The beautiful thing about football is that it can be as simple or as complex as one desires, depending on their analytical view of the game.
As the great Johan Cruyff says, ‘playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.’
Football, in those simple terms, comes down to scoring more goals than the opposition. But to score a goal, there is an extremity of individual, microscopic steps involved.
These can range from making a beautiful, raking pass, taking an entre line of opposition, or even more, out of the game. Or, it can be a little movement, a small body feint in touch to kickstart that attack.
But a lot of it also comes down to luck, and part of that luck is the number of small mistakes the opposition makes that allow you to move forwards.
It could be not covering the right angle of passing, your opponent losing a marker or not timing a tackle properly.
Japan very rarely, if ever, made any of these mistakes when pressing the Socceroos in their world cup qualifying matchup on Tuesday night.
And it made it extremely hard for the Socceroos to progress the ball forwards, under any circumstances.
Australia looked to move towards attack with the ball on the ground, through short passes to open up space in the midfield and on the flanks.
Japan pressed with intensity and as a collective and didn’t allow the Socceroos to move the ball forwards through the wings and two fullbacks, particularly on the left-hand side.
Passing angles to Aziz Behich down the left were cut off completely – Souttar couldn’t find the left-back considering he was playing on the left-hand side as a right-footer.
This made it difficult for the Socceroos to move the ball down that wing, hence the dependence on ball progression from the right flank.
This is most certainly not to say that Souttar needs to be dropped because he’s not left-footed, more an explanation as to how it affects the build-up of the Socceroos and how Japan pinned in Australia’s left side.
And while both Harry Souttar and Trent Sainsbury are comfortable on the ball, with the latter being able to progress play through long, raking passes over the top of the defence, neither have the confidence nor the technique to progress the ball in between the lines to midfielders, particularly in more advanced positions.
It was therefore curious that Arnold opted for Ajdin Hrustic and Jackson Irvine to both remain in relatively central positions in one line further forwards, rather than rotating through dropping one of them into the defensive line to help progress the ball.
However, credit is due to Japan for their intelligent, clever shadow pressing, blocking passing angles instantly after the Australian double-pivot got the ball.
Both Hrustic and Irvine are very one-footed, particularly Hrustic in his first touch (he favours his left foot 89% of the time), and Japan blocked passing lanes considering they knew he was always going to take a touch across his right shoulder with his left foot when his back was to goal.
When he was facing the attack, he’d often let the ball roll off his left foot and refused to use his right to change direction and come back across his marker.
Instead, he waited an extra second, wanting to compose himself before playing a pass with his left foot backwards to set the Socceroos steadily in possession.
Japan, who had evidently done extensive analysis on that double pivot pre-game, realised this and always looked to aggressively shut down a touch from the instep of Hrustic’s left foot, before nabbing in front to steal the ball, often counter-pressing him with multiple players.
Japan would also set pressing traps based on weak passes towards the central defenders, before cutting off passing lanes with aggressivity and intensity.
Notice in this clip how aggressively Japan close down the passing angles to the two fullbacks.
Once the ball goes to goalkeeper Mat Ryan, they intentionally leave Souttar free while marking Sainsbury, as they want to force play towards the left flank, considering the limited passing angles and options available.
After receiving the ball, Souttar has to play a slow, chipped pass to find Behich, as he isn’t confident enough to find Hrustic, who is free in between the lines.
Behich finds himself under immediate pressure, and without any options is forced to clear the ball forwards.
The majority of Japan’s opportunities came from quick breaks of aggressive possession, moving the ball forwards.
These came from counterattacks, but mostly from Japan’s pressing, which lead to the Socceroos making mistakes within their own half.
On both of those video’s shown above, high quality chances were created for Japan, and both were results of Australia playing into pressing traps that the Samurai Blue created.
The Socceroos didn’t score enough goals, because they didn’t create enough chances due to them not getting in advanced positions frequently.
But the issue stemmed from their progressive build-up play from deep, which was thwarted by Japan’s intelligent, cohesive pressing.
However, the Socceroos could have adapted, and through moving players into the defensive line or bringing Mooy deeper to help progress the ball.
Throughout the first half, in particular, the Socceroos struggled to progress the ball centrally, as the two midfielders had a maximum of two seconds on the ball in midfield areas, before having to lay it off.
Hrustic in particular could have benefitted from being able to face the game and play long passes forwards.
In the second half, on a few occasions, Hrustic would drop alongside Souttar and Sainsbury, but it remained sporadic.
By having Hrustic drop into the defensive line, it would allow for the aforementioned passing angles you get from a left-footed player on the left to open up, meaning he has more options available than if it was Souttar in that same position.
As good as Hrustic is technically, he’s not a press resistant midfielder, and by moving him into the defensive line, he would be allowed to see the field of play and look to make progressive switches, passes and runs forwards with more time on the ball.
Take this second clip again, for example.
With Hrustic dropping in to the left of Souttar, Australia would have disrupted Japan’s press by creating an overload in the defensive line, leaving Hrustic with more time on the ball, or Souttar with space to run forwards centrally, as seen in the animation below.
Had Hrustic received possession, he could have played a more measured long ball forwards, curved a pass around the outside to Behich or switched play to Karacic, who was free on the other side of the field.
It became increasingly obvious that the Socceroos – the midfield double pivot and defensive two especially – were playing into Japan’s pressing traps, particularly in the first half.
Another possible solution could have been to bring Mooy deeper, and move Hrustic into an inside right position.
Mooy is the most press resistant midfielder Australia has – he feints well to manipulate space while breaking the lines with intuitive passes from deep.
He obviously wasn’t at his full fitness level, but perhaps would have been better influencing play from deep.
Mooy could have provided different movements and techniques – he is more of a multi-dimensional deep-lying playmaker than Hrustic – and is calm and confident in his first touch.
However, it’s important to remember how good of a side the Samarui Blue really is.
The cohesion and structure of their pressing is something that no other team in the group can better.
Saudi Arabia is perhaps the only side that can implement a more intense style of pressing and counter-pressing – although they sit in more of a mid-block without the ball after engaging with the first line of pressure.
Graham Arnold and his side will have to adapt and change for the next fixture against Japan, and a different build-up structure could be the answer to their problems when evading pressing from opponents.