Japan 1-0 Australia: late extra time winner

January 30, 2011

The starting line-ups

Tadanari Lee scored a superb volley – his first ever international goal – to win the 2011 Asian Cup.

Alberto Zaccheroni made two changes to the side which beat South Korea on penalties. Shinji Kagawa was out injured, so Jungo Fujimoto started and Shinji Okazaki moved to the left. At the back, Maya Yoshida was available again after suspension, and replaced Daiki Iwamasa.

Holger Osieck named an unchanged side from the XI that demolished Uzbekistan 6-0, in a fairly standard 4-4-2 shape.

The game was what can increasingly be termed a ‘typical cup final’. Tight, tense, nervy and 0-0 for the vast majority, it was, at various points, intriguing, frustrating and then extremely exciting, and was essentially decided by a very clever tactical switch from Alberto Zaccheroni in the second half of normal time.

Australia on top early on

Japan started extremely poorly. Their passing was either unimaginative or wayward, the whole side looked tired, and the front four rarely combined. Makoto Hasebe, an important player during other games in this tournament, didn’t inspire Japan as much as he would have liked, and they spent most of the first half on the back foot.

Australia’s approach was uncomplicated – almost an old-fashioned, ‘British’ 4-4-2 involving (a) playing long balls from the back and (b) getting the ball wide and swinging crosses in. It was very effective in creating chances early on, however, as Tim Cahill’s spring constantly created chances from nothing inside the penalty area, usually with Harry Kewell coming onto the second ball.

It was Lucas Neill who often launched the ball towards Cahill, although Japan tried to close Neill down more quickly than his centre-back partner, Sasa Ognenovski. When Neill had little time on the ball, he looked to work it out to Luke Wilkshire, who played very advanced on the right-hand side and delivered a steady stream of accurate crosses in towards Cahill. David Carney did likewise on the opposite flank.


The early period was essentially a battle of tempo. Japan wanted to slow it down, play the ball on the floor and gradually work it up the pitch towards the creative players, whereas Australia played very direct and concentrated on getting the ball into the box as quickly as possible. Osieck’s men dominated the opening stages, but perhaps the initial approach cost them later on, when it came to fitness levels and Japan’s ball retention worked nicely.

The midfield battle was fairly static throughout the game. Both used two holding players who took it in turns to venture forward, and Japan’s playmaker Keisuke Honda was relatively quiet. The best movement came from Brett Holman’s darts in from the right into central playmaking positions, which also pulled Yuto Nagatomo in and opened up space for Wilkshire on the right.

Zaccheroni change

After Zaccheroni's switch

The game’s crucial moment tactically came on 56 minutes, when Zaccheroni elected to remove the unimpressive Fujimoto and introduce Iwamasa. On first glance this was a defensive move – a centre-back for a winger – but it resulted in a shift of the whole side, and consequently Japan dominated the game.

Japan were clearly struggling at the back aerially, and so the introduction of Iwamasa, who coped far better with Cahill than Yasuyuki Konno did) helped in basic personnel terms, but it also meant that Nagatomo moved forward to the left of midfield.

Nagatomo key

Nagatomo, arguably Japan’s best player in the tournament, stormed forward down the left and pushed back Wilkshire, whose supply of crosses quickly came to an end. On the other side, Uchida also became more attack-minded, and got forward to make Japan’s shape look like a 3-4-3 (traditionally, Zaccheroni’s favoured formation) although it was notable that Uchida dropped in to form a four-man defence when Australia had the ball, so it wasn’t an outright switch to 3-4-3.

It was Nagatomo’s move forward that was the main outcome of the switch, and he created two excellent headed chances from that advanced position. First, he received a ball from Honda and crossed into the box for Okazaki, coming in from the opposite flank, who glanced a header inches wide of the far post with Mark Schwarzer rooted to the spot. That came as a warning for the only goal of the game.

A defensive positional error was crucial. Nagatomo had the ball on the left of the penalty area, and David Cairney was left 1 v 1 in the box with substitute Lee. There was no immediate danger here, but the Australian centre-backs had become pulled towards the ball – and Cairney decided that he needed to dash towards the near post to cover the gap that had been created. This meant that Lee was left completely free in front of the goal, and he met Nagatomo’s cross with a superb volley for his first international goal.

Australia rallied late on, and won a free-kick on the edge of the area in the final minute. Cairney couldn’t make up for his error, however, and his poor free-kick into the ball was the final action of the game.


Zaccheroni was in no doubt that his tactical shift changed the game. “I wanted to strengthen the midfield. We could not really control that area enough. Fujimoto had been out for a month and I wanted to take him off so I had a choice. I could put Konno as a defensive midfielder but I decided not to as he has been playing as a centre-back for this team. So I pushed Nagatomo up. I thought that he could cope with it because he has speed. I didn’t change the system because if you take a forward or a midfielder off and replace him with a defender, the players and the opponents think that you’re playing defensively and I didn’t want that.

“After changing the position of Nagatomo, we looked better. We could not really go forward much although this was not a problem with the strikers but a problem with the midfielders. I had the choice to use Konno as a defensive midfielder and push Endo and Hasebe forward but I changed Nagatomo’s position and from that point Australia looked kind of loose. I was surprised because they were so compact before.”

To say he “didn’t change his system” is slightly misleading – although it was broadly the same formation, the difference in characteristics of the players he used in certain positions meant the side looked completely different to the first half shape, frequently appearing as Zaccheroni’s famously favoured 3-4-3 – although it’s fair to say that it was a four-man defence that shifted into a three-man defence as moves progressed, as was notable against Qatar. It’s also interesting that Zaccheroni cites his opponent’s interpretation of his mentality as a factor in his change.

Still, whatever you want to call the formation, it was the game’s crucial decision, and shows how a manager can win a game – and a trophy – with a clever tactical decision.

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