Australia cemented their position at the top of Group B as they took all three points against Tajikistan in Dushanbe on Tuesday night. Ange Postecoglou’s side have taken maximum points from their first three games, including two difficult away trips to Central Asia, and now face arguably the toughest match of the stage, an away trip to Jordan in October.

The Asian Champions again lined up in the 4-3-3 formation they have exclusively used since last year’s World Cup in Brazil. However, as was the case in the match against Bangladesh, they adopted a narrow midfield with the fullbacks tasked with providing the width. In Perth last week, Massimo Luongo played as one of the wide players in the front three, regularly switching wings with Matthew Leckie, but also moving into central positions to join Matt McKay and Aaron Mooy to overload between the lines in midfield.

Midfield dominance creates space out wide

All three Socceroos goals against Tajikistan came from wide areas. Crosses from Tommy Oar and Ryan McGowan were both finished by Tim Cahill, while stand-in captain Mark Milligan converted from a corner. However, it was their dominance in the middle of the park that laid the foundations for their win. The goals didn’t arrive until nearly the hour mark, but it was the first half effort that saw the Socceroos dominate possession and territory. Postecoglou commented after the game that the, ‘Final-third delivery wasn’t great in that first half. At times we got into real good areas but our last ball let us down a little bit.’ The coach was confident that the Socceroos would eventually wear Tajikistan down and convert their chances, which they went on to do with three second-half goals. 

Luongo passes

Luongo’s pass map shows how he drifted from his wide starting position to receive the ball centrally.

Central to this dominance was the efforts of the two wide attackers moving inside and adopting narrow positions, particularly Luongo – a natural central midfielder – and the two Number 8s drifting into space beyond the Tajikistan midfield. The first effect of this was that it allowed the Socceroos to overload in advanced midfield areas. Secondly, it was effective in dragging the Tajik players out of position to create space out wide for advancing fullbacks, or overlapping midfielders, to receive the ball in space.

This pattern was clear from the opening minutes of the match, with Jason Davidson regularly finding himself in space high up the field. The fullback provided three crosses from open play into the box in the first fifteen minutes alone.

The opposition context

For all the excellent midfield work and combinations that the Socceroos forged in Dushanbe, it must also be viewed in the context of the opposition and how they set-up. The home side’s 4-5-1 should have been able to match the Australian’s in the middle of the pitch, but the gulf in class between the Asian champions and the world’s 158th ranked side was all too clear throughout.

In midfield, the Tajiks had no clear shape, with a flattish line of five failing to deal with the Socceroos’ superior movement. Instead they failed to either remain compact or identify individual matchups to shut down their opponents. Milligan was afforded time on the ball in front of the midfield, with the Tajik players attempting, albeit with little success, to hold a relatively flat line and deny balls being played further forward past the midfield line.

When the defensive lines were more staggered – either as they looked to form a higher block of two to stop passes from the centre-backs into midfield or recovered from a counter attack – space appeared laterally instead.  It meant the Tajik wide midfielders sat narrow and allowed passes to be made to the wingers and fullbacks with ease.

With McKay and Mooy free to move into space behind the midfield, the Socceroos, and Milligan in particular, were regularly able to move the ball forward and bypass the Tajik midfield with one pass. With the central defenders rarely moving forward to shut down ahead of them, afraid of the presence of Cahill and the consequences of leaving him unmarked, they were given time to then play the ball into dangerous areas. 

Example 

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Just two minutes into the game, Davidson passes from an advanced position back to Milligan, who is afforded a huge amount of time and space on the ball to face forward. Despite having a midfield block of five, Tajikistan fail to cut out the passing angle to Mooy who is between the Tajik midfield and defensive lines.

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Mooy receives the ball and is able to face forward in space, as two members of the Tajikistan midfield belatedly move to close him down. Leckie also drifts centrally into the large space between the midfield and defence. Fatkhullo Fatkhulloev, the Tajik right midfielder, is drawn inside to shadow McKay leaving Davidson unmarked.

Meanwhile, on the Socceroos’ right side, Dzhakhongir Dzhalilov is still covering the space ahead of McGowan at right-back for a run that was never likely to materialise.

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With Leckie’s movement ensuring the Tajikistan right-back remained narrow and Fatkhulloev being drawn from the left due to the space afforded to Mooy, the Socceroos were able to move the ball to the left-flank with ease. Davidson received the ball in space and was able to deliver a dangerous cross into the box that was headed onto the roof of the net.

Tajikistan were constantly stretched and Australia able to move the ball around at will. The second and third goals came as the home side’s midfield was unable to close down passing channels and space for runs to be made into, as well as some terrible marking. It was the movement of the Socceroos’ midfield throughout the match that both destabilised the shape of their opponents and simply wore them down. The improved quality in the final pass, substitute Tommy Oar’s cross was pin-point, was the difference.

Mooy of that going forward

It is less than two years ago since Postecoglou took the reigns of the national team, and within that time we have seen the continued progression from an ageing side that lacked options for the future, to one with many bright sparks and increasing depth. Postecoglou has noted the lack of depth at fullback, but in central midfield now has a number of options, with Melbourne City marquee Mooy impressing over the last two games.

When Mooy was afforded his first opportunity since Postecoglou became coach – against Macedonia in a friendly earlier this year – the midfielder struggled to manipulate space and find the ball beyond the opposition’s midfield line. Instead he was forced deep and wide to pick the ball up from Mile Jedinak, meaning when he faced forward he was presented with a packed midfield and few passing options.

Mooy's pass map in the friendly versus Macedonia.

Mooy’s pass map in the friendly versus Macedonia.

In the matches against Bangladesh and Tajikistan, Mooy’s involvement and ability to find the ball in more advanced areas was noticeable. Postecoglou noted after the Tajikistan game that Mooy, ‘Hasn’t really been involved with us too much but … We give the guys a lot of information away from that and that’s part of the trick of being a good international footballer – your ability to receive information and put it into practice.’

With Cahill playing a role that sees him drop deep far less than he has in the past, there is a much bigger onus on the wide players and the two Numbers 8s to find space between the lines, and Mooy succeeded in this over the two matches.

Example

Mooy goal

Mooy’s goal against Bangladesh was a perfect example of the improvement he made in finding the right space’s to receive the ball. With Milligan again finding a considerable amount of time and space on the ball, Mooy was able to drift between the lines and present for a pass from the former Victory captain. Once he received the pass he was able to turn and fire in a shot from outside the box to score his fourth senior international goal.

Mooy's passing maps against Bangladesh and Tajikistan show an improvement in finding the ball further up the field.

Mooy’s passing maps against Bangladesh and Tajikistan show an improvement in finding the ball further up the field.

With his improvement and performances in these last two matches Mooy provided enough to indicate that he can be a long-term candidate for one of the two available places.

Conclusion

Eight goals for and zero goals against was a productive international break for the Socceroos as they collected maximum points. The quality of opposition meant the Socceroos were never particularly troubled defensively – outshooting their opponents 55 to 7 over the 180 minutes – but there were promising signs and improvements in the final third. Importantly, as Postecoglou said after the match, there was much needed control of the tempo of the game that had been missing against Kyrgyzstan.

There was also much to be pleased about by the performances of some less regular starters – Mooy, Bailey Wright and Tarek Elrich – and by the continued development and flexibility of players like Leckie and Luongo. There is a long way to go until Russia, but the continuing evolution of the side has the team on the right path.