The Olyroos may have reached Tokyo 2020 with all the finesse of Eric the Eel, but there’s no doubt their qualification is a huge achievement and a major boost for Australian football.
By all reports Ange Postecoglou is set to step down as the Socceroos boss after the final World Cup play-off with Honduras. He is apparently frustrated by the continual criticism his tactics and selections receive in the media.
For the promise and excitement over the appointment of Postecoglou and the success of his first two years in charge, it seems the 52-year-old has never quite figured out how best to utilise the quality lurking in the Australian team.
This was no more evident than in the draw with Honduras. Although much improved from the sluggish two legs against Syria, for large parts of those two legs the Socceroos dominated possession but looked vulnerable defensively, sometimes struggling to turn possession into genuine chances, particularly in the second half.
For all the individual quality Australia has, the side has struggled to click. In terms of results, the output of the Socceroos is far less than the sum of its parts.
Midfielders Aaron Mooy and Tomas Rogic are perhaps the best examples of the tactical limitations of Postecoglou’s reign.
The pair are arguably the most talented players in the Socceroos side and both are in the prime of their careers. They have also both had success in Europe over the past two seasons.
And yet whenever they play together it seems Australia is unsure of its own tactical identity.
Mooy, instrumental for Huddersfield in the Championship last season and just as good in the Premier League this season, is perhaps the most technical player Australia has been blessed with since Harry Kewell.
He is a classic ‘number eight’ – a deep-lying playmaker whose priority is to ensure that the first pass into the final third reaches its target, allowing the Socceroos to break through the first wall of defence and put the opposition under pressure.
Mooy is also a ‘sprayer’, taking an indirect route to goal by hitting longer sideways passes to the wingers and full-backs in order to exploit the space that’s created as the ball travels quicker than the opposition defence on foot.
The 27-year-old is Australia’s conductor. He orchestrates play in a careful, considered fashion, making sure Australia get forward without the possibility of losing the ball.
Rogic, on the other hand, is almost the total opposite. A tall, direct, physical dribbler, he positions himself just off the main striker, playing as close to goal as a midfielder can get.
A highly regarded player for Celtic, the Scottish influence on his game is obvious. Scottish football has always had a high regard for physical players over technical ones.
Football is more of a fight than a chess game in the northern part of Britain. Rogic’s style has been built by, and thus suits, this more physical league.
The 27-year-old cares less for ball retention than Mooy, meaning he loses possession frustratingly often, but his individualistic creativity is far greater – he’s capable of breaking the lines with speed and decisiveness, changing a game with a single act.
This quality is in total contrast with Mooy. Mooy prefers to break down the opposition slowly. His creativity is a sum of his acts over 90 minutes rather than a single defining moment in the game.
Given that Postecoglou’s ideology is one based around ball retention and a press – a style that is copied by most A-League clubs and echoes the general direction of Australian tactical philosophy – it makes sense that Mooy rather than Rogic is the player to build a style around.
Although Australia can lack conviction up front, the two main strikers, Tim Cahill and Tommy Juric, are both players who thrive off crosses into the box from wide. This suits Mooy’s spraying style of playmaking more than Rogic’s.
It is a style based on ball retention and getting the ball wide in order to cross is a style favoured by a lot of mid-table league clubs, particularly in the Premier League. These are teams with a mix of star quality and limitation, just like the Socceroos.
Possession-based build-up with a focus on getting the ball wide best compliments the Socceroos’ strengths without exposing the weaknesses of the team.
Unfortunately this means that Rogic may be better off coming off the bench. His individual qualities and ability to change a game seem perfect for a ‘super-sub’ role; the type of player who can provide a different type of threat if a team is defending well against Australia.
This tactical move would also best utilise the talented Massimo Luongo, the 25-year-old creative midfielder who many thought was destined for great things when he tore apart the 2015 Asian Cup, winning player of the tournament – but he has so far failed to live up to lofty expectations for the national side.
Luongo has been excellent for Queen’s Park Rangers in the Championship this season. Luongo compliments Mooy by being another passer but one with more of a focus on shorter passing that is most likely to create a chance.
Unlike Rogic, Luongo is also capable of dropping deep and creating space for the Socceroos attackers to move into, as well as added defensive security.
Over the course of the qualifying campaign the Socceroos have struggled to play cohesively despite their obvious qualities. The high number of draws is clear evidence of this.
Yet if Postecoglou or whoever takes over from him for the World Cup wants to maximise the output of the Australian side, he may need to sacrifice star quality in order to get the side playing in a system that best exploits the limited strengths of a middle-of-the-road football nation.