Shinji Okazaki has had a career to remember by all accounts. The Japanese international, now at Leicester City via spells with Shimizu S-Pulse, Stuttgart and Mainz, was once the world’s top goalscorer of the year in international games, is one of just five Japanese players to score a Premier League goal and is also the highest scoring Japanese player in the Bundesliga of all time, with 37 goals to his name over three and a half seasons in Germany. With the Bundesliga’s amount of Asian imports – Shinji Kagawa chief among them – this is no mean achievement.
Okazaki is quite rightly a hero to many fans in both Japan and Germany; despite his summer switch to England, supporters of his previous club Mainz remain some of his biggest fans – an “Okazaki 23” shirt is a common sight at their home stadium, the Coface Arena. For Japanese fans, he is one of the most recognisable faces in the game, having made nearly a hundred appearances for the national team and bearing the standard for the Japanese game in Europe for almost five years now.
His start to life in the Premier League hasn’t been too bad either; while his performances have been somewhat obscured by Jamie Vardy being in the form of his life and Riyad Mahrez pulling the strings for the East Midlands outfit, Okazaki adds much to the Foxes’ all around attacking play and is the only player outside of Vardy and Mahrez to have scored more than once in the league. His tally is, admittedly, a mere two, but the addition of the 29-year old is one of the obvious improvements Leicester made during the off-season and they are, of course, reaping the rewards.
However, for Mainz the deal has also paid dividends. It is, of course, always risky to sell your star striker, but with Okazaki beginning to reach the peak (and thus, probably, eventual decline) of his career, the Karnevalsverein managed to make a handy profit, with Okazaki joining Leicester for around €11m in the summer. The transfer was a case of great economics; however, while making money in itself is great, it means nothing in footballing terms if not spent correctly on a replacement – and Mainz’s general manager, Christian Heidel, found another talent in the summer who’s wasted no time in becoming one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting players.
Heidel swooped in the summer for the young talent Yoshinori Muto, a 23-year old forward from the J-League and, fittingly enough for Mainz’s summer transfer dealings, a graduate of Economics from Keio University in Japan, who had impressed at FC Tokyo without completely setting the league on fire over the past couple of years. Clubs including Chelsea had reported interest in Muto – with Jose Mourinho even forced to comment on rumours that he’d sign for the Premier League Champions in the summer of 2015. Unsure that he’d make it into Chelsea’s squad in the next few years, Muto wisely opted for a club he deemed as appropriate for a player of his level, a club where he’d receive exposure to a European audience and begin to show what he can do at a higher level than the J-League, but would equally be a regular starter and even perhaps a key player.
This was a risk – turning down a big club usually is – but a risk that has paid off, with Muto quickly becoming a fan favourite in Mainz and one of the Bundesliga’s more exciting players. Muto has been an ever present thus far for Mainz, and his talent was made clear early on as he scored twice on his full home debut against Hannover. A start such as this is usually absolutely crucial for a striker’s confidence, and will no doubt have made it slightly easier for Muto to accustom to the league – without the worry of the first goal on his mind, getting about playing his natural game will have been much easier.
It’s this natural game which makes Muto such an exciting player; running relentlessly while on the pitch, closing down opposition attackers and dropping back into midfield or out wide when necessary to help set up attacks, Muto’s game isn’t entirely about scoring, and so when the Japanese international failed to dent the scoresheet in a fair few consecutive games earlier in the season, his place in the team was questioned. His partnership with attacking midfielder Yunus Malli – a player who played mostly as a playmaker last season but has concentrated this season mostly on scoring goals himself – is still in the early stages, but the double act has certainly brought the best out of both players; Muto’s running allows Malli the space to create opportunities for himself and the team, while Malli’s excellent finishing going forward has helped Muto weigh in heavily in the assists charts, with four assists to date combining with a magnificent seven goals to date, a brilliant tally in his first half-season in a top European league.
It’s clear that Muto has the talent to go on to become a leading striker in the Bundesliga, or perhaps in other European leagues. Having had Chelsea show interest in him in the summer, and bolstering the credentials upon which a top club enquired about his availability with a strong showing in the Bundesliga this year, it’s certainly an idea worth floating that Muto could potentially move on to one of Europe’s top clubs – perhaps going one step further than his countryman, the man he replaced at Mainz, Shinji Okazaki.
It took the Leicester striker thirty Bundesliga games to equal Muto’s current tally of seven Bundesliga goals – a feat he’s managed in just fifteen – while in both Okazaki’s years at Mainz, he managed eight Hinrunde goals – a tally Muto should probably equal with two games to go until the winter break.
All of this points to a striker who could one day be at the top of the game – but despite this, Muto seems to have remained strongly grounded. His commitment to learning German appears to be paying dividends, with what appears to be strong dressing room bonds being formed, and a strong effort to communicate with fans in German over social media. He appears to be relishing adapting to a new culture, making trips to traditional German Christmas markets and joining the club’s ultras in the stands to lead chants post game. Mainz fans seem to have a new darling, and one who’s quietly getting the business done on the pitch as well as off of it.
Shinji Okazaki’s move to the Premier League, then, seems to be working well for all sides. Leicester are flying high while Mainz have gone about their Bundesliga season quietly but excellently, with no hint of a dearth of quality up front. Indeed, the outlook for both club and new Japanese hotshot alike is almost certainly even brighter than it was this time last year.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Alex Hannam