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The troubled Osakan club ran over the championship contenders with a 5-0 victory on Sunday; Japan chief editor Hideto Shimizu examines how they pulled off the result

Relegation-threatened Gamba Osaka traveled to third-place Urawa Reds last weekend, beating the hosts 5-0. Entering the game Urawa were tied for the second-fewest goals against at 24, while Gamba boasted the league's second-worst defense and only two away wins all season.

“It's fair to say that today was our worst game of the season. It’s difficult to understand how this happened," said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic afterwards. "I have to take responsibility—I wasn’t able to prepare the team well enough."

Petrovic might have been too shell-shocked to find a reason for why his side were demolished by a team in the relegation zone, but the defeat comes down to Gamba’s perfect tactical approach.

Reason 1: Gamba took advantage of the gaps left by Urawa’s attack

Playing at home and entering the game in excellent form, Urawa wanted to take on and match Gamba’s passing style. This ambition was part of their undoing.

Gamba set out to attack with a crowded midfield and supporting wingbacks. When Urawa have played teams with similar styles this season, Yosuke Kashiwagi and Marcio Richardes dropped into midfield to provide support to Keita Suzuki. However, in this match they were eager to take the game to Gamba and attack. Tsukasa Umesaki and Tadaaki Hirakawa both moved forward to join what was effectively a front five and press Gamba high up the field.

However, this aggressive strategy left space in the wide areas, which Gamba exploited time and time again. Even before they scored their first goal, Gamba clearly identified these gaps and were repeatedly passing the ball through them.

“We have to press better,” Petrovic reflected at halftime.

Already two goals down, Urawa had to chase the game in the second half. Mitsuru Nagata ventured forward from centre-back to press the Gamba midfield, who were controlling possession. But this left space at the back, which Gamba capitalised on in launching devastating counterattacks whenever Urawa were caught too far forward.

In the first half, Gamba exploited the space left by the cavalier pressing of Urawa’s wide players and scored twice. In the second half, they used the space left behind the midfield as Urawa chased a goal and scored three times. It was a perfect response to imperfect tactics.

Reason 2: Gamba's press was effective

While the hosts' overeager pressing facilitated their defeat, Gamba used a measured press to shut down the Reds attack.

Urawa's attack relies on building play from defence. Either center back Nagata or holding midfielder Yuki Abe brings the ball forward and plays it off to Suzuki, Kashiwagi, or Richardes. Meanwhile, Keisuke Tsuboi and Tomoaki Makino move forward to provide width as de facto wingbacks. Gamba was able to prevent Urawa from doing this by pressing the backline, particularly by using the energetic harrying of Leandro and Endo.

Urawa are at their best when the defensive triangle of Nagata, Abe, or Suzuki break up play and turn defence into attack. The best example of this in the match came in the 47th minute when Suzuki received a pass from Abe and moved forward, combining with Umezaki and Genki Haraguchi to create a chance. However, Endo’s tireless pressing repeatedly forced the back three to pass back to Kato who booted upfield. As a result, Urawa were never able to get into a passing rhythm and build from the back.

"They closed down spaces really well," Hirakawa said after the match. "Only at the moment when we got the ball were there open spaces to pass into. The moment we switched into attack, if our play slowed down even a little bit then all the space was closed down."

If Urawa were to have success against Gamba’s perfect setup in this match, they needed to make quicker decisions in attack and improve the accuracy of their passes. Or they could have been more defensive and not played into Gamba’s hands.

Urawa will face defending champions Kashiwa next. It will be the perfect opportunity for the Reds to restore some of their shattered pride. Meanwhile, Gamba have conceded just once in three games and can move closer to safety against Kashima Antlers.

Translation: Kenji McCulley