Kaoru Mitoma and how Brighton benefit from his university thesis on dribbling
By Andy Naylor
Jan 14, 2023
Strapping cameras to the heads of your team-mates might feel an unusual way to master the art of dribbling.
Yet that eagerness to think outside the box has played a part in making Brighton and Hove Albion’s Japanese winger Kaoru Mitoma such a unique and exciting addition to the Premier League.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool — and their England right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold — become the latest opponents to try to find a way of checking the weaving forward’s glorious blend of speed, balance and elusive running at the Amex Stadium today.
That particular style is born of the blistering pace he possessed as a child, and developed as a football-obsessed student in his late teens back in his homeland.
Mitoma had been in the academy for eight years at Kawasaki Frontale, the four-time champions of Japan’s top-flight J1 League, when, as he approached the age of 19, he turned down a professional contract to study physical education at the University of Tsukuba.
That is a well-trodden route for Japanese players, given the standard of college football is much higher than in Europe.
“I just felt I wasn’t ready physically and that I wouldn’t be in the first team immediately,” Mitoma says. “I thought the best step was to get more playing time and get better.”
As part of his studies, he wrote a thesis on dribbling. “It was the easiest subject for me to choose because I love football and dribbling is what I love to do,” he explains. “There were no rules on how much to write, but I progressed with it by analysing my team-mates that were good and not-so-good dribblers and trying to find out why that was.
“I put cameras on the heads of my team-mates to study where and what they were looking at and how their opponents were looking at them.
“I learned that the good players weren’t looking at the ball. They would look ahead, trap the ball without looking down at their feet. That was the difference.
“I was one of the better dribblers at that time, but not exceptional.”
Even now, Mitoma, who is modest by nature, still regards himself as anything but a dribbling genius. Indeed, he is reluctant to attach too much significance to his university studies when explaining the positive impact he has made in the Premier League with Brighton.
Something stuck, though.
A glance at his goal in the 4-1 win at Liverpool’s neighbours Everton earlier this month, a strike that showcased his dribbling talent and directness, reveals that he kept his head up throughout. The 25-year-old seized his chance after Everton full-back Nathan Patterson failed to cut out a cross-field pass from Moises Caicedo.
Mitoma deliberately pushes the ball ahead of him with his left foot and into space behind the stranded Patterson inside the penalty area, instead of opting for close control.
A body swerve, which sends defender Conor Coady the wrong way, opens up more room as he transfers the ball onto his right foot.
He finishes calmly, placing the ball beyond Jordan Pickford’s attempt to smother and through the legs of the covering James Tarkowski.
The whole movement is conducted with electric speed, balance and poise. Just four seconds elapse between the Brighton forward receiving possession and the ball finding the back of the Everton net.
Mitoma, speaking via a translator as he learns to cope with the nuances of the English language, says: “I could see the space, so I wanted to kick the ball further to create the space behind with my first touch. Then, (on) the second touch, I was just going right to attack with the shot.
“It was instinct, rather than a thought process.”
Mitoma’s performances owe much to preparation and self-analysis.
On top of all the detailed information the club provides to players, his representatives supply feedback before and after games in the form of touch maps and videos. Armed with that dossier of data, Mitoma can see his own movements and assess the strengths and weaknesses of upcoming opponents.
He is reaping the rewards.
Mitoma scored a very different type of goal when Brighton won 3-1 at Arsenal in the Carabao Cup in November. The forward began in the same area of the pitch (see below), advancing towards the left-hand edge of the penalty area, as Jeremy Sarmiento ran with the ball through the centre, attracting the attention of the Arsenal defenders.
This time, when he received possession from Sarmiento inside the box, Mitoma went for close control, cutting back by shifting the ball inside from his left foot to his right in one fluid movement.
That created just enough room to squeeze a shot between Cedric Soares and William Saliba and swing the tie in Brighton’s favour, giving them a 2-1 lead early in the second half.
Mitoma has been blessed with rapid pace since he was a child. He’s made a point of exploiting that attribute, tailoring his training to strengthen his legs and make his movements even more explosive.
He had been used as an impact substitute this season by Graham Potter and Roberto De Zerbi until breaking into the Italian’s team with a full Premier League debut in the 4-1 trouncing of Potter’s Chelsea at the Amex Stadium at the end of October.
“Chelsea was big for me,” says Mitoma. “I didn’t want to let my place go.”
Mitoma has maximised his opportunities at club level ever since. He has scored three goals and provided two assists in six starts for Brighton either side of an eventful World Cup with Japan.
He was involved in one of the most controversial moments of the tournament in Qatar. The ball appeared to be out of play when his cut-back was converted by Ao Tanaka in the 2-1 win over Spain — a result which served to knock Germany out at the group stage. The goal stood after a lengthy VAR check.
The technology worked against Mitoma when he had a second goal disallowed for a tight offside decision in the 4-2 home defeat by Arsenal on New Year’s Eve. Had his effort stood, then Brighton would have reduced the arrears to 4-3 and ensured a nervy finish for the Premier League leaders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the scientific edge to his university studies, he has no issue with leaning on technology when it comes to critical on-field decision-making.
“It’s fair, it’s technology, it’s hard to argue with it,” he says. “Obviously, there are emotions when decisions go for or against you, but I’m fine with it.”
Some Japanese observers felt Mitoma was under-used by head coach Hajime Moriyasu at the World Cup. All four of his appearances were from the bench, including in the group victory against Germany and the last-16 exit to Croatia on penalties.
His spot kick in the shoot-out was saved by Dominik Livakovic and he was not among Brighton’s seven penalty-takers when they lost at League One side Charlton last month in a shoot-out which extended to sudden death.
“There are some feelings from that World Cup experience, the confidence level isn’t 100 per cent there,” Mitoma concedes. “But also, it’s the manager’s call as well. He felt there were other guys more confident at that time. I’ll keep practising and working on penalties until I’m more comfortable.”
Mitoma playing for Japan against Croatia in the World Cup’s round of 16 (Photo: Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images)
Mitoma aims to be “one of the leaders for Japan” at the next World Cup in the USA, Canada and Mexico in 2026.
His impact at Brighton is reflected by rising interest in his exploits back home. Two Japanese reporters now cover Brighton matches regularly, home and away.
Hideo Tamaru, of Japan’s main news agency Kyodo News, tells The Athletic: “The popularity of football in Japan, in general, had been declining recently compared to the peak years (around 2010-2016) when there were quite a few Japanese players in big European clubs, so the success of Mitoma feels like a breath of fresh air.
“Needless to say, the recent success in the World Cup was a massive boost as well. Another thing that Japanese fans like to see is how the players in Europe are being rated in the media in their respective countries. That in itself creates another headline.”
There have been plenty of headline performances in the Premier League for Brighton so far from Mitoma, who has now been joined in England by his wife after she secured a work permit.
There are no limits to what he might achieve under the guidance of De Zerbi.
“Continuing to produce results is what it will take to stay in the starting XI,” adds Mitoma. “The manager has the plans, the strategy, and I am doing all I can to stick with that.
“I love playing under him. There’s a lot of build-up for the ball to come to the wing (and) a lot of actions, which is fun. I want to continue to learn, playing in that style.
“The two main things are to help Brighton into the top rankings and to get more goals and assists.”