15 June 2018
“I will do it my own way.” With those words at his initial press conference, out went the old ways of previous coach Ange Postecoglou, and in come the new ways of coach Bert van Marwijk. So much for changing the landscape, or leaving a legacy, as was Postcoglou’s mission. It was always a fool’s policy that Postecoglou set, and actively encouraged by elitists in the media, that a national team can be moulded into a permanent style. National teams are representative, meaning player options are often limited, not bought or recruited from anywhere, so strengths across the field can vary through the years.
With that, it was also pleasing to hear van Marwijk say “it’s important we play in a way that fits the players, and “you cannot play in a way that players cannot do.” Australia struggled through World Cup qualifying primarily because of Postecoglou’s enforced doctrine. The possession and pressing game, and always playing out from the back, was exploited, with the leaky defence never to be fixed, and experimentation with team selection never ending.
In the four internationals van Marwijk has controlled the Socceroos since his appointment late January, things are slowly improving. A 4-1 loss in Norway was followed by a 0-0 against a quality Colombian team in London, then a 4-0 win over Czechia in St Polten, Austria. Even though Czechia appeared in holiday mode and Colombia had plenty of chances to win easily (including a penalty saved and hitting the post twice), Australia looked much better on the ball in both of those games, and finished their World Cup preparations with a 2-1 over Hungary in Budapest. That was strange game in which all goals came from mistakes: Hungary’s goal-keeper fluffed a shot from range by Daniel Arzani, Hungary equalised after Trent Sainsbury’s headed back-pass went straight into the net, while Hungary responded with an own goal of their own.
Speaking of Daniel Arzani, the 19 year old was a shock inclusion into the World Cup squad. Barely with 6 months of club football under him at Melbourne City, he’s now threatening for a starting spot in Russia. His inclusion has shown a preference towards the trickier, speedier and more skilful players in van Marwijk’s teams – evidence he sees (realistically) that the overall playing strength is not at the required level to take on these pedigreed World Cup teams head on, so he’ll rely more on individual brilliance and a counter attacking game. As he says, play to the players’ strengths, not force something unusual on them or beyond their capabilities. If he can sort out the defensive frailties further, then we could in for a surprise result or two.
Can Australia reach the knockout phase?
If you take a direct form line from Russia’s 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening game, it won’t be easy. Saudi Arabia, with van Marwijk at the helm, qualified ahead of Australia. Van Marwijk then quit after negotiations to renew his contract broke down, and now Australia is lucky to have secured his services for the tournament. Although, Australia handled the Saudis quite comfortably in qualifying, are arguably a more talented team, and now have a more astute and flexible coach than previously.
France is Australia’s first match, and while the French are notoriously slow to start a tournament, no risks will be taken. Remember, it doesn’t matter when you score your points to qualify for the knockout phase, as long as you score them. With France likely to beat Denmark and Peru as well, essentially it will come down to those matches. A narrow loss to France would be sufficient, and then it’s a matter of trying to gain 4 points from the other two matches, or 6 points to guarantee it.
Denmark qualified relatively easily behind Poland in a rather weak Group E, and then disposed of Ireland in the playoffs. They look the standard, solid Scandinavian team – teams Australia generally have handled well in the past. Peru was South America’s fifth best team and qualified thanks to a 2-0 playoff over New Zealand. Even with a draw (or loss) to Denmark, the fate of Australia is likely to come down to that match, and while Australia generally struggles against South American teams, as they say in the classics, if you can’t beat Peru, you don’t deserve to be in the knockout phase.
World Cup Predictions
It’s difficult to have much confidence in Australia progressing unless those defensive problems are fixed. Scoring could be a problem too if “no goal scorers” is the second favourite at $6.50 to be Australia’s top scorer. Tomi Juric is favourite at $6. Best case scenario to qualify is a 50/50 proposition. If Australia qualified for the round of 16, the likely opponent would be Argentina. Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria are the other options.
As for the World Cup winner, the draw is always the best guide, along with general form, especially through qualifying. France, Spain, Portugal and Argentina are in the top half, so some will be eliminated before the latter knockout stages. In the lower half, Germany (who won all games in qualifying) and Brazil will steer clear of each other if they win their respective groups, while Belgium is the likely spoiler, and it would be great to see a new team win. While I certainly will be hoping for the Belgians, the tournament seems set up so well for Germany to go two in a row, with Brazil their likely opponents in the final. Given the 7-1 thrashing the Germans handed Brazil in the semi finals four years ago, a repeat match-up would be quite an exciting prospect, even if both teams have won their fair share of World Cup spoils over the decades.
Australia’s Schedule (AET)
20:00 16 June France vs Australia
22:00 21 June Denmark vs Australia
00:00 27 June Australia vs Peru (Tuesday night)
Australia’s World Cup Squad
Goalkeepers: Brad Jones, Mat Ryan, Danny Vukovic
Defenders: Aziz Behich, Milos Degenek, Matt Jurman, Mark Milligan, James Meredith, Josh Risdon, Trent Sainsbury
Midfielders: Jackson Irvine, Mile Jedinak, Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic
Forwards: Daniel Arzani, Tim Cahill, Tomi Juric, Robbie Kruse, Mat Leckie, Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, Dimitri Petratos