How Brighton match-winner Kaoru Mitoma’s studies helped him school Liverpool
It would be nice to think that Kaoru Mitoma’s dribbling prowess stems from his time at university, when he wrote a thesis on the art of running at defenders with the ball. It is certainly a fun tale – the student who turned himself into a master, and now thrives in the biggest league in the world – and it is easy to see why the story has been widely shared on social media.
Sadly, the truth is a little less romantic. Mitoma did not use academic methods to teach himself to dribble at the University of Tsukuba. He already could dribble, and he could do so exceptionally well. The reason he chose to write his thesis on dribbling was not so he could improve on it, Telegraph Sport understands, but rather because he knew he would achieve a high grade in it.
Mitoma was clever enough to play to his strengths back then, and he continues to do so in the Premier League now. The Brighton winger is fast becoming one of the division’s most entertaining players, and it is his ability to change direction and beat opponents – the ball whizzing constantly between his feet – that has made him such a watchable force in recent months.
Only one player in the Premier League (West Ham United’s Saïd Benrahma) has completed more dribbles per match this season than Mitoma, and the Japan forward’s most recent victim was Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had no answer to his intensity and speed earlier this month before Sunday's reunion in the FA Cup fourth round.
Mitoma played a key role in Brighton’s 3-0 thrashing of Jürgen Klopp’s side a fortnight ago, creating one goal and terrorising the right side of Liverpool’s defence from the first minute until the 89th, when he was finally withdrawn. Such was the savagery he displayed, his substitution felt like an act of mercy towards Liverpool from Roberto De Zerbi, Brighton's head coach. On Sunday Mitoma produced a moment of magic that dumped holders Liverpool lout of the FA Cup.
While the university thesis might not have set Mitoma on the path to Premier League glory, the methods he used do speak to his inventiveness. His academic work involved fixing small cameras to the heads of his team-mates, analysing what the better dribblers did differently to those who were less effective with the ball.
Mitoma’s own technical quality had been apparent a few years earlier, when he was offered a professional deal with the first team of Kawasaki Frontale, the club he had joined as a child. But, at the age of 18, Mitoma said no. “To be honest, I did not have the confidence to play professionally at the time,” he told Japanese magazine Number.
To choose university over a professional contract would be regarded as highly unusual in Europe. In Japan, it is far more common. The standard of university football is high, and Frontale were happy to wait: Mitoma joined the club after finishing his studies, in time for the 2020 season.
Much like his feet, life has moved quickly since then. Brighton signed him in August 2021, for around £2.5 million, and instantly loaned him to Belgian side Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (also owned by Tony Bloom).
It was a new league and a new culture but Mitoma excelled again, so much so that Brighton explored the possibility of recalling him early. Work permit complications ultimately prevented that from happening, but Brighton evidently knew his time was coming.
Mitoma is described by those who know him as a goal-oriented person, taking one challenge at a time. This season, his biggest step forward came in a match against Chelsea in October. His first Premier League start, against a high quality team, and he destroyed his illustrious opponents.
From there, the 25-year-old has grown in confidence and stature under De Zerbi’s guidance. He loved working under Graham Potter, Brighton’s previous coach, but is understood to be even happier now with De Zerbi. Brighton are dominating possession and the system works in such a way that Mitoma is often one-versus-one against his right-back. That is exactly where Brighton want him, and exactly what their opponents fear most.
Mitoma was similarly impressive at the World Cup, where he was one of the stars of Japan’s campaign in Qatar. It was Mitoma’s lunging cross, with the ball only a millimetre from going out of play, that ensured victory for Japan against Spain.
One of the most striking images of the tournament, for this author at least, was the sight of Mitoma talking to a battalion of Japanese journalists after their penalty shootout defeat by Croatia. Mitoma was among the players who missed from the spot and he stood there, surrounded by masked inquisitors in the bowels of the Al Janoub Stadium, with tears rolling down his cheeks. “I am responsible,” he sobbed.
The return to club football has allowed Mitoma to move on from that pain, and he now has a different profile. In Japan, especially, the demand for all things Mitoma has skyrocketed since Qatar. His agents at Amuse Sports were bombarded with media requests after the tournament and his commercial appeal, as expected, has improved enormously.
Inevitably enough, questions are now being asked about Mitoma’s long-term future. Brighton are not afraid to sell players for enormous profits and Mitoma will no doubt be catching the eye of Europe’s biggest teams.
Not that he will be particularly fussed by the speculation. The winger’s priority is self-improvement and he is far happier sitting at home in Brighton, analysing performance videos, than he is at a photoshoot or sparkly event. As for a move away, he is happy where he is and is in no rush to leave. Such discussions will come in time – for now, Mitoma is focused only on further establishing himself as one of the Premier League’s most thrilling players.