In an international calendar that Uefa has transformed through the Nations League, Australia’s 1-1 draw with South Korea on Saturday was far from a meaningless friendly.
One can learn from every match and, with the Asian Cup fast approaching, this second game under Graham Arnold was no different. The Expectant One roared along with the crowd after Massimo Luongo’s late equaliser. Along with the collective’s play over the 90 minutes, his post-match comments underlined the primary plan. “You can see we’ve got pace and you’re talking about a team [South Korea] that beat Germany at the World Cup,” Arnold said. “I thought our pressing was great. We made them turn over possession a lot.”
However, contrary to narratives of change under Arnold, there was something inherently familiar about the Socceroos’ performance in Brisbane. When October’s 4-0 win over Kuwait is added into context, the intricacies of their Asian title defence become more intriguing.
The farewells of Mile Jedinak and Tim Cahill will no doubt garner attention, but up to this year’s World Cup, Australia’s phases of possession were far from dependent on them. With Daniel Arzani’s unavailability over January in mind, a question posed after Australia’s playoff triumph over Syria remains – how much can movement and balance offset a lack of individual quality?
On face value, generating 18 more shots than the opposition indicates dominance, but the quality of both the possession and shots needs to be considered.
In this footballing age of xG, where proximity to goal – along with the number of bodies between the ball and goal - is central to shot quality, it must be noted 14 of the team’s 22 shots on Saturday were from outside the penalty area. It was only after Hwang Ui-Jo’s opening goal that the Socceroos had an effort from inside the area. And six of the team’s eight attempts from inside the area came after Awer Mabil’s introduction in the 55th minute.
Despite the smaller sample size with Arnold, first impressions show the central theme of Australia’s play under Ange Postecoglou and Bert van Marwijk could continue. Fundamentally, the Socceroos play in two gears on the ball – first and fifth. Interestingly, despite the effect goals have on a game’s complexion, and the difference in the two results, there was a link between the recent friendlies with Arnold at the helm – a fast start with optimal energy levels, a significant drop in tempo after the opening 20 minutes, and second-half substitutions affecting the team’s overall ball speed.
The question is why? Mabil and Arzani’s second-half performances against Kuwait showed a glimpse of what Australia possess to help maximise Tom Rogic, who benefits the most as the third man in phases of combination. Leading Midtjylland in successful dribbles per 90 minutes this season at 5.13, Mabil’s first instinct when he receives the ball is to take on defenders. Proficiency in one-v-one scenarios, as highlighted with Arzani, creates a pull towards the ball and forces defences to sacrifice shape to win back possession. A lack of this means phases of possession are weighed heavily towards passing, amplifying the inertia in central midfield.
Against embedded defences, Aaron Mooy’s inability to create a line of passing for his teammates in advanced positions slows down the tempo. As seen at the World Cup, Australia were ranked ninth for passes per minute of possession (10.1), 12th for pass accuracy (85 per cent) but 29th for average bypassed defenders (26).
Meanwhile, the initial evidence suggests Luongo playing as the deepest midfielder alongside Mooy doesn’t eliminate that, and nullifies his own spatial awareness. In numerous instances on Saturday, Luongo was the one who had to drop between the central defenders for Australia to advance field position as Mooy also retreated.
Essentially, it doesn’t help the team play through the middle of the park and generate threatening shots. It means – like the bulk of Arnold’s tenure with Sydney FC and his recent predecessors with the Socceroos – there could be a big fluctuation in the quality of performances, simply depending on whether Australia have the ball or not.