SAITAMA — If Urawa Reds manager Volker Finke intends to focus on the positives from his first year in charge of the J. League club, new recruit Yosuke Kashiwagi is on hand to remind him how far the team still has to go.
Finke ran the full gamut of highs and lows last season as Reds set the early pace before a sequence of seven straight defeats derailed their title challenge over the summer, eventually finishing in sixth place.
But the German insisted throughout the campaign that league position was secondary to instilling his philosophy on a team that had become sated and stale since winning the Asian Champions League in 2007.
Keen to implement his ideas further, Finke brought in Kashiwagi over the offseason after an outstanding year from the attacking midfielder at surprise package Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
The 22-year-old, however, is quick to point out that his new team is far from being the finished article.
“Honestly I think the manager hasn’t been able to achieve the kind of passing game that he wants the team to play yet,” Kashiwagi said at Urawa’s training ground at the weekend. “But hopefully I can help shift the accent toward the kind of style he is looking for.
“Quite frankly I didn’t really have a great impression of the team before I came here. Individually the players are outstanding, but not as a team.
“But now that I’m here I feel good about the place. I’ve got to know my teammates and there is a great atmosphere in training. I’m really looking forward to it and I can see the move has been worth it.”
It is no surprise that Kashiwagi is searching for validation after making the switch from Hiroshima. Having come through the ranks at Sanfrecce, leaving the club that nurtured him was not an easy decision to make.
“I liked the city and the people of Hiroshima, and I had a very good relationship with the players, the staff and the manager,” he said. “I had a great time there and that will always stay with me, but that also made it hard to leave. But I decided that if I wanted to grow, I had to move to Urawa.”
Given Sanfrecce’s fourth-place league finish and subsequent qualification for this year’s ACL, Kashiwagi’s move could be viewed as a step in the wrong direction. Meeting the standards set by Urawa’s vociferous support, however, was a challenge the player could not ignore.
“This is a big club with a lot of fans,” he said. “I want to become a better player and I felt that the way to do that was to put myself in a demanding environment.
“It would have been very comfortable for me to stay in Hiroshima. I knew everyone there, the people always supported me and I always played. It’s scary to step outside of that comfort zone, but I wanted a new challenge.
“This is something I wanted to do, and felt I had to do, to improve myself as a player.”
Kashiwagi’s fearless style makes it easy to understand why he was such a crowd favorite in Hiroshima, but it was his bubbly personality that really made him the darling of the Sanfrecce fans.
“I have no intention of changing my style of play or my personality,” he said. “Right now I’m a little quiet around the place compared to how I was in Hiroshima, but I want to play for Urawa with the same attitude.
“I came here with the confidence to play my own game — to play with freedom. Yes there’s pressure from the crowd, but that’s also something to savor.”
And if Kashiwagi can oust Brazilian veteran Robson Ponte for the job as Urawa’s playmaker, he will have the perfect stage to catch national team manager Takeshi Okada’s eye in the months leading up to the World Cup.
The youngster made his international debut in what was essentially a third-choice lineup in an Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen early in January, but has not been selected for Okada’s squad to face Venezuela on Tuesday.
Although World Cup lore is sprinkled with players making a late run into their countries’ final squads, Kashiwagi is keeping his dreams in check for the time being.
“Of course I want to be involved with the national team, but I’m not in a hurry,” he said. “I’ve got the chance to play for a new team here and I want to make my mark.
“First I’m concentrating on doing my best here. If I do well and the team does well, we’ll see what happens. I’m not thinking about the World Cup too much.”