Five observations from the Socceroos September friendlies

What we learned from Australia’s friendly matches against Belgium and Saudi Arabia

Ange Postecoglou used the September international break to test his side against strong European opposition, and then to experiment more against a competitive Asian side, one of the 16 competing at the 2015 Asian Cup. That created an interesting contrast in expectations and game management, although the overriding feel was that rather than learning anything new, the two games simply reinforced previous concerns about the new-look side.

Cahill here to stay

The key question raised by Australia Scout prior to these friendlies was the future of Socceroos legend Tim Cahill, with the side’s over-reliance on crosses when the striker is in the side highlighted as a potential weakness. It was suggested Postecoglou would look to evolve the side towards a more varied style of play, using these friendlies against Belgium and Saudi Arabia as an opportunity for experimentation.

However, relatively similar starting team selection to the World Cup demonstrated that Postecoglou was looking to refine the system already implemented. That is, of course, a possession-based style with an emphasis on quick passing from the back of midfield wide to get the wingers and full-backs on the ball early on in attacking moves, creating space to cross into Cahill. Against Belgium, there were several examples of this pattern of play, and there was little deviation from the template Postecoglou has already created.

This is a system designed to get the best out of Cahill, a phenomenally good striker in the air who, of the fifteen goals he has scored for the Socceroos in the past four years, eleven have been headers. The lofted crosses Postecoglou’s system encourages don’t suit the other forwards in the squad – more to the point, Cahill started both friendlies. He remains a key figure in this side.

…but still reliant on crosses

However, while Cahill has been in fine form under Postecoglou with four goals in six matches under Postecoglou, the side remains worryingly reliant on his goals. There were very few opportunities in either of the matches against Belgium or Saudi Arabia where Tommy Oar and Matthew Leckie got into goalscoring positions, while the #10, Mark Bresciano and Massimo Luongo, focused primarily on facilitating play rather than getting forward. With a lack of runners from midfield, and an emphasis on wide players stretching the play to create crossing opportunities, it means Cahill is often isolated in the area. He is exceptional at maximising these situations, of course, but without him in the side the Socceroos lack a clear route to goal.

Interestingly, Cahill is more effective when the build-up play is quicker. Fast sequences of passing moves from back to front ensure the box isn’t crowded when the final ball comes in, meaning Cahill can take on defenders 1v1 – when it’s slower, by comparison, or when the opponent plays defensively (as Saudi Arabia did), Cahill’s far less effective.

Bresciano’s goal threat

Part of the problem, too, stems from the structure of the midfield, and the type of player being used as the #10. The two deep midfielders, Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan for these friendlies (and Josh Brillante briefly against Saudi Arabia), stay fairly deep to receive passes from the back four, face forward and play through to the wide players. The player at the tip of the triangle, conversely, is asked to stay slightly higher up, pushing opposition midfielders deeper and creating space for the #6 and #8 to play in.

When the ball progresses into the final third, however, the #10 has more licence to roam as a ‘link’ player. Bresciano interprets the role interestingly – imagine dividing the pitch into thirds: he likes to occupy the centre but will drift slightly towards the channels, and moves up and down that zone. His movement to find space is excellent, and his first touch will often open up across his body, meaning he can then spread the play or pass forward with his second touch.

One fault, however, is that he rarely bursts into the penalty area as a genuine goalscoring threat. At the World Cup, he got a few chances when darting close to and in around Cahill’s attempts to meet crosses, and particularly against Chile, Bresciano should have scored from two volleyed chances off headed flick-ons. Those examples illustrated the additional threat that can come from having a second runner into the area from the crosses, and more of this is probably needed to address the reliance on Cahill.

Massimo Luongo

One of the highlights of the two games was Massimo Luongo’s impressive performances – a cameo against Belgium, and a good overall display against Saudi Arabia. It’s clear he takes much of his positional cues from Bresciano, as his movement was very similar. A subtle difference, however, is that Luongo is happy to work more laterally, and often drifted right out towards the flanks to link up with his fellow attackers.

While his potential as a #10 is now obvious, it’s interesting to wonder whether he could be an option in one of the deeper roles, as a #6 or #8. This would certainly be something Postecoglou would consider against weaker teams in the Asian confederation, where extra creativity is required. Another possibility would be to flip the midfield triangle so there are two #10s – against sides that defend very deep, two midfielders would not be required to play out from the back, and this would free up two central playmakers to work in the space between the lines.

This was an impressive debut for Luongo, and he should become a pivotal player in the side.

Still vulnerable on the counter

A perennial problem of Postecoglou sides is their susceptibility to the counter-attack, which is an inevitable consequence of a possession-based system that requires the defence to play high up the pitch. In this particular system, it is the advanced positioning of the full-backs that causes the biggest issues, as it leaves the centre-backs exposed to counter-attacks.

This has been a recurring issue for the side. It was obvious in the pre-World Cup friendlies, and a key feature of the defeats to Chile, Netherlands and Spain. Belgium got lots of joy with quick, direct attacking on the break, with Kevin Mirallas’s low drive from range 10 minutes in a good example of how the Socceroos are vulnerable to counter-attacks. Another example against Saudi Arabia was when Yasir Al Shahrani squandered a good chance from a cross, with Davidson caught out ahead of the ball and leaving the Saudi attacker free inside the area.

It’s an inevitable consequence of attack-minded football – the more you push forward, the more space you leave in behind. However, the Socceroos often look particularly vulnerable because of sloppy passing in midfield. When the deep-lying midfielders look to work the ball forward from the back, that’s the cue for the full-backs to begin their forward runs – and thus, it’s imperative the passing from Jedinak and Milligan is accurate, as any turnovers in this area of the pitch will expose the centre-backs to counter-attacking opportunities.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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