Having waited so long for this phase of World Cup qualifying to begin, it’s almost hard to believe that by the middle of November, we’ll know a lot about how the Socceroos are placed on the road to Russia.
By then, half of the matches in their group of six teams will have been played. A top two finish ensures qualification, the third placed team will get another chance through playoffs and the others are eliminated.
A spot in the top two at that halfway point would be particularly good for Australia as three of its first five matches are away from home.
Then it’ll be 25 November, a date I remember because of… a failed World Cup campaign.
For decades, World Cup qualification series have ended in November. Our most celebrated reached its crescendo against Uruguay on the 16th of that month in 2005.
But four years earlier it was Australia eliminated, in Uruguay, on the 25th. And, remarkably, it’s going to be 15 years since that happened.
I raise the prospect of failure because I’m worried about the current campaign
Yes, 15 years since the last time Socceroos fans experienced that brutal outcome: no World Cup finals for you. There are supporters, who are now young adults, who don’t know what that’s like. (How is that possible?)
I do wonder how we’ll feel the next time it happens. Upset? Of course. But it’ll be different. The failure to qualify for the 2002 tournament was the seventh in a row and it had been 28 years since the last successful campaign.
Now we’re aiming to be at the World Cup finals for the fourth straight time. We’d be leaving the party rather than wondering if we’d ever get another invitation.
And I raise the prospect of failure because I’m worried about the current campaign.
Sure, the players are good enough and the coach is intelligent. But is he right about the way we should play these matches?
I certainly want Ange Postecoglou to succeed. I like his positivity and the way he brings that both to his squad and to discussion about the sport in Australia.
What I’d also like is seeing more flexibility in his approach.
The Socceroos coach remains an advocate of an attacking possession-based style; he’s said that it’s not about aesthetics, it’s about winning.
If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I think celebrating possession statistics (not patriotism) is the last refuge of the scoundrel. As long ago as April of last year I wrote that Adelaide United needed to trade away “some of its eye-catching play”. Last season it did just that and won the championship.
Low-possession teams were also succeeding on bigger stages with Leicester City and Atlético Madrid showing the way – against much richer teams too.
Then the UEFA European Championship in June/July saw teams often treating the ball like it was a grenade. High possession is now discredited but the theory that it brought success was always flawed. Teams that thrived with it (e.g. Spain and Germany) did so because they had better players.
The trouble here in Australia is that we’ve always had an inferiority complex in soccer. So when a small commentariat pointed overseas and told fans how the game should and shouldn’t be played, too many listened and forgot that the most important question isn’t about your style but whether you’re winning.
For a good example, think back to the Pim Verbeek era. Well before he was slammed for the Socceroos’ loss against Germany at the 2010 World Cup, the Dutch coach was heavily criticised for the way he set up the team and how it played in qualifiers.
Yet that team booked its spot in the tournament with two games to spare; in its eight matches in the final group phase, it won six times, drew twice and conceded just one goal. You might be waiting a long time for an Australian team to seal the deal like that again.
A lot of observers found the Verbeek style boring but they mostly enthuse about the Socceroos’ current approach. And that’s probably why there aren’t enough people questioning whether it’s effective.
Thus far it has delivered last year’s Asian Cup and a 100 per cent record in competitive matches at home. The test will be in difficult away fixtures, such as tonight’s in United Arab Emirates.
And it’s in matches like tonight’s where a more pragmatic approach might serve Australia well. I’m not suggesting a complete abandonment of the style that Postecoglou has been building but, goodness, don’t employ it when doing so places the Socceroos under pressure.
There were a couple of examples against Iraq on Thursday night of the Aussies turning the ball over in dangerous positions, when trying to control or pass, when the more scorned option – booting the ball upfield or out of play – would have immediately removed any threat.
Though a traditionally difficult opponent, Iraq at home looks like one of the easiest matches in this group so the pressure on our team will only increase.
For an example of what that might look like, go back to the recent friendlies with Greece. After the first match finished 1-0 in the Socceroos’ favour, the visitors must have realised that the Australians were always keen to maintain possession with short passing. So they applied heavy pressure on the ball carrier and the players he might move the ball to.
It worked. Early in the game Mark Milligan was dispossessed and the Greeks scored from their resulting attack.
Milligan could have lobbed the ball forward (not the worst option given the pace of Robbie Kruse and Mat Leckie) but that isn’t encouraged.
The Socceroos’ record in the Middle East has been poor in the last few years and, given that they lost to Jordan – a much weaker side than UAE – during their most recent visit (and with the vaunted midfield trio of Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic in the starting team), you’d hope for a different approach tonight. The rhetoric coming out of the camp suggests otherwise.
UAE’s win in Japan last week confirmed that we should shelve any idea that Japan and Australia will inevitably be this group’s two automatic qualifiers for Russia 2018.
So tonight will also be instructive. I fear the Socceroos won’t compromise their ways and that it will cost them.
I don’t want to be right.
Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.
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