Reflecting on the Socceroos third World Cup campaign, the one real regret is that we didn’t have a manager able enough to sense the mood of a match and the mentality of the nation.
Pim Verbeek’s first instinct was to wait. React rather than act.
He looked to the limitations, rather than the possibilities.
One of the most telling moments in South Africa came at the start of the second half of our second game, against Ghana in Rustenburg.
The Socceroos were drawing 1-1 with The Black Stars and Harry Kewell was completing his shower after seeing red midway through the first half for blocking a Jonathan Mensah strike with his right arm.
Needing the three points desperately after the Durban Debacle, the Roos were on the brink of elimination.
A positive reaction was required. All or nothing.
The Socceroos might have been a man down, but they needed to get out in the second half and re-assert control over the game.
It had started well, but the opening goal saw a change in the mood.
Soon after Brett Holman pounced on a Richard Kingson mistake and shortly before Kewell was sent packing, the Roos started ceding control of the match by retreating to their 18 yard box. This negative mind-set, in part, contributed to the equaliser.
I’ve no doubt why Verbeek retreated. His first instinct was to defend the lead, and no doubt he would have been worried about the pace of Craig Moore and Lucas Neill and didn’t want to get exposed in behind.
Fair enough, the Roos were up and had something to protect, but they played into Ghana’s hands and allowed them back in.
In any case, Milovan Rajevac’s men had equalised and were in control. It was time to react.
So at the start of the second half, surely the Roos would get out there and get on the front foot, press Ghana high and have a real crack.
It would require a manager prepared to take a few risks at the back.
A day earlier, Germany had laid out the perfect template on how to control a game with 10 men. After Miroslav Klose was sent off early against Serbia, they were still able to dominate, control the match and create all the best chances.
Joachim Loew’s men played open at the back, lived dangerously, and didn’t end up with the reward, but they showed the initiative. On another night they would have won 5-1.
Verbeek didn’t take the same initiative. He waited.
For the reasons mentioned above, the Roos retreated, allowing Ghana to have acres in front of the back four. The message? Shoot from distance if you like, but we’re not letting you in behind.
Every time the Roos lost the ball, everyone retreated back towards the 18 yard box. When they did win it, they were deep, with no-one forward to hit.
As I noted throughout the early stages of the second half, during my live running analysis, Verbeek could have tried to wrestle the initiative by defending higher, pressuring Ghana and trying to win the ball back early.
If he was worried about the pace at the back, bring on Michael Beauchamp for Moore. The latter was having an excellent game, but there’s little doubt he was dropping off “to give the team a chance to defend”, as his best mate Kevin Muscat had suggested during the loss to Germany.
Instead, Verbeek waited, until the 66th minute, midway through the second half, when Scott Chipperfield was introduced for Marco Bresciano, followed two minutes later by Josh Kennedy’s introduction for Holman.
It wasn’t until that point that the Roos got on the front foot. With Brett Emerton moved up, alongside Kennedy, and Chipperfield and Luke Wilkshire getting forward in support, suddenly the Roos had bodies forward, and could play for the second ball.
There was little football, just a red hot go, in the true Aussie way, and but for a block from Kingston on Wilkshire, the Roos might have had their winner.
I’ve since heard Wilkshire speak about the chance, and his regrets. A player that gave his all, was terrific throughout, should never be made the scapegoat.
After all, he was only pushed up-field very late. Had he been asked to move forward earlier, he might have had three or four chances.
The bigger question is not about the missed chance, but about whether Verbeek’s strategy gave his team enough time to win the game? The reaction came, but it came too late.
Fast forward to Nelspruit and it was a similar tale. Needing goals, Verbeek preferred to wait, gambling instead on an unlikely victory to Ghana over Germany.
Realistically, the Socceroos should have been expecting a German victory, hoping, but never banking on it being comprehensive.
Either way, the Socceroos should have been pro-active from the start, looking for goals, and a two or three goal margin.
Instead Verbeek didn’t unleash his high pressing game until the second half, and it wasn’t until midway through the second half that he finally sacrificed one of his twin screeners.
For a while it looked like the miracle was on, but a piece of poaching by Marko Pantelic saw to that.
Even after he scored to make it 1-2, the Socceroos had two great chances, to Kennedy and Jason Culina, to fix the goal difference.
It proved they had it within them to get on the front foot and dictate to teams at this level. They just needed the confidence and the game-plan.
But for large parts Verbeek chose the safer option. Wait, retreat, react.
Thankfully, the reaction from the players was invariably one of pride. The Socceroos don’t have a problem with pride, and it was almost enough to get them through.
But with a touch more nous, an ability to feel the moment and the mood of his men, the feeling is more might have been achieved.
Over to Wilkshire, one of the Roos unsung heroes, to paint a picture of type of manager the Socceroos should now be seeking. Speaking to Fox Sports on his departure from South Africa, he said;
“He needs to have a bit of understanding, of course, about the Australian mentality. He’ll know there’s talent within the squad to be successful. He’ll be able to guide us to be successful, as we have done in the past, and give us the tactical know-how to go and compete at the top level.”
With the Socceroos winning, go-for-it, mentality (which, incidentally, more credentialed nations would kill for), it’s clear what the players need is a go-forward man who can give them the belief and has the tactical smarts to make the right moves at the right time.
Verbeek, for all his success in reaching the World and Asian Cups, points never to be underestimated, was caught short on both counts.