Scout Report: Takehiro Tomiyasu

The Transfer Market is down upon us. Who would have thought that Lionel Messi will actually be shown as a free agent on Transfermarkt and free to talk to other clubs (changing clubs eventually) or Cristiano Ronaldo will return back to Manchester (but joining the blue half of Manchester). In this window, there has been a certain pattern visible among top clubs. It is the out flux of superstar players from Serie A to clubs in different leagues with better financial condition- Rodrigo De Paul finally earning his big move to Los Rojiblancos- Atletico Madrid. Achraf Hakimi leaving Inter Milan to join Paris Saint Germain which has arguably become the biggest sports washing project in the history of football. Hakimi’s team mate at Inter Milan and their talisman, Romelu Lukaku also decided to move to European Champions, Chelsea FC in a staggering 115 million euros move. Lukaku will be rejoining the club, exactly 10 years after he first joined the club. But this time he joins as an experienced, mature and proven striker rather than a youth prospect, ready to prove his naysayers in England wrong, again. Cristian Romero, right after becoming the Defender of the year in Italy has switched his allegiance to Tottenham Hotspur along with his Atalanta team-mate, Pierluigi Gollini. 

One more player from Serie A is also on the eyesights of various clubs. His versatility will be a vital factor to become a key player for his future club and national team. This article will be looking at Bologna’s Takehiro Tomiyasu. 

Player Profile 

Born in Fukuoka, Japan, Tomiyasu was first scouted by the Mitsuzuki Kickers’ general manager Kanji Tsuji and was impressed with his performance. His passing and acceleration were standout among his peers. At the age of eleven, he was persuaded to join FC Barcelona’s youth camp in Japan. After a series of trials with the Catalan club, he was given the opportunity to join the club and move to Spain. But difficulty in relocation to Spain saw this move crumble down. After failing to join FC Barcelona, Tomiyasu joined Avispa Fukuoka. He initially started as a midfielder but once he progressed through the ranks at youth level, he was converted into a defender- capable of playing anywhere along the back line. He was transitioned into the first team at the ending stage of 2015-16 season and he eventually became a first team player next season, filling in in defensive midfield, center back and right back position. 

By this time, some European sides also started to scout him. But it was the Belgian side Sint-Triuden who won the race to sign Takehiru, all thanks to their Japanese owners who have, over the years provided a good platform to Japanese players to start their European journey without any undue pressure. This happened to be the same case with Tomiyasu who took his good amount of time initially to settle down but delivered all the goods in his first full season with the club. At the end of 2018-19 season, Italian side Bologna decided to sign the now Japanese International in a deal worth 9 million euros, a plusavenza (profit) of 8 million for Sint-Triuden, also becoming the record sale of Belgian side. 

The Japanese International this time took no time to settle down and started to show his talent to the world. After 2 good seasons with Bologna under their manager, once an iconic player of Serie A in his playing days, Sinisa Milhajovic. Takehiro Tomiyasu has now earned the praises of many critics in Italy and even abroad.

Playing Style

Takehiro Tomiyasu is a player whose position is difficult to pin down, other than ‘defender’. He is right-footed and comfortable playing as a right-back or as a right wing-back but he is also capable of playing as a central defender and he thrives as either a left or right-sided central defender in a back three or even as a center back in back 4, equally capable of playing either as a stopper or a cover. 

Takehiro Tomiyasu’s heat map- 2020-21 season

One of the strengths of Tomiyasu’s game is his ability and willingness to drive forward in possession of the ball. This will be a big factor for teams trying to build up their game from the back. Tomiyasu made 909 passes with his right foot last season, 467 with his left. He clearly is comfortable passing with both feet even if he prefers his right foot, making him extremely valuable in tactical flexibility, linking up play, and press resistance. Tomiyasu completes .17 key passes / 90. Additionally, he completes 8.22 progressive passes / 90. That said, it’s clear that Tomiyasu is very influential in progressing play not just through advanced positioning and short passes but also medium to long passes as well. His ability to get involved in the final third further proves that. He completes 7.04 passes into the area, with a success rate of 78%. Bologna tend to play an up-tempo kind of possession football and attack down the right-hand side, which is where Tomiyasu is located and has developed a good understanding with Riccardo Orsolini. They play an aggressive, high-pace style of football which is usually met with an aggressive style of play back. Mihajlović’s favoured formations are 4-2-3-1 and variations of the 4-3-3 which seem to fit Tomiyasu’s strengths fairly well. They play with width, which is where Tomiyasu is at his most comfortable. Bologna do not aim to play counterattacking football. They prefer to use aggressive pressing out of possession, to get the ball back, and control possession in the opponent’s half.

Takehiro Tomiyasu positioning himself in the attacking phase of the game against Genoa

The Japanese has a good ‘physical’ build which a lot of Premier League fans and pundits look for in any new signing coming to England (even though there is no correlation between this physical strength and modern-day game in England). He is strong at reading the game, seeing passes happen before they are made. He is equally capable of putting himself in positions to intercept the ball. His concentration and teamwork are impressive skills for a player his age to have, as it tends to be the case that young players lack these mental attributes, before their technical traits. His jump from Japan to Belgium and then to Italy and performing well beyond expectations is a testament to his mental attributes. He is an aggressive ball winner who always presses to win back the ball. 135 of Tomiyasu’s 346 presses last season came in the middle third. He’s third amongst Serie A defenders in recoveries (action that wins the ball and leads to at least 5 seconds of team possession) and second in the league for counter-pressing recoveries (4.41 p/ 90, recovering the ball within 5 seconds of the opposition team gaining possession). A lot of this is due to his placement in the system, as he plays high up the pitch in possession when Bologna squeeze.

Takehiro Tomiyasu trying to cover the space and cut passing options against Juventus

As any modern full-back, he also has an important role offensively too. His teamwork and crossing ability allow him to get past the opposition defence and attempt to create a scoring opportunity. His dribbling ability and technique are also important he can effectively get past his man and produce a quality pass in the final third. He is a strong dribbler, as he completes more take-ons than he fails, with an impressive 66% take-on completion rate. He puts in a decent amount of defensive work, and as Bologna do not tend to dominate the ball every game- Sinisa Milhajovic tries to change the playing style and players according to opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. He finds himself in defensive duels more often than attacking rotations. From viewing his attacking efforts, it is clear to see that when he does roam forward, he is fairly competent for a defender his age. All this as a collective leads to an xGBuildup per 90 of 0.29. This is a figure looked favourably upon when compared to other defenders in Serie A. 

Takehiro Tomiyasu looking for passing options

Conclusion

Takehiro Tomiyasu is a well-rounded player who has had played in multiple systems over the years and has taken less time to adapt to new conditions- at such a young age for a footballer. A versatile player like will always be an asset for teams who are trying to push towards an aggressive counter pressing cum possession-oriented approach of football. 

He is at a junction in his career where he can easily make a jump to the ‘big teams’ (no disrespect to Bologna here). A host of Premier League teams including Tottenham have shown concrete interest in him. A modest price of 25 million euros may just be enough for teams to secure a signing which can set their defensive unit for good period. Even teams in Bundesliga can consider him as a quality versatile option, especially Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich who need a reliable right back option to boost their squad depth.  

Sensible Targets: Nikola Milenkovic

The Balkans are known to have some of the best hidden gems in the footballing world. The Croatias, The Serbias of our world have given us many footballing prodigies in the last 2 decades. One such prodigy found his way to Italy at a very young age, right under the noses of European Giants. Now, mature enough to make a big switch- we will take a look at La Viola’s Serbian Centre Back- Nikola Milenkovic and how he can be a good partner to Harry Maguire in the long run and provide healthy competition to current centre back pairing at the English club. 

 

(Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

Background

Nikola Milenkovic was born in Belgrade in October 1997 and spent his entire youth career at Partizan Belgrade who are known to unearth many talented youngsters in the Balkans (one such player which Manchester United were seriously interested in was Filip Stevanovic, who eventually chose Manchester City). After spending some time on loan at Teleoptik, Milenkovic made his debut for Partizan in the Serbian SuperLeague in the 2015/16 season. He appeared four times, largely because of a four-game suspension following a red card. He still managed to score his first goal for the club that year. 

The following season, 2016/17, saw Milenkovic establish himself as first choice option at centre back as he made 32 appearances in the league, scoring twice, as Partizan completed a domestic double. At the end of the season, Fiorentina’s sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, famous for snapping up budding players in the Balkans, brought the defender to Firenze. Milenkovic had a good debut season in Italy with 16 appearances in Serie A. His performances also earned him a spot in Serbia’s World Cup squad where he played all of their three games at the heart of defence.

Playing Style 

Nikola Milenkovic has been one of only a few standout performers for Fiorentina this season. The Serbian is a right-footed defender, who stands at 6 ft 5 and was initially signed from Partizan Belgrade for £4.5m in 2017/18. The Serbian has played in over 3,000 minutes in each of his last two Serie A campaigns, highlighting his importance to the team. Fiorentina often rely on Nikola’s defensive ability. Milenkovic often lines up as the right centre-back and has also played as a right back in the past for La Viola and Partizan.  The Serbian ventures very less towards the left-hand side of the 18-yard box, fixed to the central area and the right-hand side wide space.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s heat map for the season 2019-20

The heat map also implies that Milenkovic is comfortable advancing with the ball when Fiorentina are in possession, a confident user of the ball who can often be found looking for a progressive pass to break the lines of the opposition’s defensive structure.

Defensive Aspect

Milenkovic is kind of an old school, no-nonsense defender, combining the old school centre back principles with modern day approach; amalgam of the intelligent reading of the game and positioning with strength and superb aerial ability. His height and physical built helps him to dominate in the air, last season the Serbian won 77% of all aerial battles, a figure which positioned him in the 95th percentile of centre-backs in Serie A.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2019-20 season breakup

This season also, he is averaging upwards of 80% in successful aerial duels, putting him in topmost percentile in this metric, not only in Serie A but in top 5 leagues of Europe. One aspect of Milenkovic’s impressive defensive game is his individual defending. He’s got a very good technique when defending on his own and for his age shows a great wealth of experience in terms of his decision making. Milenkovic possesses an innate sense of positioning with the ability to angle his body perfectly to cover passing options while also maintaining the balance needed to defend against the opposition attacking players.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2020-21 season breakup

Ball Playing Ability

In modern day football, the ball playing and ball progression ability of centre backs is becoming a necessary trait in order to thrive at elite level since teams, rather than sitting deep and counter-attacking from flanks, now try to press/counter-press higher up the pitch and try to dominate the possession in half wing spaces. There has been a myth in the scouting circuit that Nikola isn’t very comfortable with ball playing and ball progression due to his “athletic built” (just like Harry Maguire). 

Here, we see an example of how Nikola Milenkovic is with the ball at his feet in the image taken from the game against Udinese below.

The opposition are well organised and their press has closed all forward passing lanes, leading to Fiorentina playing the ball back towards their own goal. As soon as Milenkovic receives the ball in this position his first thought is to drive forward at the opposition.

This movement of the central defender towards the opposition forces the opposition to move out of their positional slots to close Milenkovic down. This movement towards the ball opens a forward passing lane, allowing Nikola to progress the ball into the opposition’s half to the feet of Patrick Cutrone.

Another example of the Serbian’s confidence on the ball and vision to breaking opposition’s lines with his passes with the ball can be found against Sampdoria. I Bluerchiati, led by Mister Claudio “Dily Ding, Dily Dong” Ranieri, are known to deploy a low block with two banks of four spanning the width of the penalty area, and pressing the opposition’s centre backs through their strikers.

This movement creates an opportunity for Milenkovic to get a shot/pass off on goal, in this circumstance Patrick Cutrone reads the play like any good forward and is able to get on the end of the ball from Nikola.

Conclusion

In the above data driven and eye testing tactical analysis, we have seen that Nikola Milenkovic has all the traits to thrive at an elite level in modern day game, he has the physical build, the aggression of an ‘old school’ Centre Back, intelligence of a ‘modern day’ centre back and ability to play lots of games into the season (the Serbian has missed less than 10  matches in his entire career due to injury concerns till now). Given Manchester United’s defensive woes are more due to underlying structural issues which leave their centre backs without any good cover during transitions and the initial pairing of Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof is also suspect at times: the Swede’s inability to impose himself on opposition’s attacking players sometimes add extra load on his English partner to do extra dirty work. A fast paced and aggressive centre back who can easily do the dirty work on and off the ball during transitions and also has the aggression and physical build to impose himself on the opposition is required to partner Harry Maguire in the long run. Nikola has all those traits and all the eye test and data analysis point out that he can be a good option to buy because of following factors: 

  • The Serbian’s contract with Fiorentina ends in 2022, with him being at a stage in his career where he wants to progress as a footballer at a bigger stage and contest for trophies- this may force Fiorentina to cash in on him during the summer window of 2021. A price between 20-40 million pounds will easily force Fiorentina to cash in on him. 
  • Manchester United do require a centre back but even before buying a Centre Back, they need to sort out the future of their back up Centre Backs first: Eric Bailly’s contract is ending in 2022 and Axel Tuanzebe needs regular playing time at his age too.  
  • Moreover, Manchester United need to buy a defensive minded versatile midfielder first who can play in multiple formations, complement the current midfield roster, try to take the load of creation from Bruno Fernandes and most important thing, don’t leave the centre backs exposed during transitions. With multiple loopholes in the squad and Manchester United’s inability to do the transfer business efficiently in comparison to their arch rivals (Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC), a cheaper alternative like Milenkovic may prove to be a bargain buy in longer run and also leave funds to strengthen the positions which require immediate and instant fix.