Five things we learned from the Confederations Cup

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Australia bowed out after the initial stages of the Confed Cup, losing to Germany and drawing with Cameroon and Chile. Here are five things we learned.

    1. The open-play goal drought was temporary
    There was a stretch of time, a period draped in damp, thick felt, where it looked like Australia would never score an open-play goal again. Dating back to our second goal against Saudi Arabia in October 2016, Australia went five months, and four matches, without registering a goal that wasn’t from a corner or a penalty.

    Mile Jedinak’s composure from the spot, and Matt Leckie’s aerial majesty aside, it was a dour period, where even the positive results came with a sense of distress, labouring as the Roos were to make and take their chances.

    But, starting with the 3-2 win over Saudi Arabia in early June, and now carried through this Confederations Cup, open-play goals are back on the menu, and how we’ve missed their sweet ambrosial overtones.

    Tomi Juric has developed a taste for them in particular, as has Tom Rogic, and suddenly – against some of our more challenging opponents – the team have washed away the memories of that struggling, impotent lot that needed a late converted corner to beat Iraq.

    Scoring tit-for-tat with Germany, and matching Cameroon and Chile – albeit doing so while allowing a litany of chances to our opponents – is no small feat, and so, if nothing else, our renewed potency is something from which to take confidence.

    2. Ange has – and is willing to use – variations within his system
    The three matches saw three variations of the Postecoglu Roos. The opening game, one where a patient, from-the-back passing game was run ragged by a young German team, and our defensive deficiencies were made horridly obvious.

    The second match, where an adjusted midfield made clear, against Cameroon, the kind of care and patience needed there. Then the third outing, against Chile, where an all-action, run-and-gun set-up vigorously presented our best effort of the tournament.

    The formation, by and large, remained the same throughout the three games. But the personnel changes and tweaked approach made for three contrasting outcomes. The opponents Postecoglu had to plan for were all different – for instance, the high-intensity press from Chile, that tends to fade as the game wears on, was almost the exact inverse of the rhythm of the Cameroonians, whose slack opening 20 minutes was made up for by a storming finish.

    As such, Ange’s dedication to the strictures of his system was tested, poked and prodded into uncomfortable shapes; the result was, by the end, hopeful.

    Ange – as much as it seemed this way hearing his comments about the importance of the system being greater than that of qualification – is no blind idealist. The team iteration he sent out against Chile, a barnstorming arrangement, wasn’t just a collection of our best athletes.

    With Milligan in the back three, offering his passing from a deeper position, it allowed for the the hyper-transitions of Troisi and Irvine, hitting breakneck one-touch passes, linking up with a deep-dropping Tim Cahill and a roving, redemption-seeking Mass Luongo.

    It was breathtaking at times, seeing the passes ping back and forth. It also gave us the ability to apply intense physical pressure in the middle third, with the team given a clear mandate to, as it were, out themselves about. The four yellow cards the Roos earned in the first half speak for themselves.

    The point is, however, is that it was different. We’d seen a version of it against the UAE, but to see it thrash out a draw with the fourth-ranked team in the world was something else indeed.

    Ange has always had room to adjust within the 3-2-4-1 (or 3-4-2-1, depending on how high the wing-backs are) formation, the question was would he, and to what effect? These three games – the third especially – offered up at least a partial answer.

    3. Tim Cahill is still our best striker
    It was stirring experience seeing Tim Cahill charge around, as much spring in his step as he had when he garnered the grizzled affection of the The Den in South-East London. In Millwall, Cahill forged the hard-nosed beginnings of a career that, the best part of two decades later, still stands as an incandescent beacon of inspiration for every young footballer in the country.

    He is 37 now, very much the veteran leader of this generation of Roos, but one more often seen brought on with ten minutes to go than he is in the pre-match graphic.

    Tim Cahill scored a beautiful volley

    (Instagram: Tim Cahill)

    Not against Chile, however, and as he racked up 100 caps, in doing so he also reminded us that he might still be our best striker. Playing off Tomi Juric, Cahill dropped deep, hustled and harried, and was involved in some lovely link-up moments with the onrushing Socceroos midfielders.

    His touch and timing are still excellent, as are his instincts for where his teammates are going. He can deal with almost any centre back, once he has his back to him, every strand of old-man strength and crafty leverage at his disposal. And he is, of course, still a frightening presence in the air.

    He is Australia’s greatest ever player, and his longevity has always been paired with his knack for delivering when the spotlight hits, a virtue that should never be overlooked. When he was substituted against Chile, he charged off, clapping teammates on the back as he went, sternly embracing Ange before jogging to the bench.

    There is no reason why, at 38, he won’t be suiting up in Russia, preparing for his fourth World Cup.

    4. One of Milligan or Jedinak must be in the back-three
    Mark Milligan is, in truth, a valuable asset just about everywhere he plays. His rare mix of thoughtful passing, diligent positioning and inch-perfect tackling makes him a perfect player for Ange’s system, one that relies on and rewards high-IQ, versatile players.

    The question, now, is not if, but where to play him. We have seen the back three pass directly to the opposition – the farcical goal Brazil scored in the June friendly, as well as any of the plethora of turnovers that occurred in the first half against Germany come immediately to mind.

    If the opponents are packing the midfield, then our centre-backs are often forced to make ambitious passes out to the high wing-backs, perilous passes that might easily be picked off by active wingers. Bailey Wright and Milos Degenek are not the ball-players Trent Sainsbury is, but it’s to them that these passing responsibilities fall, as they’re the flanking centre-backs.

    Milligan filled the right-centre-back role against Chile, and his passing was exemplary. He made 40 passes in the game – our fourth-highest tally, team-wide – at a rate of 95 per cent, by far our most accurate passer. Not only that, he marshalled Alexis Sanchez about as well as anyone could have expected.

    Milligan’s value to the midfield means it’s a hard decision to permanently repurpose him as a part of the back three. But Mile Jedinak could do a similar job, with added aerial prowess, and would certainly be a passing upgrade on Wright. Jedinak’s future might lie there.

    5. Trent Sainsbury deserves to play in Europe
    James Troisi and Robbie Kruse were both excelling against Chile as unemployed players. Neither have a club, but as odd as it sounds, their twin situations aren’t the most galling as far as under-exposed Roos go.

    Trent Sainsbury, who has been returned from Inter Milan – a loan spell that, as many anticipated morosely, produced just 19 minutes of first-team football in five months – is now again playing in China.

    As rapidly growing as the CSL is, Sainsbury is good enough to be starting in – at the very least – the Championship, or the Dutch or Belgian leagues, if the not the English, German or Spanish leagues.

    Bailey Wright is a mainstay at Bristol City; Sainsbury is a much better defender than Wright, probably the best we’ve had since prime Lucas Neill. He deserves more than a pointless sojourn in Serie A, one that’s advantageous only for the Suning Appliance Group’s accounting department.

    At 25, one hopes he can realise a European dream properly, because he’s more than good enough.

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