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Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

From Hasebe and Sung-yueng Ki to Wataru Endo: finding the next top central midfielder in Asia – data analysis

In the third section of a data analysis series looking at the best players in Asia, we’ll focus on central midfielders.

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 central midfielder and who played at least 900 minutes in the aforementioned leagues in the last calendar year so the statistics are significant and representative. We have decided not to include attacking midfielders as their numbers were closer to the forwards’.

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. A deeper analysis of them is available at the end of the piece.

Style overview

In the first section of the data analysis, we’ll have a look at the successful defensive and offensive actions to find those players who influence a lot on both ends and also some complete profiles. The colour of the dots shows the success rate in all duels.

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

Starting with the most offensive players, we find Mousa Dembélé (34, Belgium) of Guangzhou City. The former Tottenham star has the most successful attacking actions with 7.63 per 90. In defence, he has some involvement but still falls into the lowest quartile with just 6.95 successful defensive actions per 90. He’s very good in all kinds of duels too, winning 55.13% of them. Almost three years after leaving the EPL, Dembélé still looks class. He has played over 575 club games for Beerschot, Willem II, AZ Alkmaar, Fulham, Tottenham and his current club and has been capped 82 times. At 34, he’s likely to retire in China but if someone has the financial power to attract him, he could still be useful at any level.

Close to Dembélé, we find another former EPL star: Oscar (30, Brazil) of Shanghai Port. Oscar has the second-most successful attacking actions with 7.4 per 90 but his defensive involvement is poor with just 5.39 successful defensive actions per 90. Oscar left Chelsea almost five years ago but he’s not too old yet at 30. Despite his superior quality, the 48-times Brazilian international has only won a league and a cup in China, which add to his two Premier Leagues, one Europa League and one League Cup with Chelsea and his Copa Libertadores and Recopa Sudamericana with Internacional. Many consider Oscar’s career to have been wasted in China but he has become a legend and captain there and it’s unlikely that he wants to return to European football.

Also with a very offensive profile, we have another South American player: Nicolás Giménez (25, Argentina) of Baniyas. Giménez is third in successful attacking actions with 5.56 per 90 and between Oscar and Dembélé for successful defensive actions with 5.89 per 90. Giménez had an interesting career in Argentina, playing for Nueva Chicago, San Martín de Tucumán, Arsenal and Talleres (99 games, 20 goals) before signing for Baniyas in 2020, first on loan and then on a permanent for 2.05 million euros. Since he arrived in the United Arab Emirates, Giménez has played 36 games, scoring 9 goals and assisting another 9. He could be an interesting option for clubs in Europe as he’s still quite young.

Also attacking-minded but with more defensive work, we find Brian Ramírez (21, Argentina) of Ittihad Kalba. Ramírez stands out for his 5.22 successful attacking actions per 90 but is also above average in successful defensive actions with 8.71 per 90. The young Argentinian has had an unusual career so far. He came through Banfield’s academy in Argentina but moved to the UAE before making his senior debut, first to Hatta Club in 2020 and then to his current club. He has only played 36 senior games so far in his career but shows interesting stats and should be one to follow given his young age.

As a very balanced option, we have Jamshid Iskandarov (28, Uzbekistan) of Seongnam FC. Iskandarov appears in the top quartile for both metrics with 3.35 successful attacking actions and 9.82 successful defensive actions per 90. He also wins a very good 56.6% of his duels. Iskandarov started his career in his home country, playing for Pakhtakor Tashkent and Lokomotiv Tashkent (111 games, 18 goals, 11 assists and three league titles) before moving to South Korea with Seongnam in 2020. Since he arrived in South Korea, he has played 47 games (1 goal and 7 assists). He’s also an important part of the Uzbekistan national team, having been capped 23 times. At his age, a move to a higher level seems unlikely but he’s an interesting example of how Uzbek players can adapt to other countries.

Moving to the defensive corner, it’s Young-jun Choi (29, South Korea) of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors who stands out. Choi has the most successful defensive actions (13.85 per 90) and sits close to the average in successful attacking options (1.35 per 90). He wins 55.76% of his duels, which is very good too. With a career spent entirely in South Korea (282 games for Gyeongnam FC, Pohang Steelers, Jeonbuk and Ansan Mugunghwa) in which he has won the K2 League twice and the K1 League once, Choi is very unlikely to leave the country now. He’s never been part of any national team either. 

Close to Choi, we find Moses Orkuma (27, Nigeria) of Umm Salal. Orkuma averaged 13.68 successful defensive actions per 90 and won 56.94% of his duels. The Nigerian defensive midfielder had a good career in Africa, playing in Nigeria for Lobi Stars; in Libya for Al-Ahli Benghazi and Al-Ahly Tripoli; and in Tunisia for ES Sahel, Stade Gabèsien and US Monastir. Since he arrived in Qatar in 2020, he has started all the 24 games in which he was available, becoming a very important part of his team. Despite playing up to 14 times for Nigeria U20, including in the 2013 U20 World Cup, he’s never had an opportunity in the senior national team. He’s still at a good age and could have the chance to join a secondary league in Europe if he keeps performing. 

Our shortlisted players show very different profiles here:

Éver Banega (33, Argentina) of Al Shabab has the second-least successful defensive actions per 90 (3.9) but is very good in attack with 3.54 successful attacking actions per 90. Also very offensive-minded, we have Abdalla Ramadan (23, United Arab Emirates) of Al Jazira with 2.77 successful attacking actions per 90 and just 6.51 defensive ones. 

Nasser Al Dawsari (22, Saudi Arabia) of Al Hilal looks very good with 3.76 successful attacking actions per 90 and close to the average in defensive ones with 8.3 per 90. Hidemasa Morita (26, Japan), currently at Santa Clara after playing for Kawasaki Frontale last year, is the opposite, looking very good in defence with 12.13 successful defensive actions per 90 but just above average in the attacking ones with just 1.82 per 90.

Ao Tanaka (23, Japan) of Fortuna Düsseldorf (Kawasaki Frontale last season) is great both ways. He has 10.07 successful defensive actions and 2.78 attacking ones per 90. Finally, Atsuki Ito (23, Japan) of Urawa Reds is a very defensive one, with 10.45 successful defensive actions per 90 but just 1 successful attacking action per 90. He also wins an amazing 60% of his duels.

Progressive passing

To assess the central midfielders’ ability to break lines and progress, we have used three metrics. In the y-axis, we have progressive passes per 100 passes to show how direct they are, and in the x-axis, progressive passes per 90 to show the volume regardless of the directness. The colour shows the accuracy of the progressive passes.

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

Éver Banega (33, Argentina) of Al Shabab is on a completely different level here. The Argentinian attempts 18.83 progressive passes per 90, completing 87.46% of them. But he’s also the most direct player here as progressive passes represent 23.97% of his total passes.

Far from Banega but still excellent, we see Bruno Lamas (27, Brazil) of Daegu FC. Lamas attempts 11.1 progressive passes (86.92% accuracy), which are 22.53% of his passes. He started his career at the academies of Santos and Cruzeiro but never had an impact in Brazil and moved to Portugal when he was 20 to play for Leixões SC. In three and a half seasons in the Portuguese second division, he played 144 games (24 goals and 10 assists) before moving to Santa Clara to play in the first division (54 games, 4 goals and 4 assists). In January 2020, he started his Asian adventure, first for Khor Fakkan in the UAE (37 games, 4 goals and 7 assists) and since July 2021, for Daegu in South Korea (14 games, 1 goal). He hasn’t won any trophy yet but his career is a nice example of how finding one’s place can take time.

Next to Lamas, we have Oscar (30, Brazil) of Shanghai Port again. Oscar attempts 12.28 progressive passes per 90, completing 89.25% of them. This represents 21.62% of his total passes. It’s obvious that Oscar’s quality stands out at this level, especially now that he’s being used slightly deeper as a central midfielder.

Let’s see how the rest of our shortlisted players look here:

Ramadan is the best one with 11.98 progressive passes per 90 (89.85% accuracy), which are 16.52% of his total passes (above average). Al Dawsari also looks good with 9.79 progressive passes per 90 (83.2% accuracy) which represent 15.78% of his total passes.

Tanaka has the quality to break lines but doesn’t do it that often. His 10.14 progressive passes per 90 are excellent but they represent a below-average 14.51% of his total passes. Morita is similar, with 10.82 progressive passes per 90 which represent just 14.17% of his passes. 

Ito is far from the rest, attempting 7.18 progressive passes per 90 (slightly above average) and completing 78.61% of them (also quite good). It’s his directness that’s lacking compared to the others as his progressive passes represent just 12.75% of his total passes

Ball-carrying and dribbling

Here, we’ll see which central midfielders can progress with the ball at their feet and also how press-resistant and skilled in 1v1 they are. In the y-axis, we have progressive runs per 90, while in the x-axis we have attempted dribbles per 90. The colour shows the successful dribbles per 90. 

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

Two household names dominate here again. Dembélé and Oscar attempt the most dribbles per 90 with 9.56 and 7.23 respectively. They stand second and third in progressive runs with 3.77 and 4.19 respectively too.

Bashar Rasan (24, Iraq) of Qatar SC is an interesting appearance here. He has the most progressive runs with 4.48 per 90 and also attempts lots of dribbles with 4.98 per 90 (fifth-most). Rasan started his career at Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in Iraq before signing for Persepolis in Iran in 2017 aged just 20. After 103 games for Persepolis, Qatar SC bought him for 120 thousand euros last January. Since he arrived in Qatar, he has played 15 games. He’s an important part of the Iraq national team with 42 caps. Rasan is quite young yet and considering he started his career from a very low level, it’s normal that he hasn’t reached a top league yet. He could still be an interesting target for clubs at a higher level to see if he continues his development.

The Argentinian duo we mentioned in the first section of this analysis appears here again. Nicolás Giménez (25, Argentina) of Baniyas attempts the third-most dribbles with 6.25 per 90 and is also very high in progressive runs with 2.28 per 90. Brian Ramírez (21, Argentina) of Ittihad Kalba is slightly lower with 6.2 dribbles and 2.05 progressive runs per 90. Both of them can be used higher up the pitch or on the wings too, which explains why they dribble that much. 

Focusing on our shortlisted players, we see that Banega advances a lot on the ball with 2.66 progressive runs per 90 (fifth-most) and is very good in dribbles too with 2.24 per 90. Ramadan and Al Dawsari also fall in the top quartile for both statistics with 1.73 and 1.64 progressive runs and 2.37 and 2.98 dribbles per 90 respectively. 

Tanaka doesn’t look bad with his good 2.61 dribbles and 1.14 progressive runs per 90. Ito is quite good at progressing with the ball at his feet (1.16 progressive runs per 90) but almost doesn’t dribble (0.79 dribbles per 90), while Morita attempts a decent amount of dribbles (2.12 per 90) but doesn’t progress a lot (0.81 progressive runs per 90).

Creative passing

Moving into more creative passes, we’ll have a look at three metrics. In the y-axis, we have accurate passes to the final third per 90. In the x-axis, accurate through passes per 90. The colour shows accurate passes to the penalty area per 90.

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

Once again, Banega looks fantastic here. The former Sevilla playmaker is the player with the most accurate passes to the final third (14.81 per 90) and through passes (1.27 per 90) while also ranking very good in accurate passes to the penalty area per 90 (2.75 per 90). Banega completely dominates the Saudi Professional League as expected for a player who left La Liga as one of its best central midfielders.

Close to Banega, we have Yan Dinghao (23, China) of Guangzhou FC. The young Chinese midfielder completes 14 passes to the final third, 1.2 through passes and 2.25 passes to the penalty area per 90, all of them excellent figures. Yan started his career at Hangzhou Greentown but moved to Porto U19 when he was 18. He played the UEFA Youth League with Porto and had loans at Salgueiros and Arouca without success. He signed for Gondomar in the Portuguese third division in 2019 but soon returned to China to play for his current club. For Guangzhou, Yan has played 45 games (4 goals and 7 assists) and won the league in 2019. He has played for China from the U16 to U22 level but hasn’t progressed from there yet. Fabio Cannavaro trusted him a lot this season and he’s a regular starter. It could be interesting to follow him as Chinese players can bring a lot to their clubs on and off the field.

Another very interesting player is Karim Boudiaf (31, Qatar) of Al Duhail. Boudiaf completes 10.66 passes to the final third, 1.61 passes to the penalty area and 0.9 through passes per 90, all of them well-above average. Boudiaf was born in France to Moroccan and Algerian parents, starting his career at Lorient and Nancy B teams before signing for his current team (then known as Lekhwiya in 2010 aged just 20. Since he arrived in Qatar, he has played 275 games (22 goals and 31 assists), winning six leagues and one cup. He has 73 caps for Qatar, has played the last 24 games in a row and won the Asian Cup with them in 2019. 

Oscar deserves a mention again. He’s the player with the most successful passes into the box (4.76 per 90) while also being close to the top in successful passes to the final third (8.44 per 90) and through passes (0.69 per 90).

The rest of the shortlisted players rank quite well:

Ramadan is among the best, very close to Boudiaf, completing 11.53 passes to the final third, 1.64 passes into the box and 0.82 through passes per 90. Al Dawsari is excellent in successful through balls (0.86 per 90) and passes to the penalty area (2.66 per 90) while also being in the top quartile for successful passes to the final third (6.58 per 90).

Morita does very well to get the ball into the final third with 11.03 successful passes to the final third per 90 (fourth-most). He’s also very well ranked in successful passes into the box (1.52 per 90) and through passes (0.5 per 90). 

Tanaka and Ito look well but not spectacular with 8.11 and 5.97 accurate passes to the final third, 1.25 and 0.58 successful passes to the penalty area, and 0.43 and 0.46 successful through passes per 90 respectively. They don’t stand out but are very capable of playing forward when needed.

Creating chances and assisting

Moving even further up the pitch, we’ll now assess the central midfielders’ ability to create chances and the quality of those chances. In the y-axis, we have expected assists (xA) per 90 (“The xA value for a pass is the value of xG of the shot that this pass led to. To qualify for this, the pass should be a ‘shot assist’”). In the x-axis, key passes per 90, defined as “a pass that immediately creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity for a teammate”. Finally, the colour shows deep completions per 90 (“a non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal”).

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

After all that’s been said in the analysis so far, it’s no surprise to find Oscar on top of this chart. The Brazilian playmaker’s creative data is fantastic and it reflects in his 0.51 xA and 1.32 key passes and 2.7 deep completions per 90, the three the best figures by far among central midfielders in Asia.

Far from Oscar but still outstanding, we find Young-uk Kim (30, South Korea) of Jeju United. Kim has a second-best 0.38 xA per 90 and is third in key passes per 90 with 0.79. He doesn’t get the ball into dangerous positions that often with just 0.98 deep completions per 90 but when he does he creates great chances. Kim started his career at Jeonnam Dragons (known as Chunnam Dragons back then) and played 251 games for them (24 goals and 17 assists), mostly in the K1 League but also in the K2. In January 2020 he signed for Jeju, winning the league that year and playing 45 matches (1 goal and 5 assists) so far. He was an important youth player for South Korea, playing over 35 times for the U19, U20, U22 and U23 national teams but never made it to the senior squad.

Bashar Rasan (24, Iraq) of Qatar SC appears here again after standing out as a great progressive runner. Rasan has the second-most key passes per 90 (0.94), which come from his good 1.73 deep completions per 90 and lead to his 0.23 xA per 90 (six-most). Interestingly, Rasan hasn’t been used on the wings despite the data telling he’s great at running with the ball and assisting. He can surely drift wide and is an offensive-minded dynamic player.

Another very interesting player here is Serginho (26, Brazil) of Changchun Yatai. Serginho has the third-most xA (0.26 per 90) and the sixth-most key passes (0.69 per 90). He’s also well-ranked in deep completions per 90 with 1.83. Serginho started his career at Santos, playing some seasons for them but also being loaned out to different clubs (Vitória, Santo André and América Mineiro). He played a total of 102 games in Brazil (8 goals and 4 assists) until 2018 when he moved to Japan to play for Kashima Antlers. In Japan, Serginho became a superstar, playing 76 games, scoring 31 goals and assisting another 9. He won the 2018 AFC Champions League and played the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup, finishing fourth after losing to Real Madrid and River Plate. January 2020, Serginho signed for Changchun Yatai and has played 31 games (7 goals and 9 assists) so far from them, becoming another top Brazilian player in the Chinese Super League.

Yan Dinghao (23, China) of Guangzhou FC is the last player we highlight here. We saw in the previous section that Yan was a top player in terms of getting the ball into the final third and into dangerous positions with quality passes and he excels here too. With 2.09 deep completions, 0.64 key passes and 0.2 xA per 90, the young Chinese midfielder is a great creative force. His 4 assists so far this season are the result of his passing quality.

Among our shortlisted players, we have three groups:

First, Tanaka, Banega and Al Dawsari do very well and sit in the top quartile with 0.22, 0.2 and 0.16 xA per 90 respectively. Banega has more key passes than the other two (0.74 per 90) while Tanaka has the highest xA with the least key passes (0.43 per 90).

The more defensive profiles (Ito and Morita) lack quality in the final third and are lost in the crowd around the bottom left corner of the graph. Ito has just 0.03 xA and 0.17 key passes per 90, while Morita has 0.01 xA and no key passes. They both look decent in deep completions per 90 compared to the players around them (Ito: 0.75; Morita: 1.31), which shows they have some quality to at least put the ball into dangerous positions.

Finally, Ramadan looks quite good but not outstanding with his 0.1 xA from 0.52 key passes and 1.67 deep completions per 90. 

Scoring

Even if not their main task, adding some goals from midfield is a rare quality that can set a player apart from the crowd. The y-axis shows non-penalty goals per 90 and the x-axis shows expected goals (xG) per 90. When we refer to xG and goals during this analysis, it’s always non-penalty. The colour shows shots per 90.

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

Another well-known name appears here as former Everton and Man United star Marouane Fellaini (33, Belgium) of Shandong Taishan tops the chart. In the last calendar year, Fellaini has scored 0.58 goals from 0.38 xG and 2.32 shots per 90, showing his instinct and power in the box are still there. Fellaini’s career has been a very successful one, playing for Standard Liège (84 games, 12 goals and 6 assists), Everton (177 games, 33 goals and 26 assists) and Man United (177 games, 22 goals and 12 assists) before signing for his current club in February 2019. In China, he has continued his fantastic scoring record with 20 goals in 48 games so far. He has also been a vital part of Belgium’s golden generation (87 caps and 18 goals) and has won the FA Cup, the EFL Cup, the Community Shield, the Europa League, the Chinese Cup and the Belgian League twice.

Bong-soo Kim (21, South Korea) of Jeju United is an interesting case. He has the second most non-penalty goals per 90 (0.28) but is overperforming a lot having scored them from just 0.13 xG and 1.12 shots per 90. This data suggests he’s scoring from difficult positions, probably outside the box, so he’s someone who has a good shot from distance and should be followed to see if he can keep his output up. Kim has played for his current club (23 games, 3 goals) since leaving Gwangju University and was part of the U23 South Korea squad.

Getting more/better chances than Kim, we find Dodô (27, Brazil) of Khor Fakkan. Dodô has also scored 0.28 goals per 90 but from a higher 0.14 xG and 1.68 shots per 90. He’s another Brazilian player who couldn’t impress in his country playing 131 games (14 goals and 18 assists) in the first and second divisions and regional championships for Atlético Mineiro, Figueirense, Chapecoense, Botafogo (SP) and Fortaleza. In 2019 he joined Khor Fakkan in the UAE, first on loan and then for 2 million euros, and since then he has played 56 matches, scoring 17 goals and assisting another 11 to become one of the best players in the league.

We’ve already mentioned Nicolás Giménez (25, Argentina) of Baniya earlier and he’s here again with 0.2 xG per. However, he’s underperforming and only scores 0.18 goals from his 2.67 shots per 90. 

Three players from three different leagues who are worth mentioning are:

Mohammed Kanno (27, Saudi Arabia) of Al Hilal with 0.22 goals from 0.18 xG per 90. Kanno, who stands at 1.92m / 6’4’’, has played 169 club games so far in his career (17 goals and 14 assists), first for Al Ettifaq and since 2017 for Al Hilal. He’s an important part of the Saudi national team (22 caps) and has won several titles in his career (three Saudi Professional Leagues, one Saudi Cup, one Saudi Super Cup and the AFC Champions League in 2019). He still has most of his peak years in front of him and has been coached by top names like Leonardo Jardim, Jorge Jesus, Ramón Díaz or Razvan Lucescu so he could be worth monitoring.

Abdulaziz Hatem (31, Qatar) of Al Rayyan with 0.24 goals from 0.17 xG per 90. Hatem has spent his whole career in Qatar, playing 197 games (24 goals and 19 assists) for Al Gharafa, Al Arabi and Al Rayyan. He has 69 caps for Qatar and was part of the team that won the Asian Cup in 2019.

Seung-ki Lee (33, South Korea) of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors with 0.26 goals from 0.16 xG per 90. Lee started his pro career for Gwangju FC after leaving Ulsan University and in 2013, Jeonbuk Motors signed him for 0.7 million euros. He had a loan spell at Sangju Sangmu too. He has played 335 club games (60 goals and 45 assists), winning five K1 Leagues, one Cup and the AFC Champions League in 2016. Between 2011 and 2018, he played 15 times for South Korea.

None of our shortlisted players is a fantastic goalscorer but they aren’t all the same:

Ramadan and Morita score at an above-average rate with 0.12 and 0.1 goals from 0.07 and 0.09 xG per 90 respectively. Al Dawsari has only scored 0.08 goals per 90 but his xG of 0.14 per 90 suggests he can increase those figures. Something similar happens with Tanaka and Banega, who have only scored 0.07 and 0.03 non-penalty goals per 90 from 0.11 and 0.08 xG per 90, so they have room to improve their finishing. Ito doesn’t appear on the chart as he hasn’t scored any goals from his 0.05 xG per 90.

Defensive ability

The defensive ability of a player isn’t easy to assess on stats, so it occupies just one section of the analysis even if the defensive aspect of the game was equally considered when choosing the shortlisted players. In the x-axis,  the possession-adjusted interceptions per 90, giving us some context about the involvement in defence related to the team playing style. in the y-axis, the success rate in defensive duels. The colour shows the number of defensive duels each player contests per 90.

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

As a dominant midfielder in defensive duels, we have Isaías Sánchez (34, Spain) of Adelaide United and Al Wakrah SC last season. Isaías won 75.7% of the 9.86 defensive duels got into per 90 while also being above average in possession-adjusted interceptions with 5.29 per 90. Isaías had a modest career in Spain, playing mostly in Segunda B (third tier, 117 games), one season in La Liga 2 (28 games) and four games in La Liga for Espanyol, Ponferradina and Badalona. From 2013 to 2019, he played for Adelaide United before going to Al Wakrah for two seasons, playing 47 games. This summer, he returned to Adelaide to continue adding games to his current 168 for the club. In 2016, he won the A-League and he also has two Australian Cups.

Another very interesting profile is Sho Inagaki (29, Japan) Nagoya Grampus. Inagaki won 71.24% of the 8.32 defensive duels he contested per 90 and he’s also in the top quartile for possession-adjusted interceptions (7.13 per 90). The Japanese midfielder started his career playing three seasons for Ventforet Kofu after leaving Nippon Sport Science University, then joining Sanfrecce Hiroshima for another three seasons and signing for Nagoya Grampus in 2020, playing a total of 283 club games so far (30 goals and 10 assists). He only has one cap for Japan, scoring two goals in the recent 14-0 win against Mongolia.

A veteran worth mentioning is Hyung-min Shin (35, South Korea) of Ulsan Hyundai. Shin wins 68.18% of the 6.25 defensive duels he gets into per 90 but stands out for his positioning, having the third-most possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 (9.45). Shin started his career at Pohang Steelers after leaving Hongik University in 2008. Between 2012 and 2014, he played for Al Jazira in the UAE (56 games). Since returning to South Korea, he has played for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Ansan Mugunghwa and Ulsan Hyundai for a total of 426 games. He has won five K1 Leagues, four South Korean Cups and the AFC Champions League in 2009 with Pohang Steelers. Between 2010 and 2013, he collected 13 caps for South Korea. 

When looking at those players whose positioning makes a difference in the defensive phase, we find Ahmed El Sayed (31, Qatar) of Al Rayyan. El Sayed has the most possession-adjusted interceptions (10.77 per 90) and contests a lot of defensive duels (9.78 per 90) but wins just 55.4% of them. El Sayed, who is currently suffering from a broken ACL, has always played in Qatar for Al Sadd, Umm Salal, Lekhwiya, Al Arabi, Al Ahli and now Al Rayyan (186 games). Despite being born in Alexandria, Egypt, El Sayed has played 27 times for Qatar.

Another very good player in terms of positioning is Young-jun Choi (29, South Korea) of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who also stood out as one of the players with the most successful defensive actions per 90. Choi averaged 9.84 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 and wins an above-average 61.11% of his 8.43 defensive duels per 90.

Among our highlighted players, Morita, Ito and Tanaka rank very well both in possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 (7.11, 6.92 and 6.53 per 90 respectively) and in defensive duels, winning 75.71%, 72.46% and 66.04% of them respectively. Al Dawsari is also very good in his positioning (7.99 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90) but struggles in defensive duels, winning just 51.04% of them. 

Ramadan is average in both metrics with 5.03 possession adjusted interceptions per 90 and winning 58.24% of his defensive duels, while Banega is the worst central midfielder in Asia in the defensive phase with just 1.81 possession adjusted interceptions per 90 and winning just 42.77% of his defensive duels (both second-worst).

Shortlist

In the graph below, we show the strengths and weaknesses of the shortlisted central midfielders. Green means they’re in the top 50% of all the central midfielders 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 their strengths and weaknesses.

Finding the best central midfielders in Asia - data analysis statistics

Nasser Al Dawsari (22, Saudi Arabia) of Al Hilal (Saudi Professional League)

Al Dawsari is a very complete central midfielder in the attacking phase who also has some positives in defence. He ranks in the top 10% for successful attacking actions per 90, xA per 90, accurate progressive passes per 90, progressive runs per 90 and accurate through passes per 90; while also being in the top 30% for non-penalty goals per 90 and accurate passes to the final third per 90. Defensively, he’s better than just 48.7% of the central midfielders in Asia in successful defensive actions per 90, is very poor in defensive duels (wins less than 89.1% of the players) but his positioning is excellent, with his possession-adjusted interceptions being in the top 5% of our sample.

Al Dawsari, who can also play as a left-back, is a product of Al Hilal’s academy and has played 70 games so far for them (2 goals and 4 assists). Playing for one of the biggest clubs in the continent, the Saudi midfielder has won three Saudi Professional Leagues, one Saudi King’s Cup, one Saudi Super Cup and the 2019 AFC Champions League. His good performances earned the 1.78m tall midfielder two caps for Saudi Arabia and he was part of the squad that competed in the U20 World Cup in 2017.

Having won every possible title in his country at 22, Al Dawsari is one of the most interesting players in his country at the moment. Saudi players rarely succeed abroad but it’s always interesting to follow the new generations as they attract a lot of money with them in the form of sponsorship opportunities when they move. With his statistics, he could be a suitable player for secondary leagues like the MLS, 1.HNL or the Austrian Bundesliga or even for second divisions of the top-5 leagues. 

Ao Tanaka (23, Japan) of Fortuna Düsseldorf (German 2. Bundesliga)

Tanaka is a well-rounded young central midfielder who did well in all the important metrics we considered. He excelled(top 20%) in successful attacking actions per 90, successful defensive actions per 90, xA per 90, defensive duels won %, possession-adjusted interceptions, accurate progressive passes per 90 and accurate passes to the final third per 90. And in the rest of the statistics we show, he was well-above average (non-penalty goals per 90, progressive runs per 90 and accurate through passes per 90). It’s normal that a player as complete as Tanaka attracted the interest of a club like Fortuna Düsseldorf in the 2. Bundesliga.

Tanaka started his career at Kawasaki Frontale (J1 League), where he soon became a key player with 94 games (10 goals and 9 assists) in his debut in late 2018 aged 20. For the Japanese side, Tanaka won two J1 Leagues, two Super Cups, one Japanese Cup and one League Cup. He was chosen J1 League’s Youth Player of the Year in 2019 and part of the league’s Best XI in 2020. With the national team, he was a key player in Japan U23’s run to the fourth position at the Tokyo Olympics and already has 3 caps (1 goal) with the senior team. 

He’s in Germany on loan with an option to buy and has played 70% of the minutes he’s been available in the 2. Bundesliga so we could say he’s having an instant impact. Tanaka is Fortuna Düsseldorf’s eighth Japanese player ever, with Takashi Usami being the most successful so far with 50 appearances.

Abdalla Ramadan (23, United Arab Emirates) of Al Jazira (UAE Pro League)

Also offensive-minded, Ramadan is a player who stands out at progressing the ball and getting it into dangerous areas. He’s in the top 10% for accurate progressive passes per 90, progressive runs per 90, accurate passes to the final third per 90 and accurate through passes per 90. He also has a quite good end-product, ranking in the top 13.9% for successful attacking actions per 90, top 15.4% for non-penalty goals per 90 and top 25.5% in xA per 90. Defensively, he’s just ok, being around the median in defensive duels won % and possession-adjusted interceptions but with low involvement (bottom 15.4% in successful defensive actions per 90).

Ramadan has played his whole career at Al Jazira (70 games, 7 goals and 13 assists), winning the UAE Pro League once in 2021. In 2020, he was part of the United Arab Emirates U23 squad that reached the quarter-finals of the AFC U23-Championship but since 2019 he’s a regular senior national team player, having played the last 9 official games and with a total of 15 caps to his name. He has had very well-known coaches in his career, making his senior debut in the FIFA Club World Cup under Henk ten Cate and playing most of his games under Marcel Keizer, former Sporting CP or Ajax head coach.

Still 23 and showing fantastic stats even compared to older players in the whole continent, Ramadan could become the first player to really succeed outside his country if he decides to move. His data suggests he’s ready to play at a higher level. A move to a league that isn’t very competitive could be the best for his career until he adapts to European football and is ready for a big challenge. The second divisions of Netherlands, Switzerland or Belgium could be a good stepping stone for him in his career for example.

Atsuki Ito (23, Japan) of Urawa Reds (J1 League)

Ito is a defensive midfielder who also has some ability to organize the attacks and help in the build-up. Ito stands out in defensive duels, winning a higher percentage of them than 98.1% of the central midfielders in our sample. He’s also in the top 15% for successful defensive actions per 90 and possession-adjusted interceptions per 90, making him a complete defensive profile. On the ball, he’s better than 60-80% of the central midfielders in Asia for accurate progressive passes per 90, progressive runs per 90, accurate passes to the final third per 90 and accurate through passes per 90, which shows he’s more than competent on the ball. Further up the pitch, he doesn’t contribute much, scoring no goals, with his xA being better than just 30.7% of the players in the sample and with more successful attacking actions than 25.1% of them.

Ito was in Urawa Reds’ academy before joining Ryutsu Keizai University and returned to the club when he left University in February 2021. In the last eleven months, he has played 47 games in all competitions (all but two) and is already a key player. He hasn’t been part of any Japanese national teams yet. 

Considering Japanese players usually mature later than others, also because they usually play University football, Ito is still a young prospect. His defensive numbers speak of a very effective destroyer but he’s also good on the ball and can play from the back. The Japanese market is well explored by many teams so he’s surely being followed from Europe and could move soon. 

Hidemasa Morita (26, Japan) of Santa Clara (Portuguese Primeira Liga)

Despite being at Santa Clara from almost one year ago, Morita still played the required amount of minutes in the J1 League for Kawasaki Frontale in the last 12 months to consider him in this analysis. More interestingly, his data here is based on his latest games in Japan so we’ll understand why Santa Clara decided to sign him.

Morita is another very complete central midfielder. He’s fantastic in defence, with the highest percentage of defensive duels won in Asia and ranking in the top 15% for possession-adjusted interceptions and successful defensive actions per 90. On the ball, he’s great at getting the ball forward and into the final third (top 5% for accurate progressive passes and passes into the final third per 90). A single goal in his last games puts him over 79.8% of the players in non-penalty goals per 90 and he’s also above-average in successful attacking actions per 90.

Morita started his career at Kawasaki Frontale after leaving Ryutsu Keizai University and played 108 games for them, winning two J1 Leagues, one Japanese Cup and one League Cup. Since arriving at Santa Clara, he has played 37 games, registering 3 goals and 3 assists. Considering he only had 2 goals and 5 assists in 108 games in Japan, the trend he set in his last games there seems to have continued in Portugal. He has 11 caps for Japan and scored 2 goals, both of them in 2021 too.

Morita is another good example of how Japanese players bloom later than others. At 26, he’s surprising everyone in Portugal and has been linked with Fenerbahce recently. Being flexible and including relatively old players when scouting countries with a different culture is key to taking advantage of this kind of opportunity.

Éver Banega (33, Argentina) of Al Shabab (Saudi Professional League)

It won’t surprise anyone but Banega is one of the best central midfielders in Asia at the moment. He ranks in the top 5% for accurate progressive passes per 90, progressive runs per 90, accurate passes to the final third per 90, accurate through passes per 90 and xA per 90. Logically, his successful attacking actions per 90 are in the top 7%. His defensive work is indeed almost non-existent (second-worst among the 267 considered players in possession-adjusted interceptions, defensive duels won % and successful defensive actions per 90) but that’s what you get when you have the best one on the ball.

It was strange to see Banega leave Sevilla in 2020 as he was in his prime then and a dominant midfielder in La Liga. Banega started his career at Boca Juniors, where he played 43 games (2 assists) before Valencia bought him for 18 million euros in January 2008. Six months were enough to make Atletico Madrid take him on loan for the 2008/09 season but he didn’t work there (31 games, 1 goal) and returned to Valencia. He stayed another 4.5 seasons in Valencia, making it five full seasons at the club in which he played 185 games (11 goals, 30 assists) and won the Copa del Rey in 2008. 

He spent the second half of the 2014/15 season back in Argentina in Newell’s (20 games, 1 goal and 1 assist) before Sevilla paid 2 million euros for him. Two seasons in Sevilla put him back in his place as a top player and Inter got him on a free transfer for the 2016/17 season. In Italy, he had a great season (33 games, 6 goals and 7 assists) and Sevilla bought him again for 7 million euros, keeping him for three seasons. In total, he played 238 games for Sevilla (28 goals, 37 assists). Since he arrived at Al Shabab on a free transfer, Banega has played 36 games, scoring 10 goals and assisting another 14. 

Apart from the aforementioned Copa del Rey with Valencia, Banega has won three Europa Leagues with Sevilla and one Copa Libertadores with Boca Juniors. He played 65 times for Argentina (6 goals and 8 assists) and was an important part of the teams that won the Olympics in 2008 and the U20 World Cup in 2007 alongside Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María, Javier Mascherano or Lionel Messi. A top player who could still be useful for clubs at any level if they’re willing to spend his salary.