The Japan squad heading to Brazil for Copa América 2019 makes for as peculiar mix as it gets, ranging from recognized veterans poised to say their (probable) goodbyes all the way to largely obscure prospects who just came out of university or play in the second Japanese division. Heck, in such an environment, even a fresh-faced 18-year-old Takefusa Kubo should technically be considered an experienced squad member.
Kubo, as it happens, is also the one player people tend to focus when zeroing on this strange-looking Japan side. I have another one for you…
Gaku Shibasaki is the general of this team, Takefusa Kubo is the creative spark and media’s darling, Shoya Nakajima is arguably the actual star, and Shinji Okazaki is the sunshine as ever.
Yet the actual lynchpin of this side – the one guy whose performances may well determine Japan’s results at this Copa the most – could be someone entirely different. His name is Takehiro Tomiyasu, he’s 20 years old, he’s a centre back, and he plies his trade away from the spotlight, at one-time Belgian champions Sint-Truidense V.V.
Now, I can’t tell you for sure he’s going to start for Japan in Brazil, because nothing about Japan’s preparations for this tournament makes any damn sense. What I can tell you, though, is that he did start both June friendlies in a 3-CB formation Japan are probably not going to utilize in Brazil, and with two same partners who are not going.
This could easily mean he’s basically done for the summer. I have no idea. Nobody does.
But coming back to the things I can tell you for sure: Takehiro Tomiyasu is a very good, mature centre back prospect who should really be getting way more traction from top European leagues than from just one mid-table Serie A outfit.
First, let’s deal with all the issues you may possibly have with me highlighting Takehiro Tomiyasu as not only a star of Japan (he already is one for the actual A-team anyway), but also as a potential breakout star of the whole Copa América:
- Yes, I am aware I’ve mostly watched Tomiyasu at Asian Cup, against a competition that might not exactly be comparable to what he’s going to face in Brazil. At the same time, though, when the best striker of the continent with great offensive insticts and strength in all kinds of duels is still crawling out of Tomiyasu’s pocket, I tend to consider the whole competition argument invalid. Your typical Asian defender simply doesn’t dominate Sardar Azmoun like Tomiyasu did in the Asian Cup semi-final, not by a longshot.
- Yes, I am aware I had tweeted about “Moriyasu” while actually meaning to rave about Tomiyasu at not one, but multiple points of the said Asian Cup (the others corrected later). It’s embarrassing, but it also happened five months ago, at a time when Andy Delort was still a fully-fledged Frenchman, so I feel a bit better about it all now, and so should you. (It will still happen during Copa too, though…)
- Finally, we won’t be using too many stats in this analysis. It’s not that Tomiyasu would show up bad in them, not at all, it’s more about stats not doing him proper justice. We are talking about a cerebral CB, after all, not any reckless clearance machine or what not. For instance, as Wyscout defines them, he was only involved in 3,76 defensive duels per Asian Cup game, which doesn’t quite correspond with the eye test telling most observers who picked Tomiyasu for their all-stars teams that he was a wall.
- For what it’s worth, though, based on Wyscout’s index of top central defenders (which combines aerial, tackling, passing ability and prowess at intercepting attacks), Tomiyasu is top5 among U-25 centre backs in Belgian Division A and ranks 16th in the league even after removing the age cap. He’s also played the most games out of the U-25 top5, he’s second youngest of the bunch and together with Frank Boya (who’s appeared in midfield, too), Tomiyasu is the only one not playing for a top3 side in the country. His Sint-Truidense were 7th.
Now that we are done with all the possible caveats, let’s break his game down bit by bit:
Tomiyasu reacts, Tomiyasu initiates
At the very start of the Round of 16 game at 2019 Asian Cup, you could see Takehiro Tomiyasu instructing his fullback, Hiroki Sakai who’s roughly nine years his senior, to cast the defensive net wider, to move closer to the byline. Sakai didn’t really do that immediately after the instruction, but for much of the rest of the game vs Saudi Arabia, he did push wider and higher to press the influential left back Yasser Al-Shahrani. Meanwhile, Tomiyasu largely filled in for him at RB while simultaneously, with a bit of help of dropping Wataru Endo, still acted as the right CB he nominally was for the whole tournament.
Now, I am not saying Tomiyasu necessarily initiated this tactical switch, but he sure executed it as if it was his own idea. In this setup, Japan basically forced Saudi Arabia to hoof the ball forward, which was never a good idea against Yoshida-Tomiyasu in the first place. And when it needed to be done, Tomiyasu stepped aside to plug the flank.
It was the perfect encapsulation of what Takehiro Tomiyasu stands for as a player.
He reacts to your movement, but also predicts it when it’s suitable, and sometimes even kind of forces it from you. He often gets his attacker exactly where he needs him to be, and then robs him. Every so often, Tomiyasu doesn’t so much engage in a duel as he initiates it on behalf of the opponent to ensure he’s in a good position to eventually come out on top.
To be clear, this has a lot to do with Tomiyasu’s limits; specifically with his need to compensate for the evidently lacking turn of pace. He doesn’t have that switch some shorter, more agile centre backs might have. But that doesn’t knock off anything from Tomiyasu’s game; if anything, it is a testament to his ability to adjust and turn a potential weakness into a great strength.
Arguably my favourite demonstration of this is the following play:
What happens there is that Sardar Azmoun and Tomiyasu have a bit of a shove, but just before the through ball is played, the Japanese no. 16 jumps aside and effectively quits the battle prematurely to gain himself something of an inside track for the ensuing sprint duel. Tomiyasu is not quicker than Azmoun, that had become clear earlier on in the game (and particularly in one instance), but he’s adjusted – and decidedly outsmarted the more and more frustrated goalscorer all the way down the line.
Here is Tomiyasu doing something similar, only without the shove, against Vietnam:
Watching Tomiyasu go toe-to-toe with a striker is really fascinating. Always in motion, he usually kind of hops around his man, and sometimes even comes close to fully circling him, possibly in an attempt to throw him off his game. That worked with Azmoun, too, along with the odd tug of his shirt. By the time the 0-3 semi-final was finished, the celebrated forward had been fuming without hardly ever getting fouled (precisely once).
Here, for example, Takehiro Tomiyasu takes care of Sardar Azmoun masterfully, by actually not minding Azmoun too much, showing how man marking can also be done:
In the end, the Iranian phenomenon and a current starter at Zenit finished the semi-final with one shot attempt (he’d averaged 5,2 in previous five starts at the Asian Cup), one successful offensive duel early on in the game, and a mere three touches in the box, one of them being part of that one successful duel early on in the game.
A job very well done from Takehiro Tomiyasu (and to a lesser degree, Maya Yoshida).
But let’s not make this a case study, because there are multiple common denominators on Tomiyasu’s game worth exploring in a bit more detail…
1) Intercepting without resorting to tunnel vision
This comes down to how well Tomiyasu reads the game and stays on top of it at all times. While he’s adept at shadowing one’s body movement, he doesn’t get too preoccupied with his man, doesn’t simply just fixate on him, but rather follows the ball and assesses the situation bit by bit, which allows him to interecept attacking moves at early stages.
Here, a collection of cases where he changes direction rapidly to interecept brilliantly:
Here, a couple of cases where he simply attacks the ball instead of following the player:
These two plays above are admittedly nothing unique to Tomiyasu, but together with the following clip of a worthy risk taken and executed, they complete the big picture of a central defender who’s incredibly positionally aware and doesn’t fall for the so-called tunnel vision, hence doesn’t get fixated on one thing, one job.
2) Dominating in the air while not battling too much
At one point in the first half of the Iran semi-final, Fox commentator exclaimed: “He seems to get his head on everything, Tomiyasu.” It was true, but most of the situations didn’t see him scrambling elbow-to-elbow next to his man, rather he would jump in front of him, be it in-game or on a set-piece, completely circumventing anything resembling a duel. (No clips because he makes this look so ordinary it’s kind of boring.)
3) Stubbornly avoiding lapses in concentration
Japan have a storied history of their centre backs (nearly) costing them games with rash, immature decisions. Yasuyuki Konno at 2011 Asian Cup comes to mind, Masato Morishige became the 2014 World Cup scapegoat for that very reason, too. Maya Yoshida is not a saint either, even though he’s more underrated than anything else.
Takehiro Tomiyasu is almost certain to never follow in their footsteps.
One favourite little detail of mine on his conduct during the match is how promptly he puts his hands behind his back whenever even the slightest possibility of an incoming cross or a shot arises. Tomiyasu basically adjusts himself accordingly even before the suspected shooter/crosser of the ball arguably considers the very option.
Tomiyasu is just one step ahead, in pretty much all situations he finds himself in.
One case in point; not putting the goalkeeper under any unnecessary pressure here:
Second case in point; this little halt, setting up one beautiful offside trap indeed:
4) Combining proactive with seemingly passive approach
You notice at times Tomiyasu acting like a covering CB who sweeps up behind the more aggressive Yoshida; you notice at other times Tomiyasu stepping out of the line and being the more proactive of the two (as seen in some clips above). Often, he jumps in front of a striker to head the ball away, but when it’s advisable, he also doesn’t mind to drop deeper and be the insurance rather than the main executor for his team.
Here, he gets a bit more urgent, following an opponent up the pitch, but then drops back, twice checks over his shoulder how everyone is doing, and ends up making a clearance:
This goes to show, again, Tomiyasu never stubbornly pursues one goal. He’s just as fine with passive but alert observation of what’s happening in front of him, stepping in at the most convenient of times to get it over with, like here:
It would be very easy to jump in and get involved at first glance, but Takehiro Tomiyasu doesn’t have “overcommitment” in his vocabulary; he really does not.
Small things, invisible almost, make Takehiro Tomiyasu a special, special centre back.