In the early 90s, American technical coach Tom Byer traveled throughout Asia with Coerver Coaching and his own training company, setting up camps and youth soccer schools in the region. With heavy investment and buy-in, especially from the Japan Football Association, Byer was able to create an extensive network of schools that provided quality technical training and development for young soccer players across the country. This generated a groundswell of technical players that resulted in the Japan Women’s National Team winning the 2011 World Cup and finishing runners-up in 2015 while forging international quality players on the men’s side in Takefusa Kubo (Real Madrid), Hiroki Abe (Barcelona B), and Takumi Minamino (Liverpool).
With a strong 2019 season with his club and youth national teams, this tactical analysis scout report will show why 18-year-old Yokohama FC player Koki Saito seems poised to join his compatriots in Europe soon. Saito recorded six goals and one assist from 1309 minutes in the J2 league as an attacking midfield and winger and showcased his impressive dribbling skills that are paired with tactical nous.
Yokohama FC’s tactics favoured a 4-4-2 approach, easily shifting to a 4-4-1-1 setup with one of the strikers dropping deeper than the other to create an attacking midfielder or second-striker position. These formations offered ample opportunity for Saito to showcase his flexibility across a number of attacking positions, with left-wing being his most common starting point demonstrated by the fact that 59.3% of his offensive duels and 60% of his crosses taking place in the left channel.
Saito’s 2019 action map from the left wing shows us how he fit into his squad’s tactical schemes. While obviously the preponderance of ball actions from a left-winger will take place in the wide channel or left halfspace, we can see the license that the Japanese youth international has in attacking areas. Finding the ball in central areas, with many inside or right above the penalty area, shows his ability to unsettle opposing defences by rotating positions and attack the goal at different angles. By positioning himself in different areas of the field, Saito is able to either draw man-markers out of position or create overloads against zonal defending schemes.
Yokohama FC’s manager Takahiro Shimotaira has also used Saito as a second striker in their 4-4-2 formation, connecting the midfield four with team-leading scorer Ibba Laajab.
Saito was used more consistently in this position in the latter half of the season as Yokohama pushed for their eventual automatic promotion. In his role as a second striker compared to playing as a left-winger, Saito relied more on his passing (increasing from 48% to 51% of his total actions) and individual dribbling skills (increasing from 14% to 24%) to act as a creative presence for his team.
A great example of his skillset in central areas was showcased in his goal at home against Renofa Yamaguchi.
As the ball is played into target striker Yusuke Minagawa, who had taken off Laajab minutes earlier, Saito chooses to support underneath the ball due to the pressure on Minagawa’s back. The young attacker could have stretched the backline at this moment given the support options that the player on the ball already has, but his high starting position allows him to drop deeper without getting marked; one Renofa center-back has already stepped up to pressure the ball, so it’s unlikely the second centre-back will track Saito as well.
Saito then plays a quick give-and-go with Yamamoto, recognising and running into the space that Minagawa has opened up with his movement away from the ball after laying it off to Saito. Eijiro Takeda, Yokohama’s left-back, has also increased the space between Renofa’s backline with his wide positioning which creates a bigger gap for Saito to run into.
After receiving a pass from Yamamota into the penalty area, Saito uses his body orientation to first protect the ball from Renofa’s closing right back, then to set up his second touch past the rest of the oncoming defenders. Rather than taking a touch towards the goal, Saito instinctually places his second touch against the grain of pressure coming towards him, forcing any recovering defender to turn 180 degrees in order to pursue him. This gives him dynamic superiority against Renofa’s backline, after which he uses his balance and acceleration to round the keeper and slot in his goal.
As Saito demonstrated in the goal above, his dribbling ability and close control in tight spaces is one of his key assets as a player. With 17.81 offensive duels per 90 and 7.36 dribbles per 90, both of which were the highest of any u23 player with more than 1,000 minutes in the J2 league last year, Saito is clearly unafraid to get at defenders and look to penetrate the space behind his marker. When Saito moves up to more competitive leagues, the number of dribbles and repetitions in one-versus-one situations he garnered in 2019 will help him against more compact defences and stronger individual defenders.
Last year across all competitions he won over two-thirds of his one-versus-one dribbles, and only losing the duels in 18.5% of instances. What’s interesting to see is that his dribble success rate actually increases to 79.3% when going against a centre-back, which is ostensibly the best individual defender on the team. A possible analysis of this trait is the dynamic position Saito finds himself against centre-backs in dribbling situations. If Saito has bypassed a full-back or central midfielder either off the dribble or by combination, he’ll then most likely find himself running at a central defender. This central defender then pushes up vertically towards the ball to apply pressure in stark contrast to the acceleration of Saito running towards the goal. In these situations, Saito is very good at timing his touch past his marker and skipping away from any physical contact that might slow him down.
In Yokohama’s win at home to JEF United Chiba, Saito showcased these abilities with a fantastic solo effort to wrap up the three points. After running on diagonally from a central area to chase a flick-on, Saito uses his straight-line speed to beat his defender to the ball. Knowing Saito has the edge in terms of speed, the centre-back relinquishes his slight positional advantage and chooses to defend the dangerous space first and allow his teammates to recover into an organised position.
Unfortunately for the defender, Saito uses his dribbling skills outlined earlier to beat his man and score from an incredibly tight angle. One thing to notice is Saito’s low body orientation with most of his weight shifted onto his left leg, which allows him to explode into his acceleration and beat the defender to his touch into space. Compare his powerful body shape to that of the defender: Stiff and upright, unable to change speed quickly. The covering defender, highlighted in red, is also unable to reach Saito in time given the proximity of the duel to the touchline; were the defender to get any closer to provide coverage for his teammate a large gap within the penalty area would form, leaving a dangerous space unprotected.
This sequence also highlights a slight weakness in Saito’s approach to dribbling. In the picture above he isn’t protecting the ball from a potential tackle due to his open body shape. Normally a player will dribble with the foot furthest away from an oncoming defender, thereby shielding the ball from any tackle and keeping optimal distance between the ball and defender. Many of Saito’s lost duels came from this type of mistake.
Playmaking needs improvement
In order to succeed as a playmaker at the higher levels, Saito will need to improve on his creation skills via passing. Last year Saito only averaged 0.34 smart passes attempted per 90 and an average of.11 xA per 90; both statistics are low marks for an attacking player tasked with creating chances and advancing play into dangerous areas.
Although his team tactics dictated that he attacks at a diagonal angle towards the goal and focuses on combination play or dribbling to penetrate backlines, the few crosses he did attempt shows another area of his creation that needs work. Saito’s 10% accuracy on low crosses won’t entice teams that would look for him to use his dribbling ability to bypass full-backs and execute a low cross from the byline- a primary chance creation pattern by top teams.
Right now, the players in the top 5 leagues that Saito resembles statistically and stylistically are Jeremie Boga and Demarai Gray- high volume dribblers from wide areas that lack elite creation ability. Even though the 18-year-old has plenty of time to improve in this regard, perhaps the statistics show that Saito would best project as a second striker or inside forward who relies on others to get him the ball in dangerous areas where he can then use his dribbling and finishing abilities to score goals and create rebound chances for others.
In the 2019 J2 league season Saito scored 6 goals off a total xG of 4.2, an overperformance of almost 43%.
His positioning and shot selection are also very good, with all but one of his 31 shots taking place inside the box and 80.6% of shots being taken from the middle channel. These characteristics and his 51.6% shots on target percentage indicate that Saito is able to take shots from dangerous areas that might have more defenders in between him and the goal yet he is still able to put the shots on target.
Thanks in part to the foundation put in place by Tom Byer, a steady stream of young, technical, and ambitious Japanese players are beginning to make their mark on the world stage. Of the Japanese players yet to make the jump to European leagues, Saito doesn’t carry much name recognition. However, his dribbling ability in one-versus-one situations and above-average finishing instincts showcased in the 2019 J2 League and U20 World Cup could surely find him a home in an Eredivisie or Jupiler Pro League club within the next 24 months.