Takuma Asano: The former Arsenal man starring for Bochum and Japan
Takuma Asano was tipped for stardom by Arsene Wenger, but work permit issues saw the Japan international seeking a future outside of London - one that he has now found in Bochum and one that is reaping rewards for both club and country.
Asano was snapped up by then Arsenal coach Wenger in 2016 and the Frenchman described the 21-year-old signed from Sanfreece Hiroshima as "a talented young striker and very much one for the future."
Wenger - renowned for unearthing top talent - wasn't wrong, although he will have been disappointed not to have smoothed the Asano diamond himself.
Both Asano and Wenger are long gone from Arsenal now, with the former starring for Bochum in the Bundesliga and having just helped Japan stun Germany at the 2022 World Cup.
It's just reward for the hard work of Asano, who's journey has been far from straightforward, as evidenced by his first three years in Germany. The Komono native was loaned to first VfB Stuttgart and then Hannover as red tape held up - and eventually ended - his Arsenal career.
Things started well enough in Stuttgart, with Asano's four league goals and four assists helping VfB to the second division title. But he slowed in the top-flight the following campaign and ended the 2018/19 season out of the Hannover reckoning as the club avoided triggering their obligation to buy the player after a certain number of appearances.
“We got the orders that we're no longer allowed to use him,” said sporting director at the time, Horst Heldt.
“[Coach Thomas Doll] received a clear instruction from the management, and you have to stick to it. That’s the way it is, even if that’s a bit unusual, but at the end of the day you have to respect that.”
Watch: Asano scores his first Bundesliga goal - for Stuttgart, against Hannover
Asano summed up his disappointing end to the campaign by saying: "I think it was a difficult, tough, frustrating season looking back now. The only thing I can have confidence in is that growth is possible every day."
And Asano would continue to grow, making the move to Partizan Belgrade where he scored 30 times and laid on 15 assists in 77 appearances - including a barnstorming final campaign that saw him bag 18 goals for himself and provide eight more for his teammates.
That was enough for Bochum to make their move and tempt Asano back to Germany, where unfinished business awaited.
"We're delighted that Takuma Asano has chosen VfL", said Sebastian Schindzielorz, director of sport at VfL. "He has international experience and knows the Bundesliga and German football. He’s a versatile attacker and is goal hungry."
Asano would have to wait until Matchday 20 to feed that hunger in front of goal, when - as a 65th-minute substitute - his maiden Bochum strike five minutes later salvaged a 2-2 draw against Cologne.
"I'm very proud to have scored my first Bundesliga goal for VfL," he said after the game. "We still have to work on our efficiency. We created a lot of chances, but we have to take more."
Asano has heeded his own words of advice. Days after helping his country beat Australia to book their place at the 2022 World Cup, he scored his second and third Bundesliga goals of the season.
Asano hit the opener against high-flying Hoffenheim on Matchday 28 before David Raum equalised for the hosts, but the Bochum creator wouldn't be outdone - grabbing the winner with just over half an hour to play in a superb display.
The first was a moment of individual brilliance as Asano burst into life on the left before firing home from outside the box, while his second showed strength and composure - both very different goals that highlighted the immense talent that the 5'7" Japanese star has at his disposal.
"I feel great," said Asano after the game. "We've earned a win against a very strong opponent, and I could help the team with my two goals. It can’t get any better.
"I always give 100 per cent and try to score goals. That it worked out so well today makes me very happy, of course. These are three immensely important points for us on our way to keep the league but we’re still not fully there. We must stay fully focused to reach our aim."
That Asano is so focused on the collective speaks volumes of a player capable of the exceptional all on his lonesome but puts the needs of his team first.
Watch: Asano rescues a point for Bochum against Cologne
No wonder then that his teammates were delighted to see Asano begin to show the world what he's capable of.
"Takuma is a fine guy and everyone gets on well with him," said Bochum defender Maxim Leitsch. "I’m very happy that he scored two goals today. When he brings his qualities to the pitch, he's extremely hard to stop."
Germany learned that the hard way.
Asano, now 28, began his country's World Cup 2022 Group E opener against the four-time world champions on the bench, but made an instant impact after being called on in the second half, smashing in a famous winner.
It was some story for a player who was dropped from Japan's preliminary World Cup squad in 2018, and missed nine of Bochum's first 15 matches in 2022/23 through injury.
Just as Wenger predicted all those years ago, the future is Asano, the future is now.
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