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After a very encouraging opener against Colombia suggested Australia’s technical sea-change is headed in the right direction, what the latest Young Socceroos campaign ultimately exposed is that there remains a long way to travel on the path to sustained excellence.
The evidence is that we’re starting to bear the fruit of Australia’s youth technical revolution, but with much still to do.
While the Socceroos, now that they’re back on free-to-air and in the minds of the nation again, might bring financial stability, and the A-League continues to build on strengths, ultimately our football will only be as strong as its development base.
To that end, Frank Lowy and David Gallop must double their efforts and ensure the pursuit of turning Australia into a quality, technical football nation.
Ultimately, these performances at youth level will expose where the game here is at, and the truth of the showing in Turkey is that we’re still in the early phase of executing the plan to shift the football focus to a more sophisticated one.
Like the system that breeds the football, there were many good things in Turkey, but it remains sporadic.
For example, there were great signs against Colombia that the team, under a high press, could play through the first wave of Colombian defence, something we have rarely been able to do in recent campaigns.
Equally, there was frustration against an El Salvador side that sat back, restricted space, and reacted. The young ‘Roos weren’t able to build through the blanket – unable get the ball into the final third and break them down.
Against a stretched Colombia, there was space for Australia to transition, and the virtues of pace came to the fore. There was no such luxury against the shrewd Salvadorans.
What was exposed is that there is much work to educate our players and coaches about the intricacies of adapting and adjusting within the templated 4-3-3 system.
The truth of the performance against the Central Americans is that our players and coaches weren’t prepared to unlock deep sitting defence.
Ultimately the clever El Salvador manager, Mauricio Alfaro, having assessed our first game, gave us the ball and asked us to manoeuvre it to try and break his team down.
The fact that we were unable exposed that there remains much to learn, and we have to develop a formula for being able to play in front of teams that give us possession and sit back.
While it was very encouraging to see a 16 year old, in Daniel De Silva, entrusted in the number 10 role, the type of decision that would have been a dream in bygone years, it was ultimately a flaw that so much of the creative pressure was on his shoulders.
While the injury to Terry Antonis on the eve of the tournament had a major impact here, the fact that a defensive midfielder, in Hagi Gligor, who didn’t play a minute, came in instead of Mustafa Amini, appeared to be an error with the benefit of hindsight.
In that game against El Salvador, needing a solution, the more creative options at Paul Okon’s fingertips, the better.
Instead, with De Silva well patrolled and the two wide attackers, Connor Pain and Andrew Hoole, struggling to tuck-in and combine with Adam Taggart, De Silva and the fullbacks, there were limited creative solutions.
But there was also limited flexibility within the system, and from the bench.
A complete playmaker, for example, may have taken the initiative to drop off and start the play from deeper.
Little was done against El Salvador to affect the game, and this should be mandatory studying for any budding coach.
For all their industry in the final game against the hosts, the likes of Jamie Maclaren, Ryan Williams and Corey Gamiero failed to have enough of a creative influence, while Ryan Edwards had limited game-time to properly assess.
Others in that boat were defensive options like Gligor and Reece Caria, which makes the omission of a player like Amini even more stark.
While a review of the campaign will ultimately assess the selection process, the end-game remains building the base of creative players available.
Much as Germany can now call on the likes of Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus, Mario Goetze and Andre Schurrle, we must aspire to have such a spread.
For now though it was very positive to see someone like Connor Chapman, so comfortable on the ball, entrusted with starting our play.
Chapman appears to have a bright future, undoubtedly our player of the tournament.
Now comes the challenge of finding five other back-six players as comfortable on the ball.
Certainly it was at least encouraging to see fullbacks Jason Geria and Scott Galloway want to play out and integrate with the midfield, even if the execution wasn’t always there.
This was a problem in previous campaigns under Jan Versleijen.
Meanwhile, there were at least signs that our number six, holding midfielder Jackson Irvine, had an understanding of how to play such an important role, even if his distribution was too often found wanting.
Missing Antonis, there appeared to be a disconnect in the midfield, with the emphasis too heavily slanted towards the defensive for my liking.
When faced with less space against El Salvador, both Irvine and Josh Brillante struggled to connect with our front four.
As more kids come through the development pathway, the base of players comfortable in playing out and through, and being intuitive enough to create solutions, should only increase.
But we must first critically assess the shortcomings in Turkey.
After all, this isn’t about the pointing of fingers but the betterment of our football.
Okon and Milan Blagojevic, as a part of the system, are on a learning curve too, and should be afforded the environment to develop.
Ultimately Han Berger is not only trying to build a base of players, but of local technicians armed with the skills to take our players forward.
Like anyone though, they are accountable, and FFA must have the people and processes to critically assess this work.
Such an assessment of the campaign should dissect the mentality of the Young Socceroos.
Where they were underdogs and out to make an impression against Colombia, there was a different mindset required against El Salvador, where there was clear expectation to perform and get the result.
One of things about pushing for a more proactive style is that the pressure will increasingly be on Australian sides to not only have the tools, but the mentality to dominate and control football.
Fighting characteristics won’t be enough.
Our footballers need to be savvy enough to not only control opponents defensively and react, but to control them with the ball, and tactically.
Our coaches, meanwhile, need the know-how, and be able to impart it.
This is a journey that has just begun.
The job now for Lowy, Gallop and their technical driver Berger is to ensure that resources and efforts are ramped up to close off the gaps exposed in Turkey, and keep up with the rest of the world.
As I wrote last year, amid the hype surrounding the start of last season’s A-League, only through sustained investment in youth and coaching development can we hope to make a consistent splash on the international stage.
What needs to be the primary focus is the education of the mum and dad coaching volunteers at every club across the land tasked with introducing kids to the game.
As one of these coaches, I can see that the level of knowledge being imparted remains scattered.
When done well, as I saw from a few clubs at the recent Skills Acquisition Program (SAP) gala day in Sydney, it is a thing of beauty. But the quality remains in pockets.
While systems have been put in place to encourage small-sided-games and pathways created to identify and fast-track talent, there remains much work to do to monitor this and ensure it is uniform, and implemented across the land.
By the time the best players get through the system, they should be not only technically and tactically mature, but mentally ready to handle the pressure to produce.
From there the FFA need to ensure that youth teams travelling for tournament play of this nature are given the preparation and environment to perform.
Any shortcuts taken will be exposed, and the pressure remains on FFA to ensure that this is a key focus. The youth are our future.