After a year of grace to rebuild the national team, this is the first ‘real’ test of Ange Postecoglou as Socceroos boss.
Obviously, the World Cup was a challenge, but given that Postecoglou had only been appointed in October 2013 with a mandate to freshen up a side that had become stale under Holger Osieck, he was given freedom essentially to forget about results, and focus on regenerating the side with younger players and trying to play a more attractive, attack-minded brand of football.
That mission, constantly highlighted and emphasised by Postecoglou, has underpinned their friendly matches in the six month window between the World Cup and Asian Cup. He deliberately wanted to play ‘big’ teams like Belgium to test the players, and used an incredible 42 players to increase the depth of the national team pool. For this tournament, he initially named a 46 man squad, which was then halved.
This group of players has only changed slightly from the World Cup group, with the addition of some A-League players that have impressed this season. Tactically, the core tenets of Postecoglou – modern, possession-based football with an emphasis on short passing – remain intact, but he has evolved away from the use of natural wingers that crossed aerially from wide areas into Cahill, towards a narrower system that brings the wide players infield between the lines, creating overloads in midfield.
Against Japan, the Socceroos last friendly, Robbie Kruse and James Troisi played remarkably narrow, helping Australia retain the ball easily in the final third and get their full-backs involved high up the pitch. Ante Millic, the assistant coach, highlighted the importance of this.
“The wide strikers are playing a little bit more inside,” he said, “creating an overload in those central areas – for example against Japan where they started with a 4-1-4-1 and we created a good overload, and got players between the lines.”
The problem was with execution – they lacked penetration in behind, and without Tim Cahill, short of a genuine goal threat.
Cahill is the only player to score in open play under Postecoglou and the reliance on his remarkable heading ability is worrying. Despite Postecoglou evolving the style, it still depends on Cahill converting chances.
The wildcard is Nathan Burns, enjoying a fine A-League season (ten goals in twelve games). He plays from the right for Wellington, making runs in behind, but is capable of drifting infield to find space between the lines. That duality and dynamism could make him a perfect fit in this system, especially if he can replicate his goalscoring form.
Another area where Australia have evolved is a switch away from the 2-1 midfield format to a 1-2, with Mile Jedinak as a #6 and two players ahead of him. The benefit of this is allowing more players from midfield to get forward into goalscoring positions, which can be important against sides that sit very deep (like Kuwait and Oman will in the group stage). Millic again testifies to this. “The rotations we have now in build-up with the full-backs going higher up and the wide strikers coming inside – there are moments there for the 8s to drop in to those areas that are vacated”
For the advanced midfield roles, Postecoglou likes Matt McKay and Mark Milligan, both playing under him at Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory respectively, but the European-based James Troisi and Massimo Luongo are also contenders. Troisi is a clever, versatile attacker capable of scoring goals, while the promising young prospect Luongo is having a good season for Swindon Town. With Terry Antonis of Sydney FC also in the squad, Postecoglou isn’t short of options in this position.
The backline is a concern. Postecoglou is yet to settle on a first-choice partnership, with Matthew Spiranovic partnering Alex Wilkinson at the World Cup, but Trent Sainsbury doing well in the recent friendlies. It hasn’t helped Spiranovic himself has been injured during this time, robbing Postecoglou of the chance to work on any one partnership, but Spiranovic is important because he brings the ball forward purposefully and understands how to play out.
At left-back, Jason Davidson seems to have lost his spot to Aziz Behich, who is playing well for Bursaspor in the Turkish Super League, while on the right is Ivan Franjic, a Postecoglou favourite who gets forward well and provides lots of width. In goals is Matthew Ryan, who has incredible distribution and thus suits the system perfectly.
Australia should realistically be looking at winning this tournament on home soil. Encouragingly, Postecoglou’s club teams always had a ‘settling-in’ period before success, and the timing is right for him to defy his critics with a good run of form. It’s also promising that whenever he’s had the opportunity to work with the side for an extended period of time – like the ten days he’s had in training camp prior to the opening game – the team has always performed much better, with a greater familiarity with his demands.
If he can fix the problems at either end of the pitch, they can go all the way.
Want more in-depth analysis of the Socceroos? We’ve analysed the recurring problems with the defensive line, taken a detailed look at their pressing structure and made five observations from the September friendlies.