Those of us that love the round ball football code in Australia frequently debate many things but we’d all agree on this: we’re not a normal soccer nation.
And you might see one of the many reasons why that’s the case tonight.
Because while qualification for the World Cup finals is in jeopardy, the tenure of Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou is not.
In many other countries where the national team is expected to qualify, a struggle at such a crucial stage would mean a frenzy of speculation – indeed, an expectation – that the coach might soon be shown the door. (The Dutch, for example, have just axed Danny Blind at the halfway mark of their qualification campaign, with the Oranje in a position similar to what the Socceroos will find themselves in with a loss tonight.)
But not here. And certainly not with Postecoglou at the helm.
He does have credits in the bank. In 2013 he succeeded Holger Osieck who (just) guided Australia to qualification for the 2014 finals before overseeing 6-0 defeats against Brazil and France.
With the risk that humiliation beckoned on the sport’s biggest international stage, Postecoglou made changes and ensured the Socceroos wouldn’t be embarrassed at the tournament despite losing their three matches.
Then in January 2015 he led Australia to Asian Cup glory, an achievement that eluded the vaunted teams of 2007 and 2011.
And throughout his time at the helm, Postecoglou has been an influencer. He is intelligent, well-spoken and shows great self belief.
But self belief works both ways. After Thursday night’s draw against Iraq, the Socceroos’ fourth in succession, he said, “You’ll get a pragmatic coach straight after me and you’ll all revel in that and then you’ll be seeking someone who does things differently.”
Pragmatic: dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.
But at least we have confirmation that Postecoglou hasn’t failed to be pragmatic; he has chosen not to be.
The trouble is that his approach isn’t working and another dire 90 minutes threatens to derail Australia’s World Cup campaign.
Is there anything that hasn’t been blamed for the shortcomings of recent years?
The Socceroos have played six matches (of ten) in this decisive qualifying group and have recorded two wins and four draws. Given that they’ve played two home matches and four away matches, you could say that’s par.
But that would ignore that Australia has dropped points against Iraq and Thailand; Japan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates haven’t.
It would also ignore that the team could win its three remaining home games, and draw the away match in Japan, and still miss the top two automatic qualification spots in this group. (Sure, that would require a specific set of results in the other matches but achieving the three home wins and an away draw is easier said than done too.)
And frankly the Socceroos’ performances in these matches have been so bad that the record of two wins and four draws flatters them.
Until the draw against Iraq, most of Australia’s soccer media merrily carried on with the expectation that there was little danger of missing out on the 2018 World Cup finals. Now the tune has changed a little.
But I’m not surprised. Last September, after just one game in this qualifying group (which Australia won), I wrote about the limitations of the style of play that Postecoglou advocates and raised the prospect of failure.
When I returned to the subject three months later, after the draw in Thailand, the media complacency was still largely undiminished.
For the Iraq match, Postecoglou made a change. But there was no adjustment to the team’s playing style; instead he rolled out a new formation which, without going into its finer details, included having three players in defence instead of the normal four. If one of the problems this was supposed to address was how easily opponents create scoring opportunities, it failed.
One thing you can rely on never to change (indeed, you can set your watch by it) is Postecoglou criticising the state of the pitch. He was at it again in Tehran but, despite the dangers a difficult playing surface pose to a team that uses possession-heavy play, he asked: “Do you adjust your game for just one result or do you stick to your principles?”
If you don’t mind me saying, that “one result” was pretty important. And several Socceroos’ qualifiers are played on difficult pitches – including here in Australia. Please, just deal with them.
But I can’t see it happening because Postecoglou is inflexible about many things and his approach appears to be built on a flawed premise: that the way to succeed is by trying to keep the ball and continuing to attack.
If Australia were a top ten country blessed with a dozen world-class players (and all our matches were played on billiard tops) I could perhaps understand it.
But we’re not. Indeed, far better teams than us are “pragmatic”: content not to hold possession when necessary and quick to switch to a more defensive set up when they take the lead. I’m sure plenty of observers noticed what happened at Euro 2016.
Since then the Socceroos have been in front in three of the four matches they’ve failed to win.
And is there anything that hasn’t been blamed for the shortcomings of recent years? It’s the pitch, or mistakes by players, or that not enough of them are getting regular game time with their clubs (something Postecoglou was going to insist on… but hasn’t).
We got a new one after last week’s game: Australia couldn’t cope with Iraq’s long balls. I guess that’s hardly surprising given that we’re not supposed to be a “physical” team anymore and, you know, we play the game properly. Works a treat.
If the squad doesn’t have much quality, all the more reason not to continue with these vain attempts to look like Barcelona
Then there’s always that other chestnut we often get from the media (understandably not used by Postecoglou): that the current team isn’t good enough.
Obviously it’s not as talented as the Socceroos of 2006 but it’s not that bad either (and our group opponents aren’t exactly terrifying). And if the squad doesn’t have much quality, all the more reason not to continue with these vain attempts to look like Barcelona.
But it would be invidious of Postecoglou to retreat to this excuse if he fails – only last week he was talking about not only reaching the World Cup (finals) but making an impact at them.
If the Socceroos do fall short, the only thing that won’t be blamed is the style of play. And that will be a result of media, which hang off every word the coach utters, and the myth that has been promoted to Aussie fans for decades: that there are right ways and wrong ways to play the game.
A fifth successive draw tonight would mean the Socceroos’ most likely finishing position in this group is third. And that would reduce their chance of qualifying for Russia 2018 to 25 per cent. That’s because third place would throw them into a sudden-death playoff against the team that finishes third in the other Asian qualifying group and, if they survive that, into another playoff against the team that finishes fourth in CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean).
A loss would drop Australia below UAE as well. Fourth place means elimination; the Socceroos’ battle would move from trying to finish in one of the automatic qualifying spots to fighting for a shot at those last-chance playoffs.
And that’s a scrap which Postecoglou would not be equipped for. Winning ugly isn’t in his playbook.
Which should mean that the logical outcome of failure tonight would be the end of his reign as the Socceroos’ coach. With Australia not playing again until June, there would be a bit of time to find a successor who might be able to salvage the campaign.
But I doubt Football Federation Australia will make that decision. Postecoglou is likely to remain in charge until the road to Russia ends, whether that’s with failure to qualify or at next year’s finals.
I don’t relish writing these words because I want Australia to succeed. And I wouldn’t feel humiliated if the Socceroos qualify and then perform well at the tournament under Postecoglou because I’d be celebrating.
Unfortunately a lot of what we’ve seen so far suggests that we might miss next year’s big show.
It shouldn’t have come to this.
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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