Smart Transfers: Urawa Red Diamonds

As the winter transfer window has drawn to a close, we will use Smarterscout’s advanced metrics and league benchmarking to assess the smart transfer business of selected teams that caught our eye.

Current Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds will be losing their crown this year as they have failed to reach the knockout stage of the 2023/24 edition of the tournament. Having fallen well short in the J1 league title race as well, it is safe to say that the second half of 2023 was a bit of a flop for them.

As a result, the Reds have been quite busy between seasons. Their first move was to bring in a new head coach in the shape of Per-Mathias Høgmo, who was the man behind BK Häcken’s first-ever Allsvenskan title in 2022. Having confirmed his arrival, they have made a lot of moves in the transfer market to transform the squad.

Samuel Gustafson (from Häcken)

Høgmo has brought a player along with him from Häcken, as Samuel Gustafson is following his coach to Japan.

The experienced Swede looked quite good as a defensive midfielder in 2023 both in the domestic league as well as the UEFA Europa League, so our model is confident that he will do well in the J1 League.

The 29-year-old defensive midfielder is quite well rounded, as he can offer good defensive solidity as well as great ball retention, which should prove handy in what is a very technically demanding league.

Ola Solbakken (on loan from Roma)

The most well-known name Urawa Reds have signed this winter has to be Ola Solbakken.

The Norwegian forward was the talk of all Europe a couple of years ago, as he was standing out all over Bodø/Glimt’s front line.

His impressive performances earned him a move to Roma at the beginning of 2023, but that has not quite worked out. He barely got any game time for the rest of the season, and was shipped off to Olympiacos on loan last September. He only made eight appearances for the Greek giants too, so the 25-year-old forward will hope to get his career back on track in Japan.

Naoki Maeda (from Nagoya Grampus)

In a similar vein, Naoki Maeda will also hope to refind his best form at the Saitama Stadium after making the switch from Nagoya Grampus.

He was quite good in his last seasons in Japan, impressing both as a striker and on the right of Nagoya’s attack. He showed good ball retention, handy link-up passing and some serious dribbling threat back then to attract interest from European clubs.

The 29-year-old Japanese forward ended up moving to Utrecht after the 2021 season, but a couple of significant injury setbacks meant that he never really got going in the Eredivisie. Upon returning to Nagoya midway through last season, he struggled to find much game time with them, so he too will hope for a fresh start.

Thiago Santana (from Shimizu S-Pulse)

Thiago Santana should be more of a sure bet success according to our model. He did a great job for relegation-battlers Shimizu S-Pulse in his first two seasons in Japan, showcasing himself as a great attacking outlet thanks to his excellent dribbling and shooting threat.

Despite his best efforts, they could not stay up in 2022, but he stuck with them in the second-tier. Santana helped them bounce straight back up to the top-flight with a 13-goal season in what is quite a strong J2 league, so he clearly seems ready to make an impact for a team that is expected to compete at the top.

Ryoma Watanabe (from FC Tokyo)

Ryoma Watanabe is another interesting addition to Urawa Reds’ attack.

The 27-year-old forward has been used in a variety of roles all across the pitch for FC Tokyo, and was given a lot of freedom in each role too. The activity all over the shop in his smartermap underscores that.

Perhaps as a result of this, his attacking output has not looked too great. Watanabe can do everything between holding width from the touchline and finding space between the lines, but Høgmo might be able to get a bit more out of him by deploying him in a more focused and clearly defined role.

Rikito Inoue (from Kyoto Sanga)

At the other end of the pitch, Urawa have strengthened their defense with Rikito Inoue.

The 26-year-old center-back has spent the last two seasons with Kyoto Sanga, who have been battling it out at the bottom of the table. Inoue has stood out for them in an aggressive ball-playing role, contributing with some excellent passing towards goal and ball-winning through strength in duels.

He might have to tone some of these aspects of his game if Urawa continue to use a more patient possession-based style. Høgmo will likely expect to see better ball retention from him, and his defending quality might need to step up a notch too. On the whole, though, he seems to have all the qualities needed to slot in as a solid ball-playing center-back.

Yota Sato (from Gamba Osaka)

Another center-back signing saw Yota Sato join Urawa Reds.

The 25-year-old defender is yet to complete a J1 league season as a regular starter, but he did get a smattering of game time for Gamba Osaka last season. In those 500+ minutes, he showed excellent on-ball qualities including great dribbling and retention.

Sato appears to have been brought in to add some depth to Urawa Reds’ center-back department, so he seems a decent signing from that perspective.

Hirokazu Ishihara (from Shonan Bellmare)

The last signing on our list is Hirokazu Ishihara from Shonan Bellmare.

He has spent the last couple of seasons as a right wing-back for what is largely a relegation-battling side. Perhaps as a consequence of that, his attacking output has looked concerning for the J1 League level.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Reds use a back-four or back-five under their new head coach. The former looks likelier based on Høgmo’s track record with Häcken, so Ishihara would then have to play a full-back role. He seems more suited to that stylistically, so this transfer would make sense if that is how things play out.


Urawa Red Diamonds’ transfer business has certainly been interesting. They have signed a good few players who can broadly be placed in three categories: sure bets, those that need some adaptations and those who are looking to get their careers back on track.

There is no such thing as a guaranteed success when it comes to transfers, but Gustafson and Thiago Santana come as close to that as possible. The former’s familiarity with the head coach is sure to instantly make him a key player, while the latter’s excellent record in three years in Japan places him in a great position too.

Watanabe, Inoue and Ishihara could all prove to be good signings if appropriately accommodated into the squad. They will need to be deployed in the right roles to get the best out of them, so their success really depends on what sort of system Høgmo devises.

Solbakken and Maeda both have the potential to shine at the Saitama Stadium and have shown such qualities in the past, but recent years have not been great for them. If the right environment is fostered around them, they could thrive and prove to be key players for the team.

So, on the whole, we can say that Urawa have made some smart signings and also taken some risks. Given the fact that they are in a bit of a transition period right now given the coaching change between seasons, this seems as good a time as any to rejig the squad to a good extent. Høgmo should feel he has a good squad at his disposal, and although he ought to be given some time to familiarise himself with his new surroundings, the Reds will hope to return to a continental spot at least.


By Neel Shelat

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