Give me four years to teach the children, and the seeds I have sown shall never be uprooted.
Slightly different versions of this quote by Vladimir Lenin began appearing in print in the 1920s, some using less flowery metaphors, others without any imagery at all.
It’s tempting, if we were to cast a present-day re-imagining, to see Ange Postecoglou with moustache and goatee clipped, standing at the platform in Sverdlov Square, filling the role of the doomed Lenin with all the comfort with which he might fill his very own skin. “Give me four years to teach the children,” he’d say, “about wingbacks and false-nines, and the seeds I have sown shall never be uprooted, as long as the Waratahs don’t play on the grass the night before my children do.”
More than four years on from Postecoglou taking the helm as Socceroos manager, and there is a similar sense of lost idealism, of a revolution that saw us take steps as one toward a sunny vista pasted up there in front of us that has now lost all stick and begun to flap horribly off the wall, revealing cold, rutted bricks that have halted all progress.
That future we had fixed in view; did it exist, and was it in reach? How many steps have we taken since Brazil 2014? When did our feet begin to slip from underneath us?
We’ll end the casting session here, but it bears mentioning one more thing; unlike Lenin, Postecoglou wasn’t cut down by a stroke or offed in some clandestine leadership purge. He willingly applied the martyr’s razor to his own throat.
Ange’s first competitive game saw him field a team starkly different to the one he sent out four years later. There was no swan dive into the ideological deep end; a reactive, fairly structured 4-2-3-1 settled into a stance in Australia’s first 2014 World Cup game against Chile, largely working without the ball, focused on disruption and sudden transition.
For a manager relieved to some degree of responsibility and expectation, who had deliberately picked a young, untested team to experiment with, this wasn’t particularly experimental.
No, this was Ange – perhaps not yet bold enough to propose anything too unusual – at his most pragmatic. Chile were a phenomenal counter-attacking team, and so the correct counter-move was to sit back, draw them out, and use their own system against them. If the South Americans saw gaps of free pasture in front of them, the very sight of open green would kick them up into their more dangerous gears. In theory, Australia’s system was designed to minimise those gaps. Unfortunately, Chile punctured through for their first and second goals within the first 15 minutes.
At the other end, the only progress Australia made was through Matt Leckie and Tommy Oar dashing up the wings in transition situations. Australia’s goal came from a spilled moment of poor defending, with Chile clearing only to a 50-50 situation that Ivan Franjic won. Franjic then crossed, having seen Tim Cahill wisely adhere himself to the dogged but minute Gary Medel. From that point, an accurate cross – which is exactly what was delivered – was all that was needed to ensure another wonderful Cahill header.
2014 wasn’t particularly experimental. No, this was Ange at his most pragmatic.
Cahill had a goal scrubbed off for offside early in the second half, another header, coming from a slick transition in which Leckie swooped a cross in at the first opportunity. This sort of 1+1=2 arithmetic almost seems a novelty, knowing how Ange’s reign would turn out.
The Socceroos’ main offensive strengths were the straight-line speed of Oar and Leckie, and the heading ability of Cahill. Traditional wing-play with early and frequent crossing is the most obvious and best way of maximising those strengths.
All of Australia’s promise in the second half was based around Cahill as an aerial focal point; the panic he sent rippling across the out-matched Chilean defence caused only good things, and they were playing with that firmly in mind every time they romped forward.
In the next group stage match against the Netherlands, the gameplan was largely unchanged. It was more difficult to make patient, slow progress up the pitch, especially in the interior of the field, so slapped passes and frenetic exchanges up the flanks, or lofted balls into Cahill, were more often seen. Again, Leckie and Oar’s straight-line sprints were the best method of piercing through the lines.
When Cahill scored his famous equaliser a minute and nine seconds after Arjen Robben had opened the scoring, it was again the product of an early cross from a wide position. Ryan McGowan hit the cross first time, and it looped onto Cahill’s boot. An astonishing goal that will go down as probably Cahill’s greatest ever.
These – along with a battering from Spain – were Ange’s first competitive games in charge; a baptism of fire. The second half against Chile and the all-action performance against the Dutch were early episodes from which positive lessons could indeed be drawn. But it was the style of play, not how successful it was, that is most noteworthy. It was a scheme that was rapid and reactive, that valued width, was keen on early crosses, and relied on Cahill’s aerial abilities.
It set a quite distinct tone. That tone would change.
The 2015 Asian Cup saw Postecoglou reshape his midfield. Against superior opposition in the World Cup, the Socceroos has played with two dedicated holding midfielders. At home, now overseeing his second tournament, Postecoglou relaxed this system, moving one of those 6s forward into an attacking midfield position. The formation now more resembled a 4-1-2-3; everything was shifted up the pitch, with the wide attackers coagulating with the striker to form a pressing trident, supported by the two attacking midfielders. There was just the one screener in front of the traditional back four.
The players Ange selected for the two attacking midfield roles also espoused a new sense of tactical freedom, specifically a freedom to improvise. In the opening group game win over Kuwait, a romping 4-1 triumph, Massimo Luongo and James Troisi filled these roles, both of them forward-thinking players, particularly the latter. There was a more conservative version of this partnership seen in the next game, a 4-0 drubbing of Oman with Luongo and Matt McKay as the more advanced midfielders, this time ahead of Mark Milligan as the screener. Finally, a third iteration with Milligan and Luongo ahead of Jedinak – the most cautious, least offensively-minded version – was seen in the later rounds, including the semi-final and final victories.
The constant was Luongo. He was player of the tournament, a revelation for Australia, and his rise was emblematic of a shift in Postecoglou’s thinking. His ability to negotiate tight midfield spaces with quick feet and clever body-shielding opened up a new world of possibilities for the Socceroos. Suddenly the space out on the wings wasn’t as vital, because Luongo could create space for himself in the centre.
Ange had toyed with combinations in the middle, some involving Bresciano, others with Troisi, but Luongo combined the soft touch and passing vision of the former with the mobility, dribbling and ball-advancement skills of the latter. He was the ideal midfielder, and it meant you could pair him with players like Milligan or Jedinak and not be too conservative.
Of course, the most eye-catching example of these skills in practice was his goal in the final against South Korea, controlling a pass speared at him and turning fluidly, before shooting with venom from distance. That opening goal in the final was taken just before half time, but Luongo had been a nuisance all half, active and mobile, winning tackles and playing in teammates, the image of modern versatility.
The knock-on effects of Luongo’s presence were clear; it’s no wonder Tommy Oar was no longer as vital an element. Robbie Kruse’s intelligent movement and subtle sensing of channels and corridors of space was more valuable than Oar’s motorised, sideline-adhered pace. The straight-line wing-play that had been the primary feature of Australia’s attacking scheme in the World Cup was now diluted by a more fluid, less compartmentalised front three. Kruse and Leckie installed on either side of Tim Cahill was the first choice arrangement in the Asian Cup, and against the UAE in the semi-final, the advantages of this were immediate apparent.
Firstly, the two wingers were swapping sides frequently, and occasionally were seen briefly interchanging with Cahill – who was for most of his career a midfielder. Both wide men were dropping back into the deeper midfield to collect and lay-off passes, often completing a one-two with a motoring Luongo. They would slide into the interior to create room for the overlapping fullbacks. They would slip forward into an auxiliary second-striker’s role, to collect knock-downs from Cahill headers.
Having arranged a largely one-track, outside-in offensive scheme a year earlier, this was Ange really flexing his tactical muscles in more comfortable surrounds with a squad he’d had time to marinate with.
Trent Sainsbury’s passing was also more valuable under this new scheme. When the wings are relied on to birth the majority of the chances, passing out of defence is less vital; you don’t have to be Franco Baresi to clip balls out wide or shift the passing responsibility to your fullbacks. But passing through the middle, making sure to select and find teammates in positions to turn and make progress? Well, Sainsbury’s skills were crucial now, and Alex Wilkinson – who had been Matthew Spiranovic’s first-choice partner at Brazil 2014 – was replaced. Sainsbury played the pass in the final that allowed Luongo to turn and open the scoring.
Postecoglou earned a sizeable cache of goodwill at the Asian Cup. He would, however, go on to exhaust it.
Defensively – and this was highlighted especially clearly in the final – Australia benefited greatly from playing both Jedinak and Milligan; although stationed ahead of Jedinak when Australia had the ball, Milligan could drop back to add to the shield in front of the defensive line. Son-Heung Min was a thorn in Australia’s side in the final, cutting in from the right, slaloming across the edge of Australia’s box. In these situations, having an extra man to drop into that zone, warding him away, was important.
Offensively and defensively, the midfield had become more fluid since Brazil 2014, with fewer strictly defined roles, designed to accentuate the multi-talented players that comprised it.
Of course, the past hadn’t been totally abandoned. Both of Australia’s goals against the UAE came from situations in which the team were purposefully profiting from the attention Tim Cahill’s presence – aerially, in the case of the first – was drawing. At this point, with Cahill aged 35, this reliance wasn’t hugely troubling.
The team’s goal scorers in this tournament, a collection of a quite staggering ten different players, also helped mask this creeping concern, one that would end up strangling the Socceroos over the next few years. It was all well and good to celebrate the goal burden being successfully spread around, but McKay, Milligan, Sainsbury and Jason Davidson’s goals were all found money. The question smouldered in the background: if Cahill wasn’t scoring, could we safely rely on others to pick up the slack?
The Asian Cup victory was the crowning glory of the Postecoglou era. It was a wondrous achievement that rewarded Ange’s first tactical flourishes, gambits that will have solidified his confidence in his abilities to reshape this team to his will. He planed off the wings as the primary chance-creation areas and put emphasis on the centre, cut down on crosses, played more technically adept players who could survive in the tight interior of the pitch – and it all worked.
Postecoglou will have expected a sizeable cache of goodwill after having given the nation their first major international title, a cushion upon which he’d enjoy the support to tinker further, to innovate with even grander gestures. He had certainly earned that cache.
He would, however, go on to exhaust it.
Australia rolled through their first stage of World Cup qualifying with a run of five wins and a loss against lesser Asian opponents from June 2015 until March 2016. Ange trialled four or five different formations, and most of them sacrificed traditional wingers in favour of placing extra ball-players in the middle, with the fullbacks providing width. Things were going swimmingly, admittedly against lowly opposition.
In May 2016, they played England in a friendly, a match that saw Ange attempt to squeeze in all of Aaron Mooy, Massimo Luongo, Tom Rogic, Mark Milligan and Mile Jedinak into the same team for the first time. A diamond, with Jedinak at its base and Rogic at its tip, was arranged behind a striking duo of Kruse and Jamie Maclaren. Milligan was played as a centre back. The Roos controlled the tempo of play in that game, but were hit on the counter by England and lost 2-1.
The final round of qualifying began, and the Socceroos were pooled in a group with Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, and Thailand. It was arguably the more difficult of the two groups, but a bunch from which Australia could expect to emerge as one of the two best teams.
The first game on September 1 against Iraq saw Postecoglou field the same formation that had been trialled against England, except with Juric and Leckie as the front duo. The system saw Leckie play a very distinct role; when the ball was being worked up the right wing, he would fan out to become a right winger. He’d then be seen fanning out to the left to do the same when the ball was over there.
Even with Leckie’s efforts, the fullbacks were still shouldering a lot of the responsibility for providing width in attack, and were as such at risk if the ball was turned over. What compounded this risk was that often it was Jedinak and Mooy – two of the less mobile midfielders in the team – left with the job of chasing down a winger on the break.
The Roos gorged themselves on possession, and spent huge yawning periods passing across the middle, probing, darting forward, turning back and resetting. Considering the emphasis on central play, ironically the Roos’ best chances in the first half came from crosses from either flank, hit from only a few metres in from the sidelines. Luongo and Juric’s goals – the latter finally taking one of three excellent chances he had – meant Australia ran out 2-0 winners. Iraq had as many good chances on the break, but were too toothless to take them.
A 1-0 win over the UAE followed. After that, a real test; a trip to Saudi Arabia. The midfield diamond was gone, and a more familiar 4-2-3-1 was sent out, with Mooy partnering Jedinak behind Rogic, Leckie, Kruse and Juric. Luongo was on the bench, and Milligan was installed at right back. But, as was a hallmark of almost all of the formations Postecoglou formulated over this period, the passing focus was heavy and directed through the middle.
Both Leckie and Kruse took up positions that were closer to the interior than the flanks. Mooy and Rogic were practically stepping on each other’s toes. And Milligan, as a right back, was far more inclined to turn and pass inwards than dash down the sideline. Only Brad Smith at left back was playing like a wide player.
Saudi Arabia – stewarded by one Bert van Marwijk – scored early. Australia were a little rattled, and spent the next 15 minutes rocking back a little, still coming to grips with the cakey playing surface and the scorch of the partisan crowd.
The Roos eventually curled their fingers around the tempo of the contest. Only Smith was crossing early from wide positions, and Leckie and Kruse were winding back and forth across the central corridor, flashing for vertical passes from Jedinak or Mooy. Rogic was floating in space in that same central area and was sending ripples of panic through the crowd with every neat turn or subtle swivel. Trent Sainsbury levelled the scores direct from a corner just before half-time.
Australia then had to cope with the issues the win over Iraq had hinted at, but not fully exposed; all the control they exerted over the midfield was not being converted into goal-scoring chances at an acceptable rate. There were issues penetrating the final third, both in the middle and out wide, and there was always a latent fear the team were vulnerable to a sudden counter. A fine goal, set up by substitute Kruse and finished by Juric, mollified these fears for a while, but then the Saudis equalised themselves, and nearly took the lead a few minutes later. It ended 2-2.
That match began a run of three straight draws in World Cup qualifiers to end 2016, first against Saudi Arabia, then Japan, and then – most galling of all – away to last-placed Thailand. In each of these games, the same issues arose.
The Socceroos, aims clear and stated in this new phase, were finding their methods were being effectively countered by defensive, counter-attacking teams that took their chances. The goals dried up – only Juric’s strike against the Saudis was scored from open play. In those three draws, Australia had more of the ball, including a remarkable 65 per cent against Japan. The tenets of their attack were undermined by poor pitches, hot conditions, and cynical opponents.
The Thailand draw, in particular, was an ordeal. The hosts had the better of the second-half chances, could easily have won, and celebrated the draw like a victory anyway. Japan’s win over Saudi Arabia that evening meant they went level together at the top of the group; Australia could have been in first place had they won. This was a result that demanded an adjustment be made, and so Ange doubled-down.
The draw in Bangkok was in November 2016. The next qualifier, away to Iraq, wouldn’t arrive until March 23, 2017, and the months between had evidently been a period of deep rumination for Postecoglou. We saw his first departure from a back four; a back three, with two converted wingers in Kruse and Leckie as wingbacks.
Australia’s soft spots behind the wingbacks were immediately exposed. Turnovers meant Iraq were penetrating into the vacant space on the wings, and it became increasingly obvious that relying on Bailey Wright and Milos Degenek to corral pacy wingers on a slippery, uneven surface was dangerous. The defensive advantage you get by deploying advanced wingbacks – being able to apply sudden pressure high up the pitch, ideally winning the ball back early – is neutered when the opposition simply bypasses those pressing players by clipping passes over their heads.
Offensively, Australia were looking more coherent. There was a refreshing sense of clarity in wide areas, because Leckie and Kruse were clearly more comfortable staying on the wings. Luongo gave an extra ball-player to the midfield, and his intelligent movement and soft touch was an asset. Juric was alone up front, a clear focal point. For all of that, the goal the Roos scored was a header direct from a corner.
The approach was unsuited to the opponent and the conditions; it seemed as though, when deciding what adjustment to make following the Thailand match, Ange had waved away the pragmatic light shining in, and retreated further into his own hypothesising. When the game ended in another damaging draw, he dismissed concerns that the system simply wasn’t compatible with the current needs, obstacles and pressures of the situation.
“Them playing direct helped their cause. There was a lot of second balls and scrambling. It’s not how we want to play our football,” Postecoglou told Fox Sports, seemingly oblivious to the fact that opponents rarely give a hoot how Australia want to play their football.
“It’s got nothing to do with the system,” he said. “When they’re knocking long balls and it’s a contest in the air, it’s irrelevant what system you’re playing. It’s about winning the ball in that area and in the second half, it just seemed every time they’d knock a long ball, they’d win the first header and we’d be scrambling to try and get control of it to get control of the game.”
Really, anyone watching will have seen that sudden long-ball transitions, direct wing-play, and tactics designed to function best under difficult conditions were the exact elements needed to exploit the weaknesses present in Ange’s system, and the fact that Iraq gleefully employed them – as had previous opponents – wasn’t surprising in the least.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere surrounding the campaign had turned gusty, with shrill squalls blowing in and buffeting Ange from all sides, pushing out all that sweet warm air that had gathered after the Asian Cup. A lot of this was unnecessary hand-wringing; Postecoglou had always stated how Australia needed to shake free of the plucky underdog tag. But now, being undone by other plucky underdogs, we were wracked by anxiety, watching a team punished for striving for ambitions that their feet couldn’t realise, and our eyes began flicking back to the comforts of the past.
This isn’t to say criticism of Ange’s tactics were unwarranted; there is no situation in which it is excusable to look so vulnerable to Thai counter attacks, and a manager’s failure to address glaring defensive frailties is always validly questioned. Mutiny had not yet arrived, but the air surrounding the next few qualifiers was fraught.
The 2-0 defeat of the UAE that followed was a tonic of sorts, but there were still concerning periods of that game, long periods even, when Australia were pinned back, yearning to play calmly out from defence but being unable to. The absence of Rogic, Luongo and Mooy from that starting XI, and the fact that forced Mark Milligan out of the back three, meant both the quality of the passers and the controlling touch of the recipients were lacking. Sainsbury was certainly hitting passes to teammates, but Troisi, Jedinak, Irvine and Smith were miscontrolling them.
“It’s not how we want to play our football,” Postecoglou said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that opponents rarely give a hoot how Australia want to play their football.
Again, there was the issue of open-play goals, with both strikes against the UAE headed in from corners. A win, but some of the same issues lingered. It was a similar story in the next match against Saudi Arabia – which featured a back four – a fairly manic 3-2 win in which two goals were gifted to the Roos, one from a torrid goalkeeping error, the other from a bit of Saudi defending so astonishingly lax it barely passed as defending at all. Those two goals, both scored by Tomi Juric, were pegged back by the Saudis, before Tom Rogic pinched the points with a booming drive from distance in the second half.
Both Saudi goals – the first coming from a driving run straight through the middle of the team, the second plundered in a swift counter attack that swooped from right to left – exposed a worrying softness in Australia’s defence. Still, the second half of that match was probably the most positive, vigorous attacking football Australia had played for some months.
What was most evident after these two wins – both played at home on good pitches, in good weather, in front of good, supportive crowds – was the vein of truth in Ange’s urgings about how his style was best suited not to the bogs of Tehran or Bangkok, but to the elite away days, against the ambitious, footballing teams. This would all pay off in the World Cup, and the results mostly supported this.
That thesis seemed sound until the next match, away to Japan, an encounter in which Australia could have secured automatic qualification. This was as close to an emulation of a World Cup match as you could hope for; away from home, on a good pitch, against a quality side, in a match with high stakes.
Japan exploded out of the blocks, trying hard to force an early error, pressing the Australian defence madly, it almost worked, with Spiranovic, Sainsbury and Milligan having to survive some nervy moments. After five minutes it subsided, as was certainly the hosts’ strategy.
Japan would go on to enjoy just 35 per cent of possession in that match, one they would win 2-0. To put that approach in perspective, in their previous eight qualifiers, they had dipped below 45 per cent of possession just once; against Australia in October 2016.
This was not the normal modus operandi for the Samurai Blue. No, this was a pragmatic decision, a tactical ploy purpose-built for Ange’s Socceroos; they were to give Australia the ball, defend deeply, and plunder on the counter. This was not two Asian aristocrats pitting virtuous footballing ideals against one another on the battlefield, the encounter Postecoglou had perhaps envisioned. Japan showed that defending deep and playing reactive football was not the exclusive practice of the cynical, weaker side, eager to scrounge on smash-and-grab scraps. No, this was simply the approach used by teams that wanted to get a result against Australia. And it worked for Japan.
Had Australia beaten Japan, perhaps fate would have teetered entirely on its axis. Would Ange have remained head coach for the World Cup? Who knows. This alternate timeline was zapped into ash when Japan scored their second goal, clinching qualification. It meant Australia’s automatic qualification hopes were now out of their hands.
They had to rack up a hockey score in the final game at home to Thailand and hope the Japanese could, at the very least, draw away to the Saudis in their final match. Instead, the Socceroos could only manage a hugely frustrating 2-1 win. They took 29 shots, could have put four or five past Thailand, but could only score twice. Not that it would have mattered. Japan lost to the Saudis, and the great conduit rushing us toward glorious Russia creaked, shifted, and diverted Australia down the playoff chute. Syria was first, then Honduras, both ties to be played over two legs.
It’s worth turning, now, to Cahill. It was October 2017, and the pressure on the Socceroos had been ratcheted up to nigh-unbearable levels. Since the 1-1 draw with Iraq back in March, Cahill had played 114 total minutes in the qualifying campaign, appearing almost exclusively as a substitute over a run of five competitive matches, plus a few quasi-competitive starts; one in a friendly defeat to Brazil, and in two of Australia’s Confederations Cup games.
He was being phased out, used as a super-sub. When the Syria tie began, Cahill hadn’t scored for the national team in over a year, and hadn’t seen out 90 minutes in 15 months. But, eventually, it was to him Postecoglou would turn, as the team were forced right up to the edge of oblivion.
Cahill was left out of the first leg against Syria – a team that had been propelled into the playoffs by the sickly sweet fumes of a fairytale story – which was played in Malacca, Malaysia. Here we saw Ange make a number of changes, some of which were met with grumbling satisfaction by an anxious supportership.
Leckie was restored to the attacking midfield, with Josh Risdon brought in the fill the right wingback role. Just as he had been in the final group game against Thailand, Brad Smith was left out, with Aziz Behich at left wingback. Smith, for all of his sporadic brilliance in attack, had shown over the course of the campaign to be a damaging defensive liability, not least in that crucial defeat to Japan.
As pleased as the interested public were with these decisions, there was the grumpy feeling that, now that everything was on the line, Ange was only begrudgingly abandoning his Leckie conversion project – suspected, true or not, to be one reason the open-play goals had dried up – and persistence with Smith – suspected, rightly, to be a contributing factor to the team’s defensive frailty – with the damage having largely been done.
That first leg was a repeat of what we had already seen what felt like countless times over the previous year. A hot, humid evening on a substandard pitch, a swollen share of possession for Australia, and a damaging draw against a physical, cynical and direct team.
Aaron Mooy made 101 passes against Syria; no Syrian player made more than 27. Mark Milligan was crunched twice in the opening ten minutes by lunging two-footers. Syria were found offside 12 times in the match, such was their eagerness to clip and run onto lofted passes. Australia managed 19 touches inside the opposition box; Syria managed 23 inside Australia’s.
Perhaps it was seeing Tomi Juric strike the same post twice with two shots in the same chance that convinced Ange that Cahill was now a necessity. The first leg finished 1-1, and although the away goal was nice, the result was largely met with more tortured huffing, head-shaking and hand-wringing. Would this be it, a dreary trudge toward failure, with the same self-imposed limp accenting every step?
Pressure folded in on itself, condensing in a crunch for the second leg in Sydney. Ange left Mooy out of the starting XI, to the chagrin of almost everyone, but Cahill started as captain. Syria scored first, a counter-haymaker landed in the opening throes after the Socceroos had begun the match dominantly, and Smith – for some reason returned to the XI – went down injured a few minutes later.
Australia were in a shambles, facing elimination, dizzy and desperate. So confident in his pre-match decision, instead of bringing on Behich as a like-for-like replacement for Smith, Ange brought on Mooy and reshuffled the team to allow for him, sending Kruse to left wingback. This was the manager, with the country watching, admitting he’d made an error, papering over it, and perhaps only doing so once an injury had forced his hand.
Cahill equalised within a few minutes of the substitution, heading home after a neat slipped pass down the right flank was crossed in early by Leckie, a move of real swiftness and directness, the kind of sequence that had been the hallmark of Ange’s approach in the 2014 World Cup, but had since been unused, growing dusty and stale.
It catalysed the team, and they regained total control of the match. But the bluntness that had foiled dominant performances before was still plaguing them here, and so the match dragged on into extra time. With ten minutes left, all substitutes used and penalties looming, Robbie Kruse clipped a hopeful cross to the penalty spot. It was met by Cahill, whose straining neck muscles and prodigious leap punched it into the net, winning the game and the tie, his 50th goal for his country.
Considering his minimal involvement up until that point, this was a Herculean effort by Cahill, a vigorous performance to haul this team away from the precipice. Syria nearly spoiled things, striking the post in the dying minutes of the match. But it was Australia who would progress.
In between the Syria and Honduras ties, it was reported Ange was intending to step down. The reports were true.
The hazy delirium of that victory soon gave way to a mutinous thread that had thickened into a gnarled, coiled rope, lashing Ange with caustic criticism. Mooy’s exclusion and hasty reinsertion had dripped with indecision at a critical moment. All the progress Ange had promised – and somewhat delivered – at the start of his tenure was now cast in the light of yet another Cahill rescue mission.
With his reservoir of goodwill now long evaporated, Postecoglou’s inability to devise a functional game-plan around conditions, context, and opponent had almost been fatal. In the end, it was largely thanks to the belated inclusion of an ageing striker, a symbol of the past Ange had striven to move on from, that kept the side on course for Russia.
The next tie with Honduras – quite an awful team, and one that played accordingly – was far less competitive, although it also saw a drawn first leg, played in Honduras, on another shocking pitch. The 3-1 home win, on the other hand, was a fine stroll; Honduras never threatened, and on a surface that didn’t look like it had been mortared instead of watered pre-match, Australia’s supremacy was allowed to shine through. Cahill started in that second leg too, despite an ankle injury.
In between the Syria and Honduras ties, it was reported widely that Postecoglou was intending to step down, regardless of the outcome of the playoffs. These reports, which were left unaddressed by Ange and the FFA, turned out to be true. He resigned on November 22, 2017.
In the nine qualifiers from March to November 2017, Ange Postecoglou used 22 different players and three different formations in the nine starting XIs he sent out – more players if you count the different substitutes used. Considering the importance of this run of games, a run that was to effectively make or break Australia’s chances, that is a staggering amount of flux.
Ange’s tactical integrity, once reinforced by the faith of the nation, had crumbled, and so too had his journey. A most tumultuous chapter of Socceroos history was brought to a close.
The FFA were now in a difficult position; a manager was needed to come in, assess a team with significant flaws, and prepare them for a World Cup.
Bert van Marwijk, as well-equipped a firefighter as anyone who was available, was hired and got to work doing van Marwijk-type things, primarily focusing on how best to arrange the team to prevent defensive miscarriage.
Having lost an attacking ideologue – whose entire approach was based around, in his words, “not taking a backwards step” – the FFA went and hired his opposite.
When one looks at the place Russia 2018 now holds in the grand timeline of Australian football, the van Marwijk era is one that might one day be all but excised from relevancy. It was a period that began in January and finished in June, when the Socceroos were stewarded through a World Cup that had been torturous to gain entry to.
The months of trauma were, as it turned out, for precious little, three matches in which the country’s candle of hope briefly flickered before being pinched out. There were no tactical discoveries made, and apart from the emergence of Daniel Arzani, no revelations that will persist into the future.
Van Marwijk, as is his wont, arranged the team in a manner that prioritised defensive shape and cautious playmaking. It was a system in which scoring was considered so secondarily Australia ended up having to rely exclusively on penalties.
He installed a back four. He played with two no.6s. Rogic was a slightly isolated no.10, and Leckie and Kruse were the defensive-minded wingers, often tucking inside to receive passes through the middle. Against France and Denmark – if not for injury, it would have likely been against Peru, too – van Marwijk played a workmanlike striker, Andrew Nabbout, who defended from the front but never looked like scoring. Nothing about the scheme was reckless, or chancy, or bold.
There was never really a sense van Marwijk would depart from his plan. Unsurprisingly, Australia were blunt; when Ange’s team was built to maximise the little edge we had, often labouring through matches unable to make that crucial cut, why would Bert’s be any sharper?
Still, the Denmark game, poised for 50 minutes at 1-1, lingers in the mind as the best example of just how rigid van Marwijk was, how loathe to improvisation, how tactically unambitious. A point, two goals, and a group-stage exit. That was the reward we got for surviving that marathon qualifying campaign.
In an opinion piece Postecoglou wrote in the immediate wake of the Roos’ World Cup exit, he framed his time in charge of the national team as the plight of a doomed revolutionary:
“By 2017, I came to the realisation that in fact, rather than me riding on a tidal wave of change, I was in essence on a personal crusade. That did not sit well with me…”
In his article, Ange bemoaned the nation’s lack of courage; we should have followed faithfully behind him as he led the country’s footballing psyche away from the pauper’s comforts of underdoggery and into an ambitious new supremacy.
“We can’t fear failure or being exposed. The Socceroo name alone should give us that strength,” he wrote.
What he seemingly still fails to realise is that we were in fact with him, we were right there behind him, many of us until the bloody end. But there is a threshold to the trauma the faithful can take as a result of their leader’s unwavering commitment to his ideals. Once that threshold is breached, the bonds of their leader’s commitment turn from virtue into vice.
Ange felt he lost his mandate, and was forced to walk away, but he was not sacked. A manager, even one who detests the idea of vacating one’s ideological digs as much as Postecoglou, cannot expect blind, mute allegiance from the masses in the face of a qualifying campaign as brutal as the one he was the architect of. Now, from the privileged position of having never actually taken on the responsibility of proving this assertion, Ange argued:
“We wanted to play possession football on pitches that were barely public park standard. We wanted to press and play at a high tempo in 40-degree temperature. We had to face teams that just sat back and were happy to pounce on our mistakes,” Ange wrote, all reasons in his mind for our struggles.
“Our game was designed so that we could be effective on good pitches, in good weather against opposition that wouldn’t sit back – at a World Cup!”
One wonders whether Ange watched France play at the 2018 World Cup and win it at a canter by sitting back and pouncing on teams’ mistakes; did he even register them playing the exact brand of reactive, defensive-minded, deep-set football that Japan so expertly undid his own team with in that pivotal qualifier in Saitama?
At the end of his article, he even mentions a piece of Didier Deschamps criticism, that his Roos were “too offensive and open”, wearing it now as a badge of honour. One wonders how Ange can, at this point and on this subject, talk of courage when he abandoned his team a few months before a World Cup.
The Postecoglou era is a story of a wonderful, innovative manager who descended too deep, who ruminated too furiously, who in the end lost sight of reality in a cloud of hypothetical football. It is, in other words, a tragedy.
Tactically, the team that performed so admirably against the Netherlands in 2014 was a very different team to the one that won the Asian Cup in 2015, which was, in turn, a very different team to the one that failed to beat Thailand in 2016, and likewise was a very different team to the one team that lost to Japan in 2017.
The seeds Ange sowed were uprooted the moment he walked away, and now Graham Arnold has a bare patch of dirt to sprinkle his own onto.
Written by Evan Morgan Grahame
Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been an Expert columnist on The Roar since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.
Editing and design by Daniel Jeffrey
Unless otherwise stated, all images are credit: Getty Images