Socceroos get the 3 points, but a headache remains about the back three
Tony Tannous breaks-down the play in Thursday night's World Cup qualifier win between Australia and Saudi Arabia.09 June 2017 | Tony Tannous
Nervous for large parts – both players and fans alike – in the end the Socceroos showed just enough poise to get the job done and keep alive their chances of direct qualification for a fourth consecutive World Cup.
Having drawn four of their seven games so far, the story of this match was invariably about the three points, but there’s little doubt they’ll need to be more convincing in the coming months or we’re set for some play-offs to get to the World Cup next year.
Fortunate to be level at the break after an impressive half from Bert van Marwijk’s men, it was a far more controlled second half from the hosts, if not quite the flowing or dominant green and gold many had hoped to see.
Certainly the change Ange Postecoglou made at the break, of switching a rusty Brad Smith for a match hardened Aziz Behich, helped give the Roos a level of control on the left. Equally, the influence of key men Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Mat Leckie rose in the second period.
The fresh legs of Robbie Kruse made a difference also, especially when compared with the lack of influence from the man he replaced, Jackson Irvine.
Perhaps, too, the Roos benefitted from the condition of a Saudi side whose domestic season had long finished, as well as the fact that many of the players might have struggled to run out the game due to them being in a fast for the holy month of Ramadan.
Van Marwijk and the Saudi FA tried to give their men every chance with a long camp in Germany followed by a chartered flight and almost a week on the ground in Adelaide. In the first half it looked like the sort of detail that was once the hallmark of FFA, and it would pay handsome dividends.
Australia tried to talk the Saudis down, saying they’d come here to park the bus, batter the Roos via the holding midfielders (as the Dutch had done under van Marwijk on the way to the World Cup final in 2010), and go to the ground to waste time.
In truth, all that showed was the stagnation in the football discourse here.
There was little talk about how much function and mentality van Marwijk has added to this side; how he’d given them the organisation and belief to go with their technical qualities; and get them back to challenging for their historic place among Asia’s elite.
Rather than sit deep, Saudi played a middle block, allowing the Roos to have it in their own half, and pressing when they hit halfway. It started slow, and the error from goalkeeper Yasser Al-Mosailem to gift Tomi Juric his opener didn’t help, but it soon swung into full effect.
The idea of Postecoglou again playing three at the back was to crowd the midfield and allow the Roos to dominate possession. Instead, the compactness of the Saudi press and calm on the ball was the real feature of the first half.
The two holders, Salman Al Faraj and Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri set the tone, but it wasn’t the Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel battering approach. It was aggressive but generally fair, and Al Faraj showed his quality on the ball – other than a second half barge on Leckie that should have been penalised.
The Roos couldn’t build anything up, with Mooy and Irvine particularly redundant. Instead they kept turning the ball over. The Green Falcons showed their quality in build-up, mixing the ability to play in tight combinations with the ability to go forward quickly, to try and exploit the shakiness in behind Ryan McGowan on the right and Milos Degenek on the left.
The Saudi front four of Salman Al Dawsari (left), Taiseer Al Jassam (centre attacking mid), Yahia Al Shehri (right) and Mohammed Al Shalawi (striker) gave the Roos rear guard a huge working over.
What was so impressive was the movement and interchange of positions. It was clear that this was a side that had worked together for a good period and had built some great understanding.
The Saudi weakness was the back five, and the Roos were able to exploit this through the speed of Leckie, who teed-up Juric’s second.
In the end Postecoglou did what he had to and adjusted things in the second period. Instead of playing into the Saudi hands by forcing the play, turning it over, and getting stung in transition, the Roos were more patient, and more compact.
Whereas they were stretched and out of control in the first half, Postecoglou would have been pleased they kept ‘in contact’ in the second, to use coaching jargon. He would have been even more pleased that his main men, Rogic, Mooy and Leckie, stepped-up.
There will inevitably be talk about Postecoglou needing to ditch the back three, where it was exploited in the second half in Tehran against Iraq in March, where Ali Adnan ran riot, and again here in Adelaide in the first.
But the bigger problem is that the personnel in the three, especially the wide central defenders (here McGowan and Degenek, in Tehran it was Degenek and Wright), aren’t exactly suited to the roles. They haven’t had the opportunity to work on the combination long enough, and either haven’t been brave enough to defend with space, or have been asked to defend narrow.
To me that comes down to having players in the right and left back spots who aren’t quick enough. The tendency becomes to drop in and get close to each other, which invariably leaves space out wide to exploit.
Postecoglou, who has been searching unsuccessfully for years for concrete right and left backs in a back four, now has a bigger headache in that the system he has come up with to solve the fullback conundrum isn’t quite providing the fix.
Yes, the Roos have won their two home fixtures and drawn away under the new look, but the performances haven’t really convinced anyone that this is going to end in a good way.
Now the quality really ramps up in coming months. There is the upcoming friendly with Brazil on Tuesday, the opponents at the Confederations Cup, and the crunch Japan qualifier in August. Postecoglou must think long and hard about the make-up of a back three if he is to stick with it.
A win last night was critical, so well done.
But after the past three games with a back three, there remains much convincing to be done over the next three months to ensure the Roos don’t end up in position number three.
Australia 3 (Juric 7’ 36’, Rogic 64) v Saudi Arabia 2 (Al Dawsari 23’, Al Sahlawi 45 2’)
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