TOYKO — There is something a little bit different about Yoshinori Muto.
In an age when Japanese players pine for moves to Europe, and many rush into transfers as soon as an offer—any offer—arrives, FC Tokyo’s star striker is keeping Chelsea on hold.
While the Premier League champions-in-waiting made an offer to his J. League club almost a month ago, per Sky Sports, the 22-year-old is still weighing his options. In the intense glare of the local media spotlight since the news broke, he has demonstrated just why the Stamford Bridge side are so keen to add him to their ranks.
On the pitch, he has scored in two straight games, and post-match he has been a picture of calmness and confidence. After scoring the only goal in Tokyo's 1-0 win over Shonan Bellmare on April 12, for instance, he faced a throng of TV cameras and reporters with a smile and a bow and politely but firmly reiterated that he would not be rushed into a decision.
“I want to think about it carefully,” he said of the potential switch to London. “Where can I go to develop? A team that suits me, where I can play and develop. I’m thinking about that, and for now, I just want to take my time and think it through.”
He also emphasized another aspect that sets him apart from the perceived style of Japanese football, which still seems to value creating opportunities more than finishing them off.
“Four goals in five games is a good start, but I’m not satisfied with that, and I want to improve myself,” he said of his first handful of J1 games this season. “If I can get the ratio to more than a goal a game, then I will be able to become a better player, so that’s what I’m aiming for.”
For Ranko Popovic, who gave Muto his Tokyo debut back in July 2013, the youngster instantly made an impression.
“His potential was amazing, I didn’t see for a long time such an intelligent player like Muto,” Popovic, who is now managing Real Zaragoza, told Bleacher Report. “He’s a different guy, he’s not such a usual player.
“Muto is something like a noble. He has something different to all other players because he comes from a good family, he has good education, he was at university. A very smart, intelligent guy. He has something which you cannot learn.”
As well as being taken with the youngster’s personality, Popovic was also excited by his playing style.
“He was so fast. So speedy and, for a Japanese guy, so strong. And also so confident. He has a lot of confidence. In our training games, Muto always had chances. Amazing. He had 10 or 12 chances in every game.”
In 2014, Muto equaled the record for most goals scored in a debut J1 season—the previous year, he was still a Keio University student and enrolled with Tokyo as a Special Designated Player, which enabled him to gain professional experience in the J. League—finding the net 13 times in 33 games.
However, such ruthlessness in front of goal wasn’t yet an aspect of his game as all of those chances popped up at Tokyo’s Kodaira training ground under Popovic’s watchful eye.
“He’d shoot three or four or five metres over the goal,” the Serbian explained. “Missing too much. But, you know, if a young player has so many times these chances, this is big potential. If he misses these chances, it’s not so big a problem, because for bad players, chances never come. And I saw this in Muto, and this was the sign of big potential.”
Tokyo’s current boss, Massimo Ficcadenti, has been the one to nurture and benefit from that potential, and after the win against Shonan, he elaborated on the way the economics graduate has developed.
“From the moment I arrived, I recognized his physical quality, and since then, he’s added a lot of technical quality as well, especially in his shooting, and he’s grown a lot,” the former Cagliari coach said. “Last year, in training, there was a period of seven or eight months during which his ability to connect with his teammates improved unbelievably.”
Kosuke Ota regularly links up with Muto going forward, and Tokyo’s left-back was full of praise for his teammate after the game.
“He always has humility, is serious, and works hard for the benefit of the team,” the Japan international told Bleacher Report. “This is the first time he has had experience of dealing with this kind of speculation, and it may be difficult, but the fact that he is able to still deliver results while all that is going on shows how professional he is.”
Impressive as Muto is for one still so inexperienced, the fact remains that he is already 22. This isn’t an exciting teenage prospect a la Martin Odegaard, but a player who needs and wants to be playing regularly and producing results instantly.
Rather than doubting his own ability—as some in Japan are suggesting may be what’s causing him to stall—it seems more likely that his hesitancy to sign is rooted in the possible lack of opportunities under Jose Mourinho.
Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi knows what it’s like to be sat on the bench in England, though, and believes Muto—and Japanese football at large—would still benefit even if appearances were initially hard to come by.
“Muto is a really high quality player,” the former Portsmouth goalkeeper, still playing at 39 for second-tier FC Gifu, told Bleacher Report. “He is physical and has the ability to finish off chances, as well as being able to work shooting opportunities for himself. I think he would suit the English style.
“It’s Chelsea. Offers don’t often come from that kind of club. It’s amazing. If he goes, of course there will be competition, but Japan is aiming to win the World Cup, and if players don’t start to appear for clubs at that level, there can’t be that kind of development.
“As a foreign player, there will be expectation and pressure, but by overcoming that, you can move up a level, and that is tied up with the development of Japanese football as a whole.
“Playing in games is the most important thing, but training with those kinds of players will be great study. Being able to actually work together with them at close quarters is completely different, I think.
“I also went to England, and even though I didn’t play in that many games, it was a great learning experience for me. The reason I am still able to be active as a player is that when I was in England I saw keepers like Dave Beasant, Alan Knight and Shaka Hislop playing until they were around the 40 mark, and now I’m still benefiting from that influence. Going to England was, for me personally, a huge plus.”
Popovic also hopes Muto seizes this opportunity.
“Sometimes you have such a big chance once in your life,” he said. “If you have twice, you are a very lucky guy. He must try. And I believe in him, and if he calls me now I will tell him the same. Please, believe in you and go and kick ass there.”
Just how good Muto can be—at Chelsea or elsewhere—is hard to predict given how rapid his rise has been. He only scored his first J. League goal on April 19, 2014, for instance.
However, anyone cocksure enough to publicly make Chelsea wait clearly has something about them, and his phenomenal improvement over the last year has been nothing short of remarkable.
When it comes to confidence, he has more in common with the unflappable Keisuke Honda than the more reflective Shinji Kagawa. If Muto makes the right move now, then he could very well go on to eclipse the success of his more esteemed national team colleagues—or any that have gone before them.
Even so, such matters shouldn’t concern Muto, according to Popovic, who believes that a desire to act as an ambassador for Japanese football often stifles players and prevents them achieving their potential.
“[If he goes] I’m 100 per cent sure Muto can be refreshing for the Premier League,” he said. “This is a big thing for Japan, for Japanese football, for Muto. But please don’t take all the responsibility for all Japan now on your back. You are going there only to play football. Do things your way, and all Japan will be proud of you.”
Just when and where he goes to do that remains to be seen, but Yoshinori Muto is in full control of his destiny and has already shown that his days of missing chances are behind him.
All quotes were gained firsthand unless otherwise stated.