Australia recovered from conceding early on to storm past Kuwait in the opening game of the 2015 Asian Cup.
Ange Postecoglou, as expected, played a 4-3-3 formation. Trent Sainsbury partnered Matthew Spiranovic at the back, with the latter making his first appearance for the Socceroos since the World Cup. Massimo Luongo and James Troisi, although the news was leaked earlier in the day, were surprise selections in the two #10 positions.
Kuwait’s coach Nabil Malooul sprung several surprise selections. He left star attackers Bader Al-Mutawa and Youssouf Nasser on the bench, as well as regular starting goalkeeper Nawaf Al Khaldi. In a 4-5-1 formation, Malooul opted to use playmaker Aziz Mashaan, who normally plays in midfield, as a lone forward.
Kuwait play defensively
Kuwait played very defensively. Right from kick-off, they sat in three lines – a back four, a flat five-man midfield and Mashaan alone upfront, where he tried to shadow Australia’s holding midfielder, Mile Jedinak. That summed up how deep Kuwait were sitting, because Australia’s centre-backs were completely free when they had possession, and often carried the ball upfield under no pressure.
At one point in the seventeenth minute, both Sainsbury and Spiranovic were ten metres inside Kuwait’s half. Both of them finished as the game’s highest passers – Spiranovic with 82, Sainsbury with 72.
Australia started the game very sloppily. Of course, it was difficult for them to play accurate passes inside the final third because of how many numbers Kuwait had behind the ball, but the players didn’t help themselves with a number of rushed passes. They lacked composure, and seemed unsettled by the occasion.
When Kuwait won the ball, they looked to counter quickly through Mashaan, who came deep towards the ball, controlled it with his back to goal, and attempted to lay it off for onrushing midfielders. One particular area of promise was down the left, when left-back Khaled Al Qahtani got forward. He won the corner from which Kuwait took the lead.
Australia’s set-piece defending
The poor defending from this corner demonstrated Australia’s nervous start. There were two major errors – one as a result of zonal marking, one as a result of man marking.
Australia’s initial defensive setup was to have Franjic, Sainsbury and Spiranovic man-marking the three Kuwait players lined up near the edge of the penalty box. Mile Jedinak was also man-marking, standing at the near post on the edge of the six yard box. Tim Cahill and Aziz Behich were marking zonally, with Cahill in front of Mat Ryan on the six yard box, and Behich protecting the near post.
Mashaan, who takes the corner, sends in a low cross towards the near post zone. This delivery means that although Jedinak is following the decoy run of his man-marker towards the ball, Behich panics and leaves his zone to try and clear the ball. That was the first error.
This now leaves the channel at the near post open, especially as Cahill is defending centrally on the edge of the six yard box. The second error is when Spiranovic fails to follow the run of Hussain Fadel. Kuwait are also helped by the fact that Sainsbury is blocked by the man he is marking, Mesaed Al Enzi, preventing the Australian from being able to pick up the run of Fadhel into the now-vacant near post zone.
This conceded goal was symptomatic of Australia’s shaky defending at set-pieces throughout the game, and given that they also conceded from a corner in their last friendly against Japan, this is an area of concern that Postecoglou must address.
Australia dominate possession
In the context of this match, Kuwait’s 1-0 lead meant they sat even deeper. They continued to allow Australia to have lots of possession, with the Socceroos finishing with 65% of the ball by the end of the first half.
The game, therefore, was largely about Australia’s attempts to create chances. They did this through good player rotation in the final third – Kruse and Leckie played very narrow, looking to get on the ball between the lines, and the full-backs getting high up in support.
Kuwait’s full-backs wanted to stick tight to Kruse and Leckie, who swapped flanks throughout, but found this difficult when the two wingers drifted into playmaking positions between the lines. Kruse, in particular, played very narrow. When the full-backs overlapped, Al Qahtani and Fahad Al Hajeri were stuck in no mans land, so Australia constantly got in behind these two full-backs, and either crossed aerially into Cahill, or cut balls back inside the box.
It was through this latter method, with Luongo providing the assist for Cahill, that the Socceroos got their equaliser. A second goal quickly followed, this time with Luongo scoring.
Australia’s movement off the ball to pull Kuwait’s defenders out of position was excellent. They had long spells of possession, but always retained an attacking threat in the final third, especially in the last fifteen minutes of the first half, where Ivan Franjic was a constant outlet on the right – he provided the assist for the second goal.
Finding penetration against a packed defence can be very difficult, but the Socceroos were superb in this regard.
The pattern continued after the half-time break, although Kuwait had slightly more possession, and defended a bit higher up the pitch.
The game was basically all about Australia’s incisiveness in possession, and they continued to get good rotations going in the final third. Franjic provided another ‘assist’ for the penalty, which Kruse won, and Jedinak scored to make it 3-1.
Having already had to bring on a right-back, Al Matoug, for injured centre-back Fadhel, with Al-Hajeri moving into the middle, Malooul used his final two changes to introduce his best attackers and chase the game. First, Yousef Nasser came on for Mashaan as an out-and-out no.9. He had a positive impact, drawing a sharp low save out of Ryan immediately after coming on. Later, Bader Al-Mutawa came on as a right-winger, where he cut inside quickly and increased the quality of Kuwait’s attacks.
Given their impact on the game, it’s worth questioning why Malooul left these two players on the bench. In the Kuwait preview, I suggested that…
the side plays with an extraordinary amount of freedom, especially in the attacking third…Al-Mutawa and Nasser tend to switch off defensively…leaving the defence with little protection
…and given the way that Kuwait started the game, it’s possible that Malooul wanted to pack his midfield with players that would play disciplined roles, even if that came at the sacrifice of outright attacking quality.
Postecoglou used his bench to give minutes to two A-League players who haven’t had much time in the national side, and both Tomi Juric and Nathan Burns had good chances in the final twenty minutes. As Kuwait pushed for a goal, and the game became more open, Troisi was much more involved. He finished off the win with a late goal in stoppage time.
An encouraging win for Australia against an admittedly limited Kuwait side who took a surprise lead through a set-piece, but never seemed comfortable defending deep. They showed much more promise with Al-Mutawa and Nasser on the pitch together, and even though that might come at the expense of defensive solidity, they weren’t particularly solid without those two anyway.
Australia, for their part, played a very positive, attacking brand of football. This is the style Postecoglou has preached throughout his reign, and this was a fine demonstration of how effective it can be when the team is confident and in form. They dominated the ball, worked it forward purposefully and most encouragingly, created chances for players other than Cahill. In fact, this was the first game in 13 under Postecoglou where someone other than Cahill scored in open play. That is a fitting marker of the evolution of the Postecoglou style evident in this romping win.