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