Takehiro Tomiyasu – Arsenal’s Most Important Player?

Important. Of great significance or value.

But £16.74m and around £56k a week was all it took Arsenal to prize Japanese international Takehiro Tomiyasu away from Italy on transfer deadline day last summer. Having recently visited Bologna myself and sampled the local cuisine… that is no mean feat. Takehiro spent two full seasons in Emilia-Romagna having previously spent time in Belgium and his native Japan. His journey west continues.

To assess how important something is, you must first define your terms. Important in what sense? To whom? And how? A leading actor may take the plaudits, but without the ensemble, the crew and the audience… they’re doing little more than talking to themselves.

For a football team, a player’s importance could be assessed using a number of metrics, but for the purposes of clarity I will address the two that I believe are the most important — and cast the widest net for our assessment; his role from a tactical, on-pitch perspective & his cultural, more intangible impact away from the pitch.

Let’s first look at Tomiyasu’s importance from a tactical perspective.

One of Tomiyasu’s most eye catching qualities is the fact that he is ambipedal. The data site FBref have him at 68% right-footed. The only other player they have at exactly 68% right-footed in Arsenal’s recent history? Santi Cazorla. 

It enables him to be comfortable in multiple zones on the pitch – and that leads us to his most well known quality — positional versatility. In his final season at Bologna, in all competitions, Tomiyasu played seventeen games at Centre Back (covering both sides), fourteen games at Right Back and two games at Left Back. It takes extraordinary football IQ to be comfortable in that many zones of the pitch at the top level, as well as the right physical attributes and an extremely high level of technique. Arteta himself said of these abilities:

“When we followed the player, it is one of things that I came across & it gives you a lot of solutions. He can use both feet, he can play right centre-back, left centre-back, left-back. That gives you enormous variability.”

But Takehiro is not just adaptable positionally — he is also adaptable stylistically

He is adept at building in a back 3 on both sides as well as in a 2 and inverting as an auxiliary 3rd central midfielder to create central overloads and at going on the outside for underlaps and overlaps, all at a relatively similar standard.

I think one of Arteta’s mistakes in the most recent North London Derby was to not move Tomiyasu over to the right hand channel sooner to provide the stability we needed. But the point is, he gives you that option. In-game, you have a chess piece that you can shift around. He is an enabler.

Aerially, he is quite simply outstanding. Arsenal really lacked an aerial presence heading into this season, especially on the exterior with all of Kieran Tierney, Cédric Soares, Bukayo Saka & Gabriel Martinelli coming in at under 5’10. He wins 3.05 aerial challenges per 90 – a staggering amount, putting him at the very top of the charts when compared to other full backs. Gabriel Magalhæs, probably our next best aerial threat only wins 2.22 per 90. More widely, you will struggle to find someone to compete with Tomiyasu on the exterior, so you begin to look at dominant centre backs. Ruben Dias wins 2.05 per 90, America Laporte is at 2.25, but Virgil van Dijk wins 4.12 per 90 — he is quite simply on another planet.

1v1 he displays superb technique. The ever excellent Clive on the Arsenal Vision Podcast recently highlighted his excellent body position when facing even the world’s best players – crouched down, on his toes, ready to spring off in any direction. He gets under his opponent, standing up and pinching the ball, rarely committing a foul. I actually struggled to find examples of Tomiyasu 1v1 when researching for this article, because teams so rarely try to isolate him in those situations. And that tells you all you need to know.

Additionally, coming into this, I thought Tomiyasu was just a fantastic defender and pretty average going forward. Maybe you think that too. But the data tells us that just isn’t true – certainly not in this team. Based on the biggest pool of consecutive games he’s played, towards the beginning of the season, in January Tomiyasu’s xG buildup, i.e. what he contributes to Arsenal’s expected goals, was ranked 7th in the team, ahead of Benjamin White, Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

Data with permission from Scott Willis.

Tomiyasu also ranks third at the entire club for final third entries. This makes sense as Bukayo Saka for example will spend most of his time in the final third so won’t rack many entries up – but it’s still impressive. He is very progressive too — the darker pass sonars tell us where most of his passes travel — and as you can see, especially around the halfway line, it’s generally progressive. Again, he ranks highly in this metric when compared to other players at the club.

Though it hasn’t been his role at Arsenal, watch footage of him playing for Bologna and Japan and you will see someone that, when given more responsibility on the ball, is adept at switches and deep progression too. Here’s just one example, where you see him at LCB for Japan’s U23s team, playing a gorgeously accurate cross field ball for the right winger. He is particularly skilled at ‘fading’ balls over the top – putting backspin on the ball so it’s more controllable for the receiver.

Against Leeds at home, Tomiyasu completed forty final third passes, the most in the game. He didn’t misplace a single one. He’s also particularly adept at the reverse pass – a delightful one for Martinelli shown in Thursday’s game. When inverting, he scans like a midfielder then adjusts his body position accordingly. Basic, sure; but not always executed properly.

He also has an exemplary disciplinary record — 0.1 yellows per 90, and no red cards. While Kaveh may not be sure what position he plays, in the modern game, maybe it doesn’t matter that much.

So. We see how important he is to Arsenal on the pitch. What about the intangibles?

Here’s the thing with so-called ‘soft factors’. Individually, they don’t matter that much. What the playing surface is like, how supportive the crowd is from week to week, or indeed if a player is a particularly good cultural fit. What matters is what happens in the 2 hours after you step across the white line, right? But the thing is, ignore enough of them, and you ignore a huge part of what influences performances and individual players — as seen with Arteta’s ‘cultural reset’ this season. To see if Tomiyasu is part of that reset, the only way to tell is to listen to those who know. 

Benjamin White, in an interview with AstroSport in October last year, spoke about Tomiyasu’s impact after only a few months. He said:

“He fitted straight in when he came. All the boys love him and he’s doing the business on the pitch as well. 

In another interview with DAZN Japan, White said:

“Tomi is amazing. He’s the best right-back I’ve ever played with. He’s always focused. It’s an honour to play next to him. Tomi does simple things at a world class level. He completely understands all English & he speaks it as well as I can.”

Mikel loves Tomiyasu too. He said:

“He’s such a great character. He’s a top professional who has given us a lot of composure in the backline. The way he defends, the way he understands what we want to do with him has been top. The adaptation & way he’s done it deserves a lot of credit.”

Tomiyasu himself, when he speaks to the media, seems intelligent, focused and on-board. When there were question marks over why he was not receiving passes from Benjamin White in the build up phase a while ago, Tomiyasu came out in the media and said:

“Often, passes from the centre back to the full-backs become ‘pressure passes’. I play centre back too, and simple passes to the side backs are actually the last option I consider. Ben White is a good player who doesn’t play passes that put you under pressure.”

A detailed, but simple explanation. The best kind. Tomiyasu clearly understands his role in the team. And on Arteta, he said:

“After the game, he will ask, ‘How was it? Did you enjoy it?’, I feel lots of love & he is a manager that I can respect as a person too. I think all the players feel the same way.”

The love goes both ways.

So culturally then, the signs point to Tomiyasu being a good fit at Arsenal. The security he brings is a huge breath of fresh air. A reliable, dependable and quality professional. Maybe the best way to put it is this: when you see Cédric Soares on the team sheet over Tomiyasu — how do you feel?

There’s still a few questions around Tomiyasu, because the best ability will always be availability. Granit Xhaka has racked up 248 appearances for Arsenal in some senses because of his exemplary injury record. Excluding his most significant injury, his medial collateral ligament injury, Xhaka has only missed 19 games for Arsenal in 6 seasons. Tomiyasu has already missed 8. 

We can only hope it is the exception to the rule.

Without Tomiyasu in the team we have scored less goals — 20 without him, 31 with him. We arguably had our worst run of the season in the 3 games against Palace, Brighton and Southampton, conceded more xG and had less clean sheets – 5 without him, 8 with him. Tomiyasu provides versatility, solidity and is a great fit in the team from a cultural perspective. Is he not then one of, if not the most important player?

Import is tricky. As laid out, there are so many variables that define a player’s importance, and so much subjectivity, that it makes it almost impossible to define one player as a team’s “most important”.

A team is a symbiotic system. In high leverage moments, a talismanic clutch player, the difference maker who gets you over a certain line like Cristiano Ronaldo could be argued as most important. Culturally it could be a communicative leader, like Jordan Henderson. Tactically, you could argue in this Arsenal team that Martin Ødegaard’s work between the lines and his tempo-setting abilities make him the most important, or that the ball carrying and recovery pace on Benjamin White allow Arsenal to sit 5-10 yards further up the pitch and suffocate an opponent. You could even say Cédric Soares is the most important… you’d be wrong, but you could.

As Tomiyasu star grows, I truly believe that within a few seasons, people will consider him to be among the very best full backs in England and possibly Europe. Still only 23, not 24 til November (because that’s how it works) he has a long, long way to go.

In a team sport, importance is subjective. Tomiyasu brings sorely missed qualities. But all things considered, I think this season, this has been much more of an ensemble piece.

– Alexander Moneypenny, The Different Knock (@DiffKnock)

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