WHEN I set about researching the current Aussie team, its manager, and the tactical side of things, it quickly dawned on me how little I knew. There were only four players whose names I recognised (one of them spending the latter part of the season injured at my beloved Dundee United). Their manager shared his name with the original barmaid of the Queen Vic in Eastenders. Beyond that I was stumped. So I asked the one person who I thought might give us that insight – Kate Cohen.
You’ll know Kate already – or you should do – she’s been a prominent tactical blogger for some time now, providing insights into the Australian A-League and Socceroos, but more notably for us, into Liverpool FC. Kate is now a columnist on the Liverpool FC website, and as well as maintaining her own blog, writes for the Guardian and other outlets – it’s nice to see talented writers like her get a proper platform.
Thanks to Kate for her help. To the interview, which started just after Australia’s warm-up game – a 1-1 home draw with South Africa.
It was interesting seeing today’s line up v South Africa – to most British fans, Cahill would have been about the only familiar face. How are you feeling about Postecoglou’s preparations for the tournament?
Unlike the last two World Cup campaigns in ’06 and ’10, neutral observers (especially from the UK) aren’t going to be particularly familiar with much of the squad. Whereas in Germany and South Africa we had Kewell, Neill, Schwarzer, Emerton, Cahill, and Viduka etc. playing regularly at a high level in the UK, this time around it is really only Tim Cahill (now MLS) and Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace) who UK watchers will be familiar with… which is saying something about where we are now compared to with our ‘Golden Generation’.
Because we don’t have the talent playing at a high level, it is difficult for Ange Postecoglou, the new manager, to select a squad that can go to Brazil and look to get out of the group. That is why I think his preparation has been good: selecting plenty of young, untested players to get some big match experience (something the previous two managers overlooked) before hosting the Asian Cup in January 2015, where we have a realistic chance of winning the tournament.
That’s why I think the scheduling has been smart since he’s come in. Australia has played Costa Rica, Ecuador and South Africa so far and will play Croatia before the first group stage match. This has allowed Postecoglou an opportunity to give those younger players an opportunity to express themselves within a more attacking system, rather than playing scared, park the bus football, where they are afraid to make a mistake, had we played top level opponents (like Brazil or France *gulp*).
So Postecoglou’s approach to the game is more expressive? How does he like to set up his sides?
Postecoglou was appointed on his track record of playing attractive, attacking football. Stereotypes of Australian football would suggest: works hard, tough to beat, all action and pretty direct. Postecoglou wants to keep the first three but to prove that Aussies can play ‘football’.
He had success with that philosophy at Brisbane Roar – his side played a possession-based 4-3-3, won three trophies in two seasons, went 36 games unbeaten (an Australian record, across all sporting codes) and revolutionised the way the game is played in the A-League. He then went to Melbourne Victory and played a very unique, attacking 4-2-2-2.
The structure of his Socceroos team is still in its experimental phase – he’s tested out both the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 – but the style of play has been consistent: high tempo, attacking play with quick wingers who cross early to Cahill.
Postecoglou and Football Federation Australia have played this perfectly on the PR front and despite our fate having been sealed the second the group was drawn (… lets be honest, we’re up against Chile, the Netherlands and Spain), there is a really positive mood in the Australian football community – the complete opposite to under Holger Osieck.
It sounds like, almost regardless of the results you get in Brazil, the public are behind the project. But Aussies are winners, and they don’t tolerate underperformance in other sporting codes. How long does Postecoglou get before the comment gets critical?
Postecoglou has enough time on his side – it will be hypocritical of FFA and the Australian football public if criticism starts the minute Australia start losing.
He has been given a long term contract which will take him up until Russia 2018 and it is that campaign, and the Asian Cup which is his priority.
The major criticisms of Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck, the two previous managers, were that the football was poor to watch and they didn’t regenerate the playing squad – and this is despite both achieving their primary role of qualifying for the World Cup.
In South Africa ’10, Australia had one of the oldest squads in the tournament, yet many of those were still regulars under Osieck and would have almost been guaranteed a spot on the plane to Brazil had a change of manager not occurred. It was very likely that the starting back five in Brazil would have been: Mark Schwarzer (41), Luke Wilkshire (32), Lucas Neill (36), Sasa Ognenovski (35) and Matt McKay (31). Under Postecoglou, this has changed – Schwarzer announced his retirement almost immediately, Neill and Ognenovski were left out of the squad altogether whilst Wilkshire is likely to be back up to Ivan Franjic (26) and McKay as a squad option for his natural centre midfield position.
These are changes that needed to happen and Postecoglou has been the one to have the guts to make them – for that he will have earnt himself a lot of goodwill and time.
Towards the end, the ‘Golden Generation’ became the ‘Entitled Generation’ – they were guaranteed a spot no matter where they played, how regularly they played and their form. Postecoglou has ended that.
From an external point of view, that all seems very positive, doesn’t it? Do you think the conveyor belt of young talent will bolster his approach in the years leading up to 2018?
The atmosphere is generally pretty positive at the moment – we’ll see if that changes after the three group matches. As for the conveyor belt of talent for 2018, a lot of these younger players aren’t playing in the top division or, those who are, aren’t in top European leagues. But this World Cup is an opportunity for them to make a step up, if they manage to impress on the big stage. Somebody like a Mat Ryan (Club Brugge) has a great opportunity to attract interest from a club in a bigger league, someone like a Massimo Luongo (Swindon) might get a move to a higher division or some of the Australian-based players could earn a move to Europe.
We had a kid called Curtis Goode at Dundee United this season, but nothing really came of it. He was on your radar too, wasn’t he?
Indeed he was. Postecoglou really rates him. He made his Socceroos debut against Ecuador in March but came off in the second half with an injury that kept him out for the rest of the season with Dundee. Still, Postecoglou included him in his 30-man provisional squad, but he wasn’t quite ready so he was one of the three initial cuts before the squad travelled to Brazil. His debut came in a match we would like to forget (well, the second half only) – we went up 3-0 at half-time and went on to lose 4-3, but Good did well. I’m sure he will have many more opportunities for Australia, and as long as he’s fit and playing regularly he will be in the Asian Cup squad.
So the last question for now – who are the players to watch, and how do you think you’ll get on? Three exceptionally difficult games…
The main player to watch will be Mat Ryan. He has had an outstanding season in goals for Club Brugge and he will have a lot of work to do in the three matches. Also, it is a great opportunity for Matthew Spiranovic at centre back. He has had a few set backs in his career but he is an ‘easy on the eye’ centre back who is very calm on the ball.
As for how we’ll go? Chances are we will lose all three matches but we won’t sit back and concede defeat. Postecoglou is an attack minded manager and will be using this as an opportunity to see which players have the nerve to play on the big stage in difficult circumstances.