There’s no Gamba game this coming weekend (probably just as well for the sake of my blood pressure) so I thought now would be a good time for a piece looking at who has been tearing it up in Japan’s second tier this season. As with last year’s Scouting J2 article which you can find here, I’ve set some parameters to help me whittle down the number of candidates,
* No current J1 loanees (Shota Fujio, Motohiko Nakajima, Teppei Yachida…)
* No previous J1 experience (Taiki Hirato, Ryoma Kida, Kosuke Kinoshita…)
* No players likely to be directly promoted with their club this season (no Niigata or Yokohama FC players)
* No-one who featured in last year’s article, but failed to earn a move (Kosuke Inose, Riku Handa, Sho Araki, Kaishu Sano, Tomoya Miki)
* No age limit – Where necessary (Shusuke Ota) when two players were competing for one spot in my eleven below I opted for the younger player and this article in general is focused on youngsters. However, as we know Japanese culture and society reveres age and experience to a greater extent than in the west, so this isn’t just a team full of teenagers.
Hopefully that was all clear enough and now below you’ll find eleven players I think have what it takes to step up to J1 within the next year or so. For reference, from my 2021 side, 4 players moved to J1 last winter (Seiya Maikuma, Rikito Inoue, Tetsuya Chinen and Hikaru Nakahara – I was clearly better at picking defenders than attackers last season), 1 (Shion Homma) headed to Europe and 1 (Yoshiki Fujimoto) signed for a bigger J2 club (Montedio Yamagata).
Louis Yamaguchi (Mito HollyHock)
Born: 28 May 1998 (24 years old)
History: FC Tokyo U-18, Lorient (France), Extremadura (Spain), Recreativo (Spain)
Transfermarkt Value: €175,000
Profile: Searching for a replacement for the departed Ayumi Niekawa last winter, Mito head coach Tadahiro Akiba made the slightly left-field decision to bring in French-Japanese ‘keeper Louis Yamaguchi. The move has paid dividends for all parties with Yamaguchi quickly establishing himself as the club’s number 1, making 29 J1 appearances to date. Standing 188cm tall, Yamaguchi, who spent his first year of high school in FC Tokyo’s youth ranks and boasts a wealth of Japan age-level experience, cuts an imposing figure and though he dropped something of a clanger for Niigata’s 2nd goal yesterday (18 September), he pulled off a string of fine saves throughout that game to keep the scoreline somewhat respectable and give any watching scouts a taste of what he can do.
Potential Suitors: As with last year, there weren’t really a whole host of ‘keepers vying for this place as Ryosuke Kojima (Niigata) and Svend Brodersen (Yokohama FC), for me the two best goalies in the division by a fair distance, are ineligible for selection as per my rules above. Why am I mentioning this? Well, Yamaguchi likely doesn’t project as a J1 starter in the next couple of years, but he could certainly be a good fit for say Kashima who aren’t settled on a first choice at the moment, Kashiwa, where he could provide backup to young Masato Sasaki or even his old side FC Tokyo should they send Go Hatano out on loan to get some more top team experience.
Seiya Baba (Tokyo Verdy)
Born: 24 October 2001 (20)
Position: centre-back / holding-midfielder / full-back
History: Tokyo Verdy Youth
Transfermarkt Value: €225,000
Profile: Versatile ball-playing defender Seiya Baba has really come on in leaps and bounds this year despite his club side, Tokyo Verdy, being mired in another season of mid-table mediocrity. Capable of playing in the middle of defence or midfield and even at right-back, Chiba-native Baba has racked up 27 J2 appearances this year which dwarves the 16 he’d accrued prior to the season kicking off back in February. Baba is currently a potential candidate for the Paris 2023 Olympic squad and this summer he turned out alongside former Verdy team-mates Joel Chima Fujita and Rihito Yamamoto for Japan Under-23 (Under-21 in reality) in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup. He’s also been selected as a member of the Under-21 side that will take on their Swiss, Italian and Spanish counterparts over in Europe later this month.
Potential Suitors: Given his versatility, ball-playing abilities, national youth team selections and the fact that Verdy basically run a production line of J1 ready players, I’d expect there will be a lot of interest in him in the coming months. He’d fit in well alongside the former Verdy trio of Shinnosuke Hatanaka, Kota Watanabe and the aforementioned Joel Chima Fujita at Marinos, that is if their move for Riku Handa, which I predicted last year, doesn’t come to fruition. Cerezo have shown themselves to be masters of the J2 market in recent years and completing his apprenticeship alongside Matej Jonjić at the back or next to Hiroaki Okuno in central-midfield could be the making of him, while Kashima don’t have their troubles to seek defensively and may look to Baba as a solution to some of those issues.
Yusei Egawa (V-Varen Nagasaki)
Born: 24 October 2000 (21)
Position: centre-back / full-back
History: V-Varen Nagasaki U-18
Transfermarkt Value: €500,000
Profile: Nagasaki born-and-bred, Egawa has been with V-Varen since entering high school and after overcoming a serious knee injury which destroyed his rookie season, he earned some game time as a left-back towards the end of 2020. However, it was under current Gamba caretaker boss Hiroshi Matsuda last season that he really started to make a name for himself as an up-and-coming centre-back. Standing just 175cm, I fear he may have the same issue current Kanazawa right-back Riku Matsuda had in J1, namely that big teams won’t choose sub-180cm central defenders in a back 4. With that said though, he has the talent and versatility to revert to full-back or more likely to play on the left hand side of a back 3.
Potential Suitors: Given what I said above, I’ve whittled down my search to teams who always / often operate with a back 3 system. Akito Fukumori hasn’t always been flavour of the month in Sapporo this season the way he was in previous years which certainly opens the door for someone like Egawa to move north to try and fix the Rossoneri’s leaky rearguard. Sho Sasaki isn’t getting any younger at Hiroshima and they’ve been known to target top J2 talents in the past, while Kashiwa could be another decent move for Egawa given how injury prone Yuji Takahashi is and Takumi Kamijima’s struggles trying to build on an impressive loan spell at Fukuoka and carve out a regular spot for himself in the Reysol backline.
Shunsuke Nishikubo (JEF United Chiba)
Born: 30 July 2003 (19)
Position: right-back / right wing-back
History: Mitsubishi Yowa SC Youth
Transfermarkt Value: €125,000
Profile: Hailing from the same youth team as former Gamba winger Keito Nakamura, currently starring in the Austrian Bundesliga, fellow wide-man Shunsuke Nishikubo may not be garnering the same headlines as his more illustrious senpai at the moment, but he’s enjoying a fine debut campaign nonetheless. Blessed with a wicked long throw and a deadly cross, soon-to-depart JEF Chiba kantoku Yoon Jong-hwan may look back on the part he played in Nishikubo’s development with great fondness in years to come. The youngster from Saitama can play either at right-back or as a wing-back just as he’s been doing for JEF this season. He’s already bagged 1 goal and 2 assists from 25 outings, including 18 starts, not bad for a 19 year old.
Potential Suitors: A move this season may be a little too soon for him, but should he continue his meteoric rise then expect to see a plethora of J1 clubs chasing him next summer or the following winter. I know there’s quite the rivalry between JEF and Kashiwa, but wing-back has been a weak area for Reysol this year. FC Tokyo operate a 4-3-3 system at the moment, but Yuto Nagatomo won’t keep playing forever and none of their other full-backs have shown any real consistency plus kantoku Albert Puig is one J1 boss who’ll certainly give youth it’s chance. Finally, rubbing shoulders with impressive Frontale loanee Shuto Tanabe could alert Kawasaki to his abilities, they’ve struggled to find an alternative to Miki Yamane and Nishikubo certainly has the ability to provide that in the coming years.
Hidehiro Sugai (Ventforet Kofu)
Born: 27 October 1998 (23)
Position: wide centre-back / full-back / wing-back
History: Hamamatsu Kaiseikan High School, Meiji University
Transfermarkt Value: €275,000
Profile: Kofu are having a poor season as they struggle to find their mojo in the post-Akira Ito era, yet still the names of a number of their players immediately sprang into my mind as I was compiling this list (Niki Urakami and Riku Yamada were unfortunate to miss out). Second year pro Hidehiro Sugai is someone who has shone in the gloom that’s surrounded the wonderfully named JIT Recycling Stadium this term. After forcing his way into the starting eleven in his favoured wing-back position towards the back end of 2021, new kantoku Tatsuma Yoshida’s strategy for getting Sugai, Sho Araki and Masahiro Sekiguchi into the same side has been to play Sugai as a wide centre-back, a position which sorely needed filled due to the departures of Mendes and Ryohei Arai as well as Renato Vischi’s lack of…well, I’m sorry Renato…ability. Sugai has missed just a solitary league game to date and has an outstanding 4 goals and 3 assists to his name despite spending the majority of his time in defence.
Potential Suitors: If I can still consider Gamba a J1 club, the Nerazzurri don’t appear to have much faith in Ko Yanagisawa so they need someone who can challenge Ryu Takao for a spot in the side, while should Shunta Tanaka (Sapporo) or Takuma Ominami (Kashiwa) seek fresh pastures this winter that would open up spots on their rosters for someone fitting Sugai’s profile.
Motoki Hasegawa (Ventforet Kofu)
Born: 10 December 1998 (23)
Position: shadow forward / number 10 / winger
History: Omiya Ardija U-18, Hosei University
Transfermarkt Value: €650,000
Profile: As I stated above in Hidehiro Sugai’s profile, Kofu as a team haven’t set the world alight this season, but several players certainly have put their hands up. One of those is former Omiya Youth and Hosei University attacker Motoki Hasegawa. Handed the club captaincy in the wake of Ryohei Arai’s marriage scam scandal, Hasegawa have repaid his coach’s faith in him with 3 goals and 8 assists in 35 appearances which has built upon an impressive debut campaign where he netted 7 times and picked up 6 assists in 36 outings to help Ventforet finish 3rd. Blessed with an excellent touch, great vision and a fine long range shot I suspected that Hasegawa, who helped knock Gamba out of the 2019 Emperor’s Cup during his student days, may have headed for J1 last winter. It was not to be, and despite his team’s struggles this term, I think his long-term career will be all the better for having played another season at this level rather than taking the leap to J1 prematurely. Just to underline his quality, he leads J2 in chances created (88), is second in terms of last passes (66), 5th for through balls (81) and 7th for shots taken (54).
Potential Suitors: There are likely to be many, Cerezo potentially chief among them as they seek a long-term replacement for Hiroshi Kiyotake. Elsewhere, if they can put an enticing enough financial package together then Sagan Tosu would be a solid destination for Hasegawa to continue his development, while the thought of he and Mateus playing off a returning Jakub Świerczok will surely get Nagoya fans salivating.
So Kawahara (Roasso Kumamoto)
Born: 13 March 1998 (24)
Position: holding midfielder
History: Ozu High School, Fukuoka University
Transfermarkt Value: €400,000
Profile: In his 3rd year as a pro, Kawahara is deep-lying playmaker who captains playoff chasing Kumamoto from the midfield anchor position in Takeshi Oki’s 3-1-3-3 formation. Prior to last weekend’s action, Kawahara led J2 in last passes (70 in 36 games), quite an achievement for someone positioned so deep on the field of play, though in fairness he does deliver a mean dead ball. Such proficiency from corners and free kicks has seen him pick up 8 assists to date, only 2 behind Ryotaro Ito of Niigata, the division’s top provider. If you need further proof of his quality, please take note of the fact that he ranks in the top 10 in J2 for chances created (2nd), possession recoveries (3rd), interceptions (4th), blocks (5th) and tackles (10th), so it’s been quite the all round performance from him this season.
Potential Suitors: With João Schmidt not always seeing eye-to-eye with kantoku Toru Oniki and Kento Tachibanada possibly heading to Europe in the next 12 months, Kawahara could be just the player Frontale are looking for and hailing from the same high school as Shogo Taniguchi and Shintaro Kuramaya, I’m sure he’d fit in quite well. Elsewhere, Urawa will likely be in the market for a replacement for the ageing Ken Iwao and a Kawahara-Atsuki Ito partnership could work well, while Leo Silva at Nagoya isn’t getting any younger and Grampus are in need of a long-term contingency plan for his succession.
Naohiro Sugiyama (Roasso Kumamoto)
Born: 7 September 1998 (24)
Position: shadow forward / number 10 / winger
History: Ozu High School, Juntendo University
Transfermarkt Value: €350,000
Profile: Reo Hatate’s kōhai at Juntendo University is another member of Takeshi Oki’s impressive Kumamoto side who has made big waves in J2 this year. If you want an example of the finesse Sugiyama possesses then look no further than his brilliant doubles in the home wins over Zweigen Kanazawa (3-0) and Tochigi SC (2-0) which featured 3 excellent strikes from outside the box. Mostly found on the right-wing, Sugiyama is also competent on the opposite flank and can even slot into the number 10 role when required. Stats-wise, he’s got 6 goals and 4 assists from 35 J2 appearances this year, he also ranks 2nd for dribbles (137), 3rd for shots (69), 4th for crosses (118), 9th for through balls (67) and blocks (81) as well as 14th for chances created (52).
Potential Suitors: As a former Avispa U-15 player could he look to move back to his home prefecture next season to provide them with greater creativity than they currently possess? Or, how about a switch to Kawasaki where he could be the successor to Akihiro Ienaga while following in his old senpai Hatate’s footsteps?
Yudai Tanaka (Fagiano Okayama)
Born: 14 December 1999 (22)
Position: winger / wing-back / central-midfielder
History: Toko Gakuen High School, Waseda University
Transfermarkt Value: €250,000
Profile: Namesake of Akita’s impressive goalkeeper who himself might not be too far away from earning a J1 contract, Okayama’s Yudai Tanaka has been an excellent addition for the Pheasants this term and has certainly silenced the doubters (Jon Steele and myself) who suggested they wouldn’t make good on their promise of building a team ready to challenge for promotion in 2022. Capable of operating on the right-wing in both 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations as well as one of the two more advanced midfielders in the latter system and even a right wing-back if necessary, Tanaka is something of a Swiss Army knife in the Reo Hatate mold. In his rookie season out of Waseda University (current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s alma mater….oooh, posh!), Tanaka has racked up 5 goals and an assist from 35 appearances as well as ranking 20th in J2 for shots on target (14). The defensive side of his game isn’t too shabby either, his 72 blocks sees him place 15th in the division, he’s also recovered possession on 98 occasions (21st) and has attempted 61 tackles (22nd).
Potential Suitors: An all round combatant, Tanaka could be a decent pickup for a team like Kashima who will likely be looking to ‘level up’ following a disappointing fallaway in the second half of this campaign. Additionally, Nagoya are in need of some additional pace, work-rate and firepower and the same could be said for Vissel Kobe too.
Ryoga Sato (Tokyo Verdy)
Born: 20 February 1999 (23)
History: Higashi Fukuoka High School, Meiji University
Transfermarkt Value: €700,000
Profile: Players, managers and scandals have all come and gone at Verdy over the course of the past 2 seasons, but one thing that has remained consistent is Ryoga Sato’s goals. Yuya Fukuda’s senpai at Higashi Fukuoka High School has netted 24 times in 76 J2 appearances and contributed 4 assists as well despite finding himself in and out of the starting eleven on the whim of whoever has been in charge of Verdy at any particular time. He has some rough edges to his game for sure, but a goal-getter like him will surely have caught the eye of teams at a higher level, particularly as Verdy have got to be the most consistently scouted J2 side out there.
Potential Suitors: Again excuse me for considering Gamba to be a J1 side, but next year Usami, Suzuki, Sakamoto, Minamino and potentially an ageing Patric will likely be their attacking options opening the door for someone of Sato’s ilk to come in and link up with his old high school team-mate Fukuda and university colleague Yota Sato. Additionally, Nagoya have been lacking a young goal-scorer for a while and Sagan Tosu could definitely benefit from a forward with a solid work ethic, good technique and a keen eye for goal.
Toshiki Takahashi (Roasso Kumamoto)
Born: 20 January 1998 (24)
History: Saitama Sakae High School, Kokushikan University
Transfermarkt Value: €400,000
Profile: I’ve been a big fan of 182cm tall mobile centre-forward Toshiki Takahashi since I first saw him playing for Roasso against Gamba U-23 in J3 back in his rookie season of 2020. His goal return of 17 strikes in 55 outings in the third division wasn’t massively impressive, but he, like his team as a whole, has ascended to a whole new plane this term. He’s upped his goalscoring ratio a good deal in 2022 with 12 efforts in 34 appearances, though as Tiago Alves has shown at Okayama, you don’t have to be the greatest player in the world to score goals at this level. It’s more Takahashi’s incessant work-rate, movement and dedication to his team’s cause that have caught my eye, particularly his ability to drag defenders away from goal to allow the talented attacking midfield trio just behind him the space to work their magic.
Potential Suitors: I’m sure he’ll have no shortage of them and to be a bit lazy the first two I’ll suggest are fellow Kyushu-based sides Sagan Tosu and Avispa Fukuoka. Tosu’s main strikers, Taisei Miyashiro (Kawasaki) and Yuki Kakita (Kashima) are both on loan meaning Kenta Kawai will likely be on the lookout for a new forward for 2023 while Avispa are J1’s second lowest scorers and could also be in a position this winter where they’re seeking a replacement for top marksman Yuya Yamagishi. Shinzo Koroki’s move north to Sapporo hasn’t really worked out for either party this season and Takahashi could provide a useful boost to the Hokkaido outfit’s attack, and I could say similar things about Keita Yamashita at FC Tokyo, though while Saitama-native Takahashi may relish a move to the capital, I’m slightly of the mind that if the Gasmen couldn’t properly utilise Yamashita, then it might not really be the place for him to thrive.
Odds and Ends
A quick shout out to Masaya Shibayama (Omiya Ardija) and Kodai Sano (younger brother of 2021 list member Kaishu, Fagiano Okayama) who came very close to making my eleven, as did the aforementioned Shusuke Ota thanks to his 10 goals and 5 assists in 36 appearances for Machida Zelvia.
Finally, thanks again for reading this article and I’ll hopefully have some more non-match preview content coming up during the 3 week break Gamba have between 8-29 October, please keep your eyes peeled for that.