As recently as October 2021, Kaoru Mitoma had not started a game since moving to Europe. He was on loan and on the bench at Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium. But with his team two goals down and one man down in Seraing, he needs something.
Mitoma arrived at half time. In full time, he inspired a stunning comeback, scoring an unlikely hat-trick in a 4-2 victory. “It was the Kaoru Mitoma show,” says Christian Burgess, the English defender at the Union Sky Sports. “He just destroyed them.”
It was a reflection of what is becoming increasingly popular with Premier League audiences. Since joining Brighton from Chelsea’s attacking line-up, Mitoma has been a revelation, emerging as one of the most exciting players in the world.
His opening goal against Leicester on Saturday was superb, finding the top corner of Danny Ward’s net outside the penalty box. Leandro Trossard has left Arsenal but Brighton fans already believe his replacement can be even better.
Mitoma inspired his return to Wolves, scored at home and away against Arsenal, started the recent win over Everton and shone again in beating Liverpool. A runner who can float past defenders and an incredibly calm finisher, watching him come out is a joy.
Burgess predicted this, whether it was persuading a Brighton fan to force him into his fantasy team or naming their goalkeeper Jason Steele in pre-season that Mitoma was the real deal. It didn’t take long for Burgess to believe.
He said: “I remember one of his first lessons.
“It was just electricity. The first steps were so fast that they destroyed my friend Jonas Bager. Fortunately, he was on my team so me and a Danish guy Casper Nielsen were just laughing at Jonas. He passed three times. comfortably.
“Yonas is not someone you want to be able to do that to. He was like, ‘Look at this.’ One time they just let Kaoru out, we were laughing because it was the only way to stop him, Jonas, bless him he is not fast, but no one was lucky.
“That was my first memory of him, you could just see he was very good. He had technical skills and obviously had the physicality. But he also had a coolness on the ball that made him a great player who could make the transition.”
His opening goal at Goodison Park was perhaps the most famous example of this. He touched the ball just three times – one to escape Nathan Patterson, one to skip past Conor Coady and the last to flick the ball past Jordan Pickford.
Just like his goal against Arsenal a few days earlier, Mitoma headed into the far corner. There have been only a few examples so far, but they have been enough to be compared to their old counterpart in Belgium.
“He finishes like Thierry Henry,” says Burgess. “He’s very uninterested in finishing, whether it’s a game or a game. It’s amazing because a lot of people are scared but he seems to spend a lot of time on football.”
Mitoma games are closer than goals. He is the only player in the Premier League ranked in the top 10 for goals scored in open play and assists expected from open play per 90 minutes. In other words, nobody is scoring. and always make it as usual.
It is his ability in individual events that has allowed him to earn this spot, being the third fastest player per 90 minutes this season. His former Union mate may have been the first to be misled in Europe but he wasn’t the last.
Maybe it helps that Mitoma is a student of the game, really. He chose to attend the University of Tsukuba instead of joining the sport at the age of 18 and it has attracted the attention of the media that he has written about his thoughts on athletics.
Ironically, it meant he had something in common with Burgess, who was studying history at Birmingham University when he was offered a contract at Middlesbrough. Not that the two men knew their equal ways in the game at the time.
“I found out on social media, it’s an amazing story. Kaoru didn’t speak much English so you didn’t know much about him. All we knew was that he came from Japan, signed with Brighton, and now he was with her. We didn’t know anything about him.
“But he was a very nice guy, humble and quiet. He was always smiling and laughing at his jokes even though he didn’t understand but I think he understood more than he could say. But getting things out of him was difficult.
“It must have been difficult for him because he didn’t speak any English so you didn’t hear much from him. Imagine he couldn’t communicate. But his English improved during his time at Union because it’s an English-speaking club. .”
Of course, that’s not the only thing that went well. Perhaps this is to be expected as Mitoma has only started 23 league games since leaving Europe. At 25 years old, his university background may mean he is a late drafter. There is more to come.
“It’s funny because he didn’t start all the games for us, he would come on when the opposition were a bit tired and his speed would blow them out of the water, and as the season progressed that’s when he really got better. and started playing 90 minutes.
“A different side of him started to emerge in the play-offs. You saw him fight hard. Against Club Brugge, he put his body into it. Add the attitude of a winner he had to his behavior on the ball and you have a special player on your hands.”
The same is happening in Brighton. The Mitoma have completed all Premier League games just once before the World Cup but have done so in four of their last five games. It emphasizes its growing importance, the idea that this may be its time.
“Watching him play at the World Cup was great. I was proud to play with him. There was no ego with him so it’s great to see him doing well at Brighton and still is. He’s young and he’s progressing. He’s a top player.”