With the Asian Cup kicking off in less than 50 days Australia still has some work to do before their first match of the tournament, against Kuwait in Melbourne, on January 9.
Prior to Ange Postecoglou’s appointment as coach the national team had been dismantled 6-0 in consecutive matches against Brazil and France. With the ageing golden generation dominating the team sheet and the dressing room, Postecoglou’s mission of regenerating the national team was always going to be a challenging task, something he acknowledged at the time of his appointment.
Prior to travelling to the World Cup, I asked Postecoglou what Australians should expect from his team in Brazil: “to get people excited about the national team again,” he said.
Get Australians excited they did, after a nervous opening 20 minutes against Chile, Australia began to play in a style and spirit that had been lacking for several years. Australia performed so well that they almost earned a warranted win against one of the tournament favourites, the Netherlands.
Exiting the World Cup without any points wasn’t a complete disaster, as the signs looked encouraging and the FFA were vindicated in its decision to replace coaches so close to a major tournament.
It is what has unfolded since the World Cup that has been disappointing. After performing so well as underdogs, Australia has struggled to replicate that form against their less fancied opposition.
Australia hung on for a 3-2 win over potential Asian Cup quarter final opponents, Saudi Arabia. Australia capitalised on defensive errors early on in the game, but could not maintain the momentum as Saudi Arabia clawed their way back into the contest.
With Australia leading by two goals at half time young striker Tomi Juric continued to warm the bench until the final quarter of the game. It was a missed opportunity to give some much needed international experience to a player that will most likely shoulder the burden of scoring goals, should Tim Cahill get injured.
The result in London concealed several evident weaknesses in the performance. The defence lacked the necessary pace and capacity to support the attack in an effective manner. In midfield careless possession allowed Saudi Arabia to gain control of the match, whilst in attack once again Cahill was the solitary threat to the opposition.
October ushered in the Arabian adventure, two back-to-back matches against the UAE and Qatar. Australia walked away from the friendlies with a scoreless draw and a 1 nil loss, respectively. Australia’s performance in both matches left a lot to be desired. Outplayed and offering next to nothing in attack Australia slid down the FIFA rankings.
Meanwhile, the UAE and Qatari federations who have committed to investments in their footballing infrastructure and domestic leagues as they prepare for the 2022 World Cup, have closed the gap on Australia.
Australia’s friendly in Japan was a fantastic opportunity to set a benchmark against another tournament favourite before heading into the final phase of Asian Cup preparation, but once again we were left with more questions than answers after the 2-1 loss.
The first half was very promising and an improvement on the previous friendlies. Australia were able to exert pressure on Japan and press them high up the pitch.
Australia also looked dangerous in attack, getting in behind the Japanese defence on more than one occasion. Had there been a recognised finisher on the field the outcome in the first half could have been different.
The second half was a different proposition, as Japanese coach Javier Aguirre made the necessary tactical adjustments to give his team the ascendancy. Japan squandered a host of opportunities to add to their two goals before being punished at the other end for sloppy defending.
A pass played across the penalty area led to Japan’s second goal, which is also a favoured tactic of Middle Eastern teams. Kuwait, Oman and potentially Saudi Arabia will look to do exactly the same, utilising their pace and trickery to get in behind Australia’s defence.
Aziz Behich took his opportunity at left back, capping off a good performance with a pinpoint delivery to Cahill which led to Australia’s only goal. Goalkeeper Mathew Ryan also thwarted several Japanese efforts, keeping the score line respectable.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Japan all adapted and adjusted their style of play to nullify Australia’s strengths and exploit the weaknesses within the team.
Set pieces are an example of some of the adjustments made by the opposition. The UAE and Qatar incessantly played the ball short from corners submitting to the fact they cannot contest aerially with Australia.
The set pieces from Australia failed to cause any real concern for their opposition, an element the Socceroos need to address especially as it is a weakness of Asian teams.
With Australia being the host nation they will have to force the issue at home. Group A opponents Kuwait and Oman will look to absorb pressure and attack on the counter, using their pace as an advantage.
This scenario will require an adjustment to Australia’s current structure and formation. With teams surrendering possession to Australia, the majority of play will be in the opposition’s half. Making the aptitudes of a playmaker essential and the requirement for two defending midfielders superfluous.
With the current players at Australia’s disposal and the opposition they will face in the Asian Cup, a 4-4-2 diamond formation would give Australia the attacking creativity and ascendency they have been lacking.
This formation would allow Bresciano to be deployed as the playmaker, exploiting his passing talents to unlock opposition defences. The other significant tactical improvement is to play two forwards. With Cahill’s constant threat inside the box as well as Juric’s physical presence and ability to link the play, this combination will cause plenty of headaches for the opposition.
With the competition expanding to 24 teams in 2019, this could be Australia’s best chance to win the Asian Cup provided some adjustments are made.
Australia will have to shake off their underdog mind-set from the World Cup and be prepared to attack, outmuscle and outmanoeuvre their opponents as anything less will lead to an early exit.
Below is a potential starting line-up for the Asian Cup
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