Although Australia defeated Kuwait in Graham Arnold’s first match in charge, the two friendlies against South Korea and Lebanon felt like the ‘true’ start of the new tenure, as the first opportunity to view the new era at close hand.
As with Sydney FC, Arnold has implemented a clear playing style with the national team.
The starting point is a 4-2-3-1 formation, which provides the building blocks for some of the key principles of Arnold’s style of play: structure, rotations, and playing in between and behind opposition lines.
The key players in the build up are the two central midfielders, a pairing of Aaron Mooy and Massimo Luongo against South Korea, and a surprise combination of Jackson Irvine and Mustafa Amini for the Lebanon match.
In both games, these midfielders rotated into certain areas of the pitch to either get free and face forward themselves, or disrupt the opposition defensive structure to create forward passing options to more advanced teammates.
An example of such a rotation was the movement of Luongo into wide, right-sided positions. He was often able to receive passes in this zone away from his direct opponent, with the added benefit of releasing right-back Josh Risdon high up the pitch, where he was highly effective.
Luongo also sometimes dropped in between the two centre-backs, supporting the ball carrier and creating a clear, structured base from which the side could build up patiently.
Against Lebanon, Amini played the Luongo role, helping the Socceroos move the ball from one side to the other with careful, methodical possession. Arnold’s style of play in the build up is about structured, patient and controlled possession: creating opportunities to move the ball forward through rotations to disrupt the opposition defensive block.
If the Sydney FC midfield pairing of Brandon O’Neill and Josh Brillante can be considered the gold standard for this approach, then there was one area in which this pairing excels that was noticeably absent for the national side.
That is the concept of rest defence – the positioning of players behind the ball when the ball is played forward where they can stop the opposition from counter-attacking effectively if possession is turned over.
This often involves blocking passing lanes to opposition strikers and attacking midfielders, or being close to them, as to be able to ambush quickly and protect the team from dangerous breaks.
This is an area Arnold will no doubt address in future matches, as there were moments where the four midfielders utilised across the two games were poorly positioned in rest defence and thus left the side exposed in the moment of transition.
Unsurprisingly, this was most noticeable with the somewhat ambitious pairing of Irvine and Amini. Even a poor Lebanon side were able to break through the centre on occasion.
The key giveaway to Australia’s poor rest defence was that the midfielders were often chasing ‘back’ to an opponent running with the ball in space, or, as in other moments, the central defenders were having to step forward and contest 1v1 battles against free attackers.
Nevertheless, the fluid movement of the midfielders created many opportunities for the Socceroos to move the ball into the final third and create goal-scoring opportunities. Again, rotations are important in this zone, with the front three moving into narrow positions to receive forward passes between the lines. The full-backs on both sides dart forward to provide width.
An interesting feature of the Socceroos movement in the final third was the positioning of the 10 (Tom Rogic vs South Korea; Mooy vs Lebanon). In both games, they tended to drift towards the left, getting off the shoulder of the opposition right-sided central midfielder.
When this occurred, the left-winger would move into the channel opposition between centre-back and full-back, serving a dual function – pinning back the defenders so they can’t step forward and close down the no.10, but also being able to make runs in behind the defence when the 10 did receive.
The best example of this was Awer Mabil’s chance inside the penalty box against Korea, following an incisive turn and killer pass by Rogic.
The player that most impressed in the final third, though, was newcomer Martin Boyle. His athletic qualities, including a rapid change of pace and powerful running, were encouraging, but so too was his ability to receive and turn in tight spaces between defenders.
There are question marks about the ability of Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse to operate effectively in these congested playmaking positions, and Boyle could provide something different in this role.
Another intriguing trademark of Arnold’s teams is occupying the opposition back line with two forwards, which was noticeable against Lebanon.
Although the attackers were highly fluid and interchangeable (Boyle ended up on the left, right and centre inside the opening ten minutes), there seemed a clear mandate that within the rotations, one player had to move forward and play higher, alongside striker Tom Juric.
As alluded too earlier, this is important as it ‘pins’ back defenders – if they step forward it creates gaps in the defence that can be exposed – which in turn creates space for the attackers playing in between the lines. It also gives Juric the freedom to drop in and receive passes in front of defenders, something he did regularly but to no great effect.
Although Arnold’s style of play has its critics, it is difficult to argue that it is not sophisticated. There are many layers to the way his team constructs attacks, whilst remaining balanced to stop opposition counter-attacks.
Whilst there are many components which the new coach will need to refine, the building blocks are certainly there for how he wants the team to play. It will be exciting to see how it continues to evolve moving towards the Asian Cup.