Was the Socceroos midfielder hard done by?
Australia’s 3-2 defeat of Syria in their final group game in the AFC Cup had resonance beyond the scoreline and the official booking of the Socceroos into the next round.
The game, both on the park and off it, represented something more significant than we may have perceived in 2006 when we officially joined the AFC.
Our inability to qualify for the World Cup for decades was widely seen as a product of our isolation from regular “competitive” football – Johnny Warren espousing this at length in his autobiography. It was too much to expect the Socceroos to knock off Uruguay, Argentina, a (then excellent) Scotland or even Iran in two matches when we had no elite readiness.
2006 was a turning point in more ways than one. The amazing World Cup run was the shock therapy this nation of football defeatists and masochists needed.
But our subsequent dumping out of the 2007 Asian Cup reminded us that we needed a plan to go along with the golden generation. The Orange revolution (kicked off by Guus Hiddink) was reinvigorated after the 2007 failure, with Pim Verbeek becoming Socceroos coach and Han Berger later appointed as technical director.
While Pim was a pragmatist somewhat in the Guus mould, Berger’s curriculum, launched in 2009, was more Cruyffian in approach, espousing possession, short passing, pressing and fluid transitions from the back. It seemed miles away from the 2006 World Cup heroes, but it was the step change this emerging nation felt it needed.
Now Han Berger will have watched the game against Syria with a sense of accomplishment. Just under ten years after sitting six defensive players in Germany’s midfield in Durban, Australia have now become the object of defensive set-ups. And against Syria, our transformation was completed, playing along the ground through a temperamental 10 while the Syrians sought to out-Socceroo us.
When we joined the AFC the level of tactical sophistication from pundits (and presumably coaches) revolved around our “physicality”, our size and our ability to threaten in the air from set pieces. We had Josh Kennedy we could throw on (as we did in 2006 against Japan), and if in doubt we could pump balls into the box for headers or knock downs.
And, history will show that it worked…or at least it famously did a couple of times, in particular in the 83rd minute against Iraq in Sydney in 2013 to put us through to Brazil by the skin of our teeth.
On Wednesday morning Syria executed their own Josh Kennedy protocol. They had 40% possession but won more than half the aerial duels. 26% of their passes were long balls (to our 15%), and 8% of their passes were crosses (to our 3%). As a result, their passing accuracy was a relatively poor 63% to our 79% – but that won’t have mattered to Syria.
For the most part, their game plan worked. They forced 22 clearances from an often scrambling Socceroo back four (to our 20), and any time the ball was in the area of Omar Al Soma, Omar Khrbin or Mohammad Osman (while he was on) the Australian defenders – and famously the referee in the 80th minute – seemed spooked and a little out of their depth.
Despite the Syrian approach being telegraphed by their team selection, Graham Arnold (who is a tactical cocktail of Pim and Han) resisted the urge to start with the bigger Matt Jurman at centreback, preferring to drop Mark Milligan back in Trent Sainsbury’s absence to kick-start attacking moves from the back, while switching to the more dynamic duo of Jackson Irvine and Massimo Luongo in central midfield.
Arnold rolled the dice on our ability to pressure the players up the field to add more attacking nous. And with the 3-2 scoreline, he will argue that he got it right. What will have most excited Arnold was that it was a character-building win.
We soaked up the Syrian pressure, defended with supreme concentration and found goals the other way. Compared to the listless effort against Jordan, the Socceroos looked on it and properly prepared to take on a team like Japan in the second round.
Indeed it was Tomi Rogic, a player who needs the ball at his feet, who was the difference. Under Guus or Pim one wonders how Rogic will have fared, but in the post-Berger Socceroos, Rogic’s feet are the key to unlock defences. And when we needed a goal in the dying minutes to put our progression on ice, his podiatric wizardry delivered.
It is a long way from Josh Kennedy’s head to Tomi Rogic’s instep in the literal and metaphorical sense. But the distance represents how far the Asian experiment has taken us as a football nation. Gone is the chatter about our height and muscular set pieces.
Instead, we’re trying to out-Asian Asian nations – teams that are roughly as good as us these days – in genuinely competitive fixtures. And wins like the Syrian one – when contrasted to the Jordan loss – confirms that when we need to assert ourselves in games, we can.