It might sound ridiculous to suggest Tim Cahill, Australia’s all-time goalscorer and hero of the recent World Cup, may not be a part of Ange Postecoglou’s plans in the long-term.
At face value, it’s a ludicrous assertion. In 71 games for the national side, Cahill’s scored 34 goals, with nine in World Cup qualifiers including crucial winners against Qatar and Japan. At World Cups, he netted two in that extraordinary comeback against Japan in 2006, a flying header against Serbia in 2010 and a few months ago in Brazil, scored against both Chile and the Netherlands. In terms of decisive goals, he’s clearly our most productive ever footballer, and has a legitimate claim to being the best Socceroo of all time.
Dig a little deeper into the statistics, however, and you’ll find that eleven of Cahill’s past fourteen goals for the Socceroos were headers. 31 of his 54 Premier League goals – 57% – were scored with his head. It’s the clearest illustration you can find of Cahill’s most obvious qualities: his heading. He has a remarkable leap, an intangible ability to time his runs inside the penalty area and the physicality to escape close marking. At his peak, there was perhaps no better at the art of heading.
Yet this somewhat odd combination of skills means it can actually be quite difficult to fit Cahill into a side without becoming one-dimensional. When fielded behind a striker, Cahill’s an atypical #10 – barely offering any creativity, and instead simply providing a goal threat with late runs into the box. Furthermore, his link play isn’t particularly good, meaning his side’s attacking moves becomes centred around passing down the flanks, looking, inevitably, to cross into Cahill. When Cahill’s in form, it’s an excellent tactic; when he’s not, it compromises the side’s attacking play. His presence enforces a certain style of play upon a team.
His presence enforces a certain style of play upon a team.
That, along with the extended barren spell Cahill experienced in his final year at Everton, was probably the reasoning behind David Moyes’ decision to sell him in July 2012. It felt, quite simply, like Everton had outgrown Cahill.
Postecoglou must now surely be considering a similar question for the Socceroos. When the former Melbourne Victory manager was appointed Socceroos coach, there was the nagging feeling that Cahill wasn’t quite ‘his sort of player’. After all, Postecoglou’s sides rarely crossed aerially. Brisbane Roar, for example, built up player slowly from the back and got the full-backs forward to cut balls back from the by-line. The Victory, meanwhile, played more on the break, with the wingers making diagonal runs into the space in behind and looking to play square balls across the face of the box.
Yet Postecoglou demonstrated his adaptability by implementing a system that played to Cahill’s strengths. He asked the full-backs to push very high up the pitch and swing deep crosses into Cahill, with wingers Tommy Oar and Matthew Leckie also looking to whip balls in early on in attacking moves. Unsurprisingly, it worked excellently, creating a stream of chances in the Chile and Netherlands match, most evidently for Cahill’s two goals.
Now, however, with that limited window Postecoglou had to prepare the side for the World Cup over and the ‘real’ task of winning the Asian Cup immediately at hand, it would not be surprising to see evolution take place – with or without Cahill. Ultimately, Postecoglou’s plan would be to create a varied, mobile attacking third, presumably leaning upon the qualities of Leckie, Oar and now, Robbie Kruse and Tom Rogic as they return from injury. There’ll presumably be less of an emphasis upon crossing, and more on combination play – with the full-backs perhaps driving further upfield and creating width down the sides, freeing up the wingers to move into narrow positions to link up.
Where Cahill fits into this remains unclear. If the side doesn’t play to his strengths, it’s difficult to see how he fits in, given his strengths and weaknesses. Research suggests it takes 91.47 crosses to score a goal – but because Cahill is so supremely good in the air, it’s difficult to assess the validity of applying those numbers to this analysis. Rather, context is more revealing. Sides that cross more often tend to be more predictable, and one-dimensional – a lack of variety means opposition defenders can focus primarily on nullifying that aerial strength.
When Holger Osieck encouraged lots of crossing, then, it was easy to see why the side struggled. The key difference between Osieck and Postecoglou was that the latter encouraged a much higher tempo, meaning the Socceroos were hitting defences quickly and early – rather than after patient periods of build-up play, as was the case under the German. Even then, the predictability of Australia’s attack became obvious even after the first match of the World Cup, and the risk will increasingly become that the side becomes overly reliant on servicing Cahill.
The argument, then, becomes that it is only natural to be reliant on the one player that has consistently scored goals for the Socceroos. After all, in the squad for the Belgian friendly only Mark Bresciano is in double figures (13 in 77 appearances) for goals for the national side. The next closest is Jedinak: a holding midfielder who’s scored five in 47 games. It’s hardly encouraging.
Yet the counter-argument to this is that it has been difficult for any other player to actually flourish in a side that has ultimately been built around Cahill’s strengths – which, of course, as aforementioned, enforces a certain style of play. That would explain why the tall Josh Kennedy is the only one who’s been relatively prolific, with 17 in 33 – he too likes to get on the end of crosses.
In the long-term, though, this may not be Postecoglou’s way forward. The reality will probably be some sort of compromise. Postecoglou should look to evolve the side towards a more varied style of play, but with Cahill still involved in some capacity, if not only for his leadership and experience, but also as a very useful ‘Plan B’.