The transfer window may have ended less than a month ago, but recruitment teams never stop – and neither does the rumour mill.
The start to the season has been a positive one for Liverpool, with four wins from five and an unbeaten start. But there have also been obstacles. The club has had to play over 90 minutes of football with ten men, thanks to red cards to Alexis Mac Allister (whose suspension was later overturned) and Virgil van Dijk. There has also been the injuries. Ibrahima Konáte has been the main absence, but against Aston Villa, Trent Alexander-Arnold felt his hamstring on the 70th minute, replaced by young centre back Jarell Quansah.
Luckily for the club, it was in the game before the international break, meaning Alexander-Arnold only missed the resuming fixture – a 3-1 win away at Wolves. He looks set to return this weekend, but it has brought question marks on the squad depth in that area.
Against Wolves, Joe Gomez played there. The problem with that is that while he can fill in, he’s a centre back, and his attacking game is extremely limited. It changes the way that Klopp sets up entirely, which is not ideal. There is 20-year-old Northern Ireland international Conor Bradley, who has been injured, but to throw him in for extended periods would be less than ideal.
Who is Yukinari Sugawara?
23-year-old Sugawara was born in the Aichi Prefecture in the Japanese city of Toyokawa, and has been in the Netherlands for four years, initially arriving on loan to play for Jong AZ (AZ Alkmaar’s youth side, who play in the second division of Dutch football).
His professional career began at nearby Nagoya Grampus, but since arriving in Europe he’s gone from strength to strength, part of an AZ team that reached the Europa League semi-finals and has started this season with four wins from four in the league.
So, what might have turned Liverpool’s attention towards the Japan international?
Sugawara, as you’d expect, is predominantly a right back, but he is also an extremely versatile footballer.
Of the 193 games with a listed on Transfermarkt, 132 of those have been as a right back. He has, though, played also played as a right winger (35 appearances), centre back (20 appearances) and central/defensive midfielder (2 appearances). This sort of versatility will appeal to Liverpool’s recruitment team, and Jürgen Klopp. It would allow him gametime in several different areas and having squad role players who can fulfil numerous roles is always required in elite football (see James Milner).
AZ, under manager Pascal Jansen, play (quite religiously) with a 4-3-3 (sometimes there is variance and it’s listed as a 4-2-3-1, but the methods are much the same. The Dutch side want to dominate the ball, they are patient in build-up and – much like Klopp’s Liverpool – use their full-backs as an attacking creative force. Here is Sugawara’s heat map from the 2022/23 season (via SofaScore):
As we can see from the above, Sugawara is a modern full back in the truest sense of the word. He makes that right flank – both in his own half and the attacking one – his own.
Sugawara ranks sixth across all players in the Eredivisie so far this season for total distance while sprinting (60.46 metres). He does not stop running and has the engine to match. This is again something that Liverpool would have noticed. To play Liverpool’s high-octane football, you need to be able to essentially run for days – something Sugawara can do.
Positionally he is more similar to pre-2022/23 Trent Alexander-Arnold, positioning himself more on the outside of attacks rather than inverting. There is enough evidence that the Japanese full back is versatile enough to come inside, though.
On the ball
All data used in this piece is from Opta via FBRef and percentile ranks are comparisons to player’s in next 8 men’s competitions – broken down here.
It would be difficult to start with Sugawara’s on the ball abilities and not talk about his crossing. Since the start of last season, he has 11 assists in all competitions. He attempts 4.76 crosses per 90 – which ranks him in the 88th percentile amongst full backs.
For context, Alexander-Arnold attempts 6.86, in a much more dominant side.
The areas in which the two players cross from, however, is very different. While Alexander-Arnold likes to come into the right half space and cross from deeper areas, Sugawara is much more of an overlapping full back, looking to get closer to the byline before whipping wicked out swinging balls to either the front or back post.
There is a nice amount of variance in his crossing, and his technique is extremely efficient – almost caressing the ball with the inside of his foot, getting an extreme amount of outward curl on the ball. He commonly looks for his striker to run across their man to the front post, looking to hit their feet.
He isn’t a particularly high-volume passer, nor an overly progressive one. Instead, he likes to make off the ball runs up the pitch, receiving progressive passes high on the right wing. This is a change from Alexander-Arnold, who is a progression machine. Sugawara would offer a change in that department, he likes to 'hide' while his midfield progresses the ball up the pitch, then pop up in space to make a cross into the box in space or make a penetrative run into the box. While some full backs offer progression through carrying, this isn’t the former Nagoya players skillset either. He only makes 1.44 progressive carries per 90, ranking him in the 26th percentile – on the lower end in his position.
Sugawara on the ball might have similarities to Trent in his creative numbers, but he’s a much different player to the Scouser in build-up. He doesn’t get involved in that side of the game (and part of this is of course down to his managers tactics), preferring to operate in silence before killing his opponent.
Sugawara does offer a goalscoring threat and is a proficient set-piece taker. He is usually good for at least one goal a season, scoring a record three in his last league campaign. His shooting technique is like his crossing one, able to get lots of whip and outward curl on his long shots. This what makes him good at set pieces too, with dangerous out swinging corners his forte – a type of corner Liverpool like to utilise.
Off the ball
Sugawara’s weakness is his defensive game, particularly duels – both aerially and ground.
He doesn’t tend to tackle much – attempting just 1.67 per 90 (ranking him in the 23rd percentile) and winning just 1.05 of those (29th percentile). Part of this is of course explained by him playing in a possession dominant side, he isn’t asked to defend all the time, so the numbers won’t be outrageous. But even watching Sugawara it’s clear that he’s less comfortable defending than he is when attacking.
While he isn’t the best in duels – winning just 43.8% of his aerial ones – he is switched on defensively and his concentration levels are high. The effort is there but he is playing more like a winger converted into a full back rather than a natural full back.
This is less of an issue if he moves to a club like Liverpool, who are expected to dominate their opponents and the ball nearly every week. If there was evidence of him not being willing to defend or struggling with concentration, then it would be much more alarming – the former is something Alexander-Arnold has been accused of (which I don’t particularly agree with for the most part).
As mentioned, his off the ball movement in attack is excellent. While the Eredivisie is a favourable league for attacking football, Sugawara is still great at finding space for himself through his movement, and his 20.39 touches per 90 in the attacking third (81st percentile) show that he gets space in attacking areas to make a difference.
Would he suit Liverpool?
If Liverpool want a like for like back up for their superstar right back, there probably isn’t one out there.
Alexander-Arnold is so unique that it’s just not out there.
What Sugawara would offer is an extremely comfortable in possession full back with high attacking output. He can’t offer what Alexander-Arnold does in terms of progression, but he has shown that if you can get the ball up to the final third that he can be a difference maker.
The club now have the benefit that they don’t have to rely on Trent and Andy Robertson’s progressive numbers to get the ball up the pitch. With Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai and Ryan Gravenberch added to Curtis Jones, Thiago and Harvey Elliott, there are so many options for passing and carrying in the midfield. Adding Sugawara as a backup in that situation makes sense, and at 23 years of age he has upside that means you can keep him as an asset for many years or flip him for a profit in a few years.
The sheer amount of games in modern football mean he won’t be short of opportunities.