2014 World Cup Tactics Board: Analysing Ange Postecoglou's AustraliaApril 10, 2014
Welcome to the latest edition of our 2014 World Cup tactics board, where we take a look at each of the 32 competing nations in the finals in Brazil and assess what they might hope to achieve during the tournament.
This time it's the turn of Australia to be taken apart; they've qualified from the Asia region for their third consecutive World Cup finals.
How did they get here and how will they fare?
It's been far from a straight-forward path for Australia to reach Brazil, with a managerial change just one of their obstacles to overcome.
Football Federation Australia announces that Australian Ange Postecoglou appointed Head Coach of the Socceroos— Dan Roan (@danroan) October 23, 2013
The Asia qualifying region is long, unwieldy and incorporates many minnows of the game, including the likes of Macau, Mongolia and Timor-Leste. Thankfully for Australia and their more talented Asian counterparts, most of those are eliminated in Round 1.
Other nations don't come into the equation until Round 2, with Australia entering at the Round 3 stage.
That saw them in a group with Oman, Saudi Arabia and Thailand, where the Aussies won five and lost one, topping the group to progress to Round 4, the round where automatic qualification to the World Cup finals becomes possible.
Australia faced home and away fixtures in a five-nation group comprised of themselves, Japan, Jordan, Oman and Iraq, with the top two going to Brazil. Third place led to the playoff stages.
They didn't start well, taking just two points from their first three games, drawing in Oman and losing in Jordan on either side of a home draw with Japan. A 2-1 win in Iraq came courtesy of two goals in the last 10 minutes, but Australia could then only draw 2-2 at home with Oman, making it just one win from the first five games.
A last-minute penalty deprived them of a win in Japan, but they finally clicked into gear with consecutive wins over Jordan, 4-0, and Iraq, 1-0, to take second place by three points. Qualification was assured in June 2013, but their next two friendlies only brought thumping 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France.
That led to a change in manager, with Holger Osieck being sacked. Ange Postecoglou was appointed soon after, and he has so far overseen two friendlies: a 1-0 win over Costa Rica and an eventful 4-3 defeat to Ecuador.
Formation and Style
Postecoglou hasn't had too many games, then, to hone his side to his own image, but having worked in Australia most of his managerial career—he left Melbourne Victory to take over the national side and also managed in Greece for a season—he is more than familiar with the players at his disposal, especially national-based options.
Even so, the Athens-born manager is set in his mind that he wants to play an offensive, positive brand of football and try to take the game to what will be three very tough opponents at the World Cup.
Tom Rogic looks set to be an important part of the setup, with the midfield playmaker getting game time again back in the A-League. Under Postecoglou, Australia will like to try and keep possession, play fast football and get numbers forward, where Rogic will be key both in the buildup and in finding the final pass.
Playing out of defence, especially when the ball is with the goalkeeper, has also been a feature of these first two friendlies—a marked difference from under the previous regime.
Whether Australia are given the freedom to do that against very strong opposition in the World Cup is another matter.
The formation itself has altered subtly depending on personnel on the pitch, but a midfield double pivot—including likely captain Mile Jedinak—is evident, regardless of a 4-2-3-1 or a somewhat less defined front line, with Tim Cahill dropping deep to receive the ball as the only centre-forward.
Wingers (or inside forwards) holding a high line, in that case, will be essential.
Cahill is still on the scene, but the same cannot be said for a number of other experienced internationals, who have missed the last squad or two. This list includes Lucas Neill, Brett Holman and Archie Thompson, as Postecoglou looks to build a squad that can compete not only at this World Cup but at the 2015 Asian Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
Reasons for Hope
The fresh ideas and impetus that Postecoglou is bringing is very much based on the thought that Australia can improve and use the finals as a measuring stick to better themselves for the long term.
There is really no pressure or expectation on them to achieve much at the 2014 finals, having struggled somewhat to qualify and then changing bosses less than a year before the big kick-off. New faces are in the squad, plenty of home-based players are getting a chance and one or two squad players are dotted around big clubs, in big competitions, throughout Europe.
This isn't the Australia of Mark Bresciano, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Mark Schwarzer, but Australia have hope that the current crop could, eventually, show themselves to contain players of a similar calibre.
Without pressure, even a draw or a surprise win will be seen as a huge step forward and a moral victory for how the new regime is trying to go about things.
Inexperienced players might not have been around the top for too long, but they also haven't experienced being repeatedly and heavily beaten by the top sides—which will be a fear heading into the finals.
Reasons for Concern
There are a few, and the biggest of all is the group itself; Australia have been drawn in Group B alongside World Cup holders Spain, 2010's runners-up Netherlands, and Chile, a technical and attack-minded South American side playing in their own continent.
Then there is the flip side of a new manager: not enough time to work with his new players or integrate his ideas fully. Veterans Schwarzer and Kewell have retired from the international scene in the past year, too.
Australia have to be honest about their capabilities.
For all their planning, improvements and intentions, their current squad of players simply isn't particularly good. They had three players in their most recent squad who feature for clubs in the top five European leagues.
Two are goalkeepers who are backups for their club sides.
One final, big disappointment: the long-term injury to Robbie Kruse. A torn ACL is going to keep the Bayer Leverkusen forward out until, more than likely, the start of next season. He would have been a focal point for the attacking play to search out with his runs behind opposition defenders and his acceleration, something Australia will now have to do without.
Conclusions and Prediction
With nothing expected of them, Australia can almost continue to use their World Cup fixtures as a proving ground...except, of course, that it's the World Cup, and they are an extremely proud sporting nation.
The Socceroos will want to be competitive, will want to give a good account of themselves and measure their progress against quality, consistent opposition.
They may well go without winning a point in the group, but that doesn't have to mean they get trounced by six goals, as they did against Brazil and France. They can certainly affect the two who go through, too, if they do manage to pick up a surprise result along the way.
Australia's first game is against Chile and is likely to be an all-important match in terms of their aims for achieving something tangible in the tournament.
Prediction: Exit at the Group Stage of the World Cup, bottom of Group B