In what was a tense match, Australia ran out 3-2 winners on aggregate against a passionate and determined Syrian team, who introduced a clear tactical problem for Ange Postecoglou and his team.
To stand any chance of finding the win, this problem had to be countered effectively – how did Ange and his Socceroos do it?
The tactical problem: Syria’s compact defensive block
At home, Syria surprised many onlookers by looking to take the game to Australia as opposed to sitting deep and breaking on the counter attack. Yes, there were elements of this approach, but it did not form the basis of their play. Conversely, in this match, it was clear that Ayman Al Hakim’s side were set up to prioritise the defending of central zones, and did so by maintaining a deep and compact defensive block. After recovering the ball, the route to goal was clear; forwards, and as quickly as possible. Their shape out of possession was akin to last Tuesday’s game, with a 1-4-3-2-1 formation being chosen with a key point of difference being that it was deeper than previous encounters.
It is also worth noting that the defensive approach – in terms of shape – that Syria took was aimed at equalising the box midfield dynamic of the system Australia employed against them in the first leg. However, as mentioned earlier, the new system had players positioned in different areas, meaning that it wasn’t an exact man-for-man match up. Even though the three deeper midfielders were able to carry the attacking three of the Socceroos, this balance meant that the central area, in particular that specific line, was easily overloaded. This was a clever move by Postecoglou, and the new system was likely designed with situations like this in mind.
Existing method of penetration in the final third
When Postecoglou made the change to the back three system the Socceroos have since adjusted to, it brought with it initial decreases in the rate and quality of the team’s penetration in the final third. Positionally, it seemed the system was reliant upon the forward movement of the attacking midfielders from deeper areas when it came to displacing opposition defenders or invading the space left behind the defence. Ange experimented with a number of players in these positions over the course of the introductory phase of rolling out the new approach, including Tim Cahill, Mat Leckie, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, James Troisi, and more. Clearly, he was searching for a very specific type of player who could consistently perform a very exact role – one that was able to push the opposition deeper, opening more space for the other midfielders to operate in, as well as to take on significant responsibility for movement between and behind the lines. The player that the national team boss invariably settled upon was Bochum’s Robbie Kruse.
The rotation in and of itself can be viewed upon as quite simple in appearance and execution, even though it has been critically effective for quite some time. The wide player, usually Mathew Leckie, receives the ball between the lines of the defending team, dragging out the opposition left-back and generating space behind him. At the point the ball is in transit to Leckie, Robbie Kruse begins his run from midfield all the way into the hole left by the outgoing left-back, and is then in a position to receive the ball behind the defensive line of the opposition. Against Cameroon at the recent Confederations Cup, the African champions dealt with this situation by dropping their block deeper than it would usually sit. Despite this, the front three of the Indominatable Lions maintained the same pressing strategy, except now without the support of the players behind them, allowing the Socceroos to easily play out and rendering the press largely ineffective. This, combined with the 2v1 situation created by engaging with the winger against the opposition full-back, has given Australia much joy over the last few months, even if the final ball has been dependably disappointing.
Against Germany, also at the Confederations Cup, Kruse came on at half time and instigated a clear up-turn in performance against the eventual champions. Although Australia would go on to lose the match 3-2, the side were a different proposition in the second half, creating several high quality goal-scoring opportunities against the best in the world. It was unfortunate that the aforementioned opportunities were not converted as the result may have been different, but it is worth noting that Robbie Kruse was involved in the build-up play for many of the chances, making runs from deep whenever a midfield teammate had the ball facing forward. The method of penetration primarily deployed by Australia in almost all of their recent games virtually depends upon the movements of the attacking midfielders, of which Robbie Kruse fulfils best – despite some technical deficiencies that may or may not exist within his game, much to the ire of a number of Socceroo supporters. With this background information in mind, it can be seen that the Socceroos maintained this threat throughout both legs, and it likely will always be a major part of how they attack. In an effort to provide an edge to his team coming into one of the most important fixtures of his tenure, the perennially aggressive Ange Postecoglou strategized slightly differently to ensure a degree of unpredictability.
The response: varied penetration and midfield combinations
Having felt like the need for a change to the aforementioned method of penetration, Postecoglou ushered in a new system which allowed for more options in this regard. There were two key additions to Australia’s forward movement; the first being a slight change in the role of wide players, the second being the way in which the attacking midfielders interchanged with the forward line. As well as this, the previously relied-upon movement of the attacking midfielders triggered by a winger receiving the ball was still present and was in fact used frequently.
Instead of looking to simply provide width and facilitate the movement of an attacking midfielder, the wingers looked to create their own opportunities by making constant vertical runs behind the defence whenever a deeper midfielder had the ball. Generally, this movement resulted in one of two outcomes – the winger’s run not being adequately tracked and his subsequent receiving of the ball behind the Syrian defensive line, or when his run is tracked, the opening of space between the lines for one of the more advanced midfielders to take advantage of. In the example above, Mark Milligan is on the ball in a deeper position. This triggers the forward movement of Robbie Kruse, who moved to the left after Brad Smith went off injured, which as a result forces his direct opponent to cover his run. In turn, this opens up space for Aaron Mooy, playing in an advanced midfield position, to slide across and receive the ball in space between the lines. It was this rotation which resulted in Australia’s first goal, with wide player Mat Leckie receiving the ball in behind the Syrian defence and crossing for Tim Cahill. Clearly, this movement is of value to Australia as it adds variability to the role of the wide players, and will likely be repeated in the future.
The other method of penetration added with the new system, the interchanging of players between the attacking midfield and forward lines, also paid dividends throughout the match, leading to several opportunities which should have been converted during normal time. In a nutshell, the rotation worked as a two up, two down movement. To take that further, there were generally two players on the forward line – the striker and a progressed attacking midfielder – with the two remaining attacking midfielders staying in their initial positions. Often it was the furthest midfielder from the ball who would step up to the forward line, but this was not always the case. For example, in the diagram above, it can be seen that Aaron Mooy has stepped up to join Cahill on the forward line, meaning that in order to meet the two up, two down rule, the opposite player must step down. As he is moving down back into midfield, the more centrally located player shifts across into the space created by Mooy vacating his original position. When this movement is combined with the vertical movement of the winger, a significant amount of space is created between the lines, allowing for one of the attacking midfielders to receive the ball in space and turn to create an opportunity on goal. This rotation culminated in the scoring of the second Australian goal, allowing for Kruse and Cahill to arrive in the box from a deeper starting position. All in all, these additional movements allowed by the new system were able to change the game, and Syria were clearly unprepared for their introduction.
Australia encountered a clear tactical problem by way of the highly compressed Syrian defence, and came into difficulty when attempting to build up through the middle of the pitch. This was countered by the introduction of two new movements as well as the continuation of previous methods, culminating in a number of chances being created which should have seen the Socceroos get the win in normal time. The 4th placed CONCACAF qualifier awaits in the next round, where the
winner will progress to the World Cup. Whether the new system is maintained or not for this round of fixtures will be interesting to see, as well as any other tactical surprises Postecoglou looks to play on his opposite number.
Nathan Muir is an Australian tactical analyst and coach. You can contact him on Twitter @NathanKMuir.