After the departure of Juan Manuel Lillo, we look at how Vissel Kobe‘s new manager, Thorsten Fink, masterminded a 1-0 victory over league leaders, FC Tokyo. Prior to this game, Tokyo had only conceded seven goals in 14 games and Kobe’s inconsistent form had left them lingering near the bottom of the table so a result for the away side here proved to be one of the upsets of the season. This tactical analysis will reveal what happened in this clash.
Like the framing of a painting
Iniesta and Villa operated mainly on the outskirts of their team’s formation, governing Kobe’s play from the ‘6’ and ‘9’ positions respectively. The ex-Barca men owning the roles of the physical embodiment of Lillo’s lessons manipulating space within the Tokyo defence. With Iniesta dropping in-between and either side of his centre-backs and Villa hanging off the last shoulder of Tokyo’s own, Kobe sought to stretch the opposition vertically. And to stretch them horizontally, Kobe’s full-backs owned the responsibility of maintaining the team’s width, pushing forward at the earliest opportunities.
With the three behind Villa stepping inside and leaving the wide channels to be occupied only by the full-backs, Kobe can create a dangerous 3v2 overload in the centre of the pitch. This restricts Tokyo’s central midfield from committing to maintaining the midfield line and with Iniesta’s clever movement drawing out the nearside winger, this had the potential to create a 6v3 overload behind Tokyo’s first line of pressure.
By stretching the pitch in this fashion, Kobe maximised the space Tokyo now had to defend. This helped to create gaps in and around the Tokyo block as their wingers and strikers now had decided when and where to push forward and press the ball. At times this created an obvious disparity between the forward line and the deeper central midfield who were pinned into a deeper position so as not to leave their centre-backs overloaded.
The spaces created left plenty of room for Kobe’s full-backs and deeper midfield to receive and circulate the ball. This explains why Kobe dominated the possession in this game and why Tokyo found it hard to press the away side in a coordinated fashion higher up the pitch.
Kobe’s inability to counter-press
Looking at the stats for this game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that Kobe created 19 shooting opportunities after comfortably dominating possession. What is surprising, and as equally alarming, is that Tokyo came close to matching Kobe’s shot output with far less possession, creating 15 shots.
Whilst Kobe’s positioning was pivotal to allowing Fink’s side to control the tempo of the game, it meant they sacrificed the option of counter-pressing their opponent upon a turnover. By committing up to five or six players up against Tokyo’s last defensive line, Kobe left themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks if the league leaders were able to win the ball back early enough.
Whilst this positioning of five to six players high up the pitch is necessary to pin the opposition into their own penalty area, it means these players are unable to press the ball immediately upon a turnover. This is because they are behind the ball when Kobe lose the ball in this area and this means Tokyo can counter with numbers in relative safety and therefore make their counters more successful and dangerous.
Because of their inability to counter-press, it doesn’t necessarily matter that Kobe’s possession has forced Tokyo deeper. With so many players caught up-field, Tokyo can advance up the pitch with ease if they can move the ball quick enough.
The cons of Iniesta
Kobe’s extreme positioning also placed a lot of defensive responsibility on Iniesta upon these turnovers. It’s safe to say this isn’t an area of the game where the former World Cup winner excels. Due to his slight frame and ageing legs, the Spaniard was often easily bypassed on the counter-attack and this made it easy for Tokyo to create overloads whilst transitioning to offence.
This is where Tokyo’s proven defensive organisation helped to keep them in the game. The closer they defended to their goal, the more disciplined and dogged their defence became. After initial confusions as to where to press higher up the pitch, the home side easily fell into an orthodox 4-4-2 shape as the play entered their half.
This rigid shape allowed for Tokyo’s two front men the freedom to manoeuvre themselves closer to Iniesta upon a turnover and frequently find success in running off of Kobe’s number ‘8’. There were even times where Wellington, who was playing as a centre attacking midfielder for Kobe, was quicker to recover into a defensive position than Iniesta during a Tokyo counter. And for the most part, this proved to be Tokyo’s best way of creating chances in this game considering just how much of the possession Kobe dominated in this game.
Kobe cashing in on their luck
Despite all their possession, Kobe generally found it difficult to create quality chances on goal for their strikers. Their extreme commitment of forward players and due to the narrowness this caused Tokyo’s defensive block to adopt, this funnelled a lot of Kobe’s final third play out wide. And as Kobe’s full-backs didn’t specialise in 1v1 scenarios, they even struggled to carve out crosses from close to the by-line and opted instead for plenty of deeper and in-swinging crosses.
The tactic that worked so well for Kobe during their build-up phase of possession in committing men forward and occupying the channels also constricted them when space became limited.
In the final third, there weren’t the same amount of space in-between Tokyo’s lines and the away side failed to adjust for this. This left the likes of Iniesta and Hotaru Yamaguchi were left without any viable forward passing options and hence were forced to play it wide thus making things easier for Tokyo to defend.
In the end, the game was decided by a goal early into the second half, a freak goal, by all means, scored by Iniesta from a miraculous angle. It’s safe to say a draw was probably the fairer result however Kobe were excellent in controlling the tempo of the game and rode their luck on a number of occasions but ultimately held out to cause one of the upsets of the season.
Lillo’s legacy still hangs heavy over Fink’s newly acquired side and it will take much more time for the German to implement his own style of play on this side heavily influenced by Spanish law. In the meantime, I fear this side may still be hindered by their reliance on an ageing Iniesta who’s experiencing his first relegation dogfight.
Take nothing away from their performance on this day as it may prove to be the catalyst for turning their season around. Despite the loss, Tokyo will find positives in their performance and their stringent defensive showing clearly demonstrates just why they are leading the League and enjoying the best defensive record this season.
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