Shoya Nakajima 2018/19 – scout report
After a brief spell in Qatar at Al-Duhail FC in the latter part of the 2018/19 season, Shoya Nakajima has returned to Portuguese football with FC Porto. The deal sees the Portuguese club part with a fee in the region of 12 million euros for 50% of the player’s transfer rights.
The Japanese winger had previously made a name for himself at LigaNOS side Portimonense where he impressed in the 2017/18 season following spells at Tokyo Verdy and FC Tokyo. Despite playing for a relatively low-profile club, Nakajima’s performances in LigaNOS led to him being called up for the Japan national side, where he has four goals to his name in 13 appearances.
Nakajima predominantly lines up on the left-hand side of midfield, though he is equally comfortable playing more centrally in a creative role between the lines of midfield and attack.
Given the Japan international’s tendency to cut inside on his right foot, he cannot be considered a traditional winger. He would best be described as an inverted winger in the style of Yacine Brahimi, who he is likely to replace in the Porto lineup now that the Algerian has parted company with the club.
It was in this role on the left-hand side of Porto’s 4-4-2 set-up that Nakajima appeared in his first game for the club in a friendly against Fulham. In the image below from that game, we can see how Nakajima operates in the half-space. This is typical of how Sérgio Conceição likes his wide midfielders to position themselves as it attracts markers and opens up space in the wide channels for the full-backs to exploit.
Of course, Nakajima’s positioning wouldn’t cause so many problems for the opposition if he were to just occupy these spaces and wait for the pass. The reason the Japanese playmaker is so tricky to play against is his ability to know when to stay wide and when to drop into these spaces in anticipation of a pass.
Notice how in the next images from a game for Al-Duhail, the 24-year-old moves infield in anticipation of the ball being played to his teammate (marked in blue), who will, in turn, be able to find him with a pass into the half-space.
Nakajima is then able to receive the ball in plenty of space as he was already one step ahead of his markers.
Reliance on right foot
Even when given time and space to cross from the left-hand side, Nakajima shows a marked preference for crossing the ball with his right foot. One such instance was the pin-point cross he provided against Setúbal shown below, from which Jackson Martínez found the net.
Even with the knowledge that Nakajima prefers to come on to his right foot, he is still incredibly difficult to defend against given the quality of his delivery. Porto found out for themselves when Nakajima lined up against them in Portimonense colours, providing an assist with an exquisite cross (pictured below).
The Japanese went on to contribute five assists in just 13 games for Portimonense in the first half of the 2018/19 season before his January move to Qatar. This was not just down to a good streak of form, however, as he had already proven his worth the previous season in which he recorded 10 assists, the second-highest tally in LigaNOS for the 2017/18 season.
In this next image we see an example of one of these assists as Nakajima characteristically cuts inside onto his right foot. In this scenario, it was the sudden appearance of his teammate overlapping down the left-hand side (marked in red) that distracted the Vitória full-back, Sacko, allowing the Japanese to pull away onto his right foot and thread through the pass for his teammate to score.
As mentioned above, this is exactly the kind of scenario that Porto will look to recreate this season. Nakajima will be expected to work up a good understanding with the overlapping full-back in order to manipulate opposition defences, pulling them out of position to create space or sowing enough doubt to take advantage of any hesitation as he did here.
The overlapping full-back role will usually be filled by Alex Telles, though right-back Wilson Manafá (an ex-Portimonense teammate of Nakajima’s) has also been known to play at left-back on occasion.
As highlighted above, as a leading assists provider and the scorer of 15 goals in his one and a half-season spell with Portimonense, Nakajima was widely regarded as one of the best players in Portugal not playing at one of the ‘big three’ of Benfica, Porto or Sporting.
One trait that will have convinced Porto’s scouts that he has the mental attributes to support their analysis and play at a higher level is his ability to make an impression in the big games against these same three clubs.
In addition to his impressive assist in the game against Porto, one game where he particularly impressed last season was at home to Sporting CP, where the visitors from the capital were treated to a Nakajima masterclass as the hosts ran out 4-2 winners with two goals from the Japan international.
In the buildup to the Algarve-based side’s second goal of the game, Nakajima executed an audacious back-heel pass to begin an attack down the left channel as shown below.
Skilful under pressure
Nakajima’s ability to produce the unexpected means he is often tightly marked and finds himself being pressed by several players at once. However, standing at just 5 ft 7, the Tokyo-born midfielder is often able to wriggle free from his opponents by dropping his shoulder to turn direction as in the images below.
Another example of his ability to find inventive solutions to being tightly marked can be taken from the game against Sporting. As shown in the image below, in a situation where there were seemingly no options available to him but to play a simple backwards pass to a teammate, Nakajima had other ideas. Not only did he manage to nutmeg Sporting defender Ristovski, but he also managed to spot that his teammate was available to get on the end of his pass.
In Shoya Nakajima Porto looked to have secured a more than capable replacement for the recently departed Yacine Brahimi. The Japan international possesses a similar trait of cutting inside from the left, which should allow him to adapt smoothly to Porto’s tactics and style of play.
Unlike Brahimi, who is a specialist at causing havoc by dribbling with the ball at pace, Nakajima’s talents lie in his attacking threat in the final third as his record of 15 goals and 15 assists from his previous season and a half in LigaNOS demonstrates.
As he swiftly approaches his 25th birthday, the move comes at just the right time for the Japan international to showcase his talents at a high-profile European club and potentially play Champions League football (depending on whether FC Porto are successful in the qualifying rounds).
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