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Craig Foster’s crusade against the FFA’s destructive choice of Bert Van Marwijk has exposed more gaps in the quality of media debate about Australian football than our back three had in World Cup qualifying.
Foster has cast himself as a new patriarch of the Australian football media, but his superficial analysis of the new national team – couched in bizarre high mindedness – underlines exactly what is wrong with football in this country.
Limiting the debate to the ‘right way to play’ and philosophy, while ignoring the real strengths and weaknesses of the managers in question, has turned his analysis of the situation into absurdity. It risks creating a vacuum of real and informed debate about what is needed in this country to evolve our football.
Foster and his group of SBS fanboys (and girl) have turned this discussion into a farce, to the point where he actually believes that Kevin Muscat or Tony Popovic would do a better job coaching the Socceroos at the World Cup than a guy who played off in final (Foster recently announced this on the World Game podcast).
The truly laughable part of this claim is he is basing is perspective of Bert Van Marwijk’s ‘basic’ (in Foster’s terms) game plan and strategy on a sample size of two matches and one week in camp. It is common sense that a new coach would coach the basic (fundamental) parts of his game plan first (i.e. in the first week together) before moving onto the more elaborate tactics. One wouldn’t teach advanced calculus to a prep class before they knew what 1+1 is.
The result of this existential objection to Van Marwijk is that we are now vastly over-indulging the Postecoglou legacy as an absolute example of the ‘right’ curriculum. Nobody will doubt the importance and achievement in winning the Asian Cup in 2015.
That is a gold star for the Socceroos and Postecoglou’s CV that cannot be removed. However, by the end of the World Cup qualifying run Postecoglou’s tactics and interpersonal demeanour had become a liability.
Asian clubs had figured out the game plan and sat back, allowed the Socceroos to hold possession in midfield with lateral passes and waited for inevitable chances on the counter attack.
Our back block of five or six (including our defensive midfielders) would always offer opponents chances through errant passes that could be picked off to then expose a flat-footed high line of defenders – none of whom are gifted with pace.
The match-up against the Japanese in Saitama (a 0-2 loss) exposed Postecoglou and his game plan badly. The technically superior Japan – at home – chose to toy with the Socceroos like a cat with an injured mouse, ceding possession (Australia had 66.5 per cent of it) to exploit skill errors in transition.
By the end of the campaign, even high quality teams were getting nine men behind the ball to choke the inside channel (and Postecoglou’s game plan) and inevitably exploit the team at its weakest. Bert’s Saudis were unlucky not to pinch three points twice, and we relied on a goalkeeper gift to Tomi Juric to not concede points to them at home.
The problems and flaws in Postecoglou game plan emerged in concert with his increasingly bitter, defensive and sometimes childish public persona. The more anxious Postecoglou became the more risk averse this team were.
The tempo slowed and Aaron Mooy et.al were increasingly moving the ball horizontally into dead ends. Quick, incisive balls into forward areas and short passes on the edge of the box – a hallmark of the Asian Cup campaign – dried up.
We took fewer risks in possession and allowed opponents to get players back into the areas we wanted to be in. By the end of the campaign we were an upright away from being knocked out by Syria, and then were lucky to face the easiest opponent we’d had in a long time in Honduras – a team who were appalling over two legs.
Postecoglou’s ‘attacking possession’ style had become a slow, turgid exercise in horizontal movement in the middle third, played by risk averse players who were easy to pick off and counter.
This underlines the big weakness in Ange the coach. Where was his tactical nous to break down such teams? There seemed to be no Plan B once a team got players in space and allowed Australia to keep low-percentage possession. Postecoglou had no in-game adjustments once the bus was parked in Mooy’s passing lanes.
The problems inherent in the Postecoglou version of the “curriculum” were observed at junior level as well. The recent Olyroos Asian Cup played out exactly like the senior team’s qualifying rounds.
Teams camped back (Vietnam had ten players behind the ball), and there was no in-game adjustment to break them down. Our ‘playmaker’ Stefan Mauk was either too slow of mind or didn’t trust his passing skills to penetrate.
Our strongest efforts in possession only occurred with technically strong players – Daniel DeSilva and Ajdin Hrustic – who are more adept on the half turn, and during overloads could take players on through short passing combinations.
But this was only really evident in the second half of the final game against South Korea, when we were down and increased the tempo to get back in the game (and Mauk wasn’t in the line-up).
Like with Ange’s men, teams waited to intercept balls moving from our defensive third to then run at our high line. And, in the game against Vietnam that sunk our progression chances, again Ante Milicic couldn’t devise a way through their ten man block and Australia didn’t really look like scoring.
Purists could argue that most teams struggle when teams get so many men behind the ball – but the real problem for both the senior and junior teams in the Ange era is they also conceded.
If teams are getting 9-10 players behind the ball and still beating you, then there is a tactical or technical problem in your game plan that is being exposed by the other coach.
Another risk we run with talking only about ‘philosophy’ is that we forget the other (arguably more important) aspects of team coaching: motivating, bonding and inspiring a group of players.
It is no coincidence that the more toxic Ange’s public persona became, the poorer the team played. We are prone to forget that Ange had only (really) worked in Australia with A-League quality players (or youth players).
Relating to and inspiring elite sportsmen is a unique interpersonal skill but can be developed over time. Putting someone with the experience of inspiring Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben near the cream of Australian talent can only be a blessing.
A very relatable scenario was recently provided by Uruguayan great Diego Forlan, in an interview aired by The Asian Game podcast (11/3/2018), where he discussed the mentality required for this new club (Hong Kong’s Kitchee) to succeed as underdogs in their Asian Champions League group.
He likened this mindset required to the ‘Uruguayan mentality’, a part of the national identity of the sport. In a nation of 3.5 million, Uruguay prides itself on its aggression expressed by ferocity at the ball and strict defensive structure.
In stark contrast to the results achieved by Postecoglou’s Socceroos in the 2014 World Cup, the Uruguayan ‘philosophy’ is to counter with speed, to be extremely frugal at the back and to step-up and never concede. The results of this ‘philosophy’ at the international stage are extraordinary. Craig Foster likes to cite ‘philosophy’ as an essential launch pad for any small nation in building their international credentials.
What Foster rarely discusses is the merits of one style over another, outside of an oblique allusion to Australia’s fighting culture. Uruguay prove that one can fight, run and frustrate as a unit (and win) without holding possession, because this style suits a team that can’t hold the ball as natively as their big rivals (think Brazil, Argentina etc.) and plays to their strengths of speed, passion and willingness to work. Now who does that sound like?
Fundamentally the team needs to be managed by a human being, not a philosophy. Foster’s only public commentary about this is that we missed a trick with Marcelo Bielsa. That might have been a great move – but if (even theoretically) he wasn’t available who could lead our philosophic revolution?
Could we offer the job to Ralf Rangnick and become a step-child in the Red Bull family? I’m sure the FFA could front one of the new A-League expansion spots to Red Bull to get the job done.
‘RazenBallsport South Melbourne Hellas’ could be the bridge between old and new that the A-League needs! But if Ralf was too happily employed to consider the Socceroos, what are we left with? How about Kevin Muscat – a coach with mid-tier A-League experience who has never coached elite sportsmen?
Tony Popovic who has recently conspicuously failed in his first foreign job? And, dare I add, a ‘pragmatist’ in the Arnold (or BvM mould). Could anyone in their right mind really see these coaches as better fits for a World Cup tournament then a man who has coached to a final?
So is it more valuable to the development and success of the national team(s) (at all levels) to stick to a philosophy lead by poor tacticians who make it easy for opposition teams to break down?
Who is in charge of helping Postecoglou and Milicic work through the video and game-theory and to wrestle games back in our favour? As the game evolves in this country, is it productive to have a play a system that could be so easily deconstructed and shut-down? What about Ange’s other flaws? Were management consultants or yoga grand masters hired in to help him better deal with media scrutiny?
This all seeks to highlight the over-simplification of the SBS anti-Bert campaign. All game plans have strengths and weaknesses. Merging the reality of Ange’s gameplay with a philosophic debate about possession football is extremely dangerous and ignores the lessons we can learn from Ange’s weaknesses.
The most painful example of this appeared in Lucy Zelic’s embarrassing ‘exclusive’ with Bert Van Marwijk, when she challenged him on whether he would continue with Ange’s ‘successful’ back 3. Not only did Ange’s shift to a back three coincide with his worst period as coach, and was verily derided by fans on social media, it exemplified the blurring of philosophy and tactics. Bert’s dismissive response came on behalf of a nation of Socceroos supporters, disillusioned by the quality of the football media.
SBS have created a vicious cycle of analysis that they are now trapped in. They have ceded real insight into tactical analysis of the national team in favour of conceptual drivel. Craig Foster and his SBS colleagues want to be the vanguard for change in the country – in the footsteps of the grand patriarchs Johnny and Les.
However, it is tragic that a once bright media hope and patriarch in waiting – Foster – has now become a sad parody of the football evangelist he hopes to be.