It has been a standout season in the J League for Kashiwa Reysol striker, Michael Olunga. In an analysis of the 2020 season, the six-foot-three Kenyan has topped the league with 23 goals in 24 appearances. To put this in perspective, the second-highest goalscorer in the J League is Kashima Antlers striker, Everaldo, with 15 goals in 28 appearances.
Growing up in Nairobi, Olunga had dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer or a pilot so that he could travel and fly all over the world. He even partook in a geospatial engineering course. Playing football in rough conditions, barefoot, against his older siblings, motivated Michael to be a better footballer so he could get out of the rough conditions in Nairobi. His drive and determination to carve out a footballing career led him to play professional football in Sweden for Djurgården in 2015. In 2018, he then spent a year at former La Liga side, Girona FC before heading to China and then Japan where he landed his spot at Kashiwa Reysol.
With the 26-year-old almost averaging a goal a game, this scout report will dissect Olunga’s outstanding performance this season and show how he fits within Kashiwa’s tactics. This tactical analysis will also feature the Kenyan’s role within the Kashima system and highlight just how effective he can be from a defensive perspective.
Role within Kashiwa’s system
Tactically, Kashiwa Reysol have been rather flexible in the 2020 season when it comes to their formation. However, we can still see consistencies throughout these formations. Most commonly, Kashiwa alternate between a 4-2-3-1 formation and a 4-1-4-1 formation, having a central striker and supporting players underneath. Both these systems have Olunga as the lone striker. Given the fact that Olunga is a powerhouse, he can be seen to drop into the midfield area to receive longer passes and use his strength to hold the ball up. If there is a scenario where he is receiving the ball in a 1v1 situation, the Kenyan also has the ability to turn and go, using his arm to fend off defenders. This variation of movement is illustrated in the heatmap below where Olunga is predominately fixated in and around the box but has the freedom to drop deeper.
As the ball gets circulated around the back four, we often see the Kenyan staying as the highest player but following the ball in support of the ball carrier. For example, if Kashiwa’s right fullback was on the ball, Olunga would drift across and find an open passing channel. If the area is crowded, however, he can push further out and look to receive the ball off a long switch of play. Therefore, as well as having a rocket of a left foot, his size and strength have been a huge weapon for Olunga, making him the most in-form striker in the J League.
Not only does he have the most goals, but Olunga also has the highest number of shots on goal within the J League. He again tops the table with 113 shots averaging 4.45 shots per 90 minutes. Again, the player with the second-highest shot total is Everaldo with 106 shots averaging 4.16 shots per 90 minutes.
The diagram above indicates all of Olunga’s shots within the last calendar year. We can see that the majority of goals scored have come from inside the box and with the left foot. The number of shots significantly decreases when played with the right foot or header. This information would be useful for opposition teams in helping reduce the Kenyan’s attacking threat.
Aerial target player
In situations where the goalkeeper or back four are under pressure, they will not look to play the ball around the back. Instead, they will launch the ball forward in the direction of Olunga. Throughout his 2020 season, the Kenyan has managed to consistently keep his aerial duels won rate over 50%. Meaning that he is more likely to win the ball in the air than he is to lose it. There are a number of small idiosyncrasies that help him to keep his aerial duel win rate high, and these will now be explored.
In the image above, the ball has been smashed forward by the goalkeeper to where Olunga has shifted across before the ball has bounced. Here we see one of the habits that makes him such an aerial threat: he makes sure that he is the one that jumps first. Whilst he is six-foot-three, he would still be competing against defenders who would be as tall, if not taller than him. Therefore, making sure he is the first off the ground ensures that he gets a head start.
After directing his header to a supporting midfielder, Olunga considers his second action and how he can maintain active in the phase of play. He does this by drifting further out so he doesn’t crowd the ball carrier. This is something that any up-and-coming striker can learn: repositioning and staying active after the first action.
Once the ball is played through to Olunga, he then takes a touch forward and rockets the ball into the bottom left-hand corner.
The next scenario will illustrate how Olunga will try to manipulate the positioning of his marker before he contests for a header. Recognising that the ball carrier has space to drive forward and cross in, Olunga will pick out his immediate marker and will either position himself, or make an attacking run towards their blind side.
Here we can see the first movement being made to the far shoulder of the opposition centre-back. This marker now has all his momentum going behind and to his right since the backline in this situation is retreating. Therefore, it is going to make it hard for him to quickly change momentum in the opposite direction. As soon as the ball leaves the ground to be crossed into the box, Olunga makes his second movement to destabilise the defender and make a move to the front shoulder.
Now the only thing the defender can do is put an arm out and foul the Kenyan. However, despite going down, Olunga maintains his composure and redirects his header to the far post for a goal. It is his ability to manipulate his markers and adjust accordingly to the ball flight which makes Olunga such an aerial threat.
Statistically, the Kashiwa striker isn’t known for his defensive contributions. In terms of recoveries in the final third, Olunga ranks 74th with an average of 0.94 recoveries per 90 minutes. Furthermore, he ranks 98th in counter-pressing recoveries averaging 1.1 per 90 minutes.
This places him within the lower quartile in both categories. Taking this at face value, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Olunga has a poor defensive work rate. However, it’s important to look at the context before making assumptions. If Kashiwa are dropping back as a team and forming a mid-low block, the chances of Olunga making a tackle are going to be low. Similarly, in counter-pressing situations, if he has a lack of support to close down the opposition’s supporting teammates, then it will be easy for the opposition to find a free player. Additionally, you will find more duels and contests around the midfield area where there are larger clusters of players. That is why midfielders and defenders tend to have higher defensive statistics than wingers and strikers.
When analysing his defensive contributions, Olunga makes rather intelligent decisions. As seen below, the ball is being played to an opposition teammate. Rather than stepping in from the side and going shoulder to shoulder, Olunga makes his initial movement to step behind the receiver so that the receiver can’t see him.
This movement is what made N’Golo Kanté such an effective defensive midfielder when he was at Chelsea. He would often hover blind side of potential receivers and once they received the ball, he would pounce and catch them off guard.
As soon as the ball is received, Olunga moves in for the tackle. Picking up on the body shape of the receiver, he identifies that the receiver is going to turn out and find one of their centre-backs with a pass. The moment he turns out, Olunga uses his right leg to block the pass and win the ball back from the opposition.
Here is another example of the blindside movement. As soon as the receiver touches the ball, Olunga positions himself where the receiver can’t see him. Once the receiver turns inwards, Olunga then moves into a tackle before the ball carrier can play a pass.
After he wins the ball and finds the midfielder underneath, Olunga has the awareness to attack the space in behind. Therefore, the midfielder plays a one-touch pass for Olunga to run onto. This situation again highlights how active the Kenyan is after the first action is made.
Linking up with teammates
When positioned around central areas, Olunga uses his individual qualities to create goal-scoring opportunities. This analysis has shown that the Kenyan uses his size and strength to beat opposition players in 1 v 1 and create a shot on goal. If he receives the ball and can face forward, he will look to take a larger touch behind the defender and beat them for pace. However, as seen in the heatmap, Olunga also positions himself in wider areas. When he is in these areas, his role is to find a teammate in a more attacking position closer to central areas of the box. This is highlighted by the graph below.
The graph indicates that most of Olunga’s progressive actions are on the left-hand side. The majority of the passes are within the 20-30 metre range. In the majority of cases, especially from deeper areas, the intended target of the pass is to a player in a higher and more attacking position in front of the opposition backline. The next two scenarios will illustrate this.
As seen below, after receiving the ball on the right-hand-side, Olunga drives down the side looking for forward runners in the box. Shifting to his preferred left foot enables him to open up more passing lanes to midfielders running into central attacking positions. What is notable here is although Olunga has a lack of immediate support, the opposition backline has shifted all the way across. They realise his attacking potential in 1 v 1 situations and so they need to make sure that if the first defender is beaten, the second defender can cover the space behind.
The first defender also needs to be mindful of the varying movements that Olunga makes. In other similar scenarios, he will attack the space behind the defence and push defenders away to create the space needed to shoot. Again, this highlights the importance of the second defender being alert to the space behind the first defender.
The second scenario is when Olunga isn’t in a position to play forward immediately after receiving it. After using his arm to push away his marker and create space for himself, Olunga then gets set to find a player who is able to face forward and make an attacking run.
Once the ball has been offloaded, the striker then makes his second action to attack the space in behind. This ensures that Kashiwa keeps forward momentum as well as having numbers in the final third.
Throughout this tactical analysis, not only has Olunga demonstrated his individual ability as a striker to make progressive runs but also how he uses short, sharp movements to link up with other players and place them in more advantageous positions. It is also his ability to remain active after his first action that enables him to create a high number of goalscoring opportunities.
This analysis has highlighted the qualities that Michael Olunga has showcased throughout the 2020 J League season for Kashiwa Reysol. Whilst being used as a more traditional striker, he has started to demonstrate another level to his game. With this sort of stellar season, there would be no surprise if he ends up within a European league such as Serie A or even the La Liga again.