Tom Rogic must turn up against Thailand

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    The Socceroos trudged off the pitch in Saitama last Thursday, crestfallen and soundly beaten, having offered up a performance against the Japanese that barely flickered.

    Of course, the 2-0 defeat exposed a handful of tangible issues that, in the depressing aftermath, throbbed luminously, demanding to be addressed: Brad Smith’s damaging inclusion, Robbie Kruse’s impotence as a central striker, and Mat Ryan’s highly questionable short passing are just a few.

    But perhaps most concerning was the manner in which Tom Rogic waned, a semi-transparent version of himself, a wispy echo of our most talented attacker, shimmering only briefly into relevance before fading away completely.

    Rogic was substituted 70 minutes into the Japan defeat, and departed the field having had 41 touches – a total that would end up being fewer than that of all of his starting XI colleagues, fewer even than James Troisi, who had been substituted ten minutes before Rogic.

    Rogic also attempted the fewest passes of the Australian starting XI, and at the second-worst rate of accuracy. According to the FFA match stats, he made no successful dribbles, and had just two shots, only one of which was on target.

    Clearly – and keeping in mind the high-scoring brief the Roos have set themselves for the Thailand game – this sort of ineffectual turn cannot be repeated. Attacking coherence will be the most important factor; the Thais are already out of qualifying contention, and it would not surprise anyone to see them set up specifically to avoid an embarrassing blowout defeat.

    Thai pride, the only thing left for them to play for, will be protected by a packed defence, and if Rogic, the Australian player most able to ignite a fine attacking performance, wallows in irrelevance again, a gruelling third-placed playoff beckons ominously.

    Obviously, Tom Rogic is at his best with the ball at his feet. Unlike, say, Matt Leckie – whose pace makes him a dangerous off-the-ball threat at all times – Rogic is not as effective away from the action. His pace is average, he has no leap to speak of, and he isn’t the most laterally agile.

    What he does have, crucially and delightfully, is an ability to dribble – honed on the now nationally under-funded futsal court – under extreme pressure, a foot skill that pairs beautifully with his penchant for suddenly shooting with devastating power and accuracy.

    We saw a glimpse of how elegantly he can negotiate tight spaces with the ball at his feet at the beginning of the Japan game, switching the ball from one foot to the other, feinting, hooking the ball with the instep, having drawn three opponents, Rogic nearly releases a teammate, only for the pass to be picked off.

    This moment, of course, came during the frenetic early phase, before Japan receded back into the stolid defensive formation they took up for the bulk of the contest. Space was a little more available then, and as the match wore on, it became clear that the Japanese weren’t just going to allow Rogic to flourish unmolested in dangerous central areas.

    More than half of Rogic’s successful passes in that game were hit from his inside-right position out to Leckie on the wing. Japan were actively forcing Australia out to the wings, confident as they were in Maya Yoshida and Hiroki Sakai’s ability to out-muscle and out-jump the out-of-position Kruse in the air.

    The two Australian wing-backs’ crossing was consistently poor in any case, so for Rogic to spend so much of his time on the ball enabling a strategy that the opponents were largely untroubled by – not to mention were actively encouraging Australia to continue – is tantamount to spending at least good hour engaging in inconsequential thumb-twiddling. A waste, suffice it to say, of Rogic’s arsenal of skills.

    It seems Rogic has trouble imposing his will on a game when the going gets tough. In Scotland, playing for a juggernaut club that tends to keep an iron vice-grip on the domestic competitions, he tends to thrive when fit, enjoying the increased space and time that comes when you’re part of a team other clubs fear and respect.

    It’s almost as if he’s softened because of this, or at least has become too accustomed to the good life. He can saunter up and strike a howitzer from the edge of the box when teams give him the space – like they did here playing for Celtic.

    But if he’s marked tight, bullied, and denied the freedom to work in, then he tends to flake away.

    Ange Postecoglou’s team went into halftime a goal down to Japan, and really the Roos manager should have made changes then, designed specifically to revive Rogic’s dwindling involvement.

    Perhaps removing Jackson Irvine, and dropping Rogic back into midfield in search of time and space? Perhaps removing Kruse and sending on Tomi Juric or Tim Cahill earlier, so that Rogic might have had more time to play off a natural, anchored central striker? Perhaps bringing on a centre back and moving Mark Milligan up into midfield, whose passing might have aided in bringing Rogic back into the fold?

    Obviously the passing of Aaron Mooy was sorely missed, and would surely have linked Rogic more closely to the build-up play. But once Mooy’s condition was confirmed to be too poor to be involved, then the reverberations that rippled out from his absence should have been mitigated for. Irvine’s distribution is, based on the evidence against Japan, not an adequate replacement for Mooy; Irvine’s role in the second Japanese goal, losing possession, adds further testament to this.

    Rogic is a special talent, but he’s a player qho relies so much on his teammates – and, to perhaps an equal extent, the opposition – creating a favourable footballing environment for him.

    He is a bespoke part, a delicate, high-spec component that cannot just be thrown into any old machine and expected to function properly.

    It’s Postecoglou who is most responsible for creating these conducive conditions, certainly from a systemic perspective, but some responsibility must also be laid on Rogic himself.

    His country needs him desperately tonight against Thailand, and he has to answer the call.

    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.