In the hectic 2020/21 season, Kawasaki Frontale are certainly enjoying their run of successful games. Currently top of the table, Kawasaki have 47 points in total so far this season, while the second-place team, Cerezo Osaka, at 39. By looking at the points between the top five teams, it is an understatement to say that Kawasaki is dominating the J League. However, what makes the team tick so well? The answer might be Tanaka Ao. The under-23 Japanese national team player, 2019 Rookie of the Year, leads the team in the midfield by playing in a defensive midfield position. In this tactical analysis, we will examine what exactly Tanaka Ao brings in the offensive game, and how he provides crucial defensive cover in the midfield.
One of the most intriguing parts of Ao is his ability to read the danger and quickly eliminate offensive plays from happening. At only 22 years old, Ao locates himself in the top 30 players with the highest defensive duels, averaging 7.42 duels won with 58.82% success rate. Although his duels won is eye-opening, the location that he wins the ball is crucial for the team as well. Within his own third, he won a total of 39 duels, 64% in zone 14. With excellent defensive cover in zone 14, it could possibly explain the reason why Kawasaki has the fewest goals allowed stat in J league (16 goals allowed).
In addition to great defensive cover in crucial areas, Ao is excellent in progressing possession up the field with accuracy. With over 85% accuracy in progressive passes, Ao excels in providing both short and long passes. So far this season, Ao had 100% accuracy in making 40m+ passes (11/11) and 94.3% accuracy for 20-30m passes.
Keen eye for space
In attack, Ao operates in the tip of the inverted triangle within the midfield with Yasuto Wakizaka and Hidemasa Morita anchoring just in front of the backline. Using his immense work rate to move up and down the field, Ao is tasked to provide a balance within the midfield trio by providing key passes into the final third and making late runs to receive the ball in dangerous areas. In the analysis below, Ao locates himself in front of the compact deep block of Hiroshima. By locating himself just in front of the block, Ao is able to clearly assess the situation and locates the space on the right half-space. By using his great spatial recognition and ability to read the opponent’s weak spot (vacant space on the right space), Ao plays the ball into the vacant area, where Reo Hatate receives the ball in the half space and crosses a dangerous ball just in between the defensive line and the goalkeeper.
In addition, Ao is capable of linking together with his teammates in order to create numerical superiority in dangerous areas and creating a positive outcome. In the image below, Ao places himself along the defensive line to create a three vs three situation in the opposition half-space. By creating a three vs three situation, Kawasaki quickly passes the ball with one touch passing where Ao quickly lays off the ball to Hatate and back peddles to create a gap between the centre-back and himself. By creating this little gap, Ao is able to receive the ball in the half-space and finishes in the near side of the goalkeeper. By his ability to clearly read the situation (create three vs three), technical passing (one-touch passing just outside of the box), and progressing into half-space to shoot the ball accurately, Ao contributed immensely for Kawasaki Frontale’s offence.
In addition to linking plays, Ao is also effective in using his pace to make late runs into dangerous areas. In the image below, Ao notices that the defensive line of Hiroshima is unorganized due to the centre-backs leaving a massive gap between centre-backs and full-backs. In response, Ao uses his pace to make a late run from halfway line into the vacant space left by the centre-backs just inside the 18-yard box and receives the ball behind the defensive line and scores with composure. The ability to sprint 60 meters (distance from halfway line to just inside the goal box) and receiving the ball and calmly finishing is a skill that not many 22-year-old Japanese internationals can do.
The offensive game for Ao is showcased in data as well. In the chart below, the data illustrates the willingness of Ao to enter into dangerous areas of the field from deep in his own half. By making these late runs from his own half, the opposition defence has a difficult time to dictate who will mark him since they already have other players they have to mark. In addition to late runs, the chart also illustrates the progressive passes that Ao has made so far this season. Most of his passes originate from the centre of the field and are played to the left, centre, and right side of the field. The possible explanation for this is due to the fact that Kawasaki operates with three forwards (Manabu Saito, Leandro Damiao, Reo Hatate). By Ao providing a direct link to the forwards, Kawasaki is able to move up the field as a unit.
As mentioned previously, the stats that Ao produces with his passing is impressive (over 85% accuracy in 20-40m+ passing). His passing accuracy into dangerous areas proves to be deadly for xGBuildup as well. In the chart below, Ao ranks very highly among other talented J league players in xGBuildup/90, with 0.49. Against Hiroshima, Ao had three key passes, 59/65 (90.8% accuracy) passes, and two goals. Ao is only 22 years old, but he already showcases the composure, great passing ability, and the ability to read the game.
Reliable team player
Much like in offence, Ao excels in reading the game and using his work rate to allocate himself in defensive positions during defensive transitions. However, Ao truly excels in winning back possession and starting attacks. In the example below, Kawasaki’s defensive line gives away the ball in their own half during the defensive transition with limited numbers tracking back. Ao quickly realizes the situation and locates himself between the midfield line and defensive line to delay the opposition to go forward. Not only does he delay the attack, he successfully wins the ball and quickly progresses the ball forward.
In another example, Ao again reads the danger of in defensive transition and locates himself in the half-space in order to prevent the opposition from entering that area. Unlike other Kawasaki players jogging back in transition, Ao sprints to the danger zone to provide cover for the defensive line. By successfully allocating himself in the half-space, the four-man backline turned into a five-man backline, where Hiroshima struggled to find any space to progress the ball forward. Because of the solid defensive structure led by Ao, Ao successfully regains possession by blocking the pass and immediately starts the attack.
Ao’s ability to win defensive duels are illustrated in data as well. In the chart below, the data suggests that many of his won duels happened within zone 14 (25) with close to 60% success rate. This data clearly indicates that Ao reads the game and locates the danger before happening, and places himself in the right spot.
In addition, Ao’s ability to read the game successfully combined with his work-rate is indicated in ball recoveries as well. In the chart below, many of his ball recoveries are due to counter-pressing in the central third of the field. Although Ao is a centre-midfielder, he has the work rate and willingness to regain possession across the field and provide overall defensive cover for his team. Another interesting data of Ao is his lack of slide tackle. Last season, he only slide tackled once to regain possession. This can suggest that he did not need to slide tackle due to the fact that he allocates himself in a proper possession to regain the ball.
Potential areas to improve
Although Ao possesses a great range of mobility and understanding of the game, there are few things that he can improve. One of the things is shot assists. It is no question that Ao possesses a great range of passing within the midfield as mentioned previously. However, Ao lacks passes into the penalty area, which ultimately lowers his expected assists (xA) distribution as Ao accounts only 0.02 xA/90, while xA average for centre-midfielders in J League is around 0.2. In addition, an improvement on the location of shots can be improved as well. In the chart below, the majority of his shots were outside of the box, which ultimately lowered the xG rate. However, Ao seems to be deadly within the right half-space within the box. Ao can become an even more of a threat if he can use his passing ability to locate forwards inside the box, and use his own work rate to enter half spaces to create a better xG rate.
In addition to better xG rate, Ao can improve on not giving away needless fouls in key areas. While Ao does a great job with covering much of the field and providing defence cover, Ao sometimes is too aggressive to the opponent and gives away cheap fouls near the 18-yard box. Giving away these kinds of fouls in crucial away can give opposition key chances to score with set pieces, which would be detrimental for Kawasaki.
In terms of players similar to Ao in Europe, Jordan Henderson for Liverpool can be compared to Tanaka Ao. As both players are extremely dedicated to work for their team, and both provide excellent defensive cover in all areas of the field. In addition, both Henderson and Ao excel in passing abilities forward and have similar targets up front (three-man front line for both Liverpool and Kawasaki).
As for the fact that Ao is only 22 years old, he still has massive potential to improve his game and excel to the next level. The next level, for many players in Japan, would be Europe. For Ao, the EPL might fit him well with his immense work rate both in defence and offence, keen passing ability forward and the ability to read the game as explained in this scout report. Although he will need to improve his game massively (both physical and pace of the play), it will be interesting to see him prosper in the next few years.
The 22 year old Japanese international is certainly showcasing what he is capable of this year in the J League. With his abundant work rate, keen passing ability, understanding of tactics, possible threats, and reading plays ahead of him, it is no question that Tanaka Ao has potential to become one of the great centre-midfielders for Asian football. In today’s modern game, work rate, discipline and understanding of the game is crucial, but with performances like Ao these past few years, it would be no surprise if European teams start laying eyes on him, just like how the Bundesliga side, Red Bull Salzburg, picked off Takumi Minamino from Cerezo Osaka and Real Madrid picking off Takefusa Kubo from FC Tokyo.