Asian Champions League 2019: Kashima Antlers vs Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao – tactical analysis


Kashima Antler’s have been riding high in this year’s J-League. Only one point separates them and league leaders FC Tokyo. With zero losses across all nine of their last fixtures, Kashima looked to continue on their recent form.

Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao are also flying high as current league leaders in the Chinese Super League. Fabio Cannavarro has found the right blend in his tactics this year looking extremely strong in his domestic outings.

With the scoreline at nil-nil going into the second leg, Guangzhou knew that an away goal would most likely be enough to seal their route into the semi-final. Kashima Antlers, on the other hand, had the away goals rule acting against them. This tactical analysis will cover the Asian Champions League tie between the two sides.


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Both sides lined up in a 4-4-2 on their respective team sheets. Kashima were without Brazilian Leandro and veteran Yasasushi Endo. Brazilian Ricardo Goulart was missing for the Chinese outfit Guangzhou, acting as their biggest personnel loss leading into the tie.

The opening of the first half was a fairly even affair. Both sides jostled for control of the game, with neither side playing with too much risk in the early stages. As a result, there were many second balls to be won. After around 20 minutes, Kashima seemed to have a better ability to pick them up. Interestingly enough, their second ball recovery was more prominent on the left-hand side of the pitch. This seemed down to some structural differences for Kashima when the ball was on the left side compared to the right.

Structural differences

In possession, Kashima tended to morph into an asymmetrical shape. On the right side of midfield for the reds was Serginho, with Shintaro Nago placed out on the left wing. Nago tended to drift out wide and hold width for Kashima. This differed to Serginho’s side, where the Brazilian would often tuck in. Right-back Kei Kozumi would then take up a higher and wider position as seen in the image below.

Asymmetrical shaping with differences in height and width for Kashima’s wingers and full backs.

It was interesting to perform an analysis of the impact this had on their second ball play. As Serginho would tuck over when they lost the ball, Kashima had good numerical superiority around the ball and often won the second ball. One or both strikers had a tendency to drop which gave Kashima extra coverage. As we can see below, it meant they had a good spread of players. This increases the likelihood of having a Kashima player near to the second ball when it dropped.

Kashima have a six versus two in the area where the 2nd ball will most likely drop.
The inner positioning of Serginho gives Kashima better coverage to win the 2nd ball.

Nago, as stated before, preferred to keep his width. Whilst the distances aren’t huge, they can play a role in the small margins that separate winning and losing the second ball. Here we can see the difference that a few metres of positioning can make. If Nago was further tucked over onto the white circle he would win regain possession. This highlighted how the difference in his and Serginho’s positioning meant Kashima regained the ball more on the left-hand side.

Nago’s positioning compared to Serginho (white circle)

Below we can see the difference in positioning between Serginho and Nago. Whilst the margins are small, these can make the difference in high-level football. The split second extra it takes Nago to reach the ball means he doesn’t win back possession for Kashima.

If Nago had been in Serginho’s position he would have picked up the second ball.

Kashima pressing trap

Kashima had a clear plan to win the ball with opposition full back when in their established defensive shape. They would sit in a 4-4-2 block around the halfway line. Both strikers would sit just in front of the opposition midfielders. When the ball was transferred to the opposite centre back, the ball side striker would jump from the central midfielder onto pressuring the centre back. Both strikers would use their cover shadow to block the ball into the central midfielders for Guangzhou as seen below.

Kashima’s pressing organisation.

This was a trigger for Kashima’s central midfielder and winger to step onto their respective player. In this instance being Guangzhou’s full back and near side centre midfielder. They then looked to force a turnover or win the ball in these areas.

The shaded area illustrates the pressing trap of Kashima.

Opportunities for Guangzhou

Whilst Kashima were fairly organised and intense in their defensive shape, there were still opportunities for Guangzhou to play through them. Towards the latter portion of the first half, they started to have some success with Anderson Talisca exploiting some gaps in their set up. When the centre midfielder for Kashima jumped onto his Guangzhou counter part, it created a gap in the midfield that occasionally was not filled by a Kashima centre-back.

Talisca and Lifu Yang overloaded the left back for Kashima to create a two versus one scenario.

In this instance, Leo Silva is turned by Guangzhou’s centre-midfielder. The winger for Guangzhou then makes a forward run which pins back Kashima’s left-back. As a result, it meant that Talisca was free to receive the ball and turn into space. This happened on a few occasions for Guangzhou where they managed to find Talisca and play through the block of Kashima.

Yang’s forward run pins back Kashima’s left full back and allows Talisca space to turn and progress forward.

Missed opportunities

Guangzhou missed some other opportunities to break down Kashima’s defensive structure more regularly. Kashima tended to man-mark with their wide players. Specifically, the Kashima left-winger would track Guangzhou’s full-back, with the Kashima full-back man-marking Guangzhou’s winger. As the left-winger for Kashima was preoccupied with the full-back, he often didn’t tuck in, creating an interior space in the midfield block of Kashima. Guangzhou rarely exploited this fact, with the gap seen below.

Kashima’s left-winger is so occupied with the right-back of Guangzhou that he turns his back. His positioning, therefore, creates large interior gaps.

In the instance below, Guangzhou can easily progress through Kashima with some specific movements. Elkeson can hold a position centrally between the centre backs or make a run beyond them. This would then pin back Kashima’s centre-backs. Additionally then, Talisca can back into space, receive the ball and run at the back four.

Elkeson could often make a run in behind or pin the centre backs of Kashima. Talisca could then back into the interior space just behind him created by the positioning of Nago.

Talisca’s Influence

Anderson Talisca was the most prominent player on the pitch for Guangzhou. Talisca often picked up good positions to receive the ball. Additionally, his work rate off the ball was impressive and not often seen by the foreign imports in the Chinese League. It was fitting that the first goal of the match for Guangzhou came through a corner which landed on the head of Talisca. It meant Guangzhou had the vital away goal and went into half time as the firm favourites to progress.

Second Half

The opening stages of the second half were fairly chaotic with turnovers occurring regularly.  This meant there were many transition moments for each side. It was therefore interesting to see how the differences in the striker’s positioning affected each side in transition.

Differences in attacking transition

With a one nil lead, Guangzhou erred on the side of caution and would aim to get all 11 players in a low block and behind the ball. Whilst this meant they were supposedly more stable defensively, it also reduced their ability to break in transition. Often Talisca and Elkeson picked up the ball with at least 10-20 metres distance before they had reached halfway. As you can see below it made it harder to counter attack effectively.

Talisca receiving the ball deep in his own half.

Kashima, on the other hand, dropped less and left their strikers on the opposite side of the ball. They tasked their midfielders with the sole job of protecting the back four. This meant that in transition, they not only had an outlet, but an outlet that was closer to the opposition goal. Kashima were rewarded for this in the 50th minute. Guangzhou played a sloppy back pass, which Kashima intercepted. They launched a quick counter attack ending in a shot that deflected off Serginho into the back of the net.

Kashima receive the ball higher and therefore have less distance to the goal.

Pressure on Guangzhou

As the game wore on Guangzhou dropped deeper and deeper into their own half. Kashima piled on the pressure and started to fashion some good chances. Leo Silva began to bomb on more, with Nagaki waiting to win the ball back in transition. With Leo Silva further forward Kashima began to combine better on the edge of the box. Leo, Serginho and Doi worked well together to create some better chances for Kashima.

Leo combining with Serginho on the edge of the box.

With the pressure beginning to pile on, both teams made changes. Guangzhou shifted to a 4-5-1. Talisca dropped to the right midfield spot. As a result, it meant even fewer players for Guangzhou in transition with both wingers dropping deep to cover Kashima’s full-back. Serginho moved into a more central role, with the left-winger for Kashima also being swapped.

The ball came regularly down the left side into the feet of substitute Yuki Soma for Kashima. Whilst he got the better of his man on a few occasions, there was rarely any end product for Soma. Often he received the ball with his direct opponent tight to him, rarely allowing him time to get up to speed. If Kashima could have produced a runner on the inside, they potentially could have produced something on the left side. With an interior runner, they could get the ball to him in a more advanced area. Alternatively, they could potentially have also then pinned the right back for Guangzhou allowing Soma to build up speed and/or drive inside.

A runner positioned inside could either exploit the space or pin back Guangzhou’s right back.

Fabio Cannavaro seemed to recognise this however and shifted to a five backline in order to plug the gap. The last five minutes consisted of an onslaught of pressure and Guangzhou hanging on. Leo had a huge chance in the final seconds of the match which really should have sent Kashima through to the semi-finals.


Guangzhou seemed to execute their game plan fairly well, providing a win and progression to the ACL semi-final. The Talisca goal was a vital turning point. It allowed Guangzhou to sit deeper knowing that Kashima needed two goals to win the tie. Kashima very much could have changed the script in the dying seconds though. With Leo’s missed chance, the script of an all Japanese semi-final slipped out of the hands of Kashima. Guangzhou will now meet Urawa Red Diamonds on the first of October. Cannavaro and his men will be hoping they can get the better of another Japanese side.

Artwork by @chapulana

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