Our Confederations Cup coverage comes to an end, only a week after it all started. While Australia head home winless, their final performance at least illustrated what coach Ange Postecoglou had been attempting to put together for some time now, which promises much returning back to World Cup qualification in August. Martin Lowe looks back on their highly intriguing draw with Chile and wonders what we should all expect in the race to return to Russia in a year’s time.
Ange the Brave wins round the formation doubters, but remains without a tournament victory
After a pretty underwhelming week, Australia ended on an aesthetic high, even if they weren’t able to secure the three points or a group stage progression against Chile. The team performance that lasted the entire 90 minutes was the first time we’ve really tasted the merits of the new 3421 formation over a sustained period leaving Australian and Asian football fans alike tantilised at the prospect of this being honed further in the coming 12 months.
As we detailed after the draw with Cameroon, the system itself seemed to not fit the personnel Ange Postecoglou had to choose from. A lack of urgency in midfield, ability in possession from the back and fluidity in attack was apparent, forcing us to question whether Postecoglou should ditch the system and return to the successes of the past utilising a 433 or 442 formation, or that he starts to question the merits of certain players?
His bravery to opt for the latter should be applauded, going above and beyond our suggestions (of dropping Mat Leckie and moving Mark Milligan into the back three) by leaving out arguably Socceroos two most prominent talents Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic, whilst introducing Massimo Luongo (who had a horror show against Germany last Monday), and Tim Cahill, in the central midfield, a position he hadn’t played in under Postecoglou.
While we’ll get onto the Socceroo great later, the former Luongo deserves as much praise, given he had to bounce back from such a low position. His selection at the base of the midfield hadn’t worked against Iraq in March and Germany earlier this week, so to come out with such a commanding performance on Sunday, shows his mental strength and undoubted ability. That ability clearly thrives on those around him, and his fellow three central midfield players didn’t shirk from the task; offering fluidity, high pressing and instinctive passing, the kind of style Postecoglou has been trying to develop for months.
In many ways Australia won the physiological advantage early on through physicality, the worry of picking up 4 yellow cards in the first period didn’t in the end affect the overall outcome of the match, yet it was clear that one team were quicker to the ball than the other. While the cultured Mooy and Rogic have excelled in breaking sides down with their creativity, you’d have to doubt they could provide the workrate and aggression that the likes of Jackson Irvine and James Troisi demonstrated from the front.
Yes, similar defensive frailties were on show, especially the dreaded balls in behind, which is expected to a degree whilst playing against this calibre of opposition, however aside of Trent Sainsbury, who has well and truly put himself in the shop window over the summer, Australia still lack at least one ball playing defender next to him, who isn’t exposed on the turnaround. To a man, the team went out and made the coach proud and proved him correct in his philosophy. While the results are yet to come (that’s only 2 points from a possible 18 in international competitions for Postecoglou), the entertainment factor was there for all to see.
Centurion Cahill puts on a worthy captain’s performance
Amidst the shake-up in selection, Tim Cahill’s inclusion as a pressing attacking midfielder was one of the more surprising calls. It’s been a long time since Cahill was deployed in his formative position for the Socceroos (since he was converted into a central striker, out of necessity more than tactical choice), and while he’s now moved back since returning to Australia domestically for Melbourne City, there were many questioning his legs to make a success of the role for the national team against such a fast moving Chile side.
In the end it was fitting that Tim Cahill received his 100th cap for the Socceroos (moving closer to Mark Schwarzer’s record of 109) putting in a pure demonstration of leadership and pressing that we’ve never needed to have seen from him before. While we’ve grown accustomed to him playing a reduced role, to make an impact on odd occasions in the opposing penalty box, this was the complete opposite, supporting the front man (in his successor Tomi Juric) and putting the hard work in for the team, without the golden reward that he’s usually depended upon for.
At 37 – 38 by the turn of the year – the likelihood that Cahill has forged himself another role in Postecoglou’s World Cup plans is unlikely, but he’s posed the question at least, after falling slowly down the pecking order over the last 6 months. It seems like we’ve been writing off Cahill for years now, but with a record appearance accolade in sight and a World Cup on the horizon, could we be about to see him squeeze another year out of an eventful career?
Who has played themselves into August contention?
It wouldn’t be an Ange Postecoglou side if we weren’t left with plenty of questions. While we expected a summer of anxious looking around for suitabilities both of the formation and personnel, for once; the system has finally been proved that it works. Who fits in the individual slots however is back up in the air. With Japan ahead of them this August, it’s difficult to argue a case to see previous regulars Rogic, Mooy and a returning to fitness Mile Jedinak all returning to the starting lineup immediately.
Rogic and Mooy were left out as a tactical switch from Postecoglou, yet the former had quite noticeably been playing catchup in terms of match sharpness, and you’d assume would be straight back into the side in place of Tim Cahill, for the Socceroos’ trip to Saitama. Aaron Mooy, a near ever-present for Postecoglou and set to become a Premier League club’s record signing over the next few weeks, however, looks much more unlikely to be rushed back in.
Assuming James Troisi and Robbie Kruse find new clubs in the coming month, they’ve well and truly staked a claim for regular berths in Postecoglou’s immediate plans, despite coming into this tournament quite tentatively on the fringes. Troisi’s impact was noteworthy against Germany but his man of the match display, including fine dink of a goal against Chile, illustrated his growing tendency for a big game performance that he displayed in getting Australia here back at the Asian Cup.
Robbie Kruse has been the Socceroos most surprising performer in Russia, and arguably their best, coming on to change the game against the Germans, he was one of few who brought urgency to the pressing game against Cameroon, while he always looked an outlet against Chile until he was moved back inside. In an attacking sense, Australia are blessed with options, and with those talents being forced back (Irvine and Luongo, two attacking players who performed admirably in defensive roles against Chile), the likes of Jedinak and Milligan may start to feel the burn on their necks.
The biggest question is how to hone such a performance again. Was it the peak of their abilities to play such a high octane press and quick incisive passing game, or did the opposition better suit, and can they get the best out of the system against a Japan side, who’ll no doubt be mindful of Postecoglou’s plans? We leave Russia disappointed that it’s another international tournament where Asia have failed to pick up a victory, but remain positive of the future steps required to performing at the main event in 12 months time. For now, let’s eagerly anticipate August.