2018 could see Chanathip deliver on his promise in Japan

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre takes a look at how Thai star Chanathip Songkrasin looks set to have a massive season in the J1 League with Consadole Sapporo.

It’s a natural human tendency to overhype something or someone with great ability and potential.

Everybody’s heard the stories of their friend’s children who are brilliant at playing some musical instrument, or of some band that nobody has heard of as being the best in the world.

A new restaurant that’s supposedly the finest in the country or a new shirt, hat or sunglasses that’s the most comfortable and fashionable anywhere.

This was the situation that many in Southeast Asia and beyond found themselves in when discussing Chanathip Songkrasin and his move to Japan last year – the journey of a bonafide national star that we were led to believe was setting the J.League alight.

In many articles, lists and awards the diminutive playmaker was lauded as not just one of the best Thai players, not even one of the leading stars in Japan, but mentioned in the same breath as being alongside Son Heung-min, Alireza Jahanbakhsh or Shinji Kagawa as one of Asia’s elite talents.

It’s fair to say the hype machine went slightly out of control.

The reality was that Chanathip, in his first stint outside of his homeland, didn’t look out of place in Japan, even that he looked comfortable in his new surrounds.

That in itself was a huge achievement given that’s it’s the first time that could be said about a player from Southeast Asia in one of Asia’s best leagues.

Just as when discussing your children’s artistic gifts, or the great new restaurant though, very few took the time to dig deeper.

As important as Chanathip was to turning Sapporo’s season around, his impact was arguably overshadowed by two of his teammates that also arrived mid-season in the steady defensive rock Naoki Ishikawa and notably England international Jay Bothroyd.

For a player lining up as a No. 10, his return of just the single assist and no goals across the 16 matches that he featured in ranked him near the bottom of those lists for players in his position in any of three professional leagues in the country.

Although influential newspaper/magazine El Golazo gave him an impressive season grade of 6.10/10 – that mark barely put him among the top dozen midfielders in J1, so to hear the constant stories that he was blazing his way through the J.League on his way to becoming some kind of Asian immortal was puzzling to say the least.

He was a good player in a strong league but, this year, he’s already shown glimpses of taking his game to another level where perhaps the hype will become more justified.

A combination of that hype dying down due to the arrival of several other Thai stars who have garnered similar headlines and, more importantly, the arrival of a new coach at his northern Japanese club has seen Chanathip actually have the type of impact that he was believed to have had last year.

Former long-serving Urawa Red Diamonds boss Mihailo Petrovic arrived at Consadole at the start of the new season and has immediately set about changing both the mentality and style of the team, and a crucial part of that has been the increasing involvement and contribution of Chanathip in more central and advanced areas of the pitch.

Whereas last year Chanathip often acted as a key ‘link’ player – someone who would keep attacks going by making sure that possession was recycled with well weighted and placed passes for others to create with – this year he has already emerged as a player who has belief in his ability to not only create, but to take on opposing defenders and carry a share of the scoring burden on his slender shoulders.

When not in possession he is a willing harrier, tracking deep to cut off passing lanes or win tackles.

When with the ball you get the sense that he is more aware of the responsibilities that come with operating as one of the two No. 10s in the rejigged 3-4-2-1 formation that Petrovic uses and, rather than drifting wide and trying to beat players in less dangerous positions, in 2018 he’s playing far more centrally.

Enlivened by another brilliant Japanese youngster in the on-loan Koji Miyoshi, who plays alongside him in those advanced roles, you get the sense that he wants the ball constantly, that he enjoys the one-on-one challenges and that he’s always looking to be the difference maker – and the results are coming as he’s now scored twice in the past three league matches, including in a dramatic late win at home to V-Varen Nagasaki this past weekend.

The contrast between the 2017 and 2018 versions of the ‘Thai Messi’ were touched on in an interview that his teammate Bothroyd did with the J-Talk Podcast this week in Japan where his new captain (on the weekend at least) argued that Chanathip has already shown signs of being a far more important creative threat for the side.

“Chana has done well, he played a lot of games last year but I spoke to him and said that if you’re going to play as a shadow player you need to score goals, get assists and be more productive.

“Last year he played 17 games and got one assist and I think at this level as a shadow player or number ten or whatever you want to call it I think you have to be productive.

“Having a few nice dribbles and turns looks good to the fans but at the end of the day it’s all about goals and winning games and points on the board.

“His performances now with the new coach’s setup where he wants at least three players in the box on every attack will help him score goals because last year he was hovering around outside the box or in wide positions and not creating chances and this year he is and if he keeps improving the way he is he will have a successful J.League career.”

Wise words from a player who has had a dynamic impact of his own following a move from Thailand to Japan and it was no surprise that it was that pair who combined for the winner this weekend when a deep freekick was headed back across the face of goal by Bothroyd where an onrushing Chanathip headed it home in the fourth minute of stoppage time.

Already a fan favourite in northern Japan he endeared himself even more to the locals by showing off his improving Japanese skills in a pitchside interview post match whilst he also insisted on recreating his new goal celebration – one that will surely be seen with far greater frequency this year.

Who would have thought that both of those league goals – from the second smallest player in J1 – would have come via his head?

It’s just another sign though of an already talented player adding extra strings to his bow and with a stronger commitment to ensuring he’s at the heart of the scoring action for Sapporo maybe at the end of the year we will be rightly talking about the Thai star as being one of the best creative midfielders in the league.

Photo credit: J.League