On May 26th, after years of rumors and reported interest, Arsenal Women Football Club announced the signing of Mana Iwabuchi after her contract with Aston Villa expired. After just two professional games for the club, it is clear why Arsenal have been rumored to be interested in the Japanese national for some time now.
She opened her Arsenal account with a wonderful outside the boot finish from the edge of the area through defenders against Okzhetpes in Round 1 of UWCL qualifiers before producing more magic in their next qualifier game against PSV where she produced a wonderful piece of skill to split two defenders before curling a beautiful strike into the top corner. Iwabuchi’s legend has already been written, her Arsenal career is simply a continuation of it.
Often dubbed the “Female Maradonna” Iwabuchi is a dynamic “across the front” forward with incredible weight of pass and the ability to dribble defenders into oblivion if given time on the ball, she excels in tight areas, using incredible power and guile to split, jockey, and spin defenders regularly. On how the club’s new creative engine has adapted to life in North London, manager Jonas Eidevall said, “It’s always easier to adapt to a new team when you are very intelligent.
Mana is adapting so quickly too because all of the other players are really intelligent.” To get a better understanding of exactly what Iwabuchi will bring to Arsenal Women, it is important to examine 3 key areas that, when looked at in totality, will give us a clearer view of what fans can expect out of her this season. These areas are: The Eye Test, Underlying Stats, and Intangibles.
The Eye Test
*Note: This is based on my personal evaluation of the player. I will be drawing on her two games thus far with Arsenal as well as YouTube compilations in order to explore how Iwabuchi contributes to the team.
The most important element of Iwabuchi’s game is arguably her ability to play across the front. She is constantly drifting into favorable areas in relation to the progression of the ball with her goal often being to receive the ball and drive at defenders. This means that, although she is often considered a Forward or Second Striker, she regularly drops into a deeper position to receive passes.
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She seems to prefer to receive the ball with her back to goal, allowing teammates to make runs beyond her. This reception position also lets her use her incredible strength and hip dexterity to turn defenders and burst into space, she regularly takes 1 or even 2 defenders out of the game when she’s allowed to turn and burst into space.
Iwabuchi’s diverse positioning makes her very difficult to track as a defender, it also ensures that she will get a chance to match up against each backline player in a given game, this is where Iwabuchi’s intelligence factors in. She is constantly scanning and searching for passes or space to maneuver the ball into, whenever a player has this “head-up” attribute it typically signals that they possess great intelligence, this means their biggest asset is their brain, not their body.
This is a reduction of their games but a good example is to compare Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi is probably the smartest player ever, he keeps his head up when he plays and reacts incredibly quickly to the movements of defenders, he reads the defense then acts.
With Ronaldo you will notice he is often looking to beat a defender by facing up and making his move, whether its a stepover, a dribble combination or a darting run to one of the posts, Ronaldo relies on his incredible physique to predict that he will win that duel or complete that dribble. Again this example simplifies the game of the players involved but it is a solid illustration of what cerebral-reliant play vs. physical-reliant play means. Iwabuchi is a generational player from a cerebral perspective.
Beyond positioning and intelligence, Iwabuchi possess an incredible weight of pass, this will play a big factor in getting some of her other amazing teammates involved, players such as Vivianne Miedema, Katie McCabe, Beth Mead, and Jordan Nobbs will all thrive on her ability to slide passes into space and combine short.
One of Iwabuchi’s favorite ways to create is by receiving the ball either with her back to goal or facing up a defender with space ahead of her. From these positions she will either turn into space or drive toward it, look to beat a defender, then slide a pass through the backline. The backspin she is able to generate on such a consistent basis creates a threat all on its own and forces high-line defenses in particular to be constantly on the backfoot when Iwabuchi is on the ball.
Playing against a low block? No worries, Iwabuchi is just a confident combining with teammates on the edge of the area as she is sliding through passes in from deeper positions, her reflexes and hip dexterity allow her to constantly appear in a space, initiate a 1-2 action, then complete it by blinking past her defender and running toward goal.
The nickname “Female Maradona” is not far off the mark when it comes to how Iwabuchi plays, she is dynamic, powerful, and possess a low center of gravity, she doesn’t have blistering pace but her strength allows her to go body-to-body with even the biggest defenders with ease.
Iwabuchi also has “dancer-like” quality with the ball at her feet, she is able to manipulate the ball quickly and accurately when dribbling, pair that with amazing instinct and you’ve got an almost unstoppable dribbler on her day, Ray Hudson once said of Messi, “He [Messi] disperses his atoms on one side of the defenders and puts them back together on the other side.” The same can be said about Iwabuchi when she is in full flow.
She has very little weaknesses, her game is well rounded and adaptable, when being physically overpowered, Iwabuchi can drop deeper to assume more a dictatorial role in the build-up, when crowded she has the ingenuity to break free into the next phase and even to flick balls around corners when trapped if needed.
By far her most glaring deficiency is her pace when caught in a footrace or when dribbling, she will rarely outpace a defender to a through ball or when neck and neck while dribbling, this is mostly covered up by the fact that she rarely runs channels anywhere other than the final 3rd, and because her upper body strength allows her to go shoulder to shoulder with most defenders easily.
That being said, the WSL is a very physical league, Iwabuchi has noted this herself in a recent interview. Another potential weakness is her dominant nature on the pitch, to be effective Iwabuchi demands the ball, her fluid position also forces her teammates to adapt their own positions to her at times. That being said, Manager Jonas Eidevall seems uncensored about this potential issue, stating after the recent qualifier against PSV that:
“It would be a real struggle for Mana where people wouldn’t understand her passes or her movements, or if they needed a long time to get used to that. Clearly her teammates understand her very well and that shows great intelligence and we shouldn’t forget that Mana and [Vivianne Miedema] played together at Bayern Munich, which also helps with their connection, even if it was for another team, time spent together is still helpful for us.”
*All stats from FBref.com and compared to other Forwards in the WSL. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are based on per 90 minutes played*
It is important to note that Iwabuchi has only played 13 games in the Women’s Super League and so many of her pure production statistics (xA, xG, Big Chances Created) are hard to judge. That being said, there is a good amount of information that can be gleaned from her 981 minutes of WSL action despite playing for a team with a much lower attacking output than Arsenal in Aston Villa.
Firstly, Iwabuchi’s defensive stats are incredible. She is a voracious defender, ranking in the 99th Percentile for both Tackles and Interceptions compared to other forwards in the league. This shows an active game sense, she is constantly looking to get involved in the flow of the game and wants to disrupt the opposition’s build-up.
What a player Mana Iwabuchi will be for Arsenal pic.twitter.com/HYp05Gt88q
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This stat also shows how closely she likes to stick to the ball when the opposition are in control, it is impossible to rank so highly in these stats as a forward if you aren’t constantly tracking and following the ball. Another defensive stat to look at are Iwabuchi’s pressures. She ranks in the 96th percentile for pressures in the middle 3rd and 91st percentile for pressures in the defensive 3rd.
These locations aren’t as important as the numbers, which show that she is very active when the ball is in midfield. It also shows how often she reacts when her team lose the ball. In short, Iwabuchi likes to get “stuck-in” defensively and isn’t afraid of a challenge. Her Dribbling Numbers are off the charts. Literally Messi-like. She dribbles past an incredible 3.21 players per90 (top of the league), this shows that she can be counted on to break open the opposition’s defense multiple times a game.
Some context to this stat: when a player is dribbled past, especially by a forward, it usually means that the press or defensive shape has been compromised. In Iwabuchi’s case she likes to “hunt” defenders, either backing down or facing up her target before dribbling or turning them (counts as a dribble) in order to create space for teammates to run into.
Iwabuchi also progresses the ball exceptionally well, 79th percentile for carries and 77th for carrying distance, she reinforces what the eye test shows, that Iwabuchi is a willing dribbler and thrives with the ball at her feet, moving toward goal. A final stat worth noting is Iwabuchi’s risky passing. Her 1.74 Passes into Final Third per90, is good for 84th percentile in the league, this shows her willingness and desire to create.
She is always looking for balls into the box and will find them often due to her fluid positioning across the front which opens up so many more angles for her compared to a player who strictly sticks to a wing or positions themselves centrally. Look for all of Iwabuchi’s pure creation stats to improve dramatically as the WSL season kicks off, playing for Arsenal will inflate her numbers to reflect more accurately how great of a creator she is.
*These are based on what the player offers as far as things such as mentality, leadership, as well as life and career experience*
Outside the pitch, Iwabuchi is a star figure in Japan. She won her debut for the national team at 16 and has gone on to score 31 goals in 74 games for Japan. She also posts regularly on a Japanese-language blog and has recent interviews in The Guardian discussing the importance of speaking on social issues as an athlete. Despite this not being directly related to her playing ability, her willingness to make her voice heard shows character and a strong mentality, pair this with her consistent level of play on the pitch and you have a clearly motivated and driven star.
Another intangible is her playing experience with some of her teammates at Arsenal. She most famously teamed up with Vivianne Miedema at Bayern Munich in the past and also played with current teammates Lisa Evans, Manu Zinsberger, and Viki Schnaderbeck in Germany. Finally, Iwabuchi’s longevity in the sport should translate into a smooth transition into the pace of Arsenal’s system and help with more success in the WSL in general.
Iwabuchi has been in the spotlight since she was just 15 when she won the Young Player of the Year award for Nippon TV Beleza in Japan’s top women’s league in 2008. This means Iwabuchi has over 10 years of top league and national team experience. She was part of the 2011 Japan outfit that won the Women’s World Cup as well as the 2015 squad that finished as runners-up. An experience like that almost always contributes to success in new surroundings.
Mana Iwabuchi is undoubtedly one of the most talented forwards in the Women’s game. She will now be playing with arguably the best women’s goal scorer alive in Vivianne Miedma, this will give Iwabuchi the platform to show off all of her technique, flair, dribbling prowess and most importantly, her final product.
We’ve already seen how dangerous she can be at Arsenal, it will be exciting to see if she can keep that production up and how she fares at the top of the WSL. The pressure is on and will continue to mount but Iwabuchi’s career to this point shows that she’s more than capable of shouldering it.
By: Aden Ravi / @eyetestfb
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Masashi Hara / Getty Images