Ideguchi, who will join Leeds United in a £500,000 deal next month, fashioned a role for himself in the centre of Gamba’s midfield at a time when the club could not have been stronger in that position. Yasuhito Endo, a veteran of three World Cups, is Japan’s leading appearance-maker. Yasuyuki Konno lies a handful of games short of his 100th cap. An emerging Ideguchi was given an inch and took a mile, winning the J-League’s young player of the year award in 2016. Konno, now 34, spent most of this season in a defensive role.
Ideguchi, 21, is a relatively rare commodity in Japanese football; a defensive midfielder with the skill to create and a “mean streak” as Alan Gibson, the chief editor of JSoccer Magazine, puts it. “A mean streak’s unusual in Japan and something that’s too often lacking,” Gibson said. “He’s a destroyer but someone who can also go on, create something and score goals.” Leeds were actively exploring the signing of Ideguchi when he sealed Japan’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup with an 82nd-minute goal against Australia in August.
Endo and Konno are nearing the end of their careers but Gibson said the experience of growing up with them had been crucial to Ideguchi’s development.
“He forced his way into Gamba’s midfield – they play with two defensive midfielders usually – even though the incumbent players were both Japan internationals,” Gibson said. “Playing alongside them has been good for him.
“Sadly for the J-League and for Gamba it was almost guaranteed that he’d go overseas in January. So many Japanese players play in the Bundesliga but for me he’s one of the few coming through that would enjoy the challenge of England. He’s hard enough to take what’s dished out there.”
J-League officials and Gamba clung to the idea that Ideguchi, a rising star in Japan, might resist the call of Europe for at least another six months but both know their history. Gamba lost winger Takashi Usami to the Bundesliga at a young age and 19-year-old midfielder Ritsu Doan on loan to FC Groningen earlier this year, after a handful of senior appearances in Osaka.
European football worked for Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki, though his initial move to Mainz on a free transfer continued a trend of clubs in Japan earning little for their most valuable assets. The deal for Ideguchi, which includes add-ons, is seen as a snip in one respect but good money in another.
Ideguchi, a native of Fukuoka in southern Japan, has been a first-team player at Gamba since 2015 and a regular for the past two seasons. The club are treading water with mid-table finishes - 10th in the 2017 season, which ended two weeks ago - but his game has matured quickly.
From a defensive role he contributed four goals and seven assists this term. Japan’s national coach, the Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić, called him into the senior squad for a debut against Oman 13 months ago and Ideguchi has been regularly involved since. International appearances are the key to him securing a future work permit in England.
There is an element of risk in Ideguchi’s forthcoming transfer, so close to next summer’s World Cup. His selection for Russia is highly likely but not guaranteed and Leeds have no expectation of Ideguchi receiving a work permit until next summer. He will move to Elland Road in the January window and immediately head abroad on loan to a European club in a country where work permits regulations are more lenient than the Football Association’s.
Leeds are yet to determine which team he will join but there are German sides with an interest in Ideguchi and Arsenal sent Takuma Asano to Stuttgart after encountering the same problem after his move from Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Toshiya Fujita, Leeds’ head of football development for Asia, has prior links with VVV-Venlo, a top-flight club in Holland.
United’s connections with Cultural Leonesa have already seen Ouasim Buoy, one of their summer recruits, move to Spain’s second division on a temporary basis this season but Ideguchi’s plans to make the World Cup in Russia might require a higher level of exposure.
Ideguchi was asked about the wisdom of leaving Japan after scoring a deflected 94th-minute winner against North Korea in an East Asian Championship fixture on Saturday. “Thinking about the future, I’d like to go sooner rather than later,” he replied. He played down the risk to his World Cup place, saying: “That’s what people would give as their opinion but it’s best if you stick to what you think yourself.”
He is one of the older heads in Halilhodžić’s East Asian Championship squad, an experimental group which omitted Okazaki, Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe, the experienced Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder. Ideguchi’s suitability for the bigger stage, however, was shown in Japan’s decisive win over Australia in August, a result which condemned the Socceroos to the qualification play-offs. His selection caused some surprise but a top-corner strike eight minutes from time was a picture-book finish.
“I was determined to make sure I left a positive impression,” he said afterwards. “And of course, once the ball hit the net for my goal, I was, frankly speaking, absolutely delighted.”
Gibson agreed that Ideguchi was taking a gamble by leaving for Leeds in the January window, without the guarantee of a work permit for English football.
FA rules limit permits for non-EU players to those from nations inside FIFA’s top 50. The regulations were rewritten in 2015 in an attempt to stop limitless foreign imports stifling young English footballers. Japan rank 55th at present but their involvement at the World Cup should enhance that standing. Ideguchi, for his part, is required to have played in up to 75 per cent of international fixtures in the past two years. Leeds hope and expect that the midfielder will meet the FA’s demands by the start of the 2018-19 season.
“I think two or three more years in Japan would have cemented him as a legend, a national team stalwart and even captain,” Gibson said. “Then he’d walk into almost any team in Europe and still be only 24 or so, starting to peak. He’d have had much more choice, exposure wise and work-permit wise.”
It is because of that potential that Leeds resolved at a board meeting last Friday to move on Ideguchi and tie up the transfer. There was a temptation to wait until next summer but the new Japanese season does not start until the spring and United were reluctant to see Ideguchi sit idle for the next few months.
United’s owner, Andrea Radrizzani, was in Tokyo at the time of Japan’s win over Australia in August and Victor Orta, the club’s director of football, talked soon after about the possible arrival of a “big surprise from Asia”. Ideguchi is that surprise and Leeds believe they have pulled off a coup in signing him.
It will simply require some patience before he has the chance to show why.