The Ange Postecoglou revolution is well underway for the Socceroos, and it is starting with the country’s and the team’s state of mind. No longer will Australia sit back and defend against teams on the international stage, as Postecoglou looks to instil a proactive mindset.
“Sometimes we [make the] mistake in our heritage and in our culture, in that we talk about battling and stuff like that. I remember growing up watching the Socceroos, and yes they battled and they fought hard, but they never took a backwards step. I think our national team should never take a backwards step. It is not part of our Australian culture. I’m not saying we will go out there and fight and scrap, but I certainly don’t want to take a backwards step against anyone.”
That attitude, coupled with Postecoglou’s history of promoting and implementing a possession-based game, is giving the Australian public a much needed sense of direction. Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar side, perhaps the best club side in Australian football history, was dubbed ‘Roarcelona’, of course a hyperbole with the similarities to FC Barcelona. Both teams are possession-based and extremely successful. But where Barcelona are known as a ‘possession team’, it is perhaps more apt to refer to them at their best as a ‘pressing side’.
“Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona made the biggest change at the top of football, and I’m especially talking about how they played without the ball. They applied very fast and coordinated pressure to win back the ball as quickly as possible.”
– Rene Meulensteen
In not taking a step backwards, Postecoglou is as much talking about taking the game to the opposition, and pressing high up the pitch to not allow the opposition to settle and of course to regain possession.
Against Costa Rica, Australia played a 4-2-3-1 formation. The A-League’s best two defensive teams – Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners – use a 4-2-3-1 formation. Leopold Method will look into how the system can be adapted to different defensive approaches, and break down how Australia defended in Postecoglou’s first game as manager.
Central Coast Mariners
In the defensive phase of play, Central Coast’s 4-2-3-1 formation becomes a 4-4-2 formation. This is done by the wingers dropping back into the midfield line, whilst the No. 9 and No. 10 form a front two.
Mariners use what can be described as a “medium block”, setting up their defensive unit around halfway. They initiate their press when the ball enters the pressing zone.
In the example above, when ‘P1’ has the ball, the No. 9 and 10 work hard to ensure the ball cannot be played through the middle of the pitch. They do this by starting in front of the opposition’s central midfielders and adjusting their positioning in relation to how they move.
When the 9 or 10, in this case the 10, moves forward towards ‘P1’, the Mariners still work to prevent the opposition from playing through the middle. The 6 or 8 steps forward to pick up the corresponding central midfielder.
Importantly, in the above scenario, the No. 11 stands off ‘P2’. This is known as gegenpressing and is effectively a booby trap set to encourage the opposition to play the ball wide. Once the pass is played into ‘P2’, Mariners have successfully prevented the opposition from playing through the middle, forcing them to one side where they can be boxed in and pressed.
This defensive system has been extremely successful for Central Coast, and was a key element to their Championship winning season.
Western Sydney Wanderers
Just as with Central Coast, a key element of Western Sydney’s success has been their defensive system. Also, like the Mariners, Western Sydney’s 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-4-2 without the ball. But unlike the Mariners, Western Sydney look to press high up the pitch, looking to generate turnovers in dangerous areas and counter attack. In effect, Wanderers’ front four press high up the pitch, and if a team is good enough to play through the initial press, the midfield duo slows play to allow the front four to recover.
As shown in the above graphic, the pressing zone starts much further up the pitch. The reason for this is twofold: either the opposition is forced long – where the central defence of either Nikolai Topor-Stanley (191cm), Michael Beauchamp (191cm) or Matthew Spiranovic (193cm) wins almost everything in the air, or, the opposition is forced to try to play through the press, a difficult task against such a well organised defensive unit.
The front four push forward to pressure the ball carrier and the nearest options. Should ‘P1’ be able to pass centrally into midfield, Western Sydney’s 6 and 8 pressure immediately, preventing the opposition midfielder from facing forward. This allows the front four to retreat and regain compactness.
Postecoglou’s Australia vs Costa Rica
After just one match and one week in charge, no clear pattern over a long period of time has developed. But considering Postecoglou’s insistence on pressing and “never taking a backwards step”, the defensive set up offered a glimpse into how the Socceroos may defend at the World Cup.
The first consideration should be that Costa Rica played with a back five, making it a different proposition to defend against. To combat the back five, the wingers – Dario Vidosic and Robbie Kruse – looked to position themselves between the outside centre back and the wingbacks to prevent passes out wide. This, unlike Western Sydney and Central Coast, meant that the Socceroos effectively maintained a 4-2-3-1, with a three in midfield and the wingers in front.
As per Postecoglou’s meticulous preparation, the team was ready to adapt to the forward movements of the wingbacks and defended superbly, limiting Costa Rica to only three shots on goal.
From the starting base, when Australia initiated a press, Mathew Leckie (9) looked to close down ‘P1’, whilst the corresponding winger, in this graphic No. 11 (Dario Vidosic), closed down the nearby outside centre back. If the wingback pushed forward, with the winger coming inside, Jason Davidson (5) moved to close down the overlapping wingback, whilst Mark Milligan (6) picked up the winger dropping in.
If Australia was not quite set to initiate a press, or if the wingers got pushed too deep, they were intelligent in preventing Costa Rica from causing them danger.
In the above graphic, if Leckie pressed ‘P1’ but Robbie Kruse (7) was not near enough to prevent the pass to ‘P2’, he would work in conjunction with Ivan Franjic (2) to cover the player rotation.
Overall, Australia’s defensive effort was successful, and Postecoglou described it as “brilliant”. Although there was still the occasional glitch in the defensive cohesion, which may come down to a lack of familiarity with the system. I outlined one such example in my post match analysis for The Guardian.