Yukinari Sugawara: AZ’s Japanese Right Back

Name: Yukinari Sugawara 

Club: AZ Alkmaar 

Nationality: Japanese 

Position: Defender – Right Back 

Preferred Foot: Right 

Height: 5’8”/175cm 

Age: 23 


It has been a disappointing campaign for AZ Alkmar as far as cup competitions are concerned. Having reached the semifinals the previous season, AZ finished third in their Europa Conference League group, six behind Legia Warsaw and seven behind Aston Villa. After kicking off February with a 1-0 loss to defending champions Feyenoord in the league, AZ lost 2-0 at Feyenoord in the KNVB Cup quarterfinals before succumbing to a 0-0 draw at Almere City.


The Cheeseheads would pick up their first Eredivisie victory since December 9, erasing an early deficit and drawing level within the hour via Vangelis Pavlidis, whilst Dani De Wit’s 90th-minute goal would see them snatch a 2-1 win at Fortuna Sittard. The following match would see them go ahead within seven minutes against Ajax, with Ruben van Bommel completing his brace in the 67th minute and securing a 2-0 win.


Pascal Jensen’s men find themselves fourth in the Eredivisie table, five points behind Twente, and six above Ajax and NEC Nijmegen. Whilst fifth through eighth takes them to the Europa Conference League playoffs, fourth place secures a spot in the Europa League second qualifying round. AZ will be counting on Yukinari Sugawara as they look to secure European qualification for a seventh straight season.



Born in Toyokawa, Aichi, Japan, Sugawara developed at Nagoya Grampus’ academy and made his debut on February 24, 2018 in the league opener, becoming the second-youngest player to feature in the Japanese top-flight at 17 years, 7 months and 27 days. Six weeks later, he became the youngest player in the history of Nagoya Grampus to sign a professional contract at the club.


Sugawara did not last long in Japan and joined AZ Alkmaar in the summer of 2019 on a season-long loan, making 28 appearances for the first team across all competitions and impressing in the Europa League and the Eredivisie both as a right back and a right winger. AZ made the deal permanent in the following summer, tying him down to a five-year deal.


The Norwegian veteran Jonas Svensson would depart for Adana Demirspor in 2021, opening the door for Sugawara to solidify a starting spot under Pascal Jensen, racking up 1 goal and 7 assists in 50 appearances before adding 4 goals and 11 assists in 47 in 2022/23. Whilst various key players like Tijjani Reijnders, Sam Beukema, Milos Kerkez and Jesper Karlsson departed Alkmaar in the summer of 2023, Sugawara remained put at the AFAS Stadion and has relished the opportunity.


Sugawara has been named in the Eredivisie Team of the Month on five separate occasions, doing so in each of the first three months of 2023/24. He started in a 4-1 defeat to Aston Villa on October 26, and in doing so, he made his 47th appearance in continental competitions and became the record-holder for the most European appearances for AZ in the club’s history. Capable of operating as a right back, a center back, or a right winger, his versatility is a massive boon for his manager, and it has seen him become one of the first names on the team sheet.


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Confident and comfortable when receiving the ball, Sugawara dominates the right flank, providing incisive forward passes, making buccaneering runs into the final third and constantly positioning himself in good positions to receive high up the pitch. He is more than capable of firing in a testing ball into the box, averaging 7.08 crosses per 90 minutes, whilst he is also the team’s main free kick taker, having taken 9 thus far.


Sugawara leads all AZ players in various statistical appearances, including key passes per game (2.2), assists (4) and expected assists (5.48). He has created 12 big chances in the Eredivisie — no other AZ player has more than 6 — and whilst he does need to improve on the defensive side of the game, he is no slouch out of posssession, averaging 0.9 interceptions per 90, 1.8 clearances per 90 and 1.1 tackles per 90. He’s averaging 3.4 accurate long balls per game — only Jordy Clasie (3.8) and Alexandre Penetra (4.4) have more — and at 23, the world is his oyster.


His domestic exploits have prompted the interest of Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu, making his first start for the senior team in March 2023 against Uruguay. Six months later, Sugawara assisted the opening goal and helped to launch the second as Japan demolished Germany 4-1. He would make his first competitive start in November, stretching their lead to four as the Samurai Blue won 5-0 at Syria in a World Cup qualifier.


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Sugawara started in Japan’s first match of the Asian Cup, a 4-2 victory against Vietnam, before playing the full 90 in their 2-1 loss to Iraq, but he was an unused substitute in the following three matches with Moriyasu preferring Seiya Maikuma at the right back position. Japan would lose in the quarterfinals to Iran, and Sugawara immediately rushed back from Qatar and was quickly ushered back into the AZ line-up, operating as a right winger in their cup defeat to Feyenoord before playing at right back in their draw at Almere.


AZ will be looking to bounce back on Saturday at Fortuna Sittard before hosting Ajax, and they’ll be counting on their versatile Japanese dynamo as they attempt to get back to winning ways. A modern fullback who’s adept at receiving in space and bombing up and down the flank, he is skilled at overlapping his winger, bursting towards the byline and whipping in a tantalizing cross. With a contract until 2025, Sugawara could very well be headed for his final months in Alkmaar before following in the footsteps of Myron Boadu, Calvin Stengs, and Teun Koopmeiners and becoming the latest AZ player to depart for greener pastures.


By: Ogenyi Paul / @234programmer

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Jürgen Fromme – firo sportphoto / Getty Images