18. Hiroshi Kiyotake (New Entry)
Sevilla (ESP) / Japan / Attacking Midfield
Words by Tom Danicek
This guy’s case just never ceases to frustrate, does it? After years of being criminally underused by a plethora of national team managers, Hiroshi Kiyotake can finally be considered a true star of the current Japanese setup. Yet in order for at least something remaining broken at all times, he’s no longer a starter on the club level, warming Sevilla’s bench after years of regular Bundesliga action.
Kiyotake’s summer move to Spain looked like an odd one right from the beginning, turning out to be an unfortunate one on top. He transferred very soon, in June, just two days before the head coach Unai Emery publicly expressed his desire to leave the club. In came Jorge Sampaoli with his tactical flexibility and particular preferences regarding central midfielders which Kiyotake fails to naturally fit.
Due to his rushed arrival, Kiyotake did get some early look ins in the starting line-up and regular Sevilla observers like Simon Harrison or Colin Millar actually agree he showed promising signs (soon collecting two assists and a goal), but since the end of September, the Japanese has only been given one LaLiga chance and an uncelebrated, 16-minute Champions League career debut.
Kiyotake is now frozen out at Sevilla, to a weird extent, given by the combination of the extremely high number of options for his position and Sampaoli’s preference for more complex, stronger midfielders. What most of us loveabout the 27-year-old is how proactive he is, how he enjoys showcasing his creativity, going for those through balls, but some voices from the Sevilla camp are suggesting he might be trying too hard in that respect.
Exactly those attributes, however, are something Japan had been on the lookout for ever since the ‘real Kagawa’ went missing, which feels like ages ago. And Kiyotake’s agility or willingness to open up defences has indeed helped to save Halilhodžić’s job, if you allow me to be a bit dramatic. He was the inspiration against Iraq and he absolutely terrorized Saudis a month later.
Yes, one can feel Kiyotake is still seen as more of a luxury player (which was underlined by his absence in the starting XI vs Australia), but it finally looks like his time has come. For Japan at least…
Highlight of the Year – Showtime against Saudi Arabia in November
It doesn’t happen too often that we see a manager dropping three more recognizable faces of his national team setup and drawing loud cheers from public at the same time. On November 15, though, precisely that occurred when Vahid Halilhodžić benched Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki, preparing Japan for their first competitive game without any member of the star trio starting since 2010 East Asian Cup (where Honda wasn’t even available).
Here, in Saitama, all three were on the bench, all three eventually were subbed on, and neither of them missed. It was a fantastic opportunity for Kiyotake to follow up on his great friendly performance vs Oman four days before, and the Sevilla man indeed delivered (along with Haraguchi, to be fair), putting in one of the most dominant showings from a Japanese attacking player we’ve seen in a while.
He was withdrawn, somewhat frustratingly, after just 64 minutes, but even the first half was enough for Kiyotake to take many breaths away. He had registered more touches (45), shots (3), shots on target (2) and ball recoveries (7) than any other player (per Ollie Trenchard), burying a penalty along the way; a penalty which he earned for Japan, of course, with one of his shot attempts stopped by a handball.