Australia competed excellently in the tricky away leg of their World Cup qualifying playoff against Honduras, creating many good chances from which they could have won the match, albeit returning to Sydney with a respectable 0-0 draw.
A significant contributor to the confident Australian performance was their ability to overload Honduras in midfield areas.
While the philosophy of Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has been heavily debated, there has been less discussion about the key principles that have been ever-present throughout his regime.
Regardless of the formation, Postecoglou has stuck to the mentality and core beliefs he instilled from day one. These include being proactive, playing forward, penetrating in wide areas and creating midfield overloads.
These principles were fundamental to the controversial decision to switch to a back three. The 3-2-4-1 formation allows the team to play out from the back (with the back three usually ensuring comfortable numerical superiority against opposition pressure in deep positions), while the combination of two 6s (holding midfielders) and two 10s (attacking midfielders), in theory, overloads any opponent that plays with two or three players in the central zone.
This was evident in the home qualifier against the UAE. Tom Rogic was able to get free in pockets of space behind the opposition midfield line, because the opposition’s two central midfielders were drawn up the pitch towards Australia’s deeper midfielders, creating space between the lines.
The Socceroos new 3-2-4-1 system, looking at how the back three builds up to get a player in the box midfield free between lines pic.twitter.com/kptVLw9cLx— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) June 8, 2017
Creating midfield overloads was also vital against Honduras. However, building on from a tactical change he first made in the second leg against Syria, Postecoglou tilted his midfield square to become a diamond. In this diamond, each player had clear tasks in possession that created opportunities to play through the midfield zone and get key players on the ball in dangerous positions that suited their individual attributes.
The player at the base of the diamond was Mile Jedinak, returning from a long injury lay-off.
Jedinak’s primary role was without the ball, where he screened the back four, cut off direct passing lanes to Honduras’ front two (the South Americans played a 4-2-3-1 that became 4-4-2 out of possession), and helped win second balls against long passes from the back.
With the ball, Jedinak had a starting position behind Honduras’ first pressing line (a front two). In doing so, he occupied the first pressing line so that either they would block passes into him – thus allowing one of the Australian back three time and space to play forward – or, if the Honduras front two pressed, Jedinak could move off the shoulder and get free to receive a forward pass between the lines.
Sometimes, Jedinak would also drop into the back three, so one of the centre-backs could drive forward.
In all these examples, Jedinak’s role is to facilitate the build up – help Australia move the ball from the back into the middle or front third, preferably via controlled, forward passes. The aim of this was to get one of the attacking midfielders – Aaron Mooy, Massimo Luongo or Jackson Irvine – on the ball in time and space, to be effective going forward.
Postecoglou gave slightly different roles to each of these three to maximise their individual traits.
Luongo, for example, as the right-sided 8, positioned himself between defenders, level and outside of his nearest opponent. This meant when he received forward passes, he could try and ‘break’ the defenders by turning quickly and darting forward into space. Luongo’s physicality means he is able to hold off defenders while turning in tight areas, and he was able to do so effectively from that right-sided position to motor forward into the final third.
Mooy, as the left-sided 8, provides penetration with a creative range of passing, but needs to receive in space away from defenders to be effective. Therefore, his starting position was higher than Luongo’s, in the pockets of space behind his nearest defender. That meant he was receiving passes that broke the line, rather than receiving the pass, then breaking the line, as Luongo was doing. That, in turn, meant Mooy was getting the ball in space to turn and face forward, where he could then look for forward runs from Tomi Juric, Aziz Behich or Josh Risdon.
The player at the top of the diamond, Jackson Irvine, was crucial in creating space for Mooy and Luongo. Irvine’s starting position was highest, getting in between Honduras’ midfield and defence (close to Juric). That had two effects. Firstly, it meant the two opposing central midfielders had to screen passes into Irvine, while also preventing Mooy and Luongo getting free in front of them. Secondly, it meant Australia’s back three could play longer passes towards Juric, who could then try and lay the ball off to Irvine between the lines.
Where Irvine was most effective, however, was when the ball entered the final third. When this happened, Irvine would move into the box alongside Juric, becoming a target for deliveries from Risdon or Behich – the latter created a chance for Irvine who volleyed high over the bar.
Specific examples of the different player tasks within Australia’s diamond midfield are shown in the video below.
Specific tasks for each player in the Socceroo's diamond midfield (3-4-3 formation) allowed them to overload Honduras centrally with key players receiving the ball between and behind the lines pic.twitter.com/frfQjKiT9I— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) November 14, 2017
Evidently, there is a lot of detail that goes into Australia’s preparation for matches such as this – especially when considering this is only the organisation of the midfield when in possession.
These tactical plans come from extensive opposition scouting and careful analysis of each squad member’s strengths and weaknesses, drawn up by Postecoglou and his technical staff. This match was a good example of how clear planning and player tasks can maximise each player’s abilities while still bringing the key principles to life – all the way up until the finishing, at least.
We can expect a similarly detailed plan in the second leg, where the coaching staff will have analysed this match, assessed what worked and what did not.
With fresh faces like Tom Rogic, Matthew Leckie and Mark Milligan to introduce into the fold, Postecoglou has plenty of options. Regardless of his selection, however, and whether he sticks or twists with this unique 3-4-3 diamond formation, overloading that midfield zone, and getting the likes of Rogic, Mooy and Luongo driving at the defence will be critical to an Australian victory.