FIFA World Cup 2022: How Costa Rica shocked Japan with a compact low block – tactical analysis
Japan began their journey to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a resounding and surprising victory against Germany, where the tactics of Hajime Moriyasu, their coach, were extremely good and adaptable to each match situation, which allowed them to emerge victorious against Hansi Flick’s team with a comeback after being down 1-0. Their speed, both defensive and offensive intensity, plus the elements that were entering the pitch from the bench, makes the Asian team one of the most fun in the tournament. However, Costa Rica only found one shot on goal throughout the match, which sealed the defeat for the Japanese, who will have to go all or nothing against Spain.
Luis Fernando Suárez’s Costa Rica showed a disappointing image in their first match after a totally painful defeat by a wide score against Spain, which shook them with an overwhelming 7-0. After such a terrible result, the CONCACAF team sought to adjust their lines and with a highly pragmatic adjustment, with very little ball possession and fast counterattacks, they beat Japan.
Beyond this idea, the execution was not the best of all, especially in the offensive part, but from one chance that they could generate, Keysher Fuller scored a brilliant goal that put Group E in an extremely uncomfortable situation for the four teams, with a last-round yet to play, with tough matches between Costa Rica and Germany, who only can win, and as mentioned before, Japan against Luis Enrique’s Spain.
In this tactical analysis, we dive into the tactics of both teams in the form of analysis and see how Luis Fernando Suarez’s and their pragmatic approach won their first game of the World Cup against a really dangerous and mobile Japan that were very dominant, but couldn’t conclude their last-touch in attack.
Costa Rica once again selected a back-three with two wide wing-backs, but in this case with two midfielders and two players as inverted wingers. PSG‘s Keylor Navas was in goal with Francisco Calvo, Óscar Duarte and Kendall Waston as centre-backs. Bryan Oviedo was the wing-back on the left and Keysher Fuller, the goal-scorer, on the right wing. The double pivot was made up of Celso Bogres and Yeltsin Tejeda, finishing the starting eleven with Joel Campbell, Gerson Torres and Anthony Contreras up front.
Japan chose their typical 4-2-3-1 formation with Shuichi Gonda in goal, a back-four made up of Yuto Nagatomo at left-back, Ko Itakura and Maya Yoshida as centre-backs and Miki Yamane at right-back. The double pivot was made up of Hidemasa Morita and Wataru Endo, who had mobile roles on the field, with the movements of Daichi Kamada, who played as a #10. The attack had Ayase Ueda in the centre, Ritsu Doan on the right and Yuki Soma as over the left.
Japan’s defensive dominance through several shapes and automatisms
Japan started the match from the first minute, with an intensity, mobility and speed that their players are used to, but also the team from what we have seen in these two tournament matches. Possession of the ball in the first moments until the finals were totally for the Asians who found themselves against a very compact low block from Costa Rica that had studied the speed and frenzy of Japan, seeking to close the spaces on the outside with their back-three, and centrally with a shape that turned into a 5-4-1 with many people through the middle. They tried to congest every single zone where the Japanese wouldn’t create combinations and one-two to then run behind the backs.
On the other hand, Moriyasu’s team was also intelligent and recognised from the first second of the match that this was going to be the context they had to face. A team extremely closed at the back, with blocks that went from mid to, normally, low. The movements were constant and various automatisms occurred that were tried and changed as the 90 minutes elapsed. This gave Japan a possession threat from the pace and agility, but things didn’t finish working out and neither the ball nor the players stepped on the rival penalty box.
Not only was Japan dominant on the ball, but also with their defensive style that varied wildly, and the team was fully committed to coordinating through these changes of form and block. Moriyasu’s men sought to start the match with a medium block, with zonal marking in 4-4-2 that the further back they could change to 4-5-1 with the entry of Kamada as a more defensive midfielder, or in a 5-3 -2 with Yuki Soma as left-wing-back and Yuto Nagatomo was in the middle as left-centre-back.
However, these shapes were only when they were forced back further and Costa Rica was looking to create with the ball, which was perhaps between four or five times during the match, where they had space and time, due to the high pressure from the Japanese in most of the match, and a counter-pressing after ball-losses that was suffocating for Luis Fernando Suárez’s players.
The picture that we are seeing above is how Japan sought to constantly press in the game. Their defensive shape changed from a 4-4-2 in the middle to a high 4-3-3 where the winger of each side fell back as a midfielder if the ball was played on the other flank of the pitch. For example, Doan in this case is running to the left-centre-back as the ball is going to be played on his side, he goes high. But on the other wing, Yuki Soma starts to track back to be more of a midfielder in the press.
In addition, the idea was to rush them from the outside so that the pressing trap could be executed on the wings, where the wide centre-backs had no other option but to hit the ball long or a very risky pass to the middle.
Another reason for this high-pressing was to cut off the entire game that could pass through the feet of Celso Borges or Yeltsin Tejeda, who are two good possession drivers in their team, who could not be found by their teammates to offer progression to their team. Or in how much they made these shipments, Japan’s rest defence was sublime to stop Joel Campbell or Gerson Torres in higher areas of the pitch. If the ball was played between the lines for the double pivot, it was sought to defend from two to four players, or all possible passing lanes were blocked. It was a highly coordinated pressure.
As we can see below, this example shows a lockdown of the Japanese players in their effective recovery method, with high counter-pressing that always brought more than two or three players closer to try to win the ball. In this case, the ball was played from one of the centre-backs to Borges, who executed the pass to Tejeda and from behind, Ritsu Doan tackled him and gained possession for his team in a very dangerous zone.
Faced with such an uncomfortable situation for Costa Rica, where every time they found the ball, they had to send long passes to Contreras or Campbell, the latter began to drop much more to try to get in contact with the ball and find himself free. One of the key automatisms in Japan’s tactics that completely nullified Costa Rica throughout the match was the man-marking of Miki Yamane, who was following and pressing tightly the former Arsenal player at any height.
The zonal 4-4-2 in the middle block was clear. Japan was not always going to be pressing so high on Costa Rica’s third, so they opted for a rigid shape that allowed them to block connections with very external wing-backs, or inverted wingers between the lines, much more their striker who was more positional. On the other hand, the block was very coordinated to move from side to side, covering the midfielder of that channel, so that the back-three and none of them could connect with the #6 so that they could turn the game around and offer progression to their team.
Daichi Kamada in this case, joined the double line with Ueda, the Cercle Brugge striker, while behind him were the two wingers a bit lower along with their double-pivot. This picture shows it perfectly. The ball is played to the left-centre-back, so the block goes there and creates a 2v1 against Yeltsin Tejeda, that sided-midfielder. So they are forcing them to play it side-to-side to cause no damage. As you can see, in a more organised form, Ritsu Doan took Campbell who was constantly joining the midfield line, sometimes wide, others centrally.
If Costa Rica at some point forced Japan to set up in low-block, they tried to do it as close to their area as possible, exchanging shapes between a 5-3-2 or a 4-5-1 where Yuki Soma came in as a left-back in a back-five or Kamada as a more defensive midfielder in left-half-space. However, they were close, closing spaces, passing options, suffocating players to not create new passing angles and being very functional to which side the ball was played into.
The only time Japan was passive in their search for the ball under high pressure was when they were punished by Costa Rica. They looked to stretch Japan and succeeded, finding the double-pivot of Borges-Tejeda quite free behind them, in poor defensive coordination on Japan’s part where their lines were far apart. After that, in a series of combinations from the outside and even errors in Japan’s clearance, a gap opened up for Fuller to finish off a great goal.
This is the sequence of the play prior to the goal. Very passive, and open pressing from Japan and the rival midfielders with too much space to receive and turn.
Costa Rica’s block, Japan’s lack of a final touch and Keysher Fuller’s hit
Costa Rica maintained a low block that was formed into a 5-4-1 throughout the game, with the line of defenders very close to that of the midfielders, which did not allow players like Kamada to float between them to offer dangerous receptions to his teammates. Japan faced a tough wall of Costa Rican players who coordinated extremely well and defended the intensity and speed of their rival.
Although Japan seemed threatening due to their movements, Costa Rica looked like, with every minute that passed, they had everything under control since Moriyasu’s men did not convert their possession into scoring opportunities, except for a few long-distance shots or on the edge of the box, which were saved by Keylor Navas who was very attentive and much better by far than in his previous match against Spain.
Costa Rica’s shape was simple, but very tough, blocking inside and outside lanes. A 5-4-1 with aggressive jumps by Anthony Contreras, pressing close to the centre-backs who wanted to move or increase their height. On the outside, Luis Fernando Suárez’s men sought to generate superiority in 2v1 with a 3v2, it is for this reason that they use the line of three, because one of the centre-backs, the wing-back and the defensive-winger came close to blocking spaces. The back-five is not a far option from their idea, however against Japan, it was more than the ideal selection.
This was because Japan is a team that usually looks to attempt these through passes between the centre-back-full-back range, where wingers can appear from outside to inside or their full-back could appear wide to send crosses. Costa Rica closed these spaces well, but in the first minutes, they had to correct certain distances between them, since the Japanese sought to activate inside, to penetrate and create cutbacks.
As we see in the picture, Ritsu Doan was free in these kinds of zones where they like to threaten opponents. Luckily for Costa Rica, the passes weren’t that accurate and minute by minute they were better at marking these situations.
Keysher Fuller, the man who scored the goal for Costa Rica, was extremely vital in defending these situations that Japan constantly replicated when they attacked. His timing to cut passes or to tackle players without fail was extremely good, and Moriyasu’s men still did not find spaces of this type, which they like a lot because of the 1v1 ability and speed of his wingers to dribble past players and enter the box from the outside.
The idea on the ball from Japan, however, was very curious and interesting. The Asians were looking to create in a 3-2-5 that sometimes became 3-1-6 or 3-3-4 with Kamada’s relegations. Hidemasa Morita’s role was much more risky and offensive starting from the double pivot. He left it to Endo, who commanded possessions as the only midfielder from behind, with the support of his teammates like Itakura, Yoshida or Nagatomo, the legendary left-back that joined the centre-back line, with great ball progression capabilities.
Finding no spaces behind, Kamada began to find them on the side of the Costa Rican block. The Japanese were important to provide balance in a risky idea in attack, as well as to drive possessions and enable teammates to get into space with their through-passing skills. The wide right channel was taken by Yamane who was largely open and attacking deep, with Doan more inverted, while Nagatomo released the entire left to Yuki Soma.
The image below shows us, for example, a 3-3-4 with Morita and Kamada approaching the base of the play.
However, we can see how Japan was also looking for pinning movements to the central defenders of Costa Rica in order to open spaces for players like Kamada, Doan or Ueda to appear free in the penalty area. When they were positioned in a 3-1-6, Nagatomo would sit wide and go further up the pitch, thus freeing Morita, who was the one who attacked the spaces behind the defensive line, generated by Kamada than with his off-the-ball movements who sought to contribute to his team.
In this analysis, we were able to observe how Japan, despite extremely offensive and nice-to-see ideas, could not contain Costa Rica’s only successful counterattack, which was even made through missteps that ended up on the wrong foot, releasing that lightning shot to the goalkeeper’s goal, which had not come into play during the entire match. Group E will have a fabulous closing, with surely excellent matches with different nuances but with only one thing clear, the tough search for the classification to the next round.