“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.”
Ange Postecoglou was partly correct when he said this 10 months ago.
A pragmatic coach straight after him? Yes. We’ll all revel in that? Well, some are happy and some aren’t. And, as for what we’ll want next, you can already safely say that Australia’s soccer community will have a few different opinions.
That statement by the former Socceroos coach was made after a 1-1 draw with Iraq, a result which meant Australia was behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in the race for the two tickets to the World Cup finals that the qualification group offered.
It was also the beginning of a bizarre soap opera which culminated in Postecoglou’s resignation a week after the Socceroos finally qualified for Russia 2018 through playoff matches (which were necessary because Australia ultimately failed to catch the two leaders in its group).
Throughout that period, on occasions when the game was actually discussed, the quote at the top defined the debate. Ange’s fans championed all his lines about changing the way the game is played in Australia and his insistence that his teams play out from the back, keep the ball, and continue to attack.
And the rest of us just wanted pragmatism: a recognition that stronger countries than Australia compromise or reject those idealistic tactics to maximise their chances of success.
But the idea that a coach (even a popular one) could change the way an entire country approaches soccer through his leadership of the national team is the true folly.
I can’t believe I would even have to explain why. But there are people out there who seem to agree that the philosophies of the Socceroos coach will filter all the way from the top of the sport to grassroots level – that it’s some sort of statement.
And this belief is underpinned by two frighteningly simple ideas: 1) that there are right ways and wrong ways to play the game (which, sadly, has been drilled into us by a narrow commentariat for decades); and 2) that there is some alignment between passports and playing styles.
The belief also ignores one of Australian soccer’s great truths – we struggle to unite over anything.
What follows from that is a conviction that once we all have the right philosophy the circle will become complete with a Socceroos team that’s up there with the best in the world.
But the countries that are among the best in the world do exactly what we’re doing now: debate the way the game should be played.
You only have to look at one of the romantics’ favourites: Argentina.
While Argentina produces scores of talented players and is regularly among the World Cup fancies, that’s certainly not a result of the type of agreed national coaching philosophy that some would apply in Australia.
Coaches in Argentina are often classed as menottistas or bilardistas and those names derive from the country’s two World Cup winning managers: Cesar Luis Menotti (a proponent of attractive attacking play) and Carlos Bilardo (defensive/pragmatic).
Even neighbouring Brazil has spent much of the last 30 years deciding which approach to use largely because, after winning three World Cups between 1958 and 1970, several skilled attacking teams failed over the next two decades. By 1994, the Brazilians were playing a more European-style of game – and they finally got their World Cup back.
Since Thursday, when Football Federation Australia announced that Bert van Marwijk would lead the Socceroos in Russia, the passports-define-playing-style simpletons spent a lot of time focussing on his nationality: Dutch.
But guess what? In Netherlands, coaches don’t have a single philosophy either. Guus Hiddink is Dutch, Louis van Gaal is Dutch and so is Pim Verbeek; all three have quite different approaches to the game.
Still, van Marwijk is likely to be pragmatic and that’s good. Competitive international matches increasingly show that pragmatism succeeds – and I’d rather see a dour Australian team that wins/draws than an attacking team that loses.
Oh yes, we could have an attacking team that wins … but only in your dreams. Because teams that succeed in internationals do so because they don’t concede goals.
There have been seven World Cups since the winner was required to successfully negotiate four knockout rounds. In the 28 matches played in those rounds by the teams that ultimately lifted the trophy in those tournaments, the combined total of goals conceded was just 12 (and two of those were penalties).
And if you look at countries that have exceeded expectations, you find something similar.
When the draw was made for the 2014 World Cup finals, the first team you could put a line through was Costa Rica. What chance did the Central American nation have in a group with Italy, England and Uruguay?
But the Costa Ricans finished top and made it to the quarter finals. And while they only scored five times in five matches, they only conceded twice (including one penalty).
In 2010 the Paraguayans made it all the way to the quarters with just three goals; they also only conceded two.
Boring? Maybe. But there’s an unfortunate reality in soccer – it’s harder to build a successful and attractive attacking team than it is to be pragmatic. Club coaches have a better chance because they can wheel and deal players and have them training nearly every day. But a national team coach has a fixed group of available players and can only work with them for a few weeks each year.
Sure, there have been some great international teams this century; you wouldn’t say the Spain of 2010 or the Germany of 2014 were defensive (even if they didn’t concede many goals). But they’ve been the best; most others, including stronger teams than Australia, understood that pragmatism offered the best chance of success. It’s why the Argentine coach in 2014, Alejandro Sabella, took a bilardista approach despite having a squad with the attacking talents of Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Lionel Messi. The result? Getting his country past the quarter-final stage for the first time in 24 years.
Pragmatism may not be what we want but it is what we need. And while I don’t agree with those who see the Socceroos’ performance in Russia as being particularly relevant to the sport’s future in Australia, surely success would be a bigger fillip than style.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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