Southeast Asia Indonesia

The Samurais Behind Arema and Persebaya’s Ascendancy

East Javan giants Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya are undergoing a superb 2021/22 Liga 1 Indonesia season. After enduring a slow start to the campaign, the two rivals are currently flying high at the top half of the Liga 1 table, with Arema currently leading the way and Persebaya following closely behind in 3rd place. The duo is currently on lengthy unbeaten runs, with Arema notching a league record 16 games unbeaten and counting while Persebaya have yet to taste defeat in their last 13 matches. While there are a lot of factors behind Arema and Persebaya’s ascendancy this season, the two have one common link between them – an impressive Japanese import.

There had been many Japanese players that had graced the Indonesian top-flight, however only a few managed to leave lasting impressions in one’s memory with their superb performances. The pre-Liga 1 era saw Shohei Matsunaga, Kenji Adachihara, and Tomoyuki Sakai stealing the show, while both Kei Hirose and Kunihiro Yamashita flew the Japanese flag high in the Liga 1 era.

And this season, Arema’s Renshi Yamaguchi and Persebaya’s Taisei Marukawa are set to join that select list.

The two men played in contrasting positions – Renshi’s a defensive midfielder, while Taisei’s an attacking midfielder that can operate as a winger. They’re also of different age groups – Renshi’s at the prime of his career at 29, while Taisei’s making his way to the peak of his career at 24. But apart from their positions and age, the two men had plenty of things in common.

Shared nationality aside, both Renshi and Taisei had yet to experience Indonesian football before the current campaign. The duo had also never played their senior football in Japan, either in the J.League or the amateur leagues below it, albeit Taisei had been honed in the Chuo University football section during his youth.

Little was known about Renshi’s youth career, however, he made his senior debut in Singapore with Hougang United back in 2015, before staying in Laos for three years with Lao Toyota. Renshi then moved to Thailand in 2018, remaining there until 2021 where he played for the likes of Ubon United, Ayutthaya United, and Lampang FC. It was during his time in the now-dissolved Ubon United that he worked underneath Eduardo Almeida, the current Arema head coach.

As for Taisei, after he had graduated from Chuo University, the winger decided to start his senior career in Europe. Senglea Athletic in Malta became Taisei’s first port of call, making his debut there in the second half of the 2019/20 season. A move to Maltese giants Valletta then beckons, however Taisei’s stay there was brief. In 2021, Taisei moved to Latvia to join Noah Jurmala, however, the newly-promoted club was dissolved mid-way through the Latvian top-flight season, allowing Persebaya to snap the winger up into their ranks.

Despite having little experience in terms of Indonesian football, both Renshi and Taisei took the Liga 1 like a duck to water. The Japanese duo adapted well seamlessly with not only their new clubs but also Indonesian football in general, notching up eyecatching performances week in week out.

Renshi may have yet to score for Arema this season, but as a defensive player, he has been impressive. His presence allowed the Arema defense to breathe a sigh of relief thanks to the significant cover that Renshi provides to them. Halfway through the 2021/22 Liga 1 season, Renshi had notched 49 successful tackles, the most in the league so far. This earned Renshi the nickname “The Butcher,” with no opposition being safe once being faced with him.

Renshi can also seamlessly transition from defense to attack as a box-to-box midfielder, which could allow Arema’s more offensive-oriented players such as Hanif Sjahbandi, Dendi Santoso, and Carlos Fortes to benefit from Renshi’s relentless support from the midfield that came with his wide coverage on the pitch. In one moment Renshi can be seen supporting his colleagues in defense before a split-second later sending a pass that splits the opposition defense apart, which allows Renshi’s attacking teammates to break their way through.

As for Taisei, his contribution to Persebaya was much more noticeable. The winger is Persebaya’s top scorer so far this season with 10 goals to his name already, only four goals shy from current league top scorer Ilija Spasojevic of Bali United. Taisei’s also more than capable of creating goals for his teammates, being the current top assist maker of the Liga 1 with 7 assists to his name so far. Such impressive statistics meant that Taisei earned his spot in Aji Santoso’s starting eleven, with his relentless energy and movement inspiring Persebaya’s aggressive style of play. Working together with wonderkid Marselino Ferdinan, Taisei struck up a devastating partnership with the youngster, with the duo notching a combined total of 14 goals and 12 assists.

Taisei and Marselino’s partnership in front of goal was so potent and devastating, Persebaya had no issue in letting their second top scorer Jose Wilkson go out on loan to regional rivals Persela Lamongan, knowing that even without the Brazilian around or if his replacement Arsenio Valpoort couldn’t integrate himself with his new teammates, the Bajul Ijo will be doing just fine.

With Taisei’s goals making Persebaya the most productive team in Liga 1 so far and Renshi’s tackling abilities making Arema one of the most defensively sound teams in Liga 1 this season, it’s safe to say that these two Japanese players have left a lasting impression in Indonesian football. They’ve proven themselves as being very capable signings and have established themselves as key players for their respective teams.

So far, no Japanese player has lifted the Indonesian top-flight title. But with both Arema and Persebaya being well-involved in the title race this season, we could see either Renshi or Taisei lifting up the Liga 1 trophy come the end of the 2021/22 season.