Australia lost 3-1 to Chile in its opening game of the 2014 World Cup. The performance will be described as brave, gutsy, and full of fighting spirit. It was all those things but the room for improvement was obvious.
Now I know as a pom living in this country it’s not really my place to criticise Australia’s sports teams (although one could argue it’s an obligation). And yes, there are plenty of criticisms I can and do level at the England national team, but it’s not my aim to criticise this young Socceroos side. I aim to point where this side can improve.
The performance was relatively impressive; it was better than expected. The result, well that was less than ideal but not entirely unforeseen.
It was a resilient display overall but the defensive frailties we’ve become used to were still on display. While Davidson impressed at left back, it was again his defensive partners who showed the limitations which are more frequently exposed on the international stage than in the A League or similar domestic competitions. Improvement in this area may not come with the current players.
Tommy Oar and Matthew Leckie were important figures against Chile, the latter kicking on in the second half and staking a claim as Australia’s man of the match. His quick and direct runs clearly troubled the Chilean defence, the problem was he was frequently indecisive. There were times when he needed to play an early cross, cut the ball back to an open man or even shoot at goal but instead found himself crowded out as he delayed making the next move.
If indecision wasn’t the problem, and it didn’t just affect Leckie, there was an issue with players panicking in the final third. Most notably in the first half as Oar spooned a dreadful volley nowhere near the target. Cahill’s immediate pleas for the young winger to take his time and have some composure told the whole story.
It wasn’t just the wingers who suffered with this though, every midfielder and forward (and even the full backs on occasion) displayed some hesitance or uncertainty when approaching the attacking third. The experience of Cahill and Bresciano meant they were less prone to these errors. The former took his goal well while the latter’s end product was well below the standards he’d set himself despite getting into some promising positions.
Perhaps the thread which made their performance unravel was the lack of a ruthless edge. On the world stage teams need a steely aspect to their game that goes beyond defensive resolve. This takes the form of something that is related to the nasty and the cynical but in a twice-removed cousin sort of way.
Yes, Jedinak and Milligan are capable of stopping a counter attack on the half way line but plenty of players also missed opportunities to do so. They also missed chances to steal a couple of yards or block a quick free-kick. Leckie in particular could have benefited from a degree of cunning when driving into the penalty area. It’s not to say he should throw himself around like Fred did in Brazil’s opening match, but instead of trying to dribble round a player, it’s often possible to cut across a defender and invite contact. This is legitimate forward play.
I don’t believe this ruthless element was absent from the Socceroos‘ game through any high ideals but merely because the players are young and inexperienced. This is something, provided they continue to develop in competitive leagues, they will learn in time. This is where they can improve dramatically.
The physical and technical ability is there, it’s an open secret that they aim to be one of the fittest teams in the competition, while the majority of players demonstrated a level of ability which suggests they can compete on this level. They are, however, missing some of the required mentality.
This should come with experience for these players but the next crop of young stars should be entering the international stage with higher expectations.
In time attitudes should change so that this great sporting nation, famed for its competitiveness in other sports, should demand more from its football team. Perhaps it’s a predicament whereby greater success is required to catalyse a shift in how football is thought of. The AFC Cup in January is an opportunity for that. Success then will raise expectations the next time. Currently nothing is expected of the side, and it’s fair to say that being drawn in a difficult group has contributed to that but I’m not sure a more favourable draw would have altered the prevailing attitude within the country.
I want to see it so that next time a major international competition comes around the back pages of newspapers are filled with the hope, drama and expectations surrounding the Socceroos, rather than the back ten pages being about a rugby league match two weeks away.
Most European sides, of which there is clearly an influence on the Socceroos team, enter the international game with the demand to not only perform but to get results. This is integral to the impressive results of nations such as Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Switzerland. The players from these nations and many others become accustomed to greater pressure earlier on in their international careers and are better equipped mentally for the challenges of facing more accomplished national sides.
The obstacle for Australia is to plug the gap between young players coming through and developing this mental strength and ruthless, competitive edge. If football is a greater focus in the country and more is expected of the national team, I believe the passion and talent at youth and domestic level will translate to greater success on the world stage.