Asian Cup 2011: Five tactical observations

There may have been comical goalkeeping, half-empty stadiums and a ticketing fiasco that marred the final, but the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar was also able to boast some fine football and a handful of breath-taking matches. Football Further looks at some of the tactical points of interest at the 15th edition of Asia’s showpiece tournament.

1. Barcelona have some devoted disciples in East Asia
Qatar’s French coach Bruno Metsu described Japan as “the Barcelona of Asia” after their 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in the group phase, but the description could just as easily have been applied to South Korea. Both sides pressed the opposition high up the pitch, harrying defenders into conceding possession and constructing attacks based on rapid inter-changes of passes. “When we attack, just like Japan, we go forward and create chances at a high tempo,” said South Korea coach Cho Kwang-Rae prior to the last-four meeting between the sides.

Japan’s high defensive line got them into trouble on occasion – most notably when Sebastián Soria broke the offside trap to put Qatar 1-0 up in their quarter-final – but their football was very pleasing on the eye. Ji Dong-Won’s second goal for South Korea in the third-place play-off win against Uzbekistan, meanwhile, was as slick a strike as almost anything Barcelona have produced this season.

2. Australia succeed with striker-less formation
Tactics enthusiasts the world over cannot help but get a little bit sweaty-palmed when a team lines up without any out-and-out strikers, and although Australia’s version of a striker-less formation was not quite the free-form 4-6-0 of popular myth, it did prove that teams can enjoy success at international tournaments without a recognised frontman to lead the line.

If anything, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell were simply midfielders playing as forwards, but they dovetailed in unexpectedly varied ways. Cahill seemed to provide most of the direct goal threat in the group phase, but Kewell frequently played in advance of him in the knockout rounds and it was the Galatasaray man who spurned Australia’s best chances to break the deadlock in the final.

3. Flexible 4-2-3-1s to the fore
As at last year’s World Cup, three of the four semi-finalists (Japan, South Korea and Uzbekistan) favoured a 4-2-3-1 system, with Australia lining up in a 4-4-1-1 that contained two mobile frontmen. Japan and South Korea also proved themselves capable of altering their shape when necessary. Both utilised a 4-2-3-1 system for much of the tournament, but Alberto Zaccheroni’s switch to a 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation mid-way through the second half of the final was credited with tipping the balance of the game in Japan’s favour. The move freed left-back Yuto Nagatomo to raid down the Japanese left flank and it was from one such marauding run that he teed up substitute Tadanari Lee for the extra-time winner.

The Koreans experimented by moving their central striker, typically Ji Dong-Won, into wide or deep positions, with either winger Lee Chung-Yong or, more often, attacking midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol pushing forward to take his place at the tip of the attack. With five goals, Koo finished as the tournament’s top scorer. In the third-place play-off, Ji played so wide on the left that Korea’s shape was effectively a 4-3-3 for long periods of the game.

Conservative, single-striker formations were widespread, but North Korea’s five-man defence looks set for a re-think after coach Jo Tong-Sop vowed they would “try to be more attacking in the future” following a group-phase exit in which they failed to score a single goal.

4. Akhmedov re-interprets the libero role
Uzbekistan’s tactics were notable for the role played by Odil Akhmedov, a ball-playing central midfielder redeployed as a centre-back who found it impossible to quell his natural attacking tendencies. The 23-year-old Pakhtakor Tashkent player – the up-and-coming star of the national team – frequently sashayed into midfield with the ball at his feet and was responsible for two of the best goals of the tournament: a long-range rocket in the 2-0 defeat of Qatar in the tournament’s opening game and a neat finish from Server Djeparov’s astute pass in the 2-2 draw with China.

Akhmedov’s devil-may-care approach had its drawbacks, however, and he was wretchedly exposed in the 6-0 semi-final drubbing against Australia. The Uzbek number nine was also at fault for South Korea’s opening goal in the third-place play-off, but his impact as an attacking element demonstrated anew how difficult it is for opposition teams to track a central defender who is ready and willing to stride across the halfway line with the ball at his feet.

5. Japan – Die-Hard 10
Japan may have hindered themselves with occasional pieces of sloppy goalkeeping and untidy defending, but they demonstrated their resilience with three crucial late goals: Maya Yoshida’s injury-time equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Jordan, Keisuke Honda’s 82nd-minute penalty in the 2-1 win against Syria and, most decisively of all, right-back Masahiko Inoha’s 89th-minute winner in the 3-2 quarter-final victory against Qatar.

Those three goals confirmed the Blue Samurai’s reputation as the most resolute team on the continent. Since the 1988 Asian Cup in Qatar (when they made their first appearance at the tournament), Japan have scored 10 goals in the last 15 minutes of matches that have altered the result of the matches in which they were scored (i.e. the equalising goal in a draw or the winning goal in a victory). Iran come next, with six goals during the same period, followed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (all five).

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