Combative VfB Stuttgart captain Wataru Endo has become an indispensable cog in coach Pellegrino Matarazzo's machine, rivalling the likes of Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich and Wolfsburg's Maximilian Arnold as one of the Bundesliga's top midfielders.
"In comparison to a normal season, we have a lot of variables," Stuttgart sporting director Sven Mislintat said during the pandemic-affected 2019/20 campaign. "But there was no uncertainty over what Endo could bring to the club.
"As a player and as a person, he's simply incredibly valuable," explained Mislintat, who - after Endo's impressive loan spell from Belgian side Sint-Truiden - snapped him up for a bargain fee. "He's one of these anchors, a focal point in our system. Whether he plays as a centre-back or as a defensive midfielder, it's good that he's there and performs."
It is that consistency of performance and the central role Endo plays that is reflected in Matarazzo's decision to hand the former Urawa Reds man the captain's armband this season, following a path along which Hasebe stepped with Eintracht Frankfurt.
"It's important for me that our captain can take everyone with him, that he embodies the values we stand for and is an example to follow," explained the American tactician. "I have chosen Wataru Endo because he's also someone who leaves room for other players to take responsibility."
That said, the 28-year-old has carried much of the club's burden through their opening four matches of the 2021/22 season. Already last season, he topped the division for challenges with a whopping 476, and is out in front of all-comers with 66 already this term, 64 per cent of which he has won. No wonder Matarazzo calls him "a soldier".
But to reduce him to mere destroyer would be to do a disservice to his ability with the ball. Only Bayern's peerless Kimmich and Wolfsburg's metronomic captain Arnold have seen more of the ball as defensive midfielders than Endo, whose short passing game is second only to Kimmich league-wide.
As he showed in the very first game of the season when he netted Stuttgart's first strike of the new campaign in the 5-1 defeat of Greuther Fürth, Endo can be a menace in the opposition penalty area too.
It's the fruit of a more attack-minded approach to his game that Endo first employed with success in another 5-1 defeat, this time of Schalke on Matchday 23 last season. He also added two assists as he hit a deep purple patch, becoming the first Japanese player to double up on goals and assists in a single Bundesliga match.
"He took it upon himself to pose more of a goal threat," said Matarazzo after watching his Japanese star devastate the Royal Blues' defence with his first goals in German top-flight football. "I'm happy for him that it worked immediately in the first game."
"Before matches, my son always says, 'Please dad, score a goal,' but I'm no striker," explained Endo after becoming the first Stuttgart player since Alexandru Maxim in the 2013/14 season to be involved in four goals in a league game. "I try, but it doesn't often work."
Though his modest goals tally may be a disappointment to his son, no one else is unhappy with his performances with Mislintat describing him as the "Bodyguard" and "Heartbeat" of the team.
Endo has become such a cornerstone of the Stuttgart side that he has played all but 103 minutes of his club's top-flight games since the start of last season, and 90 of those were accumulated on Matchday 34 of the 2020/21 campaign when he was suspended. He counts on adding many more.
"Ideally, I would like to lead VfB to the top, where the club used to be as German champions. I'd like to aim for the Champions League with VfB at some point," said Endo, who signed a contract extension through to 2024 last November.
"My goal is to keep developing personally, preferably in and with Stuttgart. I dream of taking part in the World Cup and playing in the Champions League."
With Matarazzo's 'soldier' leading their charge, it will not be for want of trying if they fall short.
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