The Socceroos Deserve A Kinder Fate Than Rhaegar Targaryen

Posted on June 24, 2014

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By SB Tang

Note: this piece was published on The Guardian Sport Network on 23 June 2014

Before Australia’s opening game against Chile, I wrote an (unpublished) article suggesting that, against Chile and Spain, Ange Postecoglou should abandon the possession-based, high-tempo, high-pressing style that he preaches — because both nations execute that very same gameplan better than Australia does — in favour of sitting deep and compact and hitting the opposition on the counter.

It gives me tremendous pleasure to say that I have never been more wrong in my life. Postecoglou stuck with his ambitious Plan A and his team produced football as exciting and dynamic as any seen in Australia’s (admittedly brief) life on the world’s biggest stage.

Australia was brave.

But then, we should hardly have been surprised for that has been true of the Socceroos’ performance at every World Cup that they’ve made it to — yes, even the frequently and unfairly maligned 2010 campaign, when, apart from 60 minutes against an outstanding German side, Australia was excellent, bossing Ghana despite being down to 10 men for most of the match and eventually drawing 1-1 after missing numerous clear-cut opportunities to win the game, and beating Serbia 2-1.

The group game against Holland last week was arguably the Socceroos’ bravest World Cup performance yet, as they played a high and hard pressing game against, and indeed better than, the nation that gave birth to that attacking style of play. But, Australia lost. Again. And, as Postecoglou himself correctly acknowledged after that match, results do matter — “we need to start winning games at this level.” The aggressive style of play he has taught the Socceroos is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end — winning football matches.

Postecoglou, the first Australian-raised manager to take charge of the Socceroos at a World Cup, understands the expectations of the Australian public with respect to their national sports teams — to not only win, but to do so in an attacking, exciting style. The Australian public is used to those expectations being met. The Australian cricket team doesn’t just win a higher percentage of Test matches and more one-day World Cups than any other cricket-playing nation — they do so playing an attacking, crowd-pleasing style of cricket, scoring runs at a rapid rate and frequently risking defeat in the pursuit of victory. The Wallabies, despite having a tiny pool of players in just two of Australia’s six states to draw from, have won the equal-most World Cups of any rugby-playing nation, and have done so practising a style of play that abhors attritional set-pieces and tactical kicking in favour of flowing passing backline moves that end in tries.

Having lost — unluckily — to the progenitors of the style of football that he is seeking to imprint onto the DNA of Australian football, Postecoglou now has the opportunity to defeat their most successful children. Spain inherited, via Barcelona, the high-pressing, possession-based style of football pioneered by Holland in the 1970s and took it to another dimension, using it to achieve what Holland never could — consistent victories at major international tournaments.

This Spain side did what many thought to be impossible: they won three consecutive major international tournaments — Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 — in an age when football has never been more global, more competitive and more professional. That they did so in the shadow of a half-century of chronic national choking at major tournaments and with a style of play that seemed quaint, if not downright naïve, in the mid-2000s when it seemed that every team’s desire was a quartet of Claude Makeleles in the middle of the park and a giant Luca Toni or Didier Drogba up top to lump balls to on the counter, only makes their achievement all the more remarkable.

History will judge Spain kindly. I am certain of that.The debate that future historians will have is not whether they were the greatest international football team of all time, but whether they were the greatest international sports team of all time.

Throughout history, every great collective human endeavour has been bound together by a common philosophy that the individual people who choose to join in that endeavour all believe in. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that Spain’s downfall was inevitable from the moment that they inexplicably stopped believing in the philosophy that took them to the zenith of the sporting world. One of the fundamental tenets of Spain’s possession-based style of play was the deployment of either technically-proficient strikers capable of keeping the ball and fluently linking with the midfield — in Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup that was David Villa and/or Fernando Torres — or, if such strikers were not available because of injury or poor form, the deployment of a converted midfield technician in their place as a false nine — in Euro 2012, that was Cesc Fabregas.

Spain’s downfall began the moment they started chasing the international allegiance of the Brazilian born-and-raised Diego Costa, a tall, strong centre-forward of limited technical ability who resembles Luca Toni circa 2006, rather than David Villa or Fernando Torres in their prime. Costa has been magnificent for a counter-attacking Atlético Madrid side that regards ball possession in much the same way that Pope John Paul II regarded contraceptives, but his parachuting into a Spain side where ball possession is paramount was always going to be a case of a roughly-hewn square peg being forced into a perfectly circular hole. And so it proved in this World Cup. Costa has not scored the goals his inclusion was supposed to deliver and his presence on the pitch as the supposed reference point for Spain’s attacks has hindered their ability to achieve what was always the sine qua non for the successful implementation of their playing philosophy — the retention and high-velocity circulation of the ball.

The irony, of course, is that Spain were dumped from the World Cup by a Chilean side who practised their footballing philosophy more faithfully than they did — Chile pressed high and hard from the outset, did their absolute best to ensure that the game was played in Spain’s half and were justly rewarded with victory. Postecoglou will, undoubtedly, stick to that very same game plan, which worked so well for Chile against Spain and is clearly the right one for Australian football in the long-term.

The job of a senior football manager is three-fold: (1) to devise an effective tactical system and teach the players how to implement it; (2) to psychologically motivate the players to perform to the best of their ability; and (3) to prepare and train the players so that they are in peak physical condition for the big games. One might interject that the senior manager ought to also improve the players’ technical ability, but that is something that has largely been determined by the time that a player reaches senior international level and, as such, it properly falls within the ambit of the youth coach’s responsibilities.

A football manager may perform all three of his primary duties to a high level, but still lose a game as a result of individual errors made by players during the course of a game, which are entirely beyond his control. That’s precisely what’s happened to Postecoglou in this World Cup. Every single goal that Australia has conceded has been the result of a momentary lapse by an Australian player doing their utmost to implement Postecoglou’s game plan.

Holland’s first goal was the direct result of centre-back Alex Wilkinson, operating the high defensive line favoured by his manager, missing a tackle on Arjen Robben near the halfway line, thereby releasing the fleet-footed forward into a paddock of space. In Holland’s second goal, left-back Jason Davidson, beguiled by Robben’s dangerous diagonal run, broke from his own defensive line thereby playing the goal-scorer, Robin van Persie, on-side. Holland’s third goal — which turned out to be the winner — was the most disappointing of the three conceded, being the upshot of no less than three individual defensive mistakes: both holding midfielders, Matt McKay and Mile Jedinak, were absent from their defensive stations in front of the back four, which gave Memphis Depay time and space to measure and strike the swerving, inside-out long-range shot that keeper Mat Ryan deflected into his own net.

Similarly, in the opposition’s box, Australian players have committed individual errors that cost Australia goals, most notably, Tommy Oar’s decision to half-cross-half-pass the ball to Mathew Leckie, instead of shooting when clean through on goal with only the Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen to beat.

The Socceroos have done Australia proud and I certainly do not mean to be unduly critical of a group of players who have done their absolute best for their country. However, it is fair to say that, at this stage in their ongoing development, it appears that some these young players lacked that final sprinkle of tactical awareness required to successfully execute Postecoglou’s ambitious game plan at the highest level. That will come with time and experience.

Thus, the challenge facing Postecoglou and the FFA in the coming years is to ensure that Australia develops the players with the technical ability and tactical awareness to execute the game plan that they have rightly committed Australia to. I am confident that they will.

However, if they fail to do so, then Australia risks becoming the Rhaegar Targaryen of the football world — as one observer succinctly put it: “Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably. And Rhaegar died.” Fortunately for these young Socceroos, the World Cup is not being played on the fictional continent known as Westeros and, hence, they will not be risking their lives when they walk out to face Spain at the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba early tomorrow morning Australian time. But there can be no doubt that they have, and will continue to, fight valiantly, nobly and honourably. It’s about time they got the win that their performances richly deserve.

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Posted in: Football