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Football's Forgotten Men

Takuma Asano: Ex-Arsenal wonderkid compared to Hazard now heading for Qatar with Japan

11:00 EAT 02/04/2022
20220122_Takuma Asano_Bochum
The forward was prevented from playing in the Premier League after being refused a work permit but he has now got his career back on track

“Takuma is a talented young striker and very much one for the future," Arsene Wenger said in 2016 as he unveiled Arsenal's surprise new signing.

“He has had an impressive start to his career in Japan and we look forward to him developing over the next couple of years.”

Wenger was both right and wrong.

Takuma Asano had indeed started well in his home country – but it would take more than a "couple of years" for him to develop.

Asano had initially appeared on the fast track to success when he joined J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2013 aged 18, playing one senior game as they retained their crown, before going on to establish himself in the first team.

By 2015, as Hiroshima sealed their third title in four seasons, he was their lead striker, with nine goals in 34 matches, having picked up a rookie of the year award along the way.

Asano was also making a name for himself at international level, too.

In 2016, earned Japan their maiden Asian Under-23 Championship title with two goals in a 3-2 final win over South Korea before being selected for the Rio Olympics later that year, scoring twice even though his country was eliminated at the group stage.

His performances caught the eye of Wenger, who had coached Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan before joining Arsenal, and Asano moved to London in July 2016, aged 21, with his new manager convinced he could be a star of tomorrow.

However, Asano immediately encountered problems as he was denied a work permit.

At the time, players coming from outside the European Union (EU) either had to have a certain number of international caps or cost more than a particular fee – Asano evidently did neither and was, thus, prevented from playing in the Premier League.

However, the potential that Wenger had hoped to tap into was obvious. A quick and skilful dribbler, his direct style may have appealed to Arsenal as he joined the same summer they were rejected by Jamie Vardy.

Certainly, his compatriots were in no doubt that Asano was capable of great things.

"He is a player between Eden Hazard and Theo Walcott," Japanese journalist Koki Harada is quoted as saying by Bleacher Report in 2016.

"Very fast and capable of finding the space behind the defender, he is not only a goalscorer but also a chance-maker.

"His nickname is 'Jaguar' because he runs quickly and hunts the ball. He is now doing an imitation of a jaguar as his goal celebration."

For the following three seasons, Asano went on loan to Germany as Arsenal attempted to sort his paperwork.

He enjoyed some success on the continent, helping Stuttgart win 2.Bundesliga in 2016-17, but two subsequent top-flight campaigns, with Stuttgart and then Hannover 96, proved less successful, yielding just one goal in 28 games combined.

All the while, he continued to struggle to secure a work permit, and his issues at club level perhaps unsurprisingly affected his international standing.

In 2018, he was named in Japan's preliminary squad for the World Cup, but manager Vahid Halilhodzic directly cited Asano's issues at Arsenal as a reason for him not being picked for warm-up friendlies before cutting the player from his final 23 for Russia.

By 2019, Asano was at a crossroads.

Hannover general manager Horst Heldt, unconvinced by his loan spell, deliberately left the forward out of his team for the final two months to avoid activating a compulsory purchase clause, even as they suffered Bundesliga relegation.

Asano himself was losing confidence. “This season I had repeated injuries and was unable to continue playing in the game and was unable to leave any results," he wrote on a personal blog.

"I think it was a difficult, tough, frustrating season looking back now. The only thing I can have confidence with is to feel that 'growth' is possible every day.

"I would like to do my best again from here to connect the growth to the results!"

With one year left on his Gunners contract and now aged 24, he needed a fresh start and was allowed to leave permanently.

He spent two seasons with Partizan Belgrade, where, playing regular football for his parent club for the first time in Europe, he finally found form.

In 2020-21, he scored 18 goals in 33 Serbian SuperLiga matches, thus earning himself a return to German football with Bochum last summer.

While he is still far from a Bundesliga goal machine – one in 24 games in all 2021-22 competitions – he is still an important, hard-working cog in a newly promoted, mid-table side that even managed to beat Bayern Munich this term.

He has also been welcomed back into the Japan squad after two years in the international wilderness, becoming a virtual ever-present throughout his nation's successful qualification for Qatar.

Indeed, he started last month's 2-0 victory over Australia which sealed Japan's place at a seventh successive World Cup.

Wenger always said Asano was one for the future. He has been proven right. It's just taken a little longer than expected.

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