From the universality of Total Football to the Petrosian-like stoutness of Jose Mourinho, it has always been said football has an evolutionary or permutable quality.
Rules have sometimes influenced dominant tactics, much like changes to offside laws creating the W-M formation, or the back-pass rule facilitating the implementation of targeted pressing and higher defensive lines.
More often than not, however, tactical shifts and trends are based on ideology.
And so when Qatar comfortably defeated Japan 3-1 on Friday to claim their first Asian Cup, they did so as the reactive team, and as such were perfect winners for the 2019 edition of this tournament. The Gulf nation’s triumph at the Asian Cup raises certain questions about the competition, but also by extension, football as a whole.
The matchup itself was intriguing for Japan, who in getting to the final had played in a manner that contrasted to the developed idea of Japanese football.
In the group stage, the Samurai Blue faced palpable difficulty as the active team — notably against Turkmenistan — before sealing 1-0 victories over Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
In their 3-0 win over Iran in the semifinal, the scoreline belied the random nature of how Japan gained the ascendancy in that match, despite Takumi Minamino’s excellent realisation to assist Yuya Osako.
It was notable that in the news conference before that semifinal, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu was asked if his side could be compared to Greece at Euro 2004.
How Japan would function as the active team in possession against Qatar, let alone how they would function if having to chase a result in the case of early concession, made for a fascinating aspect to Friday’s final in Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, in Akram Afif, Almoez Ali and Hassan Al-Haydos, Qatar came into the match with a sufficient level of explosiveness and precision to punish Japan in the transitional phase.
Primarily, however, Qatar’s style of play was built on an energetic and disciplined defensive block, shown most clearly in knockout-stage wins over South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Ali’s spectacular opener in the 12th minute, breaking Ali Daei’s tournament record for goals from 1996 in the process, created this exact scenario.
Japan were forced to chase the result and, in that phase of play, exposed their unhealthy reliance on Minamino.
Fundamentally, at this tournament, Japan were a team sorely lacking in one-on-one ability. As a team, they were ranked 11th in the tournament for dribbles per 90 minutes (23.78) and 13th for subsequent dribble success rate (66.1 percent).
Although Genki Haraguchi’s movement and distribution can be effective in a team such as this, there seemed to be an imbalance with Ritsu Doan on the other side of the pitch.
Gaku Shibasaki, Wataru Endo and Tsukasa Shiotani provided metronomic passing but sporadic forward movement and little in the gravitational effect of dribbling.
A player like Minamino was consequently needed to manipulate defensive space, retreating to intelligently take up deeper positions and create combination, to somewhat offset a lack of functionality in earlier phases of possession.
The 24-year-old was exceptional throughout, especially with this Japanese rigidity in context, evoking a similarity to Roberto Firmino’s impact on Liverpool’s possessional play.
This became more prevalent as the tournament went on, with the best moments in Japanese possession filtering through him, with his goal to give Japan a lifeline in the final, and a hand in all three goals in the semifinal.
The pattern that had reared its head over the course of the Asian Cup ultimately remained: The active team lost. However, like Australia, Iran, South Korea and the U.A.E before them, did Japan succumb to defensive impregnability or ineffective possession?
Qatar joined a growing list of recent tournament winners — Chile at Copa America in 2015 and 2016, Portugal at Euro 2016, and France in last year’s World Cup the most notable — that functioned almost solely as the reactive team.
Every tournament winner needs luck, and an element of randomness will always be there. Without question, though, the introduction of VAR has aided the incentive to absorb pressure, as highlighted in France’s and Qatar’s wins in their respective finals.
Players are always key in discussions such as these, because the individuals and how they fit within the collective dictate the optionality coaches have.
What remains certain, though, is that earlier phases of possession and the defensive domino effect they can potentially create are now critical for the active team against a defensive block. They require midfielders who not only penetrate space intelligently off the ball, but dribble and pass their way out of pressure.
In order to embrace the risk that entails, it takes talent and intelligence as well as aerobic and physical capacity, so is a player like Luka Modric — who perfectly fits this idea — an anomaly, or a precursor?
One can look at this two ways, though: Are heavier spells of possession in tournament football now an illogical aim? Or, aside from the current geopolitical and corporate effect on the game, is football at a state of critical mass on the pitch?
Essentially, with that evolutionary quality of the game in perspective, is this now the eternal norm or are we on the verge of the next great footballing innovation?
Either way, it will reflect the very human elements of what makes football such a beautiful game.