Naoki Tsubaki joins Melbourne City today on a one-year loan from fellow City Football Group club Yokohama F. Marinos.
A graduate of the Japanese outfit’s academy, Tokyo-born Tsubaki comes to City “in high regard” from J1 league-winning manager and former-Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou. Otherwise an unknown quantity to many, we’ve decided to take an in-depth look at the City Men’s side‘s first-ever Japanese signing and break down his playing style and performances to identify the value he’ll bring to the squad.
The majority of Tsubaki’s senior playing time since graduating from the Marinos academy came in the ongoing 2020 J2 season, in which the 20-year-old made 34 appearances for Giravanz Kitakyushu, who currently occupy 5th place with a small handful of games remaining.
Operating almost entirely as a left-midfielder in a defensive 4-4-2, Tsubaki has also been employed as a more attacking left-winger when impacting games late on from the bench or in Kitakyushu’s alternate 4-2-3-1 formation which has been favoured more recently.
From his 34 appearances, Tsubaki scored twice and assisted once, operating at a rate of goal contributions per 90 of only 0.11 (and not having scored or assisted for 832 minutes and counting), though this will have been somewhat hindered by his deeper role in the defensive formation.
The management of Tsubaki’s on-field minutes is a concerning aspect of his development, with the youngster rarely seeing out the full 90; Tsubaki started 76% of 2020 league games, but was also subbed off in 76% of those starting appearances. These figures point towards a role as an impact sub to potentially replace 32-year-old Craig Noone in the final third of games, though Tsubaki may see the occasional starting appearance to alleviate Noone’s match fatigue in what is set to be a congested schedule.
Observation & Characteristics
Tsubaki’s immediate standout quality is his pace with the ball at his feet, which he uses both to evade incoming challenges and to unsettle opposition full-backs by driving aggressively towards them. With lightning feet, Tsubaki appears adept at capitalising on unbalancing his direct opponent, capable of cutting inside on his preferred right foot (which he used to open up space for a pass across the edge of the box for his only assist of the J2 season) or taking a quick touch towards the byline before unleashing a surprisingly wicked cross from his weaker left foot. In his final-third approach, it is difficult not to compare Tsubaki to recent City departee Lachlan Wales in their ability to unsettle their direct opponent with pace and dribbling.
At just 5’7” and 65kg, Tsubaki utilises his pace rather than his physicality to create his goalscoring opportunities, making intelligent runs through disorganised defensive lines to isolate himself for the shot. Both of Tsubaki’s 2020 J2 goals (which can be viewed below) originated with a burst of pace from the left half-space through the fullback-central defender gap to create a one-on-one scoring opportunity against the goalkeeper. These types of runs might compliment the line-splitting passing of Aiden O’Neill from deeper areas or pass-and-move plays with Adrián Luna or Florin Berenguer in more advanced midfield areas. However, Tsubaki may find his ability to score from these positions limited by Jamie Maclaren’s tendency to stay high and central (therefore occupying the central defenders and keeping them in-position), a trait of his poacher mould. In the J2, Tsubaki benefited from strikers dropping deeper to collect possession or create space, occasionally dragging a central defender slightly out of position for the winger to use his pace to burst into. In this sense, Tsubaki may be a better fit if Andrew Nabbout is playing at #9 in the instance of Maclaren being rested or injured, with the former-Victory forward more likely to drift around the front three looking for space and possession.
With a second VISA spot freed up by the departure of Richard Windbichler, Melbourne City have taken a risk in their acquisition of the young Naoki Tsubaki. The 20-year-old is yet to impress at the senior level and will likely serve as an impact sub option, but could prove a smart contingency if a final VISA player is signed, in which case Craig Noone could potentially be the foreigner left out of City’s ACL squad. In this instance, it would be dependent on Tsubaki’s development throughout the season as to whether or not he is able to capably fill the Englishman’s boots on the left in ACL fixtures.
Signing a player from the Asian confederation – who also happens to be familiar within CFG circles – is also a smart business move that capitalises on a largely untapped market full of potential for A-League clubs. Only time will tell, however, if City’s risk pays off.