World Cup One to Watch: Hotaru Yamaguchi – Japan
For a team thrown into turmoil two months before their first World Cup Finals match, their cultured midfielder could be the key to them overcoming the odds.
A new manager is often a time of great change for a team. For Japan and their new coach, Akira Nishino, stability is the trait they desperately seek.
Hotaru Yamaguchi (螢山口) has retained his place in the first team through this recent transition and will lead his nations charge for success this summer.
Not widely known outside of Asia, Yamaguchi has spent almost his entire senior career playing for Cerezo Osaka, only broken by an unsuccessful six-month period in the Bundesliga playing for Hannover 96 during 2015.
The 27-year-old midfielder has now racked up over 200 appearances for the Cherry Blossoms and claimed 41 caps for his country.
In a squad selected around experience and risk-free options, Yamaguchi is much more than a safe choice to lead the Blue Samurai forward.
Having just won promotion back into Japan’s top-tier, Cerezo Osaka made a dramatic impact last season.
A third-place finish in the league was impressive enough. However, they also claimed both domestic cup’s, the Emperor’s Cup and the J League Cup, as well as the Super Cup at the beginning of the current season.
Predominantly playing as the defensive midfielder, Yamaguchi may not have the goals or assist stats to highlight his importance in the team. Nevertheless, he was arguably their most influential player.
With the J1 League running within a calendar year, rather than from August to May like the top-European leagues, their current season is now reaching the halfway stage.
Behind runaway leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Cerezo Osaka are well-placed amongst the four teams chasing second.
Having played in each of their 14 games to date this season, Yamaguchi is yet to register on the scoreboard (scored twice last season) but has only picked up one yellow card which is impressive in itself for a player whose game is based around tackling.
Similar to his league experience, Yamaguchi has often been used in midfielder to set the tempo his team play at.
As a deep-lying orchestrator, he took this mantle in earnest for Japan in 2014 when national idol, Yasuhito Endo, retired from international duty at the age of 34.
Since then Yamaguchi continued to impress with a series of eye-catching displays.
He has also built on the potential which many saw in him at the East Asia Cup in 2013 where he picked up the MVP award from the tournament.
Now a steadfast fixture in the team, Yamaguchi has become intrinsic to the way Japan play. The consistency which he brings can also be a huge benefit to a team who are struggling to rekindle their old form.
Quite literally Japan’s midfield firefly (Hotaru 螢 directly translates as firefly), Yamaguchi adds some much-needed energy and maturity into the centre of the team.
He’s also an easy player to spot on the pitch thanks to his shock of dyed hair which has become a permanent part of his look.
Equally calm in possession and able to play accurate, one-touch football, the midfielder has always shown a high level of intelligence in his game.
While he’s more than capable of sweeping up any danger in front of his defence, Yamaguchi also has an ability to open up play with his range of passing.
This has seen him occasionally used in more advanced positions on the field, resulting in his two goals from his 41 caps with the Blue Samurai.
But although he’s not a prolific scorer in the game, his quick-thinking can pose a huge threat to the opposition, transitioning the play quickly into dangerous areas.
His strength of character too is a great asset to the team and, while he may not be the national captain in name, he has all of the attributes to take the armband from 34-year-old Makoto Hasebe in the near-future.
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