With the 2020 J1 League being halted after only one matchweek (similarly to the MLS who run a comparable spring-fall schedule), today we’ll look back at Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s 2-1 win away to Jubilo Iwata in August of 2019. Although the two teams’ fortunes have diverged since the fixture with Jubilo Iwata ending the season relegated to the J2 League and Sanfrecce Hiroshima league leaders of the first division, the match itself provided plenty of interesting tactics.

After being outshot to the count of nine shots to three in the first half, Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s two second-half goals earned their manager Hiroshi Jofuku the three points. This tactical analysis will look at what took place over the 90 minutes.

Team news

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics

With Jubilo Iwata mired in the relegation zone heading into the match, their Spanish manager Fernando Jubero made 5 changes from their home loss to Cerezo Osaka in his first game in charge. A new front two of Lukian and Okubo started the game in Jubero’s attempt to find the right combination up top, while captain Tomohiko Miyazaki came in at left-back. Favouring a change in personnel rather than his 4-4-2 formation, Jubilo Iwata hoped their experience lineup with only three players under the age of 26 would earn the three points.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima came to the Yamaha Stadium after a disappointing nil-nil draw at home to Oita Trinita and made only one change to their starting 11. Jofuku traded one Brazilian for another as Douglas Vieira made way for Leandro Pereira at striker and kept the remaining ten starters within his flexible 3-4-3 the same. Notably, Hiroshima’s #40 Hayao Kawabe spent three years on loan with Jubilo to kickstart his career and played over 100 times for the Shizuoka side. 19-year-old and fellow Hiroshima academy graduate Shunki Higashi lined up in an attacking midfield role, protected behind by the experienced wing-back Rhayner and exterior centre-back Yuki Nogami. Kawabe and Higashi are products of the fruitful Hiroshima academy system, both coming through the system the same time as Arsenal signee Takuma Asano.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s defensive width

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Morishima and Inagaki used the outside edge of the centre circle as a positioning reference. When the ball was on the opposite side, they made sure to stay outside that line so they could still easily press any switch back to their side of the field.

Hiroshima set out in 3-4-3 formation that easily morphed into a 5-4-1 in mid or low blocks depending on the positioning of the wingbacks, using the halfway line as a starting point of pressure by striker Pereira. The strength in using these tactics is the team’s ability to quickly shift laterally and give immediate access to the opposing team’s full-back and winger. Once possession by Jubilo was stifled on one side and the ball began to circulate back into the centre, Hiroshima’s wingback and outside midfielder began to shuffle across in anticipation of the switch. By only moving sideways while the ball was still in central areas, the defending team keeps the vertical distances between the defending line and midfield line compact, and any horizontal space opened up can be covered by a teammate moving in the same direction.

Hiroshima’s left wingback Yoshifumi Kashiwa is also able to cheat slightly in order to get closer to Jubilo’s winger, as the three central defenders are able to maintain a spare man in defence against the two forwards. If Kashiwa were to find himself in a one-versus-one situation and the left exterior centre-back Sho Sasaki had to shift over to provide cover defending, the remaining two centre-backs would be joined by right wingback Rhayner to maintain their numerical advantage.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Hiroshima Sanfrecce’s width provided numerical overloads in moments following a switch in the point of attack by Jubilo.

Although Hiroshima’s setup afforded them with easy pressure in wide areas, Jubilo’s lack of central occupation played right into the visitors’ hands. By having both their winger and full-back in the wide channel, Yoshito Okubo here is made to check towards the ball from his forward position in order to offer central support. Fozil Musaev and Takeaki Harigaya, the two midfielders for the relegated side, were too involved in the build-up with the backline to aide in the attacking structure once the ball was advanced. Even if Okubo were to receive the ball in this pocket he would be isolated from most teammates and would have to rely solely on individual outplaying of his marker to advance the ball, although in this game and analysis Hiroshima tended to cut off the central passing lanes and force another switch of play.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Higashi and Morishima can press Jubilo’s centre-backs, while Inagaki’s positioning allows Pereira to stay focused on the goalkeeper. Higashi also uses his cover shadow to deny the immediate vertical passing option; any attempt to find that player in space would have to be in the air or require a third-man combination which would give Inagaki time to shift over and mark him.

Hiroshima’s main pressing triggers to get themselves out of a low block were passes from a central midfielder or full-back to a centre-back, long passes to isolated players, and most passes to the goalkeeper. Knowing that they had support behind them in wide areas in the form of wingbacks, exterior centre-backs, and shifting central midfielders, the wide attackers Higashi and Tsukasa Morishima were able to narrow themselves in on Jubilo’s centre-backs in pressing moments; one central midfielder of Inagaki or Kawabe would also press with the front three so the attackers could primarily defend Jubilo’s backline and goalkeeper. This allowed Sanfrecce to be very effective in forcing long balls from these pressing situations.

Jubilo’s attacking rotations

Due to Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s width described earlier, Jubilo was rarely able to generate scoring opportunities once the away side organized themselves in a mid-block.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Miyazaki passes wide to Adailton and underlaps to draw his marker deeper into a wide area; Okubo and Musaev make opposing runs to open space in front of the 18.

Using a rotation pattern when the ball was in wide channels, the Home side attempted to draw out Hiroshima’s central and wide midfielders to create space in more dangerous central areas. Although the initial rotation worked well several times, the area central zone was still lacking immediate support (as described earlier).

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Musaev isolated in attacking areas.

Without an option for a one-touch layoff, a key aspect in attacking central areas, Jubilo again had to rely on individual skill in one-versus-one moments.

Around the 26-minute mark, Jubilo’s left and right wide attackers Adailton and Daigo Araki, started to position themselves in their respective halfspaces in possession, leaving the wide channels for their partnering full-backs. This forced the Hiroshima wingers to decide whether to mark the wingback to the outside of them or stay central and leave the defending wingback to go one-versus-one against the Jubilo full-back.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Jubilo’s available connections with four wide attackers.

The advanced attacking quartet consisting of Jubilo’s full-back, winger, central midfielder, and ball-near striker began to cause problems for the team in white. As Pereira wasn’t keen to track back too deep and leave Hiroshima without a high outlet, both a central midfielder and exterior centre-back were forced to shift over to provide numerical balance. Jubilo’s attackers also made it a point to break a line with their movement after they passed the ball on to a teammate, further stretching the Hiroshima lines of pressure.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Jubilo’s attacking movement off the ball condenses Hiroshima’s vertical compactness to within 15 yards.

By taking advantage of Hiroshima’s aggressive marking on vertical movements, Jubilo was able to collapse the defence’s lines and create unbalanced situations to attack. The disorganized structure of the defensive shape also made it difficult during transition moments for the visitors; the time it would take for Hiroshima to secure possession and get into their attacking structure was too long considering how close the Jubilo players were during their counter-press.

Although the home side generated nine shots and two corners, their four shots on target failed to garner them a goal going into a fateful halftime break.

The visitors strike early

After spending 45 minutes in the first half without a shot on target, it took less than a minute and a half for Sanfrecce Hiroshima to open the scoring in the second half with a side-footed effort from Pereira at the top of the box following a quick attacking transition.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Pereira finding a pocket of space during his rest defence.

Pereira positioned himself between the midfield line and defending line of Jubilo during his phase of rest defence, making the centre-backs hesitant to pressure him when second-half substitute Toshihiro Aoyama intercepts the ball and chips a pass into his chest.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Hiroshima’s attacking movement vs Jubilo’s recovery runs.

Pereira settles the ball and plays Kawabe into space; Kawabe not only beats his marker vertically but has moved into the inside shoulder of the full-back for a more dangerous position attacking the remaining three defenders. The key to the goal, however, comes from the poor recovery runs by Musaev and Takeaki Harigaya. Both Higashi and Pereira will beat them to the top of the box and end up combining for the goal. I’m sure Dunga, former player of Jubilo and Serie A‘s Fiorentina, wouldn’t have made the same mistake.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Pereira with space enough for a side-footed shot past Krzysztof Kaminski’s left-hand side.

Similar to the first half, the width provided by the wingbacks gave wide defenders questions as to whom to mark, with Daiko Ogawa presented with such a dilemma: step to Pereira and attempt to block his shot or stay deep and anticipate a pass to Kashiwa. Ogawa chooses the latter and the visitors go up 1-0.

Hiroshima’s attacking width

With a goal in hand to ease the pressure of missing out on what should be considered an easy three points due to Jubilo’s position in the table, Hiroshima began to assert more control over the game with their possession and width in attack. Now with Jubilo unable to sit back and defend a draw, the away side used the positioning of their wingbacks and patience with the ball to make it as hard as possible for Jubilo to win the ball and advance themselves.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Hiroshima’s attacking structure.

The image above is a good example of what Jubilo had to defend for large stretches of the second half. First, the two exterior centre-backs positioned themselves outside the width of Jubilo’s strikers with the central defender Araki six to eight yards deeper to offer support at an angle, minimizing any square balls played to him. The back three’s positioning meant that any pressure by the Jubilo’s strikers took the strikers very wide, opening space for Hiroshima’s central midfielders and reducing the availability of central attackers during an attacking transition for Jubilo.

Secondly, Hiroshima’s wingbacks’ positioning as almost wide forwards made Jubilo’s wide midfielders decide which space to defend: stay in the central channels to block off vertical passing lanes or shift wide to not leave the wingback unmarked. More often than not, the wingbacks’ aggressive positioning pinned the defending wide midfielders back, creating more accessible options for short passes in the middle.

Finally, the horizontal compactness of Hiroshima’s front three within the width of Jubilo’s back four made it so they could pin four players with only three attackers. This forced Miyazaki and Ogawa to stay tight and defend the inside channel between them and their nearest centre-back, increasing the distances they would have to travel to provide cover if Hiroshima’s wingbacks received the ball in a one-versus-one scenario.

Jubilo’s mistakes

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Hiroshima’s increased passing and decreased reliance on long balls

Regardless of Hiroshima’s increased possession and control of the game, hinted at with their first and second-half passing statistics above, individual mistakes led to the second goal in the 69th minute which finished the result.

J1 League 2020: Jubilo Iwato vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima - tactical analysis tactics
Higashi’s narrow positioning forces play wide to Ogawa; Kashiwa recognizes the pressing trigger, wins the ball, and settles the game.

As written about previously, the presence of wingbacks and exterior centre-backs offering protection in wide areas allowed the front three to stay central when pressing in their opponent’s half. In the lead-up to the goal, shown above, Higashi’s narrow positioning denies an entry pass into Musaev and forces play wide into an isolated Ogawa. As this was a common pressing trigger, Kashiwa has recognized the situation and applied aggressive pressure. A poor touch by Ogawa turns the ball over, and Kashiwa proceeds to dribble straight towards the goal before unleashing a driven shot past Kaminski. Even though the shot came from about 27 yards out and only one defender was in his sightline to the ball, Kaminski didn’t set his feet quick enough and was unable to generate the power needed to dive to his right-hand side.

Conclusion

Coming into the game Jofuku would have expected his Sanfrecce Hiroshima to take all three points against bottom-dwellers Jubilo Iwato, regardless of any performance bump due to the fresh appointment of the home side’s new manager Jubero. After an uneasy first half which saw Jubilo create the lion’s share of opportunities after changing tactics to central occupation and aggressive movement off the ball, Hiroshima jumpstarted their attack and closed out the game within 25 minutes of the ref’s whistle to start the second half.

Using the width of their wingbacks and smart positioning of both their front and back three, Hiroshima made it difficult for Jubilo to gain a foothold in the game capitalized on individual mistakes to earn the win in the J1 League.