Naoki Tsubaki arrived at Melbourne City as the club’s first-ever loan signing amidst a wider influx of Japanese players to the A-League and contributed to a historic double-winning season which will stand out as the highlight of his career thus far.
Now back at parent club Yokohama F. Marinos, the 21-year-old will hope to have brightened his career prospects whilst plying his trade Down Under.
City’s use of Tsubaki
Since our mid-season loan report 15 rounds in, Tsubaki made just four additional appearances (for a total of 15) over the entire remainder of the 2020/21 campaign, including Finals. Fortunately for the young winger, these appearances came towards the very end of the regular season, when the squad was being heavily rotated or missing several key attacking players. This equated to starting opportunities for the Japanese winger once the league title was pretty much wrapped up, with Tsubaki near-doubling his on-pitch minutes with his final four appearances for City.
The youngster saw the majority of his minutes operating as a left-winger with the ability to cut inside onto his preferred right foot, though the 21-year-old also featured three times on the right, twice as an attacking midfielder and once as our lone centre-forward, a daring experiment with questionable results.
We mentioned it in the mid-season report too, but there was one massive statistic hanging over Tsubaki’s head in 2020/21 that could still really hurt the youngster’s prospects going forward: 20 hours and 57 minutes.
That’s how long it had been since the winger had last scored or assisted before his close-range strike against Wellington Phoenix late in the season.
However, this maiden goal had been deserved given the way that Tsubaki’s numbers improved in his final four outings in City blue.
The winger had been playing fewer key passes per 90 than Marco Tilio or Stefan Colakovski 15 rounds into the campaign, but comfortably outperforms both youngsters in that category now (1.40 to 0.97 and 0.91 respectively).
He’d not had a shot on-target to his name at that stage either, but recorded two in his final four appearances to give him a ‘per 90’ value of 0.31 – still comfortably the worst of all of City’s wide options.
Disappointingly, Tsubaki failed throughout the season to capitalise on his technical proficiency and pace with the ball at his feet that we’d noted in our scout report upon his initial signing, recording the lowest completed dribbles per 90 value of all of City’s wingers (0.62; all others were comfortably above 1).
Market value update and final verdict
Market value (per Transfermarkt): €50,000 (Dec. 2019) à €200,000 (Mar. 2021)
First and foremost, Naoki Tsubaki’s loan signing was an experiment.
It was the first time that the club had dabbled in utilising the loan system and it seems unlikely that Tsubaki has come away from the experience with absolutely nothing to take from it – the quality of coaching at City is too high for him to not have picked up anything to apply in future.
Tsubaki’s short-term future will make for interesting observation for City fans; Yokohama F. Marinos caretaker Hideki Matsunaga (or more likely, club higher-ups) clearly feels that Tsubaki is not yet ready to be introduced to the senior setup, sending the attacker back out on loan to J2 side Giravanz Kitakyushu, the team he’d been at before City. Tsubaki is contracted at Yokohama until January 2023.
There is, however, another element to this experiment: Tsubaki is just the second Asian-born player that City has signed to its Men’s team, behind Safuwan Baharudin.
A trend observed amongst each of the teams to have signed Japanese players for the 2020/21 season was the incredible social media metrics that stemmed from posts featuring those players.
This was noticeable from the very start, when City announced Tsubaki’s signing, right through to any of his substitute appearances and his goal against Wellington, with the related Tweet to the latter receiving nearly 300 retweets and over 1.1K likes.
The Tsubaki experiment has proven the exposure value of dipping into the Asian market, something which fans have long called for from clubs, so it seems unlikely that this will be City’s last foray into that part of the world.