From Lee Young-pyo to Nagatomo and Tomiyasu: Finding the next top full-back in Asia – data analysis
The leagues selected for this analysis are the following: Qatar Stars League, United Arab Emirates Pro League, Saudi Professional League, Japanese J1 League, South Korean K League and Chinese Super League. The Iranian Gulf Pro League would have been an interesting one to include but it lacks complete data on Wyscout and others like the Indian and Australian leagues missed out as their level is considered slightly lower. We have considered players whose main position was full-back and who played at least 900 minutes in the aforementioned leagues in the last calendar year so the statistics are significant and representative.
The players whose circles are filled are those who made the final shortlist. We provide this information beforehand so readers can see how they performed and why they were selected as they read the data analysis.
In this first section of the data analysis, we’ll look at the successful offensive (x-axis) and defensive (y-axis) actions per 90. The colour of the dots represents what percentage of successful actions is attacking actions. This way, we’ll get some names that stand out in defence, in attack, or both ways.
The most offensive-minded full-back in our analysis is Bandar Mohamed Al Ahbabi (31, United Arab Emirates) of Al Ain. The right-back had the most successful attacking actions with 7.03 per 90 but didn’t intervene a lot in defence with just 5.88 successful defensive actions per 90. Al Ahbabi, who has always played in his country for Baniyas, Al Ain and Al Dhafra (177 games, 16 goals and 38 assists), has been capped 26 times for the UAE and won the league in the 2017/18 season with Al Ain.
Another offensive but more balanced full-back is Gao Zhunyi (26, China) of Guangzhou. Gao averaged 5.97 successful attacking actions per 90 (second-most) and 7.67 successful defensive actions per 90. The right-footed left-back, who can also play as a centre-back or defensive midfielder, started his career at Shanghai Lucky Star FC before moving to Japan to play for Kataller Toyama and Avispa Fukuoka in the J2 League. In 2015, he returned to China and has played for Shandong Taishan, Hebei and Guangzhou (105 games). He has 9 caps for China and won the league with Guangzhou in the 2018/19 season.
On the opposite side, we have one of our shortlisted players: Ahmed Al Minhali (22, Qatar) of Al Sailiya. Al Minhali has the most successful defensive actions per 90 (14.53 per 90) and is close to the average in successful attacking actions too (2.19 per 90). The left-back is an ASPIRE Academy graduate and has played for his current team for his whole senior career so far (59 games). Part of the Qatar U23 squad, Al Minhali is one of the most promising full-backs in his country and someone to follow on his way to the 2022 World Cup.
Slightly more offensive than Al Minhali, we find Keigo Tsunemoto (23, Japan) of Kashima Antlers, who’s also on our shortlist. Tsunemoto had 13 successful defensive actions per 90 (fourth-most) and 2.94 successful attacking actions per 90 (top 26%). After leaving Meiji University in September 2020, the right-back joined his current club, having played just 31 games so far in his senior career. He played for Japan U17 in the past and is waiting for the next steps in his international career.
A very balanced option is Arif Saleh Al-Haydar (24, Saudi Arabia) of Damac. The right-back is among the best full-backs in Asia both for successful attacking and defensive actions with 5.47 and 12.45 per 90 respectively.
The rest of our shortlisted players have slightly different profiles:
Erik Jorgens (20, Brazil) of Al Ain is offensive-minded with 4.17 successful attacking actions per 90 but does quite well in defence too with 9.42 successful defensive actions per 90. The left-back left Inter de Porto Alegre to join Al Ain in 2020 and has played 33 games (5 assists) so far for them.
Tong Lei (23, China) of Dalian Pro is in the top quartile for both statistics with 11.18 successful defensive actions and 3.52 successful attacking actions per 90. The right-back started his career at Zhejiang FC (22 games in the Chinese second division) before signing for his club in January 2020. He has played 33 games for Dalian and is part of the China U23 squad.
Park Seung-wook (24, South Korea) of Pohang Steelers is more defensive-minded. His 10.13 successful defensive actions per 90 put him in the top quartile and his 2.75 successful attacking actions per 90 are above average, so he’s not just a defensive player. After leaving Dong-Eui University, the right-back joined Busan Transportation Corporation FC in the K3 League (70 games) and in July 2021 he signed for his current club, becoming a regular starter and playing all 18 games so far.
Shinya Nakano (18, Japan) of Sagan Tosu ranks similarly to Park with 10.35 successful defensive actions and 2.38 successful attacking actions per 90. Despite his young age, Nakano has already played 48 games for Sagan Tosu and is part of the Japan U23 squad. His future seems bright.
Ball progression: passes & carries
Progressing the ball has become an important part of every full-back’s game. Here, we have progressive runs per 90 in the y-axis and progressive passes per 90 in the x-axis (the colour shows the accuracy of these passes).
One of the best ball carriers is Jin-ya Kim (23, South Korea) of Seoul. The left-back has 3.34 progressive runs per 90 (second-most) and is above-average in progressive passes with 8.03 per 90. He’s quite direct and effective with his passes with 17.44% of them being accurate progressive passes. Kim came through the Incheon United academy and after 74 games for them, he signed for Seoul in January 2020, having played 44 games for them so far. He won the Asian Games in 2018, getting military privileges, and was part of the South Korea squad in the Tokyo Olympics.
Slightly better at passing the ball forward, we find Wang Tong (28, China9 of Shandong Taishan. Wang averages 3.35 progressive runs and 9.85 progressive passes per 90, both of them in the top quartile, but isn’t the most direct with his passes as just 15.47% of them are accurate progressive passes. The right-back has played for his current club for his whole career (265 games, 4 goals and 16 assists), winning the league in 2020 and the cup in 2014 and 2020. He’s been capped just 3 times, the last one in 2018.
As the best progressive passer, we find Theerathon Bunmathan (31, Thailand) of Yokohama Marinos. The left-back attempted 21.23 progressive passes but just 0.82 progressive runs per 90 in the last calendar year. Bunmathan started his career in Thailand with Rajpracha FC before signing for Buriram United. After 146 games at Buriram, SCG Muangthong United paid 0.8 million euros for Bunmathan. His 63 games (12 goals and 27 assists) for Muangthong attracted interest from Japan, going to Vissel Kobe and Yokohama Marinos on loan before the latter paid one million euros for him in 2020. He has already played more than 100 games in the J1 League. In Thailand, Bunmathan won five leagues, four FA Cups, six league cups and many other trophies and was capped 64 times. In 2019, he also won the league with his current club. These achievements earned him a place in the IFFHS AFC Men’s Team of the Decade 2011–2020.
Another excellent progressive passer is Yong Lee (34, South Korea) of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. The right-back attempted 17.57 progressive passes and 1.78 progressive runs per 90 last year. He has had a very successful career in South Korea, playing a total of 354 senior games for Gimcheon Sangmu, Ulsan Hyundai and Jeonbuk. He’s won the league four times and the AFC Champions League once. He has played 51 times for South Korea and is still a regular starter at 34.
As a complete option, we have Elsinho (31, Brazil) of Shimizu S-Pulse. The right-back stands out in both metrics with 12.34 progressive passes and 2.49 progressive runs per 90. After a journeyman career at different levels in Brazil playing for Genus, Vilhena, Maringá, Nacional de Patos (MG), Figueirense, Tombense, Vasco da Gama, CRB and América Mineiro, Elsinho signed for Kawasaki Frontale in 2015 (153 games, 31 goals and 23 assists) and for his current club in 2019 (67 games, 6 goals and 9 assists). He won back to back leagues with Kawasaki Frontale in 2017 and 2018.
Let’s see how the shortlisted players perform here:
Park is the only one who stands out in both statistics with 11.21 progressive passes and 2.24 progressive runs per 90. Erik is similar in progressive runs (2.04 per 90) but much worse in passes (7.85 per 90).
Tsunemoto and Al Minhali are very similar. Both have 1.6 progressive runs per 90 and 8.67 and 9.24 progressive passes per 90 respectively. Below them, we find Nakano with 1.38 progressive runs and 9.12 progressive passes per 90.
Finally, Tong looks quite good with 11.46 progressive passes per 90 but doesn’t advance with the ball at his feet and has just 0.91 progressive runs per 90.
In this section, we’re covering how the full-backs contribute higher up the pitch. On the y-axis, we have expected assists (xA) per 90 and on the x-axis, successful passes into the box per 90. The colour shows what percentage of passes into the box is represented by deep completed crosses (a Cross that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent goal).
Tang Miao (31, China) of Guangzhou City stands out for his creativity. With 0.38 xA per 90, the right-back is the best creator. His 2.04 accurate passes into the box per 90 come mostly from crosses (50% of his passes into the box are deep completed crosses). After starting his career in Singapore with Beijing Guoan Talent, Tang has always played for the club he now captains (268 games, 6 goals and 49 assists). He made his national team debut in 2012 under former Real Madrid player and coach José Antonio Camacho but has just 6 caps, the latest ones coming in 2021.
Gao Zhunyi (26, China) of Guangzhou appears here again after standing out for his successful attacking actions. Gao gets the ball into the box very consistently with 2.99 accurate passes into the box per 90 and a tendency to cross (41% of his passes into the box are deep completed crosses). This leads to a high 0.22 xA per 90.
Close to Gao, we have Yong Lee (34, South Korea) of Jeonbuk, who stood out as an excellent progressive passer. Lee accurately passes the ball into the box 2.69 times per 90 but doesn’t cross a lot just 31.56% of his passes into the box are deep completed crosses). His 0.2 xA per 90 are very good too as a result.
The last highlighted player is Kengo Kitazume (29, Japan) of Kashiwa Reysol. Kitazume has 0.24 xA per 90 from the 2.19 passes he successfully plays into the box per 90. 38.3% of those passes are crosses, which is slightly above average. The right-back has always played in his country for Yokohama FC, JEF United Chiba and Kashiwa Reysol (172 games, 10 goals and 22 assists) but has never won a title or featured for the national team.
Our shortlisted players behave differently here:
Erik and Tong Lei look great with 0.23 and 0.15 xA per 90 respectively. Erik crosses more often than Tong (38.75% of his passes into the box are deep completed crosses. 30.52% for Tong) but doesn’t get the ball into the box that often (1.69 successful passes into the box per 90 for Erik and 2.25 for Tong).
Tsunemoto and Park get the ball into the box very often (1.65 and 1.59 successful passes into the box per 90) but Tsunemoto creates more chances with 0.09 xA per 90 vs Park’s 0.02. Parks crosses more often than Tsunemoto (42.56% vs 30.24%).
Finally, Nakano and Al Minhali are just ok. They have 0.07 and 0.06 xA per 90 and 1.35 and 1.23 accurate passes into the box per 90. Their crossing vs passing ratio is similar (30.21% and 26.98% respectively).
General defending: positioning & recoveries
As a first approach to the defensive side of the game, we’re using defensive duels won per 90 on the y-axis and possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 on the x-axis. The colour shows the total successful defensive actions per 90.
Two of our shortlisted players look like very good defenders. Tsunemoto and Al Minhali stand out in both metrics with 9.86 and 8.72 possession-adjusted interceptions and 5.47 and 6.56 defensive duels won per 90. Tong Lei is also in the top quartile for both statistics with 6.62 possession-adjusted interceptions and 4.92 defensive duels won per 90.
Sultan Al Suwaidi (27, United Arab Emirates) of Emirates Club is the player with the most defensive duels won (7.38 per 90) and his positioning also looks very good with 7.18 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90. Al Suwaidi has always played in his country and has 95 UAE Pro League games to his name, winning the tournament in 2017 with Al Jazira.
Hussain Qasim (24, Saudi Arabia) of Al Faisaly also looks excellent, winning 6.95 defensive duels per 90 and intercepting the ball 7.9 times per 90 when possession-adjusted. Qasim has only played for his current team in the Saudi Professional League but has just 19 games to his name so far in his career. The left-back has been called to the last two Saudi Arabia games but hasn’t made his debut yet.
Diego Jara (26, Brazil) of Tokushima Vortis is another player worth mentioning here. The left-back looks very good in possession-adjusted interceptions (9.1 per 90) and his low defensive duels won (4.07 per 90) suggest he doesn’t have a lot of defensive work so it’s still a good figure. After playing in Serie A and B in Brazil for Joinville, Diego has also played in the J2 and J1 Leagues for Matsumoto Yamaga, Mito HollyHock and his current club for a total of 99 games in Japan.
The rest of our highlighted players look good too:
Erik is similar to Diego, with a lot of interceptions (8.48 per 90 if possession-adjusted) and just above-average defensive duels won per 90 (4.3), which suggests he plays for a team that dominates possession and in an attacking role. Nakano is similar but with more involvement in duels, winning 4.77 defensive duels per 90 and getting 7.34 possession-adjusted interceptions.
Park looks the opposite way. He gets into a lot of duels and wins 5.72 defensive duels per 90 but his possession-adjusted interceptions (6.09 per 90) are slightly above average.
Ground & air duels
Another interesting aspect of defending is winning duels. IN this part, we’re looking only at the success rate in aerial (y-axis) and defensive (x-axis) duels. The colour shows the success rate in both defensive and aerial duels having in mind their frequency too.
The first one we want to highlight here is Gao Zhunyi (26, China) of Guangzhou. Apart from creating good chances, Gao wins 69.57% of his aerial duels and 73.77% of his defensive ones.
Close to Gao in defensive duels, we have Hiroki Fujiharu (32, Japan) of Gamba Osaka. The left-back wins 72.53% of his defensive duels but is slightly below-average in the air, where he wins just 47.92% of his duels. Fujiharu has always played for Gamba Osaka (382 games, 14 goals and 44 assists), winning the J1 and J2 Leagues once and three cups. He’s played for Japan four times too.
Also good in defence but worse in the air, we have Abdulla Nasser (23, United Arab Emirates) of Al Nasr. The left-back wins 70.68% of his defensive duels, which is excellent for a young player. He has only played 20 games in the UAE Pro League so far in his career for Al Fujairah and Al Nasr so he needs to develop and get consistent playing time before thinking about a move.
Our shortlisted players rank very differently here:
Tsunemoto and Park are very good in defensive duels, winning 69.28% and 69.92% respectively, and above-average in the air (48.89% and 54.04% success rate in aerial duels respectively). Nakano also ranks in the same quartiles but with a lower success rate in defensive duels (63.92%).
Erik looks good in the air, winning 59.38% of his duels, but not great in defensive duels, where his success rate is just 59.28%. Tong is better in defensive duels, winning 60.87% of them, but worse in the air (47.62%), while Al Minhali wins just 54.95% of all his aerial and defensive duels, which is well below average.
In the graph below, we show the strengths and weaknesses of the shortlisted full-backs. Green means they’re in the top 50% of all the full-backs in the analyzed leagues for that given metric and red, in the bottom 50%. The darkest the colour, the closer to the extremes. This is a way of quickly visualizing where they excel.
Keigo Tsunemoto (23, Japan) of Kashima Antlers (Japanese J1 League). Tsunemoto is a complete right-back who doesn’t have any significant weaknesses. He’s a very busy and effective defender, being in the top 2% for successful defensive actions per 90, the best in possession-adjusted interceptions and in the top 10% both for defensive duels won per 90 and success rate.
On the ball, Tsunemoto is a good progressor, ranking in the top 30% for both progressive runs and passes and in the top 25% for successful passes into the box. Achieving these attacking stats while being an extremely solid defender speaks wonders of his ability.
Still young (and more so for a Japanese player), Tsunemoto should be one to watch in the Asian market. His size (1.73m) could play against him but he does great in most relevant metrics and should keep improving as he approaches and gets into his peak years.
Park Seung-wook (24, South Korea) of Pohang Steelers (Korean K1 League). Park is another complete and reliable right-back. He’s very similar to Tsunemoto, with the main differences between both being that Park’s positioning isn’t as good (top 40% for possession-adjusted interceptions) but he’s much better at progressing the ball (top 10% for both progressive runs and passes).
With a quickly growing career that has seen him go directly from the third to the first tier in Korea and perform as one of the best full-backs there, Park seems a late bloomer who could be a surprising but intelligent signing for clubs at a higher level.
Tong Lei (23, China) of Dalian Pro (Chinese Super League). Tong is a full-back with a lot of quality on the ball, being capable of progressing and creating chances with his great right foot. He’s in the top 10% for progressive passes and accurate passes into the box but rarely runs with the ball at his feet. He’s a very busy defender, looking great in successful defensive actions, defensive duels won and possession-adjusted interceptions per 90. His success rate in defensive duels is just ok but that could also be normal in a player who has to contest lots of them every game.
With a solid career so far in Chinese football and having been coached by managers like Sergi Barjuán (Barcelona B) or Rafa Benítez (Everton), Tong could be an interesting prospect to look at. With Chinese football seemingly in a crisis, he could even be an affordable option and attract plenty of interest and money too.
Ahmed Al Minhali (22, Qatar) of Al Sailiya (Qatar Stars League). Al Minhali is a very interesting profile. The left-back is the best in successful defensive actions per 90 thanks to his high involvement and great positioning. Standing at just 1.67m, he’s quite poor in defensive duels (bottom 33%). In attack, he can progress with both passes and runs but doesn’t appear a lot in the final third and his team seems to hold him back.
With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar approaching, Al Minhali will have his chance to shine if he gets to the national team. He definitely has interesting traits in his game but needs more consistency and involvement in attack to show them all. Monitoring him until the World Cup before making any decision would be an interesting strategy.
Shinya Nakano (18, Japan) of Sagan Tosu (Japanese J1 League). Nakano is a very exciting player. The youngest one in our shortlist, he’s a very good defender both in his positioning (top 2% for possession-adjusted interceptions) and his ability in defensive duels (top 22% in his winning rate). He does quite well on the ball too, mostly progressing with passes (top 25%) but being above average in progressive runs and passes into the box too.
The 2003-born Japanese U23 international has reached a high level very early in his career, especially for an Asian player. If he continues his quick development, he could reach a very high amount of playing time before turning 20 so clubs should start monitoring him now so they can get a favourable deal for him.
Erik Jorgens (20, Brazil) of Al Ain (UAE Pro League). The only not Asian player on our shortlist, Erik seems a very Brazilian left-back. He excels in attack, being in the top 7% for successful attacking actions per 90. He progresses with runs and dribbles and gets the ball into the box very often to create chances too. In defence, his positioning is excellent (top 4% in possession-adjusted interceptions) but he struggles in defensive duels.
Playing for the current leaders of the league, Erik is an offensive-minded full-back who’s dominating in attack at just 20. His current coach, the former Tottenham star Sergiy Rebrov, has a raw diamond in his hands and if he manages to teach him about the game at the highest level, Erik will become a very good player for a higher-level club.