From the Handbook: Ritsu Doan
This profile was originally published in our first print publication, Scouted Football Handbook 2019: Volume I, a year ago. The print edition has sold out, but buy the digital version here.
CAREER IN REVIEW
Ritsu Doan swapped Gamba Osaka for the Netherlands initially on loan at the start of the 2017/18 sea-son having stood out for his country at the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea. He did the same in his debut Eredivisie season. Scoring nine league goals in his nineteenth year, he bettered the teenage tally of another prodigious left-footed winger that once danced across the Euroborg turf – the name Arjen Rob-ben may ring a bell. The 2016 Asian Young Footballer of the Year was surprisingly left at home during Japan’s World Cup campaign and has not yet enjoyed the the same success in his second season in the Netherlands. Groningen have been sucked into a relegation battle, upon which the responsibility of res-cuing them rests largely on Doan’s shoulders. Amongst Groningen players, only Mimoun Mahi scored more goals and provided more assists than Doan in the first half of the 2018/19 Eredivisie season.
Recently part of the Japan squad that made it to the final of the Asian Cup, only Takehiro Tomiyasu was younger than the Samurai Blue’s #21. Deployed on the right, Doan was the chief source of creativity, penetration and imagination. His form in the group stages lacked the killer touch needed to help establish himself as one of the tournament’s most talented players, but flashes of brilliance were evident. In his six games, Doan created 13 chances and completed just as many dribbles. Overall, he was not the dominant force we have seen on the international stage before, albeit at under-20 level.
Despite fluctuating form in the past year, Doan’s ability was recognised by France Football as he was named in the 10-man shortlist for the inaugural Trophée Kopa, the under-21 equivalent of the Ballon d’Or. Doan’s inclusion amongst some far more prestigious names is a testament to his intriguing potential.
STYLE OF PLAY
Doan thrives in the right half-space of the football pitch. Whether it be as a right-winger with the license to drift inside and pick up the ball or, less frequently, a number eight or 10 stationed immediately in that area, his career heat map will scream red on the right-hand-side.
The Japanese international’s greatest strength is his dribbling. Each stocky thigh perfectly counterbalances the other as Doan carries the ball, opposition players bouncing off him as they try and disrupt his flawless balance. Eden Hazard and Lionel Messi marvel with their ability to stay upright as they ride challenge after challenge; whilst Doan clearly is not on the same footballing planet as this pair, they act as a universally understood reference to illustrate this particular quality. Despite being a gifted ball-carrier, however, the Japanese international also shows an excellent understanding that there are some corridors he simply cannot slalom through. As a result, he eagerly fires passes into team-mates to create one-two situations that allow him to burst through gaps without the burden of possession. This is a testament to the Hyōgo-born winger’s superb spatial awareness, which is also evident in the intelligence of his intricate touches in tight spaces and his passing in his favourite half-space area.
Still only 20, it should not be a surprise to learn that his execution does not always mirror his thought. However, given Doan’s impressive technique, the fact he is concocting inventive solutions to create space and chances for his team-mates bodes well. It is also important to note that whilst his chance cre-ation numbers themselves will not turn any heads, the eye test reveals his most penetrating passes are those which lead to a team-mate supplying the would-be assist. Often these are clever reverse passes to an overlapping full-back. As with most heavily left-footed technicians operating on the right, Doan shoots at a regular rate. Able to fashion chances for himself through his dribbling or by using team-mates as a wall-pass to create a better angle, he is fond of striking from just outside the box. And although he already has a collection of special strikes, his finishing is a skill that requires more attention.
Finally, the Kopa Trophée nominee is as tenacious off the ball as he his technical on it. Whilst his dribbling and imagination will excite spectators, his industry and work without the ball at his feet will no doubt endear him to managers. Doan is a brilliant asset for any coach wanting to sit deep or spring pressing traps and becomes even more valuable for those looking to be a threat in transition.
The above qualities make the 20-year-old an extremely versatile player. His work ethic, deceptive power and eagerness to retrieve the ball from the opposition allows him to stand out for the less dominant sides, while his technical qualities will become more evident when he plays with better players. It is interesting that Manchester City are one of the clubs reported to be interested in Doan. In Bernardo Silva, they have a player that the Japanese international should be mimicking. Bernardo was a brilliant right-midfielder for Leonardo Jardim’s Ligue 1 conquering Monaco side and is now transitioning into a versatile number eight. Doan’s career – at least positionally – could follow a similar trajectory.
FORECAST FOR THE FUTURE
Doan will not be playing for Groningen much longer. Given the volatility of the club’s league position, he will likely soon become a source of much-needed income for the Eredivisie side. In fact, Groningen director Hans Nijland is resigned to losing the 20-year-old as interest from the Premier League and around Europe intensifies.
CSKA Moscow reportedly failed with an €8 million bid at the start of the 2018/19 season whilst Manchester City’s earlier co-ownership was rejected as to ensure the Dutch side would profit fully from their Japanese gem. Rather surprisingly, Marcus Berg remains Groningen’s record export at €10 million. However, a strong finish to the 2018/19 season resulting in Eredivisie survival could well see Doan crowned as the club’s new most expensive sale. Newcastle United are the latest team to have taken an interest in acquiring the 20-year-old’s services, but they will not be the last.
Arjen Robben, Luis Suárez, Dušan Tadić, Virgil van Dijk and even Marcus Berg have all been mentioned as an indicator of Groningen’s ability to nurture some of football’s elite. It seems extremely likely that Ritsu Doan will join this illustrious list of Groningen alumni soon.