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Our Top Five U23 starlets to keep a close eye on in the J1 League for 2023 – scout report

Last week, the 2023 J1 League season got underway. This league has grown in stature in recent years, with some clubs in a few of Europe’s top leagues, such as the Scottish Premiership (notably Celtic), the Belgian First Division A, the EPL and the German Bundesliga all turning their heads to the Japanese market to bolster their squads to great effect.

In addition to this, there’s an extra buzz around Japanese football at the moment coming off the back of a very solid showing in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Japan claimed the scalps of both Germany and Spain in the Group Stage, ensuring their advancement to the knockout stage of the competition over Die Nationalmannschaft before going on to lose narrowly in their eventual Round of 16 penalty shootout versus Croatia.

The J1 League is firmly established as one of the top leagues in Asia, so for anyone looking to expand their football consumption to a new area, this league represents a good option.

It’s obvious from the level of talent that’s come out of this league in recent years that there is an abundance of ability in the J1 League. However, even still, when researching for this article, I was taken aback by the level of talent on show in the league.

With the J1 League expanding its broadcasting coverage to dark markets this season through the utilisation of their international YouTube channel which they’re using to broadcast top-flight matches, there’s no excuse not to give it a try and sample some of the talent on show before they perhaps follow the footsteps of Kaoru Mitoma, Kyogo Furuhashi and Junya Ito.

This tactical analysis is a scout report highlighting five U23 players we’ve picked out as ones to watch in the 2023 J1 League. Our analysis will factor in each player’s individual role within their team’s tactics, what roles might also suit them and the key strengths and weaknesses within each player’s game to provide a clear overview of their talents and abilities; what they can offer their team and what their team needs to mask for them.

All performance data used in this analysis comes from Wyscout, with our pizza charts using data from the 2022 J1 League season.

Makoto Mitsuta, 23 years old, 170cm/5’6, 60kg/132lbs

Figure 1

We’re starting off hot with Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Makoto Mitsuta — one of the most established prospects that will be discussed in our analysis. Mitsuta just about makes the cut as he’s going to turn 24 on the 20th of July. The attacker has been capped twice for the Japanese national team but was not in the squad for the World Cup.

As the above pizza chart indicates, Mitsuta is a well-rounded attacker. He can offer goals, assists and a decent level of defensive contribution to his side. On the ball, he possesses elite crossing ability and a powerful shot, while he’s also an effective set-piece taker.

He’s effective when used on the wings, from where his crossing capabilities can be best utilised, but he’s also effective when positioned just off the striker, either as a second striker or as a ‘number 10’; Mitsuta can perform really well-weighted defence-splitting through balls from these positions and reliably finds space to exploit in these areas.

Defensively, Mitsuta is best when pressing on the front foot. He typically presents good technique and positioning in such situations, though he’s not as effective when required to track back.

Figure 2

Mitsuta likes pulling off into wide areas even when initially positioned centrally, again, in order to exploit his crossing ability. We see an example of this in figures 2-3. He pulls off from the centre to the wing in figure 2 before getting on the ball and turning.

Figure 3

When he reaches the corner of the box in figure 3, the attacker drills the ball low and hard across the face of goal in search of an attacker in the danger zone. While this ball doesn’t reach its intended target, we can clearly see Mitsuta’s intent. He did well to find this space and put the ball in a dangerous position, which he manages quite frequently from the wings, though the right-footer’s crossing is generally more effective when swinging in from the left than coming from the right.

Figure 4

Lastly, Mitsuta is a fairly high-volume dribbler too, with his penetrating carries from 2022 mapped out in figure 4. The attacker is great at getting on the ball and breaking lines via his ball-carrying ability, either coming from the wing or the centre.

An all-around threat from the attacking midfield positions, Mitsuta is sure to catch the eye in J1 League this term.

Shuto Machino, 23 years old, 185cm/6’0, 77kg/169lbs

Figure 5

Next up, another of the slightly more established players from our scout report: Shuto Machino of Shonan Bellmare. Again, this player just about makes the cut at 23 years of age; he turns 24 on the 30th of September.

Machino is the only player in our piece who was part of Japan’s 2022 FIFA World Cup squad, though the attacker didn’t enjoy any time on the pitch at the tournament. Still, perhaps his inclusion bodes well for his international future and will undoubtedly have turned a few watchful eyes to the attacker. He has made a total of four appearances for Japan’s national team thus far, impressively bagging three goals in those four games.

Aptly named ‘Shuto Machino’, he does precisely what he says on the tin — he shoots. A lot.

Figure 6

Figure 6 shows his xG map from J1 League 2022, highlighting the player’s 60 shots, 12 of which resulted in goals. On the one hand, this is highly impressive considering his xG of 6.13. However, this level of finishing is in all likelihood pretty unsustainable in the long term and Machino’s 0.1 xG per shot could do with some improvement.

Still, he’s a skilful striker who’s exhibited a wide variety of finishes that keep defenders and goalkeepers guessing. He’s excellent at using defenders’ bodies and bending the ball around them, making life even more difficult for goalkeepers. This is especially common when the right-footer’s coming in from the left, giving him the chance to curl the ball towards the far post. However, he’s unpredictable in that regard and even when coming in from this position, he may end up curling it to the near post instead. Again, he uses defenders’ bodies excellently in such scenarios, bending the ball around them.

Figure 7

Machino isn’t just a goalscorer, he likes to link up with midfield and get on the ball in deeper areas too, at times, whether that’s in central positions as we see in figure 7 or whether it’s when pulling off into the half-spaces, which he’s also often found doing. From here, he can either turn to run at the defence and perhaps set up a shooting opportunity as previously discussed, or he can look to play a teammate through on goal as we see in figure 7.

While he doesn’t always weigh his pass perfectly, he’s good at finding space in between the lines and making himself an option for those positioned deeper. From there, he can turn and try to find the movement ahead of him. The striker can pull off some really skilful passes but, again, they’re not always played perfectly so you have to be prepared for some inconsistency in his passing game.

Defensively, Machino is a useful asset at defensive set pieces and is frequently found clearing the ball away via a header. His defensive technique and contribution in general are ‘fine’. They aren’t the standout areas of his game but aren’t big weaknesses either.

Lastly, Machino is often targeted with long balls from the back. He doesn’t have an amazing success rate in this regard (37.66% for the last calendar year) but it is certainly respectable. The attacker is good at backing into defenders when the ball is played long to him and using his strength to help win the aerial battle.

The Shonan Bellmare man is undoubtedly one of the centre-forwards to watch in the J1 League this term.

Taisei Miyashiro, 22 years old, 178cm/5’10, 73kg/160lbs

Figure 8

Our other centre-forward on this list comes next: 22-year-old Taisei Miyashiro of Sagan Tosu. Another right-footer — this time one who is very good with his weaker left too — Miyashiro is a very different style of centre-forward to Machino. You’ll see Machino dropping off and linking up with the midfield regularly, getting touches on the ball well outside the box in both central and wide areas. As for Miyashiro, he’s unlikely to be found on the ball outside of the box very often at all, much preferring to do his work off the ball during the progression and chance-creation phases before putting the exclamation mark on a move with a one/two-touch finish.

Figure 9

Miyashiro’s xG map in figure 9 also reads very differently from Machino’s back in figure 6 — and in a positive way, we’d say. The Sagan Tosu man’s shot selection is far better. He’s got fewer shots on the board but a much higher xG per shot which actually leaves his total xG 0.04 higher than Machino’s for the 2022 J1 League season despite taking almost half the number of shots.

If Miyashiro’s team can find him in the valuable shooting positions he takes up regularly, his goals total will skyrocket. He’s undoubtedly an efficient finisher and a valuable player to have in front of goal.

A large part of the credit for his high xG per shot and clever shot selection must go to his off-the-ball movement during the chance creation phase.

Figure 10

Take figure 10, for example. Here, we see how Miyashiro initially moved between the two centre-backs, pulling the opposition’s right centre-back away from the teammate moving towards the back post in front of the right-back. This was intelligent movement that could’ve created a good opportunity for a teammate. However, Miyashiro himself eventually took advantage of the space, shifting to the back of the right centre-back, invading the space his movement created between that defender and the full-back.

As the ball made its way into the box, then, the first defender to attack the cross missed the ball and it fell to Miyashiro’s feet. From there, the attacker made the finish look relatively easy but it’s important to remember that he had to be positioned well to get the chance in the first place, while he also had to anticipate the defender missing the clearance which we so often see attackers at the highest level fail to do. So, by executing these fundamentals to a high level, Miyashiro scores a ‘simple’ goal.

On the ball, Miyashiro has good quick feet and agility to shift his body weight via his hips from one side to the other, juking around defenders in order to create a good shooting angle. His ability with his weaker foot helps with his unpredictability in this regard as well.

Miyashiro is typically looking to get played in behind — and centrally, at that. He doesn’t often make runs out into wider channels to receive in a position where he could likely perform a cutback cross, for instance; his mind is on positioning himself in the best possible place to finish that cutback cross if it comes.

Defensively, again, neither a major weakness nor a major strength in this attacker’s game. He applies himself fairly well off the ball and has the potential to excel in the right system with the right coach.

Sota Kawasaki, 21 years old, 171cm/5’7, 66kg/145lbs

Figure 11

Moving far deeper now into defensive midfield, we find 21-year-old Sota Kawasaki of Kyoto Sanga. I’m a lover of holding midfielders — it’s probably my favourite area of the pitch to focus on and analyse — and Kawasaki was a fun holding midfielder to look at.

On the ball, he’s a very capable ball progressor with impressive vision. He’s brilliant at spotting movement and players in space ahead of him, while also possessing the technical ability to pick out that movement from his typical deep, central position.

Figure 12

We’ll see a typical example of Kawasaki’s progressive passing in figures 12-13. Firstly, we can see the midfielder receiving the ball deep, just in front of his team’s backline in figure 12. As he receives, the player turns out and gets his head up, indicating his intention to get the team moving forward.

In addition to his impressive vision and ability on the ball, it’s important for Kawasaki, as the holding midfielder, to be aware of his surroundings as he generally receives the ball in very sensitive areas where a mistake could be very costly for his team. Through his positioning and spatial awareness via intelligent scanning, the midfielder typically makes himself well aware of his surroundings.

The 21-year-old is very good at turning out to face forward just after receiving, helping his team to seamlessly advance upfield through him.

Figure 13

As play moves on, we see how Kawasaki picked out the movement from the forward ahead of him who dropped off into some space behind the opposition’s midfield line. It doesn’t take long for Kawasaki to capitalise on this intelligent movement from the attacher, as he breaks the opposition’s midfield line with his pass. Thanks to this combination, the team can progress into the opposition’s half and get closer to threatening the goal.

In possession, Kawasaki is a good asset for this level in the progression phase.

Figure 14

Defensively, Kawasaki is also a typically good asset as a holding midfielder. He’s typically got excellent positioning and is good at quickly shifting across to screen dangerous passing targets if his initial positioning is not perfect.

The 21-year-old is quick to charge down danger and covers a lot of ground quite quickly, making him useful in a settled phase of defence and in defensive transitions too. Furthermore, he’s usually very good at timing his challenges and ensuring possession is won before the opposition’s attack develops into a major threat.

His defensive territory map in figure 14 shows the areas on the pitch he typically patrols and how effective he is at winning possession for his team. His fouls typically come higher up the pitch, while he’s more careful and considered in deeper areas. At times, he’ll perform fouls strategically to buy his teammates time to regroup or just to shut down a counterattack in a non-threatening area before it develops into something worrying.

Kuryu Matsuki, 19 years old, 178cm/5’10, 71kg/156lbs

Figure 15

The youngest player in our analysis is FC Tokyo’s Kuryu Matsuki, who’s currently 19 years old but will turn 20 on the 30th of April. Matsuki is also the only naturally left-footed player on our list, with the 19-year-old typically playing as a left-sided central midfielder for his club.

Matsuki’s ball control and ball-carrying ability are probably the most impressive aspects of his game. The midfielder is good at shifting the ball between his feet to evade challenges and skip through defenders as he looks to either drive through the opposition and get his team moving upfield or just protect the ball from defenders for a moment or two.

Figure 16

Figure 16 shows Matsuki’s ball progression map from J1 League 2022 and here, we can see the typical areas from which he likes to carry the ball forward and help his team get into the final third.

The FC Tokyo man exercises a lot of liberty in how he roams about off the ball when looking to make himself an attractive passing option. For instance, while he’s a central midfielder, it’s common to see him dropping out wide to receive at times. Additionally, we often find Matsuki receiving the ball in more advanced positions from where he can receive and perhaps more directly threaten the goal, but he’s also commonly found in deeper positions when there’s more space to be exploited there. So, the young midfielder is getting good experience in judging the layout on the pitch and making a call on how to proceed based on it.

Figure 17

In terms of how he receives the ball, Matsuki is good at using his body to protect the ball from the defender and try to get his team moving upfield. In figure 17, for instance, we see Matsuki receiving the ball centrally as an opposition player closes in on him from behind. We see the 19-year-old checking his shoulder to see this defender closing him down.

Figure 18

Moving on to figure 18, we see how Matsuki intelligently used his body, leaning into the onrushing defender and turning to keep the ball away from them and turn to exit behind their back. This was an example of some exquisite technical skill and physicality in possession which make Matsuki an attractive prospect.

Matsuki is defensively active, throwing himself into challenges perhaps a bit too much at times but always exhibiting a good work rate. He typically exhibits good marking ability, decent positioning and a solid awareness of his surroundings, including both his teammates’ positioning and the opposition’s positioning.

This midfielder is absolutely one to watch in the 2023 J1 League and it won’t be a surprise to see him advance to bigger and better things in the future.


To conclude our tactical analysis and scout report, we hope we’ve given you at least five good reasons to get stuck into some J1 League in 2023 via this article, and for those who are already well into their J1 League football, we hope you’ve enjoyed our analysis of some talents you’ll be familiar with too. Feel free to track these players with us over the coming season and observe the progress of the exciting talent!