Player Profile: Takashi Usami

We’re coming to the end of June, which can only mean one thing; the European transfer window will be opening soon. To kick start our look at some of the player’s on the move to & around Europe, Martin Lowe considers the impact of a returning Japanese attacker who ranked 9th in our #SFGTop100 countdown at the beginning of the year.

It has been more a case of when, rather than whether, it will happen. And so it has come to fruition; Takashi Usami is set to return to Europe, and in particular the German Bundesliga with FC Augsburg on a four year deal. It has been three years since the Japanese attacker last played in Germany, but after what was a disappointing loan spell in Europe the mood promises to be far rosier this time around.

Back then Usami was seen as the prodigal son of Japanese football, rising up with his boyhood club Gamba Osaka as a teenage sensation, making his debut and scoring in his first season at the tender age of 17, still a record at the club. After becoming a squad regular by 2010 it was clear he was set for bigger things, those hopes however may have been realised too quickly.

His loan moves firstly to Bayern Munich, where he featured sparingly and then the resulting season while till under 20 to Hoffenheim came and went by unspectacularly and Usami returned home wiser yet understandably disappointed at what had been billed initially as the most high profile transfer in recent Japanese football history.

On return to Gamba, he quickly regained form, inspiring them to promotion back to J1 within a year, scoring 19 goals along the way, before back-to-back record breaking years, including a J-League title, a runners up finish, domestic and Emperor’s Cup triumphs, and an Asian Champions League run to the semi-final stage. All it should be added were led by Usami, who went further than just being the club’s lead scorer, but the all-round conjurer of the team’s attacking play.

The fact Augsburg have been sniffing around him then was far from a surprise, despite an average – by his standards – start to 2016. Usami’s influence has lessened somewhat, but his side’s fortunes have also. Straight off the back of a few years of tightly congested playing schedules across four competitions, the price of success has finally caught up with them. While the form of the team has yet to improve of late (Gamba finishing a disappointing 6th in the league’s first stage), 4 goals in his last 5 for club and country have seen Usami slowly regain his touch.

When considering what he will bring to his new employers, it’s initially clear to see the player’s attributes; quick acceleration, willing to play one-twos and a cool finisher to boot. He’s usually relied upon on the left of either a front three or as part of the attacking line in a 4231 formation, while he posed arguably the greatest threat as a floating second striker in Gamba’s 4-4-2 domestic treble winning side in 2014.

So the first question for German football fans will be what has changed since his last stint in Germany? His mental focus for one. Usami has matured not only technically but he has grown into a responsible footballer. Earlier on his career, a quite public spat mid-match in a youth game for Japan led to him being unofficially frozen out of the Samurai Blue national squad up until early 2015, where public pressure inevitably saw him receive his overdue call up.

Under Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic Usami has thoroughly impressed, scoring three over the past year, including one of Japan’s seven goals against Bulgaria in this month’s Kirin Cup. Far from being a regular starter for his country, his maturity and growing performance regularity even as an impact substitute guarantee’s him a squad place at the very least. His importance could’ve been seen on the Olympic stage this year, with Japan yet to announce their third overage player for the Rio games, something the transfer back to Europe will undoubtedly curtail.

Poignantly, Usami arrives in Europe at a perfect time to consider cases for and against Japanese players making the move to Europe. On one hand the success of Yoshinori Muto at Mainz proves what can happen if you hit the ground running, however too often the tale of players returning home after one poor season is told. Central midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi is set to return to Cerezo Osaka after a thoroughly miserable 6 months in Germany with Hannover 96, while another bright spark from Japan’s forgetful World Cup 2014 campaign Yoichiro Kakitani made the same return journey after failing to fit the bill at Swiss club Basel.

The difference for Usami is he’s already been through it all before. He’ll walk into the club with 2 years of German football experience under his belt, and even with the Bavarian air in his lungs maybe (it’s just half an hour by train from München to Augsburg). Back then on the pitch, time may have been limited, but he’ll be fully aware of the expectations put on him. Secondly, as with Muto, Usami has characteristics that’ll fit the style of play of his new employers. He’s by no means the weak teenager he once was, with a greater desire to defend from the front than he ever had, but he also dovetails with the daring forward bursts Augsburg have prided themselves on over the past few seasons.

How Augsburg will set up will undoubtedly determine his future success. Usami arrives to a club in transition, weeks after legendary manager Markus Weinzierl departed for Schalke. Given new boss Dirk Schuster has only been in post a matter of weeks, we can safely assume he’s not been bought on the manager’s say so. The club have also confirmed the permanent signing of Icelandic forward Alfred Finnbogason after a sensational run-in record to ensure safety for the Bavarian club last term. Usami is predicted to line up behind the former Sociedad man, alongside South Korean international Koo Ja-Cheol in between the attacking lines.

Usami’s pace to latch onto Koo’s playmaking abilities is a tantalising thought, while the use of regular substitute Raul Bobadilla could spark the sort of tandem Usami developed with Braizlian target man Patric in Gamba’s recent success. While Usami is pigeon holed to an extent to his position in the lineup (ie. to the left of the attack), his style can change, whether it be for counter attacking or possession purposes.

Usami burst onto the footballing scene as a young starlet, who probably received too much attention too early in his career. But his resulting move to Germany and his return to national hero status back in Japan have equally moulded a player who is now well accustomed with his role in the team, his ability to create something out of nothing, and his responsibility for club and country. It may be cast as a second chance for Usami to break Europe, but in many ways this is a completely different player setting off for a new chapter in Germany.

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