CLICK HERE to read WCQ – Attacking analysis of Socceroos’ opponent: Iraq
Note: The two matches analysed are Iraq’s last two “full strength” qualifiers, hence, the omission of their final group game against Vietnam, in which they fielded a weakened side. Since these games took place, Iraq have reappointed 2015 Asian Cup coach Radhi Shenaishil and veterans Mahmoud (10), Rehema (15), Shaker (14) and Sabri (22) have retired from international duty, while right back Jassim (13) and winger Faisal (16) were not called up for next week’s match. Despite these changes their approach should change very little to what is seen below, as evidenced by trends in their recent friendly matches. However, it is still unclear exactly which players will be called upon to replace those departed, as new coach Shenaishil has experimented with his personnel in the friendlies against Uzbekistan, Qatar and North Korea.
Losing the ball: Transition to Defence
When the ball was coughed up in the attacking third, Iraq were disorganized and their attackers did not press the ball cohesively. Iraq preferred that the closest player move toward the ball and apply often meaningless pressure that did not allow them to recover the ball. However, if the opponent managed to secure possession on the verge of the middle third in these moments of transition, the players behind Iraq’s band of attackers specifically, Abdulamir (21), Ismael (3) and Jassim (13), stepped forward aggressively to deny space and time and attempt to win the ball back.
This, in turn, led to the most prevalent situation when Iraq gave the ball away. Their central defenders Rehema and Shaker were often left alone guarding the central corridor with expansive open spaces beside them out wide. Furthermore, the pair dealt with most of these moments by adopting exaggerated staggered positioning à la old stopper/sweeper systems. One central defender would step forward to mark the usually-lone attacker and the other would drop very deep, almost in a straight line behind the contest to cover the space behind. This positioning ensures that an even larger amount of space is found on the flanks in transition until the attack is delayed enough for Iraq’s fullbacks to recover.
Defending in the middle third: protecting the press
Iraq did not press or have a structure for defending in the attacking third. This was partly due to the approach of both their opponents who rarely built up play from the defensive third; usually going long and direct instead. Iraq normally retreated into the middle third of the pitch in a clear 4-1-4-1 defensive shape. Younis Mahmoud applied solitary pressure between the opposition’s central defenders and Saad Abdulamir patrolled the space between the midfield and defensive lines.
Iraq’s structure became tighter when the opponent entered the middle third with the ball. The primary task for the two advanced central midfielders was to press the ball carrier, while blocking the passing lanes to any opposition players who had managed to find space between them and their back four. If the player between the lines was found, Abdulamir closed them down as quickly as possible. Iraq’s wide players Adnan and Faisal became part of the midfield line of four. The far-side winger often tucked all the way into the centre circle if the opposite fullback had the ball.
When the initial press from Iraq’s midfield line was beaten, Abdulamir protected the press by stepping forward and applying pressure to any opposition midfielders who dropped deeper to pick up possession. This was also a cue for Iraq’s back four to step forward and tightly mark their nearest opponent (see image below).
The flow-on effect of this pressing cue is that both fullbacks are very prone to advancing extremely high, away from the defensive line, to apply pressure to their direct opponent in wide areas. This often left huge amounts of uncomfortable free space alongside Iraq’s central defensive partnership down both flanks.
Defensive structure in the back third
Continuing the trend from the middle third, Iraq’s fullbacks Jassim and Ismael were often tight on the opponent’s wide players. Their primary task is preventing crosses, although not directly man marking their opponent, they often tracked the wide player even when they moved inside. This presented a challenge for Iraq’s wingers who usually came back to help on the flanks, as well as an interesting opportunity for Iraq’s opposition with a healthy amount of space to exploit behind the advancing right and left backs.
Usually, if the ball was in a crossing position, Iraq’s nearest fullback would attempt to prevent the cross while the remaining members of the back four retreated into the box. Organised zonally, with relatively even distances between each other to cover as much dangerous space at the edge of the six yard box as possible, in anticipation of a cross being delivered. In this situation, the edge of the area was usually covered by Abdulamir and at least one other midfielder (whoever was closest).
If the ball was played backwards, Iraq’s defensive line advanced very quickly to the edge of the box and the closest central defender would step out of the line to press any central attackers. This often created space between Iraq’s defence and goalkeeper Sabri.
Defending set pieces
Iraq were prone to getting dragged toward the near post when defending wide free kicks. Of the six players usually defending inside the box, three covered space on the edge of the 6-yard box or around the penalty spot depending on the height of the free kick, while the other three marked dangerous attackers. This meant that if opposition attackers darted toward the front post, Iraq’s defenders were likely to follow them in anticipation of a near-post cross. Often, this allowed an attacker to sneak in at the back post and resulted in Thailand’s late second goal.
Finally, Iraq are set up to defend corner kicks in a completely zonal system. A shorter player stands on the front post, while the back post is always vacant. Four defenders are stationed at the edge of the 6-yard box, all within the width of the goal posts. Another player stands at the front of the 6-yard box, who is the first to charge out in the event of a short corner or if the ball is cleared back toward the original kick taker. Another two are positioned either side of the penalty spot, ahead of the line of four and one more at the top of the box.