In a classic ‘game of two halves’ Japan upped the tempo and the ante in the second period to ensure a deserved 2-1 win.
New Japan coach Javier Aguirre has preferred a 4-3-3 formation (as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 of his predecessor, Albert Zaccheroni). He made one change from the 6-0 thumping of Honduras last Friday, with Kosuke Ota coming into the side at left-back, and Gotoku Sakai switching to the right. Makoto Hasebe sat at the base of midfield with Yasuhito Endo to his left, and Shinji Kagawa operating in a centre-right midfield position to complete the midfield triangle, but pushing slightly higher up. Keisuke Honda was wide on the right, while Shinji Okazaki upfront.
Ange Postecoglou opted to experiment more with his 4-3-3 system, deciding to use Massimo Luongo and Matt McKay as the advanced players in a 1-2 midfield format, rather than the previous 2-1 system, which is a change made in the October international break against the UAE and Qatar. Upfront, Tim Cahill was on the bench, meaning Matthew Leckie played through the middle, flanked by James Troisi and Robbie Kruse.
From an Australian point of view, the most interesting feature of this friendly was a slightly modified, more fluid front three. Normally under Postecoglou, we’ve seen the wingers focusing on creating space out wide either for themselves or the overlapping full-backs, and looking to cross into Cahill.
Without Cahill, though, the dynamic of the side changed. Leckie, Kruse and Troisi were happier to interchange positions, and focused more on creating chances in narrower positions. Troisi, in particular, drifted inside from the left wing to find pockets of space just in behind Kagawa. Kruse, on the opposite side, stayed higher up and tried to run in behind, but the main takeaway here is that all three were happier to rotate in the final third.
There was, understandably, less of an emphasis on crossing, though the best chance came when Leckie connected to a Ivan Franjic cross inside the area. With such a narrow front three, Australia looked much better when the full-backs came higher up the pitch, giving them extra width.
Japan look to get in behind
Japan, meanwhile, had a different route of attack. Comments in the media this week by centre-back Maya Yoshida – “they will try and play long balls to him [Cahill] and pick up the second balls to shoot” – somewhat suggested Japan hadn’t done their scouting (because while Australia definitely look to cross into Cahill in the air, they very rarely ever build up play by hitting long balls towards him: an important distinction), it was obvious from their attacking approach that they were going to target Australia’s high line.
The aggressive offside trap has been discussed in much depth by this site this week, and throughout the first half Japan tried to get in behind it by hitting quick balls in behind, often prompted by the clever passing of Hasebe from deep positions. As early as the eighth minute, Kagawa was flagged offside, while Honda had a half-chance with a mishit volley when running onto a pass over the top. The most obvious demonstration of Japan’s attacking strategy, though, was Matt Ryan’s positioning. He repeatedly had to sweep up in behind his defence to clear away balls in behind, on one occasion coming nearly 35 metres out from goal to head a ball away.
Overall, the first half was very even, and played at a good tempo. Australia had the better of possession (roughly 55%) and were looking to work the ball forward between Japan’s lines. Although they controlled the game well and were progressing into the final third, however, they lacked incision in the final third. It was an encouraging but not dominant display.
An interesting feature was the tendency of Robbie Kruse, playing on the right wing, to press very narrow without the ball. He moved quite far infield to close down when Australia were defending, often leaving the entire right flank vacant in order to come across and press either Hasebe or Masato Morishige. When this happened, Luongo, playing to the centre-right of midfield, slid out to basically become a right-midfielder, covering the space exposed by Kruse’s narrow positioning. This meant Australia sometimes looked quite lopsided without the ball.
At half-time, Aguirre took off Endo, and introduced Yasuyuki Konno, traditionally a centre-back. However, Konno played in midfield, as Japan switched to a 4-2-3-1, with Kagawa permanently a #10 ahead of a deep-lying midfield two. Importantly, too, Japan pressed higher up, closing down Australia’s back four more than they did in the first half (which had allowed Australia to assert their control of possession).
The main benefit of the formation change, from a tactical point of view, was the ability to get the full-backs higher up the pitch. Konno and Hasebe sat deep in midfield and allowed both Ota and Sakai to fly forward, with the latter particularly keen to overlap from right-back. He sprinted past Honda on a number of occasions to provide a sudden threat in the final third, whipping in a good cross on the hour mark, and then winning the corner from which Japan scored the opener. Ota, too, had more freedom, darting forward in the 75th minute to nearly score with an attempted chip over Matt Ryan.
Japan’s two goals, one a set-piece and one in the second phase directly after a set-piece, came courtesy of poor individual errors by Australia’s defenders, but were created from the increased pressure they applied in the second half. The possession stats switched dramatically: now, Japan had about 56% of the ball. Perhaps the most decisive factor in Japan’s excellent second half performance was primarily ‘playing better’, as they passed the ball much quicker and created good attacking opportunities.
Cahill scored off the bench with a header. It’s the 21st of 38 goals for the national side with his head, and 10 of his last 12 goals have been headers. It was as if to prove the point that the Socceroos are ultimately more dangerous in attack with his aerial threat.
That, in many ways, summed up the main conclusions of this match. We didn’t learn anything particularly new about these sides – Australia continued to dominate possession but turn that into goalscoring chances, and were let down by defensive errors. It’s basically been the same throughout the Postecoglou era, even if there was experimentation in the midfield zone during the October friendlies, and now, here, experimentation in the final third, which made the side less rigid but still lacking that cutting-edge.
Japan, meanwhile, despite wholesale squad overhaul under Aguirre in his first four friendlies, returned to their usual system albeit with a slightly modified formation. However, they looked much better in the 4-2-3-1 preferred by Zaccheroni, which gives the defence more protection with two holding midfielders and allows the full-backs to get forward.
Ultimately, too, they boast better quality on the ball, and were able to be more effective going forward with possession in the second half than Australia were in the first.