Socceroos beat Saudi Arabia in spite of systemic issues

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Ange Postecoglou persisted with his back-three Socceroos formation, an experiment shakily launched against Iraq, and one that reappeared against the UAE.

    Its third appearance, against Saudi Arabia in Adelaide, however, was not hugely successful, showcasing the fragility that worried so many when it debuted.

    Against Iraq, wing-backs Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse were a source of much consternation, betraying the fact that neither are defenders, and as such lack the essential instincts of the craft.

    Brad Smith did better in place of Kruse against the UAE, and Leckie overcame his shortcomings largely through sheer athletic supremacy alone. A heightened sense of urgency that spread through the entire team that night against the UAE was enough to adequately disguise the systemic issues that lingered.

    That same sense of urgency was not – in spite of what was at stake in this match – present in the first half against the Saudis, a half of football where Australia were gifted an opening goal, allowed to seize a unchallenged second, and yet still went into the break level.

    The back three, when in possession, were constantly looking to pass out to the wing-backs, and with good reason; Australia were totally outnumbered in midfield. Aaron Mooy and Mile Jedinak – the latter an unwise passing option when he is under pressure – were swarmed by energetic Saudi players.

    Jackson Irvine and Tom Rogic were often seen drifting out wide to avoid the five Saudi players packing the middle, offering little in the way of central support as a result.

    To focus on the flanks was not necessarily a bad approach; Leckie and Smith are fine byline attackers, each with a ferocious turn of pace and a willingness to challenge backtracking defenders. But too often the passes out to them were over-hit, or wayward.

    Other moments saw the wing-backs overcommit at the wrong time, out of tune with their teammates. Basically, it meant that Leckie and Smith, who were supposed to be quasi-defenders, were left horribly out of position.

    The result, when the Saudis counter-attacked, was that the wing-backs were often out of place, with the back three reluctant to send a centre back up to challenge an onrushing Saudi attacker.

    Wing-backs can tuck in, forming a back four, when a centre back roams forward to stifle an attack, that’s the theory. Without that support, however, the centre backs clumped and backed off, and the Saudis’ first goal showed how easily a team can scythe through a confused and fretful horde of defenders.

    It was a simple give-and-go manoeuvre which sliced right through the middle of the Roos with ease. Ryan McGowan – after taking 56 hours to get from China to Adelaide – was thrust into the starting XI late, replacing Bailey Wright, and his unfamiliarity with the formation was obvious. He described it as “different” after the match.

    In other moments, Smith was seen retreating far too deeply, marking empty space, creating a flat back-line and allowing unbridled advance up his wing in a non-counter-attacking situation. Leckie garnished the confusion by offering up the ball to the opposition with some truly awful passes and touches.

    Matthew Leckie

    (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

    It’s almost as if – and wonders will never cease – Leckie isn’t actually a defender, making the talk that his new club signing him with the intention of playing him at wing-back even more strange. Leckie did set up Australia’s second goal, though, with a wonderful direct run and chipped cross. He looked much more at home up that end.

    Smith was replaced by Aziz Behich at the break, and the second half saw a much more energised performance, with Behich typifying the newfound verve. Rogic and Mooy sought out the ball with more vigour, and the Saudis rocked back a little, presented with the physical, dynamic opponents they perhaps expected to turn up a littler earlier.

    The passing was crisper, the runs fizzed by a little faster; this was the version of the team we saw against the UAE.

    Rogic applied a brutal caress on the ball with his left foot, a wondrous shot, with the ball flying through the air into the top corner with startling clarity, like an arrow expertly loosed from some finely crafted great bow. It was a superb way to capitalise on his team’s forward-swinging momentum.

    The Roos were then content to allow the Saudis to play around with the ball on the edges of their own half, only to swarm with intent once progress was made into their own.

    Kruse replaced Irvine, and offered a more comfortable on-the-ball presence; Irvine’s place ahead of Mooy in the formation is puzzling, as his goal-threat is best utilised when joining the attack late from a deeper position and shooting from the edge of the box. Many of his goals for Burton this season came this way.

    The second half surge was enough to carry the Roos home, and they now sit equal on points with Saudi Arabia and Japan, with the latter to come next in Tokyo.

    The three goals from the two Toms were hugely welcome, breaking a considerable drought as far as goals from open play go. After the game, Postecoglou said that playing a certain brand of football was, in some ways, more important than World Cup qualification, doubling down somewhat on his tactical approach.

    As idealistic as this statement is, had Saudia Arabia not been so generous in their defending, then this match would have exposed not just his team’s failure to qualify automatically, but also their failure to execute – perhaps even to understand – the system he has put in place.

    The Roos were forced to overcome the damage they suffered in the first half, and did so not through the tactical mechanisms finally clicking, but by forcing their way over the line, largely through energy – and Rogic’s individual brilliance – alone.

    The wing-back problem has not been solved, and though the Saudis couldn’t fully punish it, it’s likely Japan won’t be so forgiving at the end of August.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.