The last two World Cup qualifiers for Socceroos have raised not only the perennial questions over the squad’s age, the ability of the coach and the long-term future for the team, but also raised a more subtle tactical question.
Against Japan, the Japanese goal stemmed from the high pressure they placed on the Socceroos midfield, then against Jordan they conceded a second when Jordan sat deep, then broke quickly. These two set of tactics are roughly the two approaches to modern football: pushing high and denying the opposition space, or sitting deep and concentrating on structure. The last four European Cups have dovetailed between the two, Barcelona won in 2009 and 2011 with their characteristic high pressure approach, but they were eliminated in 2010 and 2012 by Chelsea and Inter, who both went on to win through conservative and cagey systems. And therein lay the puzzle of the national side: they play in neither of these styles, and are not good at defending in these styles. What are the Socceroos good at?
At present, Holger Osieck’s preferred formation and selection is a fairly basic 4-4-2, with two central midfielders and defenders, two wingers, two fullbacks and two strikers. The formation is rudimentary and perhaps outdated as a result of its clear weakness in central midfield, but it also has a crucial strength in the natural partnerships it forms. Football is, more than ever, based around familiarity and cohesion when it comes to passing moves, and it is become painstakingly clear how this is impacting upon international competition. Unfortunately, injury issues and inconsistent selection have prevented the side from forming these partnerships. Part of their success in the 2011 Asian Cup competition can be attributed to the consistent selection: Valeri and Jedinak were able to form a strong unit in midfield, Cahill and Kewell showed they could play together despite apparent similarities, while Matt McKay struck up a strong relationship with David Carney and accounted somewhat for the left back’s lack of positional sense.
The issues can be linked to the lack of a world-class figure to build the side around. Granted, Australia has not ever produced a player of truly elite calibre, but the squad feels particularly bare without the presence of a player currently competing in a top-tier side. The closest to matching those criteria is Mark Schwarzer, and a goalkeeper is hardly the player a manager would choose to build his system around. This situation has generally always been the case, but in the current climate, it remains even more paramount for the manager to emphasise the importance of playing as a team. There seems to be little sign of that from Osieck.
The Socceroos are now largely characterized by the lack of a clear identity: there is no discernible style of play and there are no set patterns of play. To be fair, the limitations of international management means Osieck has little time to implement his philosophy, but there is little evidence to suggest any tangible progress is being made despite the German’s tenure having recently passed two years. Early crosses and long, direct passes bypassing midfield are the main route of attack, and while there’s nothing overtly wrong with a direct style of play, it is clear that Socceroos fans want more.
Understandably, the majority want a more aesthetic style of play, with greater ball retention. While this may be a viable tactic against Asian minnows, and Osieck should probably be doing more to encourage that, it has to be understood that this is not a viable strategy against stronger nations in the World Cup. Underdogs that have proven to be successful in tournament football are generally defensive and play on the counter attack. That’s the approach Pim Verbeek adopted in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and he found an effective balance between defensive organisation and attacking intent with a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, his bizarre decision to abandon this template against Germany in favour of an open and high pressure strategy will forever taint his legacy in Australia, when it should not be forgotten the relative ease of which the Socceroos qualified for South Africa.
But by failing to identify what style of football the Socceroos want to play and would want to play against, Osieck has placed the Socceroos in a situation where a proactive approach is required, because anything but a win against Iraq will be perilous for their chances of qualification. This squad is perfectly capable of long spells of ball possession and aggressive play against a weaker side like Iraq, but it’s a matter of facilitating the right environment to allow this to happen. Starting broadly, if Osieck wants his side to control the ball and the tempo, he needs to abandon the 4-4-2. With that formation affording just two central midfielders, it allows Iraq to compete in that zone and makes a pressing game far easier. If Osieck were to add an extra man into that midfield area, it would create greater angles for ball circulation and therefore easier to move the ball up the park.
Secondly, hand in hand with proactivity comes possession, and Osieck needs to organise his side so that they each have specific functions in regards to when the other team has the ball. John Aloisi provided a superb demonstration of how to press effectively within a rigid structure in the Melbourne derby, and Osieck instructing his forwards to pick up the Iraqi centre backs would be a simple, but effective way of making it more difficult for the opposition to play out from the back.
Specifically, if Osieck wants early crosses, Luke Wilkshire needs to be restored to his usual right back position. He is a superb attacking full-back but not a great winger: he is at his best when able to move up the field and find room to cross in the space ahead of the opposition defender; he lacks the ability to receive the ball with his back to goal, or to beat a defender in a one on one situation.
Additionally, Osieck needs to maximise the ability of one of his strongest assets, Aston Villa’s Brett Holman. Holman is a very intelligent player, constantly aware of those around him and how best to find space between the lines. In a left wing position, his view of the pitch is restricted, and with freedom to float in the centre he is able to drift out to the flank and create overloads. Creating these overloads down the flanks in positions near the byline is a crucial element to attacking play in modern football (with the latest UEFA Technical Report revealing 12.6% of the goals in last season’s Champions League being scored from cutbacks) and also plays to the strengths of likely starter Tim Cahill, whose strongest attribute is an ability to time late runs into the box.
These are, of course, general suggestions, but it is clear that something needs to change.