One of the collective strengths of the J1 League is the tactical flexibility of its clubs and managers, with each match week yielding exciting strategic battles. Be it Yokohama F. Marinos’ varied use of their fullbacks in a positional 4-2-3-1 formation or Consadole Sapporo’s direct play from a 3-4-3 setup (Sapporo’s Akito Fukumori generated a league-high 10.81 xA last year from his left centre-back role), each team has an interesting style that makes for fun analysis. A resulting component of the league’s tactical variability is the use of a back three by many of the teams, eschewing the variations of either a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 favoured by many of Europe’s elite sides.
This tactical analysis will look at a contest early in the 2019 J1 League season between Vegalta Sendai and Cerezo Osaka in which both teams showcased the value of a back three in their 3-4-3 formations. Although the match was evenly contested statistically, well-taken finishes by Ken Tokura and second-half substitute Atomu Tanaka led the visiting Cerezo Osaka to a 2-0 win.
With both managers Susumu Watanabe and Miguel Ángel Lotina sending their teams out in a 3-4-3 formation, it was clear that consistent player matchups would play out and ultimately decide the game. Souza and Hiroaki Okuno lined up in the centre of midfield for the visiting side, countered by Sendai’s experienced Shingo Hyodo and Shingo Tomita, the latter of who was playing in his 15th season for the club. With only two out-and-out central midfielders for each team, the positioning of Sendai’s front three of Kaina Yoshio, Ramon Lopes, and Shun Nagasawa to help create advantages in the middle of the field was matched by Osaka’s attacking triumvirate of Yoichiro Kakitani, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Tokura. Notably, Barcelona and AC Milan target Jun Nishikawa didn’t make the 18 for Osaka; in fact, the starlet would only go on to manage 6 minutes of league action for the first team in 2019.
Vegalta Sendai’s zonal issues
Before we get into how Cerezo Osaka’s approach in attack earned them the three points, a look at Vegalta Sendai’s space-oriented zonal marking system will shed some light on how the visitors tended to generate attacks.
As most back three systems tend to do, the home side dropped their wing-backs next to their centre-backs to form a backline of five during settled defensive phases. The wingers Ramon and Yoshio followed suit and receded back on either side of their two central midfielders, leaving Nagasawa alone to form a 5-4-1 shape.
Of the several variations of zonal marking, Watanabe’s team primarily employed a space-oriented version. In this system, the most important reference point for the team’s defensive positioning was the space they were trying to protect, rather than perhaps the location of the ball or a specific opponent.
When Osaka was in possession, Sendai chose not to press high, dropped their backline to roughly 35 yards from goal, and applied very passive pressure with the four midfielders and Nagasawa. If the ball was played into the outside channel, the wide midfielder or wing-back would slowly apply a modicum of pressure without getting too tight; although the Cerezo Osaka players who received the ball in front of Sendai’s forward or midfield lines were frequently able to face forward, Sendai’s team shape early on tended to block passes into dangerous areas and force more ball circulation.
Several seconds after the previous image with the ball having travelled maybe 30 yards, Sendai’s shape and individual positioning have stayed roughly the same. The area behind the backline, the space in between the centre-backs and two central midfielders, as well as the dangerous half-spaces remain the key areas the home team tried to protect.
The issues that Vegalta Sendai began to face started with the role of Nagasawa as their first line of pressure. Cerezo Osaka’s backline created a three-versus-one scenario against the lanky forward in possession, while the occasional dropping midfielder added to the players that took up Nagasawa’s attention. Nagasawa would press whichever centre-back had the ball until that player passed it to a teammate, upon which Nagasawa would move to block the space in front of Osaka’s nearest central midfielder.
Once that dangerous space was secured, Nagasawa would then move on to apply some pressure on the ball, eventually cutting the field in half and directing Osaka’s play down one flank. However, Osaka’s overload in against the first line of pressure combined with Sendai’s narrow second line in their 5-4-1 in order to cover the half-spaces allowed easy access to attack Sendai’s backline.
Sendai’s central midfielders Hyodo and Tomita were active defenders and had the license to track Souza or Okuno if they checked back to receive the ball, as the only threats to occupy the space they left behind were denied the ball by the positioning of Ramon or Yoshio in the half-spaces. However, due to only having two central midfielders, the experienced pair for Sendai was hesitant to move horizontally to the outside channels and provide cover, resulting in consistent overloads for Osaka.
Cerezo Osaka attacking patterns
Due to the work of Nagasawa and the home side’s zonal tactics, most of Cerezo Osaka’s attacks on the ground were funnelled towards the flanks, with 78% of their attacks coming from their right side. In these cases, the association between the outside centre-back, wing-back, and winger was important to create a numerical and positional advantage against Sendai’s block.
Cerezo Osaka’s passing map shows the repetition of passes between those three positions as well as their connection to the ball-near central midfielder. Souza (#11) formed the diamond on the left while Okuno (#25) did the same on the right. The thickness of the lines on the left side of Osaka’s formation shows the consistency at which they either constructed attacks on that side in the middle third or attracted defenders to create space in the middle that can be used to launch an attack on the right-hand side. You’ll also notice the lack of a connection between any of the three centre-backs or Okuno and Tokura (#9). Sendai’s space-oriented zonal defence was effective in denying central passes directly into the striker and forced any attempted passes into Tokura to come from the wingers or wing-backs.
A consistent pattern that Cerezo Osaka employed was aimed at exploiting the space in between Vegalta Sendai’s wing-backs and exterior centre-backs. Once the triggering pass wide to a wingback was played, their goal was twofold: bypass the defending wingback and pull out the ball-near exterior centre-back so Sendai only has three defenders in central areas, or use the vertical run to create space in between Sendai’s backline and midfield line for diagonal passes on the ground to Tokura or an advancing central midfielder.
Cerezo Osaka tried out the pattern several times over the first 25 minutes on the right-hand side and had limited success. At times, right wing-back Maruhashi’s body orientation was closed and facing his own goal, negating the possibility to play forward before a pressing defender forced play backwards (highlighted in the image above). A contributing factor to this was Maruhashi’s high starting position; Although many times he received the ball beyond Sendai’s midfield line and his closest marker Ramon, the sharp angle of the pass forced him to receive on his back foot and take a negative his first touch.
Creating double width
As the visitors had trouble getting beyond Sendai’s wing-backs, Osaka began to take more liberty with the width of their exterior centre-backs to offer an additional option in attacking wide areas.
When left centre-back Yasuki Kimoto takes the position previously occupied by Michibuchi, it allows the left wing-back to move into the left half-space and then make the attacking run behind Sendai’s right wing-back that they had been attempting to execute. With Michibuchi now making this run, left-winger Kiyotake is able to stay in central areas and either become an option for a pass from Kimoto or attract the attention of Sendai’s right centre-back Hiraoka. Hiraoka, shirking his responsibilities of defending the more dangerous space behind him, has allowed a one-versus-one situation to form with Tokura and Sendai’s central centre-back.
In this iteration, Kimoto attempted to play into the same space that Osaka had been attacking previously, but under-hit the pass which was then intercepted. As Michibuchi took the place of Kiyotake, the left-winger for Cerezo Osaka is able to stay in a central position and could have received the ball in a dangerous area. On the day, however, Kimoto was effective in his progressive passing and completed 24 of his 27 attempted forward passes.
At times, the double-width created by the exterior centre-backs of Osaka didn’t necessarily result in a numerical overload for the visitors. Instead, the diamond written about earlier consisting of the exterior centre-back, wing-back, winger, and central midfielder was merely rotated whereby the central midfielder became the supporting player of the diamond rather than the exterior centre-back. This was particularly practical on the left-hand side, as Souza’s lack of pace made it difficult for him to exploit advanced space in the first place, so a supporting position suited him better anyway.
Positional rotations lead to a goal
After making positional adjustments around the 25th minute the away side had better luck breaking down Vegalta Sendai, started to generate chances, and scored the opener in the 36th minute.
Comfortable with the diamond and double-width explained above, Cerezo Osaka began to rotate positions to unbalance Sendai’s marking and get behind the home team’s backline.
In the build-up to the goal, Cerezo Osaka’s left-hand axis has found themselves in different positions after several combinations followed by vertical runs. Right centre-back Katayama has taken up the highest and widest position on the touchline, right-wingback Riku Matsuda is checking towards the ball from a central position, and right-winger Kakitani is supporting the play from deep. Matsuda initiates a third-man combination and runs into Sendai’s depth; Hyodo, wary of his positioning in their space-oriented zonal marking system, doesn’t fully track the run and Matsuda is able to receive a first-time lofted ball from Kakitani with plenty of space. Tokura, pinning his marker and recognising the run of Matsuda, chooses not to bring his defender towards the play and turns to make a run into the box.
As Matsuda approaches the box and central centre-back Jung-ya Kim moves to apply pressure, a gap opens up between the retreating backline and collapsing midfield line of Vegalta Sendai that Tokura runs into. We also highlight that the aggressive run by Kiyotake has drawn the attention of Hiraoka, who now has to decide between stepping towards Tokura or Kiyotake.
Unfortunately for Vegalta Sendai, Hiraoka chooses not to pass off Kiyotake’s run onto Michibuchi and instead marks the space that would be attacked by a driven ball across the six-yard box. If Hiraoka had passed off the run earlier and allowed Michibuchi to defend Kiyotake and the driven ball to the back post, he could have stepped to Tokura earlier and affected the shot. Without this pressure, however, Tokura easily slots a one-touch finish after a simple pass on the ground from Matsuda. Cerezo Osaka entered the halftime break up one goal to nil.
Straight out of the gate in the second half and down a goal, the home side shifted to a more aggressive pressing system when out of possession. Ramon and the more defensively active Yoshio swapped sides to provide additional cover down Sendai’s right flank and pushed up closer to Nagasawa to create more of a 5-2-3 formation when defending, similar to an approach used by Julian Nagelsmann at times in Bundesliga.
Central midfielders Hyodo and Tomita were more aggressive and man-oriented in the marking of their midfield counterparts and weren’t afraid to jump vertically and track their movements towards the ball. This became necessary as Nagasawa was no longer tasked with defending the space in front of Cerezo Osaka’s central midfielders, but instead focused primarily on pressing Osaka’s backline and directing them towards Ramon or Yoshio.
For the first 15 minutes of the second half, the home side was modestly better at increasing the rate of their defensive actions and forcing longer passes that led to 50/50 situations. Compared to the 15 minutes leading into the first half, Vegalta Sendai decreased its PPDA from 16.5 to 11.7 and forced Cerezo Osaka’s long pass share percentage up to 15%. The visitors found it hard to find a rhythm in possession and failed to record a shot in the second half until their second goal of the game coming in the 72nd minute from substitute Atomu Tanaka.
Cerezo Osaka, who had been defending most of the game in a 5-2-3 starting position, pressed high consistently until they got their second goal.
The positioning of their wingers in the defensive phase contrasted the way that Ramon and Yoshio defended for Sendai; rather than stay central to deny passes into the middle and force play wide, Kiyotake and Kakitani placed themselves a bit wider to cut off passes into Sendai’s wing-backs and funnelling passes into the middle that were then pressed by central midfielders Souza and Okuno. This pressing trap played out several times during the game and led to Cerezo Osaka’s second goal.
After the play has been forced centrally to Kim by Kiyotake’s wide positioning, goal-scorer Tokura curves his run applying pressure while also creating a cover shadow that stops Kim from playing back to the right-hand side. Tanaka simultaneously applies pressure towards Kim’s left shoulder and forces the centre-back to shift his angle of possession centrally towards Tomita, who has been man-marked by Okuno. Okuno has smartly positioned himself both ball-side and goal-side of Tomita; any pass played into Tomita must be played to his backfoot with a closed body position to prevent an interception, while Okuno can keep his body in between Tomita and the goal to force play sideways or backward.
Once the pass is played into Tomita who is a tightly defended by Okuno, the remaining Osaka players close-off passes back to Kim or Hiraoka that could potentially relieve pressure and get Sendai out of the trap. Eventually, Okuno pokes the ball away from Tomita towards Kiyotake who feeds Tanaka into space. Tanaka smoothly finishes to Schmidt’s right-hand side and caps off a fluid three-versus-two situation for the visitors, wrapping up the three points in one swift movement.
Vegalta Sendai, who went into the match at the bottom of the J1 League table, was unable to keep the solidarity of their space-oriented zonal marking tactics throughout the game and had to rely primarily on set pieces and attacking transitions to create scoring opportunities. On the other hand, Lotina’s Cerezo Osaka showed more flexibility in their tactical approach and use of their exterior centre-backs to create width and positional superiority in wide areas. In the analysis of a J1 league duel between two systems employing a back-three, it’s clear that Cerezo Osaka came out on top both tactically and on the scoreboard.
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