Australia's 2014 World Cup: 5 Things We Learned
Australia was expected to be the Group B punching bag, and three losses from three matches would suggest they met this expectation.
However, what the scoreboard doesn't reflect is that the Socceroos pushed Chile and the Netherlands to their limit in both of their encounters, giving Australia's fans much to be pleased about as they look to build a squad which will underpin their 2015 Asian Cup and 2018 World Cup campaigns.
Coach Ange Postecoglou took the second-youngest squad to this year's World Cup, meaning that his efforts were always going to be viewed through the prism of "rebuilding." With the results less dire than expected (though the Spain game was a comprehensive loss), there appears cause for cautious optimism.
Here are five takeaways.
the Socceroos Do Have Quality Players Coming Through
Quite a few young players definitely staked an early claim for the 2018 World Cup with strong displays in the 2014 tournament.
Mathew Leckie (pictured) was undoubtedly the breakout star for Australia, a surprise to many considering how he has bounced around the second division of the Bundesliga since leaving the A-League in 2011. Leckie looked very comfortable with incisive runs through the defenses of Chile and the Netherlands, and there is speculation that English and Italian clubs are already circling.
Matthew Spiranovic also looked closer to fulfilling his potential as the linchpin of Australia's defense, having promised so much earlier in his career before injuries stunted his development. Cool and calm under pressure, all he needs is a worthy partner to marshal the defense.
While he was largely responsible for the Netherlands' equaliser by keeping Robin van Persie onside, Jason Davidson also looked capable of filling the left-back role for the long term, while Ryan McGowan was solid at the back and his part in setting up Tim Cahill's much-lauded goal against the Netherlands was largely overlooked.
It also shouldn't be forgotten that one of Australia's form attacking players, Robbie Kruse, missed this tournament with a knee injury, while the also absent Tom Rogic is expected to be an attacking stalwart once he is injury-free and playing more consistently.
All of these guys are under the age of 26, meaning that if they stay fit and find playing time at the top level, Australia may already have blooded the core players behind the 2018 tilt.
However, It's Not a 'Golden Generation'
"You can't win anything with kids," Alan Hansen famously declared, and the maxim technically proved true in Australia's case in 2014.
Postecoglou's emphasis on promoting youth can be considered a success in that Australia weren't humiliated by their vastly superior opponents. That said, there were more than a few untested youngsters who failed to step up to the international standard.
Ben Halloran was well off the pace against Spain, while Matt Ryan failed to entrench himself as the presumptive No. 1, allowing Memphis Depay's shot to flick over his outstretched hand for the Netherlands' winner in the second round. Tommy Oar was also surprisingly ineffectual after emerging as one of Australia's biggest attacking threats in qualifying for the World Cup, and Adam Taggart also failed to distinguish himself in one half up front against Spain, though the assignment was a difficult one.
Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Oliver Bozanic, though Postecoglou's fondness for the FC Luzern midfielder is likely to see him given many more chances to prove himself in the green and gold.
There Is Still Room for Experience
Cahill's contribution to the Socceroos was immense and well-documented. Australia are simply unlikely to have another talent of his ilk for many years, and Super Timmy probably secured his place as Australia's greatest international footballer with two imperious displays against Chile and the Netherlands.
Often overlooked was the contribution of Mark Bresciano, who finally got to produce something approximating his Serie A form from almost a decade ago on the world stage.
In their final match against Spain, Australia's lack of a creative spark in the absence of Cahill and Bresciano was painfully obvious. Questions may need to be asked, then, about whether Postecoglou's push toward youth was a little too ruthless. The Socceroos definitely needed a capable target man with Cahill's suspension, a role that even a lightly injured Joshua Kennedy (pictured) would probably have filled better than Taggart, who is still a little green.
So too, Luke Wilkshire can count himself unlucky to have missed out when experienced hands were needed at the back, and particularly when Ivan Franjic was forced out with a hamstring tear against Chile.
The lack of succession from Australia's 2006 squad has long been a concern, and aging stars such as Lucas Neill were unfairly blamed for Australia's stuttering qualification for the 2014 World Cup. While Postecoglou's preference toward promoting youth did bear some dividends at this year's Cup, it's worth remembering that World Cup squads work best with a blend of youthful vigor and seasoned experience at the top level.
Postecoglou Seems to Be on the Right Track
Former Socceroos coach Holger Osieck got the chop following successive 6-0 thrashings at the hands of Brazil and France, so Postecoglou's squad probably only needed to avoid similar scorelines to be considered an improvement.
In Brazil, there was little tactical nous on show in attack, with Australia repeatedly forced to lob balls in the box in the hope of reaching Cahill's brow. However, given the success of this approach against Chile and the Netherlands, it was hard to argue with Postecoglou's reliance on his main attacking asset.
Also, Australia attracted plenty of plaudits for the manner in which they approached the Netherlands game, with some pundits claiming that they managed to "play more Dutch than the Dutch" through positive attacking football which utilised speed up the flanks.
Encouragingly, Postecoglou does not seem content with a mere "strong showing" at the 2014 Cup. Despite Australia having the toughest draw at the tournament, it's clear that Postecoglou wasn't satisfied with simply being a nuisance team and would have liked to take a few points off of Australia's more fancied opposition. With three losses from three matches, he has much to spur on his quest for improvement.
Overall, when a team performs way beyond (or below) the apparent capabilities of its players, the responsibility ultimately lies with the manager. Given Australia's decent showing against technically superior and more talented opposition, Postecoglou's first World Cup can be ranked a success, albeit a moderate one.
Finally, World Cup Referees Don't Actually Hate Australia
Based on the standard of officiating in Australia's 2006 and 2010 campaigns, we could have been forgiven for thinking that FIFA had it in for Australia.
In 2006, we saw a questionable goal awarded to Japan, a lopsided foul count against Brazil, Graham Poll's three-card trick against Croatia and the notorious Grosso flop which saw eventual champions Italy scrape by Australia in the round of 16 with a last-minute penalty.
The situation didn't improve in 2010, with highly dubious red cards handed to both Cahill against Germany and then Harry Kewell against Ghana (allowing the eventual quarter-finalists to draw level from the spot).
Thankfully there were no such howlers for Australia in 2014 (rather, Mexico bore the brunt of poor refereeing in the early rounds, though it didn't halt their progression). In 2014, Australia can take heart from the fact that they weren't unlucky, and there is room to grow.