World Cup 2018 : Australia
In his series looking at the Asian teams at the World Cup, Paul Williams finishes with Australia13 June 2018 | Paul Williams
World Cup history
After a 32-year drought following their first World Cup appearance in 1974, this will be Australia’s fourth straight World Cup appearance, a feat many fans would have thought impossible little more than a decade ago.
Of the Socceroos’ four previous appearances, 2006 stands alone as the most successful, with the ‘Golden Generation’ making it through to the Round of 16 before a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Italy. While they matched their points haul four years later in 2010, a heavy loss to Germany in their opening game ended their hopes, while they left Brazil with three losses from their three games.
The Socceroos eased their way through the opening stage of qualifying with a minimum of fuss, with seven wins from their eight matches. Their only slip up came in a 2-0 loss to Jordan in Amman.
But as it did for so many of Asia’s best teams, things went slightly awry in the second and final stage of qualifying, where they were drawn alongside Japan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Thailand.
It started well with two wins from their opening two matches against Iraq and UAE, the latter one of Australia’s most dominant performances on the road in energy-sapping conditions in Abu Dhabi, a match remembered most for the sweat-drenched business shirt of coach Ange Postecoglou.
The first sign that things weren’t completely on track came in October 2016, with a 2-2 draw against Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, followed by a plucky 1-1 draw against Japan in Melbourne.
Then in November came a trip to Bangkok to face Thailand, but instead of the easy victory most in Australia expected, the Socceroos were again shown up and were lucky to escape with a point after a 2-2 draw. Suddenly there was pressure on Postecoglou for the first time in his tenure.
When the team reconvened in March 2017 for the match against Iraq, Postecoglou stunned fans and pundits alike with a switch to a back three, a formation he was adamant would hold Australia in good stead, not just for qualifying but for the World Cup itself.
But the players struggled to adapt and a fourth straight draw, this time 1-1 with Iraq, put Australia right back in amongst the chasing pack and battling to secure one of the two automatic qualification berths.
Home wins over the UAE and Saudi Arabia eased some of the pressure, but concerns of the style of play still remained and after a 2-0 loss to Japan in the penultimate game in Tokyo, the Socceroos returned to Melbourne to face Thailand with their fate out of their own hands. They needed a big win and for the result in the Saudi Arabia vs Japan game to go their way.
While they battered Thailand, they only managed a 2-1 win, which meant they would take the scenic route via a series of playoffs with Syria and Honduras.
While they squeezed past Syria by the slimmest of margins, they made easier work of the tie against Honduras. And when it was all said and done, Australia had completed the most extensive and exhaustive qualification process of any team in the history of the World Cup.
It’s been a rocky road since qualification ended, which also saw the end of Ange Postecoglou, who promptly handed in his resignation after the Honduras match. Since Bert van Marwijk took over in January the performances and results have been patchy. In van Marwijk’s first match in charge against Norway the team struggled to adapt to a new style of play and were thumped 4-1. The following match against Colombia saw a vastly improved performance, holding the South Americans to a 0-0 draw. Wins against Czech Republic (4-0) and Hungary (2-1) saw fluctuating performances, but the Socceroos go into the World Cup with winning form on their side.
Australia is one of four AFC nations that will have a different coach in charge for the World Cup compared with when they started qualifying.
Ange Postecoglou abruptly ended his four year reign in charge of the team after the Honduras game, leaving the FFA scrambling to find a coach just over six months out from the World Cup. After his own issues in Saudi Arabia, Bert van Marwijk was the man targeted and he signed on for a short, six-month term in January with the sole purpose of helping the Socceroos progress from their group at the World Cup.
A more pragmatic coach than his predecessor, van Marwijk has shown he values a team that is tight and compact and difficult to break down. Certainly the Socceroos won’t play with the gung-ho style of Postecoglou, and will look to play more on the counter. It remains to be seen whether van Marwijk can instil this style of play into the playing group in such a short space of time.
Given the more defensive nature of Australia’s play, Trent Sainsbury will be crucial when it comes to organising the defence. While the central defensive pairing has chopped and changed over the last four years, Sainsbury has remained the one constant and his calmness and leadership will be vital if the Socceroos are to keep teams at bay in Russia.
Player to watch
There can be only one – Daniel Arzani. The Melbourne City winger has an x-factor that few others in the Socceroos team possess. He showed in a brief cameo against Hungary just what he is capable of, with a first international goal and a defence-splitting pass for the winner. He may be the youngest player at the tournament, but he has confidence well beyond his age and won’t be overawed should van Marwijk give him an opportunity, which will most likely come off the bench.
2018 world cup, #russia2018, australia, daniel arzani, trent sainsbury, bert van marwijk