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The key factors behind Qatar’s Asian Cup success

By: Andy Cooper

Key takeaways

– Qatar benefited from sacrificing possession and defending deep.

– Defensively, they conceded chances worth 0.56 xG per 90, the lowest of any team.

– Going forward, across their seven games they overperformed on xG by 9.41 goals.


Following mixed friendly results in the lead-up to the competition, Qatar defied expectations by securing their first-ever AFC Asian Cup title earlier this month.

After failing to earn a single point at the last Asian Cup in 2015, Qatar’s route to the title included victories over 2007 winners Iraq, South Korea and the host nation UAE, before they convincingly beat Japan 3-1 in the final.

Under Félix Sánchez, Qatar fielded the third youngest squad in the competition, with an average age of 24.7. Several of the players who took part had previously played under the Spaniard at U20 and U23 level and their performances, coupled by their relative young age, suggests that they could spring a surprise or two at the Copa America later this year, as well as in their debut World Cup on home soil in just under four years’ time.

During the competition, Qatar adopted a different tactical approach to the Japanese team.  Using advanced metrics and the Opta sequence framework, we are going to highlight some of these key stylistic differences.

Remaining compact defensively

Qatar’s success was built on being solid – in seven matches they conceded only once.

Their approach without the ball was markedly different to the Japanese side. From the 24 teams who took part, Japan ranked second for winning possession in the middle third and fourth in the attacking third, suggesting they aggressively challenged high up the field.

Comparatively, Qatar ranked only 16th and 20th for winning possession in the same areas respectively, suggesting they were happy to let their opponents have possession until the defending third. Per 90, the Qatari team conceded 9.6 shots but these chances were only worth 0.56 xG, the lowest of any team in the competition. This demonstrates how Qatar were very effective at not allowing goalscoring opportunities in dangerous areas of the field.

In addition, 46.5% of all Qatar’s sequences started in their own defensive third, further highlighting how they looked to play deep and wait for the opposition to break down deep in their own half to win back possession.

In contrast, only 32.6% of Japan’s sequences started in the defensive third – only Saudi Arabia with 29.2% had a lower proportion. As well as reinforcing Japan’s tendency to press, it could also indicate that Japan were less aggressive in challenging near their own goal, so as to not give away any free-kicks around the box.

Retaining possession and building-up patiently

Despite there only being a small sample which can limit firm conclusions, it would appear that both Qatar and Japan placed a lot of emphasis on keeping possession once they had won the ball.

Japan had fairly long sequences of possession and ranked towards the top end of the scale for sequences above 9 passes, averaging 16.4 per 90, the fourth highest in the competition, whilst Qatar had 10.9. This suggests that Japan could exert a higher degree of control over their possessions, averaging overall 3.6 passes per sequence compared to Qatar’s 3.3. Both nations were in the competition’s top seven for the longest average sequence time and most passes per sequence.

Ruthless in front of goal

Another notable factor in Qatar’s success was their efficiency in shot taking, with 43.1% of their attempts being on-target.

The Qatari forward line was the most prolific in the tournament, scoring 19 goals and exceeding their xG by nearly 10. This overperformance is unlikely to be sustainable long-term – which is emphasised by the fact that the tournament’s leading scorer, Almoez Ali, scored 9 of Qatar’s goals from just 16 shots, at an xG of 3.08.

Competition ranking in brackets


Solid foundations and clinical finishing  

Qatar prevailed in the UAE by successfully executing a completely different strategy to those adopted by the more established AFC nations, including South Korea and Australia as well as Japan, by focusing on being solid defensively and sacrificing possession. They averaged just 48.5% possession during the tournament (dropping to 44.9% in the knockout stages), but used the ball effectively when they won it and were more clinical in the final third.

Whilst their overperformance on xG may not be able to be repeated, their success means that their upcoming opponents in June’s Copa America, Paraguay, Colombia and Argentina, will need to think about how they can devise strategies to penetrate the Qatari lines and disrupt their shape, to create a larger volume clear-cut opportunities in front of goal compared to what their seven Asian Cup opponents were able to do.