A defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 for Australia

June 7, 2010

Australia, 4-2-3-1

Australia got to the first round in their first World Cup, the second round in their second World Cup, so is a quarter-final spot the natural outcome for their third World Cup?

Most of the world hasn’t seen much of Australia since 2006, and the positive for those who chose not to watch the Asian Group 1 qualifying section is that the side has changed little in the past four years. Of the expected starting XI, only Hull winger Richard Garcia was not in the squad for 2006.

The manager, however, had changed. Guus Hiddink was worshipped in Australia for the job he did in taking them to the second round (especially considering the unfortunate nature of their elimination), and also provided tactical excitement with his 3-3-3-1 formation that dominated possession against superior teams.

He has been replaced by a fellow Dutchman (and Hiddink’s former assistant at South Korea), Pim Verbeek. He has got Australia playing a more pragmatic, defensive type of football, but has won supporters over with a good run of results.

Ten clean sheets in fourteen qualification games tells you what you need to know about Australia – they play a fairly conservative 4-2-3-1 formation that depends on the three midfield runners joining the lone striker and providing a goal threat.

The first XI

The back four sees Lucas Neill joining Craig Moore in the centre, with Scott Chipperfield on the left and Luke Wilkshire on the right – the full-backs are fairly limited footballers technically (it would have been nice to see Brett Emerton at right-back) but do push forward to join the midfield and stretch the play when the wingers look to link up with the striker.

The two midfielders perform slightly different jobs – Vince Grella sits in front of the defence and looks to receive short passes from the centre-backs (who aren’t the best on the ball), whilst Jason Culina is more advanced, although rarely breaks into the penalty area, leaving that for the front four.

The central player is Tim Cahill, who is involved in build-up play slightly more than at Everton, where he often only appears in the penalty area on the end of moves. He is joined by two wingers, Richard Garcia and Mark Bresciano, who strangely has just signed for Al-Nassr.

Harry Kewell is – surprise surprise – injured, but will be in the side if fit, possibly as a winger, possibly as the striker – he played both roles in qualification. The other choice of striker is Josh Kennedy, a tall, physical but hardly prolific player who will look to hold the ball up for the midfield runners. Goals is the problem for Australia, and up against defensive sides like Ghana and Serbia, they may struggle to find the net – Cahill’s late runs into the penalty area will be the main threat.

The basic formation

Here is Australia's basic 4-2-3-1 shape. The defenders (in pink) are fairly flat, with two holding midfielders (in blue) keeping close to the centre-backs. Tim Cahill, the central of the three attackers, will probably look to pick up opposition holding midfield players, whilst coming short for passes. The two wide players drop back and form two banks of four if needed. Josh Kennedy (in green) stays upfront.

Transition from defence to attack

Here, Australia are at the transition between defence and attack. Kennedy (just out of shot in green) is isolated upfront, with Cahill having dropped back to assist the two central midfielders. The wingers have taken up fairly central positions in the defensive phase of play, making Australia fairly easy to defend against.


This counter-attack shows two of the attacking trio getting forward in support of Kennedy, but the lack of width in the attack (and the fact that the full-backs are well behind play) makes it difficult for Australia to create goalscoring opportunities. Even with most of the opposition midfield out of play, Australia are still only 3 v 5 here.

The midfield

The differing roles of the two central midfielders (in blue) is clear here - Culina (5, near side) plays in advance of Grella.

The striker

Josh Kennedy rarely presses the defenders on the ball and instead drops off close to the three attackers, which helps to narrow the gap between he and the rest of the side.


Another defensive-minded side in Group D – Australia will struggle for goals but should go into the final game against Serbia with a chance of progression.

Pace could catch out the back four, whilst there is limited talent on the break when Australia try and move forward from their standard defensive position.

Set-pieces may be key – Moore, Cahill and Kennedy are good in the air, whilst Neill comes forward from centre-back to offer a long throw.

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