Asian talent has flourished in Europe’s top five leagues in recent years. These five players could follow suit.
At the 2002 World Cup football ‘arrived’ in Asia. The frenzy and the hype which surrounded the tournament heralded a new golden age on the continent. Especially for the two host countries, South Korea and Japan.
Since 2002, South Korean and Japanese football has grown steadily year after year.
The domestic leagues have strengthened over the last two decades and Asia’s exports in the European game have increased year after year.
That trajectory is set to continue and these five stars have a good chance of emulating the legends who have come before them, players like Park Ji-Sung, Heung Min-Son and Shinji Kagawa.
Current Club: Pohang Steelers
Strengths: Dribbling, Finishing, Stamina.
FTF Rating: 8/10
Min-Kyu is the darling superstar of the Pohang Steelers. The perpetually smiling South Korean has lit up the K.League over the last two seasons.
After a solid debut campaign, he has taken the 2020 campaign by storm, culminating in Min-Kyu becoming the recipient of the K.League Young Player of the Year.
Much of Min-Kyu’s improvement has been down to his driven personality and work ethic.
In the 2019 campaign he scored just two goals and registered two assists. He lacked the physicality and was often bullied by more muscular opponents.
However in pre-season, Min-Kyu buckled down and worked hard to polish the weaknesses in his game.
His hard-work has paid dividends.
11 goals and 7 assists is a much healthier return and it has made the 21 year old one of South Korea’s hottest prospects. He is expected to play a key part in the Tokyo Olympics next year and he will be hoping to avoid military service with a good performance.
An agile winger, with pace and the skillset to beat his opponents one on one, Min-Kyu also plays with a level of intelligence and likes to create chances for his teammates too.
Min-Kyu on average, via Wyscout, plays 3.05 passes into the opposition’s penalty area per 90 minutes with a 59.1% accuracy. His 6.89 dribbles per 90 is an impressive statistic too.
“(Song Min-gyu) is born with the technical part. He is a player who can break down the opponent’s dense defense by dribbling in a narrow space, and his physical strength is also raised, so the use of his abilities is more natural.”
Pohang Steelers, Kim Ki-dongVia Sports
His finishing which has improved leaps and bounds this season has made him an all-round attacker. And he puts in his defensive work too making on average 4.8 defensive tackles and 3.9 recoveries in the opposition half per 90 minutes, suggesting he would be an ideal asset for a team with high-pressing characteristics.
For an attacker the only area of his game Kyu-Min needs to drastically improve is his crossing. 1.54 crosses per 90 with an accuracy of 31.9% is not the greatest return for a wide playmaker. Much of that is down to Kyu-Min’s preference to cut inside which makes him more of an inverted winger than a traditional wide-man.
Regarded as one of South Korea’s greatest talents since Heung Min-Son, with an impressive performance in the Olympics and another solid campaign, Kyu-Min could be making a move to Europe very soon.
Current Club: Cerezo Osaka
Winger: Attacking Midfielder
Strengths: Pace, Dribbling, Vision.
FTF Rating: 9/10
Jun Nishikawa broke to prominence at the U17 World Cup in Brazil last year.
Japan’s dribbling maestro had a stellar tournament. In the opening game he carved the Netherlands open, helping Japan to decimate their opponents 3-0. Nishikawa himself involved in all three goals, scoring one and registering two assists.
A minor knock prevented him from starting the next game against America, but he still produced the winning goal against Senegal to help Japan advance into the next round.
Sadly in the knock-out round Mexico proved to be an insurmountable challenge. Nonetheless, Nishikawa’s performance on the back of the tournament has attracted interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Having hailed from the same academy as Shinji Kagawa and Takumi Minamino, Nishikawa has the ability to emulate the pair.
A knock ruled him out for the beginning of the season, but Nishikawa fought back and scored on his first J.League game back in a 7 minute cameo.
Since then, Nishikawa has been used sparsely, and is yet to start a game in the league this season.
However when he has featured Nishikawa has looked bright. In just 143 minutes this season he averages 2.1 progressive runs per 90 via Wyscout and 2.6 shots which shows his attacking threat and prowess.
Next season, the goal is to break into the starting eleven at Cerezo. For that, Nishikawa needs to bulk up as his physicality is his biggest weakness.
His technical game and pace is excellent, but in order to break into professional football, Nishikawa needs to add strength and muscle to his game.
Current Club: Buriram United
Position: Attacking midfielder
Strengths: Dribbling, Pace, Finishing.
Weakness: Positional Awareness
FTF Rating: 9/10
Suphanat Muenta is a record breaker in Thailand. The youngest ever player to appear and score in the Thai league, the youngest goal-scorer in the AFC Champions League and the youngest player to appear for the Thai national team.
With almost 50 appearances under his belt for Buriram United, Suphanat Muenta is already a sensation back in his home country and people from Europe are starting to take notice too.
Having only just turned 18 in the summer, Suphanat Muenta is already a regular member of Buriram’s first team squad.
He has an incredible record for Thailand’s youth national teams, scoring 8 in9 for the U23s, 13 in 9 for the U19 and 19 in 16 for the U16s.
A clever and explosive player, Suphanat has been in and out of a side languishing in 12th place out of 16 in the Thai first division.
He has only registered a single assist in 8 appearances this season, however over all he has looked lively and the season looks to be one of learning curve for the youngster.
A prolific goalscorer at international level, much of that has been thanks to Suphanat playing in his preferred position upfront.
However at club level, Suphanat has mostly been used on the wing and it is a role which the Thai international needs to adapt to.
An extremely direct and intelligent player, Suphanat Muenta loves to drive at his opponents and he has the positional awareness playing as the striker to find the pockets of space where he can punish the opposition.
Not many Thai footballers have ventured to Europe in the nation’s history, however, Suphanat Muenta does have the potential to become the first.
Current Club: Kawasaki Frontale
Position: Central Defensive Midfielder
Strengths: Stamina, Positional Awareness, Tackling
FTF Rating: 9/10
Last season’s Rookie of the Year in the J.League has taken 2020 by storm. Ao Tanaka has been the beating heart of a relatively young Kawasaki Frontale who have dominated the J.League.
Much of that can be attributed to Ao Tanaka’s excellence in midfield.
A tenacious player with exuberant energy, Tanaka has been the key cog in Kawasaki’s dominance.
Sitting in a deep-lying midfield role, Tanaka has dictated both defence and the offensive line for Kawasaki.
An excellent tackler, Tanaka is able to break up play effectively. He also reads the game astutely and has averaged 4.3 interceptions per 90 minutes via Wyscout this season.
What’s the most impressive is how Tanaka is then able to instigate attacks and keep possession. On average via Wyscout Tanaka makes 70.49 passes per 90 with an accuracy of 91.5%.
He’s good under pressure too. Often Tanaka can be seen dribbling out of defence and he averages 2.09 dribbles per game via Wyscout.
He also added goals to his game. 4 in the J.League is a healthy return for someone in his position and double his tally from last season.
The 22 year old looks to have out-grown the J.League and a move to Europe is definitely on the cards.
He would suit a team of Red Bull Salzburg’s stature and calibre and could be a smart buy for anyone who decides to take a punt on the Kawasaki midfielder.
Current Club: Cerezo Osaka
Strengths: Positional play, Ball control, Passing.
Weaknesses: Aerial duels.
FTF Rating: 8/10
After being on the cusp of breaking into the first team last season, Ayumu Seko has found his place in the starting eleven for Cerezo Osaka this campaign.
He has repaid the faith by helping to sure up Cerezo’s formidable defence. Seko has contributed to 9 clean-sheets in total in 20 appearances.
Under Ayumu Seko’s leadership, Cerezo currently have the fourth best defensive record in the J.League.
The Cherries look poised to make the AFC Champions League this time around and much of that can be attributed to the steady and calm presence of Seko at the back.
A composed ball winner, Seko isn’t the tallest of defenders at 1.83 metres, however he has a nice leap and in time he will learn to deal with his aerial duels better.
What Seko is exceptionally good at is his ball carrying, the 20 year old defender has often instigated Cerezo’s attacks going forward this season.
He also reads the game well and his powerful frame makes it hard for his opponents to dominate him.
In recent years Takehiro Tomiyasu has made the leap from the J.League to Europe with disctinction and Ayumu Seko could follow suit.
And in case you missed it: Our bonus pick is Kaouro Mitoma. Check out our Twitter thread on the Kawasaki Frontale winger here:
⚽️📝Scout thread: Not much has been spoken about Kaoru Mitoma’s incredible form in 2020.
This is the 23 year old’s first season in professional football after graduating from the renowned Tsukuba University and he has been a revelation in the J.League. pic.twitter.com/tSYg7jhSIS
— First Time Finish (@firsttimefinish) October 28, 2020