Forcing your way into Celtic’s current midfield is a hard task. Just ask the likes of new signings such as Odin Thiago Holm and Paulo Bernardo, as well as established stars such as David Turnbull and even Reo Hatate, who faced a spell on the bench in the early weeks of Brendan Rodgers’ return.

Blessed with an array of talent in the middle of the park, it feels as if all three of the spots available in the current midfield three set-up are already accounted for, by captain Callum McGregor, the aforementioned Hatate and Matt O’Riley, who has been the standout player for Celtic so far this campaign.

Therefore, spare a penny for the current thoughts of Tomoki Iwata, who made his move from Yokohama F Marinos to Celtic permanent this summer, as per the obligatory nature of the loan deal orchestrated in last winter’s transfer window. His initial loan spell was a success, with the versatile player making 18 appearances, in turn assisting Ange Postecoglou – who managed him at Marinos – and Celtic to an unprecedented eighth domestic treble.

So far this season, things have been a little different for Iwata. Deputising at right-back in the absence of both Alistair Johnston and Anthony Ralston due to injury, it was clear – especially against La Liga stalwarts Athletic Club – that this was not a long-term solution for the Japan international. Thanks to the return of Ralston, Iwata was dropped to the bench for the games against Ross County, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone, before not being named whatsoever in matchday squads versus Rangers and Dundee.

However, he returned to the bench for Celtic’s Champions League group stage game against Feyenoord in Rotterdam, where he came off of it to play the final 23 minutes in the centre of defence alongside Liam Scales. He consolidated this performance by again making a substitute appearance last weekend away to Livingston - playing as a defensive midfielder – as he accumulated 29 minutes on the plastic surface of the Tony Macaroni Arena.

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Iwata is clearly a talented individual - as he is the reigning MVP in the J1 League - with four Japan caps to his name. Fortunately for him, there may be a small opening in the team, for which his services may be required to be utilised. Using both Wyscout and StatsBomb, we look into the positive attributes that Iwata has brought to the team through his cameo performances, as well as where he needs to improve if he is to make more of an impact going forward.

Iwata v Feyenoord – 19/09/2023

Iwata’s first competitive appearance since signing permanently in the summer came against Eredivisie champions Feyenoord, coming on in the 67th minute. It was to be a baptism of fire, with his substitution wedged in between the respective red cards of Gustaf Lagerbielke and Holm respectively. Coming on in place of Kyogo Furuhashi, it was very much damage limitation for Rodgers’ team, who had competed well prior to Lagerbielke’s second yellow.

Above is a heat map from the game at De Kuip. Admittedly, there are not any areas of warm shading, which is probably down to the amount of work Iwata had to do against the Pot 1 side in multiple areas of the park. According to Wyscout, the utility player made 13 total actions in the game, completing nine of them at a success rate of 69.2 per cent. This included a 75 per cent pass completion, a 67 per cent duel success rate and one interception.

Using StatBomb’s detailed player radar graphic (as shown above), Iwata's performance was quiet but assured. When looking at these analytics and statistics, it is important to underline and highlight that the midfielder was thrust into a situation where Celtic were a man down, then a minute later that disadvantage doubled thanks to Holm’s studs-up challenge, which worsened the situation.

Despite this two-man advantage, Iwata committed no fouls during his time on the park, ranking him 100th in percentile for centre-backs. His On-Ball Value (OBV) for defensive actions was 0.11, showing that he had the composure and know-how to contribute to the defensive effort, in turn not allowing the back-line to completely crumble on his watch.

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Perhaps most impressively, his tackle/dribbled past percentage was 100 per cent, in turn showing he was successful in every defensive action of this kind, both in his tackling and when progressing the ball through dribbling up the park.

Despite his limited time on the pitch, Iwata was involved, with some of his best contributions displayed in the graphics below, using Wyscout.

Passing and moving

The first example of solid play comes in the 84th minute. As the scoreline displays, Celtic are down to nine men, yet Iwata is still trying to make things happen in a positive sense from defence. Following a pass from McGregor in the number six role – the role Iwata has played for the majority of his Celtic career – the makeshift defender plays a pass into fellow substitute Hyun-jun Yang, which is successful.

The ball stays with the South Korean winger for a couple of seconds before it is distributed back to Iwata who has positioned himself on the touchline. This is not unlike his role as a full-back, which was implemented in pre-season against the likes of Wolves, Athletic Club and former team Yokohama F Marinos. Not seeing any opening in the middle of the park, Iwata successfully executes a pass to his fellow defender Scales, who is unmarked as Celtic’s deepest defender.

The play progresses, and Scales distributes the ball back to Iwata, who is evidently a safe pair of hands (or feet, rather) on the pitch. In this position, Celtics number 24 could easily launch the ball up the park, but it seems like ‘AngeBall’ is imprinted onto one of his most loyal disciples. Because of this, Iwata attempts to beat the Feyenoord player entrusted to mark him. Will he get dispossessed? Or will he get past his man directly on his tail?

Fortunately for the nine men of Celtic, the latter transpires. As comfortable as his fellow countryman Hatate in dribbling past players, Iwata easily gets past his man and gets himself into a position to pass to Hyeon-gyu Oh, with the striker dropping in very deep to collect any potential offering. Unfortunately, the pass is a little short, and Oh never receives the pass, but the intent is there from Iwata, and he is unfortunate not to complete this nice move.

Defensive positioning

Next, we will have a look at his defensive positioning, the example of which transpires a little earlier in the 79th minute. Celtic have been dispossessed at the top end of the park, and are admittedly short-changed at the back. Iwata has pushed high up the pitch to join the attack, but has realised his position and instantly is on the move when his teammates lose the ball.

The second still is from just six seconds later, which can be verified by looking at each scoreboard in the top-left of the respective photos. Look at how deep Iwata is now in the defence, as he is now Celtic’s last outfield line of defence. Thanks to the defender's quick thinking, this recovery pace and sense of danger has ensured that Celtic are not completely open at the back. The maturity shown by Iwata – especially in Europe – means he can be a solid option for Rodgers going forward. Depending on the fitness of Nat Phillips, he may have to fulfil this role again as a centre-back in the absence of the suspended Lagerbielke.

Hold-up play

The last passage of play regarding Iwata in the Feyenoord game again is a positive for the stand-in defender. He receives the ball at his midriff, controlling it with his chest in the process. As is shown, a Feyenoord attacker is getting dangerously close to him, but Iwata is stronger than he looks.

Using his upper body strength, Iwata manages to both hold off his man and swivel him in the same movement, leaving his opponent on the wrong side of him. Unfortunately, the move only lasts for a couple more seconds, but Iwata can be happy with his small, but notable contribution to the cause, in testing circumstances.

Iwata v Livingston – 23/09/2023

For this game, Iwata was subbed onto the pitch in place of the more attacking Hatate - who is making his way back from injury – in the 61st minute. His first appearance in the league since Trophy Day against Aberdeen last season, it was a chance for Iwata to further establish himself in Rodgers’ plans going forward.

Above is Iwata’s heatmap from his performance at the Tony Macaroni Arena, where he played as a defensive midfielder. A varied range of heat pick-ups, the biggest area of warmth is situated just outside of the centre circle, where a player in his position should be. Most of the warmth comes in areas further up the pitch, showing he is keen to display his attacking prowess when given the opportunity. Iwata did do the defensive work too – judging by his positions on the defensive end – on the right-hand side of the pitch, though this was a largely positive performance on the attacking end for the midfielder.

Wyscout has Iwata down as completing only 44 per cent of his actions, meaning he was successful in eight of his 18 total actions in the game. He completed six out of his 12 total passes at a rate of 50 per cent, though he was successful in completing his one long pass. He won half of his duels, as well as completing two interceptions in his latest cameo for Celtic.

Admittedly, the stats read for mixed fortunes for Iwata on StatsBomb against Livingston. Despite completing 5.09 deep progressions, his rank is only at the 62nd percentile for central midfielders. This may have been influenced by the fact he was playing as the deepest of the three midfielders, and deep progressions are usually completed by middlemen positioned further up the park. Iwata committed no turnovers in the game, again showing his competency in possession, and he averages 2.54 fouls given in his favour, a high total given his position and amount of time on the pitch. Furthermore, he ranks in the 78th percentile for defensive action OBV, a high ranking for a player with so little game-time this season.

Line-breaking passing

The first clip demonstrates Iwata’s quick thinking, as well as his adeptness at distributing the ball to his teammates. Johnston in the first still is on the ball and is going to distribute to the unmarked midfielder standing by himself. Iwata has his head up, and is ready for the ball to come his way…

The pass is good and finds the midfielder, who still has a bit of space to operate. He turns and lifts his head to assess the situation, noticing an opportunity to find the further forward McGregor on his lonesome. Without a second of hesitation, he releases the ball from his feet and finds his captain, who starts an attack. This proves that these two players can co-exist on the same pitch, which may be useful when deploying both, especially in European competitions where midfield stability is required.

Midfield duelling

Next in Iwata’s Livingston highlight reel comes a nice passage of play in both his duelling and passing ability. In a position comfortable to him, Iwata managed an interception in the middle of the park, which arrived at the feet of McGregor close by.

Later on in the passage, McGregor passes the ball back to Iwata, as shown by the straight arrow in the still. There are two Livingston players in close vicinity of him, McGregor and O’Riley, who is going to receive the ball In a one-two passage, Iwata acrobatically lifts his outstretched leg almost instinctively to cushion it back to his captain. Again, the pass is good, and McGregor spreads the play to O’Riley, who is positioned in the middle of the shot. From here, the Danish midfielder can impact the game positively, as the midfield three have taken at least two pressers out of the game thanks to this move. This highlights that Iwata can be calm under the pressure of oncoming pressers, using his technique and agility to alleviate the stress, starting a counterattack in the process.

First-time passing

As mentioned before, this demonstrated how skilled Iwata can be on the ball, in perhaps his most favoured position in the park. Again, he is distributed the ball by the always-available Johnston. With his back turned – and a man running onto him from the opposition, what will Iwata do? Will he pass it straight back to the right-back? Will he turn and start an attack? Or will he play a neat first-time pass up the field? Place your bets…

If you picked option three, then you would be in the money. Almost instinctively – without any sign of doubt or hesitation – Iwata plays a lobbed ball over the Livingston presser directly into the path of O’Riley, who is inexplicably unmarked again. This quick change of possession is so difficult for the opposition to deal with, as again players have been quickly eliminated from the game. This may not come off all of the time, but it is so, so effective when it comes off, especially at this speed.

Physical strength

The last passage of play against Livingston does not involve Iwata even touching the ball, but rather his strength in holding off a player admittedly a lot more physically imposing than he is, in the shape of Joel Nouble.

The smaller arrow indicates the pass to the Livingston striker, whilst the dotted line is the movement which Iwata will undertake in order to try and dispossess the striker, who has come deep for a touch of the ball.

A couple of seconds later, and Iwata is all over the tall frontman of Martindale’s side. The referee is a bit lenient with the latter – perhaps taking into account the size and strength of the striker – and allows play to continue. Notice O’Riley making a run behind this exchange, he has sensed that an opportunity has arisen and is going to take advantage.

Miraculously, Iwata has held up Nouble for enough time that O’Riley has managed to dispossess the striker, thanks to the Japanese midfielder’s continued endeavour to win the ball back, starting an attack off the back of this exchange. This work rate will go a long way in the eyes of Rodgers, who will have observed Iwata’s willingness to challenge what looked like a lost cause, against a total mismatch in Nouble. Very impressive from a player looking to force his way into an already-packed midfield.


Despite having limited game-time to showcase his abilities – both appearances were off the bench – Iwata displayed enough guile and know-how to show that he can be a major player for his new manager, whether from the start or coming off the bench in a specialist role.

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Of course, time will tell if he can fulfil this ambition, especially with the depth of talent already at the club in midfield. In the meantime, Iwata will have to continue to feed off the scraps given to him by the manager and hope that an extended opportunity comes along in the near future. The talent and pedigree are there; he just has to take his chance when it arises.