Soccer: Mitoma determined to fly high in Premier League with Seagulls

Winning plaudits in England for his electric Premier League start, Japan winger Kaoru Mitoma is determined to propel an exciting Brighton side to a place in Europe next season.

The 25-year-old has been terrorizing opposition defenses down the left wing in his debut season in arguably the world's best league.

"I've begun in better form than I expected," Mitoma said.

Mitoma was integrated slowly into the side by former manager Graham Potter. But successor Roberto De Zerbi handed Mitoma a regular starting spot prior to the World Cup break and he has responded emphatically.

Heading home his first Premier League goal at Wolverhampton on Nov. 5, Mitoma has gone from strength to strength. Since returning from the World Cup in Qatar, where he starred for the Samurai Blue, he has bagged three goals in five league games to establish himself as one of the league's most exciting emerging talents.

"(Manchester City forward Erling) Haaland has to be the signing of the season but I'd say Mitoma, at 2.6 million (pounds), has to be the best value for money signing," tweeted former England star forward Michael Owen after watching Mitoma, who cost a twentieth of Haaland's transfer fee, curl in a stunning opener away to Leicester on Jan. 21.

Mitoma credits Italian manager De Zerbi's style of passing out from the back for enabling him to thrive.

"Because the team can build up the play well at the back, I can use my power high up the pitch and make the most of my strengths," said Mitoma, who has also had a role in setting up multiple goals for the Seagulls.

His eye-catching performances saw the Times and Telegraph dailies run stories on the Kawasaki Frontale youth product, who decided against going straight into the J-League club's senior side, opting to spend four years at the University of Tsukuba, where he wrote a thesis on dribbling.

Mitoma netted 13 goals in his debut J1 season in 2020 and eight in 2021 before his mid-season, summer switch to Brighton. He adapted seamlessly, helping promoted Royale Union Saint-Gilloise to a surprise first-place finish in the Belgian top-flight's regular season while on loan last term.

Brighton attacker Adam Lallana, who counts Mitoma as his fourth Japanese teammate after playing with Maya Yoshida and Tadanari Lee at Southampton and Takumi Minamino at Liverpool, thinks Mitoma is unique.

"His one-on-one ability is sensational," said the technically gifted veteran, who provided the cross for Mitoma's first league goal against Wolverhampton.

"Just good to have him in this team because he can go past players so easily...I've never seen it, someone like him, his style. He is like he is on the slope, skiing."

De Zerbi revealed that he reminds Mitoma daily to get "10 goals" in the league this term.

"I love him because he is a fantastic player and he is a fantastic guy. I think he can score more goals and I think this is where he can improve. But he works for the team, and he has fantastic ability," the 43-year-old manager said.

Mitoma, who has quickly become a fan favorite, is ready to repay his manager's faith in him.

"I need to keep creating chances and making my presence felt, otherwise there's no point in me being in the side," he said.

© Kyodo News