One of the decisive factors behind the sacking of Holger Osieck, and subsequent appointment of Ange Postecoglou, was the decline of the popularity of the national side amongst the wider public. Two disastrous 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France along with widespread concerns about the age of the squad and preferred tactics meant despite qualifying for a third consecutive World Cup, general support for the Socceroos were at a low point – something Postecoglou immediately set about changing after taking over from the German.
His initial press conferences were all about restoring pride in the side, and he immediately became the face of the marketing campaign designed to bring fans back to the stadium. No amounts of advertisements or public appeals, however, can match the sheer power of a good performance, and he would have been enormously keen to put on a good show in the farewell game.
Indeed, for the opening fifteen minutes of this friendly against South Africa felt like the side were utterly determined to put on a show, starting with a blur of quick, one-touch passing setting the tone for a high-tempo opening. Inside the first couple of minutes, the Socceroos had already attacked Senzo Meyiwa’s goal with two fluid, rapid attacks with short passing from back to front – the kind of football that Postecoglou’s become renowned for, and the type of football we’ve quickly come to expect from his new-look Socceroos side.
With Matthew Leckie and Tommy Oar cutting inside from wide positions, there was often lots of space for Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson to overlap down the right and left respectively, with the latter constantly getting forward to find space to cross near the touchline. The surprisingly narrow positioning of Oar helped. Normally, the FC Utrecht man tends to stay wider, but often moved inside into goalscoring positions – coming close with a deflected shot early on, and later wasteful with a finish from inside the penalty area.
However, the key feature of Oar’s performance remained his crossing, and even when on the ball closer to goal, it was obvious his instructions were to cross aerially to Tim Cahill, just as he did in the last Socceroos fixture against Ecuador. Then, it was revealed Postecoglou spent most of the pre-match training telling Oar to “whip it in early, because Timmy will be there”. It makes sense – Cahill’s one of the most prodigious headers of a ball in world football with his astounding leaping ability, and Oar’s a good crosser. Unsurprisingly, Australia’s only goal came from a trademark Cahill header.
The trouble with crossing, though, is that it’s an unreliable tactic. It’s actually rather difficult to plant a ball from out wide onto the head of a teammate, and as demonstrated by Manchester United under David Moyes in the Premier League this season, is too predictable to be a primary attacking strategy. Crossing in itself isn’t the issue – it’s when it becomes the only route, and not complemented by other forms of attacking, that it encounters problems. After the initial opening frenzy, it felt like South Africa were comfortable sitting slightly deeper and clearing away the balls in the air.
The more concerning issue, then, was why their defence wasn’t being worked from different angles. Put simply, there was a lack of creativity from Australia in central areas. In a slightly tweaked 4-3-3 formation (deviating from the 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 initially preferred by Postecoglou), there were three central midfield players dropping back to form a wall of five across the centre, meaning Australia dominated possession but lacked forward penetration. It was surprising to see James Troisi dropping back into a relatively deep role – basically the most advanced in a three-man midfield, rather than higher up as an advanced playmaker like he was for Melbourne Victory this season.
That robbed Australia of creativity higher up the pitch when they worked the ball forward into dangerous positions, because Troisi wasn’t receiving passes in the spaces between South Africa’s lines – partly because of Mark Milligan and James Holland’s tendency to pass wide, and partly because Troisi himself was concerned about moving too far forward and having too much ground to cover at transitions.
The problem was accentuated by his half-time substitution, where Matt McKay replaced him in that left-sided midfield role. McKay was even more cautious with his positioning, and even though the midfield trio rotated throughout to allow the other players to burst forward (with Milligan having a number of opportunities to shoot on the volley), Australia’s possession play was largely stagnant for long periods of the dull second half.
In many ways, this was a poor choice of fixture if the aim was to prepare Australia for their challenge at the World Cup. Group B, with Spain, Chile and the Netherlands, features three technically-gifted sides who will almost undoubtedly dominate possession against Australia, regardless of Ange Postecoglou’s tactics. Therefore, a match against South Africa, who were happy to soak up long periods without the ball, primarily tested the side’s ability to break down a deep defence – not something they’ll really have to do in Brazil.
If the aim, though, was to entertain the public with a performance befitting of their new positive approach under Postecoglou, then a second string, inferior South African side was a fine choice. The problem, then, lay in the under-par performance.
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