Ange Postecoglou's in­flu­ence will last de­spite un­sure end to ten­ure

The Guardian Australia - - Technology / Sport - Ante Ju­kic

For bet­ter or worse, what an in­di­vid­ual does at in­ter­na­tional level gen­er­ally leaves the most last­ing legacy in foot­ball. How fol­low­ers of the game view Lionel Messi, or Zico for his­tor­i­cal rel­a­tiv­ity, in com­par­i­son to Maradona is only one ex­am­ple.

Al­though his suc­cess with South Mel­bourne and Bris­bane Roar will be re­spected, Ange Postecoglou’s ten­ure with the Soc­ceroos will ul­ti­mately over­shadow it. Amid a tur­bu­lent pe­riod for Aus­tralian foot­ball in both tech­ni­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive senses, Postecoglou’s ide­ol­ogy at the game’s pin­na­cle will have the great­est im­pact. His suc­ces­sors, ul­ti­mately, will have to live up to it.

If one thing can be said with cer­tainty about Postecoglou, it’s that he knows how to back him­self. Pub­licly crit­i­cised, his man­age­ment style is char­ac­terised by an at­tack­ing, stylis­tic free­dom un­en­cum­bered by in­hi­bi­tion or re­serve. It showed in the Soc­ceroos’ 2-1 ex­tra-time win over Syria on Tues­day night, in both his start­ing lineup and in-game ad­just­ments.

Com­ing back to Syd­ney with a vi­tal away goal, Postecoglou’s pre­de­ces­sors would have di­rected their team to score. How­ever, most of those pre­de­ces­sors would not have risked de­fen­sive sta­bil­ity and con­ced­ing an away goal in the search for goals at the other end.Not so Postecoglou.

With the Aus­tralian game’s im­me­di­ate fu­ture at stake, he benched Aaron Mooy. So­cial me­dia went into melt­down. Then, closer to kick-off, his omis­sion took on a sec­ondary im­por­tance, when de­tails emerged of Postecoglou’s mid­field lineup.

Since the switch to a 3-2-4-1 for­ma­tion against Iraq, Aus­tralia’s mid­field has been con­ser­va­tively shaped, with two ad­vanced play­ers cre­at­ing the pass­ing out­let for two be­hind them.

On Tues­day, with Mark Mil­li­gan as the sole screener and dis­trib­u­tor from the deeper po­si­tion, the mid­field mor­phed into some­thing much more ad­ven­tur­ous. With the sole pur­pose of even fur­ther en­hanc­ing at­tack­ing flu­id­ity, James Troisi, Rob­bie Kruse and Tom Rogić would roam and in­ter­change po­si­tions in front of Mil­li­gan.

Space be­tween Syr­ian lines was found through­out the match, but the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of Postecoglou’s 1-3 mid­field ma­te­ri­alised first. In a sim­i­lar fash­ion to Yō­suke Ideguchi’s goal which sealed a 2-0 vic­tory for Ja­pan in Au­gust, an in­di­vid­ual er­ror pass-

ing out of de­fence ex­posed space in tran­si­tion. And,as Mil­li­gan com­pounded pres­sure on Jack­son Irvine be­fore Ideguchi’s strike, Miloš De­genek’s ini­tial pass cre­ated a break­down in pos­ses­sion. With Mil­li­gan dis­pos­sessed this time, Aus­tralia were wide open and Omar Al Soma did well to cap­i­talise in only the sixth minute.

Brad Smith’s in­juryin the next few min­utes paved the way for Mooy to come on, but in­stead of re­treat­ing to re­form the box mid­field, he took up Kruse’s po­si­tion in the ad­vanced three. Kruse, mean­while, shifted to the left flank.

When not in pos­ses­sion, both Mooy and Troisi tend to re­treat to­wards the ball, but this re­de­fined role tem­pered that and al­lowed Mil­li­gan to pen­e­trate. It showed with Tim Cahill’s equaliser, where Mil­li­gan, Mooy, Rogić and Matthew Leckie all com­bined in the lead-up.

By the end of the game, Mil­li­gan had com­pleted a gar­gan­tuan 136 passes at a 90.4% suc­cess rate. Of those 136 passes, 48.5% were to Mooy, Troisi and Rogić alone. More im­por­tantly, those passes ad­vanced Aus­tralia’s po­si­tion and forced the op­po­si­tion de­fence to scram­ble.

Along with Leckie and Kruse’s as­sertive move­ment, it all meant the Soc­ceroos’ for­ward play was the most fluid it had ever been un­der Postecoglou.

That ca­pac­ity to stretch the de­fence in open play meant greater va­ri­ety, even with Cahill’s pres­ence up front in­flu­enc­ing crosses into the penalty area. Com­pared to last month’s 2-1 win over Thai­land, Aus­tralia had 11 less crosses (41) with more pos­ses­sion (76.3%) against Syria, but im­proved by 8.6% on suc­cess­ful de­liv­ery (31.7%). How­ever, the end re­sult to the flow­ing buildup play was mostly lack­ing, con­tribut­ing to the lower to­tal of 25 shots.

It high­lights the fun­da­men­tal dilemma of this qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign: in the end, how much can flu­id­ity, move­ment and at­tack­ing bal­ance off­set an over­all lack of in­di­vid­ual qual­ity?

This is where Postecoglou’s at­tack­ing ide­ol­ogy ex­tends to the em­pow­er­ment of his play­ers. From play­ing Mil­li­gan as part of the three­man de­fence, to again de­ploy­ing Mooy as an at­tack­ing mid­fielder af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing per­for­mance against Ger­many in June, the Soc­ceroos coach re­flects a fo­cus on what his play­ers can do on a foot­ball pitch – not what they can’t.

In the 109th minute, Kruse’s move­ment pro­vided a pass­ing out­let for Mooy in a con­gested area. Fi­nally, with a cen­time­tre-per­fect cross to at­tack, Cahill pro­vided the all-im­por­tant win­ner. This fo­cus be­came most ap­par­ent with Cahill. In the sec­ond half, the Soc­ceroos’ all-time lead­ing goal scorer grew in­creas­ingly pe­riph­eral as the lines stretched. In Aus­tralia’s phases of pos­ses­sion, he was al­most non-ex­is­tent.

Over the sec­ond 45 min­utes, Cahill at­tempted a mere six passes. He com­pleted five. All of them were di­rected to­wards the de­fence, while four of those com­pleted passes were not for­ward of half­way. Yet when sub­sti­tu­tion seemed the log­i­cal op­tion, Postecoglou opted to bring Rogić off and showed un­wa­ver­ing faith to leave Cahill on, sens­ing he would cap­i­talise if the ser­vice was up to scratch.

The Soc­ceroos’ vic­tory might not have sealed pro­gres­sion to the World Cup, but it en­cap­su­lated Postecoglou’s at­tack­ing state of mind. How­ever his ten­ure fin­ishes, it has pro­moted a more de­vel­oped sense of think­ing when it comes to Aus­tralian foot­ball.

For that as­pect alone, his in­flu­ence will be felt in both the short and long term.

Postecoglou’s choice to bench Aaron Mooy for the defin­ing Syr­ian clash prompted much con­jec­ture. Pho­to­graph: Wil­liam West/ AFP/Getty Im­ages

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