Ange Postecoglou’s side remain in charge of their own destiny when it comes to World Cup qualification but there is still plenty to work on
In the end, a draw away and a win at home was a decent return for Australia from March’s World Cup qualifiers but few would have rated Tuesday night’s victory as one of the Socceroos’ best.
Judging international windows after just one game is a bit like reviewing a match at half-time – every conclusion can be turned on its head – and in some ways the concerns following the Socceroos 1-1 draw with Iraq were assuaged thanks to the 2-0 win over United Arab Emirates in Sydney.
Australia remain unbeaten in Group B of Asia’s third round of qualifying for Russia 2018 – the only team in that situation – and with two of their last three games at home the Socceroos are still in a decent position to reach their fourth consecutive World Cup.
But beyond the result, concerns remain about coach Ange Postecoglou’s new formation, the progress of individual Socceroos and the players’ collective ability to carry out their manager’s plans.
After yet another scratchy performance, Goal has identified the good, the bad and the unknown from the first international window of 2017.
Getting a gig in the Socceroos’ midfield has been tough for at least 12 months.
The emergence of Aaron Mooy at international level has seen Postecoglou try a number of different set-ups to combine the Huddersfield Town playmaker with fellow midfield schemers Tom Rogic and Massimo Luongo.
With captain Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan also regulars in the starting XI, there have been few opportunities for other midfielders to impress but Jackson Irvine took his chance this month and – apart from the new formation – was the revelation of the window.
Having been around the squad for a while, the 24-year-old earned his first starts for the Socceroos over the past fortnight and was lively against both Iraq and the UAE, with the Burton Albion midfielder heading home the opener in Sydney.
James Troisi, Australia
While Irvine – and similarly impressive James Troisi – may struggle to retain starting berths when Mooy (suspended) and Rogic (injured) return, their strong performances at Allianz Stadium underlined the midfield depth at Postecoglou’s disposal.
Australia’s aerial onslaught
Irvine also reminded Socceroos fans of the aerial superiority Australia holds in Asia.
Postecoglou had clearly identified the near post as the focus for his team’s dead-ball delivery this month, with all three goals coming from similar plays.
In fact, the Socceroos could have had a handful more goals from similar corners over the two games.
The ability to score from set-pieces can be critical in international football, especially when up against superior opposition, and the Socceroos are certainly well-stocked in that regard.
Maximising strengths, minimising weaknesses
Postecoglou’s unconventional 3-2-4-1 formation should be applauded for the way it attempts to take advantage of Australia’s glut of midfield options, while overcoming a lack of goal-scoring wingers and good full-backs.
Not only does the system help the Socceroos press their opponents, it should also give Mooy and Rogic the best chance to influence matches whether by setting up or scoring goals as they will be the closest to the central striker.
Mathew Leckie, Australia
Suddenly, the focus is off Mathew Leckie – who ironically scored in both matches this month – and Robbie Kruse to provide regular goals, which is something they have traditionally struggled with.
Plus, Postecoglou has effectively solved the problem of a dearth of top quality full-backs by doing away with the position altogether.
Pressure on back three
In both qualifiers, the positional awareness of the Socceroos’ defensive trio was left wanting as the Iraqis and Emiratis found space either outside or in between the central defenders.
While Trent Sainsbury was singled out for praise by Postecoglou on Tuesday night, Milos Degenek and Bailey Wright clearly struggled with the variety of jobs they are required to perform as part of a back three.
Ali Mabkhout, United Arab Emirates
Not only must the wide centre-backs in a back three essentially cover what would be two separate positions in a back four but they also need to be heavily involved in build-up play.
Plus in the 3-2-4-1, the absence of genuine wing-backs exposes the back three even further.
It seems Postecoglou’s ideal back three would be Sainsbury, Milligan and Matthew Spiranovic but with the latter injured it is doubtful the Socceroos have the defensive depth to thrive with a back three against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Japan, let alone against higher-quality opposition.
Postecoglou has claimed the new system will put the Socceroos in the best position to not only qualify for Russia 2018 but hurt opponents if they get there, but the idea of Australia’s back three coming up against a Germany or Brazil is – frankly – terrifying.
Lack of polish
During the 2015 Asian Cup and the earlier Russia 2018 qualifiers, the Socceroos were generally more fluid and sharper in possession.
While Allianz Stadium’s pitch was again the subject of media scrutiny for the UAE’s visit, Omar Abdulrahman and Co. didn’t seem to have as much trouble playing on the infamous turf as the hosts.
Formations come and formations go but a lack of execution will ruin them all.
The Socceroos let the UAE back into the contest in Sydney by a raft of turnovers in the first half and if Australia are to overcome either Saudi Arabia or Japan in their next two qualifiers, Postecoglou must find a way to eliminate those errors.
That lack of polish extends to the Socceroos’ goal-scoring issues, with only one of their past eight goals coming from open play.
Postecoglou’s Jekyll-and-Hyde comments
Australia’s boss took aim at his critics following the win over the UAE by claiming his formation would be labelled the work of “a genius” if he was a foreign coach, while he argued the only “perfect” system is the one that produces hot water at home.
This is the same coach, who last year called on Australian journalists and fans to scrutinise players and coaches more to improve football in this country.
Whether insisting game-time at club level is vital to Socceroos selection and then starting Sainsbury and Brad Smith this week, or hailing Australia’s improved depth but relying on a core group of around 15 players, there seems to be two sides to every Postecoglou argument.
As he has said this week, Postecoglou was effectively employed to move away from the pragmatism-at-all-costs era of Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck but that doesn’t mean his methods or execution should be above criticism.
It is hard to know how much can be taken from the win over the Emiratis.
The UAE were also under pressure heading into this fixture – coach Mahdi Ali resigned afterwards – and this is a nation that has never previously beaten Australia at senior level nor scored a goal against the Socceroos.
Australia’s Russia 2018 destiny will be decided in the upcoming matches against Saudi Arabia and Japan but the question remains whether this Socceroos generation is really any good.
Postecoglou bemoaned a lack of progress from his 2015 Asian Cup squad in the lead-up to the games against Iraq and the UAE and it’s hard to fault that line of thinking.
With numerous players having gone through periods without regular game-time at their clubs, there are few current Socceroos that have unequivocally proven themselves at international level.
The majority of the issues inherent in this discussion have nothing to do with Postecoglou.
But just over a year before the next World Cup – and with qualification far from certain – we are no closer to knowing if Australia could produce better results in Russia than they did at Brazil 2014.