Trio of gems will sparkle for Celtic and Ange Postecoglou as title race heats up
Ange Postecoglou has fomented a wave of migration, as Celtic signs a trio of Japanese players to bolster the Glaswegian club fresh off their Premier Cup win.
When Peter Cklamovski looks at Celtic’s three new Japanese signings, he sees players with not just the technical attributes to make a difference in the Premiership title race, but characters whose resilience and tenacity will enhance Ange Postecoglou’s ‘team-first’ approach.
The Celtic manager was Cklamovski’s boss on and off for the best part of 15 years, most notably with the Australia national team then Yokohama F Marinos, where, two years ago, they guided the club to a first J League title since 2004. Cklamovski, who was born and raised in Sydney and has a Macedonian father, stayed in Japan when he went out on his own in 2020, firstly as manager of Shimizu S-Pulse and now Montedio Yamagata in the second tier.
The 43-year-old still speaks to his old chum regularly, and offers up glowing testimony on behalf of the trio of additions that Celtic confirmed on Hogmanay.
We start with Reo Hatate, the 24-year-old who can play full back, winger and attacking midfielder, and is equally comfortable on either side of the pitch. Cklamovski has been impressed by how the versatile man from Suzuka has progressed through the Japanese university football system to become a key part of the Kawasaki Frontale side that wrapped up their fourth J-League title in five years.
“The university pathway is really important in Japan, and it has a lot of depth,” said Cklamovski. “Hatate came up that way, as did Kaoru Mitoma, who was with him at Kawasaki and signed for Brighton last year before going out on loan to Union SG in Belgium. In the university system, players are not really aligned to any club specifically until later in the piece. Their second-last or last year of study, clubs might then sign them, then they’ll become that “special designated player” where they might get some games. That happened to Hatate in 2018 and 2019. Then in 2020, he came on to the scene fully, had 30-odd games in J1 and then the same again this year.
“He’s very quickly become an integral player in a championship-winning team. Kawasaki are dynamite, it’s a dynasty they’ve built. So even to force his way into that squad is an achievement.
“I couldn’t put my finger on which is his No 1 position — I just think he’s dynamic in all of them. He’s an attack-minded player who has progressed his game defensively, and is going to impress a lot in Scotland. He seems a bit of a diamond, where he can plug a hole in any position in any moment for the manager. I’ll be really interested to see how Ange uses him, because he’s really strong in the fullback position, really strong as an attacking midfielder, which would suit Celtic’s play, and he can play winger no problem at all. The luxury for Ange is that he has a high-quality option across all those positions in a single player.”
Yosuke Ideguchi, the 25-year-old central midfielder, came through the same Academy route as the likes of Takumi Minamino (now at Liverpool) and Takehiro Tomiyasu (now at Arsenal), having started out at Gamba Osaka then returned there to restate his worth after a disappointing foray into Europe with Leeds United in 2018 and 2019. Ideguchi did not play a single game for the Elland Road club, having found himself loaned out to lowly outfits in Spain and Germany, suffering a serious knee injury and having to start afresh with Gamba.
Cklamovski believes the extent to which the player has risen to that challenge bodes well for how he will cope with both the rough and tumble of the Scottish game and the weight of expectation that comes with playing for a club like Celtic. The Montedio man also notes the value in Postecoglou having another card to play in an area of the team where Callum McGregor, David Turnbull and Nir Bitton have been asked to go to the well time and time again in the first part of the season.
“Ideguchi will be that consistent engine for them when called upon,” he said. “He’s an engine defensively who covers so much ground, breaks things down, is strong in duels and keeps momentum for his team. He’s also effective with the ball and can generate tempo and open things up. He has a good range of passes along with a lethal shot from outside the box. He will tick the ball over, provide Ange with a bit of depth within the squad and add to that team game.
“This new trio will offer quality and depth, and the character of these players will also supplement what’s growing there in terms of a winning mentality and team mentality. The beauty of what seems to be building there is the real team unit, the fact that whoever plays will do their job. These three are all very good players, they all complement each other, their team game is strong and they’ll have the whole squad pushing hard for more progress.”
Like Hatate, Daizen Maeda is far from a one-trick pony, having impressed in his native land both as a central striker and on either side of a front three. Cklamovski tried to make him one of his first signings in that brief, pandemic-affected stint at S-Pulse, but Maeda opted to join Postecoglou at Yokohama F Marinos, where this season he was the top goalscorer in the league.
Cklamovski always comes back to his workrate, however, a trait illustrated by the fact that Maeda also registered the most sprints in the J League last season. His total of 1,457 was almost 600 more than the man in second place, reported Hearts target Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa. Of the top-ten single match sprint figures, Maeda filled eight with new teammate Kyogo Furuhashi claiming one of the others.
“Ange and I saw him for the first time in 2019, the year we won the league,” said Cklamovski. “He was at a club called Matsumoto [Yamaga]. They were a very direct, counterattacking team and he was lethal. His speed was frightening. Halfway through that season, he went to Maritimo in Portugal on loan. He then came back to Japan in 2020 and a few clubs were trying to get him. S-Pulse were in the race early on, and he would have been perfect for us, but he ended up at Marinos.
“He actually scored his first Marinos goal against us [in August 2020] and he’s going to be brilliant in Ange’s system. Kyogo and Maeda are interchangeable. They can play centre forward or that wider, winger-type position, both of them no problem at all. That will be Ange’s decision to make based on what the availability is, what the schedule is like, how he’s going to rotate his squad.
“That’s the power of it — he can play them in a few positions and know they’ll be OK, that they’ll adapt. In terms of formation, 4-3-3 will be the way he wants to maintain the evolution of the team. I’d be surprised if he moves away from it. These recruits support him maintaining it with a bit more variety and depth within a squad selection.
“He obviously needs depth and he’s certainly got it with these boys. I think he’ll keep building that 4-3-3, layer upon layer, and become even more powerful.”
As Montedio is based up in the mountains some 200 miles north of Tokyo, life can sometimes feel remote, especially at the moment with heavy snow around. None of this has prevented Cklamovski from tapping into Japanese excitement about the recent moves.
“Ange and Kyogo are hot topics now. The trio going over is hot news as well,” he said. “I think we can safely say that the whole of Japan will be behind Celtic, the four players and Ange as well, which is a huge reconnection to the Japanese market and the Japanese love affair that the club had previously through [Shunsuke] Nakamura. It’s another branch of supporters that have joined what Ange calls the Celtic family. That family is now even bigger.”
As well as recruiting new faces, Postecoglou has got a turn out of some more familiar ones, not least countryman Tom Rogic, left, who seemed set to leave last summer but has since become a crucial cog, rediscovering his old form while also showing a new ability to rack up minutes and appearances.
“The football that Ange is creating at Celtic suits Tommy down to the ground,” said Cklamovski.
“He’s really got his legs going, got consistency in his match minutes before that recent little [hamstring] niggle. The football that Ange believes in, and creates, suits Tommy down to the ground. You get to see the best of Tommy within that. Long may it continue, because he’s a hell of a player, a super player for Celtic, and hopefully he’s got more to come.
“Credit to Ange and the coaching team and everyone at the club. The mentality they are bringing to training every day is putting Tommy in a position where he can back that up on the pitch.
“That’s the benefit of the mentality that Ange is driving forward with the club. These new players will complement that perfectly.”