Australian football fans were kept on the edge of their seats until late in the game on Tuesday evening when the Socceroos clinched a much needed 2-0 win over the UAE through Matthew Leckie’s 78th-minute header. Up till then the fans endured a nervous second half hoping for a second goal to kill off the UAE challenge and ensure a desperately needed three points to keep them in touch with group leaders Japan and Saudi Arabia which both won overnight.
Heading into this match there was much discussion and commentary, even criticism, of the Socceroos new system unveiled in last week’s qualifier against Iraq in Tehran where the Australians survived considerable pressure and were fortunate to come away with a 1-1 draw.
So what lessons were learnt from the Socceroos’ vital 2-0 win against UAE in their World Cup qualifier in Sydney last Tuesday?
Firstly, coach Postecoglou showed the courage of his own convictions. Despite the critical voices, the Socceroos persisted with the 3-2-4-1 system, with some personnel changes including pushing Mark Milligan forward into the second holding midfielder role to replace an injured Luongo, and the introduction of James Troisi for the suspended Aaron Mooy. Keeper Matt Ryan and centre-half Trent Sainsbury also came into the side.
The system seemed to work better in Sydney than it did last week in the match against Iraq in Tehran. It appears a bold move on Postecoglou’s part, with some seeing it as a system which stacks the midfield, an area of the park which has been the Socceroos’ strength. It requires a lot more work from the wide midfielders and hence the choice of the athletic Brad Smith and Matthew Leckie in those positions. The system also accommodates two holding midfielders Milligan and Jedinak and this was vital in reducing the effectiveness of UAE’s skilful playmaker Omar Abdulrahman who can hurt opposition teams through transition.
Coach Postecgolou commented post-match, “I’m just glad people are talking about systems. It’s great. We don’t talk enough about football in this country. If nothing else I’ve initiated some debate which is great. From our perspective, we just keep doing what we’re doing and keep evolving our game and making sure that every time we’re in camp, we progress a bit more and challenge the players. We found that when we challenge them, they respond and I think they responded again tonight.”
When asked if he had any concerns over the system, the coach responded to the question with some frustration, “If someone’s got a system out there that stops oppositions from doing anything, I think it’s called 11 against nothing. But you know it’s a game of football. We’ve got to try and score goals which we did. We created a number of opportunities which we probably should have scored from. I thought our defensive work was outstanding tonight. When we needed Mattie (Ryan) to sweep, he did. Like I said, if people want a perfect system, it’s probably the hot water system at home. It ain’t a football system.”
A number of the other lessons were gleaned from Tuesday night’s game. Sitting on a bench at a Serie A club is at least the equivalent of playing regularly in the Chinese Super League; at least when it comes to how it affects a player’s form. Centre-half Trent Sainsbury was among Australia’s best on Tuesday despite not having played a senior game for new club Inter Milan since his move from the Chinese Super League. He rarely put a foot wrong, made telling interventions to cut off UAE attacks, and showed composure with his passing and runs out of defence to help initiate attacks.
In contrast, A-League star James Troisi made a nervous start, but looked more comfortable in the second half as the game opened up. His quality delivery of set pieces proved crucial as his corners resulted in both goals.
Another lesson, probably unsurprising, is that the Socceroos without Mooy, Rogic, and Luongo are nowhere near as smooth or threatening in transition. The quality of those three and their ability to unlock defences was sorely missed. Instead, Australia relied greatly on getting the ball out wide to Leckie and Smith to get crosses into the box. Unfortunately the quality was often lacking, and Juric was starved of goal scoring opportunities, forcing him to drop deep to receive the ball.
Their two recent games have shown that the Socceroos are still a work in progress. Postecoglou believes it’s about evolution and providing new challenges to his players. There’s lingering concerns in defence (Australia is yet to settle on established fullbacks) and up front.
In the absence of a regularly scoring central striker, Matthew Leckie has emerged as another goal-scoring threat against oppositions, particularly at set pieces where he has scored vital near-post headers from corners in the two previous games.