Life couldn’t have been much more bittersweet for Ryo in recent months.
The Japanese winger endured the frustration of sitting out the bulk of a season on loan with Wigan Athletic - and an FA Cup final - before recovering to net a penalty for the Gunners on what was an emotional pre-season return to his home town of Nagoya.
Ryo is now aiming to use his third season on the Club’s books to maximum effect - with his sights firmly set on a regular place in the first-team set-up. There's one topic on everybody’s lips when we meet at the Gunners’ training ground - just two days after Mesut Ozil’s high-profile move to north London was rubber-stamped - and Ryo can’t wait to learn from one of the world’s most gifted attacking midfielders.
"Being from Japan, you think your only chance of seeing players like Ozil is on television. Now I have the chance to work with top-class players and that’s a huge thing for me"
“It’s an amazing feeling to know we’re team-mates," he said. "Being from Japan, far from here, you think your only chance of seeing players like Ozil is on the television. Now, as a footballer, I have the chance to work with top-class players and that’s a huge thing for me. With Ozil and all the fantastic players we already have, I know I can learn new things every day.”
After what has been, by his own admission, a frustrating time Ryo is back to full fitness and optiistic about the future. “In pre-season I had a little ankle problem, and I had another injury after the Asia tour. But I’m getting there, so hopefully there’ll be the opportunity to play more this season. Last season was disappointing and of course you feel frustrated. I spent most of my time at Wigan in the treatment room, but the only thing to do is to come back stronger. Everyone gets injuries and you just have to get over them.”
Ryo managed just seven appearances - four in the Premier League - last season at the DW Stadium. Upon recovering from one injury and making a comeback in what would be a memorable 3-0 FA Cup quarter-final win at Goodison Park, he was struck down once more and would spend the season’s remaining weeks recovering back at Arsenal. It meant that he missed arguably the most memorable day in the Latics’ history - and what would have been a giant milestone in his own career.
“Being injured against Everton obviously meant I missed the rest of the FA Cup run,” he remembers. “I went to the semi final against Millwall, though, and that was a very exciting day. I was happy to see the match and be around the squad, although of course I was desperate to play. I had such great support from the players and Roberto Martinez, and was delighted they won the cup.”
Martinez himself was, as Ryo explains, an inspirational figure. “It was a great experience to work with him - I found him to be a very good person. When I was injured he kept telling me: ‘I need you back, I need you to play’, and that made me so happy. It was such a motivation for an injured player. He treats his players very well, and he deserved his move to Everton. I hope he is successful there.”
Was Ryo surprised to see his erstwhile team-mates relegated just days after their famous win at Wembley? The final nail in the coffin was, of course, applied at Emirates Stadium in the form of a 4-1 Arsenal win. “Yes, it was a surprise,” he says. “We played very well throughout the season but couldn’t win enough games, and that was the problem. We played very good football, though, and winning the FA Cup was still a fantastic achievement. It means Wigan will play in the Europa League this season and that will be a great experience for the club.”
That experience having passed, Arsenal was Ryo’s sole focus as preparations for the new season kicked in. The centrepiece was a week in Japan - and a match against Nagoya Grampus, the team that Ryo watched from the terraces as a boy. A heady enough occasion for the returning star before, in the 26th minute, the Gunners were awarded a penalty.
“Mikel handed me the ball - a fantastic moment,” he recalls. “My heart was beating fast, and I didn’t even look at the goal. I just focused hard on the ball, on hitting it and getting it on target, and it ended up in the net.” All of which added to the rock star-like reception that Arsenal’s players, and Ryo in particular, received in the Land of the Rising Sun.
"My heart was beating fast, and I didn’t even look at the goal. I just focused hard on the ball, on hitting it and getting it on target, and it ended up in the net"
“It was just amazing! You have to expect that kind of thing as a professional football player, though - and this is a big club so it’s just normal. But I was so happy to meet the crowd in my home country, and now I just want to show them what I can do at Arsenal.”
If he can do that, there might be another prize in the offing. Ryo already has two caps for Japan, who have long since made sure of their place at next summer’s World Cup, and he has a Brazilian summer in his sights - providing that he can do the business in London. “It’s my dream to play in a World Cup,” he says. “First of all, though, I need to be playing for my club. If the opportunity arrives, I think I can take it and get into the Japan squad - but it’s important to focus on Arsenal every day at the moment. If I do that, I think things will come.”
Ryo is one of the latest in a lengthening line of Japanese exports who are flourishing in Europe - a trend that he believes can only help the national team. “There are a lot of good young players in Japan, and many of them want to come over here,” he says. “We’ve seen quite a few of them go to Germany - Shinji Kagawa impressed in Dortmund before joining Manchester United, while Hiroshi Kiyotake is doing well with Nuremburg. I think the national team has had some good experiences recently, particularly in the Confederations Cup, and that will give them more confidence against the top countries. They can do well at the World Cup.”
Kagawa and Ryo have, in fact, become firm friends - a bond that was forged as they both sought to settle in northern England last season. “When I was at Wigan, Kagawa lived very close, about 20 minutes away,” he reveals. “He took care of me and we saw each other a lot, and even now he comes to London for dinner sometimes. There is a good group of Japanese players here now - I also see Maya Yoshida and Tadanari Lee, who are at Southampton, quite regularly. It’s helpful to have friends from your home country.”
It’s clear, though, that Ryo feels more settled now that he is back with the Gunners. “To be honest, I prefer living here than in north. I enjoy it every day - London is a fantastic city and there are lots of very good Japanese restaurants too!” Even though London now feels like home, would he consider another temporary move if that was the best means of easing back into regular competitive action? “No, I can’t move away at the moment - I just want to focus on each training session here and that is what the boss wants me to do. I want to learn from world-class players - it’s fantastic to play with them even in training and, as I said before, it really does make you a better player.”
A step-by-step approach should serve Ryo well and ensure that there are, hopefully, no repeats of the frustration he has felt over the past year. A sense of fulfilment remains his short-term goal. “I’ve had plenty of experiences - Premier League football at Bolton and then some bad times last year. But it’s all good for you, and now that I am back with Arsenal I just want to enjoy my football.”
Everyone who has seen the friendly, fleet-footed Japanese winger in action would say amen to that.
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