In June 1990, Group F of the FIFA World Cup kicked off with a 1-1 draw between England and Ireland.
It’s a match mostly remembered – particularly in England – for its mediocrity. The media were predictably scathing and confidence before the next match against Netherlands was low.
Two years earlier, at the European Football Championship, England lost to both Ireland and Netherlands, and the star-studded Dutch side went on to win the tournament.
So, in the five days before the clash with the oranje, the English camp decided to make a tactical change and, to the surprise of the football world, its traditional 4-4-2 system was replaced.
Instead, England played with three centre backs. Des Walker and Terry Butcher, the existing pair in the middle of defence, were joined by Mark Wright.
And it worked. Despite the match finishing 0-0, Dutch captain Ruud Gullit acknowledged that his team was lucky to draw. England had no trouble adapting to its new formation; indeed, the gifted Paul Gascoigne relished his role in the reconfigured midfield.
For its next match against Egypt, the English reverted to 4-4-2 but, in the tournament’s knockout phase, three centre backs were used throughout.
Their run ended with penalty shootout failure at the end of an epic semi-final against eventual champion West Germany. The 1990 tournament is still England’s best on foreign soil.
Fast forward 16 years to Australia’s campaign in Germany in 2006 which began with a famous victory against Japan before the Socceroos faced Brazil.
Coach Guus Hiddink made three changes for Australia’s match against the defending champion. One of the players brought in was centre back Tony Popovic.
But no centre back made way; Popovic joined the pair that faced Japan (Craig Moore and Lucas Neill) in a changed formation.
Popovic suffered an injury just before half time but, instead of replacing him with another defender, Hiddink brought midfielder Mark Bresciano on and consequently tweaked the Socceroos’ set up again. Australia lost 2-0 but the final score flattered the Brazilians.
Under Postecoglou, the Socceroos are a one-trick pony.
Let’s advance another 11 years, specifically to March 2017, and Australian media covering the Socceroos are briefed by national coach Ange Postecoglou on the three-at-the-back system he’s about to unveil against Iraq in a crucial World Cup qualifier (played in Tehran).
Even for members of the media who are accustomed to regular access to players and coaches, this was truly an invitation into the inner sanctum.
And, my goodness, what a smart political move it was by Postecoglou as the journalists/reporters emerged speaking in tongues.
In the match itself, the Socceroos stuttered and the final score was 1-1. It was their fourth straight draw and their odds of reaching Russia 2018 were lengthening with Japan and Saudi Arabia in the automatic qualification spots, both three points ahead of Australia.
But you wouldn’t have known that if you’d read some post-match analyses. Take this one from Fox Sports’ Simon Hill which came complete with parroting of Postecoglou’s lines about how the new formation was set up for “where it really matters – at the World Cup in Russia” (never mind qualifying first).
Hill even indulged Postecoglou’s most ridiculous obsession: the state of the playing surface. Having covered Socceroos qualifiers all over Asia, he surely knows that a pitch that resembles a billiard table is the last thing you can rely on and that, rather than constantly moan, it’s better to adjust.
Remarkably, in the aftermath of the Iraq match, Postecoglou behaved as if the media (who were still mostly fawning at that time) were at war with him.
His infamous retort (after a 2-0 win over United Arab Emirates in Sydney) that, “if people want the perfect system, it’s probably their hot water system at home” was not prompted by a question about his three-at-the-back formation.
In fact, a journalist had asked a quite reasonable question about whether Postecoglou was concerned about some long balls that got UAE behind Australia’s defence. In the Iraq game just five days earlier, Postecoglou identified this problem himself.
The Socceroos coach also plunged to a new low by suggesting that perceptions would be different if it were a foreigner in charge of the national team (which, given what his two immediate predecessors Holger Osieck and Pim Verbeek copped, was as inaccurate as it was insulting). This time Hill was having none of it.
I’m not using Hill’s commentary because I’m critical of the way he’s covered Postecoglou and the qualification campaign. Quite the contrary – among the better known members of Australia’s soccer media, he’s arguably the most balanced (and undoubtedly one of the most respected).
But I was certainly surprised by his initial way-to-go-Ange-three-at-the-back-for-Russia-2018 pom pom waving.
… we’re carrying on as though mastering three-at-the-back is the sporting equivalent of bringing the stricken Apollo 13 back to earth.
Frankly, the three-at-the-back debate of the last six months has been almost as bizarre as Postecoglou’s rationale for bringing it in – that it was designed for a tournament which was 15 months away and for which Australia was, and is, struggling to qualify.
Let’s deal with Ange’s folly first. Had he steered Australia to automatic qualification last month (which, given that we missed out to Saudi Arabia, he should have done) he could have had eight or nine friendlies before next year’s World Cup finals to use for experimentation with different line ups, formations and tactics.
Even if the Socceroos qualify next month, they could still play four or five friendlies pre Russia 2018. March offers the chance to play two matches and teams normally play two or three in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
And, really, who needs that long to switch to three at the back? Did the England team of 1990? Did Australia in 2006? Clubs and national teams around the world switch formations during matches whenever tactical substitutions are made.
We’re talking about professional footballers. In a game that demands positional fluidity. Yet we’re carrying on as though mastering three-at-the-back is the sporting equivalent of bringing the stricken Apollo 13 back to earth.
Media should have called Postecoglou out on this from the start. Instead, most indulged his fictional story of a coach sticking to a grand (15 month) plan in the face of widespread criticism. I suppose it makes good copy…
Six months later, three-at-the-back is the main tactical talking point in discussions about the Socceroos.
But that’s folly too. Because it’s not the main shortcoming with the team’s approach.
Indeed, there’s been little change in Australia’s results in qualifiers since Postecoglou made the switch. The first five games of the group (in which the Socceroos ultimately finished third to miss out on automatic qualification) resulted in two wins and three draws; the five matches with three-at-the-back yielded three wins, one draw and one loss.
The main problem, which hasn’t had nearly enough focus, has been that the insistence on high risk passing out from the back has led to the Australians turning the ball over in their defensive half.
Early in Australia’s match against Japan a year ago, Trent Sainsbury brought the ball out of defence and tried to pass to Aaron Mooy who was on the halfway line. But Mooy had a Japanese player either side of him. The pass had to be perfect. And it wasn’t. Genki Haraguchi intercepted and, with the Socceroos defence wrong footed, he received a return pass on his way to goal and scored.
When the teams faced each other again in Japan in August, the Aussies were a goal down in the 82nd minute with Mark Milligan in possession at the back. He decided to pass short to Jackson Irvine who had a ring of three opponents around him. As they pressured Irvine, he attempted to pass back but the ball was won by Haraguchi (again!). He found Yosuke Ideguchi who scored and put the game out of the Socceroos’ reach.
These two goals were incredibly costly for Australia. But note this: the first was conceded before the earth-shattering move to three-at-the-back; the second happened after it.
Under Postecoglou, the Socceroos are a one-trick pony.
The game plan revolves around passing out from the back, maintaining possession, and trying to continue to attack no matter what the score is. There is no flexibility. And that’s why the debate about formation should be nothing more than a sideshow.
Australia had 66.5% of the possession against Japan in August and made 514 successful passes, to Japan’s 216. But Japan had five shots on target to Australia’s one and won 2-0.
There couldn’t be a better statistical summary of the failure of the Socceroos’ approach. But that isn’t what we’ve been talking about.
And so to the two matches against Syria which begin with tomorrow night’s encounter in Malaysia.
As we know only too well here, these two-legged playoffs are fraught with danger. Success gets the Socceroos to another two-legged playoff against a team from North or Central America but failure means elimination.
If the Syrians have been watching Australia play, they might conclude that, when the Socceroos have possession, rather than sit back, they should apply pressure all over the pitch to try to win the ball in a dangerous position.
And sadly, if they do that and succeed, we’ll probably still be talking about three-at-the-back.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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