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|A-League Special: How a J-League 2 side matched Australia's strongest ever club Brisbane Roar in Asia|
SoccerAnchor's Kieran Francis analyses Brisbane Roar's disappointing performance against FC Tokyo, in their first fixture in this season's Asian Champions League midweek.
As the rain tumbled down at Suncorp Stadium on Tuesday night, Australian football fans watched eagerly as Brisbane Roar made their first foray into the Asian Champions League. After incredible domestic success, Brisbane were expected to flourish on the continental scene.
Their opponents FC Tokyo competed in the J-League 2 last season; the Japanese second division. The club's qualification for the ACL wasn't courtesy of league position but a win in the Emperors Cup; the Japanese FA Cup equivalent.
How could a team from the Japanese second division possibly compete with the reigning Australian champions?
Whether it was because of nerves, complacency or just not being good enough, Brisbane were comprehensively beaten 2-0 by a stylish FC Tokyo side, who played football that was reminiscent of the Roar during their unbeaten run.
Brisbane held off FC Tokyo until just before half-time when a wicked deflection off Roar's Eric Paartulu fell into the path of Yuhei Tokunaga and his cross was bundled home by Tatsuya Yazawa. Soon after half time, a clipped ball from Masato Morishige sprung the offside trap and Naotake Hanyu's shot was parried into the path of Ariajasuru Hasegawa,who gave the Japanese an unassailable lead.
It was evident early in the match that FC Tokyo's Serbian coach, Ranko Popovic, had done his homework on Brisbane's game-style. The first fifteen minutes consisted of his attacking quartet pressing hard on the Roar defence in a bid to win back possession. This is a tactic that A-League clubs have used this season to stem Roar's passing game from the back. The difference in the application by Popovic, is that he employed the tactic in bursts.
For fifteen minutes at the start of each half and the last ten minutes of both halves, FC Tokyo harassed Brisbane's defence when they were playing out of the back. Outside of those times, the Japanese side sat back and played on the counter. It wasn't a coincidence that they enjoyed periods of dominance and scored both goals in the periods they were pressing.
When A-League clubs have used the pressing tactic on Roar this season, they have fast run out of legs in the second half. It was ingenious by Popovic to use this tactic in the way he did because it's also the time that players are settling in or mentally switching off.
FC Tokyo employed their standard 4-2-3-1 formation. It is a dynamic formation that operates in a way that is much like Brisbane's set up.
In the same way that Roar's Shane Steffanuto and Ivan Franjic provide the only attacking width, FC Tokyo used their full backs, Kosuke Ota and Tokunaga to bomb down the flanks and be options out wide. Tokunaga provided the assist for the first goal and Ota was heavily involved down the left flank.
Instead of having one defensive midfielder protecting the back four, like Paartulu, FC Tokyo employed two; Hideto Takahashi and Ariajasuru Hasegawa. The duo protected the defence stoically and consistently denied Brisbane star Thomas Broich any time on the ball. Hasegawa even got himself forward to tap in the second goal after a quick counter-attack.
In front of the screening midfielders, Popovic deployed a dynamic attacking quartet that rotated positions with one being a striker and three sitting in behind. The number 11, Kazuma Watanabe was generally the lone striker but when he dropped deep to receive the ball, one of Naohiro Ishikawa, Hanyu or Yazawa which drop on to the shoulder of the last defender. This was emphasised by the first goal when Yazawa, who spent most of his time behind the striker, scored from close range.
This fluid formation complemented the first touch and passing skills of the Japanese club. The rotation of the four attackers in addition to the width created by the full backs, pushed Brisbane defensive line deep for long periods of the first half. This was reflected in the 54% - 46% possession advantage that FC Tokyo enjoyed. A statistic rarely achieved by Brisbane's A-League opponents.
The Roar lined up in their standard, rigid 4-1-4-1 formation. With two central defenders and deep defensive midfielder, Brisbane's formation allows the full backs, Franjic and Steffanuto, to penetrate down the flanks, much like we saw from FC Tokyo. The steadiness and transition from defence to attack is provided from Paartulu and Massimo Murdocca. The attacking half run primarily by Broich and the absent Mitch Nichols with A-League top goalscorer Besart Berisha positioning himself on the last defender. Extra width is provided by wide players such as Rocky Visconte and Henrique, who cut inside when the full backs overlap.
Almost none of this went to plan in the first 60 minutes because of the tactics designated by Popovic.
Franjic and Steffanuto were forced to sit deep in their own half because their defensive counterparts, Ota and Tokunaga, continually attacked down the wings. The few times Franjic got forward down the right were either ended by the covering defensive midfielders or he was forced to cross the ball under intense pressure.
The transition out of defence from Paartulu and Murdocca struggled to be fluid because of the Japanese' tight marking of Broich and ineffective performance of Visconte and Henrique. Lone striker Besart Berisha did not complete a pass or have a shot a goal in the entire first half. His only impact was a successful tackle late in the first half and his few touches of the ball resulted in him being forced off it. The Albanian striker got visibly frustrated because of this and was involved in a number of incidents off the ball.
After a poor first half with not one effort on goal, Brisbane's second half was much improved. The Roar supporters must hope that this improvement was because of a gain in confidence and change in approach. It just as easily could have been because FC Tokyo could sit back with a second-half lead.
Brisbane's familiar dominant passing game returned in the second-half with Broich the architect. Coach Ange Postecoglou used the German ace in a much deeper position which negated the isolation he suffered when on the ball in the first half.
Throughout the past 18 months in the A-League, Brisbane have been famous for passing the ball around with the opposition pinned in the own half. The first time this happened was 62 minutes into the game. This shows how much the Roar struggled to maintain possession before the second goal.
In the first half, Brisbane desperately needed a striker to hold the ball up for Broich and the wide midfielders. Unfortunately it seems that lone striker Berisha is only capable of poaching goals and this was shown by the zero passes he completed in the first half. When playing in Europe, Berisha scored 27 goals in 90 games which is far below his A-League record of 17 goals in 22 games. Against quality defenders in the ACL, Berisha may struggle to replicate his domestic form.
Postecoglou has been unwavering in stating that Brisbane will not change their rigid formation in any game. With the quality of teams and tactics in the ACL, this could become their downfall if not rectified.
It doesn't get much easier for the Roar with an away trip to Chinese side Beijing Guoan on March 20 followed by a fixture in South Korea against Ulsan Hyundai a fortnight later. How they respond on these two away trips will define their Asian Champions League campaign.
The early Group G leaders, FC Tokyo, will welcome Ulsan Hyundai to the Japanese capital in a match where both teams will be looking to get their second win of the campaign and take a significant step towards qualifying for the knock-out round.