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What defensive target Takehiro Tomiyasu could bring to Tottenham Hotspur

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The Japanese international is a solid talent playing in a weird defensive role at Bologna.

You can view a video version of this article that’s a bit more in-depth on my Youtube channel here.

Tottenham Hotspur are in dire need of a centerback - and, if the man himself is to be believed, Serge Aurier will be reunited with Pochettino before the transfer window ends, necessitating a search for a right back as well.

This transfer window will prove to be one of the trickiest (aren’t they all?) for Spurs, with Levy having to balance a much needed squad refresh with little funds to do so. Of course, players will have to be shifted out but a farcical search for a manager has no doubt impeded any long term planning for the squad.

Still, Tottenham have been linked consistently with a few players by different sources. I recently wrote an analysis on Lyon’s Joachim Andersen, who Spurs seem to be interested in regardless of the manager.

Another name has propped up that is worth a closer look - Takehiro Tomiyasu, a defender for Serie A’s Bologna. The Japanese youngster has caught more than a few people’s attention in his debut Serie A season, and boasts a solid defensive foundation - but I’m not completely sure he’d be a great signing.

Defensive Phase

It is always encouraging to see a young defender succeed in a perhaps overstated defensive league like Seria A. Bologna decided to go for the then widely unknown player just prior to the 19/20 season, acquiring him from Belgian side Sint-Truiden for 10 million Euros. Although Bologna had a tough season and finished 12th, Tomiyasu’s transfer has been deemed a success, as the defender quickly became an important part of Bologna’s defensive system.

Siniša Mihajlović almost invariably sets up Bologna as a 4-2-3-1. In this setup, Tomiyasu typically plays as the right back. He wins roughly 61.5% of his defensive duels, similar to Tottenham’s defenders (Sanchez wins the most of his duels at 68%.)

Tomiyasu acting as a right back for Bologna’s system. As a fullback on defense, he needs to be good in 1v1s, show pace, and always be ready to cover his right sided centerback.

But to call him a right back would be a disservice. In possession, Bologna play a three at the back system. Mourinho’s Spurs typically executed this by the two centerbacks pulling apart and one of Hojbjerg or Winks slotting in between. Bologna’s system is different, as their left back Dijks has full license to bomb upward, and while Tomiyasu gets involved with attacks as well (as we’ll see later) he rarely strays from his defensive position as he ‘s needed to maintain balance/cover Bologna’s right channel. As such he acts as the right centerback (RCB) when Bologna have an extended period of possession (this occurs even when Bologna play a two at the back system as seen below).

It’s hard to tell in a still picture, but Tomiyasu has started his spring to cover the onrushing Fiorentina attacker. He is very good at spotting danger areas early in the play and nullifying them.

His big figure might deceive opposition players, but after an action like the above, they know that Tomiyasu can consistently recover to nullify a threatening long pass.

Again we see Tomiyasu reading the danger before a dangerous play is made. Juventus loft the ball towards their forward who has come deep - their Bologna marker is dragged out of position, and there is a threat of a dangerous flick on coming off. Although he’s tasked with marking another player (red circle), he starts moving toward the danger area before the flick on is executed. Football is about fine margins, and most defenders would not read the danger until after the ball comes off the Juve player’s head.

Ability to read the game aside (extremely impressive when a young player shows this level of understanding) perhaps the most interesting things about Tomiyasu are that 1) he’s an aggressive ball winner and 2) his tactical flexibility.

He’s third amongst Serie A defenders in recoveries (action that wins the ball and leads to at least 5 seconds of team possession) and second in the league for counterpressing recoveries (4.41 p/ 90, recovering the ball within 5 seconds of the opposition team gaining possession). A lot of this is due to his placement in the system, as he plays high up the pitch in possession when Bologna squeeze up.

Tomiyasu’s heat map, showing how he tends to stay in the middle third when Bologna have the ball.

135 of Tomiyasu’s 346 presses last season came in the middle third - compared to Alderweireld’s 71 and Dier’s 52. Of course part of this is due to the system in place, but Tomiyasu shined in Bologna’s system due to his individual traits. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the heatmap above is very weird for an RCB/RB.

That’s because Tomiyasu can also play on the left. Mihajlović hasn’t started him there often, but interestingly there have been a few games in which Tomiyasu has switched flanks in the middle of the match (as seen in their last game against Juventus.) Tomiyasu made 909 passes with his right foot last season, 467 with his left. He clearly is comfortable passing with both feet even if he prefers his right foot, making him extremely valuable in tactical flexibility, linking up play, and press resistance.

Playing as an LCB, Tomiyasu sends a long ball with his left foot towards the left channel.

On my video about Andersen, I discussed why a two footed centerback would be a great addition to the team.

In Possession

As seen above, Bologna’s lateral centerbacks are expected to build triangles with their Bologna teammates to progress the ball, as a forward or AM makes a run into the left or right channels.

Tomiyasu can be most commonly found building up play on the right side.

As the ball far fullback makes a run to maintain width, Tomiyasu helps build up play from the back by acting as a right sided pivot. He likes to get quite far up the pitch, squeezing the field should Bologna lose possession while also attempting to drag a defender out of position.

He has developed a great understanding with Bologna’s right midfielder, Orsolini, as Bologna typically builds play from the right side. Again we see Bologna’s system playing to Tomiyasu’s strengths, as he has a good eye for passes.

Tomiyasu is once again at the tip of a triangle, and Bologna’s attackers have dragged Juventus players out in a bid to create numerical parity. This creates space for Vignato to run into - although Tomiyasu elects to pass it to Orsolini instead, Bologna try to create these openings for Tomiyasu often.

Tomiyasu completes .17 key passes / 90, far outperforming the rest of Tottenham’s CBs. Additionally, he completes 8.22 progressive passes / 90; the only Spurs CB that surpasses him in this area is Alderweireld (9.07). That said, it’s clear that Tomiyasu is very influential in progressing play not just through advanced positioning and short passes but also medium to long passes as well.

His ability to get involved in the final third further proves that. He completes 7.04 passes into the area, with a success rate of 78%. Tottenham’s only comparable CB in this regard is once again Alderweireld - but his success rate is much lower, at 63%. With .77 crosses / 90 as well, he gets involved in attacks in more ways than one.

Conclusion

It’s hard to compare Tomiyasu to out and out centerbacks or fullbacks as he’s tasked with playing as both. Tomiyasu has lots of noticeable traits - athletic, agile, great footballing IQ, comfortable with the ball on his feet, decent header, can unlock a defense - but clearly he’s excelling because the system around him is allowing him to.

Although that can be said about any player, this is especially relevant when a player like Tomiyasu finds themselves in the gray areas. Doherty, for example, is a wingback that thrived off of an unconventional system at Wolves. It’s unclear if Tomiyasu is the same, but I do think he’s closer to the profile of player Tottenham need in the back over someone like Andersen.