Over the course of his World Cup qualifying campaign, Socceroos coach Holger Osieck has tinkered with different formations to find the best fit for the Australian style of football.
They have met with varying success.
After a series of initially lack-lustre performances, it seems as though now he is on the right track.
Against Saudi Arabia in February 2012, the Socceroos played an attractive and dynamic brand of football with promising signs for the future under the German’s tutelage. This success, one can argue, was largely due to a formation that allowed the right players to perform to their strengths.
Osieck chose to play a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Marco Bresciano (Al Nasr) at the top of the midfield diamond, and Harry Kewell (Melbourne Victory) and Alex Brosque (Shimizu S-Pulse) pairing as strikers.
Another notable formation Osieck has employed to some success has been the 4-5-1 with Josh Kennedy (Nagoya Grampus) as the lone striker, and a dynamic and creative attacking midfielder, or tequartista, playing in behind him.
The formations that have been unconvincing have included a 4-4-2 with Josh Kennedy and Tim Cahill (Everton) as strikers, and one with two defensive midfielders, Carl Valeri (Sassuolo) and Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace).
The first games of the Socceroos campaign towards Brazil 2014 were the bad and the ugly for the Australian outfit. Against Thailand in September 2011, they snatched an undeserved victory late in the game, relying on the outdated notion of route-one football to boot the ball long up the pitch and send in ineffective long crosses aimed at Kennedy and Cahill.
In theory, this strategy against the Thais was logical – the Australians had a height advantage, and Kennedy and Cahill have strong aerial ability. In practice it didn’t work. The Thais used their speed and body positioning to gain the superior ground as the cross was floated in, leaving the Australian strikers off-balance, in poor position and ineffectual.
This coupled with poor delivery and low-percentage long passes meant that the Socceroos were lucky to come away with the win.
The second unconvincing strategy was also against Thailand in November 2011. Osieck relied on a defensive 4-4-2 formation to secure at least a point for the Australians to progress to the next qualifying round.
Again, in essence, a logical strategy – with only a point needed to secure progression and a Thailand outfit gunning for a win, sitting back in the midfield with Valeri and Jedinak utilising their defensive strengths seems reasonable. The problem is that the non-defensive attributes of these two midfielders offered little in helping the team maintain possession and control play.
Valeri, arguably, is better rounded in his skills than Jedinak; however, both are perhaps questionable as first-choice options in midfield. A more suitable defensive-midfield pairing for this strategy would have been Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough) and Chris Herd (Aston Villa), or possibly even Royston Griffiths (Guangzhou) and Luke Wilkshire (Dynamo Moscow).
Ideally, Jason Culina (Newcastle Jets) would be the first name for this role if he were uninjured. All these players offer not only solid defensive attributes but possess greater technique, a vision to transition the play into an attacking threat and the accuracy and crispness of passing to aid this transition.
A similar formation was also used in the 1-0 loss to Oman a few days earlier, which produced similar problems for the Socceroos.
The most recent qualifying game against Saudi Arabia discarded the ugly for the good, in a much-improved performance by the Australians, especially in the final third. The key: Osieck’s choice of formation.
The 4-4-2 diamond, with Marco Bresciano as the attacking playmaker, allowed the Australian team to go forward with a technical and creative midfield providing the strikers and wingers with ample supply of defence-splitting passes.
Coupled with the overlapping wingbacks, notably Jade North (Consadole Sapporo) on the right, an extra dimension aided the attacking play.
It is important to note that formation is only one component of a coach’s broader strategy, but often it is the most evident sign of that strategy. For example, the defensive 4-4-2 formation with two holding-midfielders shows a strategy of restraint and to an extent, cautiousness.
It was therefore not really a surprise when games played this way were uninspired.
Osieck saw how poorly the team performed under the defensive strategy, so, as all good coaches should, he changed his methods. He adopted a bolder approach for the game against the Saudis and played out a 4-4-2 diamond with Bresciano, Kewell and Brosque assigned to the key central attacking roles.
These choices were the tangible signs of Osieck’s strategic approach to use speed of movement, short passing, angled runs and fluid support to transition quickly and directly from defence into attack. Further signs of this strategy were evident when Archie Thompson (Melbourne Victory) was substituted in as a left midfielder.
Osieck capitalised on Thompson’s lightning pace and attacking flair to exploit holes in the forward Saudi defence. Thompson’s presence contributed significantly in the creation of Australia’s second goal and was arguably the turning point in the match. Australia went on to win the match 4-2.
As Osieck is spending more time with the Australians, he is becoming much more familiar with the strengths of our players, but more importantly, he is becoming much more accustomed to the way Australians like to play football.
There are some lessons for Osieck. First, avoid route-one football. Even when it may seem logical, opposition teams are able to disrupt the attack by exploiting the low-percentage passing and defending to their own advantages.
Two, we should not rely on two defensive midfielders, or at least use defensive midfielders that have technique, passing and vision. We do not like to play defensively, as shown by the horrendous 4-0 defeat to Germany in the 2010 World Cup. It stifles an inherent attacking football identity.
Three, formations are key in identifying a coach’s broader strategy, but the coach must also choose the right players within that formation for it to be a success.
Fourth, just as an Australian who goes to live in a foreign country must learn and adapt, so too must foreign coaches who come to coach the Socceroos.
Holger Osieck is starting to show that he understands the nuances of how Australians like to play football. With this understanding, he will be able to apply his experience to produce a team of which we can all be proud.