Why Japanese star’s arrival “signals a new dawn” for Aston Villa Women
Following their promotion to the WSL last summer for the first time in their history, it’s fair to say that Aston Villa Women have not caused many problems for the other teams in the league. This was highlighted this week by the change in manager, with Gemma Davies remaining as the club’s head coach, but former EFL manager Marcus Bignot has come in as an interim manager, acting as a mentor to the current coaching staff and steering the club forward until the end of the season, as they look to stave off relegation back to the Women’s Championship. However, before Bignot’s arrival, Davies made a key decision in their fight, adding Japan international forward Mana Iwabuchi to the squad from INAC Kobe Leonessa in Japan’s Nadashiko League.
Iwabuchi brings with her a wealth of experience and quality, particularly in the final third. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how she gets her teams on the front foot, and how she links play up between different areas of the team. The scout report will also look at her versatility, and how she can play anywhere in the final third, making her a central part of Aston Villa’s tactics.
On the front foot
The first thing we will examine in this analysis is how Mana Iwabuchi naturally gets her team on the front foot.
Iwabuchi likes to attack and stretch the play as much as possible. She constantly looks for gaps in opposing defences, making runs through them, and this means those defences have to permanently watch her. These kinds of runs also allow the Japan captain to thrive against teams with a high back line, because she likes to operate in the space behind them.
As you can see in this image, from the SheBelieves Cup in 2019, the ball is in a good area of the pitch, and Iwabuchi’s teammate has time to select the right pass. England have come up the pitch, leaving the space open, and Iwabuchi can now get behind them and create a problem. Her teammate has seen her run, making the long pass towards her. Therefore, with Iwabuchi on the pitch, her teams instantly have different passing options, and this is why she is such an important player for them.
From a defensive point of view, we have mentioned how defenders always need to keep an eye on her. This image shows an example of when Spain didn’t do this, again in the 2019 SheBelieves Cup, and, again, with the long ball played into her, Iwabuchi connects well and volleys the ball into the net from a reasonable distance. Again, she has looked to find a gap in the defence, and, by the time the defender nearest her has realised what she is doing, it is too late to stop her. Therefore, this highlights again how she causes problems for opponents, and why Aston Villa Women made a very good decision to bring her to Banks’ Stadium this month.
She has brought this element of her game to Aston Villa. Here, against Manchester City Women, Aston Villa have the ball in their own half, and Iwabuchi, in the red circle, runs forward to offer the passing option ahead. You can see how Manchester City are in retreat, but Iwabuchi is too quick for them, finding a gap, and now she has the pitch ahead of her to advance into. Therefore, it is clear how she will cause problems for opposing defences in the WSL, as they now won’t be able to advance as high up the pitch against Aston Villa as they might have done previously.
Aston Villa up to this point have had plenty of players in the final third, such as summer signings Stine Larsen and Diana Silva, but the Denmark and Portugal strikers respectively have not made as much of an impact in terms of goals as perhaps hoped. Iwabuchi adds another goal threat, as well as pace and the ability to get on the front foot, asking more questions of opposing defences.
The second thing Iwabuchi brings to the team is versatility. As mentioned, she can play anywhere across the front three, and even behind them as a creative attacking midfielder. We saw in the last section how she can attack centrally, offering passing options ahead of opposing defences, but she can also play in the wide channels, helping to create chances for other players in central spaces.
In both of these images, Iwabuchi has taken up a position as close to the wing as possible, which further demonstrates how she is comfortable in any attacking role.
The first image shows how Japan are looking to get behind England’s wide defensive structure, but can’t do that with one simple pass. Instead, Iwabuchi, in the red circle, offers the option of a two-pass move to get behind them, and so, like in the last section, the Japan forward’s positioning and spatial awareness ensures her side have options on the ball.
In the second image, we see how England have left too much space open on the nearside wing, allowing Iwabuchi to advance up the pitch and play the ball into the box. However, her cross is not a good one, and ends up being cleared easily by the England defenders. This is perhaps one area she can still improve her game, as crossing is not her strength. However, by getting into these spaces, it shows her intent and ability to ask questions of opposing defenders, and, if she continually does this, she will improve this aspect of her game.
When we consider her central positioning so far, she has always been leading the line on her own. However, Aston Villa Women tend to play with a front three, and this is where Iwabuchi has had to adapt slightly. Given her versatility, it is likely that she will be asked to play in all three forward roles at some stage, but she can also play just behind the main attacking line, as you can see here. In this image, against Reading Women, she is running into the box, but, by being the second player to arrive, she can look ahead to where the spaces are.
The red arrow shows how her instinct to play in between defenders gets her in a good position to receive the ball from winger Emma Follis, on the nearside wing. Therefore, Aston Villa could benefit more from giving her a free attacking role, because she will be able to use her excellent spatial awareness to create problems for opponents.
She will also bring an ability to play under pressure. In the WSL, a lot of teams like to press opponents, looking to force mistakes in possession. However, this opens up spaces behind, as we can see happening here. Iwabuchi is calm in these situations, which is another key reason she will help her new team. She sees how Reading’s defenders closing her down allows Larsen, in the yellow circle, to get into the space behind, and plays the ball through the middle of them and into her teammate’s path.
This ability to not rush decisions, even when in little space, will really benefit her team, particularly in the perilous league position they are in. Her ability to find teammates in these spaces means that there will be a constant supply of chances for the strikers, giving Aston Villa a good opportunity of succeeding in their survival bid.
Linking up the play
The final thing that Mana Iwabuchi brings to her team is an ability to link up the play. In the image below, we can see how she has the ball in the final third, and is always on the lookout for ways to get the ball into dangerous areas.
Spain have set up with a high back line, meaning the space is open behind. Therefore, with her teammate in a position to receive the ball in that area, Iwabuchi doesn’t hesitate to make the pass, and her teammate scores from this chance. Therefore, she plays a key role in her team’s attacks, even when not furthest forwards. Her pace and skill means she can twist around defenders, further making it difficult for them to stop her. In these situations, defences need to retreat backwards, but it is too late to stop the attack, because of the striker already being behind the line. Had the pass not come when it did, Japan may not have had the space to score, so Iwabuchi’s awareness and excellent decision making with the ball is another thing Aston Villa will benefit from.
The other key point here is that, by getting in these positions, she links the play between the midfield and forward lines, receiving the ball and moving it into areas where her team can make the most of their chances. This is a crucial quality to have, particularly for a player as versatile as her, because it means that, like with her runs behind defences, her team has options on the ball. They can either play the long ball, as we have seen already, but can also play a short pass into Iwabuchi, who will then move it forward, as shown here.
This is another quality Iwabuchi has brought to Aston Villa Women. As mentioned previously, Aston Villa have plenty of attacking threat in their team, with Stine Larsen, Diana Silva and Shania Hayles among their striker options, and Hayles and Silva often provide a threat from wide areas as well. However, what they have lacked is someone to come in and gel them together. Given this wide threat, Reading have looked to pack their players in and around the goal here, aiming to prevent Aston Villa moving inside and shooting at goal.
Normally, this would have ended the attack, with Aston Villa moving the ball away from goal. However, Iwabuchi takes control of the situation, receiving the pass from Hayles before dribbling forwards, as the red arrow indicates, and playing a quick ball into the central area, where Silva scores. Therefore, we can see how Iwabuchi’s addition to the team will help Aston Villa to create and convert more chances in the second half of the season, which could be what they need to stay up.
However, where we will get a clearer picture of what Mana Iwabuchi will bring to the team is from her statistics. It should be mentioned that these are the average per game of her two matches at Aston Villa Women so far, but they still give us an indication of what we can expect from her going forward.
This is Iwabuchi’s heatmap from her time at Aston Villa so far. We have looked at her versatility, and this is evident in the different areas marked in this image. There are stronger marks on the right wing, which is where she has featured more, and this is perhaps because she can pose a more direct threat from that side of the pitch. We have seen how she is more creative there, looking to get balls into the area herself, whereas, on the left side, she is involved more in the build-up play, helping to release teammates behind defences. However, the main thing to take from this map is how many areas she has played in, highlighting her aforementioned versatility.
Here, we see Iwabuchi’s statistics from her two games at Aston Villa.
The first thing to point out is that she has exceeded her expected goals and assists (xG and xA), showing that she is the type of player who can help Aston Villa take more of their chances. Her ability to play anywhere in attack and even behind is likely the reason why she has a good assist rate so far, so we can expect that this will continue the more she settles into the team, and the more her teammates use her as their central attacking pivot to play off.
She also has an impressive passing accuracy, showing how, when she gets the ball, she ensures it goes to where her teammates can create problems for opponents. This is another reason she is a dangerous opponent to play against, and why Aston Villa will benefit from having her in their side.
We have already mentioned how crossing is an area she can improve going forward, but her statistics for offensive duels won is another area which she could look at. Against opponents that defend tightly, such as Birmingham City Women and Manchester United Women, winning offensive duels is key, so, if Iwabuchi can work on this, then she can ask more questions of those defenders, putting more pressure on them.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at how Japan star Mana Iwabuchi will feature in Aston Villa Women’s tactics going forwards. Given the qualities she has, it is no surprise that her arrival “signals a new dawn” for the club, both on and off the pitch, according to many, including Director of Football and former England striker Eniola Aluko. Aston Villa have never looked like a side short on ideas this season, but just lacking a bit of quality in the final third, and a player to link up the play and give them a bit of confidence going forward; Iwabuchi brings that in abundance. Therefore, her addition is a definite positive for the club.