Tim Cahill’s headed goal from a corner made a 1-0 win over Costa Rica a ‘typical Socceroos’ result, but there were wider, more significant changes to the side’s overall style of play.
The selection of Mark Bresciano, Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan together in midfield was significant, as Postecoglou’s predecessor generally preferred to select just a pair from the aforementioned trio in his favoured 4-4-2 shape. Here, though, they were fielded in the centre of the park in a shape that was not quite 4-2-3-1, but not totally 4-3-3 either – something in between, like a 4-2-1-3, is probably an apt description. Bresciano was the ‘link’ player, nominally in the hole behind central striker Mathew Leckie but drifting up and down the pitch to find space.
Initially, the wingers, Dario Vidosic and Robbie Kruse, moved high up the pitch when the ball was turned over to try and win the ball back immediately, but as the prominence of Costa Rica’s full-backs became more significant, with Bryan Oviedo cutting inside twice in the first half for a shot on goal, they began to drop back more to help protect their full-backs. Still, Postecoglou took heart from the defensive performance, claiming that “throughout the whole game, I thought our defensive pressure was brilliant.”
“Even when we were making mistakes with our football, [the errors] weren’t causing us any problems because we just worked really hard to get it back and then we could start again,” Postecoglou said post game to Fox Sports.
Better ball retention
Postecoglou sides have always played an attractive brand of football, and as the squad becomes more familiar with his methods, the Socceroos should become an impressive outfit in terms of possession, like the Roar and the Victory.
Here with three central midfielders all comfortable on the ball, the full-backs pushing forward to provide an extra passing option and the front three taking turns to drift between the lines, there were always passing options for the player in possession – and even when they were forced backwards by Costa Rica’s pressing, there was an unmistakeable remit to try and keep the ball whenever possible.
In that regard, the selection of Matt Ryan (in the wake of Mark Schwarzer’s sudden international retirement) might eventually prove significant, even if Mitch Langerak could (and should) be given a chance to impress. However, Ryan’s distribution might endear him more to Postecoglou, his proficiency with the ball at his feet catching the eye here as it has in the first few months of his recent move to Belgium. His confidence when under pressure and clever chipped balls to teammates mean the side doesn’t squander possession when forced backwards and also help relieve pressure.
The Socceroos controlled the majority of possession, but they didn’t lack for penetration, with the centre-backs frequently moving forward to help launch and create passing moves. Inside the first minute Rhys Williams, finally in the centre-back position he favours for the national side, brought the ball forward and attempted an incisive ball forward, before a few minutes later being caught being ponderous in midfield, leading to the rather desperate goal line clearance from Ivan Franjic.
Meanwhile, his partner, Lucas Neill, caught the eye with a series of long, driven balls forward, while Mark Milligan also dropped into a deep, left-sided position to hit a fine ball over the top for Robbie Kruse, who was flagged just marginally offside.
The emphasis on creating from deep positions was particularly obvious in the opening periods as Costa Rica kept a high line for the opening twenty minutes, but even after they dropped to accommodate Australia’s pace in behind, the role of the central defenders in initiating play was obvious.
In his very first press conference, Postecoglou spoke about experimenting with a new pair of players in the full-back positions. True to his word, Jason Davidson and Ivan Franjic started left and right respectively, and generally impressed with their energy, mobility and aggressive style of defending – it made for a neat contrast with previous incumbents Matt McKay and Luke Wilkshire.
Franjic constantly got forward on the right hand side, slipping into the corridor of space near the touchline created by Kruse’s constant positioning in the channels, while Davidson was more reserved with his forays forward – perhaps concerned by the threat of Joel Campbell’s pace in behind, although he did well to dart in front of the attacker to intercept the ball on a number of occasions.
Indeed, that sort of ‘proactive’ defending, deliberately looking to win the ball whenever possible, was a marked change from the Osieck era, and consistent across the side – on one occasion Neill found himself five metres in Australia’s half trying to win the ball off a Costa Rican attacker.
Australia had a surprisingly varied approach, shifting between long periods of possession and more immediate, high-tempo counter-attacks. With Vidosic darting inside, Leckie working the space in behind Costa Rica’s defence, and Kruse likewise from the opposite flank, there were plenty of opportunities in the first half for Australia’s midfield to hit balls over the top for the attackers to chase. Leckie consistently made outside-to-in runs from a left of centre position into the space between Costa Rica’s outside centre-back and the wing-back, a few times rotating his position with Vidosic so that the central defenders were always occupied.
The introduction of Tim Cahill and Josh Kennedy in the second half, both who played more with their back to goal, coupled with a drop in the overall tempo, meant Australia had to become more patient in their possession play as the game progressed. Aside from one move of sparkling one-touch play down the right flank, resulting in a fine chance that Leckie spurned in front of goal, the Socceroos weren’t particularly successful in breaking down their opponents with prolonged periods in possession.
However, the introduction of Tom Rogic gave Australia a new dimension. His ability to skip past challenges in the midfield zone is magnificent and immediately he found room between the lines after circumventing a tackle with a clever touch, later drawing a yellow card from Michael Umaña, as well as coming close to slipping Kruse and Kennedy in on goal.
Postecoglou has been keen to emphasise that Rogic must get more game time at club level – as Bresciano is currently suspended by FIFA for some dodgy transfer business in Qatar, it’s certainly an unusual situation for Postecoglou to be in, to have both his playmakers struggling for game time in a World Cup year.