As Australia enters its fourth World Cup on the spin, it still grapples with what identity it brings to the world’s showpiece, switching from a proactive gung-ho manager one minute to the role of reactor the next, then back again, and so forth.

From the party bravado and control of Guus Hiddink in 2006 to the pragmatism of Pim Verbeek in South Africa, then the front-foot agenda of Ange Postecoglou in Brazil, and back to a more reactive mode under Bert van Marwijck this year in Russia, the Socceroos have see-sawed from an attack-first mentality to a defend-first template, and back and forth.

Van Marwijck, not surprisingly, has shifted the DNA of this latest Socceroos incarnation from one which sort to press high and dominate possession, to one which is prepared to have much less of the ball and then pack a rapid punch going forward, hoping to catch opponents out through speedy transition.

The key to Australia’s hopes as we enter a third World Cup where the manager has had less than one year to prepare will be whether, in the shift back to a ‘let’s protect first and spring from there’ modus operandi, the players can in fact do the first part of the job – defend.

Australia’s ability to absorb pressure against the quality they’re about to face will ultimately decide whether there is a springboard into the attacking front third from where the 'Roos might look to ask a question or two in forward transition.

How prepared and convinced they are that they can defend purposefully, as a unit, with an attacking defensive mindset, on the front-foot, will dictate whether they then have the confidence to punch the other way. 

Many who watched Verbeek set–up so timidly to try and absorb a young German side packed with quality in the opening game of South Africa 2010 will remember the post-mortem and how the nation derided the negativity in the way the Dutchman put out a defensive formation that had little aggression and appetite to actually defend. 

It prompted an outpouring of angst that ultimately forced him to have more of a go in the subsequent games against Ghana and Serbia, where the 'Roos performances were better, but his legacy was one of a reactive manager who waited till it was too late.

Verbeek didn’t show the requisite belief in his men in that opening game, which I dubbed at the time the 'Durban Debacle'. As van Marwijck contemplates his final strategy against France, he would be wise to give his team a mindset that isn’t one of submission. 

Defend first, maybe, but don’t defend too deep. Instead, defend with aggression, organisation and purpose, and have intent to push forward from there. Pragmatism, perhaps, but pragmatism with purpose and punch.

Given that FFA has gone down this path via van Marwijck, the manager now has to nail the execution. While he has spoken on a couple of occasions about the limited time he has had to instill his formula, there can be no excuses - for him or FFA.

The Socceroos' ability to absorb pressure will be most-tested when they themselves are pressed high early and opponents react quickly, looking to pounce on the slightest of defensive hesitation.

This will definitely be the case against Denmark, and most likely with France and Peru.

All three opponents in Australia’s group are blessed with a blistering want to drive men forward quickly and will be looking to disrupt the Socceroos defensive structure with speed of ball and body movement.

They’ve all caught the eye in recent warm-up games, France showing everything but the finish in the early exchanges against the USA; the Danes very impressive with their powerful high press and quick penetration against Mexico; and Peru flowing beautifully via short, quick midfield combinations before moving rapidly through a vertical Jefferson Farfan drive. 

These are the most testing of opponents, the individual quality of Les Bleus, and the well drilled machines of Age Hareida and Ricardo Gareca. 

And, as we’ve seen in the past two warm-up games against the Czech Republic and Hungary, the Socceroos defensive structure hasn’t always looked the most secure, particularly early in games.

A clean sheet may have been kept against the Czechs, but early on the movement in behind Mark Milligan stretched the 'Roos. The first 30 minutes didn’t tell the full story of a 4-0 victory as the Czechs tested the Socceroos rearguard with their high press. But ultimately the 'Roos were able to wrestle control against what looked a tiring Czech side, and hit them in transition.

In Austria, van Marwijck was able to execute his preferred plan, which is to set the team up with a compact defensive 4-4-2 block inside his own half, but not on the 18-yard box. The back four are generally asked to sit about 30 yards out and the midfield four in defence (Robbie Kruse and Mat Leckie drop off alongside Mass Luongo and Aaron Mooy) are very close, no more than 10 yards ahead. The idea is to make space between the lines a premium.

Further ahead, Andrew Nabbout and Tom Rogic split the defenders and try to force opponents wide. 

From this defensive base the Roos will look to go quickly into the wide areas where the fullback driving of Aziz Behich and Josh Risdon is key. The aim is a quick combination of ball movement wide to try and draw opponents. From there, a quick ball out aims to find a free man in midfield that will allow for that early penetrating ball in behind to the flanks. 

Eventually this worked against the Czechs, but not after some early defensive issues, which more clinical opponents will punish. And, against France, Denmark and Peru, we’ll be facing exactly that. 

In the Hungary game, it was an altogether different challenge against a team that was prepared to drop off and not allow the 'Roos to use their effective counter-attack. 

Basically, Hungary matched van Marwijck’s want to drop off into his own half and that became problematic in that the Socceroos couldn’t find space for their front four, and then were exposed going the other way, especially on the right side of our defence, where Risdon had a difficult time against the impressive Roland Sallai.

Van Marwijck later lamented the inability in the first half of his midfield to play behind the forwards. What he meant by that was that Mooy and Luongo were unable to get between Hungary’s first and second line, and instead were, to use van Marwijck’s words, playing in front of the forwards, meaning there were no space for his main counter man Rogic to get free.

In attack this is the plan for van Marwijck. He wants the Roos to move the ball quickly and get midfielders on the ball with only two lines to penetrate, shifting it swiftly to Rogic between the opposition defence and midfield.

In many ways, Rogic is van Marwijk’s 2010 Wesley Sneijder. This is not a direct comparison in ability; it’s all relative in the context of the quality of both squads. But like Sneijder, Rogic has a key role in the rolling transition game, finding space, turning quick to face forward, penetrating with a killer ball in behind or out wide, feeding the rapid likes of Kruse, Leckie and Nabbout, or unleashing from range.

Rogic is strong in the one-on-one and has great ability to trigger counter, but the struggle, so far, has been to get him into space.

Moreover, you sense, in such a quality group full of pace, press and verticality, the struggle will be in how effective the Socceroos are at blunting their opponents and staying in contact defensively. 

If they can, then there is hope they can get an effective transition working, and later in games van Marwijck can introduce the likes of Daniel Arzani and Dimi Petratos to ultilise space. 

It’s a group that offers no easy way out. The Socceroos will need to execute perfectly. 

Categories: Analysis | Socceroos | World Cup

socceroos, 2018 world cup, #russia2018

You might also like: