As many European teams returning from their winter break ready for their UEFA Champions League campaign, this period also marks the start of the AFC Champions League, the competition in which the best names across Asia compete with each other. In matchday two of this year’s edition, there was one matchup that really caught the eyes of many fans across the continent.
Last season in Japan, Australian manager Ange Postecoglou and his team Yokohama F Marinos was boasted for their attractive style of play which included the use of inverted wing-backs, high pressing and flexible movements. His tactics was one of the crucial factors that contributed to a successful J1 League season of their that saw them lifted the league trophy. Meanwhile, Sydney FC qualified for the 2020 AFC Champions League by finishing as runner-up in the A-League last season. Still, they are currently flying high on the league table this season with 40 points and 13 wins under their belt.
Given the strong form that Sydney FC had built in their run-up to this game and an exciting side that Postecoglou has created with Yokohama, this was expected to be a tight and interesting clash between both sides. But what happened in Yokohama on Wednesday showed a one-sided game with Yokohama cruised to their win with four goals divided equally between Teruhito Nakagawa and Ado Onaiwu. This tactical analysis will provide an analysis of Yokohama’s 4-0 win over Sydney FC. Meanwhile, using statistics, we will point out what went wrong in Steve Corica’s tactics against Ange Postecoglou’s tactics.
Postecoglou opted to use his familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that helped the team won the J1 League trophy last season. The return of Thailand left-back Theerathon Bunmathan on a permanent deal was considered as one of the major deals for Yokohama in the last transfer window since he and right-back Ken Matsubara play a very important part in the Aussie manager’s tactics. Playing in front of the two wing-backs and took on the roles of left-winger and right-winger were Keita Endo and Teruhito Nakagawa respectively.
Another player who also saw their loan deal with the club turned permanent was centre-back Thiago Martins as the ball-playing centre-back also took on a crucial role in how Postecoglou wants his side to play. He paired up alongside Makito Ito at the heart of the back-four and received support from the central midfielder pairing of Takahiro Ogihara and Takuya Kida.
Meanwhile, compared to the lineup that helped Sydney gained three points over Brisbane Roar in the A-League last weekend, there was only one change made by Corica as the Australian side entered this match. German veteran midfielder Alexander Baumjohann stepped into the team in place of Miloš Ninković as he took on the right-winger role while Anthony Cáceres played on the opposite wing.
Since Yokohama was treated as a strong opponent given their success domestically last season, it was understandable to see Corica opted to go with a full-strength lineup that saw left-back Joel King, centre-backs Alex Wilkinson, Ryan McGowan and right-back Rhyan Grant started. They took on the responsibility of defending the box and helped goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne to keep a clean sheet.
Sydney’s style of play
Entering this match with high confidence given their terrific run of form on the run-up to their journey to Yokohama, Japan, it was clear that Sydney aimed to gain an advantage during the early stage of the match by attempting to match Marinos. But that intention was immediately shut down as they were put on the back foot and were not able to control much of the ball. With only 39% of possession held in the first fifteen minutes of the match, Sydney players could not execute Corica’s plan and they had to sit back for the majority of the match.
Instead of pushing forward and attempting to create attacks, Sydney had to sit back and create a 4-4-2 mid-block inside of their half. One of the key instructions that were shown by the away side was to be disciplined when defending. Acknowledged the threat that Marinos’ attackers could bring, if one of the defenders or midfielders attempted to step out of one of two banks of four, they would leave space behind their back unoccupied and this encouraged the likes of Marcos Júnior or Teruhito Nagakawa to move into and pick up through passes in the area.
As the game progressed, Sydney switched to creating a 4-3-3 pressing shape given how Yokohama prioritised the third-man concept when playing out from the back. While the two strikers, Adam Le Fondre and Kosta Barbarouses, pressed Yokohama’s centre-backs, one of their wingers would push up to track the run of their central midfielder. Depending on which flank the home side had the ball, the winger from that side would follow the pivot who dropped deep, similar to the shot above.
Still, as their passes per defensive action (PPDA) indicated, they allowed Yokohama to create an average of 17.9 passes per defensive sequence and this showed the lack of efficiency in their press. One of the reasons that contributed to this was Sydney players not being aggressive during their press. While it can be seen that the away side were able to close Marinos players down, they did not press aggressively and still allowed them to control the ball in tight space. Therefore, Yokohama were able to progress the ball forward on many occasions and several of those attempts did lead to dangerous chances towards Redmayne’s goal.
On occasions where their press was bypassed, the players would retreat back into a 4-4-2 mid-block and attempted to overload the central area. Again, with two disciplined banks of four, their priority was to prevent Marinos attackers to create short passing sequences and combinations in between their defensive lines. It can be said that they had somewhat accomplished the task since there were not many passes were created in the channel, but the home side had other plans in mind.
As mentioned, Sydney players did not press aggressively both during Marinos’ build-up and this resulted in the opposition had much of the ball. When they were able to progress the ball forward, this pushed the away side’s 4-4-2 mid-block near to the 16-yard box, similar to the situation above. There, the home side had the option of distributing the ball wide as the ball carrier tended to provide the ball to two wingers who took on the responsibility of stretching Sydney’s defensive structure.
Furthermore, with the Marinos being a wing-oriented team, this encouraged the home side to distribute the ball wide more and capitalised the threat that came from the wing-backs and wingers. 37 attacks with the total xG rating of 2.05 xG demonstrated how well the home side were when they created attacks down the left-hand side of Bunmathan and Endo.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Sydney also found themselves struggled to break down Marinos’ defensive shape. Given they only held 35% of possession during the match, this hindered their attacking threat since the players were not able to execute the instructions that were given by Corica. Moreover, they only registered six shots and only one of them eventually found the target.
Still, there were times that the away side showed their intention to progress the ball into Marinos’ final third through a couple of plans. One of them was through the counter-attacks created after regaining possession inside their half. Since most of the players were positioned inside their half to involve in the defensive sequence, this allowed the away side to attack with numbers and it also gave the ball carrier more passing options to progress possession.
When counter-attacking, they made the most out of Marinos’ high defensive line and attempted to make passes into the space behind the defenders’ back. This would encourage Le Fondre and Barbarouses to make runs into the space between the defenders and picked up the ball without falling into the offside trap. It was the plan that Sydney attempted to use on many occasions in the match and it did help them to get closer to Yuji Kajikawa’s goal.
But, given the low frequency of chances created, this was also followed with low-rated xG chances. Indeed, as the away side only had two chances which were rated higher than 0.1 xG and it was still considered as a low rating. One of those chances came from Grant’s header, which was the result of a well-executed free-kick from Baumjohann. The other one was a rare chance that Sydney were able to get the ball inside of the 16-yard box.
Again, it came from the situation that Sydney capitalised Marinos’ high defensive line and they were able to create a counter-attack which was also a 3v2 scenario. As substitute Marco Tilio had the ball and continued dribbling into the box, he received support from another substitute Trent Buhagiar and Adam Le Fondre. Tilio’s first shot was blocked but the ball fell into the movement direction of Buhagiar, who missed a sitter as his curved shot missed the goal. In that situation, the Australian midfielder also had the option of laying the ball towards Le Fondre given the free state that the former Bolton Wanderers striker was in but he opted not to and a good chance wasted.
Marinos’ style of play
As I have mentioned in my article on Ange Postecoglou for Total Football Analysis Magazine – January issue, Marinos is a joy to watch given the innovative tactic that Postecoglou applies at the club. And there are no reasons why the Aussie manager cannot continue applying similar principles to the team that he already built for the last few seasons, while most of them were also demonstrated in this match.
During their build-up phase, as mentioned, they relied heavily on playing out from the back and especially through the third-man concept. The focal points of the build-up remained as the two ball-playing centre-backs as Postecoglou aimed to capitalise their passing ability. Thiago Martins and Makito Ito tended to stay deepest compared to their teammates as this allowed them to have a good perspective on the situation itself, which also influenced their decision of whether should they continued circulating the ball among themselves or making a direct pass towards the advanced options.
In order to create a passing triangle, one of the two central midfielders, usually, Takahiro Ogihara, would drop deep from their position and create a back-three while also encouraged two wing-backs to push higher. But there would only Matsubara who would opt to overlap up the pitch since his movement would allow Nakagawa to tuck inside.
At times, it can be seen that the player who was willing to position himself in front of the first line of pressure to receive the ball from the defenders was Marcos Júnior. This was one of his traits as he tended to come deep to get the ball rather than staying high up the pitch alongside other attackers. Together, they created a passing block in the middle third which allowed Marinos to gain numerical advantage during their build-up phase against Sydney’s press.
Another advantage that can be seen from Marinos’ build-up strategy was forcing the opposition’s lines of pressure to push up and execute their press. As the home side were able to outnumber Sydney, this forced them to push their midfield line forward to join the press along with two strikers. But as they attempted to do so, it would open up space in between their defensive lines and allowed Marinos’ attackers to occupy.
Similar to the situation below, notice how the home side’s midfielders positioned themselves behind the back of Sydney’s midfielders and were ready to receive direct passes that came from the defenders. Given there were only two strikers involved in the press, this created a 4v2 situation inside Marinos’ half and they were able to beat the press easily.
That was when the positioning of the midfielders became handy since they created a situation where the opposition’s midfielders had to choose between pushing forward to join the press or stay back and mark the players behind them. If they chose to push forward, it would widen the space behind their back and allowed either Matsubara or Bunmathan to make direct passes into the area.
Also, from the situation above, notice Bunmathan’s position (marked blue) as he tucked inside to join up with the midfielders. Since last season, the Thailand international was used as an inverted wing-back and he mainly worked inside the left half-space, which allowed Endo to drift wide. While he still tends to overlap down the left flank, he now spends more time drifting into the left half-space and becomes one of the midfield options on the pitch, and the same can be said with his colleague on the opposite flank, Matsubara.
In this match, Bunmathan’s positioning played a crucial role in how Marinos attacked down the left-hand side. Not only being able to involve in the build-up while occupying the half-space (he registered the second-highest number of passes with 87 passes, completed 84% of them), he was also able to make crosses into the box for his teammates. With five crosses attempted in the match, he had the second-highest number of crosses, only found himself behind his teammate playing in front of him, Endo, who made seven crosses in the match.
From the situation above and below, there is another tactical point that can be noticed about how Postecoglou wants his side to play. It can be noticed that the attackers tended to stay very high compared to their teammates as they aimed to pin Sydney’s defensive line down into their defensive third while also preventing themselves from being caught into the offside trap.
They also stretched wide in order to allow the two wingers pinned down King and Grant out wide while putting Onaiwu in a 2v1 situation with the centre-backs. Their positions, though, still allowed them to sit on the shoulder of defenders and turned up at the end of their teammate’s through balls. Therefore, on several occasions, Onaiwu and Nagakawa were able to beat their marker to enter the space behind Sydney’s defensive line while also picking up the lofted through ball being made by their teammate.
Defensively, Marinos players aimed to press high up the pitch with the intention of winning the ball inside the opposition’s half. By adopting an aggressive mentality, they were able to accomplish that intention and at times, creating counter-attacks inside Sydney’s half by winning the ball back.
Not only being aggressive when pressing high up the pitch, but they also used that mentality inside their own half and aimed to regain possession as soon as possible. From the duels map below, it can be seen that Marinos won most of their duels inside their half and in front of their 16-yard box. In total, there were 26 duels made by the home side’s players in that area since the defenders attempted to stop the attacks created by the opposition.
One of the reasons behind the high number of duels created inside Marinos’ half was due to their high defensive line. Off-the-ball, Marinos tended to form a 4-2-3-1 high-block that positioned completely inside the middle third. While the attackers attempted to press the build-up, the defenders would move high up the pitch and position themselves near the halfway line. It was rare to see two wing-backs left their position to join the press along with the attackers, though, as they opted to maintain their place while holding a high defensive line along with the centre-backs.
Meanwhile, two central midfielders would opt not to join the press either as they took on the responsibility of screening the space in front of the defensive line. Still, if the press was bypassed, they would be the first line to close Sydney’s attackers down and attempt to win the ball back at the same time. As for width, they usually kept their shape quite narrow to one side of the pitch. This helped them in creating overloads across the pitch to eliminate the possible passing lanes towards the defensive third, which forced the opposition to circulate the ball inside their half and could even be forced to make long balls that both Thiago Martins and Ito could clear.
Still, as mentioned earlier in the article, Sydney still found a way to bypass Marinos’ high defensive line through long balls or through passes that sent the attackers into the space behind the defenders’ back. Given the number of duels attempted in front of the 16-yard box, this means Marinos’ defenders were able to track back on time to recover possession and stop the attack from progressing.
It can also be seen from the duels map that the frequency of duels taking place out wide was significant on both flanks. As mentioned, one of the advantages that came along with Marinos’ high defensive line was the ability to create overloads and it happened frequently out wide. With Sydney being a wing-oriented team and tended to distribute the ball down both flanks, the players who played out wide were usually involved in the press engaged when the opposition moved the ball wide.
Similar to the shot below, Marinos aimed to gain numerical superiority in the overloaded area thanks to their narrow defensive line. By keeping the distance between the defensive lines tight and close to each other, it was possible for the home side to have numbers when they were defending. It also benefitted them when they created overloads since they were able to have numerical advantage quickly while still having players who were ready to win second balls.
Leaving this match with three points and in a very comfortable fashion, Postecoglou’s Yokohama F Marinos showed why they deserved to win the domestic league last season with an attractive style of play. They entered this season’s AFC Champions League campaign hoping to extend that winning streak and bring the tournament’s trophy back to Yokohama, Japan. If they continue to play in a similar way as they did against Sydney, they stand a great chance of progressing further into the competition.
For Sydney, bouncing back from such a heavy loss like this won’t be easy. Still, having secured a comfortable win over Central Coast Mariners last weekend helped the team built confidence back among the squad and the next match which is the Sydney Derby against Western Sydney will hopefully create momentum for them to push on their third group stage match against Jeonbuk next week.