Japan barely got out of second gear in a routine win over vastly inferior opponents.
Javier Aguirre named the starting line-up predicted in the preview – a 4-3-3, with Keisuke Honda on the right, and Shinji Okazaki upfront. Takashi Inui got the nod on the left ahead of Yoshinori Muto after impressing in the pre-tournament friendlies.
Palestine are without a number of key players due to political troubles back in their home country, with centre-backs Haitham Dheeb and Matias Jadue unavailable. Versatile full-back Alexis Norambuena was also out with injury, meaning Ahmed Al-Hassan had to name a much-shuffled back four. Ashraf Nu’man, undoubtedly the star player, started on the wide left of a 4-4-2, with Abdelhamid Abuhabib and Mahmoud Dhadha together upfront.
Gulf in quality
This was such a mismatch it barely warrants tactical discussion. Japan were clearly superior than Palestine in nearly every department, and this felt rather like a training drill. They barely went beyond ‘the motions’, but were still 3-0 up by half-time.
Tactically, the game was entirely as expected. Palestine got numbers behind the ball (defending in a 4-4-2 shape), with Japan establishing a dominance of possession early on. They were able to work it forward with ease, pushed their full-backs high up, and got lots of numbers in the final third.
Hasebe drops in
Japan are the competition favourites, so even in such a one-sided game, it’s worth looking at how they set up in possession.
First, to work it forward from the back, the #6 at the base of the midfield triangle, Makoto Hasebe, dropped in between the two centre-backs to temporarily make a back three. This created an overload against Palestine’s front two, and allowed Japan to work the ball forward easily from the back.
Secondly, as a consequence of Hasebe dropping in, both the full-backs pushed high up, with Auto Nagatomo getting into very advanced positions down the left-hand side. Palestine’s right-winger, Ismail Al Amour, tracked him very deep, often ending up in the right-back zone.
This created a pocket of space that Inui could drop into, creating another overload – this time, in central positions. Japan always seemed to have a ‘spare’ man in the midfield, with Palestine’s holding midfield duo always outnumbered. It was no surprise Yashuito Endo got the opener by scoring a long-range effort when completely unmarked just outside the box.
The video below illustrates how Japan’s 3v2 overload at the back allowed them to progress forward on the ball, most evidently for Endo’s goal.
Japan also used the advanced positioning of the full-backs to hit balls over the top in behind Palestine’s defence. John Aloisi made an interesting comment in the television coverage at half-time that this has been part of Aguirre’s strategy in the past, as a ploy to push opponents deep and create more space for the midfielders.
Palestine’s attacks were few and far between. They tried to break quickly through Nu’man, who stayed slightly higher up than Al Amour on the opposite side and tried to take on Sakai in 1v1s. However, the Japan right-back got very tight to Nu’man, and often forced him to cut back inside.
Therefore, Palestine created little on the counter, and had no shots on target in the entire match. However, they did threaten somewhat from a few set-pieces, which suggested Japan still might not have fixed their perennial problem of being unable to defend against corners and free-kicks.
After half-time, Japan took their foot off the pedal and took the opportunity to introduce fringe players. Even though Palestine became increasingly more open, and eventually went down to ten men after Mahajwa received a second yellow, Japan seemed happy with 4-0.
The average position of the players says it all.
The most one-sided game we will see at this tournament. We’ve heard throughout the build up that “for Palestine, it’s simply about being here”, which is true, but ultimately reflective of the gulf in class between them and Japan. Hopefully, the games against Jordan and Iraq will not be so one-sided. Key to success in those games will hinge on Nu’man receiving passes higher up the pitch, rather than deep inside his own half, as he was here.
It’s hard to make serious conclusions about Japan in such a one-sided game. The strengths and weaknesses of their new 4-3-3 formation probably won’t become apparent until the knockout stage.