Postecoglou’s great test: finding the right personnel for the back three
Ange Postecoglou is courageous and creative with the use of a back three - but he really needs to find the right personnel for the role.21 June 2017 | Tony Tannous
One of the more interesting observations post the Socceroos opening 3-2 loss to Germany at the Confederations Cup came from the manager himself.
Rather than blame his players for being all over the place in the first 45 minutes, Ange Postecoglou blamed himself.
He was right to. For a number of reasons.
Apart from protecting his players, primarily he would accept that it's his responsibility to have his men primed and prepared to hit the ground running.
The sad reality is they weren’t, and aren’t, ready. Indeed, it could be argued his men started the game as tentative as any Socceroos team have done at a major tournament since Pim Verbeek’s men took the field against the same opponent in Durban in 2010.
While Postecoglou and his technical team will have undoubtedly reminded the players to start positively and be brave, there's little doubt the recent shift to a back three has jolted the psychology and confidence of his team, and it has probably taken more time to adjust than he would have hoped.
Many players starting in Sochi were not only coming to terms with playing in a far more expansive formation, but dealing with the fact they were doing it at their first major tournament.
Four of the starters – Milos Degenek, Bailey Wright, Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic – were all making their major tournament debut, all of them playing in key positions in Postecoglou’s new structure. More on that later.
The reality is that Ange and his team are nowhere near as prepared for a major tourni as they would want to be.
In fact, the ‘major major’ remains next year's World Cup. As much as Postecoglou says his ambition is to win the Confeds, privately he would acknowledge this is all about preparing for the two crunch qualifiers against Japan and Thailand.
Yet, still, his job was to get the team tactically set up and mentally prepared for their first game and on that front it was disappointing to see that his men didn’t quite comprehend their task with or without the ball in the first half.
Someone didn’t do enough scouting of this German side that set-up and played in a very similar way against San Marino in a World Cup qualifier only a couple of weeks ago.
There it was clear that Joshua Kimmich was the pivotal ball-playing axis in the German formation and that he would push up high and wide on the right hand side of the back three.
Everything good against San Marino started down the right hand side, and unfortunately the Roos hadn’t done their tactical homework sufficiently.
They were sucked in to Joachim Loew’s game-plan, which was to spread Kimmich wide, feed him, and draw in Behich, then overloaded on the right through Kimmich, Julian Brandt and Leon Goretzka, with Sebastian Rudy and Lars Stindl never too far.
The Roos didn’t adjust well.
Rather than one of the two advanced central midfielders pressing Kimmich, there was much miscommunication, resulting in Behich and Wright being drawn out of defensive shape, leaving Die Mannschaft acres to get in behind consistently. Rather than being brave and defending high, the tentative mentality meant that the defence retreated, leaving the space for the technically proficient Germans to build their combinations and penetrate.
The disorganisation defensively was compounded by an inability to play out under significant pressure.
Germany preyed on every tactical and technical deficiency, and those that struggled most under the weight of that pressure were the left and right backs in the back three, Wright and Degenek, and the two holding midfielders Milligan and Luongo.
The latter two were a surprise, and Ange at least acknowledged this at half time by withdrawing Luongo and dropping Mooy to his more comfortable deeper role, where he could dictate the play.
However, Wright and Degenek’s struggles with ball retention were less of a surprise to anyone who has seen the first handful of games under the new system.
In the system that Ange wants to play, the two players in the positions currently occupied by Degenek and Wright are critical to securing possession. They need to not only be solid defensively (and there are question marks over the speed of both) but be very comfortable at spreading to space, as Kimmich and Antonio Rudiger did, and demanding and using the ball.
They are not attributes you associate with Degenek and Wright.
Some would suggest that Postecoglou is working with a fairly low base, particularly in those two positions. The fact that his back-ups are Ryan McGowan, who has struggled at this level, and his brother Dylan, untried, points to the dearth in options in the current squad.
But ultimately the options are the ones Postecoglou has gone with, so he has to back his men, and make it work. He has no right to blame players who are perhaps out of their depth or, at best, taking time to adjust to the requirements of the new system.
The question, now, with a better second half against Germany, where the defence pressed higher and relaxed, defending and possessing the ball with more bravery, is will Wright and Degenek start to feel more comfortable in their roles?
To that effect, the relative experience of Sainsbury and Ryan, and the skipper Milligan, are critical in helping them, and it was great to see Sainsbury take ownership of the ball after the half time break.
If Cameroon play it smart tactically, they will allow Degenek and Wright to have the ball, and swoop.
Maybe Ange has something up his sleeve? Perhaps Milligan back into the back three? Rarely has Mile Jedinak been as missed.
Long term, if the ‘Roos can get to the World Cup, it wouldn’t surprise me if a player like Luke Devere, with another solid 12 months in the A-League, might come into the picture for a back three.
If Matthew Spiranovic can get back on the scene then suddenly a three of Sainsbury, Spiranovic and Devere doesn’t look so exposed.
Or maybe there is a left-field option worth testing? Remember, for example, Guus Hiddink turning Scott Chipperfield from a left back or wingback to a left centre-back in a three?
One of Chipperfield’s main attributes, Hiddink used to explain, was his speed, which allowed Hiddink to control opposition counter attacks when the Roos were dominating the ball.
This is the dilemma facing Postecoglou. He has gone for his new look because he’s firm it’s the way forward, the way of the world. The way Germany executed theirs in the first half is the picture he ultimately wishes to paint.
But he hasn’t yet found the personnel to suit it.
Wanting to be a bold football nation that dominates with the ball ultimately needs the most ball-secure of back threes - they are the first users of the ball.
Sainsbury showed the requisite quality in the second half, but two more need to be found.
If Degenek and Wright, or the McGowan’s, can demand a spot over the next two games, or Milligan steps in and performs, that’s one less headache.
If not, this is Postecoglou’s greatest test.
socceroos, world cup qualifiers, ange postecoglou