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La Masia dropout to Bologna baller: Who is Takehiro Tomiyasu?

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)

Does anybody remember the name Junichi Inamoto? How about Ryo Miyaichi? If neither of those are ringing a bell, maybe the name Takuma Asano might jog your memory. No? Well even if you're still clueless, I can't blame you!

Arsenal have a rather forgettable history of signing Japanese talent, with those three players earning a combined eleven matches for the Gunners. Inamoto remained in North London for a year before returning to former club Gamba Osaka, Miyaichi was signed directly out of high school, and left us for FC St. Pauli in the second Bundesliga, and Asano—infamously signed by Arsene Wenger as a bit of a marketing scheme—never played a match, leaving after two years for Hannover 96, also in the second Bundesliga.

Arsenal's new £16 million man Takehiro Tomiyasu, though, is cut from a completely different cloth. Much like his predecessors, he started out in his home nation of Japan, but that's about as far as the similarities extend.

Takehiro Tomiyasu: Background

Scouted by a youth team called Mitsuzuki Kickers in Japan, his speed and technical quality impressed the head coach, and he was invited to join the team, which helped him enroll in the local Mitsuziki Elementary School. At the tender age of eleven, his coach recommended young Tomiyasu for a trial at Barcelona, which the player passed. However, financial difficulties saw the Japanese unable to make a permanent move to Spain to play for La Masia, and so he dropped out of the Barcelona academy and continued his career in his home nation.

Ascending through the ranks of Japanese football over the next half-decade, he made his J-League debut for Avispa Fukuoka, playing at defensive midfield as a 17-year-old. One year later, he made the full transition to centre-back, starting all 35 matches he played in his breakout season. He was never substituted, and his sterling performances nearly guaranteed Europe would come calling again.

Belgian side Sint-Truiden would be the ones to take the punt on an 18-year-old Japanese centre-back, and because of the slightly different timelines of the Japanese and Belgian seasons, Tomiyasu was able to recover from an ankle injury in time to play in Sint-Truiden's season closer against Royal Antwerp, winning the match 2-1.

Signed on a 3-and-a-half year deal, the Japanese became a regular in his second season away from home, much as he had in Japan. He featured 27 times in that league campaign for Sint-Truiden, playing the full 90 in every league match. Racking up 40 total sppearances for the Belgian outfit that season, the then-19-year-old started primarily at centre-back, but began to cut himself a niche at the right-back position as early as November. Winning the club's Player of the Season award, his form was so excellent that he was able to take another step up the European ladder, this time to Italian side Bologna.

The first Japanese player to sign for Bologna since the legendary Hidetoshi Nakata, Tomiyasu looked to make an instant impact. A mere 20 years of age, he would go on to play 29 league matches for Bologna in his first season, starting all of them. Earning himself a goal and three assists, it appeared the two hamstring injuries suffered during that campaign would not be enough to halt Tomiyasu's rise to the top.

The 2020-21 season would prove to be pivotal for Tomiyasu, as he made a switch from centre-back to right-back, in order to better cover for Bologna's defensive frailty. Though he would go on to feature at left-back and centre-back briefly at other points in the season, the Japanese had found his new home, tallying two more goals to his name, and earning links to fellow Italian side Atalanta, not to mention the ever shameful T*tt*nh*m H*tsp*r.

That's Tottenham Hotspur for those of you who are asterisk-challenged. Is that a thing? Regardless.

Arsenal's interest in Tomiyasu came as a bit of a shock to many fans, given there were very few links to right-backs, especially those linked so closely to rival teams. Luckily, it appears the Gunners have taken advantage of a rival's misfortune for once, as they've snapped the player up for around £16 million, a very decent price for a player not yet 23, especially given how much we need a right-back at the moment.

But what qualities will Tomiyasu bring to the club?

Takehiro Tomiyasu: Statistical and Tactical Profile

Possessing precise technical quality, Tomiyasu can best be described as a "passy player." He loves to have the ball at his feet, and has a wide range of passing, with high completion rates across the board. Per Bologna's tactical setup, he's unlikely to play many short passes, though when he does attempts them, he completes them at a rate of 91%. And his completion numbers rank just as high over medium and long range, with his 68.5% completion rate over 30 yards ranking him at the 95th percentile among all fullbacks.

He plays an average of 4.16 progressive passes per match, and typically plays them over quite a long distance, at an average of 330 metres per match, indicating that the Japanese likes to pull the strings from deep. Furthermore, around 1/3 of his total passing distance is represented by his progressive passing, a potential breath of fresh air for what is a rather stagnant Arsenal team.

Importantly, despite low expected assist numbers, Tomiyasu does play an average of 4.32 passes into the final third per match, again demonstrating an ability to link defense with attack. Effectively, he is rather good at completing the swift, incisive passes that could negate much of the ponderous possession that makes Arsenal such an easy team to defend.

He's also an exceptionally neat passer, averaging 0.66 passes out of bounds, 0.83 passes intercepted, and 0.92 passes blocked per 90. Those are the polar opposite of rookie numbers, especially the latter, which ranks in the 99th percentile among fullbacks.

And though his attacking game lies in crisp passes and possession football, rather than bombing runs up the right flank, his experience at centre-back and his incisive speed combine to create a handful of a player at the back.

Standing over 6'2" tall, he augments his surprising height with adept, quick feet, and a penchant for a sharp tackle to dispossess 56.7% of those who attempt to dribble past him, a feat which occurs only 0.43 times per 90. Thinking back to Cedric facing Manchester City at the weekend, and suddenly nothing could appear more beautiful to me. Better still, he's an adept and aggressive shot-blocker, averaging 0.59 per 90, a 97th percentile statistic.

And to further estrange him from the current caliber of Arsenal fullback, he is an adept interceptor of the ball, averaging 1.72 per 90. Combined with 4.79 clearances per 90, and a whopping 0.00 errors (yes, you read that correctly), he's an incredibly secure option at the back to boot. The 0.53 times he is dispossessed per 90 backs that up perfectly.

Most crucially, he can use his height to his advantage better than nearly any fullback in modern football, winning 3.5 aerials per match, at a rate of 64.2%, statistics in the 99th percentile and 90th percentile respectively. Combined with his 9.21 ball recoveries per match, and a successful dribbling percentage of 65.5%—nothing to scoff at—he's the real deal, no mistake.

Takehiro Tomiyasu: My Thoughts

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the signing. We needed to grab a right-back this window, and we did so, though we certainly left it until late!

I'm excited for the potential of a balanced fullback on the right flank. Tomiyasu isn't exactly your typical fullback—much like Calum Chambers, he made his switch to the right flank from the center, having started out as a defensive midfielder—but he's quick, both on his feet and in the way he reads the game, and frankly is a significant upgrade on anybody we would field otherwise.

Of course, that's not saying he's perfect. I'm worried about his physical strength, as he is a bit slender, and I'm concerned about his penchant to go to ground. We've just signed a defender who quite likes to lunge into challenges, in Ben White, and though most of Tomiyasu's slide tackles come in transition, rather than a preferred item in the toolkit that somebody like Aaron Wan-Bissaka might exhibit, I'd rather not have the entire right side of our best backline prone to a silly challenge.

I've just waxed lyrical about him in the above segment, and I think he has a brilliant statistical profile for this Arsenal team, especially if Arteta calls upon him to play a more inverted role, something I think he'll suit to a tee. But I do believe he'll need time to develop into a more finished article, and if there's one thing Arsenal fans lack in the extreme, it's patience.

Furthermore, we know that stats are only part of a player's overall makeup. From what I've heard, he's a committed and ambitious professional, who tends not to overstep his bounds or throw his ego around, but his intangibles, both on and off the pitch, are still a mystery both to me and to all of you. Furthermore, his ability to get the best out of the players he will feature alongside—White, Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard—is completely unknown. We'll have to wait and see, but boy howdy am I excited to see him go to work.

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