Arsenal fans have spent much of the summer anticipating the arrival of a new striker, but the news that the Gunners had agreed a deal to sign Japan international Takuma Asano has still caught many by surprise.
The forward is barely a household name in his native Japan, let alone Europe. Just what is it about this young man that convinced Arsene Wenger to bring him to England at the tender age of 21?
Asano will become the third Japanese player to sign for Wenger’s Arsenal after Junichi Inamoto and Ryo Miyaichi. Ever since he arrived at the Gunners, the Frenchman has had one eye on Japanese football. His previous job was with Nagoya Grampus Eight, and his time in Asia had a significant impact on his outlook on both sport and life.
In June 2013, Wenger told Arsenal.com about his move to Japan:
It was a welcome change in my life, a fantastic experience.
It’s something that changed me profoundly as well. The vision I have of life changed in Japan. It was absolutely a deep, profound and very, very positive experience. I'm very grateful that I went. Perhaps it was a bit crazy of me at the time to decide to go, but I'm thankful for that moment of craziness.
Wenger is also someone who loves to innovate. Not too many Japanese players have thrived in the Premier League, but the Arsenal boss is keen to exploit what he regards as an exciting new market.
Speaking about Japanese football in January 2013, per Reuters, Wenger said: “I find that a new market that is very interesting and very competitive is the Japanese market. Look at the number of Japanese players who play now in Germany, for example."
However, despite Wenger’s apparent faith in Japanese footballers, neither Inamoto nor Miyaichi experienced significant success at Arsenal. Along with the South Korean forward Park Chu-Young, Wenger has recruited three Asian players—however, between them they accrued just 24 minutes of league action.
In the short term, Asano is unlikely to add to that total. With just four international caps to his name, he has not yet played the requisite proportion of games to qualify for a UK work permit. His fee is also unlikely to be high enough to enable him to qualify for a special talent visa. In all likelihood, he will have to go out on loan until he is able to get permission to play in the Premier League.
As for where he’ll do that, the most likely destination is central Europe. That’s partly because, as Wenger suggests, there is a growing community of Japanese talent in the Bundesliga.
However, it’s also because Asano has attracted interest from that part of the world before. Japanese journalist Koki Harada told Squawka: “Some of the European clubs, such as Augsburg and Salzburg, had been chasing him for a year and reportedly Augsburg made an offer to Sanfrecce in May of €3 million."
It’s easy to see how Asano might have caught the eye of European clubs. Despite his youth, he already has two J-League winners medals to his name—and in 2015, he was named the competition’s Rookie of the Year.
Back in January, he made headlines across his homeland as he scored twice in the final of the Asian U-23 Championships to enable Japan to secure a 3-2 victory over South Korea. They were two smartly taken finishes, typical of a player who shows preternatural composure in front of goal.
However, Asano’s defining quality is his pace. According to the Daily Star, he can run 50 metres in just 5.9 seconds. That’s the sort of blistering speed that suggests he could have the athleticism to thrive in the Premier League.
His game is about more than that, though. Asano allies his pace with prodigious technical ability. He is a capable dribbler who can weave away from his markers before finding the corner of the net with his precise shooting.
Harada described his style thus: "He is a player between Eden Hazard and Walcott. Very fast and capable of finding the space behind the defender. He is not only a scorer but also a chance-maker.
"His nickname is "Jaguar" because he runs quickly and hunts the ball. Now he is doing an imitation of a Jaguar as his goal celebration."
Of course, it remains to be seen how Asano will cope in European football, which is generally more physically demanding than the J-League. However, it appears clear this is a player who has been bought with the intention of doing more than merely raising the club’s profile in Asia. Asano is a genuine talent.
Certain sections of the Arsenal fanbase have been frustrated by this signing, seeing it as an unnecessary distraction in the club’s hunt for established players to immediately improve the first team.
To take such a stance is short-sighted: Arsenal are constantly looking for exciting young talent who could come to fruition in the future.
Deals like this have proved hugely beneficial for clubs like Chelsea. If you sign a young player of promise, they may eventually be able to be part of the first team. If not, it may be possible to sell them on for a profit. Either way, given the vast resources at Arsenal’s disposal, this is an inexpensive gamble.
The people who should be worried are potentially Arsenal’s current crop of young strikers. If Asano qualifies for a work permit within the next 12 months by becoming a regular at senior level with Japan, that could spell trouble for the likes of Chuba Akpom and Yaya Sanogo. They’ll both have to make significant strides to avoid being bumped down the pecking order by the Japanese player’s eventual arrival.
For now, Arsenal fans must merely sit back and see what becomes of Asano. The next chance to watch him in action is likely to be during Japan’s Olympic Games campaign—after that, a loan spell is probable.
It may be some time before Asano plays a competitive game in an Arsenal shirt. Patience is not found in abundance among Premier League fans, but the indications are that the Gunners may have snapped up a talent who will prove to be worth the wait.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.