Kaoru Mitoma strapped a camera to his head to study dribbling for his graduation thesis. Now his former university coach is enjoying watching him teach Premier League defenders a lesson.
The Japanese winger has been in electric form for Brighton since returning from the World Cup, scoring four times in his last six league games.
The 25-year-old also conjured up an exquisite injury-time winner against Liverpool in the FA Cup and has been linked with a big-money move to Jurgen Klopp’s side, as well as Arsenal.
Brighton signed Mitoma for a bargain ?2.5 million ($3 million) from Kawasaki Frontale in 2021 and he arrived in England a virtual unknown last summer following a loan spell in Belgium.
His ascent has been unusual by Premier League standards — he only turned professional in 2020 after completing a four-year physical education degree at Japan’s University of Tsukuba.
It was there he honed his devastating dribbling style, analysing training footage from GoPro cameras attached to his and his team-mates’ heads to see which techniques were most effective.
“It was an excellent idea,” Masaaki Koido, who coached Mitoma at the university football team, told AFP at the institution near Tokyo.
“No one else had ever studied it and there are no essays like it in academic journals.”
Mitoma got together 10 players who were recognised as good dribblers and 10 who were not.
He studied which direction the players were looking when they received the ball and found the better players would already be casting a glance at the defenders and planning their next move.
Koido says there were “limits” to how much the findings could be put into practice but praised Mitoma’s desire to learn.
“He wanted to become a better player, so he wanted to be able to clearly understand why he was good at dribbling and other players weren’t as good.”
It’s not uncommon for footballers in Japan to go to university before turning professional — nine of the country’s 26-man squad at last year’s World Cup in Qatar were graduates.
Mitoma was in J-League side Kawasaki’s youth system but worried he would not see much first-team action if he turned professional straight out of high school.
Instead he enrolled at Tsukuba aged 18, studying for his degree while playing in a university league.
Koido’s first impressions of Mitoma were of a “good but weak” player with a “very light” physique.
“He had very good technical skills but he didn’t give the impression that he was going to create or score a lot of goals,” said Koido, who has worked as a coach at several J-League clubs.
“He was lightweight, he didn’t have a very powerful shot and he didn’t go past players very often. But he had a lot of skill.”
Mitoma struggled to break into the university’s starting line-up in his first two years and Koido says his “progress wasn’t smooth”.
But he gradually found his feet and scored twice when the students stunned J-League first division side Vegalta Sendai in a domestic cup game in 2017.
He returned to Kawasaki in 2020 after graduating and took the J-League by storm, before signing for Brighton and spending a year on loan at Belgian side Union Saint-Gilloise.
Now he is terrorising defences with Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton, helping them to sixth in the Premier League.
“To be quite honest I didn’t imagine it, but then it’s not an accident either,” said Koido.
“It’s a result of his hard work. He set a goal and he worked hard towards it.”
Koido has a report in his office that Mitoma wrote in 2017 analysing his own abilities and setting out his goals for the future.
In it, Mitoma writes he wants to be playing for Japan at 22 and appear in the Champions League two or three years later.
He achieved the first goal aged 24 and has scored five times in 13 appearances for his country.
If Liverpool or Arsenal come calling this summer, he could also be playing in the Champions League.
Koido says he thought those ambitions were “more of a dream” than a realistic expectation for a player who had not even broken into the university first team at the time.
He now believes Mitoma is capable of going even further.
“I’ve asked him if he thinks he is approaching his limit, and he said he feels he can still improve a lot,” he said.
Koido says Mitoma was popular at Tsukuba, but “always serious when it came to football”.
“I saw the effort he put in. On the pitch, he’s dazzling and everyone loves him, but I saw the effort he put in off the pitch to get there,” he said.
“All I can do is be a fan.”