Australia head into another World Cup in the midst of another philosophical rethink, following the departure of Ange Postecoglou despite a successful qualification campaign.
Postecoglou was initially appointed in October 2013 after his predecessor, Holger Osieck (despite ensuring automatic qualification to the tournament through Asia’s qualifying stages) was sacked following successive 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France that raised questions about the tactical direction of the side. Postecoglou was a breath of fresh air. He won Premierships and Championships with Brisbane Roar whilst revolutionizing the league’s tactical direction, by introducing a style of play focused on dominating possession.
With the national team, Postecoglou was similarly bold. His mantra, ‘never take a backwards step’, came to life through the team’s emphasis on aggressive forward passing and pressing. Throughout his tenure, Postecoglou sought to challenge what he saw as Australia’s ‘inferiority complex’, constantly evolving the side to be more bold and proactive in their approach whilst constantly changing formations.
Yet, as Postecoglou struggled to bring through new talent, solve existing areas of weakness and came up against ultra-defensive teams which Australia had trouble breaking down, dissatisfaction grew. The tipping point was probably the change to a 3-2-4-1 formation. Although tactically fascinating, as it embodied Postecoglou’s core principles, it was seen as an unnecessary and risky experiment.
Subsequently, poor results, the feeling that the team was being held back by Postecoglou’s prickly ego, and some highly outspoken pundits intensified the pressure around the team. Although Postecoglou navigated a tricky pair of knockout ties against Syria and Honduras – and, in the process, it should be noted, sticking stubbornly to his three at the back – he stepped down after securing Australia’s spot in Russia.
In subsequent interviews, he cited frustration with the national direction as the primary reason for resigning.
“I had different thoughts on how we wanted us to our play football and what road I wanted us to be on. In the end, I think people are just not interested in it and not interested in my thoughts.”
Perhaps, as if to underline the disconnect between Postecoglou’s broader vision and the scope of the FFA, Bert van Marjwik was appointed on a short-term contract to coach Australia at the World Cup. Shortly after, Graham Arnold (then of Sydney FC) was announced as the long-term coach to take charge after the World Cup, which speaks to the short-terminism of Van Marwijk’s appointment.
Change in strategy
Van Marwijk was undeniably a change in tactical direction.[quote align=”left” name=”Ange Postecoglou”]With the new coach coming in…If they need to grind out a 1-0 then that’s what they’ll try and do. I guess that’s why he was appointed for such a short term, just for one tournament. To be fair that’s all he can really be concerned about, I don’t think he needs to be concerned about how we play or whether it fits into any philosophy. He’s there to get us our best performance at a World Cup and I guess he’ll try to do that anyway he can[/quote]
This demonstrates ideological debate at the heart of Australian football – but more pertinently, highlights what the major tactical change will be on the pitch. Whereas Postecoglou lived and died by a set of key principles, based around being proactive and taking the game to the opponent, Van Marwijk has shifted the team towards a more structured, organized approach, wherein his stylistic influence on the playing style has been immediate and obvious.
It can be somewhat summed up by the kick-off. Under Postecoglou, every kick-off represented the opportunity to go forward, a chance to run at the opponent and demonstrate your attacking intent. For the first time in 49 games, in the first match of the Van Marwijk era against Norway, the kick-off went backward.
That is a simplistic analysis, and the more illustrative shift has been in Australia’s approach when defending. Bert van Marwijk, as he did with the Dutch national team in 2010, and more recently with Saudi Arabia, has implemented three clear lines of defence; 4-4-2, with small distances between the lines and the whole team very compact from back to front.
Rather than pressing, Australia’s defensive strategy is based around what can be called a ‘line of engagement’. This is the point on the pitch where the defensive block starts, typically around half-way, with the players in the first line (the front two) blocking passes into the centre of the pitch, and the wide players dropping back alongside the midfield duo.
This can be termed a line of engagement because it is the point beyond which the team will actively close down the ball. Anything in front of the block is defended passively – anything into the block is defended actively.
Some insight into how the Socceroos will defend under Bert van Marwijk at the World Cup – 4-4-2 defensive shape, very compact lines & close down balls into the block quickly pic.twitter.com/7QxIYYBiHp— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) June 10, 2018
In the friendly against Czech Republic, Australia had great success pressing passes into the midfield zone, getting numbers around the ball, winning it back and then attacking quickly, evidenced by the final clip in the video above.
We can expect something similar in the World Cup, as Australia will be the underdogs in all three group games. They’ll set up their block behind the ball, allowing the opposition to build up in front of them, and aiming to win the ball in pre-determined areas of the pitch.
This approach has, generally speaking, made the side more solid and organised – the wide players support the full-backs, the central midfielders protect the back four and the front two make play predictable. In truth, this probably suits the types of players available, particularly at the back.
This is probably Australia’s area of weakness, and where they lack outright quality. The first-choice pairing seemed to be Trent Sainsbury and Mark Milligan, who played together in the two most recent friendlies against the Czech Republic and Hungary. Yet both gave possible reasons for exclusion from the opening match after less-than-impressive moments against Hungary.
In the case of Sainsbury, the centre-back made a disastrous error of communication, heading straight past Brad Jones with the intention of the keeper to collect the ball safely, but instead putting it in the net. However, Sainsbury is usually a composed, ball-playing defender comfortable bringing the ball out from defence, was captain for both matches and still seems like the sure pick.
Milligan, on the other hand, struggled throughout the game. He had difficulty defending against longer balls from the back and was sloppy with his forward passes from the back (nearly gifting Hungary a goal with one particularly errant ball). Van Marwijk might decide on Matt Jurman instead, a more no-nonsense defender that would seem to suit the new coach’s playing style.
Another player who struggled against Hungary but is likely to keep his place is right-back Josh Risdon. One of few locally-based players in the squad, Risdon is highly mobile and gets up and down the pitch comfortably, but struggled 1v1 against Roland Sallai which was a cause for alarm given the higher caliber of opponents he’ll be up against in the group.
However, Risdon has been preferred throughout Van Marwijk’s short tenure, who is said to be very impressed with the young defender, and will probably be trusted at least for the opening game. Milos Degenek, a versatile player who can play anywhere across the back four and in midfield, is the alternate option.
On the left is Aziz Behich, similarly athletic to Risdon and increasingly a very reliable performer for the national team. Behich is capable of sliding early balls into the box from deep positions and might be a surprise packet of the tournament.
Behind the back four will be Brighton goalkeeper Matt Ryan. First brought into the squad by Postecoglou, he was the clear no.1 because of his impressive range of distribution. Those attributes are slightly less unnecessary in the more conservative style, but he is capable of sparking counter-attacks with quick, flat and eerily accurate drop-kicks. A good all-round goalkeeper, he is one of few players in this squad playing regular football in a top European league.
Similarly, Australia actually possesses strength in midfield, with five excellent players to fit into three positions.
Van Marwijk likes to have a midfield two that sit in front of the defence, who can control a slow tempo in possession and primarily protect the back four against counter-attacks. In the recent back to back games against the Czechs and Hungary, he used Massimo Luongo and Aaron Mooy, indicating their seeming starting berths.
However, Mile Jedinak is a fine leader (the nominal captain), who holds his position excellently and is a strong physical presence. In the vein of Nigel de Jong or Mark van Bommel (who, incidentally, is Van Marwijk’s assistant), he seems a perfect fit for the role asked of that position, and will likely start against France.
That leaves a choice of Mooy or Luongo alongside him. Luongo has been in great form for QPR, starred in a friendly against Colombia and is an energetic, box-to-box player, but most likely will unluckily miss out, as the quality of Mooy counts against him. Mooy, a regular for Huddersfield in the Premier League, is a fine long-range passer, very creative and more combative than perhaps given credit for. He will also deliver most of Australia’s set pieces, including corners.
Luongo could potentially move further forward into the no.10 position, but it doesn’t suit his ability to break from deeper positions. Rather, Tom Rogic is a proper, almost old-school no.10 – stays high between the lines, wants to get the ball and dribble at opponents, and has a languid, low-energy style to him. He is at his thrilling burst when he demonstrates a rapid change of pace, or with his quick outside-of-the-foot through balls to onrushing attackers. In games where Australia will defend for long periods, he will be required to turn defence into attack quickly and produce creativity in short bursts.
Yet Jackson Irvine staked a claim for a starting place in the friendly against Hungary. In truth, it probably was not enough to start against France, but he demonstrated his ability to run in behind defences with a smart run into the channel between Hungary’s centre-backs and full-backs, where he assisted for a game-winning own goal.
If he does start, it’ll be because of his ability to press and cover ground more energetically than Rogic.
The right wing is a position that’s locked in by Mathew Leckie, a regular under Postecoglou who covers extraordinarily high distances, is very strong and combative and provides directness and thrust from the wing. He is not overly creative, but suits Van Marwijk’s style defensively, tucking in reliably to keep the side compact. Where Leckie can struggle is when Australia have possession for long periods, because Van Marwijk likes to bring the wingers into narrow positions during these moments and play between the lines. Leckie is not comfortable receiving in these positions but will be better suited to the larger (but less often) spaces available in counter-attacks.
Robbie Kruse, another Socceroos regular, will probably start on the left. Like Leckie, Kruse is solid without being spectacular, a hard worker who will support the midfield without the ball and provide a useful outlet going forward. Kruse is more comfortable in those playmaking positions than Leckie, but his decision-making and reliability on the ball is questionable.
If Kruse doesn’t start, it will be because Daniel Arzani has done enough to convince Van Marwijk to roll the dice. This is Australia’s genuine x-factor – the player who can provide something highly unique and with the ability to light up the tournament. Only breaking out in the second half of the A-League season at Melbourne City (few in Australia would have known who he was before 2018), he is an electric dribbler, always confident to go into 1v1s and take risks.
There’s no doubt Arzani can provide in attack (he scored and set up both goals in the Hungary friendly), but the biggest question mark for Van Marwijk, as it was for his club coach, Warren Joyce, is whether Arzani has both the stamina and the attitude to ‘dig in’ defensively and keep the side balanced in defence.
Upfront, Van Marwijk can choose between four strikers, but only one has started 3 of his 4 friendlies in charge. Like Arzani, Nabbout has been an A-League breakout success, starring for Newcastle Jets in the first half of the season. He since moved to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds, an astonishing turnaround for a player who reportedly paid out of pocket to trial at A-League clubs less than 3 years ago.
Van Marwijk likes Nabbout because he provides energy, muscle, and counter-attacking ability up front. A powerful forward perhaps more suited to the wing, Nabbout will help turn defence into attack more reliably than the other options available.
Of those, Tim Cahill is the big name. If he is to join the ranks of Pele, Jurgen Klinsmann and Ronaldo in scoring at four World Cups, he will do it from the bench, after a somewhat dismal domestic campaign where he moved from Melbourne City to Millwall and barely managed 90 minutes of football in total across the whole season. Cahill, inevitably, will be an aerial goal threat and will be very useful to throw on to attack set pieces and cause a nuisance if Australia is chasing games late.
If not for injury problems, Tomi Juric would probably be the starting striker. Although he is not a consistent goalscorer, he holds the ball up well, understands his role defensively and helps link the game well.
In reality, Bert van Marwijk’s game plan will be centered around suffocating opponents, somewhat negative football and attacking on the break. The key ingredients will be Mooy’s ability to play penetrating forward passes, the pace and directness of Leckie and Nabboutt, and hopefully, a spark from Rogic. There is nothing complicated about the strategy, but there have been signs of clever combination play and some transitions that have swept from one side of the pitch to the other.
The team has looked weakest when controlling possession for long periods. Against Hungary, for example, who defended very similarly in a deep 4-4-2 block, the tempo of the game was very slow as the center-backs moved the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. As the central midfielders need to be in a position to protect the defence, and stop counter-attacks, their movement in possession is limited. There are, for example, very few of the positional rotations that typified the Postecoglou era. Likewise, forward runs from deep midfielders, or penetrating vertical passes into central areas from the back are now discouraged, with possession instead funneled through the full-backs down the flanks, or into wingers in narrow positions.
This helps Australia stay organized, but will not help them break teams down.
In attack –> slow ball circulation towards flanks with central midfielders staying central & wingers moving inside. This helps reduce the risk of being exposed on counter-attack. Best moments come from combination play in wide areas, creating opportunity to cross into the box pic.twitter.com/Uirq3K92tl— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) June 11, 2018
Breaking the block?
If, as expected, Australia defend for long periods, there have been some warning signs as to how teams might break them down. Hungary, for example, moved their two #6s into wider positions, outside of the front two. As the midfield line of four focuses on staying compact, and it can be difficult for the front two to cover the width of the pitch, this meant Hungary were able to get their central midfielders on the ball facing forward, free of pressure.
In turn, this allowed the full-backs to move higher. Hungary built up effectively in these moments, playing through the block and also restricting Australia’s ability to counter-attack effectively.
Similarly, the side has struggled when teams have played direct, long balls towards the front. Denmark, Peru & France will generally try to build up through midfield, rather than use this approach, but it is something to consider given the physicality of the likes of Olivier Giroud and Nicolai Jorgensen.
Australia’s football has changed, and the changes Van Marwijk has made will make them more competitive. Whether fans of the team agree with it depends on their philosophical inclinations, and what they believe the national team should represent, but there’s a far better chance of the team grinding out a shock 1-0 win or a couple of draws than they were under Postecoglou – who might still have got a surprise result, but it would have been in a 3-2 thriller.
There will certainly not be any open, attack-minded games, which probably suits the types of players in the squad, but it is a pity a genuinely interesting approach has now been replaced by a fairly standard, underdog template.
The excitement will come either from a moment of magic from the likes of Arzani or Rogic – the rest will be about ensuring the Socceroos are hard to break down and hard to beat.