There have been some truly epic triumphs over adversity. Victories claimed against all odds. Most of them may have been fictional, but that’s beside the point. We can still make it to the World Cup in Qatar…
After our lame and toothless performance against Japan, I was frustrated and emotional.
Frustrated and emotional as a newt, in fact, which led me to pen a passionate diatribe against Arnie, calling for his blood.
After some sober reflection, I still want him to go. I stand by my top-of-head, beer fuelled comments, because we’ve clearly been going backward in recent times. We don’t have the Golden Generation quality players anymore – but that’s been true of the last few World Cups.
We did it easily in 2010 under the very pragmatic Pim Verbeek.
We did it reasonably comfortably in 2014 under Holger Osieck – even if we hated the playing style.
We did it eventually under Ange – despite all the controversy over his methods. The thing was, I was still confident we’d make the World Cup (at this similar stage) under Ange. We went within a whisker of being knocked out by Syria but then we settled Honduras easily.
Even allowing for the fact we’ll have a much tougher opponent in the last match (if we make it) – the big difference this time is that I (and everyone I talk to) sense the players no longer believe. That might seem like a big call considering our remoteness from the team and its psychology, but there was an abjectness about our performance the other night – a concession of respect? An acceptance of inevitability? An admission of fear?
We had to attack Japan to win that game and we just didn’t.
Arnie did seem to suggest in some of his pre-match comments that we would be taking a conservative approach to the game. If that was his strategy, it didn’t work. And what would the players have heard from their fearless leader? “This is a critical match – at home – we absolutely have to win, but we’re going to sit back and play it safe. We’ll try to hit them on the counter.”
If that was the plan (it’s pretty much the way we played) then it backfired, partly – I suspect – because the players sensed the coach’s own lack of confidence in them.
The best Australian teams (both domestic and NT) are unrelenting in their pressuring of the opposition. We demand the ball all over the park, then pass the opposition into submission and batter them with our speed and fitness.
If you think of the great teams of recent times: Socceroos under Hiddinck; Brisbane under Ange; 2013 Mariners under Arnie; Western Sydney’s first seasons under Poppa; Victory under Muscat after Ange had put the pieces in place; Sydney under Arnie and Corica, and now Melbourne City under Paddy Kisnorbo...
They all had great players, of course, but they all had a distinct style of play. Some were more the Ange style (as he’s ruthlessly applying in Scotland) and some were more the Arnie style, relying on fast attacks with outstandingly skilful players in the final third.
Thing is, whatever style you use, you’ve got to have the players for it. And they have to understand precisely what the system is and their individual roles within it.
If you look back over our current campaign I’d suggest most of the games we won simply by having much better players than the minnows we encountered. I remember being uneasy about most of those games because I couldn’t see evidence of a consistent strategy. I’d see us huff and puff and then win games on the back of a piece of brilliance by Rogic, or Boyle, or Hrustic.
I saw lots of aimless passing around the back without any clear attempt to get in behind. I saw very little attempt to pass through the lines, like every decent side does these days.
Even worse, when the system (such as it was) was no longer working, Arnie didn’t change. He stayed with the same aimless tactics and the same tried and rusted players. He kept picking Grant, Irvine, Behich, Mabil when they weren’t performing, and ignored players such as Nikita Rukavytsya, Nathaniel Atkinson, Riley McGree, Marco Tilio, Cam Devlin, Kenny Dougal and Mark Birrighitti.
I’m pleased to see Gianni Stensness added to the squad. He adds a touch of Jedi-like authority in the middle but it’s the cutting edge up front (and a system to give it chances) that we lack.
Most of all we lack belief.
I’d suggest that the only way Arnie can survive is if his team put in a truly earth-shattering performance against an already qualified Saudi which might send out the kids. That would at least demonstrate that the team want to play for him and will stand up for him.
If we see another limp performance then it must be all over for Arnie.
And if it is over for him, who can we bring in to refresh and galvanise the squad for a last ditch effort in June?
Bielsa (I understand) is looking for work, and he’d be most people’s top pick. His teams play bright attacking football, but he’s used to dealing with a better level of quality than we currently have available. A plus, is that he would have good insight into how to beat a South American side. A minus, is that he would never have heard of most of our players and would not have any idea as to what fringe possibilities ought to be tried.
If only for the June qualifiers in Qatar, I’d be looking at an Australian coach – someone who knows our players, including those playing overseas, and has a track record of getting his players to rise to the occasion.
The chief candidates have to be Poppa and Kevin Muscat. Poppa has done an amazing job turning the Victory juggernaut round (with mostly the same players as last year). He clearly knows how to inspire players to a performance and play with a system. Winning the Asian Champions League looks awfully good on his CV also.
Kevin Muscat is a serial Ange follower, having picked up his leavings at both Victory and Yokohama. He’s done a really good job in both places where his teams played with character, steel and quality. He’s a divisive personality (once voted the most hated man in Britain) but has a first class football brain and you can be certain he would drive the players to achieve.
I suppose you have to add Kisnorbo to the conversation. His team are playing football that, on their day, no-one else can cope with. They seem to combine the best of what Ange and Arnie have done (and they pass through the lines), but Kisnorbo does have the best resources with which to work and is still inexperienced.
I’d be happy with any of these and would be intrigued to see what changes they would make to the current squad. And more importantly, how they would get them to play.
I’m pleased that both games come down to a one-off match in a neutral location. I think that is easier than having to go to Lima or Santiago or (god-forbid) Bogota. Although, at the moment I can’t even be confident we will make that final match. We need a miracle.
Mind you, as I suggested at the start of this article, miracles can happen. Frodo never believed he would cast the ring into the Cracks of Doom with all the legions of Mordor opposing him.
There is some kind of hope.
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His first sci-fi novel will be published by Hague Publishing in 2022.