With the Asian Cup now begun, everyone is excited about Australia. And to some great extent, we are indeed fully entitled to that, as Ange Postecoglou’s side finally showed some signs of maturity on Friday night, especially in terms of patience shown when trailing 0-1. But despite the scoreline, the match wasn’t all about Socceroos, so let’s shift our focus to Kuwait for the moment.
To start, I should stress this was a very different Kuwaiti side; and one I found to be somewhat refreshing to watch.
The majority of Friday’s much-changed starting line-up was once again recruited from Qadsia (6), as the club‘s owner is also the head of the Kuwaiti FA; but there were still some intriguing changes.
Well ahead of the kick-off, it was already known that the experienced winger Fahad Al-Enezi as well as number-one goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Khaldi would both be out of the tournament; and that the opener would come too soon for regular Fahad Awadh Shaheen.
Nonetheless, coach Nabil Maaloul clearly felt that there was still one veteran too many, so he also dropped the iconic Bader Al-Mutawa to the bench for the first time in the player’s Asian Cup history.
Maaloul wasn’t wrong with this particular move, since the Kuwaitis were suddenly willing to track opponents back responsibly (which is something Al-Mutawa prefers to neglect). The veteran-less Al Azraq looked more balanced and level-headed than they usually do.
While Kuwait weren’t defending as a whole, neither did they demonstrate a complete lack of cohesion this time. They created two separate units – one comprising four defenders plus holding midfielder, and the other one involving the rest of the players – so that every time the more advanced “unit” pushed high towards the half-line to plug an area right behind it, Australia weren‘t able to find any cutting edge.
There was some space between the two groups; but it simply couldn’t be exploited as this “passive-aggressive“ approach bore some rather unexpected fruit with a significant help of strong presence in the air and a number of spectacular (albeit risky) sliding tackles.
I was surprised that Kuwait didn’t stick to this slightly unorthodox game plan for much longer after they took the lead inside the first 10 minutes; instead of further depriving Australia of vital space, they dropped deeper to virtually invite Socceroos to run at them.
Considering the Socceroos had a few runners in Mathew Leckie, Robbie Kruse & James Troisi, all capable of dangerous vertical movement, an extremely deeply-seated bank of five midfielders and one lonely forward up front represented an almost-suicidal tactical switch.
It’s not rocket science. When your opponents are very passive in defence, you – as a distinctively dominant side in near-constant possession of the ball – don’t have more than two options going forward. Either you grow frustrated, or you grow more confident and adventurous in order to exploit the huge amount of free space on offer.
While the former option has grown to be the more frequent selection in football, Australia went with the latter one instead.
As a result, while first half hero Massimo Luongo somehow didn’t turn up for the second part of the game, it didn’t affect the Socceroos since Leckie, Kruse & Franjic were –understandably – improving with every minute. When these three, supported by very steady James Troisi, operated effectively at the same time, Australia could create chances.
In other words, Kuwait weren’t wrong with their defensive approach per se: they actually stumbled onto the perfect strategy. It was rather their sudden turn to passivity that cost them the match, or at least forced such a rapid “collapse.”
Aside from their defending, Kuwait weren’t far from a solid performance. This is true even on the attack, where Al Azraq showed some encouraging signs especially following the introduction of Yousef Nasser, himself another surprising omission in the starting eleven. After all, if it wasn’t for the elastic Mat Ryan and his amazing save against Ebrahim’s raising shot, the scoreline could have been a wide-open 3-2.
To summarize: from Kuwaiti standpoint, the question is no longer whether or not they’ll be thrashed. It has now become whether or not they can stay defensively sound while maintaining a threat up front.
The answer may still not be very kind to Kuwait, but they are still due some amount of credit.