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
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.
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.
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.
Mandzukic scores, because Davidson is playing him onside.
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…
….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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And this time, it proves decisive. Khalfan Ibrahim scores, and Australia lose 1-0.
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.