Yash Thakur looks at seven players who you should keep an eye on during the Women’s Asian Cup which kicks off today in India.
The 20th edition of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Women’s Asian Cup kicks off today in India. It’s the premier continental competition for international football in the AFC and it holds a lot of value for the nations who compete in it as it also serves as a pathway to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023.
The tournament will stage some of world football’s high profile players: players like Sam Kerr, who finished third in the Ballon D’or last season, Saki Kumagai, the most decorated Asian player of all time, Wang Shuang, dubbed the “Chinese Messi” by the media owing to her skills on the ball, and Ji So-Yun, the midfield maestro for Chelsea and one of the best foreign WSL players of all time.
But what about those players who are off the beaten track in the women’s game? In this article, we will highlight some of the players you should keep an eye out for as the tournament progresses.
Position: Attacking/Wide Midfielder
Yui Hasegawa is one of the most impactful players in her position in the women’s game. She is a vital cog for both club and country owing to her exceptional ability on the ball. Blessed with a deft first touch, she regularly attempts high-risk, high-reward passes that cut through opposition lines.
An attacking midfielder primarily, Hasegawa operates as a wide midfielder on the left where she has the license to drift inwards and pull the strings in between opposition lines (as you can see from her heatmap).
In terms of ball progression, Hasegawa ranks among the best players in her positions for both passing and carrying. She is always looking to advance possession into more threatening areas. Her electric feet, quick acceleration and low centre of gravity make her a fantastic dribbler and incredibly press resistant.
She also has a wide variety of passes in her repertoire, allowing her to turn provider from any range. Look at how she uses this passing ability to unlock Canada’s defence with a long ball from deep at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics:
Hasegawa can also play intricate through balls with similar panache and her crosses from wide pose an attacking threat as well.
On top of this, her excellent spatial awareness and game reading allow her to take up disruptive positions in the attacking third. This gives her a defensive edge too, allowing her to intercept opposition play. She is ranked among the top two percentile on TransferLab for value added through interceptions. This also plays a hand in an ability to press oppositions.
Hasegawa—who played a part in the successful Nadeshiko team at the 2012 and 2014 editions of the FIFA U17 WWC, winning the latter while picking up the silver ball for her brilliant performances in the process—will be a central figure if Japan do plan on doing a 3-peat in India.
Country: South Korea
Geum-Min Lee recently completed a transfer to Brighton & Hove Albion from Manchester City after signing for them after the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Primarily a striker, Lee is very much capable of dropping off and playing in that playmaker role, making her more of a nine and a half. Her ability to drop deep and to either side of the field makes her a great link player, providing support wherever necessary.
Blessed with quick feet and snappy change of direction, she uses it really well to draw fouls from opponents, and while not the flashiest of dribblers, she is very effective at taking on players and putting her side at an advantage.
We saw her creative side of play at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019 when she played this neat backheel in the box against Norway:
Lee isn’t a voluminous shooter. But she will be a crucial piece for South Korea at the tournament along with So-yun Ji and So-yun Cho.
Position: Attacking/Central Midfielder
There have been an influx of fresh faces in the Australian National Team of late with as many as seven under 23 players getting their debuts recently. Kyra Cooney-Cross is one of the brightest of these prospects coming through for the Matildas.
Being part of the stand-by squad at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup after her strong performances at the youth level, Cooney-Cross has continued to develop going from strength to strength. Domestically, the 19-year-old lit up the stage for Melbourne Victory last season in the W-League and she was voted the best young player of the season. She finished the season with 6 goals and 4 assists, scoring an Olimpico in the 120th min in the finals to help Victory clinch the championship.
A midfielder who excels in the final third with the ball at her feet, Cooney-Cross’s ability to take on players and help progress the ball forwards stands out the most. She is very active in the area right outside the penalty box and she often creates chances or sprays possession into wide channels from there.
As this plot shows, Cooney-Cross ranks among the top players for ball carries and dribbles in the league:
She is very comfortable with either foot, making her a tough opponent to defend against, and her close control under pressure makes her very press resistant.
Focusing on the volume and quality of her dribbles using the TransferLab’s Player Plot tool, we can see that Cooney-Cross also excels among her peers in these metrics:
It’s important to note that she isn’t just a high-volume dribbler but her dribbles come in dangerous positions on the pitch and often increase the likelihood of her team’s scoring. She is creating spaces as a result of her take-ons.
Cooney-Cross’s ability from dead-ball situations is an added weapon in her repertoire. Her deliveries are perfectly weighted and target space in the box. On top of this, she is just as capable of playing line-breaking passes into the box from open play.
While she is capable of playing slightly deeper in the midfield, this doesn’t harness her best qualities. She isn’t a shielding presence at the back and can be caught out of position in that role due to a lack of familiarity. It’s something that needs work as she aspires to become a well-rounded midfielder. This isn’t to say she is pedestrian in defence, though; she contributes well with her pressing and tackling high up the pitch to recover possession.
Cooney-Cross is on track to complete her fifth full season in the Australian top flight before hitting 20. Her coaches have heaped praise on her for her maturity and stoic calmness on the pitch. This, coupled with the impressive experience she has already garnered along with her tangible abilities on the ball, makes her ceiling almost limitless.
Zahra Muzdalifah is one of the brightest prospects coming out of Indonesia. Enjoying a breakout tournament at the 2018 Asian Games, her performances saw her earn tryouts in Scandinavia, most notably at FC Rosengard.
Having her roots in futsal, it’s easy to see the influence the small pitch has had in honing the technical skills of the player. She is a fantastic dribbler and has great control in tight spaces. Her movements in and around the box are good, often seen pulling out wide and dragging the defenders or making decoy runs into the box to open up spaces for her teammates.
Looking at Muzdalifah’s touch map from the games against Singapore, her inclination to drift to the side to lay it off for her teammates and link up play becomes clear:
Off the ball, she has a feisty side to her and you shouldn’t be surprised to see her press aggressively to try and win the ball back.
Another player that stands out in the Indonesian team is the 18-year-old centre back, Shalika Aurelia. She recently became the first Indonesian womens player to sign abroad after securing a move to Serie B side Roma Calcio Femminile. She previously had tryouts with both West Ham and Bayern Munich.
A modern ball-playing CB, she reads 1v1 situations well and possesses good recovery pace. Aurelia will be crucial for Indonesia in the build-up phases.
Position: Left Winger
The All Indian Football Federation’s Emerging Footballer of the Year for 2021 has been part of the senior setup in the Indian National Team for three years now after shining for the youth levels. Recently, she made headlines yet again by becoming the first goalscorer in an Indian women’s team game against a top 10 side in Brazil. So far she has bagged 5 goals from her 11 caps, scoring against the likes of Ukraine, Bahrain and UAE.
A pacy left winger who is very direct in her approach, Kalyan loves to drive at defences and take on players. Claiming Ronaldinho as an inspiration, you can see hints of her hero in her play. She is also versatile, capable of playing out wide and through the middle behind the striker. Her dribbling is often oriented towards finding space in behind.
A sprinter before picking up football, it’s easy to see the influence athletics has had on her. She combines the physicality and skills to go with an incredible work rate allowing her to bomb up and down the field tirelessly.
With star teammate Bala Devi now out with injury, Manisha will have to turn up again if Thomas Dennerby’s side are to make the most of the home tournament.
“She probably has got the most amount of weapons I’ve seen from a young player her age in women’s football!” These words were uttered by ex-Matilda and current Philippines head coach Alen Staj?i? when describing the then 16-year-old Aussie, Mary Fowler.
Fowler has long been dubbed as the next big thing from down under owing to the heaps of potential she possesses. Handed her first senior cap at the age of just 15 years, she is one of the youngest players ever to play for Matildas.
Her talent took center stage when she scored 10 goals in 6 games at the ASEAN Football Federation’s Women’s Championship in 2019, which earned her a callup for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. She later moved to Montpellier in January 2020 at just 16 years of age and has continued to develop as a player. This season she has already scored 3 goals from 356 domestic minutes.
Fowler is a striker who can be deployed across the frontline. She has the goalscoring instincts to make her a threat inside the box and she can turn provider while dropping deep or drifting out wide owing to her quality on the ball. She is a threat from any range due to her venomous shot.
She also has a great blend of technical ability and physicality. Her skilled nature on the ball allows her to gain a technical superiority over her opponents in 1v1 situations while the physical aspect enables her to hold possession under pressure and be an excellent outlet for the team.
In the Matildas’ recent game against Germany, we saw her capacity to drop deep to receive under pressure and then turn to move the possession forwards:
On top of this, her ability to thread a long ball into space while dropping off into midfield disrupts opposition and helps her team gain quick yards on them.
Fowler is great at attacking space right in front of her after receiving the ball and turning. She works hard off the ball to win possession while also serving as a link player to move the ball quickly through the thirds.
All of these qualities make her a very well-rounded attacker who can hurt a team in multiple ways. Still just 18, she has everything to be a reference point for the Matildas in years to come.
Position: Right Back
An offensive-minded right back, Risa Shimizu likes to stretch the field and provide width in buildup and attack. She can be regularly seen stretching her legs down the flank to provide supporting runs on the overlap to her teammates. The range and vision on her passing mean she is capable of pulling off incisive and creative passes from wide and deep areas, making her an incredible attacking asset for the side.
In possession, she is good at playing short crisp exchanges with her teammates helping to advance possession and create better crossing opportunities. She can turn provider from the wide areas too through her brilliant crossing ability.
TransferLab gives her a score of 98 in the Attacking Full Back profile, underlining her qualities in the final third and in possession. Her activity high in the final third can be seen in her heatmap as well.
It’s in the defensive side of things—particularly the physical aspect—where she lacks the bite. Her slight frame puts her at a disadvantage coming up against the physically dominant attackers.
That’s not to say she doesn’t offer anything defensively. But defensive contributions stem predominantly from her ability to read the game and understand space. While not the quickest player, her recovery pace allows her to make up ground on the attackers in case of loose balls.
The AFC’s Women’s Asian Cup takes place between the 20th of January and the 6th of February in India.