In this new annual feature, we at Outside of the Boot aim to unearth the best performing footballers from each of the 5 primary Confederations in the past calendar year. Rather than do the work ourselves, we had the bright idea of crowd-sourcing the answers and the football-sphere has spoken with its votes.
Drum roll please. And the winners of Global Series: Asia are…
10. YOSHINORI MUTO
One of the top emerging talents from Japan, Yoshinori Muto seems like a player who is as intelligent as he is talented. Having put his football career on hold during his younger days to complete his degree in economics, Muto resumed football for his hometown club, FC Tokyo in 2013, and ended his first season there by earning a spot in the team of the season. He scored 13 goals in 33 appearances last season, but made an even better start to this season, with 10 in 17. He was then the subject of a bid from Chelsea, but he turned down that move in favour of a move to Mainz in the Bundesliga. This was to aid his development, according to him, and it certainly seems like the right decision based on the minutes he’s clocked, and the goals he’s scored. The highlight during his short time at Mainz would have to be his sensational hat-trick against Augsburg in a 3-3 draw in October.
Muto is a player who isn’t really impressively built, but is quick, and has a decent enough physical presence. His game is based more on his speed, movement, intelligence on and off the ball, and pressing of the opposition. He can link up with teammates well, and is often seen exchanging quick passes with them in and around the penalty area. His tally of 7 goals and 4 assists in 16 appearances is very impressive to say the least. Bright things lie ahead for the young striker if he continues his growth at this rate.
9. SHINJI OKAZAKI
Yet another player from the land of the rising sun that has made it in Europe, and has been successful, Shinji Okazaki came through the Bundesliga, leaving the league as the most prolific Japanese player in that league. He’s also the top scoring active international for Japan, with 43 international goals. He started his career at Shimizu in Japan, and after a few seasons of establishing himself, made the move to Stuttgart in Germany. He had a bright start at the club, with a decent second season that saw him score 7 goals, but his third season was difficult, and he ended with just 1 goal. This saw him move to Mainz, and he became a lot more prolific there, ending with 27 goals in his 65 appearances spanning 2 seasons. The performances earned the interest of current Premier League leaders Leicester. Okazaki had a fine start to his career in England, and currently finds himself competing with Ulloa for a starting spot alongside Jamie Vardy.
Okazaki is used alongside another striker at the moment, because his movement and heading ability create the perfect foil for a striker partner, and also make him a viable aerial target for crosses fired into the box. Even last season, he was a primary attacker for Mainz, starting and finishing most of their games. At international level too, Okazaki is often deployed in front of a creative trio, with his movement and physical and aerial prowess once again being the criteria aiding his selection.
8. ALI MABKHOUT
Playing for Al Jazira, the striker has been around for a number of years without really setting the scene on fire. The club hierarchy of course, always knew of his talents, and he was well respected within Asia’s football community, but his recent performances have elevated him to global attention. He made his senior debut in 2009, coming through the ranks at Al Jazira. Very soon, he became a regular for the national team as well, with his performances gaining attention from other clubs in West Asia. But only recently has he started becoming a regular on the goal scoring counters, with an incredible season coming to an end.
The year started for him on a high, as he led a merry UAE side to the semi final of the AFC Asian Cup, and he ended the tournament as top scorer with 5 goals. This was his third such feat in a year, as he was top scorer in qualifying for the same tournament, and the 2014 Gulf Cup. He carried the form into the league season, partnering with star signing Mirko Vucinic to form a deadly attacking unit that ended as top scorers of the league. He personally enjoyed a great season too, as he scored 11 goals in the league, second to his teammate Vucinic who was the top scorer with 25. These performances helped him finish as the Best Emirati Player of the AGL in 2015.
Mabkhout isn’t a goal poacher, but more of an all round striker. He is a strong physical presence, but his game intelligence, and ability to link play make him more than your traditional battering ram forward. Goals are a feature that have been added to his game only recently, as he has often been used behind the main striker, or in wide areas in the past. His versatility, form, and intelligence make him an attractive target, and like his international teammate Omar Abdulrahman, he’s been linked with a move to Europe, with La Liga teams said to be monitoring his progress closely.
7. KI SUNG-YEUNG
Ki Sung-yeung is probably one of the most underrated footballers in England. The South Korean midfielder is one of the few players to have played for teams in Scotland, England, and Wales, and has enjoyed success and respect everywhere he has played. He first made the move to Europe towards the fag end of 2009 to join Celtic. He became a popular and important player at Parkhead, with his technique, energy, and goalscoring exploits, earning strong praise from manager Neil Lennon. Swansea then secured his signature in 2012, and he adapted to playing in a slightly deeper role, to orchestrate the game. A splendid performance in their 5-0 win in the League Cup final was the perfect demonstration of his progress. A season on loan rescuing Sunderland from one of their many great escapes was followed by a return to Swansea. Once again, his deeper midfield role saw him link up well with Jonjo Shelvey, and work wonders in a surprisingly dominant Swans midfield.
He had a good time out on international duty as well, helping his side to a second place finish in the AFC Asian Cup. He actually provided the assist for Heung Min Son to equalize in the final against Australia as well. He continued the rich vein of form on return to club duty, with 5 goals in the second half of the season before injury struck him down. He’s not been in the best of form of late, like his team, and will be hoping that they can turn it around.
6. SHINJI KAGAWA
One of the finest players from a nation that’s starting to produce a lot of top level players, Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players at the top German side Borussia Dortmund. He started his journey at Cerezo Osaka, but made the move to Europe at the age of 21, as Dortmund got him on the cheap. He made his name at the Signal Iduna Park, with his creative touches, flicks, and passing winning him a lot of fans, and Dortmund a lot of goals. He formed a crucial part of Klopp’s attacking unit behind players like Lewandowski. A move to Manchester United followed, as Sir Alex tried to add him as a provider for talents like Rooney and Chicharito. His tenure there bore mixed results, as he showed glimpses of his talent. He returned to Dortmund at the start of last season, and has started showing his old form against since Thomas Tuchel has taken over.
This season, he’s played in a slightly more withdrawn role than he used to, but still has the task of creating chances for his forwards. His goal scoring rate is also still fairly high, with 8 goals in 23 appearances being matched by 8 assists in the same period, with the highlight being a hattrick of assists in a 5-1 win over Augsburg.
5. ZHANG LINPENG
Zhang Linpeng, or Zhangmos, as his nickname goes, is one of the top players of the Chinese Super League, and, according to Marcelo Lippi, the best Chinese player in the Chinese League. The player is primarily a right back, and a center back, and his playing style has often been compared to that of Sergio Ramos. He’s been a consistent performer for Guangzhou Evergrande ever since he moved to the club in 2010. He was part of the team that won the club their first ever league title, and led them to 3 successive league titles, and even the AFC Champions League. His performances have led to interest from some of the big European clubs, with both Inter and Chelsea attempting to sign him this past summer.
Zhang is a player who has great skill on the ball, is aggressive, and has good aerial ability as well. He’s not afraid of getting stuck into a tackle, and is known for his leadership qualities on the field. Internationally too, he’s a mainstay in the Chinese side. He’s had a good season so far, scoring 4 goals and recording 3 assists in the league, which is quite impressive for a defender.
4. MASSIMO LUONGO
The third Australian on this list already, Massimo Luongo is a central midfielder, and another of the band that won the AFC Asian Cup earlier this year, and had a very influential role to play in the win. Luongo currently plays for QPR in the Championship. He started off his career at Tottenham Hotspur, but couldn’t really succeed in North London. Like many young players, he was loaned out, and spells at Ipswich and Swindon eventually saw the midfielder leave White Hart Lane. Chris Ramsey eventually brought him to QPR earlier this year, in the summer transfer window.
Luongo’s most important contribution this year though, has been to his national team. Playing in central midfield for the Soceroos at the Asian Cup, he was a constant force of energy during the tournament. He scored in their opener, and the opening goal in the final as well, aside from providing 4 assists in the tournament. His performances earned him the title of MVP, proving the crucial role he played in the Aussie success.
3. HEUNG-MIN SON
Another player who has done exceptionally well to establish himself at a top European team, Heun-min Son made his name in Germany, and is currently pulling up trees in London, forming a very impressive partnership with the likes of Eriksen and Kane. Having started out his career at FC Seoul, he progressed in leaps and bounds at Hamburg. A move to Leverkusen followed, and the 2 years he spent there saw him playing in different competitions like the Champions League and the Europa League. His performances were enough to make him the most expensive Asian player in history, when he moved to Tottenham this summer.
He’s had a good start to his Tottenham career, with a goal on debut. An injury disrupted his campaign, but he’s recovered now, and is an active member of this high flying Tottenham team. He’s scored 3 goals, and got 4 assists, but that isn’t his real contribution. For a Tottenham team that often looked bereft of an additional helping hand for Harry Kane, Son is proving to be that artillery.
2. TIM CAHILL
One of the legends of the game, especially in Asia and Australia, and a favourite of all Everton fans, Tim Cahill now plays for Shanghai Shenhua. He’s 36, and supposed to be winding up his career, but no one has told him that. Cahill is still playing with the same energy, work ethic, and killer instinct that has set him apart throughout his career.
Having signed for Millwall in 1998 on a free from Sydney United, he was a central figure in their triumphs, and their historic run to the FA Cup final in 2004. That defeat to Manchester United was the last time he played for Millwall before a move to Everton where he became a legend. After a very successful period with the Toffees, he went to New York for 3 years, en route to his current destination, Shanghai.
He’s been in fine form for his new team after debuting for them in March. In his 35 appearances for the team, he’s scored 12 goals and assisted 6. That’s an excellent rate for any player in any league of the world, meaning that Tim Cahill is far from finished.
1. MATHEW RYAN
The talented young Aussie goalkeeper currently plays for Valencia CF, after moving to the club this past summer. He started off his career at the Central Coast Mariners, winning a number of accolades and a lot of praise for his performances there, with many looking at him as a future fixture in between the sticks for the Soceroos. In 2013, Ryan made a move to Club Brugge, with his performances earning him a new contract with the club in 2014. The summer of 2015-16 is when Ryan moved to Valencia, amid a lot of fanfare and support for him from the Brugge fans.
At the start of the year, Ryan went out to Australia to play in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, his second major tournament after the 2014 World Cup where Postecoglu put faith in him. He performed exceptionally well, winning the billing of Best Goalkeeper of the tournament. He put in some excellent performances for his club side as well last season, keeping 21 clean sheets in his 58 appearances. His superb saves, and consistent performances endeared him greatly to the Brugge fans. After his move to Valencia, he hasn’t really been able to establish himself, mainly due to a knee injury. Once he recovers, he should be an important part of Gary Neville’s plans going forward.