We, as Celtic fans are very fortunate at the current time to be watching two of the best players at the club that we’ve seen in more than ten years. Both are Japanese. Both were signed by Ange. If he had been planning to raid Celtic it would have been for one of these two; Kyogo and Maeda. As it is, I don’t think he’ll come back for either and we would charge a fortune if he did.
Kyogo is the best striker since the King of Kings, and I don’t think many would dispute it. A recent set of numbers which did the rounds about how quickly he scored 50 goals measures up to the King very favourably indeed. He lacks that elusive Champions League goal, but everything else can be seen in the numbers. He’s a phenomenon.
Maeda, somehow, manages to be my favourite player in the side. I remember hearing Ange wax lyrical about him when he signed, about that non-stop work-rate and that acceleration. I remember not being terribly impressed by what sounded like a lot of manager-speak jargon. But I knew that I would understand it when I saw it.
It didn’t take long to recognise why Ange was such a fan, and why he endorsed those specific qualities. Because Maeda is a deadly player to have on the pitch. As an impact substitute, he would be the key to any plan for late in a game against a tired defence. As a starter I’ve seen him exhaust rival players just bombing up and down the field.
Here’s one of the reasons Maeda is so effective; he doesn’t even have to touch the ball in 90 minutes to change the whole way the opposition plays the game. He needs to be watched like a hawk, and I think you see this best and most clearly when we play against the team from Ibrox. Indulge me for a second whilst I lay this out for you.
I am not, by any manner of means, a James Tavernier fan. I think he’s a lousy defender who any half decent player will expose as a fraud in the right back role. But when he gets forward, Tavernier does not only create a threat to score goals but he can whip the ball into the box with precision and get plenty of assists. As an attacking threat he’s to be respected.
The very act of playing Daizen Maeda on the left almost completely neutralises Tavernier’s value to their team.
Because Maeda would beat just about anyone in this league in a one-on-one sprint, but when Tavernier is playing high up the pitch the last thing he can afford is to have Maeda behind him because if the ball to wide finds our Japanese roadrunner there is no way that a player as limited as Tavernier is going to be able to catch him.
That would happen time and time again in games where those two come up against each other if Tavernier was deployed in the way he is most other weeks. The only way to counter Maeda is to have the defender play in front of him, to keep him where he can see him and intercept any balls that are being put in to his feet, and even then he moves so fast with lightning reflexes that he can have it and be away from you before you can stop him.
So just playing Maeda in that game, even if he himself has no direct impact, changes the way they approach the match. That he so often does have a direct impact is the reason we all love him, but it’s in those little unseen changes he forces on the opposition where I think his greatest value might lie. The man is a menace on the pitch, and when he’s given free reign like he was when he was moved inside during the game on Saturday he causes mayhem.
He has more natural energy than I think I’ve ever seen in a Celtic player. No footballer in Scotland can come close to his work-rate. There are things he does in games which astonish me sometimes; one of them came at the weekend when he was moving to collect a pass, the pass was intercepted, the Livi player went on a run down the pitch and although Maeda started way behind him the next thing the guy knew the Japanese was at his heels and winning the ball.
I was gobsmacked watching that. I had been looking to see what our defenders, who were in front of the guy, were going to do to stop him; I never thought for a second to look to see where Maeda was, tearing 30 yards after the guy, catching him and winning it back. More to the point, the Livingston player hadn’t been looking for that either.
The sponsors gave the man of the match award to Matt, and I thought he had a great game and there was a good case for giving it to him. But it was Maeda’s afternoon, as complete a performance as I’ve seen a Celtic player turn in. Yes, he could have finished one of the chances he had before the one he scored, but putting the ball in the net almost seems like the cherry on the cake with Maeda, because he brings so much else to the team.
He is always working. Which means that the defence is always working to stop him. He leaves defenders on his side of the pitch for dead, and so they step back to contain him and so rarely manage it, and that breaks the tactical shape of the team. When he’s cutting inside defenders go to meet him, space opens up behind them and he very often gets the killer pass. You cannot turn your back on him either, not for one second.
Watch, again, the goal in the Cup Final, where he played wide right and gave Barisic, another player better in an attacking role than in a defensive one, a torrid afternoon; remember, there’s a foul outside the box, the Ibrox defence stops to see what the ref is going to do, the ball is in space and Maeda, starting behind two defenders, goes past them in an instant, turns on it, and then whips that absolutely sublime cross over for Jota to put away.
Watch that goal as often as you like; it doesn’t get less glorious to see. When Maeda wins that ball there is an actual triangle of Ibrox players around him, one in front of him and two behind him, and he is more alert than any of them. It is this ability to think fast and act fast that makes the truly exceptional footballers; they all have that innate ability to see things and react to them an instant quicker than the other players on the pitch.
I think he’s an elite level footballer, and I think we’re damned lucky to have him and I am delighted that he’s signed a new deal which runs to 2027, because there’s going to be interest in this guy whether from Spurs or not, and I really do hope we make him feel wanted and appreciated and even up the salary for the guy if that interest comes.
He’s one of the best I’ve seen, and under Rodgers I know he’s going to get even better.