Australia struggled in the first half, but eventually secured a point in an intense World Cup qualifier.
Ange Postecoglou surprisingly opted to start Apostolos Giannou upfront alongside Tomi Juric, indicating a switch to the 4-4-2 diamond that has become the Socceroos’ alternate system of play.
The headline selection for Japan was the return of Shinji Kagawa, with coach Vahid Halilhodzic making four changes from the win against Iraq.
Japan play on the counter
In what was a role reversal from previous matches between these two sides (particularly when considering Australia’s Holger Osieck era), the game was dominated by the pattern of Australia patiently dominating possession, looking to break down Japan’s defensive block. Halilhodzic used a 4-4-2 system without the ball, instructing the first pressing line of Kagawa and Keisuke Honda (playing upfront) to drop back onto Australia’s deepest midfielder, Mile Jedinak.
It was a different Japan performance. They sat back a lot deeper than we expected. They were very disciplined and worked hard defensively
Kagawa and Honda let Australia’s centre-backs, Matthew Spiranovic and Trent Sainsbury, have lots of time on the ball. Collectively, the defensive block shifted with the ball, pressing when it was circulated into wide areas and looking to prevent players between the lines from receiving facing forward. Australia spent long periods patiently working the ball across the back and middle third, looking for the right moment to play forward.
This is not an unusual scenario for the Socceroos, especially in the Postecoglou era, but it was unusual in the sense that we are used to Japan, with very strong technical players, trying to retain possession. Instead, they focused on quick counter-attacks, with the two wide players (Yu Kobayashi and Genki Haraguchi) making positive forward runs on the break, and Kagawa and Honda moving towards the ball and looking to release the wingers in behind.
This attacking pattern was most obvious for the opening goal, with Haraguchi exploding into the space in behind McGowan, giving Japan an early lead.
Australia struggle in build up
It was telling that in the build up to Japan’s goal, the ball was cheaply given away by Sainsbury – a recurring theme throughout the match, with Australia struggling to build up play effectively against Japan’s 4-4-2 medium block.
There was a clear gameplan when Australia had possession. In the first phase of the build up, when the ball was to one side of the pitch, the near-side central midfielder would drop deep and in front of Japan’s first pressing line. This was to both create space for the full-back to move higher, and also to try and draw a Japanese player forward to apply pressure, therefore creating space higher up between the lines for Rogic (who was playing #10).
On the opposite side, the far-side central midfielder would move higher into the pocket. If the player in possession could not play forward, the ball would be circulated to the other side – triggering ‘opposite’ movements from the two #8s (Mooy and Luongo) in Australia’s diamond, with the near-side midfielder dropping, and the far-side moving higher.
If Australia could progress the ball cleanly in these moments of build up, they had two main routes to goal. Firstly, if the ball was played wide into the feet of the full-back (Brad Smith or Ryan McGowan) in an advanced position, they would look for early penetration into the penalty box with a low cross in behind the Japan back four. As Japan were defending with very compact lines, Australia did look promising on a few occasions.
In particular, Smith (who delivered an excellent assist for Tim Cahill with the exact kind of cross Postecoglou was looking for here against Saudi Arabia in September) had a few opportunities to deliver balls into the penalty box. This was because Japan’s right-winger, Kobayashi, tucked in narrower defensively than his left-sided counterpart, Haraguchi, which created a passing lane into wide areas and gave Smith more time on the ball than McGowan.
Australia’s second route to goal was through a long forward pass into the feet of one of the #9s, and then looking for quick combination play between the lines. Again, they had a few moments of promise on the right, because Haraguchi was positioned slightly wider (tracking the run of McGowan closely), opening up a passing lane from the centre-backs into Juric, who did well with his back to goal and won a few fouls in the right-hand channel early on.
On the whole, however, Australia struggled. The tempo of the passing in build up was slow, giving Japan time to adjust collectively, shift and close the horizontal space as the ball was circulated, and reduce the space between the lines. In the first fifteen minutes, it was all about Japan’s counter-attacks. Even after Australia settled from the quarter mark onwards, they still struggled – Rogic, for example, was barely involved.
There were two noticeable changes immediately after half-time. First of all, Australia’s speed of play was much quicker, most obviously for the equaliser. They simply moved the ball quicker, which made it more difficult for Japan to adjust defensively, and opening up more space between the lines. The ‘assist’ for the penalty was a great example of how the Socceroos were looking to penetrate early from wide areas, with Smith’s low cross hit behind the run of the attackers, but, crucially, delivered early.
Secondly, Halilhodzic surprisingly made a change to Japan’s defensive shape. He instructed Kagawa to sit slightly deeper, blocking passes into the left channel. He was perhaps wary of those opportunities Australia had to play long, flat passes into the feet of Juric. This made the shape more 4-5-1 than 4-4-2, reducing the presence of the first pressing line. This meant when a centre-back had the ball, a midfielder from the second pressing line had to step forward to apply pressure, opening up pockets of space between the lines. Again, this is most noticeable with the equaliser, with the positioning of Makoto Hasebe higher than in the first half, creating room for Rogic to play that clever pass around the corner to Smith out wide.
Around the 65 minute mark, Halilhodzic made the change back to the original 4-4-2 block. This lead to a period of evenness. Although Australia had the territorial and possession advantage, it was less effective than in the first twenty minutes of the half.
Postecoglou’s use of his bench was very interesting. The first substitute, Robbie Kruse, played upfront in place of Giannou, but made more varied runs and movements into wider positions, giving the attack more variety. This was also important in creating more space for the likes of Rogic and Mooy. Inevitably, Cahill came on for Juric, with Matthew Leckie the final substitute. Leckie came on for Mooy, as Australia went 4-3-3 for the final ten minutes. It didn’t have a major effect on the game, although interestingly, Leckie played very high and narrow from the left, maintaining that dual threat upfront.
A tight, intense match where a draw was probably a fair result. Tactically, Australia took the initative, with Japan happy to sit deeper and play on the break. Both sides also had a clear gameplan to create goalscoring opportunities. The problem wasn’t that Australia took the wrong approach, but rather, their execution let them down – they appeared nervous, and the distribution from the back was not as confident as we’ve become used to under Postecoglou.
Looking at the game in a broader context, it’s worth thinking back to how Australia typically approached this match-up under previous managers. Whereas previously it was all about whether we were capable of defending for long periods against the technically superior Japanese, now it is about whether our build up play, rotations and attacking movement is good enough to win the game. Agree with Postecoglou’s philosophy or not, it is still an impressive shift in mentality and style that embodies a more proactive and positive approach to the World Cup qualifiers.