Despite being a regular Socceroo since the 2011 Asian Cup, Mile Jedinak has slipped somewhat under the radar, but he is now firmly in the public spotlight after captaining Crystal Palace to a Championship Play-off win over Watford, which takes his side back into the Premier League after an eight year absence.
Jedinak’s ascension into the top flight of English football caps off a remarkable turnaround from his early struggles during the A-League’s inaugural season. Originally unwanted by the Central Coast Mariners, he is now lauded by the Crystal Palace supporters, with many voting him as the clubs Player of the Year – and in fact, he was awarded that prize in the clubs recent award ceremony. Such is his popularity, the club recently used him as the face of a giant billboard advertising campaign.
His manager Ian Holloway is similarly superlative about his midfielder. “If a bomb dropped right next to him he wouldn’t panic. He could see it was ticking, he’d make sure he got everyone else out – he would lead the situation and get it sorted. End of story.”
“He gives immense strength to everyone else. The bloke is completely and utterly immense mentally. His strength is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen or worked with – it’s top, top drawer. Our lads are looking at him saying ‘thank god he’s playing for us.”
It sums up just how influential Jedinak has been for Crystal Palace this season in a deep midfield role of a 4-2-3-1 formation alongside Kagisho Dikgacoi. Jedinak is nominally the more defensive of the two, but these roles are interchangeable, and he shares a good understanding with the South African midfielder.
A defensive midfield role is traditionally about energy and physicality, befitting of Jedinak’s large, muscular frame. He looms remarkably tall over his teammates, and is physically very strong, with a well-timed tackle and an excellent reading of the game. As well as protecting the back four, he also covers for his defenders expertly, sliding into vacant positions if the ball is turned over. That kind of tactical understanding is an under-appreciated but valuable attribute in a side that is often vulnerable to quick counter-attacks.
He also possesses a decent long-range shot, but his best sights of goal come from set pieces, where his sheer height makes him a dangerous attacker. Defensively, he’s entrusted with the key responsibilities, as illustrated by his designated man-marking duties on Watford’s most physical threat at corners, Mark Beeney. His aerial ability was particularly handy when Watford were chasing the game in the second half of extra time – Gianfranco Zola’s side resorted to desperate lofted passes into Palace’s penalty box, and so Jedinak took up very deep positions inside his own area, looking to clear the danger.
Mobility is perhaps the greatest weakness, and he is often slow to react when forced to turn and chase the play, which might explain why he sometimes struggles defending against the more technical Asian footballers compared to the more robust, physical Championship attacks. (That is, of course, a generalisation, but a valid one). His yellow card in the Championship Play-Off against Watford came when Matěj Vydra slipped into a pocket of space in behind Jedinak, and the midfielder was drawn into a cheap, cynical challenge.
Intriguingly, one of Jedinak’s maligned weaknesses is his passing – you’ll often hear complaints that he’s not creative enough for a deep midfield role, especially at the national level where the Socceroos often come up against deep, compact defences.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem at Palace: partly because games are simply more open at that level, and partly because Jedinak has a very good understanding with his teammates. During long spells of possession, he drops deeper than Dikgacoi, and helps spread the play from flank to flank – and can switch the play quickly with clever cross-filed balls.
Interestingly, Jedinak’s passing has been used as a specific tactical measure in some Palace games this season. For example, against Ipswich in November 2012, he was switched from his usual left-of-centre position to the right-of-centre, so that he could use his right foot hit long, accurate diagonals into the path of the left-winger, Yannick Bolasie, who dribbled directly into the space left vacated by the forward runs of Ipswich’s right full-back, Carlos Edwards.
His role in the Crystal Palace side seems seemingly untouchable, but at national level, his role remains frustratingly unclear. There’s no debate about where he should play, but more about whether he suits the gameplan necessary for World Cup qualifiers. Holger Oseick has preferred an industrious midfield pairing of Jedinak and Carl Valeri, but he has become more experimental in recent fixtures by using the more technical James Holland deep in midfield, alongside Jedinak.
The major issue with the Jedinak-Valeri partnership is that it tends to conservativeness – Valeri is similar to Jedinak, providing more physicality than creativity, and tends to hit shorter, safer sideways passes.
With Australia having enormous difficulty breaking down deep defences, Oseick might be tempted to use two deep-lying playmakers – but the by-effect of that is that he runs the risk of being exposed at counter-attacks. Although, as mentioned, Jedinak’s passing ability has improved, it’s questionable whether this has ever been evident at international level, especially when you consider the speed and accuracy of Mark Bresciano’s passing in a deep midfield role.
Australia’s next two qualifiers are both against Japan – a side full of clever, technical playmakers. Oseick will probably revert to the physical combination of Jedinak and Valeri, in an attempt to nullify Japan’s influence in between the lines – but his selection for the game against Iraq, where Australia were certainly have to take the initiative, will be intriguing.
Having enjoyed such great success at club level, Jedinak will now look to take his Crystal Palace form to an international stage.