Takuma Asano finally fulfils Arsene Wenger’s prophecy – shame it was six years too late for Arsenal
There is a fabulous picture of Arsène Wenger, during the more enjoyable years of his Arsenal tenure, celebrating his team winning the title at White Hart Lane. Arms held aloft, his tie slipping slightly down from his collar, he is smiling coyly while the away supporters sing his praises. Among them is a banner, with two simple words: “Arsène knows.”
It is a cherished moment for many Arsenal supporters, in large part because it adds to the image of Wenger as an all-seeing, all-knowing football visionary. Indeed, there is a school of thought among some in north London that Wenger will always, eventually, be proven right, even if it takes years for it to happen.
Those Arsenal fans would have been enjoying themselves on Wednesday afternoon, then, as a little-known figure from the club’s recent past suddenly emerged, centre-stage, in a match watched across the globe. Step forward, Takuma Asano. Your time has finally come, just as Wenger predicted it would.
“Takuma is a talented young striker and very much one for the future,” said Wenger in the summer of 2016, after Arsenal completed the signing of the Japanese forward from Sanfrecce Hiroshima. “We look forward to him developing over the next couple of years.”
Sadly for Arsenal, that development did not go quite as planned. When he left the club in 2019, having never played for them in a competitive match, Asano received only a brief note on the official website. The news of his departure was certainly not deemed worthy of coverage in national newspapers or major publications. Asano? Who?
Well, we all know him now. The entire sporting world knows him now, after his sensational winner secured a remarkable victory for Japan against Germany in Doha. Thrown on as a second-half substitute, Asano plucked a long ball out of the sky, held off a defender and crashed his finish beyond a helpless Manuel Neuer.
The Germans would have already been aware of Asano, who plays for Bochum in the Bundesliga. But it is hard to believe they were particularly fearful of him: in 33 league appearances for Bochum, he has scored just three goals.
Talent often blossoms at unexpected moments, though, and the gifts that Wenger and Arsenal had identified were suddenly on show in Qatar. In those electrifying seconds between the ball falling towards Asano’s feet, and then flying into the back of Neuer’s net, the Japan forward had unleashed all of his quality in one footballing explosion.
For Asano, the journey since joining Arsenal has not been smooth. The primary problem for him at the Emirates was that he was not granted a work permit, and therefore had to be loaned out almost immediately after arriving. “He is a player I believe in a lot,” said Wenger at the time. “I will take care of him and make sure he gets to the right place.”
Asano’s first destination was Stuttgart, where he scored four goals in 27 matches in the 2016/17 season. He then re-joined the German side for the following campaign, but struggled in front of goal. The following year it was back to Germany, where he played for Hannover 96 (one goal in 15 appearances).
A measure of Asano’s impact at Hannover, or lack of impact, is that the German side chose to stop playing him in order to avoid triggering their obligation to buy him from Arsenal. “We got the orders that we are no longer allowed to use him,” said Horst Heldt, the sporting director.
In the summer of 2019, Asano made the permanent move to Partizan Belgrade, where he suddenly found his form. In 77 appearances over the next two seasons, he scored 30 goals. This put him back on the radar of German clubs, with Bochum soon convincing him to return to the Bundesliga.
Now 28, Asano is no longer a wonderkid. But that is not to say his potential cannot yet be fulfilled, and it is certainly not to say that he no longer has talent. His goal is a reminder of that and, in the eyes of Wenger’s most loyal supporters at Arsenal, will be seen as further proof that Arsène always knows.