Teams of the Decade, #18: Australia, 2006

January 19, 2010

It’s fair to say that Guus Hiddink could have had three sides in this list – his 2002 venture to the World Cup semi-finals with South Korea was probably his best achievement of the decade; his 2008 Russia side was probably his best team of the decade.

The team that gets a place in the list, however, is his 2006 Australia team – the first to qualify for the World Cup since 1974. This was, of course, in the days where they had to negotiate a tricky two-legged tie against Uruguay, rather than the easy route to the finals they enjoy today.

Their place here is largely down to the highly unusual formation Australia played throughout the tournament, which seemed to vary from game to game, but always featured two constants – a three-man defence and a lone striker, meaning it was generally noted as a 3-6-1. In reality, it was probably generally closer to a 3-3-3-1 – with two wing-backs and a very deep holding player, and three relatively offensive midfielders looking to support Mark Viduka. But six men in the middle meant Hiddink was able to switch between a defensive shape and an attacking shape fairly easily – which was vital considering the topsy-turvy games against Japan and Croatia in the group stages. Dropping a midfield player into a more defensive role meant a 3-4-2-1, pushing the wide players forward resulted in an adventurous 3-3-1-3.

Hiddink also felt relatively free to move players between positions – aided by the fact that the likes of Brett Emerton, Harry Kewell, Mark Bresciano and Mile Sterjovski were all highly versatile. Only the Schwarzer – Neill/Moore – Cahill – Viduka spine remained consistent.

The main benefit of the 3-6-1 formation was that Australia saw the majority of possession in the games against Japan (55%), Croatia (56%) and Italy (58%). Even against a vastly superior Brazil side famed for their ability to pass all day, Australia saw a decent 47% of the ball.

The shape worked better defensively than it did going forward – they took 85 minutes to break down a poor Japanese side – and the goals against Croatia were hardly well-crafted. Ultimately, they paid the price for not managing to score against an Italy side who were down to ten men and lacking any real width. With ten minutes to go, Hiddink replaced his right-winger with a second striker, and  it is perhaps not a coincidence that Italy’s last-minute goal came from a rare foray forward from left-back Fabio Grosso, who suddenly had no opponent forcing him back.

That said, it was an extremely controversial penalty which sent the Australians out, and Hiddink had at least demonstrated that for underdogs looking to frustrate the opposition and yet see a decent amount of the ball themselves, the 3-6-1 (and its many subtle variations) can be an effective system.

Their finest moment was probably Harry Kewell’s goal against Croatia to put them into the knockout stages, which was a scrappy goal but it demonstrated what Australia did well – using their numerical advantage to work the ball into a wide area, and get crosses in for the attacking four.

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