Australia’s stuttering March to the Asian Cup

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In 2011, the Socceroos lost the Asian Cup Final in heartbreaking fashion, the victims of a thumping Tadanari Lee volley in extra time handing the Japanese the crown as Asia’s top footballing nation. It was the last ride of the ‘golden generation’ and it was somewhat poetic, though no less gut wrenching, that an ageing Socceroos team with their weary legs and tired minds was unable to match the energy of their opponents.

The Socceroos head into the 2015 edition of the Asian Cup with expectations at their lowest ebb since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation. As hosts there are hopes that the Socceroos will be spurred on by passionate fans to achieve beyond what recent performances suggest they are capable of. But the reality of the situation suggests that is highly unlikely.

Whilst we can lament the absence of the heroes of days past from our current squad and question the abilities of their replacements, it serves us no good to accept rebuilding and regeneration as excuses for poor and insipid performances. And that is what is happening during Ange Postecoglou’s tenure as Socceroos coach.

Robbie Slater leapt to Postecoglou’s defence after the Socceroos were defeated 1-0 by Qatar.

“Whatever we say, it has to come down to what Ange Postecoglou has to pick from,” he said after the loss.

“We’ve gone through a period of 10 years with some very talented players that will be long remembered. At the moment, we don’t have that calibre of player. I’m not saying we don’t have good players; but do we have international players? We’re not proving that at the moment.”

To some degree Postecoglou took a job that he couldn’t fail at. There was a perfect storm of circumstances that made him relatively bulletproof. Game after game of drab, lifeless football prior to his arrival was delivered by coaches like Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck who were as uninspiring in front of the camera as their teams were on the pitch.

Questions must be asked as to why it took until Australia suffered consecutive 6-0 thumpings before Osieck was finally removed, but those are for another day. It was this prolonged period of comatose football under Osieck that has bought Postecoglou so much time. After guiding Brisbane Roar to two A-League Championships and instilling a style of play that was previously relatively rare in the competition, he is rightly or wrongly perceived as a man possessing the Midas touch.

Unlike Postecolgou’s stint in Brisbane he’s struggled to consistently play from the forefront against opposition where Australia’s expected to lead the charge, and play the “favourite role” as Ned Zelic told Football Central.

“The Socceroos issues down to not yet adapting to the favourite role and expectation to dominate game,” he said.

Yet there has been little public criticism of Postecoglou’s performance during his period as Socceroos boss. Strange selection decisions and poor results have been an unwelcome theme throughout. So has the narrative that he has few players of the required quality, which further lowers expectations to the point where a near disgraceful display against Qatar is met with the mentality of ‘it’s not a competitive game, judge him on the Asian Cup.’

However, as of October 23 Postecoglou will have been in the job for a year, and his record as Socceroos coach reads like this: played 11, won 2, drawn 2, lost 7. There can be no doubt that this is simply not good enough. This is not what we aspired to when moving to Asia or when sacking Osieck. Frank Lowy said at Postecoglou’s unveiling “this is a job for winners.” One has to wonder if it still is.

Perhaps in some sort of prophetic sign delivered by the ever cruel footballing gods, the next round of FIFA rankings will also be released on October 23. Postecoglou was annoyed by Australia’s ranking during the World Cup when the Socceroos lay in 59th position. Today their ranking is 84 and there is every chance that they could slip outside the top 100 next week. Just think about that for a moment – the Socceroos could have dropped nearly 50 spots in less than a year.

Although the FIFA rankings system is often derided and labelled as pointless, it is all we have to go off between competitive games. The rankings are also hugely important in seeding for qualifying and tournaments.

Postecoglou himself has said that he wants the best teams in the world to be scared of playing us, and we’re not going to approach tournaments with any mindset other than winning. So if the man himself says it, we must hold him to those lofty standards. I’m not suggesting that Postecoglou be sacked tomorrow, but if he fails at the Asian Cup he has to be shown the door.

The theory that Postecoglou is suffering poor results due to his regeneration of the squad carries some weight. After all, only five members of the squad he named to face the United Arab Emirates and Qatar had more than 14 caps. On the other hand, the continued selection of Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano in friendly matches does not help the situation.

We know what these players can do and we’re not going to learn anything new from selecting them. Giving their spot to a younger player who will still be playing for the Socceroos in three, four, five years time is not only what we should be doing, but it was also a large part of why Postecoglou got the job in the first place.

The left field call-up of Nikolai Topor-Stanley also does little to help the regeneration of the squad. Inexperienced internationally and in his late twenties, he was pinpointed as a weak link by Adelaide City in their FFA Cup match against Western Sydney Wanderers. City coach Damien Mori said after the game that his side pressed the Wanderers defence but let Topor-Stanley have the ball as they believed they would get it back. Hardly a ringing endorsement for his suitability to Postecoglou’s possession based gameplan.

The same ‘ageing yet inexperienced’ categorisation can be applied to ten times capped, 30 year old Alex Wilkinson. The Jeonbuk Hyundai defender was ruthlessly exposed during the Socceroos’ World Cup campaign and yet still appears regularly in the lineup.

Chris Herd is another strange selection. The 25 year old has barely played over the last two seasons and has appeared just twice since joining Championship side Bolton on loan in September. At the time of writing he has played more times for the Socceroos than for his club this season.

So much for the importance of regular game time that Postecoglou talked about last season prior to the World Cup. Topor-Stanley, Wilkinson and Herd all played a part in giving away the goal against Qatar with moments of what can only be described as suicidal defending.

While Wilkinson and Herd seem to be favourites of Postecoglou, Bailey Wright and Tomislav Mrčela are hugely unfortunate not to receive more attention.

Wright impressed in his only cap and got on the scoresheet after being an unused substitute during the World Cup. He has been in terrific form for League One side Preston for a couple of seasons now and is surely deserving of more caps. The 6”4 Mrčela has been a regular in the Croatian top flight’s team of the week during the last 12 months and he is extremely unlucky not to have made his Socceroos debut by now.

The cupboard is not as bare as some claim. Massimo Luongo has been criminally underutilised although when given the chance he has shown that he possesses fantastic quality. He is the future creative linchpin of the side and needs to be given as much experience as possible.

When asked about squad and team selection following the defeat to Qatar, Postecoglou said the blame lay with him.

“The pieces of the puzzle are being put together but I also understand that results need to improve. That’s my responsibility, I’m making these decisions and to a large extent these results are my doing.”

Postecoglou is clearly willing to accept the consequences of failure and he may well face them, because the signs as we inch ever closer to the Asian Cup are increasingly worrying. His coaching career in Australia at club level is almost without compare and he is very much suffering from the sins of those who came before him. However, winning the Asian Cup on home soil in January has to remain the target for Postecoglou’s side, because any less is an acceptance of mediocrity.

Andrew Cussen

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