Shinji Kagawa has garnered much attention in the UK this season since his move from Dortmund to Manchester United in the summer, and if the papers are to be believed the Red Devils may be in the market for another Japanese player, defensive midfielder/defender Hideto Takahashi of FC Tokyo, once the transfer window re-opens in January.
Takahashi has just turned 25 and is a full Japan international, but he's relatively inexperienced in the professional game. He's coming to the end of just his third pro season (the J.League runs from March to December), as he spent a full four years at Tokyo Gakugei University, graduating in early 2010. Though he spent his high school days (in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo) and university career as a central defender, he made a handful of appearances (three in the league and three in the league cup) in his debut season of '10 as a holding midfielder, impressing Tokyo supporters whenever he got an opportunity. Unfortunately The Gasmen were mired in a relegation battle that season (and eventually went down on the final day), and then-manager Kiyoshi Okuma opted to go with more experienced players, which meant that Takahashi didn't feature at all in the final three months of the season.
It took an injury to a teammate for him to get a run in the team last year in J2, but from the eighth game of the season he became the vital cog in The Gasmen's engine room and was ever-present in the middle of the park as Tokyo won promotion back to J1 at the first attempt as second division champions. Takahashi also became hugely popular with the club's supporters, as much for his workrate and sheer will to win as for his excellent performances shielding a back four that let in only 20 goals in 38 games. You don't see a massive amount of number 4 shirts in the stands at Ajinomoto Stadium, but I bet a straw poll of fans would see "Hide" in most people's top three favourite players.
This year Takahashi has missed only one league game in 29 (playing predominantly in midfield but also in central defence at times due to injuries there) in an up-and-down season for Tokyo that sees them 10th with five games reamining, while he was impressive in Tokyo's debut Asian Champions League campaign that ended in the Round of 16. National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni has clearly become a fan, calling Takahashi up to the national squad for the first time in April in a move that was somewhat of a surprise to everyone but Tokyo supporters.
Takahashi has just turned 25 and is a full Japan international, but he's relatively inexperienced in the professional game.
He has some stiff competition for a place in the Samurai Blue midfield, with the most-capped player in Japanese history Yasuhito Endo still going strong alongside captain Makoto Hasebe of Wolfsburg and Hajime Hosogai of Bayer Leverkusen seemingly next-in-line, but in his three substitute appearances for Japan (his debut came in a friendly against Azerbaijan in May) Takahashi has been his usual, steady self.
OK, so that's all the background, thanks for not nodding off. So, what's he like as a player? Well, anyone hoping for the flash and pizazz of more high-profile Japanese players in Europe like Kagawa, Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow or Hiroshi Kiyotake of Nuremburg will be disappointed, but if these rumours turn out to be true and United really are interested, they'll get a very intelligent, ball-winning holding midfielder with excellent positional sense. Takahashi's reading of the game means he's usually in the right place at the right time to stifle attacks, and he certainly doesn't shy away from doing the heavy lifting as he's quite strong in the tackle. In fact, he could be accused of suffering from white-line fever to some degree, as his calm, mild-mannered demeanour off the pitch suddenly gives way to a fierce competitive streak once battle commences.
Going the other way, his development as a passer was one of the most pleasant surprises for Gasmen supporters last season (the year in the second tier was gutting for Tokyo fans but probably perfect for Takahashi's growth as a player), though truth be told he still has work to do in this area. It's here I feel he might be found wanting in a top European league, but he's shown a willingness to improve his game in his two seasons as a first team regular, and he did find an eye for goal in J2 - all four of his strikes were long-range belters, while he's scored once this season.
Takahashi is arguably the sort of player Manchester United need. Though not quite the finished article, once up to speed in the Premier League, sorry, the Barclays Premier League, he'd offer a dependable, composed presence in front of the back four to allow all of United's attacking talent, including Kagawa, to go about their business. As a Tokyo supporter myself I'd hate to lose him of course, but a move this big is probably only a matter of time, and all Gasmen fans would wish him the best.
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