It is a story we have become accustomed to: a tentative start, and early goal conceded, a positive reaction with a stirring performance, only to ultimately fall short. It’s fast become the narrative of the Socceroos at the World Cup, and it was on display in full in the 1-1 draw with Denmark, which keeps Australia alive more on paper than in reality. 

By starting off tentatively, on the back foot, and feeling their way into the match, the Socceroos ultimately gave themselves a mountain too high to climb. Try as they might - and it was an almighty effort from a team probably going above and beyond their quality - they couldn’t quite reach the peak, either bereft of the strategy or tools to get the job done.

It’s hard to apportion too much blame on the players, for they would have been under instruction to start the game sitting in a middle block in their own half and play a counter-attacking game.

What it did though was give Denmark the early ascendancy, and with it they were able to build a lead thanks to a bit of magic from Nicolai Jorgensen and Christian Eriksen. What combination, what a finish.

With Pione Sisto tucked in and being influential, and Jorgensen bossing Trent Sainsbury early, the 'Roos had much more to deal with than just Eriksen.

Even after Eriksen’s goal, Australia continued to retreat and start their pressing on the halfway line, such was the mindset.

It took a good 25 minutes to start to feel like they were in the game. The goal rocked Bert van Marwijk’s men; the reaction had to come, and eventually it did.

But early on you could see the hesitation to get on the ball from the defensive square that is the two defensive central midfielders and the two central defenders. Usually unflappable, Sainsbury and Mile Jedinak, in particular, struggled early, while Aaron Mooy looked hesitant to take control.

Only Mark Milligan, in the early going, looked comfortable, but was often frustrated by the lack of movement and combination options from the other three.

The problem here was that Australia’s game plan was built around containment and counter, and when the early goal came they struggled to evolve immediately into Plan B, which required the defensive square to push on and suddenly become the offensive, ball-playing trigger.

Van Marwijk, no doubt, had warned his players of the threat of Denmark when they press high, and the reality is that it had a negative effect on their initial psyche and ultimately the outcome. 

We were probably guilty of giving the Danes too much respect. Considering the 'metrics' pre-game (16 games undefeated, five consecutive clean sheets) it’s hard to blame anyone for thinking we were up against it.

But that’s where the manager comes in and, unfortunately, like Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck before him, van Marwijk perhaps underestimated the Australian mentality.

Yes, we may not have the overall quality in this squad, but few can match the Socceroos for positive psyche and willingness to have a crack. It is in Australian football’s DNA,  particularly when coupled with an aggressive power which Denmark struggled to deal with in this game. 

When the Socceroos flicked the switch midway through the first half, the Danes didn’t know what hit them.

Suddenly Mat Leckie, an inspiration throughout, was getting it down and driving beyond Thomas Delaney and Lasse Schone (how Denmark missed William Kvist), supported ably by Tom Rogic, finding the space Australia’s game-pan was built around, which I wrote about ahead of the tournament.

The pity for the Socceroos in the first half was that they had five players not quite nailing their performances – Sainsbury, Jedinak and Mooy, as I mentioned earlier, as well as Robbie Kruse and Andrew Nabbout.

It wasn’t quite connecting in the front third, despite the endeavour of Leckie and Rogic, and it took a rather fortunate VAR call in Australia’s favour, and ice-cool Jedinak blocking-out the ridiculous antics of Kasper Schmeichel, to draw parity on the scoreboard. 

In the second half the Aussies upped the ante even more, with Nabbout, Sainsbury, Mooy and Jedinak lifting. Denmark was hanging on, thanks in part to the efforts of Simon Kjaer, but more realistically to our own inability to remain composed and round things off.

Unfortunately, Kruse was rather wasteful; and Daniel Arzani made a huge difference with his positivity when he came on midway through the second half, you had to wonder why that change wasn’t made before the hour.

Tomi Juric, unfortunately, didn’t seize his opportunity, and while Jackson Irvine was full of his usual movement, and van Marwijk would have been hoping he could get in the box and on the end of something, he’s not the type of creative number 10 the situation warranted.

It is fair that questions are asked about van Marwijk’s substitution when more attacking options like Dimi Petratos, Tim Cahill and Jamie Maclaren were all available on the bench.

Moreover, the inability to capitalise on domination is not an issue isolated to Australia, as we’ve seen throughout the tournament so far. With the trend toward packed, swarming, desperate defending, there has been little to no room in the box for anyone, and it’s those with the quality to provide a classy, one-touch finish, like Eriksen’s, who prosper.

Cahill has been able to produce that in the past, but clearly van Marwijk felt, with his lack of game time, that other options were more capable of drawing a winner. 

Moreover, the pity was that again the Socceroos needed a rescue act. The issue here was the need to chase rather than set the pace from the start, which brings us back to having a reactive manager and strategy. 

There is everything to play for next Tuesday (Russian time) when we meet Peru, but our chances of advancing are entirely dependant on the match between Denmark and France. Denmark only needs a draw to join France in the second stage. If Denmark lose, and Australia wins, it will come down to goal difference, then goals scored and, potentially, cards issued. 

Categories: Analysis | Socceroos | World Cup

socceroos, 2018 world cup, #russia2018, #denaus, denmark

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