It is testament to both his professionalism and tactical flexibility that not only has Makoto Hasebe been given a new role by his Eintracht Frankfurt coach Niko Kovac, he has risen to the challenge with ease.
Having tested the option of using Hasebe as a sweeper against FC Ingolstadt 04 in the DFB Cup in October, Kovac then did the same against Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 9. The Croatian tactician has since persisted with the tactic and the results have been remarkable.
Watch: Hasebe opened the scoring in Frankfurt's derby win over Darmstadt on Matchday 19:
Eintracht have kept six clean sheets since that Gladbach match, conceding a total of just 15 goals in 19 matches and climbing to third in the standings. That their modest 25 goals scored has yielded ten victories and five draws is further testament to their defensive strength.
The extra man in defence has helped make them a fiendishly difficult nut to crack, particularly when that man boasts the experience and tactical nous of Hasebe. Captain of the Japan national team and a Bundesliga winner with VfL Wolfsburg in 2009, he is closing in on a Japanese record of 235 Bundesliga appearances and has missed just five league games since joining the Eagles in 2014.
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Utilised mostly at right-back or in defensive midfield in the last two seasons, Hasebe has now added the role of defensive playmaker to his repertoire, mopping up attacks and starting moves in the same way as the great Franz Beckenbauer, the archetypal sweeper. Moreover, Hasebe appears to be thriving in his new discipline.
“I feel good playing at sweeper because I can help the team with my experience,” he said. “You’re under less pressure than in midfield, so you have more time on the ball. I’m happy that the coach has found this role for me.”
If Hasebe himself is happy, Kovac certainly feels the same having seldom coached such a dedicated, model professional. “Hasebe is a one-off and a pro through and through,” said the 45-year-old.
“I had a player called Tsuneyasu Miyamoto when I was at FC Salzburg. He was the long-time captain of Japan and an icon in his homeland. I’ve told Hasi [Hasebe], ‘Now you’re the icon’.”
Watch: Hasebe on penalty-taking duties:
High praise indeed and words that further illustrate the bond of trust that has developed between coach and player. While Kovac has effectively built his team around Hasebe, the Shizuoka native revealed in January that he has decided to move into coaching when he retires, and will use Kovac as his inspiration.
“For ten years I’ve been making notes on the daily workings of what a coach does,” said the 33-year-old in January. “I can now say that I will become a coach when I retire and I’d like to coach the way Niko Kovac does.”
That is quite an endorsement from such a venerated player. Until the evergreen Hasebe does eventually hang up his boots, long may this successful partnership continue.