Tom Rogic’s apparent inability to involve himself in the attacking play against Hungary is a symptom of Bert van Marwijk’s tactical scheme.
This is not to say Rogic shouldn’t shoulder some of the blame for his limp performances against the Czech Republic and Hungary, because the Celtic player is certainly guilty of wallowing in a sort of drifting malaise, that could be – if not solved – certainly be helped by a bit more self-propelled invention and industry.
But the disconnect between Rogic and his midfield colleagues is a problem that the system is creating.
Without possession, Australia are in a tight, structured 4-4-1-1, with Rogic defending behind Andrew Nabbout, ahead of a flat midfield. Here, wingers Matt Leckie and Robbie Kruse are relatively deep, able to help track wide runners, and support their full backs.
The rigidity of this defensive formation, and the risk it runs of letting unchecked opponents drift into dangerous positions between the lines, ahead of the defence and behind the oblivious midfield, is a separate concern.
When arranged this way, with plenty of men in midfield, it’s harder for the opponent to pick up and specifically neutralise Rogic. Obviously, the defensive stance is the starting formation for many of Australia’s counter-attacks, and indeed it was from a scattered counter-attack 25 minutes into the Hungary match that Rogic first glinted into view, albeit only fleetingly.
All our World Cup opponents are likely to demand more than the 43 per cent possession Hungary enjoyed, and so these counter-attacking situations – assuming we can defend without haplessness – may become more relevant at the big tourney.
But for now, when we have the ball and morph into the in-possession scheme, Rogic’s isolation is exacerbated. As was identified in the game against the Czechs, Australia’s centre backs and central midfielders take up a box formation in the deep midfield, as the full backs roam up the flanks and the wingers tuck into the interior – either dropping deep, or lingering either side of the striker.
As much as this mechanism allows for ease in possession for Mark Milligan, Trent Sainsbury, Mass Luongo and Aaron Mooy, giving them time and space to clip longer passes into the final third, it means the opposition can basically double-team Rogic in the middle of the pitch.
Hungary’s strikers were dropping off, allowing the Aussie centre backs to hold the ball unmolested, and were marshalling Mooy and Luongo on the turn. The Hungarian wingers had tracked the Australian full backs, and their full backs were marking Kruse and Leckie. This meant the entire central midfield – Krisztian Vadócz and József Varga – could drop back and double-up on Rogic.
I have illustrated the process here, in a clip from the first half; you can see Mooy and Luongo settle back into the box formation, as the full backs trot up the flanks. There’s Rogic in the middle, with two Hungarians next to him for company. The Hungary midfielders are even content to let a tucked-in Leckie come deep for the ball, signalling for a winger to pick him up so they can remain around No.23.
Rogic is, effectively, insulated by markers, making it difficult for the centre backs or central midfielders to find him with a pass. In fact, the system seems to be purpose-built to activate the flanks primarily, subjecting Australia’s best play-maker to isolation almost by design.
Up until the 40th minute against Hungary, Rogic had touched the ball in the opposition half a grand total of two times. A relative flurry of activity saw him garner another five touches in the five minutes before halftime, but Rogic was barely involved.
As for the rest of the game, well, he played 80 minutes of football and, according to Socceroos match data, attempted just ten passes.
Rogic isn’t some expendable element of the team, that we might regrettably sacrifice for the greater good; he’s perhaps our best player, certainly – with the possible exception of Daniel Arzani – the player most capable of delivering a sparkling moment of attacking incision.
One wonders exactly how strictly van Marwijk has instructed Rogic to hold that No.10 position when the team have the ball, because – apart from some fairly pedestrian lateral drifting – Rogic didn’t do much to solve his on-pitch exile.
He didn’t drop deep to collect off the centre backs. He didn’t charge forward to break the defensive line to coax out a long ball. He didn’t swap positions with Mooy. If the opposition are content to let the centre backs pass freely – and why wouldn’t they be, who knows, maybe a calamitous error will be gifted to them – it quickly becomes clear the excess markers will be sent to nullify Rogic.
Rogic, for all his talent and success in Scotland is not a player who can survive yawning spells of being uninvolved. His touch and passing degrade with inactivity, and so when his teammates do finally glimpse an avenue to pass to him, this happens.
The other problem is he provides little other than on-the-ball contributions; he doesn’t defend with relish – or, indeed, chutney – or put himself about, as it were. He doesn’t make unrewarded runs that stretch the defence into favourable shapes, like Robbie Kruse does. For a tall lad, he doesn’t win much in the air, and against Hungary he had as many fouls committed as he had duels won.
If the system around him is actively hindering Rogic’s very point as a player, what use is he in the starting XI? Why not have the physicality and athleticism of Jackson Irvine there, or a wildcard Arzani element?
Van Marwijk said again before the Hungary game that he has no time to experiment, but he really ought to rethink Tom Rogic’s place in the team.