Now I’m a believer
Many thought Bert van Marwijk was merely being a 'rent seeker' with his short-term appointment as Socceroos coach, but his approach has been exemplary - and the results may well reflect it also13 June 2018 | Matthew Galea
When he took the job, Socceroos coach Bert van Marwijk had a lot of convincing to do.
He had to convince an impatient football media that he believed he could make a success of a team that whimpered into the World Cup.
He had to convince players that he was better than the only national team coach who had ever won a major trophy with the men's international team; the coach who espoused a belief that Australia should aspire to win a World Cup, not just play in it.
He had to convince the Australian football family that he was more than a journeyman picking up a cheque and a trip to the World Cup.
A 4-1 loss to Norway in his first game in charge was not a great way to start, but in the relatively short space of the three months that have followed – and more so the last three weeks – he has transformed that outlook.
From the outside looking in, there has been plenty to be positive about for the Socceroos ahead of the World Cup showpiece in Russia.
It seems like a lifetime ago that this same Socceroos team failed to directly qualify for the finals from a group containing Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand.
For a team that stumbled into the World Cup finals, via a much dreaded two-legged play-off against Honduras, the outlook is somewhat brighter now than it was when the Socceroos were drawn in the same group as Denmark, Peru and of course 1998 champions France.
A scrappy 2-1 win over Hungary may have taken away some of the gloss, however the steady flow of news from a long training camp in pristine facilities in Turkey under the strict instruction of former World Cup finalist Bert van Marwijk has been encouraging.
In many ways, the Dutchman's incredibly limited timeframe with the Australian squad has only helped to sharpen the collective focus of the squad for the task at hand.
Depending on where you stand on the issue of footballing aesthetics, a new approach – a more pragmatic one – compared with the old regime of Ange Postecoglou will have been cause for optimism or frustration in equal measure.
But having had the chance to work for an extended period under van Marwijk and his all-star cast, including former Barcelona, Bayern Munich and PSV enforcer Mark van Bommell, this looks a happy Socceroos squad presenting a united front.
Those among the squad embarking on their second or even third World Cup finals campaign have only had good things to say about the set-up under van Marwijk and his team.
Massimo Luongo, Robbie Kruse, Mile Jedinak, Andrew Nabbout and others have all cut determined figures whenever fronting the media.
The message is clear. It's going to be tough, but there is an underlying belief in the coach's vision for the team. If everything goes right, we have a chance.
And as long as they believe they have a chance, they will fight until the very end.
While his appointment as coach may have been met with some scepticism, van Marwijk's performance to date has proven his motivation is more than just the opportunity to bank a cool $1.2 million and a trip to the World Cup.
The revelation – as scooped by Fairfax Media - that he is dipping into his own pocket to ensure he has the people he needs to help impart his tactical vision for the Socceroos on the incumbent squad speaks volumes of his commitment to the cause.
Cynics might argue that a successful World Cup campaign will do wonders for the stock of the Dutchman and his team, but nevertheless, it puts to bed any notion that he is happy to simply pick up a pay cheque.
The eventual inclusion of Jamie Maclaren, Australia's in-form goalscorer, after he originally did not make the extended training camp squad, says a lot for van Marwijk's humility.
While it was an injury to Tomi Juric which prompted the late call-up for the former Brisbane Roar and Perth Glory goal sneak, the fact that Maclaren made the final squad alongside Juric and at the expense of Nikita Rukavytsya demonstrates that van Marwijk is humble enough to reward those who prove him wrong.
But van Marwijk is doing more than just helping players to believe, he's leaving a mark tactically as well.
For so long, Australia's attacking emphasis has relied on the notion of a centre-forward playing with their back to goal, holding up play for the supporting cavalry.
Van Marwijk makes no apologies for making Australia's most obvious strength – speed and physicality – the centre of its game plan. And so Nabbout's inclusion at number nine completed an attacking line-up bursting with speed.
It reaped awe-inspiring dividends in a comprehensive 4-0 rout.
The performance that followed against Hungary was less impressive.
To be fair, the players looked genuinely tired from their exertions and travel, but it was a stark reminder of how big the gap is between this Socceroos' team best and worst.
Questions have – fairly – been raised about the underlying quality of this team as a result.
But that is nothing new.
Before the World Cup, we already knew this Socceroos team was not going to get very far on talent alone.
We knew the difference between escaping the group or not doing so, would come down to how well the team could execute a game plan and take its chances.
Sure, the game plan under van Marwijk is a world away from what we would have expected from Postecoglou.
Idealism has been replaced by pragmatism. Proactive, possession-based play has made way for reactive, counter-attacking football.
Nevertheless, van Marwijk has quickly fostered a competitive but unified culture from players who are fully aware of the size of the task ahead but also confident in the game plan set for them.
Even with one of Australia's most inexperienced squads, with so few players playing at the highest level, he has created an environment where success – be that scoring a first World Cup finals win since that that 2-1 win over Serbia on 23 June 2010, or making it out of the group – feels achievable.
Van Marwijk believes it; the players believe it; and perhaps he's even making believers out of the Australian football family.
Perhaps, even France coach Didier Dechamps believes it.
“Under the previous coach [Postecoglou] Australia played with three at the back and their style was too offensive,” Deschamps told the awaiting press on his arrival in Russia.
“Now they play with a back four and I feel that as a result they have a better equilibrium and balance.”
No mean feat - even for the guy who took the Netherlands to a World Cup final only eight years ago.
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