Socceroos defender Thomas Deng is emerging as a lucky charm for Urawa Red Diamonds, as his stocks swiftly rise amid the technically testing terrain of Japan’s J1 League.
Going into today’s visit to fifth-placed Nagoya Grampus, the athletic stopper hasn’t played on a losing side in his four appearances so far for the club he joined from Melbourne Victory in January.
The seventh-placed Reds, however, lost both games he missed with a hip flexor injury, and he was rushed back by coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki for last weekends 1-1 draw with the Peter Cklamovski-led Shimizu S.Pulse.
His move to Japan personally endorsed by Socceroos coach Graham Arnold - who both coached and played in the J.League - Kenya-born Deng, 23, believes the switch will take his game to a higher plane.
“It was tough in the beginning - I was only here for three days and then the season started the week after (before the COVID-19 lockdown kicked in),” said Deng.
“The coach told me it would be difficult to adjust and he’s shown a lot of belief in me.
“To be honest, I thought it would take longer to break through because of the language barrier and getting to know how things work here.
“But I think the league going off kind of helped me settle in, understand the tactics and what they wanted me to do.
“Once I got that down pat my confidence grew and it’s been good so far.
“This is a great league, a great place to develop and progress.
“The players here are so sharp, and you don’t see too many mistakes because technically they’re so good.”
Though he only has a single Socceroos cap, Deng - already an integral part of the Olyroos setup - is looming as Graham Arnold’s heir apparent at the back.
“I’ve had chats with Arnie, and he’s happy how everything is going for me over here,” he added.
“I guess I’m part of the next generation (of Socceroos) and it’s time for us to step up and get ourselves ready.
“The main thing is to continue improving and doing well each week and I’m sure the opportunities will come.
“When I found out I was coming here we were in Thailand with the Olympic team for the qualifiers (for the deferred Tokyo Games) and Arnie was really happy.
“He said straight away ‘that’s fantastic ... it’s a massive club’. He has huge respect for the league.
“I’m grateful to have got the chance to come here. I just want to keep working hard and see where I end up.”
A return to Europe - where he had a brief loan spell with PSV Eindhoven’s second team four years ago - is the ultimate ambition.
“That was a good experience for me and the next step would be to try and get back to Europe, maybe within the next couple of years if I can do well here,” added Deng.
After an underachieving season in 2019, Deng believes Urawa “can surprise a few people” this time around.
“It’s a massive challenge for everybody to step but we’re capable of it,” he said.
“The thing here is every team can beat the next in this league, no matter what their position on the table.
“On any given day anything can happen and it often does.
“That’s why I’m enjoying it here. Every week is a challenge.”