Australia vs Japan - a tactical analysis

Australia vs Japan - a tactical analysis

By Ben Mabley

Not even the increasingly bizarre performance of a referee clearly keen to dominate the proceedings himself could spoil a wonderfully intense encounter between two of Asia’s big three.

Having observed the lack of coherency shown by the Socceroos in admittedly scorching heat away to Oman last Friday, Alberto Zaccheroni would surely have fancied his side’s chances of finding space in between two Australian banks of four – whose flatness was engrained when the ever-creative Marco Bresciano was replaced by Mark Milligan due to injury after just 12 minutes. However, the hosts began with such intensity and directness that, for half an hour, Japan struggled to cope.

Holger Osieck’s men accounted for their numerical inferiority in midfield by bypassing it completely, sending long balls out of defence towards Tim Cahill and Alex Brosque. The strength and canniness of the front two generally ensured that they would win the headers and hold the ball up for the cavalry charge of Luke Wilkshire, Matt McKay, and the other players passed over in the previous phase. But part of the reason they were able to do so was the way in which Japan retreated, and even occasionally fell into the trap of doubling up on headers – thus leaving a yellow shirt unmarked. Instead of pulling Australia out of position, Japan were being pushed out of theirs. The visitors’ counterattacks began from so deep that they lacked support and soon ended with nine Australians behind the ball again.

Japan needed to be braver in order to reverse the trend. From around the 30-minute mark, the volante pairing of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe began playing noticeably higher up the pitch, with the back four also advancing and closing down the Australian forwards with greater confidence and urgency. Pressing as a team, Zaccheroni’s side made it harder for the Socceroos to maintain possession within their direct style, and could now start playing the ball across midfield a little more themselves. They still didn’t enjoy masses of space, but the new-found ability of the midfield to function as a five gave Australia problems and allowed the full-backs, Yuto Nagatomo and the especially industrious Atsuto Uchida, to overlap and even penetrate the 18-yard box. By the early part of the second half, it was Japan who were imposing their game on the opposition.

When the physical Milligan saw red – perhaps harshly – for a second bookable offence, Cahill moved back to slot into his vacated position in central midfield. This did not really affect the way that Australia defended the Japanese passing moves, but with Brosque now the lone focal point upfield, it meant that their long balls from the back were more easily quelled. In turn, Japan could enjoy sustained possession and pressure. The opening goal for Yuzo Kurihara was created via a clever, jinking run along the by-line from Keisuke Honda following a short corner routine with Hasebe – a moment of inspiration which seemed to embody Japan’s enjoyment at rediscovering their supremacy.

To their credit, ten-man Australia responded with an immediate burst of intensity, taking risks to pile men forwards and win a corner from which Uchida was confusingly penalised for supposedly impeding an unprotesting Brosque. Wilkshire netted the resulting spot-kick, and this seemed to rattle Japan for a while. Now advancing the ball along the ground more via Cahill, the hosts kept up the pressure at 1-1 and could have led when Sasa Ognenovski’s shot hit the crossbar.

The Samurai Blue did settle eventually, but lacked the decisiveness to produce a winner before Kurihara was dismissed – for some reason – in the final minute of the 90. It may feel like two points dropped, but this was still a very useful draw in undoubtedly Japan’s toughest fixture of the qualifying process.

Ben Mabley is the presenter of the Football Japan Minutecast. This article originally appeared in Japanese at Japan, and in English on Ben’s blog at Football Japan.

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