Feature

'I've never heard sound like it before'

Takehiro Tomiyasu is applauded by Arsenal fans after his debut

Shortly after making an eye-catching debut against Norwich at Emirates Stadium, Takehiro Tomiyasu, spoke to the matchday programme about his first taste of English football, and the start of what he hopes is a long and happy love affair with the Arsenal fanbase.

It felt like a new beginning, when Arsenal took to the pitch for our meeting with Norwich City here a fortnight ago. All eyes were on us, after a stuttering start in the Premier League, in which we had failed take a point, or even score a goal, in our opening three games. A run during which we had - perhaps crucially - been without several key players. So there was a new sense of hope around when domestic football resumed after the early September international break, and fans could finally see the team that had been assembled over the summer. 

Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale were both in the line up to make their Emirates Stadium debuts, while Martin Odegaard was back home for the first time after making his Real Madrid loan move permanent. 

Adding to the sense of fresh optimism in the north London air - and part of this new-look, young Arsenal side - was latest signing Takehiro Tomiyasu.

Tomi, as he's known around the club, had arrived from Italian side Bologna just over a week earlier, on transfer deadline day. Indeed the 22-year-old defender had only had one training session with his new team-mates prior to the game, as he awaited his visa clearance following international duty with Japan. But he was soon thrown in at the deep end, being named in the starting line-up for the high-pressure game against a Canaries side who started the day sitting one place above us in 19th - also without a point. 

It was a test he passed with flying colours. The Emirates faithful took to our new right back almost instantly, and he nearly marked his impressive debut with a stunning goal on the stroke of half-time. But a win and a clean sheet was all he desired from his first outing in Arsenal colours, and the young defender says he will always be grateful for the welcome he received from the supporters. 

"The day of my debut was amazing," Tomi beams. "It was a special day for me because it was my big dream to play in the Premier League. Especially to do that at Emirates Stadium as well - it was just wonderful. I can tell you that I've never heard a sound like that before - never in my life. So it was really special for me. I will always remember it.

"That noise came as a surprise to me of course - I've not been in front of that many supporters before. But during the game I was focussed on playing. I needed to focus on my performance, so that's what I tried to do.

"In my career before that I think the biggest crowd I played in front of was maybe the Asian Cup final with the national team, in 2019 against Qatar. But that was not as big as the Emirates. This was much louder - much bigger!

"It was amazing for me. I could hear it from the moment we walked onto the pitch. Then every time when I got the ball or played the ball, I could hear the noise. Then of course the goal as well. 

"My friends or family could not be there for the game unfortunately, but I hope they will be here very soon. My parents are looking to come over as soon as they can."

So the crowd certainly played their part in making Tomi feel welcome in London, and so too, he says, did his team-mates: "Ever since I arrived, every single player has helped me a lot here, and every member of staff as well.

"Before that game against Norwich I have to say I was really nervous. So I really appreciated the help from all the players. Especially Martin Odegaard, he told me that you just have to enjoy this time, really enjoy it and that's what I was able to do. It helped that we were able to take the three points as well! It meant it was a good day for me, but if I think of my own performance, actually I'm not 100 per cent satisfied. I made some mistakes, especially defensively. But I think it will get better, it was just my first game.

00:24

True View: Tomiyasu goes close to a debut goal

"I didn't call anyone after the game or anything, I just messaged my parents and they congratulated me, but it's just the beginning for me. Just one game. I have to keep working."

Speaking to the softly-spoken, thoughtful young Japanese defender, the theme of working hard and self-improvement is a recurring one. He has a very diligent approach to his work, and is keen to improve his already impressive English as soon as possible as well (he picked up Italian very quickly during his two-year spell at Bologna). 

But it's improvement on the pitch that he strives for most, and he can pinpoint the exact moment that he realised he needed to up his game if he was ever to fulfil his dream of playing in the Premier League.

It was on November 15, 2015 - in Manchester - when he was part of the Japan Under-19 side that took on England Under-19s in a friendly.

Aged just 17 at the time, Tomi was part of a defence that was taken apart by a ruthless England side, featuring Arsenal duo Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dan Crowley, losing 5-1. Crowley, now at Birmingham City, scored the fifth goal.

But for Tomi, he remembers the occasion as the moment that highlighted the standards that could be reached. 

"That game was one big reason for me why I wanted to play in the Premier League," he explains. "We lost 5-1 and couldn't do hardly anything in that game. At that moment I thought that I have to one day get to the level where I could play in England. 

"I knew I needed to be better to get to that level, that was my target, and now I am here in the Premier League so I'm happy now and need to keep working hard."

Whatever work Tomi put in during those intervening six years has paid off, and soon Arsenal came calling. From start to finish the transfer was all conducted in little over 24 hours just before the transfer window closed on August 31, so the Fukuoka-born defender had little time to consider the move. Luckily for him then, that he didn't require any thinking time.

"For me Arsenal is one of the biggest clubs in the world, so there is no reason at all to say no to them," he states. "It's as simple as that - when I had the offer, I just wanted to be part of Arsenal. I wanted to play at a higher level, so I am so grateful to be given this chance by Arsenal. I just could not believe it when I found out. 

"I was very excited as soon as I knew. I didn't need to call anyone or speak to anyone for advice. It was an easy choice for me, because, well because it's Arsenal. I didn't even have time to speak to the manager before signing the contract, and I didn't need to. I wanted to come."

Tomiyasu programme feature

This article first appeared in the matchday programme

Once the deal was agreed, Tomi had to wait a few more days to get to know his team-mates, as he was on international duty with Japan - winning his 24th cap for his country. Then it was straight into the action at London Colney. 

"Yes, I arrived only a few days before, trained with the team only twice before the game. But my team-mates were all very kind to me and helped me a lot. So it feels like I am already part of the team. I have played against Nicolas Pepe for the national team before, so I knew about him, but nobody else really.

"I know I need to adapt more - both to the football and to life in London. But I know I can do that soon, with the support that I have."

The Premier League didn't come as a total shock to him though. Growing up he always took an interest in English football, due mainly to his long-time friend and central defensive partner in the Japan national side, Maya Yoshida.

"Actually I don't watch a lot of football," he continues, "but it's true I've always liked the Premier League. I think that's because Maya Yoshida was playing for Southampton - for about seven or eight years I think - so I used to watch him a lot. 

"He's a good friend of mine and I have played with him in the national team as well. So I always asked him a lot of things about the Premier League, what it was like to play in for him. I learnt a lot of things from him. If I talk about the Premier League now, it's Maya Yoshida who comes to my mind first. He's a defender too, we play next to each other, so of course I am wanting to learn from him. About things away from the pitch as well."

It's a different compatriot though - Shinji Okazaki - who Tomi dreams of emulating during his Gunners career. Okazaki was part of the Leicester side that won the title in 2017, and that's what Tomi has his sights set on. 

"Yes of course, my dream is to win the Premier League - it's my biggest dream. Also to win the Champions League is a big dream for me. I will try to give everything to achieve that. I just want to be better every day. I have to learn from other players, from the coaches, and that's it. Keep learning and trying to get better. I'm a defender so I want to make clean sheets every game. The most important thing is to take three points. If we make clean sheets, it only takes one goal to win. My focus is on making clean sheets."

That's exactly what he did on his debut against Norwich, and in playing that game Tomi became only the third Japanese player to appear for our first team, after Junichi Inamoto and Ryo Miyaichi. But after those two managed only modest Gunners careers (11 first-team outings between them), our new arrival is sure he can buck that trend. 

"I have to!" he smiles. "I have the confidence to succeed here, and I have to work hard to ensure I can be a successful player from Japan at Arsenal."

Tomi certainly won't be shot of support as he tries to achieve his ambitions at Arsenal. Our fans across the world have already taken to his committed style, but the Japanese Arsenal Supporters Club in particular, are proud to see Tomi at the club.

"Haha yes I know they are excited - I hope they are!" he grins. "To be playing at Arsenal has a lot of meaning for all the Japanese people. But to be honest I don't have to focus too much on that attention from fans. I have to focus on playing well and working well here. It's true that the Japanese people are very passionate about football. I think it's the biggest sport at home - that or baseball - but at the moment I feel it's football."

And playing in front of fans of any nationality at the moment is a real boost for Tomi. 

Most of his Bologna career in Serie A was played in empty stadiums, but the fans' absence was most keenly felt at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer. 

Having targeted playing in the football tournament at his home Games for some time - knowing he would qualify for the under-23 competition by a couple of years - the experience lost some of its gloss due to the lack of live crowds. As well as the incredible atmosphere the Japanese fans would undoubtedly have created, their presence could also have spurred the national side to a medal, rather than narrowly missing out and finishing fourth. 

Tomiyasu in action for Japan at the Olympics

Tomiyasu wins a header for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics

"Yes, we missed them a lot at the Olympics. I was looking forward to the Olympics for a long time of course, because it was in Japan, so it would have been really nice to have the supporters there. I was disappointed about that. But what can we do? I think we would have had a better chance of winning with our supporters there as well, but it was still a good experience for me and to reach the semi-finals.

"I played in Italy without any fans, and in the last international break I played for Japan against China in Qatar, without anybody in the crowd. 

"So it's so good to have them back now. That made it extra special for me on my debut in London. Personally I find the supporters always help me to give more, they energise me more. They help me a lot."

One question many fans have about our Japanese addition is where he will play. Regularly a centre back for his country, he has played full back in his two Premier League outings to date, but he says he's even more versatile than that:

"I think I will play right back more at Arsenal, but for me it doesn't matter which position I play. I can play as a central defender, also left back sometimes - I can play there too. So for me it's not important what position I take, I just want to play.

"But whether I play centre back or at right back - football is still football! It doesn't change a lot around the positions. Always you have to play with your brain, you have to be clever in every position in defence. When I was young I was a striker actually, then in high school I was midfielder. But now I'm a defender, so for me the most important thing is to play the game, show my value in every training session, and hopefully be in the team."

First two games successfully negotiated, now Tomi wants to get on with the real business of keeping Premier League forwards quiet. 

"I think we have really good defenders here, but we just need that confidence to defend well together. I think if we play with a lot of passion in every game, and do our job how we have to do it, we will make a lot of clean sheets this season, like we did against Norwich. 

"It's always up to us - we are the ones who can make it happen. Now we have to do it."

All matchday programmes can be purchased here:  https://programme.arsenal.com/

05:08

Tomi is a Gooner! | Tomiyasu's first day at Colney

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