It should be regarded as a great sign for football in this country that both the direction and formation used by the national youth teams are so hotly debated.
These days not only is the notion of playing, say one or two strikers cause for heartburn, but so too are the nuances that comprise the ever-popular 4-3-3 formation.
Australia has indeed come a long way where the world game is concerned, so quickly that hearing such debate concerning tactics is akin to suddenly discussing the virtues of Chekhov or Borges having previously relied on a reading diet confined to Twitter feeds and Facebook posts.
Where Australian football is concerned no issue gets tongues wagging more than the direction of Australia’s youth teams and particular what tactical formation they adopt.
The national mandate established by the FFA and endorsed by technical director Han Berger is that all representative youth teams in this country make use of the 4-3-3 template.
The rationale is that this formation – most popular in the Netherlands in the 70’s, but employed so brilliantly by the Barcelona in recent years – is the most sophisticated and reliable where maintenance of possession is concerned.
It is the formation which allows the greatest degree of midfield flexibility and interchange, while also being the system most conducive to playing with width.
The defence plays arguably the most important role in such a formation, called upon to set up attacks through precise ball movement from the back, rather than panicked clearances which inevitably finds the ball returned moments later.
Doubtlessly the biggest criticism of the formation is when the opposition is dominating possession. At such times a team’s wingers are required do their fair share of defending, leaving the sole striker quite isolated when and if possession is won back.
When things are not going right in the 4-3-3, a striker’s life can be hopelessly lonely and terrifically frustrating.
Throughout both youth World Cups this year coach Jan Versleijen has been loyal to the formation, though not always to the letter based on personal and the prevailing match situation. After all the man is a coach, not a robot.
In the Young Socceroos final match at the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia and needing nothing less than a win against the all conquering Spaniards, Versleijen threw the 4-3-3 out the window.
He selected the most attacking team he had at his disposal along with a formation incorporating two strikers.
With Australia’s hopes of salvaging some pride from a tournament gone wrong, Versleijen’s move was both brave and commendable. Ultimately however, he’ll lose his job for it.
The young Australians were crushed 5-1 by Spain, having shipped all five within the first half hour of play. It made for a dismal end to a poor tournament.
The convenient excuse for Versleijen’s chop will be the radical deviation of a tactics and ignorance of the FFA mandate.
One wonders however what would have happened had Versleijen actually pulled it off? What if Versleijen showed the FFA that there’s a much bigger world outside of the indisputably admirable 4-3-3?
The ripple effect would have indeed been enormous. Instead of Versleijen being made to look like the incompetent rebel, questions may have been asked of a system steadfast in its unwavering faith in a formation which frankly failed both teams in Mexico and Colombia.
It failed because in Colombia particularly, with this crop of players, the 4-3-3 was not the most ideal for them. And it’s a genuine shame as this group was perhaps a once-in-a generation type squad, despite the results suggesting otherwise.
To commit to a 4-3-3 and put so much strain on the defence – clearly the team’s Achilles heel throughout – was foolish.
To not utilise the brilliance of Mustafa Amini in a meaningful and consistent role, and to starve Kerem Bulut of opportunities to shine were highly regretful.
To select a team with virtually no defensive midfield cover for Ben Kantarovski was particularly harmful.
To be sure, Football Federation Australia will have every right to look elsewhere regarding its next youth coaching appointment.
However, I sincerely hope the move is based on how unacceptable the results were along with the squad’s composition, rather than a very brief deviation away from the vaunted 4-3-3.
In the same way the next coach of the Melbourne Football Club should identify just how integrated the ‘Demon legends’ are at the club, the future Australian youth coach should know precisely how much his coaching will be dictated and determined by a fixed formation from the sport’s governing body.
For coaches throughout the world and in any sport to be forced to do their job under a prescribed mandate is akin to telling a chef there’s only one way to make chicken soup or a comedian that there’s only one way to tell a joke.
The beauty of sport is that each game is vastly different to the previous with a plethora of different factors prevailing.
To be married to one fixed idea or formation is simply wrong.