Schalke have signed what could be a crucial defensive recruit by adding Japan defender Ko Itakura on loan from Manchester City.
Club: Schalke (on loan from Manchester City)
Country: Japan (5 caps/1 goal)
The Yokohama native joined Kawasaki Frontale as a boy and was on their books until 2019. After making his debut in 2016, he appeared five times as a substitute in Kawasaki's championship-winning 2017 season. He was sent on loan the following year, scoring three times in 24 league games for fellow J1 League club Vegalta Sendai. The 6'2" defender - who can also play as a holding midfielder - moved to Manchester City in January 2019, and was immediately loaned out to Dutch side Groningen. Having taken six months to settle in, Itakura spent the next two seasons on loan in the Netherlands as well. He featured 22 times in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2019/20, and played every minute of the 2020/21 league campaign to help Groningen finish seventh.
Itakura's progress at international level has been steady too. He played at the U-20 World Cup in 2017 before making his debut for Japan's senior team in their 2019 Copa America game against Uruguay. He returned home to represent Japan at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, impressing at centre-back as the host country topped their group before eventually losing to Spain after extra-time in the semi-final.
Plays a bit like: Jan Vertonghen
Rangy and quick over the ground, Itakura makes defending look easy. In theory right-footed but comfortable enough on the ball to have regularly played as the left-sided centre-half, he is similar in style to Benfica's former Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen. The 34-year-old Belgian is winding down his career at this stage after earning 131 caps and counting for his country as well as finishing third at the 2018 FIFA World Cup along the way. Like Vertonghen did with Ajax, Itakura has patiently learned his trade in the Netherlands before making a big move as he enters the prime on his career. Capable of pinging an accurate diagonal pass over the top of a defence, he joined Schalke in the hope of plotting their immediate return to the Bundesliga.
Did you know?
Itakura is not the first Japanese player to line out for Schalke. Atsuto Uchida was a regular at right-back for the Royal Blues between 2010 and 2017, clocking up 153 appearances for the club including 104 in the Bundesliga. He helped them to reach the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 2010/11 and won the DFB Cup the same season, adding the 2011/12 DFL Supercup as well before leaving for Union Berlin in August 2017 after injuries took their toll. Uchida soon returned to Japan before retiring at the age of 32 in 2020. In May 2021, he was appointed as an official club ambassador - a role which will involve him promoting Schalke in Japan and beyond.
Watch: Uchida was a fan favourite at Schalke
What they're saying
"We have been following Ko Itakura's progress closely for a long time and are absolutely convinced that his abilities can help us: he defends proactively and aggressively with great positioning, and is strong in the air both at the back and up front." - Schalke sporting director Rouven Schröder
"He plays well and is also a top professional who makes every effort to become better every day." - Itakura's former Groningen coach Danny Buijs speaking in March 2021
"The club is very well known in Japan, not least because of Atsuto Uchida, and it would be great if I can impress the fans in the same way Uchida did back then." - Itakura speaking after agreeing his move to Schalke, which also includes an option to buy the player at the end of the season