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Tactical Analysis: Resolute Japanese defence shuts up shop to snatch victory against Saudi Arabia

Written by: Anjishnu Roy


The Samurai Blue edged out the Green Falcons by a solitary goal to make the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup.

Japan took on Saudi Arabia at the Sharjah Stadium in the United Arab Emirates. A 1-0 victory thanks to a goal from 20-year-old Takehiro Tomiyasu was enough to send the Samurai Blue to the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup for the eighth consecutive time. Despite dominating the bulk of possession and having the intent to have a go at Japan, the Saudis lacked teeth in their attack and their 23-year drought for the continental title stretches on for at least another four years.

Saudi Arabia started on the front foot and it looked like a matter of when and not if before they would score. Japan, on the other hand, managed to surprise the Saudi contingent and fans alike and took the lead against the run of play, when defender Tomiyasu rose the highest in the box to head home from a corner. Japan held on to the solitary goal lead for the rest of the game as the Saudi attack fell flat in the final third and with it, went their dreams of conquering the continental competition once again.

Lineups & Formations

Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu spoke about the importance of shutting down Saudi Arabia on the counter and adopted a defensive approach for the game. He fielded a 4-4-1 which took the shape of a hybrid between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-2-2-2 during the match. Yoshinori Muto led the line and was supported by Takumi Minamino who played in the hole. They were supported by Ritsu Doan and Genki Haraguchi trying to break from the wings. Yasuhito Endo and Gaku Shibasaki formed a double pivot in the middle to augment the defensive cause and also act as a bridge between the midfield and defensive line, comprising of Hiroki Sakai, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Mai Yoshida and Yuto Nagatomo. Nagatomo and Sakai did not push too far forward and were conservative on how to position themselves.

Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi who led Chile to Copa America glory in 2016 is a big fan of offensive football that relies heavy on possession. He started with a 4-1-4-1 that would often shift into a 4-1-2-3. Fahad Al Muwallad and Bahbri led on the offensive front. Al-Bishi, Al Dawsari and Almoqahwi held the midfield together while Abdullah Otayf acted as a pivot. Fullbacks Al-Berik and Al-Shahrami pushed high and wide on the offensive overload while Al Bulaihi and Al-Fatil formed the centre back pairing.

Early exchanges- Saudi Arabia make their intent clear

Saudi Arabia started the game on the front foot and took control of possession right from the word go. They asked the first question when a long ball from midfield found defender Al Fatil overlapping into the box. Defenders Al Bulaihi and Al-Fatil saw a lot of the ball and this was down to the Japanese team choosing to press conservatively. Muto and Takumi were content to sit back and hold their line, trying to block passing lanes instead of actively pressing the man with the ball at his feet.

This allowed the Saudi defence to find Otayf, Al-Bishi and Al Moqahwi well, with them exchanging smart passes between each other and interchanging positions. On top of that, Al-Berik and Al-Shahrami took turns in bombing forward to provide width and offensive overloads in order to stretch the Japanese defence and to provide meaningful crosses into the box. Saudi Arabia also focused on creating numerical superiority in the middle of the park, therefore easing the transition from defence to midfield.

However, the Japanese defence held their ground. Their shape was very neat and disciplined and did not give an inch to the Saudi forwards- this sequence of play in the first 20 minutes of the match would go on to define the entire game.

Japan scoring the goal against the run of play

Japanese forwards Muto, Takumi and Haraguchi waited for the right moment to pounce on the counter. On one occasion, Saudi Arabia had committed many men forward and succumbed to the pressure of losing the ball. The Japanese counter was avoided by conceding a corner instead. Shibasaki took a delightful set-piece that found the head of Tomiyasu towering high above the Saudi defence and the ball went into the back of the net. Fingers can be pointed at Saudi goalkeeper Al Owais who tried to come off his line in an effort to clear the ball, but was left in no man’s land. However, the header from the young Japanese defender was so powerful that it’d have likely ended up in goal even with the shot-stopper perfectly positioned on his line.

Second half- more of the same

The first half concluded with Saudi Arabia holding on to the ball and trying to make inroads in the attacking third, but struggling in the attempts. To be fair, the Saudis managed to create a couple of half-chances, but lacked the decisive final touch.

Second half started and proceeded much in the same manner. The gritty Japanese defence defended deep and defended narrow, sucking up possession from any advances in the final third by blocking passing lanes and with smart interceptions. Japanese forwards with the exception of Muto who was the furthest forward and responsible for leading the counter charge also aided in defence and track backed seamlessly.

Final 20 minutes- Saudis get desperate in attack

Up until the 70th minute, the Saudis were building their attacks too slowly. They never got back behind the defenders and took too long to transition the ball from defence to the attacking third. As a result, this allowed Japanese defenders to fall back into shape to thwart Saudi danger.


In the last 20 minutes, however, Saudi Arabia got really desperate in the search for the equalizer and committed more men forward. Their formation changed to a 2-1-3-4 with the pivot shifting behind to form almost a three-man defence and act as a libero. The wingers tucked into midfield and provided offensive overloads, while four players were present up to and inside the Japanese box.

Their style of play also changed in this regard. The Saudis went with route 1 football, where long balls and desperate crosses replaced short passes and patient build-up. However, too much was left for too late, as the Japanese defence did not even break sweat and held on to their lead to book their quarterfinal spot.

Published: Tue Jan 22, 2019 08:27 PM IST


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