Ange Postecoglou must abandon his attacking instincts against Japan

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Saudi Arabia lost to the UAE on Wednesday, a result that has eased out – if only slightly – the Socceroos’ margin for error against Japan.

    The Saudis’ loss now means the following avenues for automatic qualification are open to Australia.

    1. Win against Japan, and we qualify automatically.

    2. Draw against Japan, and beat Thailand at home, and we qualify automatically.

    3. Lose to Japan, and beat Thailand, and we qualify if Japan beat or draw with Saudi Arabia in their final fixture.

    4. Draw with Japan and Thailand, and we qualify if Japan beat or draw with Saudi Arabia, or if the Saudis rack up a monstrous win over Japan.

    5. Lose to Japan, and draw with Thailand, and we qualify automatically if Japan beat Saudi Arabia.

    6. Lose to Japan, and lose to Thailand, and we can only qualify automatically if Japan beat Saudi Arabia by a large margin, pushing us ahead of the Saudis on goal difference (currently both teams are at +6, with Australia holding a game in hand).

    There are various goal-difference dependent permutations of these potential outcomes, as well as versions that take into account the dicey third-placed playoff route, but the thrust of all this ushers us to a clear conclusion: we must adopt a conservative, defensive approach to the game tonight against Japan.

    There is no need to take the game to the home team, to try and score freely, to attack the Blue Samurai with wild abandon. A tight win or a draw are perfectly satisfactory outcomes, while if a loss is suffered, it must be by the narrowest of margins.

    All of the outcomes that rely on other fixtures going our way are not ideal. Yes, we should be confident – a clammy, nervously-laughing sort of confidence – of comfortably beating Thailand at home on 5 September, but we don’t want to pin our automatic qualification hopes on an already-qualified Japan enthusing themselves in their final game, away in Jeddah.

    The mantra for our final two fixtures is this: four points won, and the job is done.

    With our priorities set, we must look to our defence, which isn’t quite eye-watering, but it hardly makes for contented viewing.

    Australia have managed a clean sheet in just three of the last eight World Cup qualifying matches, and although we haven’t lost a match in this campaign, three of our games – two draws and a win – have included four or more total goals scored. Our inability to shut teams out has hurt us badly, with the score-draws against Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Thailand boring bitter holes in the memory, four points wasted that could so easily have been seized.

    The 3-2 win over the Saudis in June was crucial, and though the team should be commended for securing it, the manner in which they did was haphazard at best. The two goals gifted to us by the Saudis in the first half were acts of generosity no one should expect Japan to repeat.

    Of all the tactical iterations Ange Postecoglou has come up with since transitioning to his back-three system, none of them are defence-first. His formation should be able to morph into one that’s primary function is to stifle, creating a formidable back-five, with the wing-backs tucked in.

    Postecoglou might even play two defensive-minded central midfielders to complement the defence in such a system. He hasn’t really done this yet though, and having selected a team that has no traditional, defensive right-back, one must assume Matt Leckie will start.

    Leckie is so athletic, he can usually make up his deficiencies when it comes to defensive positioning and decision-making. Still, it would be wise to firmly remind him of the defensive side of his positional duties, something Ange will be sure to do pre-match.

    Matthew Leckie

    AAP Image/Lukas Coch

    Alex Gersbach must start over Brad Smith on the left. Whether you base the selection on recent form for both club and national team, playing time over the last six months, or the theoretically appropriate player attributes, there’s no argument that Smith should start this match. Simply put, Smith’s continued inclusion is one of Ange’s most puzzling foibles.

    There are a few centre back variations that will offer a sense of sturdiness, all of them revolving around Trent Sainsbury. Then, as mentioned, a defensively-capable midfield of, say, Mark Milligan and Mass Luongo would also be pleasing.

    This is negative, to be sure, and it departs somewhat from the gaffer’s instincts. Even against Chile, in the Confederations Cup, Australia met the highly potent South Americans head on, running and harrying, transitioning up the pitch at a breakneck speed, rather than sitting back with the intention to frustrate.

    Mat Ryan had to make six saves in that game, and there were more than a few moments where last-ditch tackles from Milligan and others saved surefire goals. In what was essentially a glorified friendly competition, Australia’s plucky audacity was to be admired, and it secured a fine – if fortunate – 1-1 result.

    But that audacity is not what is needed tonight.

    Basically, I’m asking for a little pragmatism, something that demonstrably does not come easily to Postecoglou. This week, Robbie Kruse spoke about how team selection can remain a mystery to the players, right up until the last moment.

    “You never know with the boss, sometimes you feel like you might be playing but then you don’t know,” Kruse said. “You find out game day, he [Postecoglou] keeps everyone on their toes. Everyone prepares as if they are going to play.”

    Robbie Kruse for the Socceroos

    Photo: AFP

    This may breathe a lovely sense of freshness through the squad, knowing that everyone has a chance at starting, but it hardly promotes a sense of stability, of knowing your role, of feeling at ease and depended on.

    A 0-0 draw in Saitama would feel as good as a win, all things considered. It’s also a more realistic ambition, with Japan still snorting from their stumbling 1-1 draw with Iraq in the last round of qualifiers, and having announced a full-strength squad, with Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Maya Yoshida just some of the big names set to start.

    It would be unwise to go toe-to-toe with the Blue Samurai, swords and minds sharpened, with so much at stake.

    The Socceroos are, of course, no strangers to the big occasion; ten of the current squad members were present for that heart-stopping Asian Cup final against South Korea three years ago – a taught, clenched match that went to extra time.

    The intestinal fortitude evident on that night remains in the team, and if it’s on show – and, crucially, is buttressed by the tactical approach – again in Saitama tonight, we can leave Japan with our future still firmly grasped in our own hands.

    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.