Oh, Bugger, the Dutch are Playing with Three Big, Tall Centre-Backs

Posted on June 18, 2014

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Note: this piece was also published on The Guardian Sport Network

By SB Tang

No-one, it seemed, whether it be within or outside Australia, gave the Socceroos a hope in this World Cup. According to the FIFA rankings, they were officially the worst team to make it to Brazil. A pre-tournament headline in Marca, the Spanish newspaper where one can learn what Cristiano Ronaldo enjoys for dessert (answer: fruit), asked the somewhat provocative leading question: “Will Australia be the worst team at the World Cup?” To be fair, they were only aping a headline from The Sydney Morning Heraldfollowing Australia’s uninspiring 1-1 draw with an understrength South Africa in Sydney last month.

Even if you happened to belong to that tiny, socially ostracised, underground cell of people who held to the radical belief that the Socceroos were not quite the worst team in Brazil, you could not deny that, mathematically, they were the unluckiest team in the tournament. As a somewhat incredulous The New York Times explained: “Among the thousands of draws that Australia could have received, its actual first-round grouping is the worst one possible.” That grouping contains: a Spain side which has a legitimate claim to being the greatest international team in the history of football; the Netherlands, finalists at the last World Cup and perennial contenders at major tournaments; and a Chile side that has consistently been amongst the best in South America for the last six years or so.

In their opening game against Chile, the Socceroos dispelled any suggestion that they will be the worst team at the World Cup, showing tremendous character to drag themselves back into the game after going 2-0 down inside the first 15 minutes to a proper South American side on South American soil. After Tim Cahill’s trade mark header — intelligent positioning between two defenders, a perfectly timed vertical leap with hang time that Jordan in his prime would’ve been proud of, and heading technique reminiscent of Oliver Bierhoff circa 1998 — across the keeper from Ivan Franjic’s excellent deep cross made it 2-1 in the 35th minute, Australia did something that few in the football world would’ve thought them capable: they controlled the game, carving out several genuine goal-scoring opportunities, until the moment that Mark Bresciano was subbed off in the 78th minute.

However, as excellent as the performance was, it told us little — good or bad — about this Australian team that we didn’t already know. The team’s courage has never been in doubt nor has the aerial prowess of the talismanic Cahill, now unquestionably the greatest footballer that Australia has ever produced, having scored in three consecutive World Cups for a country that had only appeared in one World Cup in its entire history when he started playing for the national team.

But the question marks about this young side that existed before the Chile game remain. First and foremost, there was serious concern over Australia’s defensive shape and ability to maintain tactical discipline under pressure given that two members of their first choice back four — centre-back Alex Wilkinson and right-back Franjic — had never played in Europe or in a World Cup. That weakness was ruthlessly exploited by the Chileans in the first 20 minutes and was particularly evident in their second goal. When Alexis Sanchez turned Mile Jedinak with one sublime touch in the middle of the pitch and surged towards the box, some of the Australian defenders panicked like English batsmen at the sight of a leg-spinner, getting sucked in towards the dribbling Sanchez instead of manning their assigned defensive posts.

Consequently, by the time Sanchez reached Australia’s box, centre-back Wilkinson and right-back Franjic were in perfect vertical alignment along an imaginary line running through the penalty spot. It was a textbook “I formation”, which would’ve been lovely — if the teams had been playing American football. Unfortunately for the Australians they were playing association football and their I formation left Chile’s Jorge Valdivia completely unmarked in the box in the area where right-back Franjic was supposed to be. Sanchez played a simple five-yard square pass to Valdivia who calmly side-footed home, making it 2-0 inside the first 15 minutes.

After the game, Cahill explained: “At the start, we showed a bit of fear”. I respectfully disagree — I would never call him or any of his teammates fearful. However, what some of them did show in the first 20 minutes was a lack of composure and tactical discipline in the face of world-class opposition. Such composure can only come with experience at the top-level in World Cups and in Europe. Luke Wilkshire had that experience; Franjic didn’t. The truth that no-one has uttered in the wake of Australia’s loss to Chile is this: if Wilkshire been in his expected station at right-back, Australia would not have conceded the second goal. That’s not a dig at Franjic who is a good young player with a bright future, but a statement of the reality that a proven international-class full-back who has played in two World Cups and the Champions League and is still playing regularly in a major European league would not have been caught so far out of position.

The second major question mark over this Australian side became evident as soon as Bresciano was taken off in the 78th minute — a dearth of passing central midfielders. Even at 34-years-of-age and nursing a back injury, Bresciano is by far the best passing central midfielder that Australia’s got. That ability alone merited a place in Australia’s final 23-man World Cup squad. The trouble is that Bresciano is also the only passing central midfielder that Australia’s got in the squad.

Whilst Bresciano was still on the pitch, Australia was not only retaining possession of the ball well, but managing to carve out genuine goal-scoring opportunities — off-the top of my head, two headers to Cahill (one chalked off for off-side and one miscued after Cahill had his shirt heavily tugged) and a sweetly struck left-foot volley from Bresciano that the Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo did well to save. After Bresciano was replaced by the 25-year-old James Troisi, Australia failed to create a single clear-cut opportunity despite seeing plenty of the ball. The reason for this was self-evident — Australia’s central midfield trio consisted of two ball-winning destroyers, Jedinak and Mark Milligan, and Troisi, a pacey dribbling winger/second striker who was being played out-of-position as the nominal number 10 in the middle of the bank of three behind Cahill. Little wonder then that time after time, Troisi received the ball and lost it dribbling down a blind alley or attempting a shot that was easily blocked.

This paucity of passing midfielders makes Postecoglou’s axing of Dinamo Moscow’s Wilkshire all the more puzzling, especially when one considers that the 26-year-old Franjic, the only right-back included in Australia’s final 23-man World Cup squad, had only just recovered from a knee injury. Although more well-known in Australia as a full-back, Wilkshire is also an accomplished passing central midfielder — certainly the second-best in Australia’s preliminary 27-man squad after Bresciano and the only footballer in that squad apart from Bresciano who has performed that role in a proper European league, playing in midfield for Dinamo Moscow in the Russian Premier League.

Ange Postecoglou is the right man to lead Australian football into a bright new era, but his decision to axe Wilkshire — still only 32 — from Australia’s World Cup squad was a mistake. (And, no, I’m not just saying that because Wilkshire once kindly waited for me when I got lost on my way to a Starbucks on the outskirts of Moscow.) At worst, Wilkshire offered Australia reliable cover at two key positions — right-back and creative central midfield — where they presently have none and you don’t need a football brain the size of Jürgen Klopp’s to realise that any team serious about an extended stay at a World Cup requires cover in every position.

Franjic’s untimely, but hardly surprising, tournament-ending hamstring injury sustained against Chile means that Australia will now head into their second group game against the Netherlands with a centre-back who plies his trade in the mighty Chinese Super League, Ryan McGowan, playing out of position at right-back against either Robin van Persie or Arjen Robben (the dynamic wide duo fluidly switch flanks throughout the course of a game) and Daley Blind, the Netherlands’ three best players in their 5-1 evisceration of the reigning World and European Champions Spain. McGowan will relish the challenge, as any Australian sportsman in his position would, but somewhere, professionally locked away in a storage facility in his mind more secure than Iron Mountain, must lurk the knowledge that unless he plays the game of his life, Australia could face a humbling even worse than the successive 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France in late 2013.

The third major question mark over this Australian side is the absence of a goal-scoring threat other than the national living treasure that is Cahill’s head. Against Chile, Bresciano was the only Australian player other than Cahill to deliver a genuine, on-target shot on the opposition’s goal. The Guardian’s resident tactical expert Michael Cox wasn’t exaggerating when he observed that Australia’s “attacking approach is based entirely around crossing.

That approach was tactically apposite versus Chile because they, like Spain, are defensively suspect in the air and lack tall, rugged centre-backs. The same could not be said of the Dutch who have the personnel and the tactical formation to effectively combat Cahill’s aerial threat. In their opening match against Spain, the Dutch deployed no less than three muscular centre-backs — Ron Vlaar, Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi — who successfully nullified the threat posed by Spain’s 6ft 2in centre-forward Diego Costa.

Moreover, the Netherlands’ attacking strength on the flanks — two of their four goals from open play versus Spain originated from the wings — will require Australia’s wide players to perform a lot of defensive work, making it much more difficult for them to get forward to supply the crosses on which Cahill thrives. Thus, Australia’s all-time leading World Cup goal-scorer will not only be marked much more effectively by a trio of Dutch centre-backs than he was by the vertically challenged Chilean duo of Gary Medel and Gonzalo Jara, but he will, in all likelihood, receive fewer crosses to attack in the first place.

Unfortunately, Postecoglou’s options for introducing a second goal-scoring threat are limited. The second-best striker in Australia’s World Cup squad is clearly FSV Frankfurt’s Mathew Leckie, but he performed so well as a right-winger against Chile, marauding with pace, power and directness up and down the touchline and delivering crosses of quality and precision, that Postecoglou might understandably be reluctant to move him, which leaves only one option in the squad for a second striker to both help Cahill carry the goal-scoring burden and occupy one of the three Dutch centre-backs: the Newcastle Jets’ Adam Taggart, a raw 21-year-old coming off a stellar 16-goal A-League season.

The Socceroos played well against Chile — much better than the world believed them to be capable of — but they are going to have to play even better against the Netherlands if they are to have any chance of getting out of their group. The outcome of that match in Porto Alegre on Wednesday afternoon may finally provide a definitive answer to the question which, whether consciously or not, has plagued the minds of Australian football fans for years now: can Australia score goals against a world-class opponent that is well-equipped to nullify Cahill?

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Posted in: Football