Bert van Marwijk is a short-term appointment.
The Ange Postecoglou era was about shaping the long-term direction of the side, but following its quick disintegration, appointing a successor was about identifying someone who could take the team in the interim to a World Cup, before handing over to Graham Arnold in the long-term.
On paper, the appointment of van Marwijk was logical: professional, experienced and crucially, having coached Saudi Arabia against Australia recently in qualification, familiar with the side.
In philosophy, though, it is illogical.
Ange Postecoglou’s era was about regenerating the national team. He wanted the Socceroos to represent what he felt was the country’s identity – being brave, taking the game to the opposition and going forwards. He constantly made tactical, technical and management decisions according to the mantra of ‘never take a backwards step’.
His great skill as a coach is having a clear vision, selling that vision to players and acting ruthlessly in sole service of achieving the vision. The vision itself was bold and adventurous. He wanted to win the World Cup, doing it his – or, more pertinently, our – way.
Van Marwijk’s approach is understandably different. He doesn’t have patriotic ties. He is only contracted for the World Cup. There is no obligation to leave a legacy. His tenure is about delivering competitive performances at the World Cup.
The Dutchman’s statement of intent in his first press conference was telling: “We are not going to Russia just to be competitive. I want to win our matches.” Accordingly, van Marwijk’s coaching process will focus on teaching the players a system he believes will enable them to be competitive in Russia.
Therefore, the two friendly matches against Norway and Colombia gave tremendous insight into his strategy. Van Marwijk is heavily associated with the 4-2-3-1 formation, using it extensively with the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia, so it was no surprise to see the Socceroos switch from their controversial 3-2-4-1 to the more orthodox back four.
Of greater tactical importance, however, was the change in mentality without the ball. Whereas Postecoglou encouraged the side to press quickly to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible, van Marwijk’s primary emphasis is to become compact and create three solid lines of defence starting near the halfway line. The wide players drop back next to the central midfielders, and the front two block passes through the middle.
The task, clearly, was to encourage Norway and Colombia to play passes into the midfield zone, which would be, in theory, the moment where, with superiority in numbers around the ball, they could press to try and win the ball back. In essence, Australia weren’t going to actively defend against opposition possession, at least not until they passed that predetermined line of engagement roundabout that halfway line.
There were two primary issues that emerged from this defensive approach. The issue against Norway was that they were happy to play longer, direct passes towards Bjorn Johnsen, who dominated in the air against Australia’s struggling centre-back pairing.
Colombia, by contrast, found success by playing into the midfield zone, dragging Australia’s fullbacks into wider areas, and exploiting the space created between fullback and centre-back with forward runs in behind. Australia’s strategy was evident and logical on paper, but less so in practice.
In philosophy, too, there are question marks. Whether or not you agree with Postecoglou’s belief that his style of play was indicative of our national culture (and the opposition to his back three, and general attacking mindset, suggests in some way it perhaps wasn’t wholly inclusive of all Australian perspectives), there has to be concern that the team is moving drastically between two ends of a tactical spectrum so quickly. It was hardly surprising the team seemed caught between ideas in the Norway match.
In broader hindsight, too, it is easy to see why Postecoglou, someone who believes so deeply in his long-term vision, might have been frustrated by any whisperings prior to his departure of what has eventuated to be the succession plan. The fact that the FFA were considering, and have subsequently appointed van Marwijk, represents a drastic departure from the vision and mantras Postecoglou espoused throughout his regime.
Tactically, van Marwijk’s structured, organised defensive approach is rational and justified. An emphasis on defending in straight lines, with obvious cues of when and where to press, combined with quick, straightforward counter-attacks, has often been a template for teams trying to punch above their weight.
The tactical tasks are simple to grasp. The benefit of five weeks in camp prior to the tournament, combined with van Marwijk’s ability to focus solely on the short-term (he can, for example, focus purely on a core playing group, rather than having to expand the depth of the squad in the way Postecoglou did) means it’s likely Australia will defend well for long periods, ride their luck on occasion, be a sporadic threat in attack, and perhaps spring a surprise result.
Ideologically, and philosophically, however, there is a certain sadness in the way the romance of the Postecoglou era has been lost. There was an endearing quality about the team’s determination to change the mentality of the national team. It is also easy to buy into the vision Postecoglou put forward, and to believe in “never taking a backwards step”.
Van Marwijk will probably achieve some short-term success, but it is unlikely he will leave a long-term legacy.