AFC 2015: China - Australia analysis

Unfortunately, China is now out of the Asian Cup 2015 after a 0-2 defeat against Australia. The host nation scored after a set piece and had the individual quality in ‘big-game-player’ Tim Cahill, who made the difference this night in Brisbane with two great goals.

The Chinese line-up showed us that Perrin and his staff had pointed out what I also analyzed in the Australian team; the host nation almost only score after crosses, so China needed two defensive strong full backs and wingers who also would defend. Therefore Mei Fang played the left full back while Ji Xiang was the left winger – a clearly defensive strategy to close down the Australian winger and full backs offensive options.

Also our players from Shanghai SIPG Cai Huikang was in the starting 11 as Perrin had chosen a 4-1-4-1 formation where Huikang was the main protection in front of the back 4 defense. Huikang is very disciplined and physical strong when he is in duels.

The game plan from head coach Alain Perrin was almost as I predicted and clearly inspired the South Koreans, who won 1-0 against Australia. A low defensive organization with a pressure starting around the middle of the pitch letting Wu Lei decide in which side the lead the Australians.

A tactical surprise was Wu Lei playing the central striker position as a ‘fake number 9’ as we know FC Barcelona with Lionel Messi or as we speak Liverpool FC with Raheem Sterling. The idea is to have a fast and moveable player, who will confuse the defenders whether to follow him around or not – and obviously due to his speed in depth as well.
Wu Lei played his best game so far in this tournament and had some very good individually actions in counter attacks which were the offensive plan for China. Win the ball low and play it fast and direct forward to the fast players Wu Lei and Sun Ke. Statistics from PROZONE also show that China played very direct with 42% of their passes going forward while Australia was down to 33 %.

Not good enough with the ball
I think Perrin had the right tactic for this game. China had those 2-3 occasions in the first half, where they almost created a big chance, while Australia didn’t have too many good situations. As I wrote in my preview; I don’t analyze Australia to be a strong possession side. I don’t see the creativity and flair as their strength, so it was the right plan to let the hosts have the ball a lot and wait for counter attacks.

After 15. minutes Australia had 72% possession, but they had zero shots on goal, so China was doing the right thing closing them down in a tight defensive organization. Playing against a better team than yourself – your only chance is to destroy their game plan and exploit their weak areas as well.
The main problem for China in this match was when they won the ball. In possession the passing and decision making was not good enough. In total Australia had a passing completed percentage of 86%, while China was down to 75% (PROZONE stats) - the lowest of all four China-games in the tournament. So clearly China was struggling with the ball, and one of the main issues was perhaps the lack of a target striker that could keep the ball.

An important factor playing the ball up is to have a striker keeping the ball under pressure waiting for the teammates to get into the right positions. In this game China had Sun Ke and Wu Lei, who are good deep runners, but not target / combination players, who can play with their back to the goal.
Maybe a physical stronger player like Gao Lin or Yu Hai could have kept the ball under pressure and then started the counter attack for Wu Lei or Sun Ke. This change could have helped the Chinese offense.

Half time, Perrin had to sub in Jiang Zhipeng due to the injury of Mei Fang and obviously gain more offensive strength in the left side. The statistics from PROZONE also show how China only had two crosses in the entire match from the left side, so the decision to use Mei Fang as the left full back was good for the defense, but not a perfect situation for the Chinese offense.

Individual quality & experience won it for Australia
In my first column for this Asian Cup; I wrote about Tim Cahill and nicknamed him ‘a big-game player’ which means that he always higher his level playing big tournaments and matches. And we saw it again this night in Brisbane. A fantastic bike cycle kick and then his best weapon – a header in the box. He has done this so many times in the Premier League even he is not a tall player, but his timing and power in the air are amazing. Cahill changed the game on his own.

Perrin and his staff will look back at the first goal and be disappointed. We knew Australia were strong at set pieces, so lack of concentration and the unlucky situation Zheng Zhi being on the ground gave Cahill the opportunity.

The first goal is also a classic ‘second ball’ opportunity. Often in football and at set pieces the first kick in is cleared, but when the ball come back into the box – the defense is often a bit unorganized and the chance occur. We had similar problems last season at Guangzhou R&F conceding goals after a ‘second ball’ from a corner kick – for example in our 3-4 home defeat against Guangzhou Evergrande, where two of their goals came after a ‘second ball’ after a set piece situation.

Players are normally focused on the first kick, and mentally they stop to defend when the ball is cleared and therefore we see a lot of goals after a ‘second ball’ in.
The goal changed the format of the match due to China had to go higher up which gave Australia more space, counter attacks and also a 2-0 lead after (no surprise here) a cross from the left side and a great header from Tim Cahill, who found space in between the two central defenders.

So the quality and experience of Tim Cahill was the main difference in the match. China lack an offensive player like Cahill, who has experience from the highest level (Premier League, Everton) often scoring the defying goals in the big matches. China over all lacked creating enough chances in this tournament and the main key to the success is the defensive structure combined with a top goal keeper performance by Wang Dalei plus a solid central midfield.

A team for the future
The overall analysis is that China can be proud of their performance in this tournament. Reaching the 1/4 in the Asian Cup for the first time in many years with a young and hungry team is a very good achievement.

We have seen a very good defensive organization being more aggressive in the pressure and duels than in a long time in China, so the defensive progression is massive and there is something to continue build on for the World Cup qualification.

Mentally the defeat against Australia was the first loss in 12 games, so also in terms of building a winning culture and mentality – China has a lot to bring along from the Asian Cup.
Offensively China still lack to find the flow and all of us working in Chinese football have to analyze and make a plan to create better offensive players scoring goals and be the difference at an international level, because this is exactly what is lacking right now in Chinese football.

Several players have also performed well individually. The central defense with Zhang Linpeng and Ren Hang looks to be the partnership for the future with Wang Dalei behind them as the number 1 in China.

I still consider Zhang Chengdong as the best right full back in the country, while Wu Xi and Zheng Zhi has been top performing at the central midfield. Let’s hope captain Zhi will continue his international career as he is very important for the Chinese team tactically and mentally.

The wingers look to be strong in Sun Ke and Wu Lei with good alternatives in Liu Binbin and Yu Hanchao, while the striker position and left full back position still are marked as questions. No players in these two positions have showed us he is the one to choose for the future.

Finally, we also have to applause Alain Perrin and his staff - Li Tie among others. They came without any expectations and won all three group stage matches. A well-founded tactical master plan by Perrin and something for China to continue working on hopefully towards a successful World Cup qualification for Russia 2018. I believe we saw the start of a bright future for Chinese football this January in Australia 2015.