One of three Bundesliga 2 players at the 2022 World Cup, Japanese midfielder Ao Tanaka has been flying the flag for the German second division with a famous goal to guide the Samurai Blue into the knockout stages ahead of Spain and Germany.
Club: Fortuna Düsseldorf
Position: Central midfield
Country: Japan (17 caps/ three goals)
Born in the Japanese city of Kawasaki on 10 September 1998, Tanaka was only in the third grade when he joined the youth setup at local giants Kawasaki Frontale. After a decade of working his way up the various age groups, where he wore the No.10 shirt, he was promoted to the first team in 2017. However, he was forced to bide his time due to injury and competition for places, finally making his senior debut in September 2018.
It took the then 20-year-old just six minutes after coming off the bench against Consadole Sapporo in the J1 League to score his first professional goal on Frontale’s way to winning the title. His first league start followed a couple of months later, playing 90 minutes against FC Tokyo. The 2019 season was his breakout, starting 22 of his 24 J1 appearances and being named the J.League Rookie of the Year – the only Frontale player to ever win the award.
The midfielder would go on to become an integral part of the Kawasaki side, featuring in 31 out of 34 fixtures as they won the league at a canter in 2020 and being named in the J.League Best XI, ahead of the likes of Andres Iniesta. He even captained the side for the first time in a 5-1 win over Vegalta Sendai in March 2021 – just a month after he won the Emperor’s Cup for the first time.
A club with strong links to Japan, Düsseldorf signed Tanaka on a season-long loan for the 2021/22 Bundesliga 2 campaign, where he quickly settled into the heart of the midfield, making 29 league outings. Fortuna were impressed and opted to make the move a permanent one in April 2022, handing him a three-year contract. Tanaka had made 45 appearances for the club prior to the 2022 World Cup, where he was one of eight Germany-based players called up to the Samurai Blue squad.
His first taste of international football had come in 2014 when picked to go to the AFC U16 Championship. Fast forward to 2019 and he was named the third best player and in the Best XI at the Toulon Tournament as Japan came second on penalties to a Brazil side that included Antony, Matheus Cunha and Bayer Leverkusen’s Paulinho. Tanaka had also been named Man of the Match in the opening come-from-behind win over England.
His first senior cap came in December 2019 against Hong Kong in the East Asian Football Championship before national team boss Hajime Moriyasu named him in the squad for the home 2020 Olympic Games, starting every match as Japan finished fourth. Since then and his move to Fortuna, he has been a regular for the Samurai Blue, scoring his first goal in a 2-1 qualifying win over Australia in October 2021. The central midfielder got his third international goal to net the winner against Spain at the 2022 World Cup, also winning all of his contested duels, as Japan progressed to the knockout stage as winners of Group E.
Plays a bit like: Jude Bellingham
Japan has given the Bundesliga some excellent players down the years. Makoto Hasebe has proven himself a defensive stalwart, while Daichi Kamada is emerging as a top-class attacking midfielder. Tanaka is somewhere in between, going box to box and emerging as an on-field leader like Borussia Dortmund’s England international Jude Bellingham. Tanaka looks to clean up from deep – averaging almost nine tackles won per Bundesliga 2 game in 2022/23 – and get forward whenever possible. He’s had almost one shot per outing this season, mixing things up between darts into the box – think Spain in Qatar – and rasping shots from outside the penalty area.
Did you know?
Tanaka is one of Japan’s three goalscorers in the 2022 World Cup group stage and all ply their trade in Germany, with Ritsu Doan of Freiburg and Bochum’s Takuma Asano being the other two. He’s part of the great tradition of Japanese players to have graced German football, as one of 32 to have appeared in Bundesliga 2, while 38 have made top-flight appearances.
While that Germany-Japan bond is deep, Tanaka’s connection with Kaoru Mitoma – who provided him the assist against Spain – is even more remarkable. The pair have played together on the same teams at elementary school, middle school, at Frontale and now with the national team.
What they’re saying
“Fortuna have welcomed me very well from the first day. The club has made my step from Japan to Europe as easy as possible. I feel very much at home in Düsseldorf and hope I can contribute to the success of the team with more goals and assists.” – Ao Takana on signing his permanent deal at Fortuna Düsseldorf
“Ao has developed into an important part of our team in recent months. That’s why we’ve decided to tie him down to a long-term contract. We’re firmly of the conviction that Ao isn’t at the end of his development and that we’ll have lots of joy with him in the coming years.” - Klaus Allofs, Fortuna Düsseldorf sporting director
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