After assessing the tactics of all 16 teams at the Asian Cup, a few general themes have emerged…
A ubiquitous formation
Without a doubt, 4-2-3-1 (or a 4-3-3 variant) will be the most popular shape at this Asian Cup – only Oman look likely to use something different, a 4-4-2, although Paul Le Guen has also experimented with a 4-2-3-1.
The benefits of the 4-2-3-1 are obvious. It allows for three central midfielders while retaining width high up the pitch, and has more or less became the default formation across not just Asia, but also Europe. It’s a shame, though, that this tournament doesn’t feature more tactical variety.
No one, for example, looks set to play a back three, while even something like a false nine will be a rarity, even if South Korea use Cho Young-Cheol in that role. Will a side willing to be different prosper merely because of the surprise factor?
From a formation point of view, this will be a rather bland tournament.
Fortunately, though, formations aren’t everything in tactics, and pleasingly, the approach of many sides will be positive, attack-minded football. The likes of China, Qatar, the UAE, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Australia have all taken steps towards what we might call a ‘modern’ football approach: an emphasis on possession, building up from the back, and progressing upfield by passing short through and between the lines.
Assuming teams stick to their philosophies (and given the competitive, cut-throat nature of the group stage, this isn’t necessarily likely) we could see some excellent attacking play in matches, especially if both teams commit to an open brand of football. After a hugely disappointing showing from all four Asian teams at the 2014 World Cup, this is a flagship tournament for the continent, and some attractive, attacking games will go a long way towards redeeming Asia’s reputation.
Not every team has great resources, though, and a recurring theme amongst the weaker sides is a tendency to play ‘typical’ underdog football. The likes of Palestine, North Korea, Jordan and Kuwait look set to play quite defensively, packing their own half, getting numbers behind the ball and hoping to frustrate superior opponents.
It’s healthy to have that kind of stylistic tactical variety, but the worry is that some of these teams might simply not be very good at defending. Jordan, for example, have become very reactive under Ray Wilkins – but in seven games under the new regime, they’re yet to keep a clean sheet, nor even record a win.
The masters of defending will be Iran, but they don’t necessarily defend ‘deep’. What Carlos Quieroz’s side do well is keep the space between their lines as compact and narrow as possible, making it difficult to play through. The hope is the underdog teams can replicate this organisation, rather than just throwing numbers behind the ball.
This could be the tournament of the left-back. With practically every team using wingers that cut inside, an attacking full-back has become paramount. Fortunately, the likes of Uzbekistan, South Korea, Qatar, Oman and Iraq have Vitaliy Denisov, Kim Jin-Su, Abdelkarim Hassan, Ali Al-Busaidi and Ali Adnan (or Dhargham Ismail, if you believe reports out of the Iraq camp) respectively. All these full-backs are capable of getting forward and providing lots of width, with Hassan and Dhargham/Adnan in particular potentially using this tournament as a stepping stone for a move to Europe.
International football in recent years has become increasingly dominated by teams able to call upon a core of players who are together at club level. Both Germany and Spain did so in winning World Cups – the former with Bayern Munich in 2014, the latter with Barcelona in 2010. Appropriately, both coaches also used similar tactics from those club sides, which can help create familiarity and cohesion that might not exist given the lesser preparation time afforded to managers at international level.
In this Asian Cup, seven in Oman’s squad play for Al-Oruba Sports Club, while Saudi Arabia have drawn heavily from Al Ahli and Al Hilal. China have the bulk of Guangzhou Evergande’s starting XI in their team, while Iraq have nine players from their champion domestic side, Al-Shurta. There are many more examples.