Let’s Talk: Ko Itakura, Man City’s new signing from Japan (w/ Gabriele Anello of J. League Regista)

So, who the heck is Ko Itakura exactly? Beats me. Probably beats you too. Out of nowhere, just before City left the tunnel to play Wolves, FC Groningen tweeted they had signed Ko Itakura on loan from Man City.

With further investigation, we discovered from Japan that the 21 year old had signed a ‘multi-year contract’ with City, joining from Kawasaki Frontale, then heading out to Dutch club Groningen immediately.

We still know so little about this young guy from Japan though, so decided to ask someone who does. We chatted to Gabriele Anello, an Italian football fan with a love for Japanese football, and who writes for J. League Regista.

Here’s what he had to tell City Watch about Ko Itakura.

Thanks for talking to us Gabriele! To be honest, even by City’s standards this came out of the blue. Can you tell us anything about Ko Itakura’s background?

I was surprised too! I know Itakura was ready to move abroad, since Kawasaki Frontale announced how a deal with a European club was in progress. Anyway, this could be a silent, but solid move. I know how Manchester City are focused on improving the club with champion-level signings, but it isn’t bad to add young talents to the bunch (they can come from the youth ranks, like Foden, or bought and then developed, like Zinchenko).

About Itakura, he’s a central defender who was born in 1997. He was raised for a decade by Kawasaki Frontale, where he was the captain of the U-18 team. Alongside Koji Miyoshi (another talent to watch), he was promoted to the first team in 2015. Unfortunately, he didn’t find too many minutes in a club competing for the title (they’ve won J. League in 2017 and 2018) and played only 21 matches in all competitions over three seasons.

For the 2018 season, the club loaned him to Vegalta Sendai, where he was a key-player of a solid year for the squad managed by Susumu Watanabe. They saved themselves with some games to play and Itakura was nominated for a TAG Heuer Young Guns Award, which has the purpose of highlighting the best U-23 in the league. He seemed destined to come back to his original club (he’s actually a supporter of Kawasaki Frontale since his childhood), until a European chance popped up.

We’ve read that Itakura has played both as a defender and midfielder. He seems to be a versatile player but what is his natural position?

I think that’s one of the issues to solve. The kid is just 21, so he could easily go one way or another. It wasn’t clear where he might play when he debuted with Kawasaki Frontale, but this year on loan – spent in Sendai – could give some hints about his future. He mainly played as a centre-back with Vegalta, even if the manager used him sometimes also as a holding midfielder in the J. League Cup. The trio of him, Oiwa and Hiraoka featured many times in this J1 League for Vegalta.

It was a good choice, because Vegalta used a three-CBs line-up and I think Itakura could really work as centre-back with this kind of formation; I’d have some doubts on him as centre-back in a line of four, where the requirements to fit in are different. However, these doubts will be processed along the way; in Sendai, the choice was clear. With this 3-4-2-1, the full-backs could even lower their position and let Itakura run into the field to bring the ball forward.

He also scored three goals on his first full season as a starter – all headers – so he knows the right timing to launch himself in attack, even deciding the first official game with Vegalta against Kashiwa Reysol.

Stylistically, how would you describe Itakura? What are his strengths and weaknesses?

In a 2014 interview, Itakura said he opted to play as a centre-back because he was already taller than other kids and the club needed to develop him in that direction. I can see why: he’s physically strong, but at the same time he has been well-raised in his technical skills, so he can lead transitions from behind and bring the ball forward by himself. It’s not your classical centre-back, but he’s a consequence of that long wave of technically-gifted defenders.

Of course, like most 21-year-old players, he must develop certain aspects of his game. Sometimes he looks distracted and you have to be more focused than ever in the penalty area against opponents; his position on the pitch isn’t still clear, but he’ll have time to figure it out. At Kawasaki Frontale, he was even tested as a full-back, but I don’t think that’s a position he should pursue.

The silver lining for him – as for many Japanese players in this era – is that a club can buy them and knowing for sure they’re good professionals, working as much and seriously as they can to impose themselves on the global stage. And it’s a good bargain, because you don’t spend so much – compared to other realities –, but you can expect a solid outcome if everything works properly.

If you were to compare Itakura to one well-known player, who would it be?

The ball-playing centre-backs aren’t unicorns anymore; it’s how you must deal the growth of certain players, so we’re not discovering a unique gem. I could say he reminds a little of Jan Vertonghen; maybe not as physical as him (but with a proper muscular work, he could develop in that direction), but as ductile as the Belgian centre-back, who can though play many positions on the pitch.

It looks like he could be a City Football Group investment and has quickly gone on loan to FC Groningen. Do you believe this is his level and could he become good enough to play in a top three European league or even City themselves?

I wouldn’t launch myself into this kind of guess. I want to wait for two reasons. First of all, Japan is a football country that for now resembles Portugal: in 25 years of professional football (the J. League was launched in 1993), Japan mostly produced offensive midfielders, full-backs and creative players in general; some of them had a good career, other will leave a mark in the next future. It is tough to find someone who succeeded in Europe as a centre-forward, centre-back or goalkeeper.

Since Itakura – at least for now – is a centre-back, I find it hard to believe he will eventually play for Manchester City. I’d be super-happy if this will happen, but for now he has just to focus on his development and Eredivisie can be useful for that. Secondly, I think Itakura has more chance of succeeding if he’ll develop as a holding midfielder. Since his skills could lean towards that hypothesis, we have to see first if this switch of roles will happen in the next future.

We noticed he has played for Japan at under-20 level, but not yet for the senior team. How far is he from a Japan call-up in your opinion?

Not so much, I believe. Given how experimental the national team has been before the start of Asian Cup with the new manager Hajime Moriyasu, I would have expected him to be called already in late 2018, given the good performances he had in Sendai. It didn’t happen, but if he has a good run on these six months in Groningen, I think the call will eventually come, since the Japan national team doesn’t feature so many good centre-backs (Shoji, Yoshida and Tomiyasu are good names) and that’s where probably Moriyasu will look to loop Itakura in.

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