During this period, the attention of many football fans being placed on the Tourmalet
stage of English football and the return of several European leagues after a long winter
break. But on the opposite side of the Earth, the first division of the Japanese league,
commonly known as the J1 League, saw the 2019 season capped off with a surprising
champion. Under the management of Australian manager Ange Postecoglou, Yokohama F
Marinos rose up the table and made the top spot theirs during the last three games of the
Before arriving at Japan, Postecoglou already had an impressive record in his home
country, helping Brisbane Roar secured a 36 unbeaten matches streak and the first Asian
Cup title for the national team. With admirable achievements to his name, he was
appointed to the managerial spot of Yokohama F.M. during the 2018 season. It was a
tough first season for the manager as his side finished twelfth, but they showed some
positive signs as they finished runner-up of the J1 League Cup.
But the introduction of a fascinating tactic helped Yokohama F.M. finished the 2019 season
with a six-point gap over FC Tokyo to lift the fourth J1 League title in the club’s history. In
this tactical analysis, we will provide an analysis of Postecoglou’s tactics in his second
season with Yokohama F Marinos. Meanwhile, using statistics and footage, we will point
out the main tactical points Postecoglou implemented in his tactics this season.
For the majority of the season, Postecoglou tended to line his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But on several occasions, typically depending on the opposition and the players that he had, it was possible for him to switch the formation from playing two central midfielders to one and created a 4-1-4-1. At the same time, an attacking variation of that formation in a 4-1-2-3 was also applied during 15% of the matches.
His 4-2-3-1 formation, though, has something special about it with the way that he chose the players’ roles. One of the most noticeable roles that played a crucial part in how Yokohama F.M. played during last season was the inverted wing-backs. Though the two players who occupied that role, left-back Theerathon Bunmathan and right-back Ken Matsubara, played on the side similar to their preferred foot, they still spent more time working inside the half-spaces while leaving the wide spaces for the wingers up front.
Thiago Martins and Shinnosuke Hatanaka were also used as two ball-playing defenders as they aimed to distribute the ball forward with their passing abilities. This allowed the team to control possession more often during the build-up process, which showed why they were able to hold an average of 63.28% of possession and registered 5.53 passes per possession.
As mentioned, Yokohama F.M. relied heavily on building their attacks from the back with the involvement of two centre-backs. Alongside them, one of the pivots would also drop deep, either in between Thiago Martins and Hatanaka or moved a bit towards the left side, and created a three-man build-up with them. This allowed the team to have an immediate passing triangle, which proved to be useful against teams who pressed high up the pitch.
By keeping the distance between each other close enough, they maintained a close support range which eliminated the need of making longer passes that had a low accuracy rate. Also, it helped them to link up with the remaining pivot, who would then become the focal point whenever they wanted to progress the ball forward.
At times, goalkeeper Park Il-gyu was also involved in the build-up as the team aimed to build from deep. In the role of a sweeper keeper, the Korean goalkeeper had the license to roam inside the box and received the ball more often. There, he had the option to play a direct ball towards the advanced options or keep things short by laying it to either a centre-back or a wing-back.
Another thing to note about their build-up strategy is they were happy to move the ball quite slowly and attempt to find pockets of space where they could send the ball. When playing against a low-block, the pivots would form a midfield line along with the wing-backs and attempted to get one of the opposition’s defensive lines out of their shape. They moved closer towards the ball carrier and, thus, creating a gap in between the lines for the attackers to move into.
In the shot below against Sanfreece Hiroshima, they did just that by inviting one of the lines to move forward and press the build-up. But instead, there was a pocket of space being formed and Thiago Martins was able to make a pass to Marcos Júnior, which started the team’s attack.
One thing that can be seen from Marcos Júnior’s involvement during the team’s build-up is that he tended to drop deep to receive the ball. I mean very deep from his position as he was willing to show up inside the team’s half when either one of the centre-backs held the ball. He would then create a passing triangle with them the same way that one of the pivots did. As he attempted to do so, his movement would drag along one of the opposition’s midfielders, which could create space between the players and allowed his teammates to move into.
In addition to Marcos Júnior’s positioning during the phase, it is worth noticing that one of the pivots was willing to position himself right behind the first pressure line. This asks a question of the opposition as he attracts the attention of both the forwards and the midfielders when he’s positioned between their defensive lines. It also allows his teammates in midfield to push higher while still retaining good passing connections with the pivot himself. Furthermore, it means when his defenders find him with a pass they’ve often broken one of the opponent’s defensive lines.
This strategy also came with a disadvantage, as they tended to be victimized quite easily by the high and aggressive pressing teams, as shown in Kashima Antlers’ first goal in their match against Postecoglou’s side. Just a few seconds into the match, the home side immediately launched a press towards Yokohama F.M.’s build-up that saw four attackers attempting to recover possession for their side.
This, however, followed up with them suffocating Theerathon and cutting down the possible passing lanes around him, forcing him to take a heavy touch and lose the ball. Serginho took the opportunity well with a curl into the far post, leaving Park with no chance to save the shot.
From this situation, it is clear to see how easily Yokohama F.M. players mismanaged pressure when they held the ball for too long inside their defensive half. This could result in them losing possession and allowing the opposition to create a dangerous counter-attack towards goal. In fact, there were some matches where they registered a high number of losses inside their defensive third. This includes their 2-0 victory against Vissel Kobe that saw 36% of their losses take place in the defensive third.
As they progressed the ball into the opposition’s half, the main principle that allowed the players to continue the team’s attack was intelligent movements to either create or take advantage of space. Amid the fact that they tended to circulate the ball quite slow, this helped the ball carrier to have a quick scan of the field and, therefore, pick out the teammate who was in a good position to pick up possession.
In the shot below, it can be seen that one of Yokohama F.M.’s players noticed the narrow pressing structure of FC Tokyo and immediately picked out a gap out wide. As he moved into that gap, he also received the through ball from the defender that allowed him to play up the pitch for Teruhito Nagakawa, which allowed the right-winger to continue his run up the wing.
Immediately, there is one thing that can be picked out from both the situation above and below from the same match. No matter if the opposition’s defensive line intended to stay narrow or not, striker Edigar Junio and both wingers would attempt to position themselves as high as possible with the intention of pinning the defensive line down.
As shown in the scenario below, which was taken from the same match, the attackers formed a line and positioned themselves just before Tokyo’s defensive line to keep themselves from being caught in the offside trap. Their positions, though, still allowed them to sit on the shoulder of defenders and turn up at the end of their teammates’ through balls.
Another intention of this strategy is, again, creating space between the opposition’s defensive lines. Along with their teammates’ movements, the attackers’ positioning would force the defenders to drag back and leave a gap between the lines. This allowed the likes of attacking midfielder Marcos Júnior or central midfielder Takuya Kida to enter the gap and became viable passing options in order to help the team progressed the ball up the pitch.
The positioning of both wingers had something fascinating about it. They were happy to be in an offside position as they attempted to drag the defensive line further back. This ties back to their tactic of bursting forward on-the-ball. In the first situation against FC Tokyo, it is possible to see Nagakawa and Endo’s positioning in behind their defensive line.
As mentioned earlier, Yokohama F.M.’s tactic had a heavy reliance on the involvement of the inverted wing-backs. In Theerathon and Matsubara, Postecoglou has two natural wing-backs to overlap up the pitch and join the attack while also tracking back to form the back-four defensive line. They tended to stay quite narrow either on or off-the-ball and positioned themselves in the half-spaces more often.
This allowed the wingers to stretch wide and occupy the wide spaces, which would stretch the opposition’s defensive line. With them being wing-oriented the majority of the time, their involvement in the attack played a crucial role in overloading both wings to give either the winger or wing-back a solid option to lay off the ball.
Also, they had the tendency of making many crosses into the box, which mainly came from the left-hand side of Theerathon and Endo. On average, the team registered 17.9 crosses per game, almost five more compared to their opponent’s average of 13.02. In terms of individuals, Theerathon registered 2.05 crosses per game and Endo had a higher average crossing rate, as compared to the Thailand international, with 3.93 crosses per game. This showed how heavily they attacked down the left-hand side but, at the same time, were still able to distribute the ball towards the right-wing.
Against low-blocks, the strategy of making early crosses into the box benefitted the side as they attempted to get the ball into the box. With both wingers still positioned on the shoulder of defenders, they could turn up at the end of crosses by beating their marker and entering the 6-yard box to make a close-range shot.
This tactic was only used when they found themselves on the back foot when playing against teams who deployed a low-block, which meant it was not implemented too often. Their preferred way of getting the ball into the box was still through the movements and positional interchanging of the wing-backs and wingers, which allowed them to bring the ball along with them to find the advanced options in the box.
Off-the-ball, Yokohama F.M. would form either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1 defensive shape in the middle of the pitch. They would play with a high block and aim to win the ball high up the field. Along with that, it is required that the defenders also pushed higher and looked to position themselves near the halfway line. This allowed the midfielders to join the strikers in the high press, helping them force clearances and long balls over the top of the Yokohama F.M. defenders.
In terms of width, they aimed to keep their shape quite wide in order to occupy both the central area and the wide space. It also helped them in cutting the possible passing lanes towards the middle third, which forced the opposition to circulate the ball inside their defensive third and send long balls that both Thiago Martins and Hatanaka could clear. With the two central defenders having a height of 6’, it was possible for them to register a high average number of clearances in 3.78 and 2.6. Furthermore, they both had over one interception per 90 minutes, a decent defensive number for two starting centre-backs.
But this also came with a major setback. In situations where the defenders were not able to track back and intercept those long balls, they tended to find a lack of players to cope with the opposition’s counter-attacks. That left them vulnerable to chances created towards Park’s goal. As they attempted to win the ball away from the ball carrier, there were players inside or near the box that were unmarked and they became a viable passing option that could lead to an unsuccessful press.
They countered against that attacking threat by deploying an offside trap along with a high defensive line. This required the defenders to understand each other while also being able to hold their positions, not allowing a striker to attack the space behind the defensive line. In the shot below, though, notice how one of the team’s defenders positioned himself below the remaining three, which allowed FC Tokyo attackers to pick up the long ball from their goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi.
Another setback that can also be seen from several matches this season is the team’s marking. From the shot below against Sanfreece, Yokohama F.M.’s pivot and wing-back were forced to move away from their positions to mark the two opposition’s players. But as they moved up the pitch, they left free space behind their backs then hesitated in tracking back to cover it. Since there was another unmarked player who was about to receive the ball and move it forward, they had no choice but to stick to Sanfreece’s players and hope that their teammates would cover the space up, which they did not.
When the opposition entered their half with the ball, it was possible to see the players attempting to create an overload in front of the ball carrier and pressed him. With numerical superiority, it was possible for them to execute the plan without the thought of being dominated by the opposition. Still, there was one thing that they did not have in mind during this type of situation. Their press was a bit conservative as the players did not show the aggressive attitude that was needed to recover possession and not commit too many fouls.
This allowed the ball carrier to have both space and time to scan the field and look for potential receivers, similar to the shot below. The Kashima player was able to send the ball towards the opposite side of the pitch and change the attacking direction of the team. As Yokohama F.M. only had one player in Nagakawa on the left-hand side compared to Kashima’s number of two, the home side was able to create a dangerous attack towards the away side’s goal.
While many did not expect Yokohama F Marinos to go all the way and claim the trophy (a mid-table finish was expected), the success the Nissan-owned club experienced this season produced many raised eyebrows along the way. Despite a few minor setbacks in the tactics, Postecoglou still managed to deploy a fascinating tactical model that relied on inverted wing-backs, high press and intelligent movements.
For many Aussie fans, Postecoglou’s winning season with Brisbane Roar back in 2011 saw the team play quality football. His journey in Japan also saw a similar result with Yokohama F Marinos, as his willingness to create a tactical system that was unique compared to the rest of the league helped his side to rise up the league table and secure the title at the end of the season. He might not be able to recreate that amazing 36 unbeaten matches with the Japanese side, but that domestic league achievement will surely bring joy to the fans for quite a while.