Maya Yoshida: from bench-warmer to first-team baller

Since signing for Southampton Football Club in 2012, Maya Yoshida has faced exceptional competition, brutal criticism, and countless hurdles to worm his way back into the side. But in this very moment, the Japanese International is in the finest form of his career, and one by one, is stealing the hearts of each and every Southampton fan.

The January transfer window was a hard pill to swallow. Whilst the club managed to solve it’s goalscoring woes with the acquisition of Manolo Gabbiadini, Southampton finished the January transfer window having failed to find a replacement for club captain, Jose Fonte.

But when one door closes, another door is opened.

Following the departure of Jose Fonte to West Ham and a season ending injury to Virgil Van Dijk, someone had to step up. Southampton’s defensive options had been stripped down to the bare bones, and they were left with no other option but to find a leader from within. That someone has been Maya Yoshida.

Since being handed the responsibility of leading the backline, Yoshida has well and truly flourished into a player that few Southampton fans would have ever anticipated. I’m sure I won’t be alone in thinking that Yoshida’s recent performances have surpassed all initial expectations.

In seasons gone by, Yoshida has been the first port of call when injuries strike the first team, but truth be told, this was a situation that many fans would ultimately dread. He’s certainly not quick off the line, is no man mountain, is hasty in one v one’s, and when it comes to promoting an attractive brand of football, there are many players better for doing so in the Premier League.

This season however, Yoshida has a new-found confidence and is playing with more intelligence than ever before. In terms of his physicality and technical ability, little has changed from previous years, but the difference now is that Yoshida’s decision making and anticipation is that of an experienced Premier League defender.

When Yoshida would previously panic with the ball in tight and tricky situations, he would now remain composed and maintain possession in an effective manner. And in those moments when he used to gain a rush of blood and step too high out of the defence, he now holds the line and time’s his tackle.

Yoshida is a limited defender, but with staggering dedication and countless hours on the training ground, he has risen to the challenge of starting regular Premier League fixtures.

It’s also worth noting that whilst Yoshida has had to focus on proving his own worth, he’s had to take England U21 International, Jack Stephens, under his wing too. It’s hard enough trying to effectively make your own mark in a top flight side, let alone having to ensure that a youngster does so too.

And whilst yes, I do still believe that defensive reinforcements were required in January, that mistake from the club is now in the past. From February 1st, we could only work with what we have, and given those circumstances, Puel, Yoshida, and Stephens have done a fantastic job.

Let’s not get carried away, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and this current partnership is obviously levels below the Fonte/Van Dijk duo of last season. However, how can’t you be delighted that we are showing defensive solidarity with what would have been our third and fourth choice centre backs at the start of this season.

Yoshida’s development has been thrilling, and not least because we now boast an extremely dependable third choice centre back for next season. For such a role, a player of Yoshida’s current qualities are incredibly useful; he never struggles with fitness, is a valuable member within the squad, is understanding with squad rotation, and as proven in recent months, can be trusted over the course of 90 minutes.

When this summer comes around, Southampton Football Club’s main priority in the transfer market should still be finding a partner for Virgil Van Dijk. But through Fonte’s departure and Van Dijk’s injury, Yoshida has been presented the opportunity to earn himself a new contract and an important role within the squad, and my god has he grabbed it with both hands.

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