(Reuters) - Kaoru Mitoma's pace and movement in the final third has been a breath of fresh air for Brighton & Hove Albion this season, but his skills on the ball come as no surprise with the Japanese winger having written a thesis in the art of dribbling.
Mitoma conducted his research while at the University of Tsukuba by strapping cameras to his team mates' heads to observe their reactions and field of vision when an attacking player received the ball.
Armed with a physical education degree, he then tested his theories on the pitch to become one of the J League's best players before moving to Europe.
Mitoma has since been schooling Premier League defenders after breaking into the first team, a blue-white blur who almost makes time stand still when he cuts into the box as opponents second guess his next move.
With his close control, his acceleration with the ball and a unique ability to decelerate to a standstill almost at will, the 25-year-old once seen as a raw talent has mastered the art of dribbling in one of Europe's most physical leagues.
"I am conscious of shifting the opponent's centre of gravity. If I can move the opponent's body, I win," Mitoma had said.
Little was known of Mitoma until he burst on to the scene at the World Cup where he assisted the winner in Japan's famous victory over Spain with an almighty stretch and cutback when the ball was millimetres from going out.
Having played 90 minutes for Brighton only once before his adventures in Qatar, Mitoma is now one of the first names on the team sheet after Roberto De Zerbi took charge and Leandro Trossard was shipped to Arsenal.
Nine goals and four assists in 18 starts in his debut season is more than Brighton could have hoped for after the south-coast club signed him for 2.5 million pounds ($3.04 million) from then J-League champions Kawasaki Frontale.
He netted in three games in a row at one stage -- including an audacious winner that knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup -- while he has either scored or assisted a goal in his last five appearances in all competitions.
"Mitoma is a crucial part of the team for us because one-against-one in the last 25 metres, he's one of the most important players," De Zerbi said.
Ever since Chelsea prised away Graham Potter and Brighton tied down wantaway midfielder Moises Caicedo to a long-term contract, Mitoma has arguably become one of their biggest assets alongside World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister.
But De Zerbi has no intention of losing a precious gem with Brighton potentially playing in Europe for the first time next season.
The Seagulls are seventh in the league with games in hand while they also progressed to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
"For him it's the first year in the Premier League, it's important for us. But also, it's important for him to play another year with us," De Zerbi added.
($1 = 0.8214 pounds)
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Christian Radnedge)