What is the pragmatic side of the Socceroo’s attacking 3-2-4-1 formation?

The biggest effect Ange Postecoglou has had on the Socceroos is to change the mentality of the side. With “never take a backwards step” as their motto, he has coached the side to play an aggressive, proactive style of football, encouraging this approach against stronger opponents and in major international tournaments.

With a clear set of key principles, Postecoglou has constantly pushed the tactical boundaries of his team, whilst adapting to the various strengths and weaknesses of players available to him. He has evolved the side from a 4-2-1-3 to a 4-3-3 that was very successful at the 2015 Asian Cup, to a 4-4-2 diamond and more recently, a controversial 3-2-4-1 formation. While the formation explicitly allows for the principles to come to life (for example, creating a midfield overload with a box of two 6s and two 10s) it has been criticised that it creates significant vulnerability at the back, particularly against counter-attacks.

The merits of the formation itself are highly debatable, however, a key point for both sides of the argument is that the 3-2-4-1 exemplifies Postecoglou’s attacking approach: exactly as you should expect of him, say people in favour of the formation, and exactly what the problem is, says the opposition.

However, a formation in itself does not make a coach more or less attacking. Instead, it is the movement and positioning of players within the formation that characterises its intent. In this regard, Postecoglou is actually more defensive than either side of the 3-2-4-1 argument has admitted. This was particularly evident in the World Cup qualifying play-off against Syria.

In this game, in hot temperatures and on a poor pitch, Postecoglou made small tweaks to his usual approach, presumably based upon opposition analysis, but also in response to the fact this was the away leg of a two-legged play-off.  Firstly, Australia had a clear gameplan in the final third to try and play early forward passes in behind the Syrian last line. This suited the qualities of Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse, selected as the dual 10s, as attackers capable of making forward runs from deeper starting positions. The secondary benefit was that by playing longer passes from deeper positions (as Mooy and Milligan, as dual 6s, were the players primarily making the forward passes), it meant Australia did not have to commit as many players forward into the final third. In doing so, they could keep their wing-backs in slightly deeper positions than we have come to expect. This, in theory, gave the back three more support in the moment where the ball was turned over.

The area of the pitch where Milligan and Mooy were receiving forward passes was also an indicator of Postecoglou’s defensive tweaks. Syria’s wing-backs tracked Josh Risdon and Aziz Behich closely, allowing the Socceroos wing-backs to pin them into deeper positions by moving high up the pitch. They also only pressed with two players in the first pressing line, with the midfield focusing on blocking forward passes into the 10s or 9. Against this defensive structure, Milligan and Mooy positioned themselves on the blindside of the first pressing line.

However, with little pressure on the ball,  there were opportunities for them to position higher, between the next line – which, in theory, could have created more opportunities to push Syria’s defensive block deeper, created the opportunity for the back three to bring the ball forward, and play penetrating passes to players between the lines.

Instead, Milligan and Mooy moved close to the back three, received short passes to feet where they could turn on the ball in time and space. In games where Postecoglou is more aggressive, he will ask his midfielders to stay higher between the lines – such as in the Asian Cup – but we are increasingly seeing this movement towards the ball from the 6s in tighter, more cagey games, such as a qualifier against Japan.

This, in turn, affected the positioning of the 10s. Kruse, in particular, sometimes dropped from his advanced positioning to try and receive balls in front of the Syrian midfield line. By moving players from advanced positions between the lines to deeper positions in front of the line, you reduce the risk of attempting a forward pass where if the ball is turned over, there are too many players positioned ahead of the ball to protect against a counter-attack.

There was also evidence of this in the way the back three built up from the back. With minimal pressure on the ball from the 9+10 in Syria’s first pressing line, there were many opportunities for the Australian back three to switch the play across the defence and create the moment for a centre-back to inject forward into vacant space. However, Matt Jurman and Milos Degenek focused on playing passes into the wing-backs or to the feet of the 6s, staying in a position where they could defend against any Syrian counter-attack through their front two. It was significant that the Australian goal came in a moment where Degenek brought the ball forward, as this drew a player out of the Syrian midfield line and created a pocket of space to play forward into the feet of Leckie inside the box.

A similar move occurred later for the Tomi Juric double chance.

However, in the context of the overall game, we rarely saw this movement to inject forward from the back three, despite obvious moments in which they could.

The real indicator of Postecoglou’s pragmatic adaptations, however, was the tempo of the game. While a slow intensity has been evident over the last eight months, it was particularly obvious here. While it may have been linked to the steamy conditions, it felt like Australia were playing with an intent to slow the game down more than usual. The 6s, for example, played short passes in combination under no pressure and very rarely switched the play aggressively even when Syria’s defensive block shifted to one side of the pitch.

More evidence of this was at restarts. In the Asian Cup, in an attempt to combat teams that tried to time waste, Postecoglou constantly encouraged his time to take free-kicks and throw-ins quickly, to keep the game moving. Yet here, against Syria, they were more relaxed, more pragmatic, sometimes allowing their opponents to get all their players behind the ball. Twice Matt Jurman kicked two free-kicks long down the field (including one seemingly attempted shot!), which is quite uncharacteristic of a Postecoglou side normally encouraged to play the ball short and continue to build up play through possession.

Using a slow build up play to create a defensive structure to defend against counter-attacks is an increasingly common theme in modern football. Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur often do this. They will build up slowly from deeper positions, and bring the ball forward methodically and carefully. Then, when they have set up their structure in the final third, they will attempt longer diagonal balls in the final third – targeting their physical advantage, but also knowing that if they do lose the second ball, they have players behind the ball that can press quickly in transition and create an attacking opportunity from that moment. It is what Pep Guardiola refers to as the “15 pass rule”.

If there isn’t a sequence of 15 passes first, it’s impossible to carry out the transition between defence & attack. If you lose the ball, if they get it off you, then the player who takes will probably be alone & surrounded by your players, who will then get it back easily or, at the very least ensure that the rival team can’t manoeuvre quickly. It’s these 15 passes that prevent your rival from making any kind of co-ordinated transition.Pep Guardiola

Having faced much criticism for over-committing to attack, the reality is Postecoglou appears to have implemented specific tactical tweaks to try and reduce the risk of being exposed on the counter-attack. He has adjusted the position of his attacking players, and slowed the tempo so that the side can maintain a positional structure that ensures the defence is adequately protected should the ball be turned over.

While there are certainly still weaknesses that make the side vulnerable on the break, and there is no doubt that is a high element of adventure and risk in the 3-2-4-1, it is simplifying the debate to suggest Postecoglou does not consider the defensive aspects of his system and style of play. However, rather than making sweeping changes to his approach, he has introduced subtle tweaks that reveal a more pragmatic side.

While there are certainly still weaknesses that make the side vulnerable on the break, and there is no doubt that is a high element of adventure and risk in the 3-2-4-1, it is simplifying the debate to suggest Postecoglou does not consider the defensive aspects of his system and style of play. However, rather than making sweeping changes to his approach, he has introduced subtle tweaks that reveal a more pragmatic side.

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