How Japan match up against the Socceroos

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    For both teams striding out onto the Saitama Stadium pitch on the 31st – the Japanese soaking in the whoops and roars of the home crowd, the Roos doing their best to shut them out – the significance of the fixture will be firmly in mind.

    A win in Tokyo would see the Socceroos take a grand bound toward automatic qualification, and would mean leapfrogging Japan in the group. The Samurai Blue – the current leaders – having spurned an opportunity to put telling distance between them and their Group B opponents in the last round, will be determined not to scupper this next chance.

    It will be a tetchy game; pressure can so often wrap constricting tendrils around the limbs of a sporting contest, and so both teams ought to prepare for a battle in which the finer details will be critical.

    In their last match, a disappointing 1-1 draw away to Iraq – a team already cast adrift along with Thailand at the foot of the group table – Japan were still able to muster a performance that, if not quite securing the maximum points return, still exhibited their strengths as a team.

    It was a stodgy affair against Iraq, with the Iraqis fouling often – the match foul tally ended 16 to 8 in favour of the Iraqi team – and set up to pump long balls deep into the Japan defensive half.

    Still, the first half nonetheless saw some sweeping counter-attacking moves from the Japanese, the exact kind that tend to trouble Australia and Ange Postecoglou’s back-three system.

    Sudden counter-attacks that apply devastating pressure to the space created behind drawn-out wing-backs are the poison to a back-three system, causing the centre-halves to scuttle out into uncomfortable wide areas to try and quell the threat.

    Here, Iraq make handsome progress down the far side, until the bouncing ball is cut out by Gen Shoji. The sudden transition, speared down the middle, the carried on at the feet of Genki Haraguchi, is typical of Japan in fine form.

    Their team is less a collection of disparate parts, and more a high-spec, interconnected machine, capable of combining with preternatural coherence. One and two-touch passing, and syncopated off-the-ball runs are both commonplace sights when Japan break, even under heavy pressure.

    A little later, the same again occurred, this time from the near side corner. Aerial duels are being staged deep in Japanese territory, until a skied clearance is caressed sublimely by striker Yuya Osako. Suddenly a central breakaway is in frantic flight, and the only way the Iraqi centre-halves can stop it is by fouling, earning an early booking.

    When the body-check occurs, there are flanking Japanese runners on either side of the field, and central support following up; this is how swiftly Japan can assemble themselves on the break.

    A third example, perhaps the best of the lot, was again presented in the first half. A punt deep into the right corner of the Japanese defence is made – not unlike one someone like say Mark Milligan might make toward a charging left wing-back – and is cleared blindly up field by Hiroki Sakai.

    Fortuitously, the ball lands at the feet of a Japanese attacker, but the sequence that follows is a symphony of light motif touches and passing, each more delicate and balanced than the last, all arranged at high-speed on the break. The final cadence was left ringing atonally though, as what would have been the crowning pass is over-hit.

    It’s no coincidence the break targeted the Iraqi’s left side, vulnerable and scrambling as it was following the unsuccessful long-ball raid.

    The flanks, and the defensive abilities of the players selected to play wing-back, have been the most tremulous aspect of Postecoglu’s system.

    Newly appointed Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou gestures to the crowd

    (Image: AAP/Joe Castro)

    Wing-backs, in theory, are supposed to add defensive reinforcement when out of possession, creating a formidable back-five. But so much of that theoretical success depends on the practical positional instincts of the individuals filling these roles. We’ve seen so many errors – as well as significant personnel turnover – in these areas over the last handful of games, to the point where they still stand as the most pressing areas of concern.

    It would be wise to put in place additional safeguards for the match in Tokyo. Aziz Behich or Alex Gersbach, both natural full-backs, should start on the left. If Matt Leckie is to start as right wing-back, then it’s essential Mark Milligan plays in the midfield, or on the right side of the back three.

    Not only is Milligan more mobile midfield choice than captain Mile Jedinak, or defensive alternative Milos Degenek, helping better to clamp down on slippery Japanese midfielders and attackers, his positional instincts are second to none in the national team, and his covering of the wing-backs – especially Leckie – will be essential.

    Bailey Wright, a highly traditional centre-half, is not especially suited to being one third of a back three – and has shown as much – and so Ryan McGowan, or newly called-up Matt Jurman would make excellent replacements. Jurman is left-footed, and would slot in nicely on the left side of the back-three. Obviously, Trent Sainsbury will occupy the middle.

    Socceroo Mark Milligan takes a shot on goal against South Africa

    (Peter Macalpine – Flickr)

    If Milligan is in the back three, as he was to such success against Chile in the Confederations Cup, a midfield of Mooy and Jackson Irvine would be athletic and mobile enough to match the Japanese skill and speed with skill and speed of their own.

    Irvine is a prodigious athlete, and a venomous tackler, and pairs well with the careful ball-playing Mooy. This takes care of the back half of the team. As far as Australian attackers go, Tomi Juric might be our most in-form player, and his size and strength will be very helpful against Japan.

    James Troisi scored our last international goal, and always provides a spritz of pace and directness whenever he plays. Tom Rogic, certainly our most skilled attacker, is also likely to earn a spot in the starting XI.

    These players can interchange, swapping sides, and both can drop deeper into midfield to affect the game there. Tim Cahill and Jamie Maclaren might also be used in a recessed striker’s role, the former offering increased aerial supremacy, the latter an increased threat to dart suddenly in behind the line of defence.

    Japan are a well-drilled unit, and they defend as a team almost as fluently as they attack. Take this example from the Iraq game: as the Iraqis linger patiently around the halfway line, it’s actually the Japanese defensive midfielder, Wataru Endo, who slides out to meet the man in possession as the ball is worked out to the far flank.

    Endo is beaten badly by a neat turn, but you can see that his diligence meant the other right-sided Japanese defenders could stay assembled in defensive formation, and as the Iraqi player makes further progress, he runs into a cul-de-sac.

    The Japanese funnel the play inside, still well stocked with marshalling defenders, and as the ball trickles across the box, it’s actually the No.11, winger Yuya Kubo, who clears the ball, having tracked all the way back on the weak side. The sequence displays a remarkable sense of group responsibility, of a shared and maintained duty to all contribute defensively.

    It won’t be easy to break down the Japanese defence, and their attack will be even more formidable, assuming Shinji Kagawa – who missed the Iraq tie through injury but has recently returned to training at Dortmund – is back in the squad.

    Ange and Australia will know that a draw against Japan, and a win over Thailand on September fifth, ought to be enough to finish in the automatic qualification spots, assuming Japan also win their final tie against Saudi Arabia – who are equal on points with Australia – which is also on September fifth.

    This should breed a sensible sense of conservatism for the match in Tokyo, and hopefully the Socceroos team-sheet and tactics reflect that. Australia will not cower under the heat of the occasion; we have won important qualification games before. But Japan are well equipped – almost purpose-built – to puncture our weakest points, and we’ll have to prepare every method of avoiding their prongs.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.