Three minutes after the Socceroos’ heartbreaking 2-1 loss in Kazan, skipper Mile Jedinak pulled his troops aside after shaking hands with the victorious French side.
Addressing them arm-in-arm in a 23-man circle, he delivered a pointed message that received determined applause from a side that had just lost its opening World Cup clash.
Its contents were simple: we’re still on track, and today’s performance proved what we’re doing is working. He reiterated these points minutes later in an interview with SBS.
“We just didn’t have that luck. That’s football, we have to take the positives out of today and move on,” he said.
“If we maintain that form and discipline, structure, concentration throughout, let’s see where it gets us. I can’t fault the boys tonight.”
It was the perfect message from a leader: acknowledge the disappointment and move on immediately. Jedinak’s big-picture response was somewhat in contrast with that of his coach Bert van Marwijk, who lamented the rub-of-the-green in Kazan.
Without question the coach’s mood in front of the players could have been more reflective and, like Jedinak, would have asserted the importance of mentally grasping the next task.
The 2-1 result changes nothing in Australia’s pursuit of progressing from the group stage. Even the more optimistic members of the Socceroos camp would acknowledge that the French game was going to be exceedingly difficult to get something out of.
As it turned out, the Socceroos were hugely unlucky not to, with technology aiding a French opener which is still being debated by Australian and world football fans alike (for mine, it was a penalty). But the 2-1 loss is a positive not just for the admirable performance, but for the fact it was by just one goal.
Group stage progression – as was the case in 2010 – is often decided by goal difference. Former Socceroos keeper Mark Schwarzer reiterated the importance of the one-goal margin post-game.
“Goal difference is massive,” he said.
“We saw it in 2010, that first game killed us losing 4-0 to Germany. You pretty much have to win your next two games.”
Eight years ago the Socceroos finished the group stage equal on four points with Ghana, but their -3 goal difference (compared with Ghana’s goal difference of 0), ensured they were on the plane home early.
If France beat both Denmark and Peru by more than one goal, the Socceroos are in with a big chance of moving into the round of 16 should they turn in strong performances in the next fortnight. And given the relatively lacklustre performance by Les Bleus in last night’s opener, it’s likely their ‘billion dollar’ side will kick into gear in games two and three of the group stage. We can but hope.
Without predicting the thought-process of Bert van Marwijk and his coaching setup, it’s likely they are targeting four points; a win and a draw in the next two games. And the performance in France does nothing to suggest that’s not impossible.
Structurally, the Socceroos were immense in Kazan. Trent Sainsbury’s performance was nothing short of superb – one of Australia’s best ever individual defensive performances. Aaron Mooy was equally immense, clearly receptive to van Marwijk’s preference for a mobile, laterally shifting defensive midfield option. France captain Hugo Lloris paid tribute to Australia’s ‘compact defending’ post-game.
It was defensive poetry in motion for large parts of the game. Certainly for van Marwijk, who reiterated during the Antalya training camp his desire for fitness, structure and discipline. As a coaching gun for hire, he has been contracted to get results, not employ an enduring footballing philosophy. And given his short time with the squad, it’s clear his players have bought into it.
This philosophy starts from the top down; the fact that Socceroos number nine Andrew Nabbout had just four touches to half-time is emblematic of that. Naturally, the playing style adopted in Kazan won’t win many games, but the performance revealed a side with the temperament, fitness and concentration that will be tough to break down.
If the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann struggled to find pockets of space, then so will anything Denmark and Peru can throw up.