How Yoshinori Muto could fit in at Manchester United

by Leo Nieboer

Manchester United are, according to reports, interested in signing Japanese striker Yoshinori Muto from FC Mainz.

Muto, who has received attention from Premier League clubs before, signed for the German side last summer after two storming seasons in the J-League with FC Tokyo. And, since moving to Europe, the 23-year-old’s attacking brilliance hasn’t abated, with seven goals in 16 Bundesliga appearances already to his name.

He has acclimatised exceptionally quickly to an intense footballing environment and is often referred to as the ‘Japanese Messi’. High praise indeed for a largely unheard of prodigy, but Muto’s lethal finishing and direct attitude has merited a lot of adulation and he looks to be going from strength to strength in a much improved Mainz side from last season.

But could he add some much needed goalscoring potency to Louis van Gaal‘s side? Would he be able to prosper under the manager’s uninspiring system?
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He isn’t the first player to be likened to Messi and he won’t be the last. Indeed, one feels the need to roll their eyes at *another* Messi comparison. Regardless, the parallel with the Barcelona forward does give a good indication of what Muto is like as a player.

Moto is a monumentally tricky customer on the ball; blistering pace and supreme agility makes him intractable for defenders when in full flow. Muto likes to drop deep in order to create some space between himself and the defender, allowing his dangerous speed on the ball to become a factor.

However, since joining Mainz, Muto has understandably struggled to find as much space by dropping deep, and has subsequently developed his ability to poach goals – an attribute that has blossomed quickly, as shown in his hat-trick against Augsburg.

And it is this aspect of his game that he’ll need to refine further if he comes to Old Trafford; the Dutchman’s much maligned system strictly prohibits dropping deep as a striker (and, if you think about, this direct ‘running from deep’ style is seldom seen in the Premier League anyway), so his ability to snuff out chances and play off the last man will be determinate as to whether the 23-year-old can prosper.

Muto has played under a dynamic 4-2-3-1 system with Mainz – a more free-flowing set up than the 4-2-3-1 endorsed by van Gaal – that sees full-backs overlapping frequently and wingers cutting inside. Should he come to Old Trafford, he’d encounter less freedom and more demands for greater patience on the ball, with less emphasis on going for the jugular like his natural style demands.

So despite moving into the same formation, it would be a largely alien style to the one Muto has hitherto prospered under. It is perhaps worth nothing that Muto has been more proficient at Mainz when playing alongside Florian Niederlechner – a tall, target-man type of striker – in a 4-4-2 formation (it was in this set-up that Muto propelled himself into the world’s spotlight with his hat-trick against Augsburg), forming a lethal duo that confluences stirring pace and imposing muscle into a strike partnership.

But it seems that the nature of van Gaal’s system reduces the impact strikers can have on a game. Wayne Rooney is the most constant example. And even the irresistible Anthony Martial has had his potential impact minimised on several occasions by the Dutchman’s grim playing style. Even if Muto adapts quickly, his success isn’t guaranteed in this footballing climate.

But one thing is for certain: any attacking addition to a side that has only mustered 11 league goals since the start of October would be wholeheartedly welcomed by supporters.

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