Japan's fullbacks key Asian Cup win
Japan won the Asian Cup but had lived on the edge all tournament
Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni's switch to a 3-4-3 in the second half was key
The performances of Japan's fullbacks were critical for its win
Japan may have won a record fourth Asian Cup -- its fourth success in six tournaments -- but there was a sense throughout the competition that the Japanese were living on the edge. In every game apart from the 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia, they flirted with defeat. Against Australia in the final, Japan was for a longtime the poorer side, but it demonstrated the same resilience as it had in finding a late equalizer against Jordan, a late winner against Syria and two late goals against Qatar and then overcoming the concession of a late equalizer to beat South Korea in a shootout in the semifinal. This time, thanks to some good fortune and a brilliant display form its goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, Japan didn't concede and found a way back into the game a smart tactical switch from coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
It was the then-Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton after the 1994 World Cup who observed that fullbacks were the most tactically significant players on the pitch because they were the ones who had space in front of them and thus time. That flash of counterintuitive insight remains as true now as it was then, and the reason Australia had the better of the first hour of the game was precisely because its fullbacks were able to impose themselves.
In the first half of the semifinal against South Korea, both of Japan's fullbacks Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo, consistently overlapped. South Korea's switch to 4-3-3 negated that, but Australia seemed able to stifle the pair without needing to shift from its 4-4-2. With the wider midfielders, Brett Holman and Matt McKay, narrow, that essentially meant Australia's fullbacks, Luke Wilkshire and David Carney were driving back their opposite numbers.
Wilkshire in particular was a constant threat, his crosses exposing Kawashima's difficulties with the crossed ball. As Harry Kewell put a free-header over and then blasted wide form a Tim Cahill knockdown and then Wilkshire hit the bar with a mishit cross and Maya Yoshida cleared Cahill's follow-up off the line, it seemed only a matter of time before Australia scored. Holger Osieck's side wasn't especially fluent, but then throughout the tournament it has been pragmatic rather than pretty, its method being essentially to keep the midfield tight and look to the front two of Kewell and Cahill to hunt out goals.
Without Shinji Kagawa, who broke a bone in his foot in the semifinal, and with Keisuke Honda in skittish form and well-marshalled by Mile Jedinak, Japan seemed devoid of attacking verve, constantly trying to work all through middle, as though resigned to the fact that its center forward, Ryoichi Maeda, was never going to win headers against Sasa Ognenovski. Only once, when Honda slipped a pass through the eye of a needle for Yasuhito Endo did Japan threaten to break through, but the Gamba Osaka midfielder, seemingly oddly diffident, opted not to take the ball on himself, but attempted to lay it off for Maeda, who fired badly off-target. And with the midfield congested, Australia's domination in wide areas became all the more important.
Zaccheroni has historically always favored a 3-4-3 formation, and 11 minutes into the second half he switched to three at the back, taking off the ineffective Jungo Fujimoto, Kagawa's replacement, and adding another center back in Daiki Iwamasa. He picked up Cahill, and looked far more comfortable dealing with him in the air than Yasuyuki Konno had. Konno moved to the left of the three center backs, providing cover for Nagatomo, who was far more attacking from wingback than Uchida.
Three at the back has become an increasingly unfashionable formation thanks to the prevalence of single striker systems. With three center backs the basic plan is for two to mark the opposing center forwards and one to be the spare man; if there is only one forward to mark, one of those three then becomes redundant. Here, though, against an Australia committed to 4-4-2 it worked perfectly, giving Japan an attacking width they had previously lacked. That in turn pushed Australia's fullbacks back, which in turn exposed the creative poverty of Australia's compact midfield. Makoto Hasebe's role in securing that area for Japan should not be overlooked. Too often Australia lumped the ball mindlessly forward toward the Japan box; early on, with Konno struggling, that might have yielded chances, but the introduction of Iwamasa gave Japan strength additional cover.
From an attacking point of view, the change was almost immediate. An Uchida run created space for Makoto Hasebe on the right and his cross found Maeda, who couldn't quite get over the bounce. Then Nagatomo, at last overlapping on the left, slung in a cross that Okazaki met with a tumbling header, but guided just wide of the far post with Mark Schwarzer beaten. It wasn't that the game suddenly swung in Japan's favor -- Australia still offered a threat, and it took a fine save with the right boot of Kawashima to deny Kewell after Iwamasa had misjudged the bounce of a long clearance -- but the switch meant Japan at least offered a threat.
Japan had had much the tougher semifinal, an attritional two hours against South Korea as opposed to a 6-0 cakewalk against Uzbekistan, but it was Australia who seemed to tire, with Kewell withdrawn for Robbie Kruse and Cahill, his thigh heavily strapped, clearly struggling before being taken off with three minutes of extra-time remaining. The fullbacks also began to pay for their early exertions, and Wilkshire, having offered such an attacking threat, looked exhausted as Nagatomo flew past him after 109 minutes. He crossed and, with Australia's two center backs, Lucas Neill and Ognenovski missing and Carney going to mark space at the near post, Tadanari Lee was left unmarked to thrash a superb volley past Schwarzer.
It was his first goal in only his second appearance for Japan, a truly majestic strike, but he had so much space he could have taken the ball down had he wanted to, and still had time to measure his finish. He will take the glory, but this was a success rooted in the excellence of the two fullbacks, Nagatomo in particular.