Hiroki Ito 2021/22: The young defender with all the makings of a top modern day centre-back – scout report
From the likes of Shinji Kagawa once of Borussia Dortmund and Wataru Endo, to Ritsu Doan and Daichi Kamada, Japanese footballers surely know how to make a claim in the Bundesliga. Another name that is asserting themselves within the band of top Japanese players within the German topflight is Hiroki Ito, a 22-year-old centre-back, playing currently at VfB Stuttgart. The young defender started his professional career with Jubilo Iwata in the Japanese second division; and during this time, Ito was making appearances for Japan at U20 and U21 level. Hiroki Ito is slowly but surely climbing the footballing ladder and making a name for himself amongst the Stuttgart faithful, and is showing all the elements of a top defender within the football landscape.
Technical quality & quality in possession
Hiroki Ito can play in a plethora of positions, but for Pellegrino Matarazzo’s Stuttgart, Ito mostly occupies the left side of their back three. When stationed within this position, Ito can drive within the left half-space, and when this movement occurs, the defender can become a danger to the opposition. Ito gets a quality passing range, whether at short, medium, or long-range distances. Besides Ito showing his quality of a pass across all three thirds, the defender also showcases the variety of passing he gets. Hiroki Ito can play an accurate long drive pass downfield to a teammate, making a penetrating run into the box or pushing out-wide, as he can generate wonderful power and connection with the ball.
Here, positioned on the left side of a three Philipp Foster making a wonderful, blindsided run against the Mainz 05 back-line. Ito has the vision to see this run, along with the capability to quickly complete this long-range pass within three actions. The first action is the initial touch, the second; getting the ball out of his feet, and the third is the execution of the pass.
His passing pedigree does not stop there, as Ito has shown to have a good disguise when passing, to catch opposition markers off guard. Here, Ito receives the ball from his centre-back counterpart, and once in full control of the ball, the Stuttgart defender drives into the left half-space.
Once in this space, the defender can now look for a forward pass to a teammate. Because of the defender’s astute body position and angle, the opposition believes that Ito is angling his pass towards the left flank, but in reality, Ito sends a wonderful line-breaking pass straight into the path of teammate Orel Mangala.
The scenario above was a good example of Ito’s ability to break the lines and find others that are around him, which is a major component of Ito’s game. As mentioned prior, Ito mostly plays as a left centre-half but has been placed in the centre of Stuttgart’s back three. Regardless of the slight position change, when playing middle centre-back, his progressive nature does not negate.
During this scenario, Ito is under pressure from a Gladbach attacker. While under this strain, Ito does well to manipulate his body position; acting as if he was going to pass outside when his true intention is to pass centrally. This situation is a perfect example of Hiroki Ito’s technical skill; as he is a player that can play out of pressure, operate with one to three touches to perform an action, besides his forward-thinking and ability to wrap his passes around opposition markers.
Another component to add to the defender’s already comprehensive bow is his passing ability within the middle third. During these interactions with players around him, Ito has showcased good bounce passing and sharp and crisp short/medium passing, which helps facilitate during phases of build-up.
An interesting notion when discussing Ito’s technical qualities is the platform he creates for himself which allows him to display his talent. When observing the Japanese U21 international, he excels when identifying space in order to receive the ball and become an optimal passing option. These types of movements are usually found in defensive midfielders who make lateral movements and find pockets of space during the first phase of play, and Hiroki Ito replicates this movement in the Stuttgart backline. These reminiscent movements are not by chance or fluke, Ito moves like a midfielder because he once operated as one. During the early portion of his career, Ito played as a lone defensive midfielder when making brief appearances for Nagoya Grampus in the Japanese first division. Ito was placed in a midfield role during the 2019 U20’s World Cup.
Hiroki Ito stands at 6’1 foot tall, with a quite slim and lean stance. The defender obtains a fairly quick speed off the mark, but his greatest defensive quality is his assertiveness and his sixth sense for extinguishing danger. During these actions, Ito is quite aggressive, as he is quite prone to breaking the defensive line, in an attempt to place pressure upon his opponent, and retrieve the ball, or at the bare minimum, delay the attacker.
Here, a Wolfsburg player is in possession, attempting to send a vertical driven ball to an attacker. Before this pass, if fired, Ito smartly checks behind his right shoulder, in order to interpret the danger that is around him. Just before the ball is driven forward, Ito makes the first step before the attacker, anticipating the pass and clearing the danger.
These types of situations are commonplace for Ito, as so far this season the defender has accumulated 3.38 (99 percentile). While Ito’s pressurising nature is quite impressive, we must remember the defender is still quite young, and in-result has some rough edges to improve upon. An issue the Japanese defender suffers occasionally due to his inability to track the flight of the ball during aerial duels. While the ball is in the air, Ito may misjudge the ball and not get the correct contact on the ball, or miss the ball entirely.
Ito’s aggression; to reiterate, this is one of Ito’s strong points and what gives him an edge against attackers, but the defenders can get drawn to the ball.
Here, a Mainz 05 player is about to receive possession of the ball, and Ito breaks the defensive line to apply pressure.
Now, Ito is faced 1v1 against the ball-carrier and misses the initial tackle. Fortunately, pressure from another Stuttgart player picked the pocket of the ball-handler, but on another danger, Ito’s stepping out and poor challenge could have been costly based on the space he created for the opposition that was not utilised, leaving his teammate behind him isolated.
As mentioned previously, Ito past has seen him play as a holding midfielder, a role he has not featured in during his Stuttgart career. Not that Ito has not been placed within a different role apart from centre-back. Occasionally, Ito is stationed as a left-wingback, against the likes of Bayern Munich, where his production is a mixed bag. Defensively, Ito hold-ups well, with his astute 1v1 defending and speed, which helps him keep up with quick attackers. Offensively, his results vary. When in an attacking position, he does not gain the ball manipulation skills to beat an opposing player and, along with not display significant crossing talent.
While a fair share of his minutes this season has seen him play centre-back, left-wingback is a position he can play, but this should only be done out of necessity rather than tactical reasons. While his versatility regarding the positions he can occupy may not be in abundance, since the switch to a more attacking role sees his qualities shrink, Ito shows versatility when playing as a centre-back. Playing Ito as a primary attacking is not getting the best out of the defenders, but when functioning as an outside centre-back, Ito can play as a secondary attacker. When Stuttgart is in possession, Ito is prone to joining the attack out-wide and making under-lapping runs into the final third. These runs are useful as he creates one of two things. First, this run can create space for the ball-carrier as Ito’s run can draw away defenders. Also, Ito joins the attacker, he can support either the left-wingback or central midfielder in possession.
When in these positions, Ito can be a threat. Here, Ito begins the attack with a strong weighted long ball down the left flank.
Now that the ball is in into the final third, Stuttgart looks to find an opening. The ball eventually finds itself back on the left-hand side. Space within the Mainz 05 back-line is created because of defenders being occupied by Stuttgart attackers. Ito recognises this space and makes a darting run into it.
Orel Mangala finds Ito in the box, and the defender can send the ball into the top corner of the net with a first-time finish, showcasing his attacking value.
It is not new to see players of Japanese descent achieve great things in world football, especially in the Bundesliga. Hiroki Ito is making waves during his first season in the topflight with Stuttgart, with his quality passing range and assertive nature. Ito is not the finished product and certain issues must be ironed out. If this occurs, football fans may watch the young defender play for top teams in the Premier League or La Liga soon.