12 September 2017
Credit where it’s due. Australia tried its absolute hardest to win by enough goals against Thailand to increase its chances to directly qualify for the World Cup in 2018. Forty five shots on goal, 26 of them from inside the penalty box, 11 shots were blocked, 3 hit the post, 16 corners and 76% possession says it all. Goals in football generally average to 1 for every seven shots, so at 45 shots, that’s at least 6 goals. Even from the 26 shots within the box, that’s almost 4 goals. Instead it was two, while Thailand managed to score 1 from their handful of decent shots, with it diverting in from the crossbar. They also had an obvious penalty denied late in the first half when scores were 0-0. It was one of those nights.
Credit also for the resilience of the Socceroos. Despite the 0-0 score at half time, Australia kept battling away. When the unthinkable happened that Thailand equalised on 82 minutes, Australia responded withing four minutes to regain the lead. The game was so reminiscent of the home leg against Canada in 1993 where Australia peppered the goals, finally broke through late in the first half, inexplicably conceded early in the second half, and salvaged a goal late to bring the tie level. Except then, Australia went on to win the penalty shootout to reach the final playoff round against Argentina. This time there still might be penalties to decide it all – after the third placed playoff against Syria and then either USA, Honduras or Panama in CONCACAF.
It was an eerie and strange feeling leaving the stadium and going home last Tuesday night. Certainly there was relief that the Socceroos snagged the win to give them some hope to qualify directly, and there was uncertainty about the future. First it was whether Saudi Arabia at home could defeat Japan in a few hours time to send Australia to the playoffs, and then the nature of the playoffs as well. As it proved, Saudi Arabia beat Japan 1-0 in a game that had saw both teams create many chances. It could have gone either way. Again, it was one of those nights. In truth, the Saudis deserved to win. Good on them too!
Since Australia’s entry into Asia, all we’ve done is taken a spot from the existing teams. It wasn’t meant to be like this, and the Middle Eastern teams have especially felt aggrieved. There were meant to be reciprocal benefits moving to Asia, not for Australia to gain a permanent and easy World Cup spot. Part of the benefit of absorbing a powerful Australia from Oceania was the expectation Asia and Oceania would be permanently linked for the playoff spot. That only lasted one cycle when Bahrain lost to New Zealand as FIFA betrayed both regions, sending Asia and Oceania into a random draw with South America and CONCACAF. For Asia to work, there’s to be mutual benefit of improving the Socceroos, other Asian teams and Asia as a whole. That also means occasionally not qualifying for the World Cup. I’ve said in the past that Australia should accept missing one in three World Cups. After two successful attempts, maybe it’s our time to miss out. Or, at least, do something no Asian team has been able to do since Australia joined Asia – qualify through the playoffs.
Invariably, the obvious question to ask following the failure to qualify directly is: What went wrong? Not that much actually. Australia won 5, drew 4 and lost one match. They had the least losses of all teams, with their only loss away to Japan. No shame in that. They accumulated 19 points, which is 4 more points than the other group’s second placed team (Korea), and only missed qualifying on goal difference. A direct comparison to the results of Japan and Saudi Arabia away to Thailand (2-0 and 3-0, respectively) would be to blame the corresponding match. Thailand were meant to be the whipping boys, and here, playing in tribute for the recent death of their king, kept Australia to 2-2. They actually should have won, running Australia ragged and missing a late chance. The crucial match for Australia was in Saudi Arabia, where Australia conceded on 79 minutes to leave with a 2-2 draw. Instead of gaining three points on the Saudis, they gained nothing. In a game that could have gone either way, they led Iraq too – until the 76th minute – to leave neutral Tehran with a draw. As for this extraordinary home match against Thailand, note that Japan and Saudi Arabia won their corresponding fixtures 4-0 and 1-0. Thailand were a reasonably tough defensive unit to crack.
Coach Ange Postecoglou naturally is facing some pressure. The switch from 4 at the back to 3 at the back after the halfway mark was criticised, most specifically by Mark Bosnich, as an unnecessary experiment. Results suggest it didn’t matter too much, with Australia scoring 10 of their 19 points in the second half of qualifying, albeit with an extra home match. More critical is some of the stubbornness – particularly some of Ange’s instructions and being lost in his greater vision at the expense of the direct mission. Most glaring at the venue was seeing the goal-keeper always – and I mean always – playing the ball out along the ground. While I can appreciate that facilitates the general possession game Postecoglou wants to aspire, it’s occasionally at the detriment of the team’s chances to quickly get forward. Often players would be clear in space after sprinting up-field ready for a long kick-out. No, it was always play it to a defender, which also made it so predictable for Thailand, who could easily press and try win possession. They nearly capitalised once, as did Japan. Often this sort of stubbornness shows a coach losing confidence or control, and trying to re-stamp authority.
Then there’s Ange’s “change the landscape” vision for football in Australia. Interestingly, previous coaches have been lambasted for being too short-sighted with their objectives. You can’t win, even if you do, as both Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck qualified Australia directly. National teams are representative teams and, particularly for countries like Australia, the talent pool is limited. This isn’t a club where you can buy or recruit players to suit your coaching ethos and then try imprint a style over months of training and during the season, or even over multiple seasons. International teams gather a few times a year, have limited training opportunities, often have specific short term aims, so the goal is to extract the best out of those players available and the team in general. Often you might need to adjust tactics and formations to suit the players you have. No point trying to turn players into something they are not, as after the match they go back to their clubs and their natural style. When you’re quitting the national team after this campaign as Ange has already confirmed, then how can you change the landscape anyway? The next coach – if he’s a reputable, high-calibre coach of self worth and belief – will do something according to his ethos. He won’t be bending to the previous coach’s practice.
The harsh truth with this cycle is not the coach, not the method, not even many of those 45 shots against Thailand that narrowly did not score. It’s that the players are not good enough at international level. Obviously the calibre isn’t there when you compare them to names like Viduka, Kewell, Emerton, Neill and Moore of the 2006 World Cup team, it’s actually more mental than physical – unable to cope with higher pressure, both mentally and time on the ball in the cauldron of international football. Even Mark Viduka lamented it at times. Players simply don’t get that intensity at club level so often have difficulty adjusting. Even the biggest names have trouble adjusting, like Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.
The one dynamic Australia still has is Ange Postecoglou. “In Ange we trust” – remember that when he was first hired? It still applies. We must keep trusting. He’s a proud Australian, and proud of his team. The month waiting until the first playoff series will be a time of great reflection, and a switch to the direct mission objective of winning the both playoff series. He has no choice. You can’t change the landscape if the landscapers are out of a job.
Ange Postecoglou’s post-match comments:
“My position is I’m coach of the national team … I’ll see it through. The Australian football industry chewed me up and spat me out 10 years ago so this is nothing new.
“It doesn’t change my conviction of what I think is right for our game and our country and I’ll see it through.
“I love watching that team play, my team play, our team play.
“People can have their judgments of me … I won’t be pushed into the shadows of Australian football history like others.
“The style, the approach is what works for us and what will work for us.”
“It’s been unbelievable, it’s been magnificent and I have been sitting here frustrated for the last two years listening to some of the garbage being thrown around at these players.
“It’s tough qualifying for a World Cup, it’s even tougher when it’s your first one for a lot of these guys. We have played 10 games, lost only one, they have done everything I have asked of them. I am the one putting them out there trying to win games of football.
“It’s heartbreaking for the players. They were brilliant tonight. They had 40 plus shots and chances just didn’t go in. If we had got one a bit earlier it may have opened them up a bit.
“As the game wore on anxiety crept in, we had to take a couple more risks. They could have become deflated at each other, but they showed character and resilience to stay in the game.
“Thailand were resilient, defended desperately but OK, 45 shots, three posts, cleared off the line, if there was a more one-sided contest I don’t think I have seen it. Usually when the evidence is overwhelming you get the rewards.”
“All you need is 10 per cent to go in and you are talking about a different game.”