Celtic supporters understandably got carried away when Reo Hatate put two first-half strikes past Rangers in a vital 3–0 derby win, just a month after moving to Glasgow from his native Japan. The midfielder — 25, but crucially in just his third season of professional football — had exploded into fan-favourite status in uniquely swift fashion. The Celtic faithful were already more than pleased — but to Hatate and his new manager, Ange Postecoglou, his potential was barely starting to be fulfilled.
Despite his young CV already boasting experience playing in every outfield position other than centre-back (a testament to the trust Hatate’s coaches have always had in his football intelligence), his move to work with Postecoglou at Celtic has catalysed his maturation into a majestic advanced midfielder. Perhaps his most startling attribute is his refusal to stop improving — having already undoubtedly reached a level bettered by none of his counterparts in Scotland.
Over a year on from his defining derby double, Hatate/Iniesta comparisons from the Parkhead support have only multiplied — and don’t rush to ridicule them. After all, when the Spanish midfield icon was quizzed on who he rated as the best that the J-League had to offer following the 2021 season, a 23-year-old Reo was blessed with his endorsement. The namecheck was quite the cherry on top of a glistening season had with Kawasaki Frontale.
But it wasn’t one which had seen Hatate burst onto the scene as an unknown. Close followers of the Japanese game will have recognised the J-League team of the season inductee from his consecutive goalscoring final appearances at the 2017 and 2019 Universiade youth tournaments against France and Brazil respectively, in his days as a striker. It was consequently unsurprising when he was picked up by one of the nation’s biggest clubs upon graduation from university at 21.
Hatate’s emergence as a first-team mainstay for Frontale coincided with the club’s own emergence as the dominant force in Japanese football. His two full J-League seasons yielded two league winner’s medals, dazzling alongside fellow future export successes Kaoru Mitoma, Ao Tanaka and Hidesama Morita in a squad that will surely be remembered as one of the league’s greatest ever.
A naturally refined technician, Reo’s initial prominence as a final-third impact player would’ve left few predicting much of his finest campaign in Japan to come playing left-back — but in seamlessly moving position temporarily in 2021, he proved that his natural ability came alongside equally impressive energy, determination and most notably, football intellect.
In short, he has everything. Since securing his European audition with Celtic in January 2022, Hatate has been a phenomenon in green and white. Bursting a gut to impact both boxes, dropping shoulders and jaws alike with flashes of outrageous flair and routinely producing cross-field Hollywood passes to polish his highlight reels, he has made a true mockery of the £1.5 million sum paid for his services to a point where he surely must stand alongside Henrik Larsson and Virgil Van Dijk among the most amazing steals in Celtic’s modern history.
“He shows signs of reaching the very top of the game,” Postecoglou told the Scottish media. “I try to explain to people his background, he’s only really been a professional footballer for three-odd years. He’s pretty hard on himself, he pushes himself, he wants to be better. He’s not going to rest until he’s the footballer he wants to be in his mind.”
To Celtic’s Scottish opposition, those comments will be petrifying. For Hatate however, it is an attitude that has seen him soar to such a formidable level in such a brief timescale that if the improvement continues into future years, the sky is the limit. Reo himself has reflected on his application in his frank and honest blog, written in the summer of 2022 after powering through a full J-League season as well as the final six months in Scotland, with the two leagues following different calendars.
“I’m grateful my body could hold up and stay healthy… but I was frustrated at the same time, because I know how much better I can play,” he wrote. “I came from Japan with a strong determination to succeed in football. It would be great if I could live up to more of my potential and have a bigger impact to help the team win.”
It’s very hard to argue against Hatate’s current environment at Celtic suiting him perfectly. In an extremely dominant side, he is almost always on the move to find space and is touching the ball constantly. Celtic’s players may be drastically above their league’s average level, but the extremely demanding and ruthless Postecoglou’s biggest priority is ensuring that their lives are never easy.
In a setup directly influenced by that of Manchester City, Celtic’s left side has been a joy to watch this season. Alongside the terrific Greg Taylor who has mastered his task of inverting regularly, Hatate is routinely vital for the Hoops when it comes to unlocking the deep blocks they so frequently face domestically with his invaluable combination of technical and intellectual prowess.
Reo’s capacity to work is relatively much more called for in the Champions League, where the quality gulf is reversed on Celtic as they found out the hard way this campaign. When Real Madrid visited Celtic Park on matchday one however, he did not pass up the opportunity to catch the eye — generally being agreed by Scottish media to be the Bhoys’ best player on the night, and going viral on social media after a jaw-dropping cross-field volleyed pass.
“I cannot express with words what the experience was like,” he told the Daily Record after facing the peerless duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić. “I tried a lot of things, showed a little of what I can do, and I learned a lot of things from playing against players like that. I enjoyed the match a lot, and I feel like I am improving as a player.”
Looking ahead to this summer’s transfer window, the 25-year-old — who very possibly could add significantly to his collection of individual accolades in the coming months — is tipped to attract interest in the transfer market after reaching 18 months as a Celtic player. Fans of the Scottish champions will be hopeful however that he sticks around having only completed a single full season in green and white, with a second crack at Champions League football beckoning.
Should he remain put at Celtic Park, it would be a seismic boost for Ange Postecoglou in his bid to compete seriously at European level. Players of Hatate’s class are integral to the unmistakably front-footed system deployed by the Australian coach who himself could be subject to offers from elsewhere in the coming months.
The words to Reo’s dedicated chant heard weekly from the stands say ‘We’ve never had a player like you before,’ so he certainly isn’t under-appreciated in Glasgow’s east end — but given the level he has now risen to, you can never say never this summer. The Celtic fans should dearly cherish every minute they spend watching such a complete, elegant talent lighting up the Scottish game.
By: Martin Crawford / @crawford7martin
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Craig Williamson – SNS Group