Tim Cahill scored two spectacular goals to send Australia through to the Asian Cup semi-finals.
After rotating heavily for the final group-stage match against South Korea, Ange Postecoglou made seven changes. The Cahill-Kruse-Leckie front three was restored, as was Jason Davidson at left-back, while Mark Bresciano started for the first time at this tournament alongside Massimo Luongo in midfield. Mile Jedinak returned after injury, and Matthew Spiranovic was suspended, meaning Alex Wilkinson partnered Trent Sainsbury at the back.
Alain Perrin has preferred to tinker with his side throughout this Asian Cup, and sprung a surprise here with the exclusion of Zhipeng Jiang and Gao Lin. Instead, Ren Hang moved out to left-back, while Wu Lei was pushed further forward into a striker role. Cai Huikang also started at the base of midfield, meaning Zheng Zhi was one of the more advanced midfielders in China’s 4-3-3 formation.
Ange Postecoglou’s remit since taking charge of the Socceroos has been all about taking the game to the opposition, and dominating games through control of possession. That has been remarkably obvious throughout this tournament – only Japan (who have played a game less) come close in terms of average possession, with 63% compared to Australia’s 65%.
Here, like against Kuwait, Oman and South Korea, Australia immediately established a dominance of the ball. In the first fifteen minutes alone, they completed 99 passes to China’s 18, who stayed compact as a defensive unit and conceded very little space to Australia inside their own half.
China defensive shape
China defended in four lines. The first line was Wu Lei alone upfront, where he dropped back to shadow Mile Jedinak and effectively allowed Australia’s two centre-backs to have the ball unchallenged.
The second line was a midfield four, with the wide players, Sun Ke and Ji Xiang, tracking Australia’s full-backs as they pushed forward, and the two central midfielders, Zheng Zhi and Wu Xi, looking to press on Australia’s Mark Bresciano and Massimo Luongo.
This was important because China’s approach was to prevent any Australian midfielder from having time on the ball to face or pass forward. Therefore, Zhi and Xi always looked to close down quickly whenever a forward pass was played from Australia’s back four.
Behind them in a covering position was Cai Huixang, although China’s midfielders were flexible in their roles. For example, at one point in the eighth minute, Huixang pointed at Bresciano to indicate for Xi to follow him as the Australian midfielder drifted across the pitch, as Huixang wasn’t in the appropriate position to be able to mark Bresciano tightly.
The final line of defence was the back four. As the wingers were tracking back to occupy Australia’s full-backs, China’s full-backs, Mei Fang and Zhang Chendong, were able to stick very tight to Robbie Kruse and Matthew Leckie, again, to prevent them from receiving passes facing forward. Even when the two wide players drifted inside, China’s full-backs followed them tightly, which sometimes gave the back four a very narrow feel.
Australia prevented from progressing forward
China defended very compactly as a unit, making it difficult for Australia to play forward and create chances in the final third. This is illustrated by the main passing combinations by Australia’s back four and midfield trio.
This passing map shows how Australia were primarily forced to pass backwards by China’s pressure, which ensured that they were unable to progress forward into the final third. In the first half, remarkably, Luongo linked with Kruse just once, and completed no passes to Leckie or Cahill, which shows how difficult it was for Australia to find space in the final third.
The one area of promise was when Trent Sainsbury recognised that he had time and space on the ball, and pushed forward into midfield as such. This caused problems for a Chinese midfield concerned with marking tight against their direct opponents. Sainsbury was Australia’s most prolific forward passer for the whole match, and played lots of quick, penetrative balls into the final third.
China’s pressing in midfield lead to some dangerous counter-attacking opportunities. When they won the ball, they could counter-attack quickly through Wu Lei driving directly at Australia’s back four. A good example of this was in the 16th minute, when Huixang won the ball off Bresciano, then transferred it quickly to Lei, who drove forward towards the penalty box and got a shot away.
Cahill scores, game opens up
Against such a reactive opponent, it was no surprise the Socceroos managed just three shots on target in the first half. Although they were guilty of overhitting a few passes – Jedinak, particularly, in the opening quarter – by and large the Socceroos had done a decent job. The game was being shaped by China’s good defending, rather than Australia’s poor attacking.
Nevertheless, it still required something special to open the scoring, and Cahill’s bicycle kick was exactly that.
At 1-0, the entire complexion of the game changed. China now had to push more numbers forward, and inevitably conceded gaps at the back. Australia’s shot tally tripled after the goal, evidence of how they are more effective going forward against an opposition that doesn’t bring all their players behind the ball. That might sound obvious, but it was the most significant tactical feature of this match.
Australia created a number of excellent chances to make it 2-0. First, Bresciano blazed a shot over the bar from close range after a brilliant passing move. Then, Kruse just missed making contact on the end of a tempting low cross by Davidson. Finally, Cahill scored his second with a brilliant header, which effectively decided the match.
“They were working their socks off, they were closing our spaces and making it really hard for us but while they were doing it they were using energy and I said to the boys at half-time, just keep the ball moving and eventually they’ll break down,” said Postecoglou after the match. “It took a Timmy special to do it, but once we got it we never looked back.”
It’s a very fair summary of what was a tactically straightforward match. China wanted to defend deep and did so as an impressively organised unit for the first forty-five minutes, before being undone by Cahill’s spectacular effort. As Perrin pointed out post-match, it only took one lapse in concentration to ruin all their good work, which illustrates the risk of playing defensively.
That is not Postecoglou’s mantra – instead, he wants his side to take the game to the opposition. He spoke post-match about how “very proud” he was that “we stuck to the game plan and we were always confident as the game went on.”
If it hasn’t been obvious enough from Australia’s four games so far, if they are going to win the Asian Cup, they’re going to do it Postecoglou’s way.