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The midfield zone was the area of greatest strength during the Ange Postecoglou era, but also the most problematic.
At the start of his regime, he had Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan, Matt McKay, James Holland, Oliver Bozanic, Mark Bresciano and Tom Rogic to choose from for the three midfield roles in a 4-2-1-3 formation.
Bresciano was the link player, knitting the side together with his clever movement and composure in possession.
Before the 2015 Asian Cup, however, Postecoglou wanted to ease the team’s reliance on Tim Cahill, and create a more fluid, attack-minded system which could allow the central midfielders to get forward and rotate with the front three for higher-quality attacking opportunities.
This manifested in a 4-3-3 with ‘two 8s’, one of whom was Massimo Luongo, who broke through at the Asian Cup itself with his exciting blend of thrust and energy from midfield. Luongo’s goals, breaking forward from midfield, typified the changes Postecoglou made in this zone.
Aaron Mooy did not even make the Asian Cup squad, but his emergence as an elite playmaker at Melbourne City then Huddersfield, meant Postecoglou had to evolve the Socceroos formation to fit him in.
At first, this involved a 4-4-2 diamond, with Rogic, Mooy, Luongo and Jedinak a surprisingly strong spine for a team said to be lacking for talent.
Yet the diamond didn’t offer natural width high up the pitch, which in turn reduced the space between the lines for the midfield playmakers. Coupled with the arrival of yet another talented midfielder, Jackson Irvine, who has the relatively unique ability among Socceroos midfielders to be able to run in behind from the #10 position, it meant Postecoglou turned to the 3-2-4-1 formation.
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Although controversial, the box midfield was logical, with Jedinak, Mooy and Luongo all better suited to the deeper #6 roles, and Irvine, Rogic and even Robbie Kruse able to play in the advanced #10 positions.
However, the box did not necessarily suit the unique attributes of all the midfield players. In fact, we had an early insight into this when Postecoglou moved Mooy into the #10 position against Germany in the Confederations Cup. Mooy was highly ineffective in this position, constantly dropping back towards the ball and removing Australia’s overload between the lines made possible by the unorthodox 3-2-4-1.
Hence, Postecoglou changed the format of the midfield quartet for the knockout ties against Syria and Honduras, using a diamond. In this setup, Luongo and Mooy were two 8s, moving between defenders to find space, allowing Irvine to play higher up, running in behind striker Tomi Juric.
Clearly, Postecoglou had to do a lot to try and accommodate his midfielders into a system – arguably, too much. The constant evolution of the formation does signify the wider issue, which is the difficulty in fitting the likes of Mooy, Luongo, Rogic and Jedinak into a system.
Bert van Marwijk’s approach is more straightforward. He has never strayed from a 4-2-3-1 formation, where the deep midfield pair sit in front of the defence, protect the centre-backs and control the tempo of the game through slow ball circulation from side to side. The #10 plays higher, between the lines – the link in the centre of the pitch to the front third who can turn in tight spaces and focus on creating chances.
That suits Rogic, who has only impressed in fits and starts but is tactically the most suitable player for what Bert van Marwijk wants in attack. Rogic has the ability to receive under pressure between the lines, and turn away from defenders with his deft change of pace. What he lacks is the mobility to press energetically from the front or get in behind defences in the way Irvine can, which is partly why the latter felt like such a breath of fresh air off the bench against Hungary.
Yet Irvine is not as individually talented as the likes of Mooy and Luongo, who face their own battle to make the starting XI. The duo started both recent friendlies together in the deeper 6 positions, their nominal positions.
Luongo’s strength is receiving in tight areas to dribble forward, or driving at defenders with the ball – he’s more about energy and thrust than creativity. Mooy, on the other hand, is best when on the ball with time and space in deep positions, playing clever through balls forward and pinging long diagonals to teammates getting in behind the defence. As foreshadowed by the Germany game, he isn’t as skilled playing higher up and receiving under pressure.
Therefore, it is not logical to push either Mooy or Luongo of them forward into the #10 position, but if they both play deep, where does that leave Jedinak?
On paper, the captain is the most logical player for Van Marwijk’s style of play – physical, disciplined and safe with his passing, able to protect the back four and maintain the tempo of the game. He did not start against Czech Republic or Hungary, but that can likely be attributed to managing his fitness, and it seems implausible, particularly after a solid second-half performance against the latter, that he will not start against France.
So, Mooy or Luongo? Mooy is the better player, having completed a fine season with Premier League underdogs Huddersfield, but question marks remain about his best position for the national team. Arguably, Mooy, as a deep-lying playmaker, is best when his side controls possession – which the Socceroos won’t do against any of the three teams in their group – but also when there is space in behind the opposition defence, as he is capable of starting counter-attacks with early, incisive forward passes. That makes sense given Australia’s likely route to goal via counter-attacks.
Yet Luongo impressed when partnered with Jedinak for a March friendly against Colombia. Van Marwijk indicated as much.
“He was one of our best players,” said the Dutchman.
“He understands it, he knows the spaces and where he has to stand.
“He’s also strong. You can see the chance he had that he created himself, it was his quality. I was very satisfied about him.”
In many ways, Luongo’s energy, ability to cover ground quickly and take defenders on in tight spaces makes him a more logical tactical fit next to Jedinak.
On paper, there are arguments for and against both, which suggests Van Marwijk might be damned if he does, or damned if he doesn’t. Nevertheless, Australia’s chances in the World Cup might hinge on this decision.