Reality check as Spain outclasses Australia

24 June 2014

Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, Australia 0 – Spain 3

Amazing how the nation’s mood swings. Before the tournament, no one gave Australia much hope of achieving anything against Spain. During the tournament, after the good performances against Chile and Netherlands, and with Spain at a low ebb after two losses, Australia believe it had a good chance for a result – at least a draw, to see it avoid finish bottom of the group. The initial feeling prevailed as the current world champions showed the gulf in class between Australia and the top teams, and delivered a reality check about Australia’s overall status on the world stage. In the end, the group table read Australia in last place with zero points and a -6 goal difference. Who’d have thought that pre-tournament? Basically everybody.

It was not just the calibre of player that saw Australia outclassed; they were utterly destroyed tactically. Spain allowed them plenty of room for the opening 20 minutes of game, allowing to pass around the back-line, allow a little space in midfield. When it came to the final third, it was total denial, crushing all attacks, and looking dangerous on the counter attack. Then Spain put their foot down. The pressure went on higher up the pitch, and Australia soon conceded its first goal.

The second half was little different to the first. Some freedom at the start, then exploited by the end. You only need hear the blathering Craig Foster in the commentary box one minute commending Australia for playing so well, and then the very next minute, after Spain score their second goal, Australia are being “handed a football lesson”. While Foster was a total trainwreck in the commentary box, cheering and coaching almost every single moment in the most embarrassing and cringe-worthy display ever heard on national television and should be sacked from any future postings, his nonsensical drivel at least illustrated the reality that Australia was facing. Indeed, it was a football lesson. Not just for the periods that led to the goals, it was a lesson over the entire match.

Such was Spain’s dominance, Australia did not have one single, decent attempt on goal. The total of four shots on goal were longer range and speculative – mostly out of frustration to get anything closer off – and never forced a save. The midfield was riddled with turnovers – often very cheap ones. Final balls often went straight to a Spanish player. Many of these passes were not even under pressure, hinting at a tired team or simply a team wary of sensing pressure.

For the third game in a row, Australia conceded 3 goals. All three goals were as a result of the defence torn apart – almost seemingly at will – with the goal-keeper staring down point-blank shots on goal. Jason Davidson was caught out for two goals, giving too much space on the Spanish right for Juanfran to receive from Andres Iniesta and cross to an open David Villa for a nice back-heel tap in, and then failing to move up with the defensive line for the third goal. That second error saw Juan Mata played onside in almost a mirror image of the goal by Robben van Persie in the match against Netherlands. The second goal was a defence splitting pass by Andres Iniesta, who simply was allowed too much time on the ball. The jury is still out about purging all the experienced defenders for this World Cup. Just that touch more experience and maybe half of these 9 goals are avoided.

Final Player Ratings

Goal-keepers

As is often the case, goalies are generally judged by their mistakes, and Mathew Ryan played almost exactly to the level you’d expect of a goal-keeper playing in the Belgian league. Holland’s winning goal would have been stopped by a higher calibre goalie. Overall, he was solid, making several great, reflex stops, without being the total security that you hope from your national team goalie.

Stoppers

In truth, Mathew Spiranovic and Alex Wilkinson did well. Especially Spiranovic, who’d been very inconsistent in his earlier Socceroos career when paired with senior defenders like Lucas Neill. Quite possibly being senior defender this time and giving him the marshalling duties has helped. While Neill might have helped plug some of the gaps this tournament, he wasn’t needed as stopper. There’s also Rhys Williams and Curtis Good – both injured prior to the World Cup – to push for a return.

Full-backs

Ivan Franjic supplied good crosses, while his injury replacement, Ryan McGowan, supplied the cross for Tim Cahill against Netherlands and defended well. No faults there. Jason Davidson, on the left, is the interesting one. Solid on the ball and at tight-defending; almost hopeless with positional awareness. He’ll need to move to a much higher club level than a mediocre club in the Dutch league, where he’d rarely face the testing offence that you get at international level. This position is where Neill might have been handy. He played much of his club career with Blackburn Rovers at right back, and may have been able to adjust with a left back posting. We’ll never know. Otherwise, Australia had few options there, and the position overall is still a problem.

Defensive midfielders

All three used – Mile Jedinak, Matt McKay and Mark Milligan – all serviceable. This area was always the area that Australia did not lack, and it showed.

Attacking midfielders

Tom Oar on the left disappointed with his touch, passing and even his pace was off. Without the pace, his small stature became a liability as he was often bustled off the ball. Other than against Croatia in a warm-up game, he has failed to really achieve the potential the nation has hoped. Mark Bresciano in the centre still has nice touches and passes. Unfortunately, he is let down by lack of pace, often dithering on the ball, and his shooting boots were way off. His substitute, Oliver Bozanic, did well enough to suggest a future. On the right, Mathew Leckie was a revelation, constantly beating defenders with pace and quick dribbles. He needs to improve in final passing situations and decision making to polish his game. Substitutes used in midfield of Ben Halloran and James Troisi were serviceable for the limited time they had and against the class they faced.

Forwards

Tim Cahill is not a forward despite his exploits. Coach Ange Posteglou summed up the reality of the selection in a press conference saying Cahill is among the best in the world… with his head. That seemed a slight on his foot skills, which is probably right as they have deteriorated over time, making it a valid reason not to use him in midfield. His strengths are forward with his head, his shooting boots, and is general ability to be a nuisance. Leckie was tried forward in the second half against Spain and looked much more dangerous than Adam Taggart, who was tried in the first half. Leckie could be the future. Regardless, the situation now is Australia’s biggest liability is in attack. Postecoglou said post-Spain that he wants Australia to be feared next time. That can only happen with a quantum leap in quality of strikers. Just imagine Arjen Robben and a Robin van Persie on Australia’s team. Results could have been blistering. One salvation is the injured Robbie Kruse waiting to return the national team. Also Joshua Kennedy, who was sadly omitted from the final squad. Just his presence, at least another aerial option to Tim Cahill, can be invaluable.

Coach

Ange Postecoglou is all class and nailed almost everything asked of him. No one really expected Australia to gain any points from this tournament, so the disappointment felt when Australia actually did finish with nothing reflects more on the in-tournament possibilities that arrived. Reality is the players are just not at the required level yet. Ange’s big test is the Asian Cup early next year. Situations will be reversed with Australia the team pressuring the opposition, with the opposition trying to create the surprises. Performing well will be a given. Winning will almost be expected.

Tournament Prediction

Being away for a month on holidays just prior to the World Cup meant no time for predictions. Here’s a brief version.

As often is the case, it’s the draw that counts. Also, teams that have “struggled” in the group stages and still won (like Argentina), no reason to write them off.

France have been the most impressive team so far, and have a soft draw, and should eventually meet Brazil in a semi final. Brazil’s main challenge to reach the semi is crossing with Group D, where Costa Rica’s success has consigned either Italy or Uruguay to second spot and a tougher path. Either way, Group D seems weak, so Brazil should cope with any of those teams. Germany, if it wins Group G as expected, could be bigger spoiler. If it in finishes second, it’s thrown onto the opposite side of the draw.

Netherlands are the most impressive team on the other side of the draw and should face Argentina in the semi final there. Belgium is the team that could surprise. While not excelling as some pre-tournament hype suggested, they have still won both games.

Despite the potentially tough draw for Brazil, and the home-team pressure, they should at least make the semi final. From there, they fall to France. The other semi really should be Netherlands vs Argentina. With the Dutch defence being a little suspect, expect Argentina to prevail. So France vs Argentina in the final, and an image is appearing. It’s whichever team is in the darker blue!

That is Brazil 2014 – The 20th World Championship of Futbol

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Squad Preview, Tactics and Strategy as Neill dropped

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.


December 2013

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.

Update

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.

Update

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.

Update

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.

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Squad for Ecuador – Out with the old, in with the new

26 February 2014

Out: Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano, Brett Holman

In: Curtis Good, Massimo Luongo, Ben Halloran and – finally – Chris Herd

These are the highlights of coach Ange Postecoglou’s squad for the World Cup preparation match against Ecuador next week. Also notable is Brett Holman bypassed again, while Luke Wilkshire returns for his first shot under the gaze of the new coach. It seems Ange has ignored anyone playing in those rubbish Middle Eastern leagues. Other than being over-rated after a couple of spectacular goals, Holman is the victim of that, and so too Alex Brosque. Sasa Ognenovski recently signed for Sydney FC, recognising the low regard Ange rightfully has for the Middle East. He misses out after not playing much recently, as does Mark Bresciano, who’s suspended after an illegal transfer involving his club. If Ange is consistent, Bresciano is gone anyway, as he’s another playing his club football in the Middle East.

Of the newbies, only Chris Herd is a recognised name to these eyes. Ange’s recent weeks scouting in Europe has paid dividends. As much as there is a desire by fans to rejuvenate the Socceroos, there is a dearth of talent coming through. The much maligned Lucas Neill, who just signed for Watford in England’s second tier after months in limbo, should get a plane ticket to Brazil. The reality is eight defenders are required for the World Cup squad and, shockingly, it’s doubtful Australia has one better defender than Neill, much less eight. At best, one or two might be level, and then you still need to decide whether to trade youth for experience. This is a World Cup, and we go for results, not experiments. Players like North, Thwaite and Kisnorbo, have been tried, and failed. Ange overlooked them. While Spiranovic and Davidson get another go, and must perform. Spiranovic has been unable to own one of the two central defender’s spots as many believed was his destiny, while Davidson has hardly been reassuring in his handful of games.

The most shocking aspect of the squad is no recognised strikers. Leckie and Vidosic are more attacking midfielders, while surely it’s time Cahill is returned to his most successful and damaging role as a box-to-box midfielder. No Joshua Kennedy here, which may mean nothing, as his abilities are known and is surely a certainty for Brazil as one of four strikers, especially with Robbie Kruse’s knee injury leaving a big hole in Australia’s striking ranks. Dare it be suggested that a certain Scott McDonald might have deserved another look? At least to be played in a system that suits him, not as the solo marksman under previous coaches.

Postecoglou reiterated that this is mostly an experimental squad, and that the door is still open for anyone overlooked. Good news for the sake of Sasa Ognenovski, who has done very little wrong in Australian colours, and will be important to shore up an inexperienced defence should Neill be axed. Good news for another veteran destined to play in his third World Cup: Harry Kewell. Much more will be known after the match. Suffice to say, anyone that doesn’t get a meaningful run, is gone.

Comments – Ange Postecoglou

The squad to face Ecuador represents the first steps in what I believe is the building of the next golden generation for Australian football acknowledging there is a need to balance experimentation and experience to achieve this. The match gives this group of players an opportunity to stake a claim for the World Cup. They have been rewarded for playing consistent and strong football and shows that age and limited international experience are not barriers to opportunity. I was encouraged by what I saw on my scouting trip and what I’ve been watching in the A-League and other parts of the world and I’m confident that with courage and belief we can face the challenges ahead and not waver from our long term plan.

Ecuador is a very important game for us. It’s the last game (before World Cup squad selection) and it’s a quality opponent. Ecuador made the World Cup and it will be a tough challenge for us. We started our journey against Costa Rica and we want to build on that. It was a solid performance and the players backing up from that game would already have had a taste of what we are trying to achieve. For the new ones it’s about getting as much information as possible. We’ve done a lot of work in between the Costa Rica game and now with analysis of our own performance and analysis of our opponents and they’ll get a lot of information in those two or three days and I’m certainly looking for a strong performance against Ecuador so we continue to build on the positive feeling we had after the Costa Rica game.

Selection in the final squad for the World Cup is still very much an open door. There were quite a few players, particularly those in Asia whose leagues are just beginning, who are still very much on the radar. There are also a few players who are very much a part of my thinking and plans for the World Cup who are not playing and I was pretty mindful of not calling anyone who was not going to play some significant game time. Their club form going forward will be a big indicator of that and players still have an opportunity to get back into the squad.

Oliver BOZANIC (FC Luzern, SWITZERLAND)
Tim CAHILL (New York Red Bulls, USA)
Jason DAVIDSON (SC Heracles Almelo, NETHERLANDS)
Ivan FRANJIC (Brisbane Roar FC, AUSTRALIA)
Curtis GOOD (Dundee United FC, SCOTLAND)
Ben HALLORAN (Fortuna Dusseldorf, GERMANY)
Chris HERD (Aston Villa FC, ENGLAND)
James HOLLAND (FK Austria Vienna, AUSTRIA)
Mile JEDINAK (Crystal Palace FC, ENGLAND)
Brad JONES (GK) (Liverpool FC, ENGLAND)
Mitchell LANGERAK (GK) (B.V. Borussia 09 Dortmund, GERMANY)
Matthew LECKIE (FSV Frankfurt 1899, GERMANY)
Massimo LUONGO (Swindon Town FC, ENGLAND)
Ryan MCGOWAN (Shandong Luneng Taishan FC, CHINA)
Matthew MCKAY (Brisbane Roar FC, AUSTRALIA)
Mark MILLIGAN (Melbourne Victory FC, AUSTRALIA)
Tommy OAR (FC Utrecht, HOLLAND)
Tommy ROGIC (Melbourne Victory FC, AUSTRALIA)
Matt RYAN (GK) (Club Brugge KV, BELGIUM)
Adam SAROTA (FC Utrecht, HOLLAND)
Matthew SPIRANOVIC (Western Sydney Wanderers FC, AUSTRALIA)
Dario VIDOSIC (FC Sion, SWITZERLAND)
Luke WILKSHIRE (FK Dinamo Moscow, RUSSIA)

Australia 1 – Lucas Neill 0. Ange wins on debut, Neill oversteps the mark.

20 November 2013, 1930 AET

Sydney, 19 Nov: Australia 1 – Costa Rica 0

After the 6-0 debacles against Brazil and France, new Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou brought balance to the force with a determined 1-0 win over Costa Rica last night. It wasn’t so much that Ange gained a much deserved win on his debut, especially against a weakened opposition that barely troubled the Australian goal, it was the he addressed key problems identified within the team over as much as eight years ago. Namely, the team using players out of position, which was brought to its abrupt head with some ridiculous placements by Holger Osieck in those aforementioned games. Second, newer players in the team were given a chance. A real chance.

It’s been a constant bugbear of the Socceroo Realm that players are made to fit into unnatural positions. It might be fine for nations like Spain or Brazil who can slot a midfielder as right back or striker and get away with it due to the natural supremacy of the team and players; it’s not for Australia and its weak pool of quality players that are diminished further if not allowed to play to their strengths.

Ange’s first step was to put legitimate wide backs like Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson in those slots, not the likes of Wilkshire, Carney, McKay and, even as far back, as Chipperfield. Defence is the priority in these slots, with attack the bonus. Not vice versa. The goals Australia has conceded over the years has come from these wide positions being exploited. Then there was the absurd habit of not playing actual strikers, which started with Pim Verbeek playing Tim Cahill forward away to Japan in a qualifier, then manifested into the debacle against Germany in South Africa, and finally Holger’s stagnant attacking plans. It was so pleasing to see the likes of Leckie, Kruse and Vidosic leading the line, not the likes of Cahill and Holman befuddled in a state of flux between their instinctive midfield mindset and the need to pressure the last line and create goals.

Just as pleasing was seeing the new players get a real chance. They weren’t thrown on at the end for a few cheap minutes with the game in disarray as it usually is given the spate of substitutions in these practice games; Leckie, Vidosic, McGowan, Davidson and Franjic were there from the start. It was especially noticeable when seeing on the bench were the likes of Cahill, Kennedy, McKay and Oar. They all came on later in the second half, with Cahill scoring the winning goal from a corner on 69 minutes. The net result of players in position and players allowed a chance to play was a sound defensive display and a competent passing game. While it’s difficult to rate the game much more than a reasonable effort, to be factored in is the legacy of the old era. There was still a bit too much stuffing around, plenty of poor decisions with passing options, and final balls were often woeful. This will improve.

Much of the spotlight after the game was taken by Lucas Neill’s reaction to the crowd booing him whenever he got a touch, to which he snapped later in the game and seemed to yell “why the f**k are you booing”. In post-match comments he was aggrieved at the lack of respect for the national team and anyone playing it…

“I’m an Australian, playing in Australia for Australia, getting booed by an Australian. There’s no place for that. I think it was a case of maybe a bit too much courage juice towards the end of the game. It was just isolated moments – every time I touched the ball, so I knew it was directed at me. It’s detrimental to the team. But let’s just focus on the more positives, and that was we were one-nil up, we were having a fantastic game, we were winning the game, we were playing really well for Australia and Ange Postecoglou gets off to a great start. So that .01 per cent has just tarnished it slightly.”

While he might have a point in a broader sense, there’s no doubt the actions were personally motivated. He’s been subjected to speculated for the entire week in camp, and unfairly so, as he’s also contended. If there’s one mistake that Ange has made is that he didn’t quash all the innuendo. First, he should have said the captaincy is vacant and will always be vacant before each match or tournament. He picks the team, then the captain, the captaincy is a temporary honour, not a permanent title. Second, he should have reiterated to the fans that all spots within the team are vacant and he’ll pick players on merit and that if he decides to pick Neill, the invective towards Neill should be thrown aside, and the team and all players allowed the dignity and respect to play their best for Australia.

Neill’s problem is that his reaction was daft and excessive. No one in Australian national colours should be swearing at anyone, much less the crowd. He should have blown a kiss or grinned or done something jovial, or even ignore it, not fuel their intent and satiate their feral instinct. The crowd pay their money and have every right to boo or hiss, so expecting them to adhere to a player’s wishes of behaviour is nonsense. Sport is also theatre and even pantomime, so crowd interaction is integral. All Neill needs to do is do his job. Brett Holman was maligned far worse than Neill and after a couple of goals at the World Cup becomes a national darling. Fans are notoriously fickle. A goal saving tackle that sees Australia win a match in Brazil and suddenly he’s a national hero.

Neill tweeted: “Thanks for all your support. We are all proud Aussies so let’s enjoy the ride together!! #GoSocceroos”. It is time we started to rally behind the team. The coach has been changed, and we’re now on the final trajectory towards Brazil that will not be altered. We either have faith, or just don’t bother being interested.

Result

AUSTRALIA 1 (Tim Cahill 69m) – COSTA RICA 0 at Sydney Football Stadium. Crowd: 20,165. Referee: Hiroyoshi Takayama of Japan.

Starting XI

Matthew Ryan, Lucas Neill, Rhys Williams, Jason Davidson, Ivan Franjic, Mark Milligan, Robbie Kruse, Mile Jedinak, Mark Bresciano, Dario Vidosic, Matthew Leckie

Substitutions

Ryan McGowan for Rhys Williams (48′), Tim Cahill for Matthew Leckie (52′), Thomas Oar for Dario Vidosic (61′), Tomas Rogic for Mark Bresciano (61′), Matt McKay for Mark Milligan (77′), Joshua Kennedy for Robbie Kruse (77′)

http://www.footballaustralia.com.au/socceroos/matchcentre/Socceroos-v-Costa-Rica-Intl-Friendly-(M)/3632

Some atonement against Canada as Lowy backs a local coach and Neill backs himself

Craven Cottage, Fulham, 15/10/2013: Australia 3 – Canada 0

17 October 2013

A 3-0 win over lowly Canada at least brought smiles to the face. The serious “in-arms” attention to the national anthem proved portentous as the first goal came on 26 seconds when Mark Bresciano pounced on a loose ball to lob it to Joshua Kennedy for a trademark header. Two goals came in the second half. The first by Dario Vidosic nodding in a lame shot on goal, while Matthew Leckie headed nicely from a David Carney cross to score his first goal for Australia. While Vidosic was slightly offside, it was close enough that the referee should allow it given the “favour the attackers when in doubt” FIFA edict. It’s a pity more referees don’t follow it. Despite the dominance of the scoreline, if was often scrappy game, with Australia still needlessly losing possession at times and Canada having two great chances to equalise in the first half. Australia looked more tidy in the second half, applying more consistent pressure, including the third goal that was preceded by a chain of 14 passes.

Aurelio Vidmar was interim coach and made some pleasing decisions, notably playing a striker as a striker and a defender at right-back. He might have done similar at left-back if not for a depleted squad, so he “had to” pick Carney there. Vidmar also gave more time to younger players like Leckie and, in goal, Matt Ryan, while giving debuts to Jackson Irvine and Oliver Bozanic. They handled themselves well.

In the lead-up to the match, Lucas Neill was hammered by many sections of the media for questioning the hunger and passion of younger players while defending his own. He also resisted calls, from friend Mark Bosnich, to quit.

“In the three qualifiers in June, which were the most important we have played in the last four years, I think my form was very good and led to us reaching the World Cup. Mark Bosnich is entitled to his opinion but I would expect better from people who have played the game and certainly from those who call themselves my friend People who know football know games are won and lost by a team and it’s not about one person. I am committed to remaining captain for as long as the people in charge give me that status. I add value to the team and I bring a lot of good attributes but I am the victim, the same as everybody in this team, of a side which has lost two games in a row 6-0.

“When I was young I had to fight like cat and dog to even get a chance of being selected. Nobody gives you that for free – you have to earn it. For me, the biggest problem in Australia right now is not the older guys who have been doing it for a long time. I still have as much passion now as I had when I was 17. But my question to the younger guys who dream of playing for Australia is: ‘do you really dream of playing for Australia?’ If you do, then show me the hunger and desire. That’s where we are lacking. It’s all in our attitude towards the national team.”

The media response has portrayed him as selfish and disrespectful – understandable if you want Neill gone. Hearing Neill’s comments at the time, they seemed quite harmless. The hunger he mentioned was more about the younger players stepping up and claiming a spot in the team rather than it gifted to them. Other than Kruse and Oar, and potentially Rogic and Duke, none have. If the new coach does keep Neill, the coach needs to spell out clearly the qualities Neill has that keeps him in the team. Fans should accept this in move on, allowing the coach and team to prepare for the World Cup without all the whiny criticism. The real issue about dumping Neill is finding a replacement. Thwaite, North, Kisnorbo, Spiranovic? They don’t bring a compelling case for selection. If you’re dumping Ognenovski as well, that’s two spots to fill.

The appointment of a new coach has taken a turn with FFA chairman Frank Lowy stating he wants a local. The “review” that was mentioned upon Osieck’s sacking has obviously been in the process for months, given the fact FFA were so swift to act on Holger. Those decisions are not made so abruptly. The action might be, the decision not. The timing is also right for a local coach. While Australia has been more in mercenary mode with their past few coaches, if there’s to be a move towards giving younger players experience, it makes just as much sense as doing similar with a local coach. While Ange Postecoglou is the glamour choice, Graham Arnold could be more likely given his international experience as both interim and assistant coach, his proven ability of integrating new players and melding a team, and seems itching to jump from his A-League role if a better offer came elsewhere. Brazil 2014 could be the making of both the new coach and the newer players. Despite all the recent turmoil and melodrama, it’s actually an exciting time.

Kennedy’s silver goal a golden moment – Australia off to Brazil

Sydney: Australia 1 – Iraq 0

Remember FIFA’s silver goal system? Probably not. It was a softening of the golden goal. It was a device used that would turn extra time into sudden death. First goal scored, you win. It proved anti-climatic and – given the capricious nature of the sport – often unfair. Euro 96 was the first major tournament to use it, with Germany winning the final over the Czech Republic by such a method. Australia benefited most prominently in the Confederations Cup of 1997, beating Uruguay in the semi finals. In order to appease dissenters, FIFA tried the silver goal. A goal scored will still see the match continue until either half time or full time of extra time to allow the opposing team a chance to rescue the game. Greece was the most famous to use the rule, winning Euro 2004. Really, it was as silly a method as it sounded.

Last night’s qualification was a match over two games. Failing to beat Iraq meant Australia had to rely on Oman not winning in Jordan. Approaching half time of the affair, at the 83rd the minute of Australia’s match, up pops Josh Kennedy for the most golden of goals. It felt golden. Of course, it was silver until “half time”. Then it was truly golden and Australia was off to Brazil. For the record, Jordan, beat Oman 1-0 to have sent Australia through regardless of Iraq, potentially with just two wins from their 8 group games. While struggling to win, Australia were still difficult to defeat. It was the 5 draws in total, the two against Japan in particular, that made the difference for Australia. Whereas the remaining teams, except for Jordan at home, all lost their matches to Japan. Japan proved a great ally for Australia in the end. Jordan’s effort gets it third spot and a place in the playoffs against Uzbekistan.

Kennedy’s strike continued the trend of actual strikers, brought late onto the field, to score the goals. Yes, football is that simple. Until Kennedy was brought on, Australia played with no recognised strikers. Tim Cahill – most dangerous as a late running attacking midfield – was again marooned up front, out of his comfort zone. Outside the 15 seconds of play that brought Kennedy’s goal, Australia’s attack was woeful. While credit must be given for the tough opponent of Iraq, the bumpy pitch and Sydney’s rain, there was simply no cohesion or ideas. Too often Australia would try inter-play in cramped space along the wings. Runs were rarely made to good space in the centre of the field, something coach Holger Osieck noted after the game. Had this match ended 0-0, or heaven forbid a loss had Iraq not fluffed a very late chance, the match synopsis would be so damning. So match reviews should look at that first 75 minutes, rather than the ebullient fog of the last 10.

For all the trumpeting of the “settled starting eleven” of the last 3 games, they scored only one of the 6 goals scored in these matches. When actual strikers were brought on, the Socceroos were a different beast. It’s just the strikers’ presence that makes all the difference. Harassing the last line, which in turn creates more space. With Cahill so-called leading the line, he would drop back, allowing Iraq to play higher and compressing the space, also meaning any fast break down the wing would often see no one in the box. Let’s not forget the match that really saved Australia’s bacon in this campaign – away to Iraq. A goal down, Archie Thompson on, and Australia grab the 3 points. Had Iraq won that, they enter last night’s game a chance to qualify directly, meaning they’d not have sent a primarily U21 squad preparing for next week’s Youth World Cup in Turkey.

Credit to Osieck for making the switch to Kennedy. The Socceroo Realm expected he might use such a tactic to pinch a win in Japan had the scored remained 0-0. After Thompson’s impact last week in Melbourne, he’d have been the easy choice again. No, it was Kennedy, and off went a churlish Cahill. That Kennedy was the saviour did wonders in quelling the return of any divine right Cahill might have with his place in the team. Facts are that Cahill was mostly ineffective, so Kennedy replacing him allowed a different focal point – especially in terms of style of play. Kennedy has no interest tracking back for balls. It’s all about positioning and losing markers for potential crosses. That he was so unmarked for his goal was testament to his ability and strategy of the substitution.

Osieck was also right to persist with the older, experienced players. National teams are representative by nature, so the best players available are selected. You don’t experiment in key matches. In Osieck’s defence against criticism of not using younger players, he has tried them. They haven’t work. Dump Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenokvsi, who replaces them? Thwaite, Spiranovic, North? No one has stepped up. Also in Osieck’s defence, Tom Oar has made his way into the team, while Tomas Rogic was brought on after 60 minutes to break open the game. Then there’s Robbie Kruse – now a permanent fixture. It’s about evolution, not revolution.

Looking to Brazil, Australia has key concerns. This penchant for midfielders as strikers must stop. Remember the outrage Australians felt when Pim Verbeek tried this away to Japan in the qualifiers for 2010 and in the disastrous World Cup match against Germany? It was felt as un-Australian. The “have a go” mentality was sacrificed for no real benefit. So what’s change? Problems are not erased by persisting with them. Two weeks ago against Japan it mostly worked, simply because Japan were on the attack and allowed Australia the space and a counter-attacking game. Against Jordan and Iraq, teams that chose to sit back, the balance then must be skewed forward. At least provide the adaptability. Remember Guus Hiddink’s early substitution of Tony Popovic, a defender, for an attacker in the Uruguay Game? This is not even astute awareness, it’s obvious. Osieck should have gone to Kennedy and co much earlier. There will be times Australia will need to take on high calibre opponents, like at the World Cup itself, even from the start of a game, when Australia would hope to reach the second phase. For Holger not to have Australia as sufficiently prepared, that would be un-German.

It would be remiss not to mention the true bonanza of this campaign – being in Asia! Even if not qualifying, it’s a success. We always wanted a fairer shot, not so much an easier one, and with the Asian teams improving and Australia slightly declining, that’s the shot we got. If the future sees us miss one out of three World Cups, that’s good. That means Asia is improving, so we must improve. I hope Australia is never like Mexico or USA dominating a weak region – then doing little at a World Cup. I want to see Asia carried forward with us. The day we beat Japan in a World Cup final, and after beating Iran in a semi, that’s the day we can say we’ve made it.

In this campaign, the loss in Jordan was pivotal. It essentially made every remaining match live. Not so much life and death, just live, as a sustenance of our life. As part of the broader a football community, it’s been pleasing to see this reality infiltrating further and further into our psyche. The idea of “we should be beating these Asian teams like this (ie: 4-0 against Jordan)” still heard on the airwaves, is evaporating. Grinding out 1-0 wins is perfectly fine, and realistic. In the past 3 games, Australia displayed the extremes of achieving results. Then there were extremes at the other end. Like the sudden 2-0 deficit to Oman that needed to be rescued, and losing in Jordan. That’s fine. We wanted exactly this from being in Asia. Fear not that the journey suddenly had great obstacles. Surmounting those obstacles made the journey all the more satisfying.

Final Table Group B

Points, GD, Record
Jap 17, +11, 5-2-1
Aus 13, +5, 3-4-1
Jor 10, -9, 3-1-4
Oma 9, -3, 2-3-3
Irq 5, -4, 1-2-5

Final Table Group A

Points, GD, Record
Irn 16, +6, 5-1-2
Kor 14, +6, 4-2-2
Uzb 14, +5 4-2-2
Qat 7, -8, 2-1-5
Leb 5, -9, 1-2-5

The final match day in Group A was a blinder. Iran needed to win in Korea, they did. Uzbekistan then needed to beat Qatar by six goals, they didn’t. They won 5-1 after conceding early at home to Qatar. Let’s hope either Jordan or Uzbekistan can get past that fifth-placed South American team and expand the Asian family in Brazil.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Osieck backs veterans against Japan as a draw suits fine

The shaky defence of recent games will be fortified with Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski returning as central pairing in a game where a draw in Saitama will see Australia climb back into second on the table. Jordan, currently in second, has the bye, while the winner of Oman v Iraq would leap-frog Australia and dump Jordan to fourth. The group is that close. Osieck’s decision makes sense as Australia then has two home games in which to simply maintain their position.

“Why Neill” as so many ask on the football forums? Plenty of chances have been given to the youngsters and they haven’t stepped up. Look against Oman where the defence was easily penetrated. Neill is still the best defender. He’s being made the scapegoat for the team’s average performances simply because of his age. As for Og, it wasn’t so long ago fans were crying for him to start for the national team. No defenders have surpassed him; he’s done little wrong either. Fans are so fickle. Remember, it’s about qualifying, not any individual game, and clearly Osieck’s thinking a draw suits fine.

More interest will be forward. Given that Japan is almost an expendable game, it would not surprise if a few surprises are sprung and maybe snag a result in Japan. Josh Kennedy’s long-awaited return will certainly offer something different. Most likely any move will come later in the game after a substitution. While early in the game would really catch the Japanese off guard, it would then leave the team open to an onslaught. If it fails, no real harm done. Holger can return to the more conservative approach for the final games and would also have a mandate to do so given the failure in Japan.

Note that this match really is almost expendable. If Australia wins their two final games – both at home – it’s almost certainly enough. Remember that in a playoff it’s so well desired to play the the home match last? Well, what’s better than one home game last? Two! This time, away-goals don’t count as double, unlike the Iran Game.

* Apologies for the abridged update. A broken collarbone from a bike crash with typing limited to one bruised left hand.

More at: socceroorealm.com