Words by Tom Danicek
Name: Yoshinori Muto
Club: FC Tokyo (Japan)
When the widely respected journalist Sean Carroll first broke the story about Yoshinori Muto being pursued by Chelsea FC, there appeared to be an overwhelming sense of disbelief and scepticism even among the most passionate Japanese football fans. The whole piece of information really felt a bit surreal in itself, so the fact that it all went down just a couple of days after April Fools’ Day naturally didn’t help the case. Not every day is a Japanese player linked to a top English side, let alone one with a single season under his belt.
By default, various British and other outlets didn’t waste any precious time and right after the £4-million bid was confirmed by FC Tokyo president, some silly narratives and comparisons were drawn. Ideally, their mission would be to help us to grasp the unorthodox move in any way, but as per usual, their actual aim had been set much lower.
Some decided to go with an incredibly lazy – and until then completely unheard – ‘Japanese Messi’ label. Elsewhere, you could see Muto being described as somewhat similar to his potential teammates Eden Hazard and Oscar, which automatically requires you to be very creative if not an outright genius to get an actual idea about what sort of footballer Yoshinori Muto in fact is.
What’s particularly frustrating here, though, is that Muto’s life story isn’t exactly short of some genuinely interesting and relevant narratives.
For instance, Muto had been associated with FC Tokyo youth structures ever since his primary school years, yet he ultimately refused to sign a professional contract after he was done with high school in order to obtain further education. As a result of such prudent thinking, he’s now a fresh Keio University graduate on top of being only a second-year J-Leaguer monitored by the likely English champions. Not a bad starting position for a 22-year-old.
Another thing that makes Yoshinori Muto pretty special is the very fact he stars for FC Tokyo. Born and bred in the country’s capital, the former economics student is one of the few attacking prospects destined to shine for Japan with such background.
“The only comparable Japanese player in terms of excitement in my time following the team (from 2000) is electric winger Naohiro Ishikawa’s 2009 campaign. He scored 15 in 24 appearances, working his way into the national squad, before blowing out his knee,” recalls our consultant Ben Maxwell, host of the excellent J-Talk Podcast.
Otherwise, only defensive-minded FC Tokyo mainstays have appeared to be drawing international call ups over the past few years. Bar Yoshinori Muto, three other Tokyo-based players were invited to the latest national team gathering – a backup goalkeeper (Shuichi Gonda), one exciting left back (Kosuke Ota) and the club’s captain, centre half Masato Morishige. Moreover, the latter followed in the footsteps of Yuto Nagatomo, Yasuyuki Konno and Teruyuki Moniwa; three other defenders, who were also World Cup participants and FC Tokyo representatives simultaneously.
So where does Yoshinori Muto fit into this pattern? As you’re already beginning to see, he is forging his own path and could be perceived as an anomaly in more ways than one – and I’m nowhere near done yet.
You see, even Muto’s introduction at the outset of 2014 season was rather sudden and unexpected, although every casual fan had already known about him for a while. As Ben Maxwell explains to me, it’s far from a habit for a FC Tokyo supporter to see a youngster being provided with an adequate amount of chances and patience, so he can find his permanent spot in the squad. Some of the former managers would simply be too conservative to ‘take the risk’ and give someone inexperienced a proper go.
That’s not the case of Massimo Ficcadenti, though. Appointed in January 2014, the Italian head coach has already surprised us twice – not only in the case of Muto, but also with his chief supplier Hiroki Kawano. The latter was a fringe player without a single league start in two seasons under the previous manager Ranko Popović, but since the former Cagliari boss took the reins at FC Tokyo, he has developed into a splendid number 10. “I think Kawano was seen as more of a luxury player by Popović, but he showed he was prepared to muck in, and his assists were instrumental in both Muto and Edu getting into double figures last season,” recounts Maxwell.
The emergence of Hiroki Kawano has also uncovered one of the most important aspects of Muto’s game: his tremendous versatility. The first four rounds of the last season saw Ficcadenti using a classic 4-3-3 formation featuring Muto as a left winger. However, with Kawano in came the need to create a position ‘in the hole’, and so more often than not, Muto has since been asked to occupy the free role of a second striker alongside the big Brazilian Edu. Switching between both flanks has grown to be a standard feature of Muto’s play, wherever he starts.
All that tireless running around considered, Yoshinori Muto would hardly fit into any conventional category position-wise. At the beginning of 2014, he was listed as a midfielder by FC Tokyo and exactly like that he slipped into last year’s official J-League Team of the Year, too. Nevertheless, the club itself now sees Muto more like a striker, which doesn’t go without a reason. In fact, it perfectly reflects his own doings on the field, where he’s proven to be a surprisingly dependable goalscorer as a freshman.
With his 13 goals, Muto has easily broken Yoshiro Abe’s record for the most prolific Japanese player in his first year with FC Tokyo (6 tallies in 2003; stat courtesy of Ben Maxwell) and went on to equal the league’s record in the same statistic as well. During one stretch between August and September 2014, he would score 6 goals in as many league matches. No other J-League player, however established, has managed to register such a streak throughout the whole campaign.
All this happened mainly due to his brilliant conversion rate, as Dave Phillips kindly helps me to verify. If we take only non-penalty goals in account, with the minimum set at 10 tallies, Yoshinori Muto and his 22.8% rate would rank second in the whole league – trailing only to Shinzo Koroki (25.0%), who’s now entering his 9th full season as a J-Leaguer. That’s quite an impressive feat for a rookie; especially since Phillips’ findings tell us that strikers usually tend to peak at around 27/28 years of age when it comes to their shooting accuracy numbers.
However, as Dave Phillips himself reminds me, bursting so quickly off the mark may mean little going forward. Just look at the enclosed chart featuring similar cases of 23-year-old or younger J-Leaguers with an even bigger youthful appetite than Muto showcased in 2014, and ask yourself how many of them do you in all honesty recognize.
Luckily for Japan, Yoshinori Muto hasn’t been exactly slowing down this season, with 1/3 of his shots finding their way through to the net. To be precise, the 22-year-old starlet has thus far scored three times in four league starts and as my colleague Martin Lowe exquisitely points out all those strikes together epitomize the great diversity of Muto’s respective skills. The first one was a “poacher’s finish, showing his strength to turn his man with his back to goal”. The second one “was a technically superb long range volley”. And finally the most recent one shows you just how cheeky, agile, direct and ultimately deadly he can be.
One thing that shall not be understated is the physical side of Muto’s game. His musculature may not be particularly frightening, but that doesn’t really matter. The 5′ 10″ attacker has some serious grit to build on and he may even resort to some occasional sneakiness, so any Balotelli-esque frustration stemming from opponent’s physicality is out of the question here. Muto’s fantastic determination was, after all, easily visible on the international scene as well, with his only international goal being a clear testament to that.
Another attribute well worth pinpointing on Muto’s profile is his virtually non-existent bias towards any leg. Officially, he’s a right-footed forward, who loves to cut inside from the left, and that part is definitely accurate. But when he dribbles past opponents, you can easily notice how unlimited he seems to be movement-wise. Accordingly, his shot release is as unpredictable as it gets, since he truly doesn’t care how he hits the ball. The current ratio of 9:6 in favour of right-footed strikes compared to the left-footed ones is pretty telling.
Touching upon this subject, Dan Orlowitz, a distinguished expert on all things Japanese football, makes a little complaint, though. “When he chooses to take the shot he’s bold and courageous, but he’s still got a bit of that Japanese hesitancy – the unneeded extra touch, a desire to break through defenders when he could shoot from distance, etc.”
That’s certainly a legitimate point, although it needs to be reiterated here that Yoshinori Muto is indeed well-versed in skipping past opponents in a rather effortless fashion. Also, he doesn’t strike you as someone who’d often lose his head while running at a defender. When the situation begs it, the Tokyo man is happy to hand the ball over to one of his teammates and immediately looks to offer himself all over again. Albeit he surely is a strong individual, capable of creating scoring opportunities on his own, he isn’t selfish – just assertive.
All that said, Muto’s bright future obviously isn’t set in stone as of now.
Putting aside an uncertain and potentially risky move to Chelsea, he isn’t a fixture in the national team starting line-up either. At the Asian Cup, Muto turned out to be a miscast, being utilized solely as some sort of a poacher for the latter stages of a game. And over the two recent friendlies under the new coach Vahid Halilhodžić, he’s barely shared the pitch with the key Honda-Okazaki-Kagawa trio (12 minutes with both midfielders, a concerning zero with Okazaki), which doesn’t bode well for him to be a regular as soon as the World Cup qualifiers start in June.
Looking into the future, Dan Orlowitz supports the view that Yoshinori Muto is, quite naturally, yet to fully prove himself: “He didn’t play horribly in the first J1 game the coach [Halilhodžić] saw in person (the scoreless draw vs. Marinos) but he’s still got to prove his consistency and avoid the Second Year Curse,” Orlowitz issues a generally echoed warning. After all, Muto now ought to be under some greater pressure, especially if FC Tokyo continue in their great run (unbeaten in four with two wins), possibly eyeing a title they’ve never won before.
One positive thing is that Muto seems to be firmly keeping his feet on the ground. “I still haven’t achieved any results,” remarked the ever-sober youngster in September 2014, right after his international debut against Uruguay. And he isn’t keen on making any knee-jerk decision regarding his future, too. “I haven’t decided to go overseas, and I’m not limiting myself to one club. I want to take a wide look at my options,” he responded to the flattering interest from Chelsea.
However, the Blues apparently don’t want to play around with Muto for too long, so they’ve set a deadline date by which they want to hear his final word – April 12. The Japanese star is therefore expected to make the most important step in his short career of a professional footballer literally in two shakes. A step, mind you, that will most certainly have serious implications on his future development, and indeed eventual success.
In any case, we shall wish him the best of luck, because Yoshinori Muto seriously isn’t just a very promising shirt-seller and a loveable human being, who can easily afford to risk his reputation by deliberately wearing some awful pink boots.
He’s also one hell of a player, arguably even a ‘generational’ one, so he’d better not let us down.