Analysing the Olympics’ attacking success stories

  • FIFA’s Technical Study Group shares its attacking analysis

  • Brazil, Mexico and Spain highlighted in men’s game

  • Netherlands and Sweden in focus in the women’s tournament

As the matches at Tokyo 2020 come thick and fast, it can be easy to miss key tactical trends and innovation taking place on the pitch. With the help of the FIFA Technical Study Group, who have experts of the game placed at each venue, brings you some key findings from the first two matchdays of the Men’s and Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments. There were plenty of goals, but how did some of the most successful attacking teams pull them off? Let the experts break it down.

Men’s Olympic Football Tournament

Mexico’s transition and penetration Mexico’s transitioning – offensively and defensively – was key to their success in their first-round win against France. Whenever they won the ball, they searched for a forward vertical pass. They were also successful in creating chances inside five to ten seconds after they had won the ball back, attacking France while they were still in a recovery state and trying to organise. This was a clear principle of Mexico’s play. France mostly defended in a mid-block that was compact in the centre, but left space on the wing. Mexico exploited this in their 4-3-3 system by the full-backs constantly joining the wingers in attack to create isolated two-on-one situations. In these areas, Mexico‘s wingers penetrated aggressively - especially right winger Diego Lainez, who always tried to pin and take on his opponent. Mexico scored two goals this way. Another contributing factor was the supporting players timing their movements perfectly to create overloads inside the box to attack and get on the end of crosses and cutbacks.

Brazil’s verticality and directness Brazil’s 4-2 win against Germany was dominated by a great attacking display, using a 4-2-3-1 formation. Impressively, Antony, Richarlison and Matheus Cunha constantly switched positions and were therefore hard to contain for the German back four. A key element for Brazil was their direct and determined vertical approach once they overcame the first pressing line of Germany or started a quick counter-attack. They used few touches, employed quick passing and were constantly looking for a through ball. This approach was made possible by the constant running in behind the defence from Brazil’s attacking players. Whoever passed the ball immediately started a deep run afterwards. The constant rotation up front created gaps in the German defence, enabling the South Americans to aggressively attack those spaces with their runs and passes. The immense speed of their attacking players, combined with their creativity and vision in possession, made it incredibly hard for Germany to defend whenever Brazil entered the final third, as they had so many options to enter the box.

Spain’s line-breaking positional play Spain operated in a classic 4-3-3 formation and had to face teams defending in a compact mid-to-low block in both games so far. Despite Australia’s defensive setup, they still managed to create several good chances, doing this by utilising great positional play in possession. Two of their central midfielders constantly found the pockets of space between Australia’s two central midfielders and their back four. Consequently, five players up front occupied every vertical lane across the pitch to stretch and disrupt the defence. In this setup, they constantly looked to break Australia’s lines and progress through the centre. Striker Mikel Oyarzabal often played as a ‘false nine’ in this scenario, dropping deep to receive and turn in front of Australia’s centre-backs. As soon as he received the ball in this situation, Spain immediately attacked the channels with several players, including the central midfielders as well as the full-backs.

Women’s Olympic Football Tournament

Sweden’s right wing overload The Swedish women’s national team collectively impressed in their 3-0 first round win against FIFA Women’s World Cup holders USA. One key to success for the Swedes was their high focus on wing play and general wide positioning. In their 4-3-3 formation, the wingers and the full-backs constantly doubled up to create overloads on the wings. By stretching their opponents (defending in a 4-3-3) with their wide positioning and by constantly switching play, they managed to permanently isolate the American full-backs. The duo on the right especially utilised this; full-back Hanna Glas, winger Sofia Jakobsson, and on some occassions, even striker Stina Blackstenius, harmonised perfectly. They overloaded the right channel, and while Jakobsson pinned the opposition left-back, Glas frequently overlapped her to exploit the space behind the USA’s left-back, Crystal Dunn - a tactical routine that led to their third goal in the game. Jakobsson also caused problems by constantly attacking the USA defensive line, making movements from out to in and looking to receive in behind. This often caused the USA line to drop and left space in front.

The Netherlands’ modern target woman With 13 goals, the Netherlands have the best attacking record in the tournament so far. Six goals alone were scored by centre-forward Vivianne Miedema. She likes to play as a classic target woman and use her size and good ball control to link-up with the midfield with her back to the opponent. But her pace also allows her to make runs behind the defence. Miedema is a flexible finisher too; the natural right-footer has so far scored three with her left, two with her right and one header. This opens up a lot of attacking options for the Netherlands in their 4-3-3 formation. If the opposition drop deep into a low block, the Dutch wingers and full-backs try to play diagonal passes to Miedema’s feet around the box for her to shield the ball, turn and shoot, or lay it off to a team-mate. They can also cross the ball from the left and right inside channels to make use of Miedema’s height. If the opposition defend higher up the pitch and stays close to Miedema to pressure her, the central midfielders, especially Danielle van de Donk, play lofted balls over the defence to the wingers or to Miedema herself.

Netherlands-Brazil TSG graphic

Enjoyed this analysis? Keep an eye on for more tournament insights from the TSG as Tokyo 2020 unfolds.