When asked in a recent interview about the Socceroos’ detailed preparation, coach Ange Postecoglou said that, “The preparation is the same no matter who we play. We make sure we get eyes on our opponents in a live sense obviously and with video … Our scanning network is really good and our coaches make sure that our players have every bit of information they need.” On that note, it’s important that Australia’s curious football public is afforded an opportunity to understand our nation’s opponents in a similar level of detail ahead of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.
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.
General Shape and Lineup
A number of common themes permeated through Iraq’s approach in the two matches analysed. The first was a very clear back four, with the same players deployed in both games and Saad Abdulamir always screening ahead of them. Up front, the attack is spearheaded by Iraqi legend Younis Mahmoud who is consistently flanked by the small, tricky Ali Faisal and the powerful Ali Adnan, of Udinese in Italy’s Serie A.
There was only a very slight variation in the middle of the park, with then-coach Yahya Alwan, using two very advanced midfielders between Chinese Taipei’s compact defensive lines and then a staggered midfield against a more aggressive Thailand.
Iraq are direct with the ball, often skipping the middle third in favour of longer aerial passes straight to the front three and both fullbacks often join the attack. Without the ball they rarely press in the attacking third, preferring to apply pressure in the middle and back thirds allowing them to reorganize and set up their defensive structure.
Back third build up
Although neither of their opponents were set up to press in the front third, Iraq’s back third structure was clearly visible from goal kicks despite a lack of pressure. This means that Iraq are likely to use the same structure regardless of the positioning of their opponents, providing a number of strong reference points for the Socceroos. Central defenders drop to provide depth and spread to the width of the box; both fullbacks push up simultaneously; the two closest central midfielders take up positions at different heights to each other, usually meaning there is one deep midfielder and two more advanced.
Under no pressure, a member of the back four will carry the ball to the middle third to begin the attack. Importantly, the only left footed player in the back five (if you include Abdulamir) is the left back Durgham Ismael. The left central defender Shaker is uncomfortable on his left side and this often results in poor lofted passes into the middle third if he is forced onto his weaker foot. The pass to the edge of the middle third (highlighted below) is commonly seen under even the lightest amount of pressure from a forward or attacking midfielder and could be targeted as an area where the ball can be easily recovered.
Possession and Penetration through the middle third
If Iraq advanced to the edge of the middle third, there were a number of patterns repeatedly deployed throughout the two matches. Most of them involve Iraq’s central defenders, or holding midfielder, bypassing the middle third altogether and playing directly to the front third (normally in the air).
The first and most common method of penetration was an aerial ball aimed at the centre forward, Younis Mahmoud. The forward is strong in the air, and whenever this ball was played, Iraq’s wide attackers – Faisal and Adnan – as well as an attacking midfielder, often moved in closer to Mahmoud for the second ball or flick-on. This gathering of players around the ball often caused problems and is Iraq’s preferred attacking strategy.
The second commonly used strategy is similiarly direct, this time played to either winger. Importantly, this ball is not played toward the touchline, but is instead lofted towards the corners of the box – a narrower diagonal ball. The wingers are positioned off the shoulders of the opposition fullbacks, to take advantage of the usual lack of aerial strength of the opposing right and left backs, either heading the ball across the attacking line towards the centre forward or attempting to bring it down and attack their opponent one-on-one. Sometimes, this ball toward the narrow wingers was a cue for the near-side fullback to charge forward and overlap, becoming an additional outlet for the headed flick-on.
As previously mentioned, both central defenders and holding midfielder are naturally right-footed. This has implications for Iraq when entering the middle third, affecting the number of possible avenues for attack. Rehema, the right central defender, on his preferred side, has the option of switching diagonally to the far-side winger. However, Shaker prefers his right foot, even when playing from the left side. This means that he is limited to playing direct balls only to the near side if pressed. This detail can make Iraq’s attack highly predictable.
If Iraq chose not to play directly over the middle third, penetration came through a wide combination between the fullback and winger on the same side. The fullback passes into the feet of the winger, who moves out to the touchline, and the fullback then underlaps into the space created by the winger spreading wide.
Rarely, if they could not penetrate from a direct pass, Iraq recycled and circulated possession for a short amount of time before re-attempting one of the aforementioned patterns of play.
Attacking third penetration
Once Iraq arrived in the final third, they almost never tried to break the last line in central areas, unless trying to bring down and win a second ball. Usually, the ball would be played into wide areas where space for a cross or cutback was made.
If Iraq’s wingers managed to face their direct opponent in a one-on-one situation, they were not frightened to drive past and cut the ball back or cross into the target area in the box. These situations were aided by the involvement of Iraq’s fullbacks, Ismael and Jassim, who created additional crossing room by taking advantage of the space created by the wingers on their respective sides of the pitch. If the winger was positioned near the touchline and the opposition fullback followed them out, the Iraqi fullbacks underlapped into the space between the opposing central defender and fullback on the near side. Conversely, if Iraq’s wide player drove toward goal, and managed to bring the corresponding fullback inside with him, Iraq’s fullbacks would overlap around the winger into the newly created wide space.
Once adequate space is created, the ball is cut back or crossed toward the highlighted area between the edge of the 6-yard and 18-yard box, with at least three attackers making the effort to get into that area to attack the cross. Mahmoud and Adnan being the most dangerous of these in the air.
Lastly, Iraq’s goalkeeper Noor Sabri, often looked to launch the ball directly into the attacking third whenever he had it in his hands and the opponent was disorganized. His long and accurate kicks toward Younis Mahmoud and Ali Adnan, often created difficulty for defenders and opportunities to score if the ball was flicked behind the opponent’s defensive line.
Winning the ball: Transition to attack
Upon regaining possession, Iraq quickly targeted any wide areas left vacant either by driving directly into the space with the ball; launching a lung bursting overlapping run; or by the centre forward Mahmoud peeling away from his normally central position to receive the first pass outside the retreating defensive line.
Importantly, despite Iraq’s preference for using Mahmoud as an aerial target during controlled possession, in the heated milliseconds after they’ve regained the ball, the veteran prefers to make runs beyond the final line of defence. If the ball was won in central areas, and the defensive line had stepped forward, Iraq did not hesitate to attempt a direct ball behind the central defenders for Mahmoud to run onto.
Most of Iraq’s central free kicks were aimed in the air toward the box. Depending on how close the free kick was to the goal, they would line up either four or six attacking players on the edge of the box, who erratically challenged the aerial delivery. After the ball dropped, Iraq would press around the box to regain the ball and shoot. As seen in the clip above, there wasn’t any visible plan from central free kicks and sometimes these were shot wildly at the goal.
During wide free kicks and long throw-ins, the intention was to hit Mahmoud on the edge of the 6-yard box. Mahmoud’s run was normally flanked and protected by the two Iraqi central defenders, and he attempted to get in the free space between them to get a header on target. Delivery from wide areas was swung in toward the goal.
Contrasting the in-swinging deliveries from wide free kicks, all of Iraq’s corner kicks that were not taken short, were out-swinging away from the goalkeeper. The reason for this lies not as much in the first delivery into the box, or the varied set up of the attackers, but in the second phase once that type of delivery was cleared. Iraq had players stationed in the highlighted zone so that if the ball was cleared, and it usually was cleared to the near side, they were prepared to deliver a second cross toward Mahmoud from a more advantageous angle against a defensive line that had already begun to clear out, leaving space behind for Iraq to attack.
As seen in the final clips above, whenever it appeared that Iraq had a kick taker ready to swing the ball inwards toward goal (on their correct foot), this was instead a cue for a short corner which was about to take place. Instead of an in-swinging cross, the player would play short to a teammate who delivered an out-swinging ball toward the five players gathered zonally on the edge of the 6-yard box. The highlighted area above is still applied once the first delivery was cleared.
CLICK HERE to read WCQ – Defensive analysis of Socceroos’ opponent: Iraq