AFC 2015: China analysis & Australia preview

China analysis vs North Korea
As I wrote in my previous Asian Cup column; The head coach of China, Alain Perrin, choose a combination of resting some players like Wu Xi and Wu Lei, but still kept the shape and heart of the team with Wang Dalei, Zhang Linpeng and Zheng Zhi in the starting 11 against North Korea on Sunday.

With this line-up, Perrin showed that he wanted to win the game keeping the team confidence and momentum, but also still had some of his mind set on the game on Thursday against Australia.
Difficult elements to measure in football are confidence and momentum. Often when a team has won some games in a row; there will grow an un-spoken confidence in the players to do everything as agreed, trained and planned. This is where China is right now proven by the 44 second goal by Sun Ke. An optimistic run behind the central defenders - normally the ball would never make it there, but it did and 1-0 for China.

As a player you believe in even the small chances and read the game faster and more optimistic than if you are in a losing streak of games.
The movement of Gao Lin also created the space for Sun Ke, and when I analyzed the average team shape of China in the game against North Korea; it’s obvious that Gao Lin by nature like to move towards the left side – also due to him occasionally play left winger for Guangzhou Evergrande. This creates space for Sun Ke, who is a natural, classic winger, who likes to stay wide and attack on the outside from the right winger position.

In the rest of the half; China were in full control dominating possession and created chances as well. North Korea had several minutes where they didn’t touch the ball and again you could see the Chinese team grow in their decision making and attempted attacks. Especially one attack was brilliant with two heel passes and then a free Sun Ke, who should have played Gao Lin with a cutback and we would have had one of the best goals in the tournament so far.

Stats from PROZONE show that China had more than 700 passes in the game; most of them in the first half. This is FC Barcelona-standard and a long time since we have seen a Chinese national team able to control like this.

Perrin can also again be satisfied with his choice of left back as Jiang Zhipeng hit the cross for the 2-0 goal and was the Chinese player winning most balls of all (25 interceptions in total, PROZONE data).

Expected slow-down in the last 45 minutes
The second half was not great from a China perspective. But I knew it would go like this. It’s normal that the players start to concentrate more on not getting injured than forcing tempo in a game, where there basically is nothing to play for.

So a difficult task for Perrin and his coaching staff who obviously wanted to win and keep playing, but the players slowed down and North Korea got back into the game. The main concern was the lack of defensive work from the midfield and dangerous interceptions due to bad passing. North Korea created 7 shots inside the central area of box – the danger zone – (PROZONE data) and this is the only concerning point for China towards the next game.

Not the best half of the group stage, but three games and 9 points tells us that China had a fantastic start of the Asian Cup 2015.

Big test against Australia
On Thursday the biggest national game in almost 10 years will take place for China in the quarter final against the host nation Australia.
Obviously, the home side will be the favorites with a massive crowd behind them, but let’s have a look at the Aussie-side and see where China can ‘put in the knife’.

In general China faces a very good and optimistic team. Australia has the home advantage and had a good start in the tournament with two secure wins, before they lost on Saturday against South Korea.

As always the Australian team is physically strong and aggressive. Against South Korea we saw their high and direct pressure as soon as the ball was released from the Korean keeper. 3-4 Australian players sprinted into the high pressure, so China might want to play more direct and longer as it’s dangerous to pass too much to the side against a high pressure.

You need to play through the lines, so you “play away” the first 3-4 aggressive players. Find a free player in between the lines, and you only have to attack 6-7 players as the offensive Australian players are caught in the high pressure.

They key is to stay calm and find space behind the first pressure. In the situations where the Koreans managed to find this space - they created chances as the Australian back 4 defense had to stay up high as well to follow the high offensive pressure and the Australians have no real speed in the back 4. So a good chance to play a deep ball in behind them and let Wu Lei, Yu Hai or Sun Ke take a running duel, which they will win 9 out of 10 times.

Australia has also had a lot of possession in their games in a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation, but I don’t really consider them as a strong possession side. They almost feel obligated as the hosts to take control of the ball even it’s not the strength of the team. Against Korea, they had 61% of the possession, and my analysis is that China should try to copy parts of the Korean game plan.

1) Let Australia control the ball and let them attack with a lot of players – they are not a strong side in possession on the last 3rd and there will come several chances for counter attacks, where the Chinese offensive players have more speed than the Australian defenders

2) Close down the flanks for crosses. The Australians like to use crosses and attack with powerful players like Tim Cahill in the box, and this area is dangerous for China, so need the Chinese wingers to also defend and close down the opportunity for solid crosses just like the Korean offensive players were very disciplined and worked hard defensively

Looking at the data from PROZONE, we can also analyze statistically that Australia like to use crosses and attack on the flanks. There is as well a minor tendency that they attack more in the left than in the right.

Analyzing the 8 goals scored so far by Australia; there is also a clear pattern using the width of the pitch. They have great individual skills in several players like number 7 Matthew Leckie, 16 Burns or 10 Robbie Kruse, but also the full backs like 2 Ivan Franjic is offensive and has good crosses.

4 (50%) of their goals has come from set pieces, while the rest is created more or less after a cross or using the width in the pitch. Also the penalty against Kuwait was won after a cross from the right side, so Australia like to use the width attacking with the winger and a full back trying to get crosses.

Another interesting aspect of the Australian goals so far is looking at how the team got the goal. And my analysis show that more than 75% of the goals are coming from a counter attack situation or a set piece. So Australia barely has scored after a build-up phase in possession. This is another argument for China to allow Australia to have the ball a lot as the team rarely score after a possession phase. They score when the opponents have the ball punishing them on a counter attack or after a corner kick, penalty or even throw in. That’s the picture in the first 3 games of Australia.

Mental test the first 20 minutes
There is no doubt Australia will come out very aggressive from the beginning trying to stress China controlling the ball getting their fans excited and behind them. So as a coach, you have to divide the game into phases and in the first 0-20 minutes China have to play simple, direct and focus mostly on defending.

The pressure will be massive, but close down the flanks for crosses and invite them to play through the middle, where the Australians lack vision and creativity. Then the tempo will slow down and China can start counter attacking letting Australia have possession pushing players forward and then hit them on counter attacks, where China is strong with several fast offensive players.

China also has to be clever and remember what took them to the quarter finals. Be humble, accept the role and play the game in the best way to punish Australia. I think it would be too risky to try to control the game. China is still under development and needs to find the strength of the team, which still is in the organization, defensive structure and fast offensive players in counter attacks.

It will be difficult to pick the starting 11 for Alain Perrin, but he should consider whether this is a game for Jiang Zhipeng or he rather should focus on closing down the Australian crosses picking a central defender like Mei Fang as we saw in the first game against Saudi Arabia.

Also remember the German national team who won the World Cup 2014 in Brazil changed their full backs to a center back if they were playing teams where they needed more defensive strength and not using crosses in their attack.

It can be a good strategy to adapt the strength of the opposition and this might be the right choice for China to play a bit more defensive with the full backs putting an effort into defending instead of pushing forward on the flanks, so Perrin might pick defensive stronger players for this match as the full backs.

No matter what; very exciting 90 minutes is waiting for everyone following Chinese football and the team have a chance to win the game if they play it tactically smart, close down the obvious strength of Australia and punish them their weak areas.