Australia’s task for qualifying for the World Cup was effectively about how they could perform against two different types of opponents.
Japan would dominate possession, meaning the Socceroos had to focus on their defensive structure. The other challenge concerned the other sides in the group, Oman, Iraq and Jordan, who have all sat back, soaked up pressure, pounced on the break and forced Australia to take the initiative, and be more positive with the ball. Two games as underdogs, and six games as favourites.
In broad terms, this qualification campaign has been disappointing. In the eyes of the general public, that’s because of Holger Oseick’s seeming bias towards senior players, and his stubborn refusal to regenerate the squad. Whether this is a valid criticism or not, it’s hard to argue that his selections have not been highly questionable, particularly in the midfield zone.
Oseick isn’t a particularly sophisticated manager. His gameplan has always been obvious, with a basic 4-4-2 formation and an almost ‘British’ like focus on direct play, getting the ball wide and crossing. The 4-4-2 formation gives the side a fairly solid defensive base – the two banks of four approach was successful enough in soaking up Japanese attacks, with the central midfield two protecting the back four and thus patrolling the zone in which the Japanese playmakers, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, like to operate.
But against Oman and Iraq, and tomorrow night, against Jordan, the roles of the central midfield duo have to change. Their job becomes less about defensive positioning, and more about tempo – where against a Jordan side likely to sit deep and play on the counter-attack, Australia must work the ball across the pitch quickly to pull their defence out of shape.
Andre Villas-Boas sums it up nicely. “You have to provoke them with the ball, which is something most teams can’t do,” says the Tottenham manager.
“I cannot understand it. It’s an essential factor in the game. At this time of ultra-low defensive block teams, you will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot.”
But the counter-problem is that Australia can’t afford to have too much attacking zest from midfield – they still need someone who can help break up Jordan attacks, and play a more defensively minded role. Oseick’s major problem has been finding this balance between attack and defence.
Against Iraq, he went too far down one end of the spectrum by pairing Carl Valeri and Mile Jedinak, as the two stayed in deep, conservative positions and lacked the passing ability to significantly concern the home side’s narrow defence. It was the same problem against Oman last month, as Kate Cohen identified for Leopold Method – James Holland and Jedinak are both holding midfield players for their clubs and rarely provided Australia with any sort of penetration from midfield.
Tim Cahill acknowledged as much the same earlier this week. ”The elements of this game [Jordan] are [about] what we can do,” he commented. “We have shown we can play at a high tempo. The last time we played against Oman [a lucky 2-2 draw in Sydney] it was a slow tempo in the first half. The energy wasn’t there.”
However, that game also showed how Australia can find that balance, when Marco Bresciano came on for James Holland in the fifty-third minute, before having to be replaced himself through injury twenty-four minutes later.
The difference in tempo before, during and after Bresciano’s unfortunately short cameo was significant – the veteran saw plenty of the ball from a deep midfield position and hit intelligent, positive passes both sideways and forward, challenging Oman’s defensive structure.
Without him, Australia again struggled to seize the initiative and resorted to frustratingly direct play. “We played a lot of long balls and I don’t know why that happened. There was not enough movement in midfield,” said Oseick, so he does recognise the problem – and went some way to rectifying it in last week’s qualifier against Japan.
Although the pairing of Mark Milligan and Bresciano was an enforced one given Jedinak’s ankle injury, it was the right one. Milligan scrapped from a deeper position than Bresciano, who worked hard to shut off passes between the lines, before shuttling forward to try and trigger attacks. His passing was inconsistent, but when he didn’t pass the ball out of touch, he was very positive, bringing Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse forward from the flanks.
Bresciano has since said he would like to have “more freedom to get forward” in the home games against Jordan and Iraq, which given the expected nature of the tactical battle, seems likely – so the next question is about that second position in midfield. Who plays there? It’s a choice between the impressive Milligan, and the fit-again Jedinak, of whom the argument seems to concern his recent good form (and subsequent promotion into the Premier League) with Crystal Palace.
On paper, Jedinak is the better player, but Milligan is the better suited. Not only was his partnership with Bresciano quietly imposing, the communication and understanding between the two vital to Australia’s battling draw, he is also technically stronger than Jedinak, and seems more likely to provide extra passing quality.
He was Ange Postecoglou’s – a high priest for passing midfielders – first signing at Melbourne Victory, signed especially for this quality, and was one of the best players in an exciting Victory system that required quick, forward passes from the central midfielders, and the ability to break up counter-attacks – an area in which Milligan was superb.
Australia Scout has also suggested previously that Jedinak’s better suited to physical, aerial battles rather than dealing with technical, creative players (and although it was a soft penalty, it’s worth remembering that it was Jedinak who committed the challenge in the last clash between these two sides).
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.
But as mentioned elsewhere in that article, Jedinak’s ability to switch the play with long, accurate diagonals has also been a feature of his play this season. Both Milligan and Jedinak have valid arguments to start in the centre of midfield – for Australia, it’s not so much who plays, but the attitude of the entire side, who must now change their caginess against Japan into a more proactive approach.