Australia: building for the future
In the long-term, Australian football is on the rise. This is the country’s third consecutive World Cup qualification, having previously reached the tournament just once, and therefore Australia are now an established World Cup nation.
However, expectations are lower heading into this tournament than in 2006, when they were a genuinely good side unfortunate to be eliminated in the second round, and even in 2010, when they were pretty poor. Australia seems caught between two generations: the likes of Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Mark Viduka, Brett Emerton and Harry Kewell have long gone, and while there are some promising youngsters in this squad, it’s surely too early for them to compete.
Equally problematic is Australia’s draw – they’re in a group alongside the two World Cup finalists from 2010, plus Chile. It will be almost impossible for them to qualify, and they’re unlikely to register a victory. Therefore, Australia seem set to use this tournament as a learning experience ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil, and while coach Ange Postecoglou will be keen to avoid any thrashings, Australia will play open football and build for the future, rather than attempt to grind out 0-0 draws.
Postecoglou has Australia playing quick, high-tempo football, transferring the ball into attack and to the flanks immediately, and while that approach might play into the hands of their opponents, he’s unlikely to abandon his beliefs.
Postecoglou’s positive brand of football starts from the back. Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan plays proactively, sweeping from a high starting position and distributing the ball quickly, usually out to the flanks – although the centre-backs, Ryan McGowan and Matthew Spiranovic, are both decent on the ball and capable of playing a high defensive line.
The full-backs are encouraged to push high up the pitch, and this is arguably the most notable feature of the side. Ivan Franjic is extremely energetic and decent at crossing when in the final third, although there are certainly more reliable full-backs in terms of positioning and technical quality.
On the other side, Jason Davidson also plays a very energetic game, overlapping whenever possible and whipping the ball in from deep. There’s a real danger Australia could be caught out on the counter-attack against speedy forwards, though – the likes of Arjen Robben and Alexis Sanchez might be licking their lips.
This means the central midfielders stay in deep positions and are told to cover the wide areas if Australian passing moves break down – so some cynical fouling isn’t out of the question. The chief ball-winner is Mile Jedinak, who led the Premier League in terms of both tackles and interceptions last season, and will cover a lot of ground to impose his physicality on the contest. His closest colleague will be Mark Milligan, also a cautious midfielder. He holds his position and keeps his distribution neat and tidy.
Australia could play either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. While the shape may change, there’s not too much difference either way in terms of how Australia play. Mark Bresciano has been struggling with injury but Postecoglou has given him every chance of making the side, and the veteran will hope to drive forward from the top of the midfield triangle.
The other attacking midfielders will be two, or three (depending on the shape, and Bresciano’s fitness) of Tommy Oar, who can play left or centrally, Matthew Leckie, who has been used on either flank, and Dario Vidosic, who plays on the right or through the middle. Clearly, there’s great flexibility here and Postecoglou can change these players based upon the identity of the opposition, and the situation in the game. They could be given freedom to rotate, although this could leave Australia further exposed to counter-attacks down the flanks, if they all end up in central positions simultaneously.
Leading the goal charge is Tim Cahill, and while any player traditionally accustomed to a midfield role playing upfront is called a ‘false nine’, Cahill is the complete opposite. In fact, he was always something of a false midfielder, boasting little technical quality but a brilliant ability to time runs into the box, springing higher than the opposition centre-backs having jumped earlier, and heading into the net. He’ll depend on Franjic and Davidson overlapping for the crosses, and is capable of knocking the ball down for others, as well as heading for goal.
Cahill’s past as a midfielder means he’ll drop deep and keep the side compact, but also lead the midfield pressing. The opposition centre-backs will be allowed time on the ball, but Australia will spring into collective action once a forward pass is played into the midfield zone.
With a young and energetic side, this is one of their strengths – and while it probably won’t be enough to cause their group opponents significant problems, it means the matches should be played at a decent tempo. However, despite good fitness levels in this squad, there’s a worry Australia could tire because they’ll spend so long without the ball – it’s easy to imagine the full-backs, in particular, becoming exhausted and making late errors against substitutes.
Australia won’t qualify for the second round – they’re not good enough technically, few players are accustomed to this level of football, and they’re in an extremely tough group. A single win would be a huge surprise, a point arguably the most realistic goal.
But the goal isn’t really about this tournament – it’s about the Asian Cup next year, and about getting in place the right style of football for the next decade or more. Postecoglou might be too risky in this competition, but in the long-term he could lead Australia to success.
Coach: Ange Postecoglou – highly successful in Australia, looking to evolve the national side’s playing style
Formation: 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3
Key player: Cahill starts the press and is the only true goal threat
Strength: Great energy throughout the side
Weakness: Could be exposed on the counter-attack
Key tactical question: Can the full-backs get forward? And if so, are they then exposed on the break?
Australia: building for the future