World Cup 2014: Socceroos preview

Even after only three games in charge, Ange Postecoglou’s footballing footprint is clearly imprinted upon the new-look Socceroos.

The probable starting line-up

The probable starting line-up

Background

His predecessor, Holger Osieck, was hugely unpopular for two primary reasons. Firstly, his unsophisticated, unpopular, almost classically-British tactics centred around crossing from deep and set-pieces, and secondly, the lack of genuine squad regeneration, as Osieck had a clear preference for the experience of the ‘Golden Generation’.

Thus, even before his first match, Postecoglou was a thoroughly popular choice. He was seen as a progressive, positive coach after unprecedented, consecutive Premiership winning success at Brisbane Roar, which was founded upon an aggressive brand of possession football that was the first of its kind in the A-League. Based around short, patient passing from the back, it triggered a revolution in terms of approach across the competition, with a number of coaches appointed primarily for their promises to create a similar system at other clubs.

Postecoglou, though, was ahead of the curve, moving onto Melbourne Victory, and a more direct, counter-attacking approach through the use of two number tens. The predominant striking threat. then, came from wingers who made diagonal runs into the penalty area.

His time there was cut short by his appointment as Socceroos coach, but even without tangible success in Melbourne Postecoglou’s reputation had been shaped by his ability to create exciting, innovative systems. That simplistic description negates his fine man-management skills, and ruthless, principled approach to rebuilding.

That, then, coupled with his Australian nationality (making him the first homegrown coach of the national side since Frank Farina in 2005), made him the ideal choice to take over from Osieck – immediately bringing fresh optimism into the side, but also, having achieved success in the national league, the ideal ‘keystone’ to demonstrate the growth of football in Australia.

Squad regeneration

Postecoglou’s first official squad demonstrated his remit to galvanise the squad with younger players, and now, six months on from his initial appointment, the revolution is all but complete. From the 2006 squad, only Tim Cahill, Mark Bresciano and Mark Milligan remain – of the side that started in the first game against Germany in 2010, only Cahill remains. Luke Wilkshire’s omission at the final stage of selection (the cutting of 27 down to 23 that took place in Brazil) was in essence the symbolic last severing of the ties to the Golden Generation, with Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer, Brett Emerton, Jason Culina and Brett Holman amongst others, all otherwise overlooked or retired.

The squad is now completely overhauled, with a number of the young players in second-tier European leagues called up, as well as a relatively large A-League contingent (6, including the on-loan Atlanta forward James Troisi, compared to 2 in 2010). From the oldest squad in South Africa, to one of the least experienced in Brazil – with nineteen players with 10 or less international caps.

That explains the sense of transition, with Postecoglou continuously pointing out this is a squad looking ahead to the 2015 Asian Cup, which Australia are hosting, as well as long-term towards the next World Cup cycle. Still, even with limited games to effect his changes, this is clearly a Postecoglou side.

Approach

Fittingly, they’ll play with many of the characteristics of his philosophy – always looking to build attacks out from the back, pressing high up the pitch without the ball, and controlling possession wherever possible. Having emphasised patience with Brisbane and more urgency with Victory, Postecoglou has opted for something in between, looking to progress attacks quickly through the centre of the pitch, but also encouraging the side to retain the ball for extended periods. This was particularly obvious in the second half of the friendly against South Africa, as well as against Croatia.

Where possible, though, the side look to play directly and purposefully through the centre of the pitch, using the pace of the wide players to quickly progress possession into the final third. It’s not a pure counter-attacking approach, but Australia will be dangerous on the break, especially when considering the likelihood of them being dominated possession-wise by Chile, Holland and Spain.

Formation

After initially keeping with the 4-2-3-1 preferred by Osieck, Postecoglou has recently experimented with a slight 4-3-3 variant. With a fairly standard back four and two wingers flanking lone striker Tim Cahill, it’s the midfield zone that provides most interest. The format of the midfield triangle for the tournament itself remains unpredictable – he’s generally preferred a 2-1 format (with Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan at the base) but used a 1-2 triangle against South Africa with Milligan deep.

You get the feeling, though, that notation is somewhat irrelevant to Postecoglou, who has suggested “the idea is that they [the midfielders] are pretty mobile and rotate through those areas, so I think you’ll see less of set positions and more of all three contributing in attack and defence.” He’s not fussed about the formation itself, but is primarily concerned with using three players in that zone to help the side retain possession more easily, which also explains why Tim Cahill will play further forward as a lone striker, rather than behind a centre-forward.

Attack: crossing

Cahill remains Australia’s biggest goal threat despite his discernible decline made obvious by a move from Everton to MLS side New York Red Bulls. His biggest quality remains, inevitably, his heading – and although Postecoglou’s Brisbane and Melbourne sides never crossed aerially, he’s shown his ‘rational’ side by embracing it, encouraging the wingers to cross early when Australia work the ball forward.

While Osieck also encouraged crossing, the key difference is that Postecoglou’s side play out from the back, thus inviting the opposition upfield to pressure and opening up more space further forward. Furthermore, the pace and position of the crossing is fundamentally different – now quicker and higher up the pitch, rather than slow and from a deep position as it was under Osieck. The video below illustrates the crossing strategy that has become obvious under Postecoglou.

As mentioned in the video, the South Africa friendly, where Australia dominated possession, demonstrated how crossing can lead to predictability, with the opposition defenders recovering from a disastrous start to become comfortable defending against the lone aerial threat of Cahill – but against the superior, ball-hungry sides of Group B, this should be less of a problem, simply because Australia will have less of the ball, and less opportunities to attack, thus making the crossing less frequent.

The winger on the opposite side to the original cross often narrows at the far post to become an additional goal threat, with Oar getting a number of opportunities to shoot from central positions against South Africa – this is important, because with a lack of midfield runners, Cahill can sometimes be outnumbered two to one by the centre-backs.

Other routes of attack

Crossing, of course, as with any attacking strategy, needs to be mixed with variety, and Australia’s alternate attacking threat comes from the outside-to-in running of Matthew Leckie, who can start on either flank but is more comfortable on the right. As a versatile forward who can also play centrally, he likes to drive into that space between opposition full-backs and centre-backs, and is dangerous motoring forward with the ball at his feet.

On the opposite side will be Oar, a more traditional winger who will stay wider and cross – but is also capable of moving inside and looking for passes in behind, and was used in the number ten role in the friendly against Croatia (more on that below).

Tempo

The constant factor behind Australia’s good periods of attacking play under Postecoglou have been the high tempo. They appear much more dynamic and incisive attacking quickly and directly than they do when holding the ball for an extended period of time. The attackers benefit in a more open match because it naturally creates more space for them to work in, although that has lead to both fatigue and exposure to counter-attacks.

Encouragingly, the tempo against Croatia was far more controlled and ‘realistic’, but with Australia presenting little attacking threat, ending the game with just four shots, also demonstrated the importance of attacking at speed.

Full-backs

Another key feature of Postecoglou’s system is the advanced positioning of the full-backs, Jason Davidson and Ivan Franjic (left and right respectively), who constantly get forward to provide width on the overlap. That’s no surprise given Postecoglou always encouraged the full-backs to get forward at both Brisbane and Melbourne, but it’s still been surprisingly just how high up they’re allowed to go – always looking to cross when on the ball, and more intangibly, maintaining the width of the side so that Oar and Leckie can drive into the middle. They play an important role in the attacking phase, and the lack of backup full-backs in the squad makes the fitness of Franjic and Davidson even more crucial.

Centre-backs

The by-effect, though, is that it can leave the centre-backs isolated at the back, as highlighted in the video. This is even more prominent because Australia play with a high line, so the space to the side of Alex Wilkinson and Ryan McGowan (who will be replaced by Matthew Spiranovic in the tournament itself) was particularly obvious against South Africa, most noticeably for the goal.

Another defensive concern is the tendency of Wilkinson to ‘mark the player’ rather than ‘mark the pass’ – he’s shown the worrying tendency of marking tightly to strikers and thus being dragged around by clever movement. At one point against Croatia he was directly behind his centre-back partner as Nikica Jelavic, the lone striker, made a run in behind, and that left lots of space between Wilkinson and Franjic.

Generally speaking, the cohesion between the back four doesn’t feel ‘quite right’, for wont of a better term. It was particularly noticeable for the goal conceded against Croatia – the centre-backs moved their line forward as the full-backs dropped back, keeping Jelavic free and unmarked in the box to score. The lack of understanding, though, can be explained by their very little playing time together.

When in possession, Spiranovic will be the more positive passer, moving forward on the ball into midfield but also looking for longer, diagonal balls over the top, whereas Wilkinson tends to play simpler.

Goalkeeper

Matt Ryan, of Club Brugge in Belgium, has become the clear first-choice keeper after the retirement of veteran Mark Schwarzer. Ryan’s excellent in the ‘traditional’ attributes of his position – a good shot stopper, agile and quick off his line- but the most intriguing feature of his game is his distribution: so accurate there’s a YouTube channel devoted to his drop-kicks.

Ryan often warms up before games by hitting incredibly accurate long passes with both his left and right feet to teammates standing fifty metres away, and his comfort in playing out from the back will prove useful in implementing Postecoglou’s possession strategy. His lofted passes to full-backs to evade pressure are particularly good.

Furthermore, after catching the ball, Ryan will often rush urgently to the edge of his area to dropkick a long ball for an advanced teammate – something Australia might do specifically when defending set plays as a counter-attacking opportunity.

Midfield zone

As discussed earlier, Milligan and Jedinak will start in midfield regardless of what ‘actual’ formation Postecoglou opts for – if it’s the 4-2-3-1 variant, Milligan will be centre-left, and Jedinak centre-right.

Both are mobile, energetic runners capable of the quick, forward passing (and pressing) demanded by Postecoglou, and will take turns to come short towards the centre-backs to help transition possession higher up the pitch. Importantly, their distribution is a mixture of short and long – generally, the initial build-up play is short to allow the full-backs time to move forward, and then mixed with a sudden long forward pass to provide penetration, as shown in the video below.

An area of concern is the space between the lines of midfield and defence when Australia hold the ball for long periods, because that tempts the deeper midfielders forward into space, creating a lack of protection for the back four at transition. With the full-backs high up, it’s the natural consequence of Postecoglou’s ‘no fear’ strategy, and Australia will always be vulnerable on the break under the new regime.

Playmaker?

The player at the tip of the midfield remains the biggest question mark of the side, with injury ruling raw, explosive playmaker Tom Rogic out of the squad, and Bresciano still working to regain full fitness after being banned from playing for four months for an illegal transfer to Al Gharafa. In truth, if it were any other player, Bresciano probably wouldn’t be in the squad given Postecoglou’s obvious dislike for Middle Eastern leagues and demand for physically-ready players, but Bresciano could prove to be an incredibly important player no matter if he starts or come off the bench.

He’s the player most comfortable in possession, drifts laterally in the central channel to receive passes between the lines, and is always looking to turn, face forward and hit dangerous forward balls. The friendly against Costa Rica, Postecoglou’s first match, demonstrated his ability to ‘knit’ the side together, and a short cameo against Croatia reinforced the perception that he is best suited to that final midfield position.

Alternate playmakers

If he isn’t fit, Postecoglou has three possible options. First is to play Troisi instead, as he did against South Africa. Troisi’s a difficult player to categorise. He’s broadly a playmaker, but has a knack for scoring important goals, and would provide more directness and ‘thrust’.

Secondly, as he did against Croatia, Oar could move centrally, having played that role on occasion for FC Utrecht. An interesting feature in the Croatia match was how Oar found space either side of the holding midfielder, Marcelo Brozovic, and take his first touch ‘around the corner’ into space. Like Troisi, Oar would be a more ‘direct’ option for that playmaker role, offering less possession than Bresciano but more likely to provide penetration.

Finally, James Holland could come into the side. Although Holland started against South Africa, he’s never really performed well at international level, despite being a technically strong, all-round midfielder. With Milligan and Jedinak, however, there may be too much of an overlap in roles – Holland tends to be safer with his passing, and Australia would probably lack genuine creativity with him in the side.

Options

Postecoglou has a few options off the bench. Dario Vidosic appears to be the ‘backup starter’, and will start wide but drift inside into playmaking zones. The ‘first-choice sub’, though, is Ben Halloran, a pacy, direct wide forward with a similar profile to the injured Robbie Kruse. He’ll make very direct runs in behind the defence from the right, and should be useful off the bench to stretch tired defences.

With the lanky Josh Kennedy left out of the squad, Australia lack something of a ‘Plan B’ – although Postecoglou’s remit has always been to ‘do Plan A better’, rather than make drastic tactical changes from the bench.

Fitness?

An alarming feature of Postecoglou’s reign has been the side’s tendency to start strong, then fade out of games – particularly noticeable back in March against Ecuador when they raced to a 3-0 lead, then conceded four in the second half. A similar pattern occured against South Africa, where a high-tempo opening quarter gave way to sluggish possession play. Post-match to that latter friendly, Postecoglou suggested it was simply the by-effect of the coaching staff having pushed the players hard during training, as they attempt to bring everyone up to a similar level of fitness as to implement the high-tempo, high-pressure approach.

Concerningly, though, there’s been an unusually high proportion of muscle injuries even in the short time the squad have been together – often a sign of over-training, which is entirely possible at the end of a long and demanding season for many of these players.

More pertinently, though, Australia’s inclination to fading out of games might be an issue against Spain, who like to wear opponents out with their passing for the first hour, before introducing more direct, attacking options off the bench as the game progresses.

Pressing

The fitness issues can be linked to the side’s determination to press fairly high up the pitch, with a bad touch or pass by the opposition the trigger rather than a Bielsa-like all-out press. Cahill will close towards the sides, with the winger on the opposite side pressing ‘inwards’ to pin in the player in possession – meaning the side can appear very narrow when defending, and perhaps vulnerable to quick switches of play.

Importantly, the pressing will have to be fairly urgent immediately after the ball is turned over to prevent counter-attacks.

End notes

The overriding theme of Postecoglou’s new-look side is ‘positivity’. Not only has made the public perception of the Socceroos more popular, he’s also introduced proactivity both on and off the ball, encouraging lots of quick, vertical attacking and a more aggressive defensive approach. That falls in lie with his fearless, ruthless mantra – he wants teams to be afraid of his side, rather than adapting the approach to the opponent.

In such a tough group, that might eventually prove foolhardy – but no one can fault his bravery or deny the impact his appointment has had. This is a Socceroos side that will challenge the general perception of Australian football, with one eye on the long-term benefits. In the short-term, this World Cup is about progression, not results.

For more Socceroos tactical analysis, I have a column in the June edition of FourFourTwo Australia magazine. For the World Cup, Australia Scout will feature opposition scout reports and detailed match analysis of each of the Socceroos games. In the meantime, you can learn more about Chile, Spain and the Netherlands in the July edition of FourFourTwo, as well as following me on Twitter and YouTube for updates throughout the tournament.

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