Kaoru Mitoma’s journey to becoming a Premier League star has not been straightforward.
Born in 1997, Mitoma joined the academy of his local J-League team Kawasaki Frontale, based between Tokyo and Yokohama.
But after graduating from high school at the age of 18, he decided not to sign up for Kawasaki’s senior team.
Instead, Mitoma enrolled in the University of Tsukuba, an institution renowned for its strong football team, where he felt he could develop better.
“I just felt I wasn’t ready physically and that I wouldn’t be in the first team immediately,” Mitoma explained to The Athletic. “I thought the best step was to get more playing time and get better.”
At university, he did a thesis on the art of dribbling. This included research where he wore a camera on his head while dribbling at opponents, to observe where his eyes went and how his opponents reacted.
“It was the easiest subject for me to choose because I love football and dribbling is what I love to do,” Mitoma adds.
“There were no rules on how much to write, but I progressed with it by analysing my team-mates that were good and not-so-good dribblers and trying to find out why that was.
“I put cameras on the heads of my team-mates to study where and what they were looking at and how their opponents were looking at them.
“I learned that the good players weren’t looking at the ball. They would look ahead, trap the ball without looking down at their feet. That was the difference.”
It was also while at university that he agreed a deal to move to Kawasaki in 2020.
In his first J-League season, he registered 13 goals and 12 assists in 30 matches as Kawasaki cruised to the title.
According to The Times, Mitoma recorded the second-highest running speed in the division. Such statistics got him nominated into the J-League team of the year, while he was ranked the league’s second most-valuable player.
His performances set his team on course to retain their title the following season. He scored eight goals in 20 appearances that campaign, before Brighton & Hove Albion came calling.
The Seagulls signed him for a fee reported to be £2.5million in August 2021 on a four-year deal. They sent him out on loan to Belgian side Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, a club connected to Brighton owner Tony Bloom.
He was largely used as a substitute in the first half of the campaign, taking advantage of tiring defenders, and his hat-trick off the bench against Seraing inspired a turnaround 4-2 win.
Mitoma came into his own during the Belgian Pro League playoffs, says a former team-mate.
“It was only as the season went on that he really got into it and started playing 90 minutes,” his former colleague at Union SG, Christian Burgess, told Sky Sports.
"A different side to him began to come out in the playoffs. You saw him fighting a lot more. Against Club Brugge [who went to become champions], he was really putting his body about. Add that winner's attitude that he had to his quality on the ball, and you have a special player on your hands."
After a year in Belgium, Mitoma returned to Brighton and made his Premier League debut as a substitute in a goalless draw with Newcastle United.
His next six league appearances under Graham Potter and then Roberto De Zerbi were also off the bench.
But De Zerbi then entrusted Mitoma with a first start, and the faith was repaid as he ran Potter’s Chelsea ragged in a 4-1 win, setting up Leandro Trossard for the opener.
In the next match, he scored his first goal in a 3-2 success at Wolverhampton Wanderers, followed up by another in the 3-1 EFL Cup win at Arsenal.
"There are not many Japanese players in this league, so I want to be an inspiration to those who want to play here one day," Mitoma said.
Watch: Mitoma - I'm excited to develop under De Zerbi
Mitoma went on to showcase his abilities on the global stage at the FIFA World Cup 2022, coming off the bench to inspire comeback victories over European powerhouses Germany and Spain, assisting the winner in the latter.
Brighton's sale of Trossard to Arsenal in January then allowed Mitoma to claim the left-wing spot for his club, and he thrived. He netted in three consecutive matches, including the decisive goal in the FA Cup fourth-round win against Liverpool.
His six league goals have equalled the record for a Japanese player in a single Premier League season, set by Shinji Kagawa for Manchester United in 2012/13 and matched by Shinji Okazaki for Leicester City in 2017/18.
“I know about the record,” Mitoma told Brighton's official website. “I would just like to go as far as I can, but it will not be that easy.”
Mitoma is also almost halfway to reaching Okazaki's record for the most Premier League goals scored across all seasons by a Japanese player.
Ahead of the visit of Crystal Palace, De Zerbi acknowledged Mitoma's influence on the team.
"Mitoma is a crucial part of the team for us because one-against-one in the last 25 metres, he’s one of the most important players,” the Italian told Brighton's website.
As to what lies behind his skill at beating players, Mitoma suggests it is his ability to unsettle his opponents.
“I am conscious of shifting the opponent’s centre of gravity,” he says. “If I can move the opponent’s body, I win.”
His coach at Kawasaki also cites not just his acceleration but his deceleration.
“There are a certain number of players who can go from 0 to 100 at once,” Toru Oniki says. “But there aren’t many players who can stop from 100 to 0.”