Australia’s defence of the Asian Cup started with a poor 1-0 defeat to Jordan.
The tactical battle was all about Australia’s attempts to break down Jordan’s deep, defensive block. Vital Borkelmans set his side up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Early on, they attempted to defend higher up the pitch, with the #10, Saeed Al Murjan, staying close to Australia’s deepest central midfielder, Massimo Luongo.
As is typical for a Graham Arnold side, though, Luongo and his central midfield partner, Mark Milligan, rotated in between or either side of the Australian centre-backs when building up to open up space to play forward into. Jordan’s wingers tracked Australia’s full-backs into very deep positions, so there was lots of space either side of Jordan’s first pressing line for either a centre-back to carry the ball forward into, or one of the midfielders who rotated out to pick up the ball and bring it forward.
An early sign of Australia’s underwhelming team performance, however, was the
Jordan defend deeper
Jordan’s goal from a corner dramatically exaggerated the existing pattern of the game. They now had a goal to defend, and dropped deep as a unit and focused on protecting their back third.
The Jordanian wide players continued to track Australia’s full-backs, creating the look of a back six at times when both Australia’s wing-backs pushed high. 73% possession to 27% in Australia’s favour summed it up.
Jordan, on the whole, defended well. The central midfielders stayed very close to the back four, denying space between the lines, and moved out wide to support the wingers & full-backs when Australia played through these zones.
At times, they did not stay particularly compact horizontally. The opposite central midfielder did not always come across and cover if his partner moved wider, and the wingers simply tracked the full-back all the way, so there was sometimes space in between the midfield four that Australia rarely exploited.
This, really, was the main story – Australia’s poor attacking performance. There were a few issues:
Players between the lines
Graham Arnold’s style of play depends on getting creative players free between the lines, with the ability to turn in tight areas to create goal scoring opportunities. Those players here were Rogic, and depending on the positioning of the #10, either Kruse or Mabil (whoever was on the opposite side to Rogic) coming into these playmaking positions.
However, when Australia played penetrating passes to these players between the lines, they struggled to be able to turn cleanly in tight spaces to get free quickly. Often, they would require one touch to receive, and a second touch to push the ball forward to then play the next pass – at which time, Jordan was able to close the space around the ball quickly in numbers.
Often, Rogic dropped in front of the midfield line. In some ways, this was understandable, as Jordan’s compactness made his task very difficult. It did, however, remove Australia’s threat between the lines, and made it more difficult for him to be effective in possession. He overhit a number of ambitious passes over the top from deep positions.
Releasing players in wide areas
Another key tenet of Arnold’s attacking system is releasing the wing-backs in wide areas. This often comes via combination play between the lines, drawing opposition defenders in, to then be able to release the wing-back moving in behind the defence from a wide area in a position where he can deliver a low cross into the penalty box.
Australia struggled to create these patterns for large stretches of the first half, particularly down the right hand side. This probably explains the otherwise odd substitution of Rhyan Grant for Josh Risdon. Grant did provide more dynamic and mobile movement in his familiar wing-back role (having played for many years under Arnold at Sydney FC) but it was Aziz Behich on the opposite side who created the best chances, including one early in the second half that slid across the face of goal.
As the game progressed, though, a key issue was not being able to play the wing-backs in behind at speed, where they could deliver the ball behind the Jordan defence
A final concern for Australia was the positioning and movement of the central midfielders. Typically, according to Arnold’s Sydney FC template, when the ball moves wide, one of the 6s moves across to support the ball carrier in the ‘pocket’ between opposition defenders, where they can receive to either turn and switch the play, or pass forward to the attackers between the lines. Neither Luongo or Milligan did this in the opening half-hour, which seemed to cause Australia problems.
Another issue was the direction and speed of distribution. Often, Milligan and Luongo moved the ball from side to side slowly, looking for switches to the opposite side rather than playing penetrating passes through the centre. This was surprising, as Australia both had players positioned in these zones, and, as aforementioned, Jordan did not stay overtly compact in these positions.
The introduction of Jackson Irvine gave Australia a different dimension in midfield. This was because he made forward runs into the box, giving Australia an extra attacking threat at a time when the majority of chances being created were from lofted crosses.
The best opportunities, though, fell to Jordan. The left-winger, Yaseen Al-Bakhit, had an excellent game – constantly winning the ball back in deep positions then charging forward to drive counter-attacks. Jordan’s other pacy forwards also came close to extending their lead, by being able to attack the space Australia left behind in their own half in search of an equalising goal.