The midfield zone was the area of greatest strength during the Ange Postecoglou era, but also the most problematic.
Compared to other positions, Postecoglou was spoilt for choice in midfield. At the start of his regime, he had Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan, Matt McKay, James Holland, Oliver Bozanic, Mark Bresciano and Tom Rogic to choose from for the three midfield roles in a 4-2-1-3 formation. In this system, Bresciano was the link player, knitting the side together with his clever movement and composure in possession.
Before the 2015 Asian Cup, however, Postecoglou wanted to ease the team’s reliance on Tim Cahill upfront, and create a more fluid, attack-minded system which could allow the central midfielders to get forward and rotate with the front three to create higher quality attacking opportunities. This manifested in a 4-3-3 with “two 8s”, one of which was Massimo Luongo – who broke through at the Asian Cup itself with his exciting blend of thrust and energy from midfield. Luongo’s goals, breaking forward from midfield, typified the changes Postecoglou made in this zone.
Aaron Mooy did not even make the Asian Cup squad, but his emergence as a genuinely elite playmaker at both Melbourne City, then Huddersfield, meant Postecoglou had to evolve the Socceroos formation to fit him in. At first, this involved a 4-4-2 diamond, with Rogic, Mooy, Luongo & Jedinak a surprisingly strong spine for a team said to be lacking for talent.
Yet the diamond had two problems: it didn’t offer natural width high up the pitch, which in turn reduced the space between the lines for the midfield playmakers. Coupled with the arrival of yet another talented midfielder, Jackson Irvine, who has the relatively unique ability amongst Socceroos midfielders to be able to run in behind from the #10 position, it meant Postecoglou turned to the infamous 3-2-4-1 formation. Although controversial, the box midfield was logical, with Jedinak, Mooy & Luongo all better suited to the deeper #6 roles, and Irvine, Rogic and even Robbie Kruse able to play in the advanced #10 positions.
However, the box did not necessarily suit the unique attributes of all the midfield players. In fact, we had an early insight into this when Postecoglou moved Mooy into the #10 position against Germany in the Confederations Cup. Mooy was highly ineffective in this position, constantly dropping back towards the ball and removing Australia’s overload between the lines made possible by the unorthodox 3-2-4-1.
Hence, Postecoglou changed the format of the midfield quartet for the knockout ties against Syria and Honduras, using a diamond. In this setup, Luongo and Mooy were two 8s, moving between defenders to find space, and allowing Irvine to play higher up, running in behind striker Tomi Juric.
Clearly, Postecoglou had to do a lot to try and accommodate his midfielders into a system – arguably, too much. The constant evolution of the formation does signify the wider issue, which is the difficulty in fitting the likes of Mooy, Luongo, Rogic and Jedinak into a system.