Analysing the Socceroos defensive problems

The Socceroos problems defensively under Ange Postecoglou have been well documented – just two clean sheets in thirteen games, an average of 1.5 conceded goals per game, including nine at the World Cup in just three games.

While these poor numbers seemed to be accepted as a consequence of both the strength of the opposition, and Postecoglou’s attempts to transition the side in both style and personnel, concerns have intensified in the more recent friendlies against Asian opposition. There are two major lines of criticism: first, the predictable attack, which has been discussed in-depth by this site, and the leaky backline.

Although he’s been constant with his shape (either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3) and approach (possession-based, with a focus on playing down the flanks), Postecoglou has tinkered with the players in the back four. At the World Cup, the settled back four was, from right to left, Ivan Franjic, Alex Wilkinson, Matthew Spiranovic and Jason Davidson, but long-term injuries to Spiranovic and Franjic has made it difficult to keep this defence together, and instead, we’ve seen the blooding-in of a number of new players.

A recurring issue, however, no matter the personnel, has been the side’s inability to hold a consistent defensive line. Postecoglou wants his defence to sit high up the pitch (to make the whole side compact when the front three press), and when the opposition play backwards, the back four pushes up to ‘squeeze’ the depth of the pitch. It’s an aggressive, bold tactic, but often the movement upfield isn’t cohesive across the line – the full-backs don’t move in sync with the centre-backs, and that’s playing opposition attackers onside.

Evidence of this can be drawn from the very early days of the Postecoglou era…

Example one – a line done badly

Example 1 - Croatia - #1

In the pre-World Cup friendly against Croatia, Mario Mandzukic scored the only goal from what seemed like an offside position, but was actually the correct decision by the linesmen. However, in the initial stage of the attacking move, the line is actually set quite nicely – it’s very high up relative to the ball position, but the Croatian on the far right, Eduardo, is offside.

Example 1 - Croatia - #2

Eduardo eventuates as the key player in the move, however, because his run infield draws the attention of Davidson, who drops slightly deeper to accommodate the attacker in his zone.

Example 1 - Croatia - #3

What that means, though, is when the centre-backs push up (as Postecoglou wants them to do), the left-back steps back – playing Mandzukic onside. The ‘assist’ that breaks the line is fortunate, but it was still an Australian defensive error.

Example 1 - Croatia - #4

Mandzukic scores, because Davidson is playing him onside.

Example two

Example 2 - Spain - #1

Against Spain, a 3-0 defeat in the final group match, we saw the same issue for the third goal, scored by Juan Mata. In this shot, the line is high (relative to ball position), with the two centre-backs actually looking to trap Fernando Torres offside. Jason Davidson has Mata running in behind him, but is primarily focused on staying in sync with the defensive line…

Example 2 - Spain - #2

….at least, until the pass over the top is played, and Davidson has not moved up with the defensive line, nor tracked Mata’s run. From a coaching perspective, the error would probably lie in the former mistake – for keeping the line and playing an aggressive offside trap is what the Socceroos focus on as a defensive unit, which would theoretically have caught Mata offside. As you can plainly see, Torres has been caught offside by the line.

Example 2 - Spain - #3

Mata clearly hasn’t, though, and he finished easily past Matt Ryan. The image above, taken from side on, is telling – Davidson’s only a metre behind Spiranovic, but it’s enough for it to be fatal.

Example three – a line well done

Example 3 - Qatar - #1

Drilling specifically into a more recent game, now, here is an example from the 1-0 defeat to Qatar during the October international break. In this image, Nikolai Topor-Stanley has moved across to help cover in behind Aziz Behich (left-back), which has forced Qatar’s attacker to play back into a deep, central position. So far, so good.

Example 3 - Qatar - #2

Appropriately, as per Postecoglou’s tactics, the defensive line has begun to push up as the ball moves away from goal. It’s a way of squeezing the opposition higher up, theoretically allowing Australia to press and win possession closer to their own goal.

Example 3 - Qatar - #3

Now, the ball is back on halfway. Australia’s defensive line is aggressively high up the pitch, but it’s ‘flat’ – each member of the back four has stepped up in sync.

This is an example of the defensive line working as intended – the line is cohesive, it’s more or less flat (with a slight umbrella shape, as the full-backs should stick slightly tighter on the opposition wingers), and it’s high up the pitch, as Postecoglou wants.

Example four

Example 4 - Qatar - #1

In this situation, the lines is slightly deeper than probably desired, though this is a consequence of Qatar having built up pressure inside the Socceroos half, but being forced out wide by the res of Tommy Oar. As you can see here, the back four is fairly tight, with left-back Behich stepping up higher than his other defenders because the ball is on his side of the pitch. He’s ensuring that if Oar is beaten in the 1v1 against the Qatari, there’s some cover in behind.

Example 4 - Qatar - #2

Again, as the ball moves backwards towards halfway – like in Example #2 -the line as a whole has squeezed up. Behich has returned to the same ‘line’ as the central defenders, but worryingly, we can already see right-back Chris Herd a metre or two behind. He’s worried about the left-sided Qatari attacker, and has dropped to mark ‘goalside’ of him.

(Goalside refers to a defensive player placing himself between an opponent and the goal).

Example 4 - Qatar - #3

The further Qatar have gone back, though, the worse Australia’s line has become. Both full-backs are now sitting behind the central defenders, in Behich’s case because he is staying goalside of his man, rather than holding the offside trap.

It is somewhat difficult to tell from this angle, but Herd is marginally deeper than Alex Wilkinson. It might not seem like a metre matters, but if it allows a player onside, a good passer on the ball as you can see in the picture above can pick out a pass in behind – especially as the central defenders are ‘squeezing’, making it difficult for them to turn and chase.

Example 4 - Qatar - #4

Now, the Socceroos press has ensured Qatar have gone even further back in possession, but concerningly, this has correlated with the defensive line becoming even more disjointed. Both full-backs are clearly now ‘behind the play’, with Topor-Stanley and Wilkinson attempting to squeeze as much as possible (to keep the distance between the lines compact, and allow the side to press high up). Qatar’s striker, Soria, is onside, and while this sequence didn’t lead directly to a chance, it illustrates the trend.

Example five

Example 5 - Qatar - #1

Twenty-eight minutes later in the same match, we have the same scenario. Australia’s line is OK at this point, with the two centre-backs slightly further ahead. Qatar are moving backwards in attack.

Example 5 - Qatar - #2

In the ‘reset’ position of Qatar’s attacking play in the final third, though, the defensive line is not good. Behich is slow to push up, and as a result, two Qatari strikers are onside – again a pass over the top could tee them up inside the area. There’s no punishment here, but the Socceroos are living dangerously.

Example six

Example 6 - Qatar - #1

Given what we’ve seen so far, this shot isn’t surprising. Herd’s a good 4-5m behind the rest of the defensive line, and as a result, any attempted offside trap is worthless. Australia’s high line naturally makes them vulnerable to runs in behind, but an unaligned defensive line accentuates that problem further.

Example seven

Example 7 - Qatar - #1

And so, although this is Brillante (on for Herd at half-time), it’s the same mistake – an Australian defender breaking the defensive line to allow an opposition attacker onside. It’s reminiscent of Example #1 against Croatia, which demonstrates how this is a recurring problem for the Socceroos.

Example 7 - Qatar - #2

And this time, it proves decisive. Khalfan Ibrahim scores, and Australia lose 1-0.

Why?

Lots of images, but the same overall concept – this is an ongoing defensive issue, and a problem that is compounded by the fact Australia play with a very high line, which requires a cohesive offside trap from the back four. That’s why we’re seeing this problem: the side is squeezing up when the opposition passes backwards, which is the cue for the midfield and attack to press – pushing high up means the distance between the different lines in the team is minimal, and the side is compact overall as a unit.

As you can often see, it’s the full-backs who are mainly responsible for the breakdown in the line. The obvious, and probably most pertinent explanation is a simple lack of communication, especially in the examples where the central defenders push up and leave the full-backs ‘behind’ – they’re so focused on getting the concept right the basic execution of it is letting them down. It’s impossible without actually playing in the side to know who is responsible for holding the line, but it’s quite obvious it needs to be improved. The constant changes in personnel at the back can’t be helping, either.

There are other factors at play behind the poor defensive record, such as an ineffective press and a commitment to attack, but if it’s possible to track this particular error across a number of games over the entirety of Postecoglou’s tenure, it’s a real concern.

 

  1. Interesting analysis Tim. It seems to me that a major reason that makes this tactic even riskier is the fact that Postecoglou is trying to implement it in a national team setting, rather than a club team. I can imagine it takes many weeks/months of training amongst the same core group of players to perfect the timing and communication needed to make it work. With the Australian team, he only gets a few days or so every now and then, and as you say the personnel has varied quite a bit. It\’s no wonder the results haven\’t been great.

    Bearing this in mind, do you think Ange would be better suited to re-think his approach and come up with an alternative tactic that is more likely to succeed? (What that is, I\’m not sure!) Is Ange being inflexible in trying to transplant a tactic that was highly successful at Brisbane into a less hospitable environment?

    Cheers.

    1. Hey John, thanks for commenting.

      You raise a really interesting and valid point. Certainly, you\’d have to imagine the significant difference in hands-on time with the squad has impacted upon Postecoglou\’s ability to implement the system. It\’d be fascinating if someone asked him this question directly.

      Do I think he could change? Certainly, but the offside trap is a natural consequence of the high-pressing, possession based style he wants to play. I do think he could reel it in more – a deeper defensive line could bring opponents onto us more, which would create more space in behind on the counter; but all the same this is the approach he\’s settled on and I think it\’s encouraging that we\’re seeing a national team coach be bold and forge an identity for the side, even if all the pieces aren\’t quite fitting together as of yet.

  2. Good read, Tim. Another example would be Van Persie\’s goal against us at the World Cup, where Davidson was once again caught breaking the defensive line. Worrying trend, but I think once the team gets in camp for the Asian Cup and a back four is settled on we should see this particular problem solved……hopefully!

    1. It would seem Max, the comment above you, agrees…definitely, another good example that highlights how ongoing this problem is.

  3. \”The Socceroos problems defensively under Ange Postecoglou have been well documented – just two clean sheets in thirteen games, an average of 1.5 conceded goals per game, including nine at the World Cup in just three games\”.

    It\’s actually 20 goals conceded in 11 games, an average of 1.8 which looks even worse. But take away the teams that are well and truly above the quality of any of the teams who will play in the Asian Cup (ie Chile, Netherlands, Spain and Belgium) and it becomes 9 goals in 7 games (1.2 average). 4 of those goals were following Langrak\’s brain snap v Equador. If you consider that result as an outlier, you get down to 5 goals in 6 games (less than a goal a game).

    This is a good analysis but I think our problems are more in the front third than the back. A significant proportion of those 20 goals are down to individual errors (goalkeeping, defenders, Davidsonin particular, playing forwards onside) rather than the system.

    1. Hey Biscuitman, thanks for commenting (I also saw your comment in the 442 Forums, but I\’ll reply here).

      Good pickup on the average goals – I\’ve amended the article. I\’m shocking at basic maths – dropped it in year 10!

      However, the defensive record was purely to illuminate that there is clearly something wrong; then the intent of the article was to illustrate one particular reason for this problem. Even if we\’d conceded just once under Postecoglou, if the flaw in the back four\’s offside trap was still there, I\’d still point it out. Rather paradoxically, it doesn\’t \’really\’ matter if the opposition score from it or not – it\’s about the mistake being constantly there, and I think there are enough examples there to show this is an ongoing issue.

      To that point, even if we do agree that the majority of the conceded goals are individual errors, it\’s important to recognise whether or not the system itself is perhaps forcing these errors. In this case, I think it is, because it\’s obvious that despite several matches to practice this aggressive offside we\’re continuing to make the mistakes, and regardless of whether it is Franjic, Herd, Davidson or Behich. The fact all four different full-backs have been culpable of not stepping up in line with the centre-backs I think shows that this is indeed a systematic issue – though I do think it\’s being exaggerated by poor individual errors.

      Thanks for commenting!

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