Australia’s fate in Group A was sealed on Saturday night as they lost 1-0 to South Korea who topped the group. This means the host nation qualify through the group as runners up while Oman’s win over Kuwait saw them finish in third spot.
By beating Australia in Brisbane, South Korea finished first and secured a quarter-final clash against the second placed Group B side Uzbekistan. They progressed through the group by showing their adaptability although they weren’t spectacular.
Playing a 4-2-3-1 in all three games, coach Uli Stielike made a number of changes to his side throughout the group stage. Key to the side was the central midfield duo of Ki Sung-Yeung and Park Joo-Ho who both look to receive possession from the centre backs. Because both midfielders drop deep, this allows South Korea’s fullbacks to push high up the pitch and for their wingers to come inside, as the below image demonstrates.
Coupled with their occasional slow ball movement, they struggled to create a wave of chances in their opening two games against Oman and Kuwait despite controlling the game for long spells.
Against Australia, South Korea came up against a side who was able to dominate the ball against them and in turn they sat deeper in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 defensive block and looked to soak up pressure. Their three 1-0 results points towards a solid and tough to beat approach – when they are able to dominate possession they do so in a controlled fashion, different to Australia’s high tempo style, but they can also shut up shop and frustrate their opponent if they are out of possession for large spells.
In contrast to South Korea, Australia’s high tempo and attacking style makes them more of an exciting side to watch. Ange Postecoglou continued with the 4-3-3 formation he used post-World Cup which allows for more variety, rotation and unpredictability. When in possession, Australia’s three main attacking patterns of play were visible:
- If one of the central midfielders dropped into a deep wide area, the nearest fullback would push forward and the winger would move inside.
- If the winger moved inside, often the nearest central midfielder – either James Troisi, Matt McKay or Massimo Luongo – would rotate with them and would take up a wider position.
- If the winger pulled out towards the flanks, a central midfielder would look to burst in behind.
Australia’s fluid style is very difficult for the opposition to defend against. The movement is often ‘off the cuff’ and designed to create spaces in between the lines, and given the complexities of defending against Australia’s movements, it was little surprise that Oman and Kuwait struggled to contain their opponents.
Australia’s newfound routes to goal show promise. Going into the tournament they were rightly accused of being reliant on Tim Cahill, but Australia’s eight different goal scorers in the group stages show that the players are now more accustomed to the system of play and are able to anticipate when the penetrating passes will be played in order to get into goal scoring positions. And while they lost to South Korea to finish second, it was a game in which the Socceroos dominated but, for a host of reasons, were unable to convert that dominance into the result required.
The other two teams in the group – Oman and Kuwait – were never truly going to challenge the big guns. The gulf in class was simply too great and it was expected of both sides to sit back and soak up pressure, attempting to nick a goal and a result on the counter.
For Oman, this meant they unexpectedly reverted to a back five. Having played a 4-4-2 during the Gulf Cup, Oman shifted to a 5-4-1 for their first group game against South Korea. Without the ball, they dropped deep to limit the space their opponents had in the final third but also allowed their wingers, left winger Qasim Saeed in particular, to stay higher up the park to pose questions in transition. It worked to an extent and Oman looked dangerous – Saeed was involved in their controversial penalty shout in the first half against South Korea – but they switched to a 5-3-2 against Australia.
This did not work well, and Australia exploited the spaces left in front for their fullbacks Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson to advance into. This was due to how the two formations matched up. Whereas playing in a 5-4-1 against South Korea saw the two wingers and two wingbacks match up against South Korea’s wingers and fullbacks, the 5-3-2 had no direct opponent for Franjic and Davidson. When they received possession of the ball, which was frequent, Oman’s wingbacks Raed Saleh and Ali Al Busaidi moved forward to apply pressure, leaving a 3-v-3 at the back with Oman’s centre backs and Australia’s forwards. From there, Australia was able to pull them out of shape and punished their opponents.
In the above example, the two Omani wingbacks circled, Saleh and Al Busaidi, were high up the pitch closing down Australia’s fullbacks. Winger Robbie Kruse was then able to run into the channel behind the right wingback and drew an Omani centre back.
Because they had been pulled out of shape and a centre back had been drawn out towards the flanks, Australia then had a 2-v-2 situation on the penalty spot. Although nothing came from this example, it demonstrated how Oman struggled with their back five formation.
Much like Oman, little was expected of Kuwait, and they proved to be no match for their opponents. As SBS’s Scott McIntyre stressed after Australia’s 4-1 first game win, both Oman and Kuwait were coming up against opponents with far too much professionalism and quality.
“It’s always worth pointing out the relative strengths of the sides and where they come from,” said McIntyre. “We always hear it when Australia is up against an established nation – the gulf in class and this kind of thing. A couple of years ago when Australia was playing Oman in Oman, I was speaking to Ali Al Habsi their goalkeeper. He pointed out that he was the only professional player in the squad.
“I then spoke to Socceroos boss Holger Osieck and said ‘Holger, we’ve just spoken to Al Habsi and he was saying it is expected of Australia to win these kinds of games because they only have one professional player and the others work day jobs’. He said ‘Scott, do not tell me these players are a collection of waiters’…
“Kuwait aren’t quite at that level but neither are they a team full of professionals that are training full time. When you compare it to Australia it really is comparing apples and oranges and we need to take these kinds of things into consideration because Kuwait was never going to be a test for Australia.”
That analogy partly explains Kuwait’s approach at the Asian Cup. Playing as a 4-5-1, they sat back against Australia and South Korea and looked to soak up pressure, frustrating their opponents. That was even more evident against Australia where they took an early lead and tried to slow the play down wherever possible, via long stoppages for injury and when the ball went out of play. But ultimately the gulf in class was too great and Kuwait rounded out Group A.
For more analysis, listen to the Leopold Method show on 2SER 107.3. Scott McIntyre talks about the Asian Cup and Kate Cohen analyses the Socceroos Group A games. Click here for iTunes version.