Hiroki Ito has been an integral figure in VfB Stuttgart’s defence since his signing in 2021. bundesliga.com takes a closer look at the Japan centre-back...
Stats correct as of 1 January 2024
Age: 24 (born 12 May 1999)
Club: VfB Stuttgart
Country: Japan (13 caps, one goal)
Ito was born in the city of Hamamatsu on 12 May 1999, joining the academy of three-time Japanese champions Jubilo Iwata at U15 level in 2015. He was promoted to the first team only two years later. His senior debut came in March 2018 in the League Cup against local rivals Shumizu S-Pulse. His league debut followed in August as a late substitute against Kashiwa Reysol – his only appearance of the 2018 J1 League season.
The defender was sent out on loan to Nagoya Grampus in 2019, only featuring nine times before his return to Iwata following their relegation to the J2 League, then emerging as a first-choice defender. The 6’1’’ centre-back featured in 37 out of 42 matches, playing the full 90 minutes in all but one of those – the first and only game of the 2020 season prior the coronavirus-enforced break. Ito’s participation was more sporadic in 2021, but enough to draw the attention of Stuttgart, who took him on loan midway through the Japanese campaign and ahead of the 2021/22 Bundesliga season.
Although Stuttgart’s plans were originally to ease the young defender into European football via their U21 team, the fact that he arrived in Germany fully match fit – with the Japanese league playing through the summer – meant he quickly found himself training with the first team. As well as hit fitness, he obviously impressed coach Pellegrino Matarazzo, who started Ito in the first game of the season against BFC Dynamo in the DFB Cup. He would be an unused substitute in the first two Bundesliga games, but then featured in 10 of the next 12 – starting seven in a row between Matchdays 8 and 14.
After scooping the November 2021 Bundesliga Rookie of the Month award, Ito's career continued to go on an upward trajectory. He helped Stuttgart to narrowly survive relegation for two consecutive seasons as the club made his loan move permanent, before playing a regular part in their sensational, top-four busting start to the 2023/24 campaign.
Ito's fine Bundesliga form earned him his first call-up to the Japanese national team, and he has since made 12 appearances for the Samurai Blue. That included 45 minutes of action at the 2022 World Cup as Japan played Costa Rica, with more on the cards at the 2023 Asian Cup.
Plays a bit like: Matthijs de Ligt
Like Bayern Munich's De Ligt, Ito stands at 6’1’’. While the Dutch international may be stronger in the air, they are both diligent in their defensive work while also looking to have an impact in attack at times. That can be when they are in the opposition box for set pieces or distributing the ball from deep. Ito, in particular, is fond of a long ball to send teammates in behind.
Did you know?
Ito continues a fine tradition of Japanese players in Stuttgart. He’s the sixth player from his country to represent VfB, following on from Shinji Okazaki, Gotoku Sakai, Takuma Asano, Hajime Hosogai and former club captain Wataru Endo. All bar Hosogai scored in the Bundesliga for Stuttgart. No other team in the Bundesliga has had so many scorers from the Land of the Rising Sun.
What they’re saying
"He's a fantastic defender. In the medium term, he has what it takes to play for one of Europe's top clubs." - current Stuttgart head coach Sebastian Hoeneß
"Hiro is doing a very good job. You can sense a certain stability in attack and defence. The thrust he brings, the balls he plays, especially his diagonals. He’s got calmness on the ball." – former Stuttgart head coach Pellegrino Matarazzo
"I thought Hiroki would need a few months to get used to German football, but he’s adapted surprisingly quickly." – Former Karlsruhe midfielder and Ito’s ex-Iwata teammate Hiroki Yamada
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