El Salvador secured a historic win, the first ever for their country in an 11-a-side FIFA tournament.
Young Socceroos coach Paul Okon kept with the same team that impressed in the 1-1 draw with Colombia, with Adam Taggart keeping his place upfront ahead of the top scorer in qualification, Corey Gameiro.
El Salvador coach Mauricio Alfaro made one change from the side that fell 3-0 to Turkey, with Maikon Orellana making way for Tomas Granitto.
Australia scored early through a brilliant Joshua Brillante strike, but rarely threatened thereafter despite dominating possession for long periods.
El Salvador man-mark
The main story of Australia’s 1-1 draw with Colombia was the exciting performance from the youngest player in the tournament, 16 year old Daniel De Silva. He thrived in a left-sided midfield role, drifting between the lines as the primary source of playmaking in Australia’s 4-3-3 formation. Colombia couldn’t cope, primarily because their pressing high up the pitch left Jackson Irvine free on the ball in deep positions, and the Celtic midfielder repeatedly picked out passes to De Silva.
Therefore, Alfaro made two crucial adjustments to the format of his side. Within a 4-2-3-1 formation, he asked his side to start the opening five minutes by pressing energetically high up the pitch, before gradually dropping deeper and deeper into two banks of four, with the centre forward, Jose Pena, dropping back alongside Diego Coca, to help make the side compact.
The number ten, both in position and number, Coca, dropped back and occupied Irvine whenever El Salvador did not have possession, and prevented him from enjoying the same sort of space that was so crucial in that Colombia game.
Further forward, Granitto man-marked De Silva in the final third, staying particularly close to him whenever the Perth Glory youngster drifted into his zone – which was often, as De Silva likes to work in that left-sided channel, which is where Granitto was situated. That they felt the need to place a designated player on him summed up his influence in the 1-1 draw with Colombia, and the understanding of the need to mark him closely was obvious in that midfield zone, with Granitto’s partner, Rene Gomez, making sure to occupy De Silva when he drifted towards his side. Importantly, the two midfielders didn’t even allow him to get touches on the ball, often darting in front of him to prevent him receiving passes to feet.
De Silva barely touched the ball, and when he did, received it with his back to goal. His lack of influence compared to the Colombia game was staggering, and clearly frustrated the youngster, who lashed out at an El Salvador player after conceding a cheap free-kick.
Australia’s free men?
However, the by-effect of man-marking is that it can allow other players to have increased time on the ball. In this scenario, Australia had three players enjoying a significant amount of freedom on the ball, relative to their teammates – Brillante and the two centre-backs.
With the latter, both Curtis Good and Connor Chapman are technically strong and try to play out from the back wherever possible, and they were often free of pressure here, with Pena dropping off sometimes ten metres into his own half. This, of course, invited the Australian centre-backs forward, and both were often positioned somewhere on the halfway line, illustrating El Salvador’s conservativeness off the ball.
However, Good was sloppy with his passing, and turned possession over cheaply, while Chapman was bold and strode forward into midfield frequently, but his end product was often poor. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Chapman was Australia’s most dangerous attacking player, considering the amount of times he carried the ball forward (and he even managed to get on the end of a set-piece midway through the first half). It would be unfair to expect a significant amount of ‘creativity’ from the centre-backs, but given the circumstances, their passing shouldn’t have been as careless as it was.
Meanwhile, Australia’s other ‘free’ player was frequently Brillante, simply because in El Salvador’s midfield triangle, the tip, Coca occupied Irvine, while the two ‘base’ midfielders wanted to protect the back four and minimise the space for De Silva, and so were uncomfortable moving off their line to press Brillante.
Therefore, he had the most time and space of any Australian midfielder, although the goal was an exaggerated example of this freedom. It was significant, however, that moments earlier he’d been able to hit a long, accurate diagonal to the feet of Connor Pain, something neither Irvine nor De Silva did throughout the game.
El Salvador counter-attack
Therefore, as they sat back and invited Australia forward, space opened up in behind for El Salvador to counter-attack. They were particularly keen to break down the flanks – the wide players, Kevin Barahona and Jairo Henriquez, tracked back diligently to protect their full-backs, before darting forward quickly when the ball was turned over. Often, they would then drop back towards the play, inviting the full-back to overlap, and it was actually Miguel Ochoa and Kevin Mendoza who were the most dangerous players in an attacking sense.
It was Henriquez who whipped in the ball for the equaliser, and although it was particularly poor defending, El Salvador had already threatened earlier with a Mendoza low cross down that right hand side. Later, they took the lead through another cross, this time from the left-back, Ochoa.
Crossing seems to have gone a bit out of fashion, but Australia didn’t seem to be able to deal it at all, with Pena causing Good particular trouble with his physicality. There’s something to be said for playing to your strengths: with full-backs willing to get forward, and a physical no.9, it made sense for El Salvador to focus on wing play.
As if to underline this point, their best attack in the second half was yet another cross, with Paul Izzo called into a fine save.
Australia chase game
Having gone behind, Australia really had to push forward, and the ability of the centre-backs to move into midfield on the ball became especially prominent. Again, like against Colombia, Australia looked more of a 4-2-3-1 in the second half, but this didn’t really help De Silva receive any more service, so Taggart sometimes pulled deep away from the defenders to help link up play in a number ten position.
However, Australia’s best source of attacking inspiration was when they could work the ball out to Pain for one-on-one battles with the right-back. Although he created two good crossing opportunities with his willingness to dribble past Mendoza, he was often nullified by the discipline of Henriquez – with Sam Galloway rarely getting forward from full-back, he was often isolated 2-on-1, and easily overpowered. It was a similar situation on the right for Andrew Hoole, who was eventually withdrawn for Ryan Williams.
There were no particularly interesting changes from either coach, with all six broadly like-for-like changes, aside from Okon’s last-ditch substitution – the introduction of Gameiro for Irvine, with Jamie MacLaren dropping deeper, to give Australia additional striking threat in the final few moments.
MacLaren himself had replaced De Silva, and wasn’t marked as closely – however at this stage Australia had become frustrated as El Salvador dropped deeper and deeper, and their inability to create chances owed more to their sloppiness rather than El Salvador’s marking.
After starting so well against Colombia, this was a hugely disappointing turn of events for the Young Socceroos, who for all their dominance of possession created very few clear-cut chances. The risk of relying on a single playmaker, and two dedicated ‘wide’ players became obvious. There was little fluidity in the final third and their attacking plays were alarmingly predictable, as were Paul Okon’s changes – there was little inspiration from the bench, and El Salvador defended quite comfortably.
This was a triumph for the entire country, but also a tactical triumph for Alfaro – he identified Australia’s strength, and nullified it superbly.