'impact sub' role and often had to settle for a spot on the bench, or worse, a place in Bayern's 'B' side, where he scored six goals in 18 appearances. However, when given the chance against Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart, Usami performed admirably in adversity.
At a club primed for winning, performing in a courageous manner was never going to be enough to secure a permanent move. Especially considering that Bayern had for a second consecutive season lost out to the Bundesliga title to Borussia Dortmund, the club they had assisted financially just over a decade ago. In addition, with the midfield well-stocked with the likes of Toni Kroos, Luis Gustavo, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller and the flanks occupied primarily by Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, chances were always going to be hard to come by.
Disillusioned by the lack of first-team opportunities, Usami said: "Bayern have expressed interest in borrowing me for an extra year, but I'm not sure if it will work out this way. If I'm honest, I would rather not stay."
With then Hoffenheim manager Markus Babbel commenting that "Only Bayern and Dortmund are better, squad-wise", the club provided an attractive option for the ambitious youngster. In fact, the youngster started the season as a highly-rated diminutive midfielder whose ability to link defence to attack wreaked havoc across the board. However, problems behind the scenes at the club adversely affected Usami's performances as he only managed to score twice in 20 Bundesliga appearances for the club. Babbel's dismissal and the subsequent overhaul of coaching staff effectively spelled the end of Usami's time in Europe.
"It was pathetic. All of us, myself included, need to remember the responsibility that comes with being professional footballers," Usami exclaimed upon later reflection.
On the rise
While Usami's time in Europe would be labelled as 'unsuccessful' by many sections of the wider public, the statistics tell a different story. The starlet's dribbling success rate was 17% higher than that of Luis Suarez, then the Premier League's most in-form striker. Not to mention his 42.3% success rate of crosses, a statistic higher than that of any Premier League player, including England’s Leighton Baines.
"I made improvements in every aspect there," Usami said reflecting on his time in Germany. "I learned a great deal of things with the two clubs. I realised that I needed to change not only technically but also mentally in order to become a better player. It has brought about changes to me as a player as well as a person. I also learned to be confident. I believe I am capable of passing, dribbling and scoring. Now these have become my major strengths."
However, his resilience following a rough time in the Bundesliga is a prime example of Usami's maturity which stretches well beyond his years. Upon returning to Japan, he helped Gamba seal promotion back into the J.League, scoring 19 goals in the process before netting on 15 occasions last season to help his side romp to an unexpected league and domestic cup double.
Despite harbouring dreams of a European return, it seems for now, Usami is adamant on winning the Asian Champions League with Gamba Osaka first before considering a move elsewhere.
"I want to become Asian champions," Usami stated. "We are an attack-minded side. Our (Gamba) strengths lie in our aspiration for success and aggressive mentality."
The word in Japan though is that it is highly unlikely the 5'10" midfielder will stay in J.League for much longer. Usami's return was only meant to serve as a mere pit stop. While there is still time on his hands, the Japanese international knows that it's virtually impossible to turn down a lucrative offer should one be on the table.
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