You learn more from your defeats than your wins? If that’s true – and I think it is – then the Caltex Socceroos’ games against England and Greece in recent weeks have been invaluable on the Road to Russia 2018.
(Rashford 3’, Rooney 55’)
(Dier OG 75’)
(Mantalos 8’, Maniatis 20’)
Australia began away on May 27 as a Euros-bound Three Lions defeated the Socceroos 2-1 at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light.
After a flight straight back to Sydney, the Aussies faced Greece on June 4 at ANZ Stadium, with the Green and Gold winning it in stoppage time 1-0.
And to complete the trio of clashes, Australia lost 2-1 to Greece in Melbourne on June 7.
So, lots of travel over 11 days and two time zones against European nations in differing stages of their fixture cycles with recovery and jet lag thrown in.
Three goals scored (one was an OG) and four conceded by Australia – including one of the greatest strikes you’ll ever see by Greece’s Iaonnis Maniatis at Etihad Stadium.
FORMATIONS AND TACTICS
Drill down to what’s really at play here – the performances more so than the results – and it’s clear Australia will have acquired some valuable insights into their own approach and players.
Against England, Postecoglou tried a 4-4-2 using two speedy wingers up top (Kruse and debutant Maclaren) with Rogic at the tip of a diamond and closer to goal.
It worked a treat – particularly with the growing influence of Rogic offering the Socceroos another option in attacking positions.
Australia mostly dominated England with a team that wasn’t their strongest XI and clearly underdone.
But as fitness told and a raft of changes was made later in the game, Roy Hodgson’s men were able to double their lead before a late OG added some deserved respectability.
What would’ve pleased Postecoglou was the composure and belief after going behind early.
The Soccereoos didn’t panic after conceding to a somewhat fortuitous deflection falling to rising star Rashford. And transitioning to a 4-4-2 appeared smooth.
A return to the more favoured 4-3-3 was in place for the second game against Greece. Australia pressed incessantly against a tired-looking opponent , they created many chances and should’ve won easily.
With Asian-based stars returning, this was a stronger starting XI in terms of fitness and it showed. Eventually, Australia got their just rewards just before the final whistle.
But in the final game against a more rested Greece, coach Michael Skibbe was able to adapt to Australia’s high-octane and free-flowing game plan at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium.
Not only did he have players with energy to press high and with intensity to cause hurried ball movement around the defensive third, but when the Socceroos got on the ball to create, the Greeks disrupted Australia’s rhythm by either fouling and/or blowing up with strategic bouts of push and shove.
Feisty it was, but feisty for a reason. Disruption. And it worked.
Australia’s free-flowing patterns were unsettled – hardly helped by their under-par overall performance and lack of energy.
With those factors in play, little wonder the Greeks were 2-0 up at half time and rarely looked like they’d lose this one.
Additionally, Australia plays a high line.
It’s all about imposing yourself on teams in their half – which means our keepers sweep.
But it has its risks too. Just ask Adam Federici - in the side in place of Mat Ryan - who got caught out doing exactly what Postecoglou asked him to do.
No blame at all can be attached to Federici and you have to accept it was a fabulous strike by Greece’s Iaonnis Maniatis to make it 2-0.
Late on Postecoglou threw on Giannou to partner Cahill with both playing central in another, albeit narrower, attacking option for the future.
As an exercise this final game was absolutely invaluable.
It showed how other nations could aim to stop Australia once they figure out how we set up. Part of the challenge in becoming a world force is to learn to adapt our own approach to this type of opposition game plan.
DEPTH AND DEVELOPMENT
I’m particularly excited about Milos Degenek, Jason Geria and Alex Gersbach.
I believe all will be part of the squad that takes on the final phase of World Cup qualification and the 2017 Confederations Cup.
It gives our defence so much more depth now.
What’s more, Trent Sainsbury’s move to Chinese football hasn’t dimmed his talents at all.
Who saw his calm and cool defensive clearance against Greece in the second half in Sydney? (To think Holger Osieck thought he was too relaxed).
Clearly Sainsbury is first choice centre back with a number of potential partners such as the ever-improving Wright, the classy Degenek, and the experienced pair of Wilkinson and Spiranovic all now options to partner the WA-born Sainsbury.
In midfield, Tom Rogic showed how far he’s come in a short time.
How far the former Nike Chance winner can go is anyone’s guess but if he stays fit, the Canberra-born star can be our X-factor in qualification, Confederations Cup and beyond.
Rogic’s midfield partner Aaron Mooy continues to shine. He’s a joy to watch in tandem with Rogic and has proven he’s more than capable of taking the next step in his burgeoning club career.
Both are now first choice as attacking options in any formation.
Apostolos Giannou and debutant Jamie Maclaren also showed they are options for the future up front while Mark Milligan continues to show his incredible versatility (he played central defence, attacking midfield and the holding role, in that order).
Skipper Mile Jedinak was immense in the first two games and provides the physical dominance and presence you’d expect from someone with his tackles stats in the EPL.
After casting his net far and wide, experimentation with players is now likely to ease off with Postecoglou now relatively happy with his depth.
The development now will be more focussed on the team's overall growth.
It’s a real jigsaw for Postecoglou to juggle.
Asian-based players, A-League and European players all coming into camps at differing levels of fitness and fatigue cycles from differing parts of the world.
Clearly, the Greece game was a step too far for some after three weeks in camp across England and Australia.
I’m keen to see how Australia’s high-octane pressing game plays out in a group stage scenario like the Confederations Cup. Australia ran out of gas in Brazil by game three.
Postecoglou has some of the sharpest minds to analyse this conundrum and come up with a solution – be it through even smarter recovery techniques, squad rotation or tailoring the overall approach to ensure we’re not spent by game three and beyond.
Postecoglou’s project is to evolve this team into a world class one. Feared globally, able to execute their style of football on any opposition, anywhere anytime.
And as he rightly points out, football continually evolves. So must we.
As such, games against a variety of opposition - not just from AFC - are beneficial as the Socceroos prepare for a crucial 12 months, starting with the final phase of World Cup qualifiers on September 1 when Iraq visit Perth’s Rectangular Stadium. Then there is the Confederations Cup in June next year.
Right now, though, the development in this squad continues. And you sense, will continue over the next 12 months as Postecoglou sets his sights very, very high.
And so he should. This squad of players, their coaching staff and analysts together have the potential to shock some of the world's best over the next two years.
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