10 May 2014
The World Cup in Brazil is just 4 weeks away. In some unavoidable timing, the Socceroo Realm will be away leading into the World Cup, and will miss the preparation match on 25 May in Sydney against South Africa, and some of the build-up thereafter. Check the twitter feed on the homepage for small updates.
In place is this piece provided for a British website late last year – and now with some updates.
Lucas Neill dropped
First, the big change since the above piece was written was the retirement, either voluntarily, pre-emptively or decided for them, of several big name players, notably captain Lucas Neill. He was notified by coach Ange Postecoglou that he would not be in the World Cup squad. In the end, it was easy. With no real club form for over a year, no player can expect to be selected in that situation. With a sweeping regeneration of the team now in place, it’s almost impossible any older player will have their career extended unless there’s a really compelling reason to select them.
It’s a shame for Neill. He loved playing for Australia, and we shouldn’t begrudge any player wanting to keep playing as long as possible. While many fans wanted him out long ago, he was more a cause celebre for the broader problem of an aging and sluggish team. In truth, there were others ahead of him to go first and, more importantly, there were no younger replacements ready to step up and take his place. He still is among our best defenders even at this stage of his career. As recently as the final few World Cup qualifiers, his return as part of a settled and experienced defensive unit was integral to Australia qualifying. Ultimately, if fans don’t like that certain players are in the team, the coach should be the target of blame and criticism, not the player.
Thankfully, as often the case, bitterness has been swallowed, and the tributes flowing. Ange at least allowed him to equal the Australian record of most caps as captain with Peter Wilson at 61. Wilson captained Australia at the 1974 World Cup, while Neill had the role in 2006 and 2010. Does that make Neill Australia’s best captain ever? It’s a bit abstract and difficult to calculate. How does leadership add or diminish your general performance? Raw statistics say yes. So do raw results. He’s certainly our best defender ever, and with Craig Moore our best defensive pair. Overall, the trio of Milan Ivanovic, Mehmet Durakovic and Alex Tobin – as part of a sweeper system in the 90s – would trump them as our best ever defensive unit.
Had Neill had been playing regularly at club level, and at a decent club, he’d have been a worthy addition to the World Cup squad, at least as a squad player. At the very least, his experience would have been invaluable. At best, he’d have been a steady hand in case the youngsters did capitulate badly. Unlike Mark Schwarzer, Neill didn’t cut and run either. It was never an option to decide he won’t play for Australia. It was the highest honour and he fought it out. Isn’t that the Australian spirit we all love to see?
The other retiree was Brett Holman. He announced it a week before Neill got the call from Ange, stating he’ll concentrate on his club career in the Middle East and his young family. Unlike Neill, a much less of a concern. The rare spectacular goal never compensated for his erratic passing, running and shooting. Ange obviously told Holman that time was up, so Holman did the honourable thing like Schwarzer to “retire”, rather than be retired.
Squad Preview, Tactics and Strategy
** Defence **
Australia’s defence, much like the rest of the team, is in a state of transition. Under a reign of two Dutch coaches including Guus Hiddinck and Pim Verbeek, and then under German Holger Osieck, Australia has deployed a back four of two central stoppers and two attacking full-backs, with those full-backs typically converted wide midfielders. The result has been defensive frailities at the highest level, such as the past two World Cups, where the team was unable to produce a clean sheet in any of its seven games. At the lower level in the Asian region, they haven’t been exposed as much and, indeed, allowed the team to escape difficult situations during World Cup qualifiers, and even during those World Cups, notably against Japan and Croatia in 2006, and Serbia in 2010.
After two 6-0 embarrassments against Brazil and France in recent friendlies, and after stuttering through the World Cup qualifiers, Osieck was replaced by the local Ange Postecoglou. His first change is to deploy specialist defenders, with attacking capabilities, in those wide postings. His one and only game so far, a 1-0 victory in a friendly against Costa Rica in Sydney, produced an accomplished defensive display without losing anything going forward. By no means a conservative coach, Postecoglou has instantly recognised that the pillars of excelling at the World Cup, especially against such group opponents of Spain, Netherlands and Chile, will be on the back of a solid defence. Australia’s next match is not until March, so with such little opportunities to experiment, Postecoglou will be staking the success of his defence on his double-championship experience as coach of Brisbane Roar in the domestic A-League.
Lucas Neill is the highest profile defender after a long career in the English Premier League with Blackburn and West Ham. Now in Japan and with an Australian record of 61 caps as captain, he’s the talismanic focus in the nation’s dispute over the team’s lack of regeneration since the last World Cup. On one hand he is older and slower, on the other there’s no one behind to push him out. With Postecoglou likely to model the remainder of defence around integrating newer players, chances are Neill will be retained for his invaluable experience to marshal the likes of Rhys Williams, Jason Davidson, Ryan McGowan, Ivan Franjic and Alex Wilkinson, all of which play in lower profile European teams, Korea and the A-League.
Goal-keeping will be in the hands of novices on the world stage after the sensational retirement of Mark Schwarzer on the even of the match against Costa Rica. With a long career in the EPL with the likes of Middlesborough and Fulham, Schwarzer moved to Chelsea in the summer as a reserve goal-keeper to potentially be part of a trophy winning squad. Perhaps pre-empting his fate of being dropped from the national team, he undertook the decision himself to go on his terms. Postecoglou has made it clear that players won’t be picked if not playing regular first team football. Schwarzer’s decision is a pity because, with two World Cups behind him, the likes of Matt Ryan (Club Brugge, Belgium) and Mitch Langerak (Borussia Dortmund) would greatly benefit from his guidance. As it stands, Ryan, who started against Costa Rica, will be favourite to assume the number one role given his excellent and consistent form for his club.
With Neill gone, Curtis Good of Dundee Utd was Ange’s next pick. He played well enough against Ecuador is likely to gain a starting role in Brazil. Matthew Spiranovic of Western Sydney is likely, while Brisbane’s Ivan Franji as sewn up a position out wide. Matt Ryan has sewn up the number one goal keeper’s spot.
** Midfield **
As with the defence, new coach Ange Postecoglou will revert to playing players in their position of strength, rather than fit players into unnatural positions simply to have them on the park, as was the case under the previous two coaches of Holger Osieck and Pim Verbeek. The key issue he will face is of who to leave out. Tim Cahill was the most notorious example of the old policy, often thrown forward as a striker, to allow for one of the abundance of midfield options to get a spot. That had a detrimental to both his and the team’s goal scoring power.
In Postecoglou’s one and only game so far, a friendly against Costa Rica, Cahill was used as a substitute to allow the coach a look at fringe players. More likely he’ll resume his classic and most dangerous position of a box-to-box midfielder in which he excelled at Everton in the EPL for 8 years and in which he was scoring a goal every two games for Australia, including Australia’s first ever World Cup goals, against Japan in 2006. Now at New York in the MLS, he’s come off a successful year with 12 goals from 39 games.
Robbie Kruse, at Bayern Leverkusen, is playing at the highest club level of any Australian. With his speed and skill and marauding striking ability, he’s the other key attacking component out of midfield. He’ll operate on the right, while Tom Oar from FC Utrect will offer a similar outlet on the left. Central midfield options are the aging Mark Bresciano, a stalwart of Italy’s Serie A and now in Qatar, the aforementioned Tim Cahill, and Celtic’s Tom Rogic. Rogic is seen as the future of Australian football with his skilful dribbling and deft passing. He’ll definitely gain game time, most likely as a substitute.
Recent Australian teams have played with two defensive midfielders with Mile Jedinak (captain at Crystal Palace) and Mark Milligan (captain at the A-League’s biggest club, Melbourne Victory). Both are adept at going forward, while Milligan’s outstanding defensive awareness could see him operate in front of the defensive line alone if required. Matt McKay of Brisbane Roar is adaptable to various midfield positions, and was integral in his club’s double-championship success under the helm of Postecoglou as coach. The formation and selections will depend on how much Spain and Netherlands temper Postecoglou’s attack minded tendencies. Indications so far is that he won’t be shirking the challenge.
Robbie Kruse tore an anterior cruciate in his knee earlier this year and is out of the World Cup. Tom Rogic is still too raw so unlikely to get a starting birth. Massimo Luongo of Swindon Town and Oliver Bozanic are likely to gain roles now.
** Attack **
Australia’s one key striker at present is Joshua Kennedy of Nagoya Grampus. With 17 goals from 33 games, his aerial prowess has come to the fore many times, most notably in the pivotal 1-0 win over Iraq to qualify Australia for Brazil 2014. Coming on late as a substitute for Tim Cahill, Kennedy scored in the 83th minute to ease a nation’s nerves. Kennedy was part of a trend during the last three qualifiers that saw Australia score 5 of its six goals from actual strikers. Bizarre as that may sound, with Kennedy often injured and with coach of the time Holger Osieck loath to explore other options, the pattern through the qualifiers was to use one of the bevy of attacking midfielders as a striker. It didn’t work, resulting in a stodgy qualifying process.
As with the midfield and defence, new coach Ange Postecoglou is looking to play players in their positions of strength. Kennedy is back and will be integral to the team, especially with his height. It could be imagined he’ll start against Chile, and then used as an impact player against Netherlands and Spain. The recurring issue is fitting Cahill in the team with Kennedy. Historically, the team easily became too enamoured with a game of long balls and early crosses if both were present. Osieck’s solution was to drop Kennedy. In Postecoglou’s only game so far, a 1-0 win in a friendly over Costa Rica, he also kept Kennedy and Cahill apart. That could be more out of experiment to try other players, more than a guide to his future plans.
Charged with also looking for the next generation of Australian strikers, Mathew Leckie of FSV Frankfurt lead the line against Costa Rica, supported by Dario Vidosic of FC Sion, and Robbie Kruse. All performed satisfactorily. One exciting name on the horizon is Mitchell Duke from Central Coast Mariners in the A-League. He excelled at 2013 East Asia Cup and was in the recent squad to face Brazil. Tomi Juric of Western Sydney Wanderers is also another potential inclusion. Two players unlikely to be seen are veterans Harry Kewell and Archie Thompson. Kewell has long slipped off the radar and is struggling to recapture anywhere near the form he once had when marauding for Leeds in the EPL, while Thompson – the world record holder of 13 goals in an international match – simply lacks the composure at the highest international level.
Kennedy is the mystery and is seemingly out of fashion as an out and out striker. He’ll certainly be going to Brazil and most likely used off the bench. Kewell retired at the end of the A-League season and Thompson is long past his best – not that his best was ever good enough at top international level. Leckie looks to have sewn up the main striker’s role, with the likes of Cahill and Vidosic in support.
** Tactics **
Australia’s coach Ange Postecoglou has vowed that he won’t be intimidated by his group opponents of Chile, Netherlands and Spain, and eagerly looks forward to the challenge to create some of the biggest upsets in World Cup football. With two stunning championships in the A-League with Brisbane Roar, and then a similar remodelling with Melbourne Victory until he was recruited by Football Australia to replace Holger Osieck – sacked in October after embarrassing 6-0 losses in friendlies to Brazil and France.
Postecoglou brought an attacking, possession based passing game to Brisbane that made full width of the pitch, the hallmark of which was an unnerving penchant of delivering results late in games, notably both Grand Final victories, and setting an Australian record of 36 undefeated club matches for any football code. At Melbourne Victory, tweaks were made to deliver a more counter-punching style. Elements of both will be seen in the national team, plus potentially a surprise or two given the acclaim generated of Postecoglou’s tactical nous.
Ostensibly the formation will be 4-2-3-1, possibly 4-1-4-1 given the status of match. The central striker can often drop a little deeper to allow the two wide attackers to penetrate the last line, essentially switching the formation to a 4-1-3-2. Speed will be the key ingredient along with support from deeper midfield. Defensive integrity will be maintained by the actual use of specialist defenders in the back four, rather than converted midfielders that saw Australia fail to keep a clean sheet in all its seven games of the previous two World Cups.
Australia’s big challenge – and essentially the one that devoured Osieck’s credibility – is adapting from being the hunter in the Asian region, to hunted at World Cup level. Asian opposition often sat back to force Australia to make the running, allowing the luxury of converted wide midfielders in full-back positions. While no doubt Postecoglou will look for periods to pressure the opposition with length possession, the reality is that a sound defence will be the cornerstone of progressing to the next phase.
Can Australia make it? Oddly, Spain in their group is a huge favour – just as long as Spain defeats all the teams. That clears the race for second sport, whereby one win could see a team progress. If all other matches are draws, then just two points is enough, with the team with narrowest loss to Spain the team to finish second. That scenario is rare, so given that Spain does dominate the group, Australia will hope to snag one win and a draw. If Chile vs Netherlands is a draw, then the one win will be enough.
The key will be not to lose to Chile, then back it up with a good result against Holland. Failing that, the last match against a potentially already qualified Spain, Australia will have nothing to lose.