The next Okazaki, Lanzini or Kubo: the best offensive players currently in Asia – data analysis
In the fourth section of a data analysis series looking at the best players in Asia, we’ll focus on attacking players.
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 winger, attacking midfielder or striker 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. A deeper analysis of them is available at the end of the piece.
The first thing we’ll look at is scoring goals. To do that, we have taken non-penalty goals (y-axis) and non-penalty xG (x-axis). The colour shows how players are over or underperforming their xG, with green being scoring more than expected.
On top of both metrics, we find Baghdad Bounedjah (29, Algeria) of Al Sadd. Bounedjah scored 1.17 non-penalty goals from 0.98 non-penalty xG per 90 in the last calendar year (11 goals in 9 league games this season so far). Close to Bounedjah, we have another of our shortlisted players: Michael Olunga (27, Kenya) of Al Duhail. Olunga is second in both metrics with 0.99 goals from 0.8 xG per 90 (12 goals in 7 league games so far this season).
Another great goalscorer is Júnior Negão (34, Brazil) of Changchun Yatai in China. Negão scored 0.94 goals from 0.56 xG per 90, showing excellent finishing. In his journeyman career, Negão has played for 20 teams in Brazil, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, South Korea, Thailand and China, scoring a total of 174 goals in 335 appearances. In the 2019/20 season, he was the top goalscorer of the K1 League and won the AFC Champions League with Ulsan Hyundai. His other title came with SCG Muangthong United, with whom he won the Thai League Cup in 2016.
Another well-known name comes next with Odion Ighalo (32, Nigeria) of Al Shabab in Saudi Arabia. Ighalo scored 0.76 non-penalty goals from 0.68 xG and has 9 goals in 11 league appearances so far this season. The Nigerian striker has played for clubs in seven countries, including Granada in La Liga, Man United in the EPL and Udinese in the Serie A. His 181 goals in 425 senior appearances for club and country (including 16 goals in 35 caps for Nigeria) speak of a consistent goalscorer at the highest level.
Another interesting one is Ado Onaiwu (26, Japan), currently at Toulouse. With Yokohama F. Marinos, Onaiwu scored 0.75 non-penalty goals from 0.8 xG per 90, earning a move to the French Ligue 2. His adaptation to France has been very good, scoring 5 goals in his first 15 appearances. In Japan, he had scored 67 goals in 219 games across the top three divisions for JEF United Chiba, Renofa Yamaguchi, Oita Trinita, Urawa Red Diamonds and Yokohama Marinos. In 2017, he was part of the Urawa Reds’ squad that won the AFC Champions League.
Let’s see how the rest of our shortlisted players did here:
Ayase Ueda (23, Japan) of Kashima Antlers looks excellent with 0.7 non-penalty goals per 90 from 0.54 xG. Edmílson Junior (27, Brazil and Belgium) of Al Duhail is in the top quartile for both metrics too with 0.59 non-penalty goals from 0.41 xG per 90. Dong-jun Lee (24, South Korea) of Ulsan Hyundai also looks great with his 0.47 goals from 0.45 xG per 90.
Akram Afif (24, Qatar) of Al Sadd looks good with 0.35 goals from 0.26 xG per 90, very close to Oumar Traoré (19, Mali) of Al Jazira, who has 0,35 goals from 0.25 xG per 90. Not as effective in front of goal but still doing well, we have Christian Cueva (29, Peru) of Al Fateh, who scored 0.3 goals from 0.31 xG per 90.
Here, we’ll look at the quantity and quality of the chances our players create. In the y-axis, we have key passes per 90, defined as “A pass that immediately creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity for a teammate”. On the x-axis, expected assists (xA) per 90, defined as “the value of expected goals (xG) of the shot that a pass led to”. The colour shows the number of crosses per 90 so we understand how the players create the chances.
The former MLS star Sebastian Giovinco (34, Italy) of Al Hilal stands out as a great creator. His 0.5 xA per 90 are unrivalled and he also ranks very well in key passes with 1.05 per 90. He’s not among the players who cross the most with just 3.22 crosses per 90. Giovinco has had a very solid career. After playing in the Serie A for Empoli, Parma and Juventus (190 games, 40 goals and 38 assists), he moved to the MLS with Toronto, where he became one of the stars of the league (125 MLS games, 73 goals and 44 assists). From 2019 until last summer, he played for Al Hilal (83 games, 16 goals and 19 assists) and he’s currently a free agent. After a total of 464 club games (148 goals and 116 assists), Giovinco has won three Scudetti, one Serie B title, one Italian Cup, two Italian Supercups, one MLS, one Supporters Shield, three Canadian Cups, two Saudi Professional Leagues, one Saudi Cup and one AFC Champions League. Individually, he was the MVP and top scorer of the MLS in 2015 and the MVP of the CONCACAF Champions League in 2018. He has 23 caps for Italy and got a silver in the EURO 2012.
Another very interesting player is Kota Mizunuma (31, Japan) of Yokohama Marinos. Mizunuma had 0.44 xA from his 1.59 key passes and 7.88 crosses per 90 last year. A very dangerous winger, Mizunuma has played in Japan his whole career for Sagan Tosu, Yokohama Marinos, Cerezo Osaka, Tochigi and Tokyo. In total, he has appeared in 465 club games (72 goals and 75 assists), winning the Japanese Cup and League Cup in 2017 and the Super Cup in 2018, all for Tokyo FC. He played for Japan from the U17 to the U23 level but never made his senior debut.
The last highlighted player is Kaoru Mitoma (24, Japan) currently at Royale Union Saint Gilloise on loan from Brighton after leaving Kawasaki Frontale last summer for 3 million euros. Mitoma had the most key passes in our sample (1.75 per 90), leading to 0.31 xA per 90. His 1.8 crosses per 90 were quite low, meaning he preferred other ways of assisting his teammates. Before coming to Europe, Mitoma had played 62 games for Kawasaki Frontale (30 goals and 19 assists), winning the J1 League and the Emperor’s Cup in 2020. He’s part of the Japan squad but still waiting for his senior debut after featuring for the U23 squad in the Olympics. Since arriving at Saint Gilloise, Mitoma has played 10 games (4 goals and 2 assists) and he’s starting to show why Brighton signed him.
From our highlighted players, Afif and Cueva do very well with 0.36 and 0.4 xA per 90 respectively. Edmilson and Bounedjah are in the top quartile too with 0.24 and 0.2 xA per 90 respectively, while Traoré, Lee, Ueda and Olunga aren’t especially creative with just 0.11, 0.08, 0.08 and 0.09 xA per 90 respectively.
Activity in the box
In this section of the analysis, we’ll assess how active the players in the box are. We have shots per 90 in the y-axis and touches in the box per 90 in the x-axis. The colour shows the xG per shot, which allows us to differentiate those players who attempt speculative shots (red) from those who shoot from dangerous positions (green).
Two of our highlighted players, Bounedjah and Olunga, stand out here. Bounedjah tops both metrics with 4.84 shots and 8.67 touches in the box per 90. Olunga takes 4.26 shots and has 6.39 touches in the box per 90. Their xG per shot is above average too (0.21 and 0.24 respectively).
Kodjo Fo Doh Laba (29, Togo) of Al Ain also looks great. Laba shot 4.07 times and had 6.42 touches in the box per 90 and his 0.2 xG per shot shows he shoots from dangerous positions. Laba started his career at Anges FC in Togo before moving to US Bitam in Gabon and Renaissance de Berkane in Morocco. Al Ain signed him after he played 83 games (39 goals and 12 assists) for the Moroccan side, winning the Moroccan Cup in 2018 and being the Botola Pro Inwi top scorer in the 2018/19 season with them. Since he arrived in the United Arab Emirates, Laba has played 57 games, scoring 41 goals and assisting another 9. He also has 30 caps (12 goals) for Togo.
An interesting case is Giovanni Moreno (35, Colombia) of Shanghai Shenhua. The tall attacking midfielder (1.92m) gets into the box a lot (5.83 touches in the box per 90) and shoots a lot too (4.56 shots per 90) but he does it from speculative positions as his 0.08 xG per shot shows. Moreno was one of the most interesting South American players before joining his current team, playing for Envigado and Atlético Nacional in his country and then for Racing Club in Argentina. While in Colombia, Moreno scored 34 goals in 55 matches, signing for Racing Club and scoring 11 in 50. Since he arrived in China in 2012, he has become the captain of his team after 266 games (90 goals and 39 assists). He’s won the Chinese Cup twice and has 21 caps for Colombia.
Another player who deserves a mention is Abderazak Hamdallah (30, Morocco) of Al Nassr. Hamdallah had 4.54 shots and 5.33 touches in the box per 90 and his 0.24 xG per shot were one of the highest in our sample, meaning he shoots from very good positions. The Moroccan international (17 caps) started his career at Olympique Safi, scoring 25 goals in 33 appearances. From there, he moved to Aalesunds in 2013, scoring 19 goals in 30 appearances in his only season in Norway before signing for Guangzhou R&F. In one and a half seasons in China, he played 39 games and scored 26 goals, earning a move to Qatar, first with El Jaish and then with Al Rayyan. In total, he played 49 games in Qatar (41 goals) before signing for Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia, where he has played 107 games (112 goals so far). His 223 goals in 258 club games (0.93 goals per 90) contributed to winning one Saudi Professional League, two Saudi Super Cups and one Qatari League Cup. He’s been the top scorer of the Saudi Leagues twice and once of the Moroccan League, the Qatari League and the AFC Champions League. He was also the MVP of the 2018/19 Saudi Professional League.
Our shortlisted players apart from Bonedjah and Olunga behave differently here:
Edmilson Júnior looks great with 5.84 touches in the box and 3.71 shots per 90. However, his shots are mostly from not so dangerous positions and he only registered 0.12 xG per shot.
Ueda also looks good, being in the top quartile for both metrics (4.1 touches in the box and 3.32 shots per 90). His shots are also taken from good positions with 0.17 xG per shot. Similar to him, we have Lee, with 3.99 touches in the box and 2.73 shots per 90 (0.18 xG per shot).
Afif is an outlier here. He has a lot of touches in the box (6.48 per 90) but just above average shots (2.23 per 90). His shots are also from low xG zones (0.12 xG per shot). This data suggests he enters the box from the wings and tends to assist rather than shoot.
Cueva looks ok with 3.84 touches in the box and 2.1 shots per 90. His shots are quite dangerous at 0.2 xG per shot. Lastly, Traoré has 3.54 touches in the box per 90 and just 1.7 shots (1.5 xG per shot).
An interesting characteristic in a forward is his ability to be an effective target man and receive direct passes. To assess this, we have aerial duels per 90 on the x-axis and the success rate in those duels on the y-axis. To complement this information, the colour shows the number of long passes received by each player.
The first highlighted player here is Patric (34, Brazil) of Gamba Osaka. This big striker (1.89m) contests 17.94 aerial duels per 90 (second-most) and wins a good 54.76% of them. He also receives 3.65 long passes per 90, which is close to the top. Patric has spent his whole career between Brazil and Japan. In Brazil, he has played for 13 teams and mostly in the Regional Championships. His only season in the Brazilian Série A was in 2012 with Atlético Goianiense. In Japan, he has played for four different teams (Gamba Osaka, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Ventforet Kofu and Kawasaki Frontale) and a total of 311 games (118 goals). He has won one J1 League, two Emperor’s Cups, one League Cup and one Super Cup, all with Gamba Osaka. This season, he has scored 22 goals in 42 games in all competitions so far.
Another aerial threat and a great target man is Lars Veldwijk (30, South Africa and the Netherlands) of Suwon. Standin at 1.97m, Veldwijk contests 12.01 aerials per 90 and wins 58.53% of them. Veldwijk has played for 12 clubs in the Netherlands (Volendam, Utrecht, Groningen, PEC Zwolle, Dordrecht, Excelsior and Sparta Rotterdam), England (Nottingham Forest), Belgium (Kortrijk), South Korea (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Suwon) and Norway (Aalesunds) for a total of 319 games and 136 goals. He was the top scorer of the Dutch second division in the 2013/14 season and currently sits second in the scorers’ chart in the K1 League with 17 goals in 34 games. In 2020 he won the K1 League with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and has been capped 7 times for South Africa.
From our shortlisted players, Olunga looks excellent winning 62.69% of the 4.76 aerials he contests per 90. He doesn’t receive many long passes (just 1.63 per 90). Ueda also looks good, being in the top 25% for both metrics as he wins 46.45% of his 7.5 aerials per 90. He also receives a lot of long passes (2.5 per 90).
The rest of the shortlisted players are in three groups:
First, Afif and Traoré almost don’t get involved in aerial duels (0.77 and 1.05 per 90) but win most of them (54.55% and 52.38%). Both of them receive many long passes (3.2 and 2.2 per 90), probably providing width to their teams from their winger position.
Then, Edmilson, Bounedjah and Lee win a similar percentage of their aerial duels (36%, 38.83% and 31.03%). Lee and Bounedjah contest an ok amount of aerial duels (4.57 and 3.54 per 90), while Edmilson just 1.24.
Finally, Cueva doesn’t get into aerial duels (0.45 per 90) and is very bad at them winning just 11.11%. His 2 received long passes per 90 are also low.
Apart from directly assisting goals, getting the ball into dangerous positions and breaking lines is another important aspect of a forward’s game. Here we see deep completions per 90 on the y-axis (“non-cross passes that are targeted to the zone within 20 metres of the opponent’s goal”) and passes to the penalty area on the x-axis. The colour of the dots shows progressive passes per 90 (“a forward pass that attempts to advance a team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal”).
The first player worth mentioning here is Juanfer Quintero (28, Colombia) of Shenzhen FC. Quintero has the second-most deep completions (4.48 per 90) the fourth-most passes to the penalty area (6.4 per 90) and the most progressive passes (13.52 per 90) among the players in our sample. The 28-times Colombian international has always been regarded as one of the most talented South American attacking midfielders even if he didn’t succeed as expected in Europe. As Giovanni Moreno, Quintero started his career at Envigado and then went to Atlético Nacional. In 2012, he went to Pescara in Serie A and from there, to Porto where he played 64 games (7 goals and 11 assists) before going on loan to Rennes and then to Independiente Medellín. Back in his country, his 16 goals in 36 appearances were enough for River Plate to buy him. In Argentina, he became an idol (62 games, 13 goals and 7 assists) before signing for his current club, where he has played 14 games (5 assists) so far. With River Playe, he won one Copa Libertadores, one Recopa Sudamericana and one Argentinian Cup.
Another household name appears here with Santi Cazorla (36, Spain) of Al Sadd. The former Arsenal magician had 2.83 deep completions, 5.5 passes to the penalty area and 12.05 progressive passes per 90, all of them among the very best in Asia. After a fantastic career in which he has played 710 games for club and country (over 120 goals and over 120 assists) and beaten a career-ending injury, Cazorla is a difference-maker in Qatar, having scored 23 goals and provided 17 assists in his 44 games at Al Sadd under Xavi Hernández.
André Carrillo (30, Peru) of Al Hilal is another very creative passer. With 9.22 progressive passes, 7.04 passes to the penalty area and 2.68 deep completions, Carrillo is a great creative force in the Saudi Professional League. After playing just 20 games for Alianza Lima in Peru, Carrillo signed for Sporting CP in 2011. From there, he went to Benfica and Watford, having played a total of 225 games (21 goals and 44 assists) in Europe. Since signing for Al Hilal, he has appeared in 114 matches (21 goals and 21 assists). He has 82 caps and 11 goals for Peru and has won one Portuguese League, two Portuguese Cups, two Saudi Pro Leagues, one Saudi Cup and one AFC Champions League.
Kaoru Mitoma (24, Japan) currently at Royale Union Saint Gilloise on loan from Brighton appears here too after standing out for his key passes and xA figures. Mitoma had the third-most deep completions in our sample (3.98 per 90) while also ranking high in passes to the penalty area (4.17 per 90). He doesn’t attempt many progressive passes (5.6 per 90), suggesting he appears around the box and his creative passes are shorter ones.
From our shortlisted players, Cueva is the best one with 3.29 deep completions, 4.74 passes to the penalty area and 7.84 progressive passes per 90. Edmilson also looks ok with his 4.01 passes to the penalty area per 90, same as Bounedjah with his 2.08 deep completions per 90. Traoré isn’t bad with 1.45 deep completions and 2.45 passes ot the penalty area per 90.
The rest look very poor as we can see in the graph, with Ueda being especially bad with just 0.41 deep completions and 0.49 passes to the penalty area per 90. This could be expected from a pure striker anyway.
In the last section of the data analysis before presenting the shortlisted players, we have a look at the players’ ability to get past rivals and create things by themselves. On the x-axis, we have completed dribbles per 90 and on the y-axis, progressive runs per 90 (a continuous ball control by one player attempting to draw the team significantly closer to the opponent goal). The colour shows offensive duels won per 90.
Again, Mitoma stands out in this section. Brighton’s new signing completed the most progressive runs by some distance (6.69 per 90) and also was very good in completed dribbles (4.79 per 90). Capable of creating chances both with dribbles and passes, we can understand what Brighton saw in Mitoma by having a look at his statistics.
Another excellent dribbler is Ryan Mendes (31, Cape Verde) of Al Nasr. Mendes averaged 5.29 progressive runs and completed 5.36 dribbles per 90. His 7.1 offensive duels won per 90 are also among the best. The winger started his career at Batuque FC in his home country and signed for Le Havre when he was 18, playing 91 games (22 goals and 10 assists) for them before signing for Lille. He couldn’t replicate his success at the current Ligue 1 champions and played 73 games (9 goals and 6 assists) before leaving on loan to Nottingham Forest and then on a free to Kayserispor. Since 2018, he’s playing in the United Arab Emirates, first for Sharjah and now for Al Nasr. In total, he has played 82 games since he arrived in the country (30 goals and 30 assists). He’s also the captain of Cape Verde after being capped 51 times and scoring 12 goals.
With even more dribbles than Mendes, we have an Asian player: Jaloliddin Masharipov (28, Uzbekistan) of Al Nassr. Masharipov completes 6.48 dribbles and 4.68 progressive runs per 90 and his 9.47 offensive duels won per 90 are very close to the top. The Uzbek international (39 caps) started his career in his country, playing 144 games for Pakhtakor Tashkent (29 goals and 51 assists) and 33 games for Lokomotiv Tashkent (7 goals and 2 assists) before signing for Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai. With the UAE club, Masharipov played 19 games (1 goal and 9 assists) before attracting the Saudi giants Al Nassr, where he has played 11 games (2 goals and 3 assists) since signing for them in January 2021. In Uzbekistan, he won five leagues and a cup.
The last player we want to highlight in this section is Yacine Brahimi (31, Algeria) of Al Rayyan. Brahimi is third in completed dribbles and progressive runs per 90 with 6.4 and 5.08 respectively. His 9.94 offensive duels won per 90 are the highest in Asia. Brahimi has always been a great player and he enjoyed a great career in Europe. Born in Paris, he left PSG’s academy aged 16 to join Rennes, where he played 54 games (9 goals and 5 assists) with a loan spell at Clermont in the middle (34 games, 8 goals, 2 assists). In 2012 he joined Granada in La Liga, playing 64 games (3 goals and 5 assists) in two years before joining Porto. He stayed in Portugal for five seasons, playing 215 games and reaching his peak with 54 goals and 43 assists to win a league and a cup. Since 2019, he has played 62 games in Qatar (27 goals and 8 assists). He was the Algerian player of the year in 2014 and has been capped 56 times (11 goals and 10 assists) since 2013, participating in the 2014 World Cup and winning the 2019 African Cup of Nations.
From our shortlisted players, Edmilson Júnior stands out as the player who completes the most dribbles (6.63 per 90). He’s also very good in progressive runs (4.5 per 90) and offensive duels won (8.96 per 90). Afif also looks good with his 4.11 progressive runs and completing 3.12 dribbles per 90.
Cueva is in the top quartile for progressive runs with 3.49 per 90 but doesn’t complete many dribbles (just 2.3 per 90). Lee and Traoré are similar in terms of progressive runs (1.99 and 1.95 per 90) with Lee dribbling more (2.62 completed dribbles per 90 for Traoré’s 2).
Bounedjah, Olunga and Ueda, as pure 9s, don’t stand out here. They complete just 1.71, 1.63 and 1.35 dribbles and 1.08, 0.71 and 0.94 progressive runs per 90 respectively.
For our shortlist, we’ve selected players from different age groups, leagues and playing styles. In the graph below, we show the strengths and weaknesses of the shortlisted forwards. Green means they’re in the top 50% of all the forwards 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.
Baghdad Bounedjah (29, Algeria) of Al Sadd (Qatar Stars League)
Bounedjah stands out as the most prolific scorer in Asia. His 1.17 non-penalty goals and his 0.98 non-penalty xG per 90 are the highest in our sample and he’s also the best in shots (4.84 per 90) and rouches in the box (8.67 per 90). But what differentiates the Algerian international from the rest of the great goalscorers is his ability to also create chances. He’s in the top 20% in this sample of players for xA (0.2 per 90) and key passes (0.71 per 90) and even better in deep completions per 90 (top 6% with 2.08 per 90). He rarely appears far from the box, so it’s normal his dribbling and progressing figures are low.
Bounedjah has spent his whole career in Arab countries. He started his career at USM El Harrach in Algeria, where he played his first 51 games (16 goals and 13 assists). From there, he signed for Etoile Sportive du Sahel in Tunisia aged 21. In two years there, he won two cups and the CAF Confederation Cup, being the top scorer of the 2013/14 Tunisian Ligue 1. In 2016, Al Sadd bought him for 3.5 million euros and since then, he has been a prolific scorer with 159 goals in 153 games. For the Qatari club, Bounedjah has been the top goalscorer of the league three times, the top scorer of the AFC Champions League once and the top scorer of the FIFA Club World Cup once.
He’s also had an excellent career for his national team, winning the African Nations Cup in 2019 and accumulating 47 caps (22 goals). In 2018, he was chosen Algerian player of the year.
At his age, it isn’t likely that Bounedjah will move to Europe. Not because he’s not good enough as he has proven he’s more than ready to move to a higher level but because of his high salary and the risk of taking a player on his first European experience at 29. However, with Xavi arriving at Barcelona, there have been rumours of Bounedjah joining him to solve Barça’s goalscoring issues, so we could still get to see the Algerian in a top league.
Michael Olunga (27, Kenya) of Al Duhail (Qatar Stars League)
On the other side of the top Qatari rivalry, we find Olunga of Al Duhail, who also stood out as an excellent goalscorer behind Bounedjah. Olunga scored 0.99 non-penalty goals from 0.8 non-penalty xG per 90, both of them second-best among all the forwards in Asia we’ve considered. Same as Bounedjah, he also ranks in the top 1% in shots (4.26 per 90) and touches in the box (6.39 per 90). Olunga is also a very good target man, winning 62.69% of his aerial duels thanks to his 1.93m. However, he doesn’t offer much in terms of creating chances or dribbling, preferring to wait in the box and finish his team’s attacks.
Olunga played for Tusker, Thika United and Gor Mahia in Kenya before moving to Djurgardens aged 21. In Sweden, he scored 12 goals in his 28 games, attracting Guizhou Hengfeng, who pàid 3.4 million euros for him. He played just 9 games in his only season in China (2 goals) before going on loan to Girona in La Liga. His season in Spain was unspectacular (3 goals in 16 games) and Guizhou sold him to Kashiwa Reysol in 2018 for 2.85 million euros. In Japan, Olunga scored 61 goals in 78 appearances, helping his team promote from the J2 League and becoming the J1 League MVP and top scorer in the 2019/20 season with 28 goals. In January 2021, Al Duhail paid 6 million euros for him and has seen their investment rewarded with 32 goals in his first 29 appearances. For Kenya, Olunga has played 46 games, scored 19 goals and is the current captain.
After one good and one bad European experience and with a huge salary at the moment, it seems difficult that Olunga could be targeted by European clubs. However, he’s 27 and in his peak years so still an option for a club that knows the Middle East market and thinks there’s value in him. His scoring form is absolutely fantastic.
Ayase Ueda (23, Japan) of Kashima Antlers (J1 League)
In Ueda, we find an even purer number nine than Olunga and Bounedjah. He ranks in the top 2% for non-penalty goals (0.7 per 90) and in the top 6% for xG (0.54 per 90), showing he gets into great positions and is an excellent finisher. He shoots a lot (3.32 times per 90, top 6%) and is very active in the box (4.1 touches in the box per 90, top 14%). He’s also very good in the air despite standing at just 1.82m, winning more aerials than 91.5% of the players in our sample. But apart from scoring and winning aerials, Ueda doesn’t offer a lot more. He’s well-below average in dribbling, progressive runs and xA and close to the bottom in key passes, crosses, deep completions and passes into the box. This shows how goal-oriented he is and what a team could expect from him.
Ueda started his career at Hosei University but was loaned to Kashima Antlers and then joined them on a free transfer. Since his professional debut, he has played 77 games and scored 32 goals (18 in 33 games this season). He already has 6 caps for Japan and has also played and scored for the U23, U22 and U21 squads. He was part of the Japan Olympic squad that finished in the fourth position in the Tokyo Olympics.
He’s a young striker by any standard but especially for Japanese players who usually start their professional careers later when they leave university. His record in Japan is excellent and despite Daizen Maeda (24, Yokohama Marinos) attracting most of the media attention, Ueda’s statistics look even better and he could be a hidden diamond.
Edmílson Junior (27, Brazil and Belgium) of Al Duhail (Qatar Stars League)
Teaming up with Olunga for Al Duhail, we find Edmilson Júnior. The Belgium-born Brazilian forward is a complete attacking player. He’s very active and effective in the box, ranking in the top 5% for non-penalty goals (0.59 per 90), shots (3.71 per 90) and touches in the box (5.84 per 90). His finishing is excellent and he’s scoring much more than the 0.41 xG per 90 (top 12%).
But Edmilson is also excellent at creating things for himself and for others. He’s the best in successful dribbles (6.63 per 90) and in the top 2% for progressive runs (4.5 per 90) and crosses (5.45 per 90). His passes are very good to progress into the final third and the box, ranking in and around the top quartile for key passes (0.59 per 90), deep completions (1.24 per 90) and progressive passes (5.69 per 90). All this ability to create chances leads him to 0.24 xA per 90, which is in the top 11% of our sample.
Son of the former Standard de Liège forward Edmilson, Edmilson Júnior started his career at his father’s club but left for Sint-Truiden when he was 17. For Sint-Truiden, he played 96 games (10 goals and 6 assists), attracting Standard de Liège again. In his two and a half seasons at Standard’s first team, he played 91 games, scored 23 goals and provided 13 assists, becoming one of the top players in the Jupiler Pro League. In 2018, aged 24 and ready for a move to a top league, Edmilson decided for a lucrative move into the growing Qatari football, signing for Al Duhail. Since he arrived in Asia, he has registered 30 goals and 20 assists in 92 games, becoming one of the stars of the league. He’s never been part of any national team despite holding Brazilian and Belgian passports and it’s been rumoured that he could obtain a Qatari passport to play the 2022 World Cup.
A move back to Europe has always been on the cards for Edmilson. He hasn’t lost his talent and is performing at the expected level in a less-competitive league than the Belgian. Same as the other players in Qatar we have mentioned, his salary could be an issue for a team wanting him but he still has a lot to give and could be a worthy investment. He has been linked to Brighton and Olympiacos in recent years but nothing happened.
Dong-jun Lee (24, South Korea) of Ulsan Hyundai (K1 League)
The only Korean player on our shortlist, Lee is a quite balanced winger who has an eye for goal. He’s in the top 10% both for non-penalty goals (0.47 per 90) and non-penalty xG (0.45 per 90). Also very active in and around the box with 2.73 shots and 3.99 touches in the box per 90 (top 14% and 16%). His passing and dribbling are quite good, ranking in the top 25-35% for successful dribbles (2.62 per 90), progressive runs (1.99 per 90), key passes (0.58 per 90) and crosses (2.15 per 90). However, he couldn’t turn this into creating quality chances and his xA of just 0.08 per 90 is still low. Interestingly, he’s good in the air despite his 1.73m and wins more aerial duels than 67.7% of the forwards in our sample.
After graduating from Soongsil University, Lee joined Busan IPark, where he played 107 games in the top two divisions of Korea (25 goals and 16 assists). His performances attracted Ulsan Hyundai in February 2021 and since he arrived at the club, he has played 34 games and scored 12 goals (plus 4 assists). He has played for South Korea youth teams up to the U23, with whom he competed in the Olympics, and also has 2 caps for the senior team after Paulo Bento handled him his debut in March 2021. He was part of the K1 League team of the season in 2019.
Like Ueda, Lee is also young for a South Korean player as he started playing professional football aged 20 after leaving university. His performances have already attracted his national team and a top club in the K1 League like Ulsan Hyundai. If he manages to keep his numbers high and perform for another season, he would still be in an age bracket that could get a move to Europe, probably to a secondary league.
Akram Afif (24, Qatar) of Al Sadd (Qatar Stars League)
In the same way Olunga and Edmilson form a deadly partnership for Al Duhail, their rivals Al Sadd also have a top second-line player to partner with Bounedjah in Afif. Playing mostly as a left-winger, Afif stood out for his ability to create chances. His 0.36 xA per 90 are in the top 2% of our sample and they come from his 1.32 key passes per 90 (top 1%) and 5.71 deep completions per 90 (best). He’s also an excellent ball carrier with 4.11 progressive runs (top 3%) and 3.13 successful dribbles (top 17%) per 90 and can progress from deeper positions with excellent progressive passes (10.31 per 90, top 1%). On top of that, he adds presence in dangerous areas with 6.48 touches in the box per 90 (top 1%) and 0.35 non-penalty goals per 90 (top 20%).
Afif has been Qatar’s most promising player for a long time now. After coming through the academy at Al Sadd, he was sent on loan to Sevilla and Villarreal, where he played academy football. Then he went on loan to KAS Eupen in Belgium (26 games and 8 goals playing in the second division) before Villarreal bought him in 2016. He never played for Villarreal and went on loan first to Sporting Gijón (11 games) and then to KAS Eupen again (16 games, 1 goal and 3 assists). In 2018, Al Sadd took him on loan and then bought him for 1 million euros. In total, he has played 104 games for Al Sadd (63 goals and 52 assists).
He’s won titles with Al Sadd (two Stars Leagues) and Qatar (2019 Asian Cup) and also individual trophies: top assist provider and MVP in the Qatar Stars League in 2019, 2019 AFC Player of the year and 2020 Qatar Stars League top scorer. His lack of success in his European adventures obviously plays against him when thinking about a potential return to a top league but he reached his highest level in recent years and could deserve a chance, probably after the 2022 World Cup. His 61 caps, 16 goals and 24 assists for Qatar show he can also perform at the international stage and he has even appeared in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and in the Copa América.
Oumar Traoré (19, Mali) of Al Jazira (UAE Pro League)
The youngest player in our shortlist, Traoré appears as a very balanced winger whose statistics may go under the radar as he’s not a top player in any of them despite doing very well for his age. He scored quite a lot of goals (0.35 per 90, top 20%) despite not shooting a lot or from easy positions, showing his finishing is at a very high level. He’s in the top quartile both for key passes (0.65 per 90) and deep completions (1.45 per 90) but has struggled to transform that into quality chances (just 0.11 xA per 90, top 48%). He looks promising in some important metrics for a winger, falling between the top 40% and 30% for crosses, successful dribbles, progressive passes and progressive runs per 90. He does more near the box, getting 3.54 touches in the box per 90 (top 27%).
Born in 2002, Traoré started his career at Stade Malien in Mali before Al Jazira bought him in 2020. Since he arrived in the United Arab Emirates, he has played 34 games (2059 minutes), scoring 7 goals and assisting another 5 and won the league in 2021. He’s also been capped by Mali 3 times.
In his short career so far, Traoré has shown he adapts quickly to new challenges, even 4135 miles / 6655 km away from home, and is already performing at a high level for a good club in Asia. It wouldn’t be the first time Al Jazira act quicker than European clubs to snap a young star as they did with Manu Lanzini before selling him to West Ham. If Traoré keeps improving and putting up great numbers, he’ll soon be followed by higher-level clubs.
Christian Cueva (29, Peru) of Al Fateh (Saudi Professional League)
The last player on our shortlist is Cueva, a very creative attacking midfielder. Cueva ranked in the top 1% for xA (0.4 per 90) and deep completions (3.29 per 90) and in the top 10% for key passes (0.95 per 90) and progressive passes (7.84 per 90), showing his vision and quality to pass the ball into dangerous areas and create chances. He also carries the ball very effectively, registering a top 3% 3.49 progressive runs per 90 with just 2.3 successful dribbles per 90 (top 40%). But that’s not all as Cueva scored 0.3 non-penalty goals per 90 (top 26%) from 0.31 xG (top 15%). With 3.84 touches in the box per 90 (top 21%), he shows he’s also a goal threat by himself. This is the profile of a creative attacking midfielder or winger with an eye for goal.
Cueva has had a very busy career playing for 11 teams in 8 countries. He combined successful spells at Universidad San Martín de Porres (Peru), São Paulo (Brazil), Toluca (Mexico) and Alianza Lima (Peru) with dissapointing performances for Krasnodar (Russia), Unión Española (Chile), Yeni Malatyaspor (Turkey), Santos (Brazil), Pachuca (Mexico) and Rayo Vallecano (Spain). In total, he has played 383 club games (63 goals and 48 assists), including his 25 matches (9 goals and 10 assists) for Al Fateh.
In terms of trophies, he won the Peruvian league twice with Universidad San Martín de Porres and the Chilean Cup with Unión Española. He’s been capped 85 times, scoring 13 goals and providing 13 assists, and appeared in the last 19 games of his national team. He’s the seventh-top goalscorer and the sixth most capped player ever for Peru.
At his age and with his inconsistent performances at a high level, it’s unlikely that Cueva could reach a top league in Europe. However, he’s still a very interesting player for big clubs in South and North America looking for a proven player at that level and has some peak years left.