We’re at an interesting point in our relationship. We’ve had a huge year and we still have the Asian Cup in sight. It feels like football has grown and keeps growing in our country. It’s an exciting time.
So let’s talk about the Socceroos.
You joined at an important moment. Holger Osieck was in charge of our country’s team and, while he got us through qualification for the World Cup, it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as it should have been. Results were often poor, the style of play was boring, and his squad selections were questionable at best, including a captain who often had neither form nor fitness.
Even the FFA admitted that the general public had lost pride in the national team. Osieck lost two consecutive friendly games by large 6-0 margins and we were embarrassed. Our captain had turned against his own players. It was time to change. You were the overwhelming favourite to take over: your success in the A-League had brought the supporters and the FFA to your side, with a favourable playing style and passion for the green and gold. You earned a long contract with a big salary. Interesting, but hey, it’s great that we’re seeing an Australian coach being recognised for his achievements. You gave us renewed hope – youth and form were your stated criteria for selecting players.
Early signs were great. New and exciting squad selections, breaking the mould of the previous era, with plenty of young and technically-skilled players earning their first handful of caps for their country. The KPIs set for you by the FFA – perhaps not known by many in the public – were signs that “regeneration” was the new catchphrase for our team. Your target in this year’s World Cup was to “restore the pride of the green and gold into the general public.”
It was certainly a big task – albeit somewhat vague as a target – given the opposition we were drawn against. Chile, Netherlands and Spain; three fantastic, skillful nations who play a fast-passing game. That’s something we were trying to achieve with you at the helm. The first game started shakily, but we all saw the positives by full time. That second game, though… that was something else. We were outplaying our opposition at times. The vast majority of us walked away believing we were unlucky not to win. It was electric and it was enough to restore that sought-after pride and passion.
Let’s just forget the last World Cup match ever happened and we’ll talk about our Asian Cup preparation.
We’ve actually had good opposition for our lead-in to the tournament. Belgium are a very talented side looking to bounce back from their average World Cup outing and could give us a good gauge on where we are in our progress. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar are reasonable West Asian opposition who give us a medium on which we can refine our style and performances, testing any new players that may need the exposure. Our last opponent, Japan, can be considered our Asian benchmark. We’ve heard that there were meant to be games played in Australia, but these cancellations were out of our control, so nobody can hold you to that.
But results haven’t been inspiring, and neither have the performances. From our first game against Belgium, we looked to have gone backwards. We gave our Socceroos the benefit of doubt, seeing as the players came into the camp with just a few competitive matches under the belt for their clubs, if any at all. We moved on quickly, but other problems started to rear their ugly heads. We were losing focus, we were failing to score. By the time we played against Qatar, we were starting to expect stability: a team understanding their roles, with enough chances to understand each other on the pitch.
Some of that was there. Your selections in the defensive block were looking consistent, as was the forward line. Perhaps the biggest concern for many was where goals would come from when Tim Cahill wasn’t in the team. There didn’t seem to be another player in the team who could find the back of the net. There were some questions over your selections, too.
That moves us on to our latest game, against Japan. When your 23-man squad was announced, the reception was mixed at best. People were positive about your promotion of A-League players; Aaron Mooy, Mitch Nichols and Terry Antonis rewarded for their seasons so far, while Nikolai Topor-Stanley continued to be rewarded for his performances in the AFC Champions League. We were hoping to see selections based on form, but again Mitch Langerak – a goalkeeper with just a handful of first team games over the last couple of seasons – and Robbie Kruse, who has only recently returned from injury, were selected over players with better form and more fitness than the two combined. Some called for the 2014 AFC Champions League’s best player, Ante Covic, to be selected, but you dodged the question when you were asked, mentioning (perhaps accidentally) the “problem” of his age.
So, let’s stop beating around the bush and ask the question directly: Is form really on the agenda or are you only focused on bringing youth through?
Holger’s selections were based on experience, rather than form. Yours, Ange, are now appearing to be based on youth, rather than form. Same, but different, right?
We’ve seen a clear change of style and it suits exactly what you were promising, but it’s not really sticking with the players and there are big concerns over how long it will take for everything to click. One of the biggest problems you’re facing, Ange, is that this isn’t a club side. You don’t have these players seven days a week over the course of several months, like you did at Brisbane Roar or Melbourne Victory, to instill a philosophy and allow the learning process to gain momentum and start to stick with the players. They’ll come into camp, learn some of what you want, and perform to part of your expectations. Then they’ll return to their clubs, where their coaches want something different, leaving them back at square one with your ideas. The philosophy can stay – that’s fine, most of the public prefer to watch that – but the execution needs to improve. It’s not a youth national team, this is our senior team and they need results.
We’re now staring the Asian Cup in the face. It’s right in front of us, Ange. The KPI you’ve been given for this tournament is to at least reach the semi-final – a reasonable task, albeit somewhat modest if we’re looking at a tournament on home soil. We haven’t performed near expectations and we don’t want to consider that World Cup game as an anomaly that we won’t see again in the near future. If the players can pull that off against Netherlands, surely they can perform better than they have in the games since.
Turn your focus to results on the pitch, because after this we’ve got qualifiers for the next World Cup. It’s time to step up or step down. Make the decision, but not at the expense of our Socceroos.