Irrespective of consequences and timing, there is a sense of inevitability that Australian football has led to this point. The Socceroos’ qualification for the World Cup was never going to influence the matter and following Ange Postecoglou’s announcement he will not lead the team to Russia, discussion has swiftly turned to who should succeed him.
He will be hard to simply replace, however. Compared to local predecessors, Postecoglou is arguably the most fluid local thinker the Socceroos have ever had. In terms of potential long-term impact, he can prove to be Australia’s most influential.
As Jonathan Howcroft highlighted following Australia’s 3-1 win over Honduras, Postecoglou has conceptually reframed what the Socceroos are expected to do on the international stage, from both internal and external perspectives.
Although the means to which he sought ends proved at times problematic – from changing formation to then altering personnel and shape within that formation – Postecoglou endlessly looked to find solutions for tactical problems.
At the very heart of it, Postecoglou has implemented critical ideological change in a period of generational transition. Aside from what this all means for Australian football amid bleak developmental stagnation, Football Federation Australia must consider this when hiring Postecoglou’s successor.
Who will that be? Here, we look at the leading contenders.
The highly fractious and dysfunctional 2007 Asian Cup Arnold oversaw is irrelevant, here. He is the leading local candidate and – reflective of Australian football’s highly volatile nature – the philosophical counterpoint to Postecoglou.
Fundamentally, Arnold is not an extension of what Postecoglou represented as the Socceroos coach. However, this can’t be framed in simple terms of attacking and defensive mindset. In spite of recent successes, Sydney FC under Arnold are tactically rigid, risk-averse and as evidenced in their FFA Cup final win on Tuesday, unhealthily reliant on Miloš Ninkovic’s movement.
The ability to adapt is paramount in international football and this doesn’t mean overhauling the playing squad. Arnold’s continued deployment of Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill as double screeners in midfield – despite the negative impact it has on Sydney’s phases of possession – reveals his tactical inflexibility and predictability.
Outside of Postecoglou, Milicic is arguably the savviest tactical mind in Australia. He has improved the standard of play everywhere he has worked and Melbourne Heart and Western Sydney Wanderers both saw declines in this respect upon his departure, highlighting just how much he underpinned the tactical process.
The question remains: is Milicic’s role as assistant the best usage of his personal and tactical attributes? Milicic is as much reserved as he is a natural thinker, and the role of head coach requires the collective empowerment of players, as opposed to individual. With truncated time, this aspect is amplified at international level.
In context of both the playing squad and the tactical plan under Postecoglou, Milicic would further cultivate that with a World Cup quickly approaching. Still, is his hire a gamble FFA is willing to take?
Kevin Muscat/John Aloisi
Despite the characteristic and structural obstacles a joint role can provide, neither has displayed the sufficient tactical qualities required for international football.
After a successful first full season under Muscat, individual talent has counteracted a collective lack of imagination and attacking plan at Melbourne Victory. Victory have grown increasingly reactive and, so far this season, this point has been reflected by both results and statistics.
Meanwhile, Brisbane Roar have played the same lateral and meandrous way Heart did under Aloisi, but with more talent. The ability to change tempo has continually been a foreign concept and for a Socceroos group that dominates the ball against compact defences, Aloisi would negatively impact the aim of penetration.
Much like it was for Arnold upon taking on the Australia job in 2006, international football would make for a brutal adjustment. The fact that either can be considered a candidate for the Socceroos job reflects a serious shortage of intuitive Australian coaches.
Sources suggest Gombau was initially the primary option to succeed Postecoglou in the event of his departure. The Spaniard is currently compatible for the role in the sense he can provide an extension of Postecoglou’s game plan, especially after working extensively within the Socceroos’ set-up.
After a successful two-season stint at Adelaide United, Gombau was the Australian Under-23 coach for 18 months. The element of time is important in context. Although each coach would want to implement their own style, Gombau’s hire would not necessitate a drastic change in both tactical plan and personnel, just over six months away from the World Cup.
Logically speaking – if other A-League coaches can be considered for the position – Gombau’s hire at Western Sydney should not eliminate the possibility, notwithstanding contract duration.
Although Marcelo Bielsa’s impending departure from Lille seems like an all-too perfect alignment of stars, the idea FFA will actively seek a foreign interim or long-term coach appears counter to their strategic decision making. Postecoglou’s tenure has played out amid a backdrop of cuts to football funding and mentioning the likes of Bielsa, Bert van Marwijk, Jürgen Klinsmann and Luis Zubeldía is unrealistic.