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Holger horror as Socceroos stumble

by John Davidson on Sep 13, 2013

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Pressure is mounting on Australian coach Holger Osieck following the Socceroos’ stunning 6-0 loss to Brazil.

Several ex-Socceroos, analysts and journalists have slammed the German and called for his axing before the World Cup next year. Football Federation Australia is being asked to act now. It is not surprising, the results or performances under Osieck in recent times have hardly been inspiring.

Yes the Socceroos have booked a place in Brazil in 2014, and yes the team did reach the 2011 Asian Cup final under Osieck’s guidance. But a quick look over the Socceroos’ performances during the past three years, not to mention the lack of squad rejuvenation, further reveals that the time really has come for a change at the top.

Former Canada head coach and West Germany assistant Osieck took over in September of 2010, and his first match in charge was a 0-0 draw with Switzerland in St Gallen. This was followed by friendly wins against Poland (2-1) and Paraguay (1-0), and then a convincing 3-0 loss away to Egypt.

The highpoint of Osieck’s tenure came in 2011, first with the Asian Cup. Australia’s second experience in the tournament started with a comfortable 4-0 win over minnows India, a battling 1-1 draw with South Korea and then a tight 1-0 victory against Bahrain, backed by some Mark Schwarzer brilliance.

The Socceroos then progressed into the next stage with a 1-0 win over Iraq, followed by an impressive 6-0 pumping of Uzbekistan and then the final against old foes Japan. A long-ball reliant Australian side battled bravely against the skilful Blue Samurai, almost pulling off of a famous win, but could not kill off the game and as it went to extra time, it was the Japanese who caught left back David Carney out of position with a late goal.

The Socceroos might have missed out on the trophy but the Asian Cup was largely a success. The team was minutes away from winning a major piece of metal. A confident side then headed to Germany for a friendly against Osieck’s homeland.

This match was one of the coach’s best results in the green and gold. Australia fought back from an early goal down to beat a largely experimental German side 2-1 in Monchengladbach. Die Mannschaft still featured the likes of Hummels, Podolski, Muller, Gomez, Klose, Gotze and Schweinsteiger, so the Europeans were hardly pushovers. Next came an easy 3-0 win over New Zealand, a 0-0 draw with Serbia and then a 2-1 win against Wales in Cardiff before the World Cup qualifying kicked off.

Australia was almost embarrassed in both matches by Thailand, but in the end managed 2-1 and 1-0 wins at home and away respectively. Oman were defeated easily in Sydney 3-0 but were too strong for the Socceroos in Muscat where they won 1-0. In between a woeful Malaysia were destroyed 5-0 in a friendly and Saudi Arabia were dispatched 3-0 in a qualifier in Dammam.

In February of 2012 the World Cup qualifiers continued, with the return leg in Melbourne, and the Saudis were eventually put away 4-2 after the Socceroos went behind first and then had to scrap from being 2-1 down.

The Aussies were outplayed by Denmark in a 2-0 loss in their next match, before a 0-0 draw in hot conditions in Oman and then a combative and inspirational 1-1 draw with Japan, in a game where the Socceroos were largely on the back foot.

Edinburgh was the scene of the Socceroos’ next match, a disastrous 3-1 loss to Scotland. Again a feature of the Australian’s play was an inability to hold on to possession, along with simple mistakes. Lebanon were then defeated 3-0 in a friendly before the qualifier against Jordan, which ended in a 2-1 loss. This was another lacklustre performance from the Socceroos. Crucially, Iraq was defeated in the next game 2-1 but only thanks to late second-half strikes from Tim Cahill and Archie Thompson.

The Socceroos were again lucky to avoid defeat. For the 2-1 friendly win over South Korea a number of players made their debuts – Tom Rogic, Aziz Behich, Matthew Leckie and Eli Babalj – but again the team started slow and had to come back from a goal down.

A largely experimental side was sent to Hong Kong in December 2012 to qualify for the East Asian Cup. The Socceroos faced easy opposition and recorded wins over Hong Kong (1-0), Guam (9-0) and Taiwan (8-0), along with a 1-1 draw with North Korea, to book their spot in the tournament.

2013 began with a 3-2 friendly defeat to Romania in the unlikely location of Malaga. It was a similar story in part – the Socceroos fell behind early, rallied and look to be on track for a potentially undeserving win before conceding two late goals. It took the Aussies 22 minutes in that match to get a shot on goal.

The malaise continued in the next game, a 2-2 draw with Oman in Sydney. Oman went ahead 2-0 after 49 minutes, and looked on course for a humbling defeat, before goals to Cahill and Brett Holman saved Australia’s blushes. Overall it was a disappointing and shoddy performance.

However, the Socceroos rose to the occasion in their next match, against Japan in Saitama, and were unlucky to draw the game. Tommy Oar scored in the 82nd minute before a penalty to Keisuke Honda in the 90th minute ended it 1-1.

Needing two wins from the last two qualifiers to confirm a spot in Brazil, a woeful Jordan were soundly beaten 4-0 in a good Socceroos performance. The match against Iraq was different – it was tense, not as one-sided and somewhat anti-climatic – but in the end a third World Cup in a row place was sealed thanks to a 83rd minute Josh Kennedy header.

The Socceroos had qualified for their fourth-ever World Cup but the path was hardly straightforward or inspiring. Warning signs had been evident across the campaign, as early as late 2011. There were struggles against Thailand and a loss to Oman. Draws with Japan and Oman where we were mostly outplayed.

Disappointing friendly defeats to Denmark and Scotland, where we were sluggish again. A deserved 2-1 loss to Jordan. And this year there have been ordinary performances against Romania and Oman, followed by the most recent annihilation at the hands of Brazil.

Technically we have been regularly out played by countries many rungs below us on the FIFA rankings. The performances and results of the Socceroos have been getting worse since 2011. This is unsurprising when you consider the overall age of the Socceroos squad. Australia had the oldest playing group in South Africa in 2010 and is on track to keep this mantle in 2014.

Two years ago, including the Asian Cup games, the Socceroos under Osieck had a 70.5% win rate, with 17.6% draws and 11.7% losses. In 2012, including the easy East Asian Cup qualifying blowouts, this changed to a 53.8% win rate with 23% draws and 23% losses. And it 2013 with only nine games played, so far compared with 13 in 2012 and 17 in 2011, it has slumped to a win rate of 22.2% with 33.3 draws and 44.4% losses.

Now, international football is not just about results or performances alone. The Socceroos have recorded some good results and managed to get results despite several bad performances. This is largely because of the strength of the characters in the squad and the mentality they had. But despite some decent results, many of the performances have been poor. The style of football has been ordinary, the tactics one-dimensional and creativity limited.

Regardless if Osieck sees it as his remit or not, part of the Socceroos role is to rejuvenate the side. This was most evident immediately after South Africa 2010. Bring in new players, evolve the squad and try and introduce them seamlessly.

Now, you could say Osieck has given a lot of players their debuts in the green and gold. These include Matthew Ryan, Mark Birighitti, Mitchell Duke, Tom Juric, Craig Goodwin, Adam Taggart, Aaron Mooy, Erik Paartalu, Ivan Franjic, Jason Davidson, Ryan McGowan, Connor Pain, Eli Babalj, Aziz Behich, Matthew Leckie, Joshua Brillante, Robbie Kruse, Saša Ognenovski, Adam Sarota, Terry Antonis, Michael Marrone and others. At first glance this is a huge number. But he has been helped by the unique situation of the East Asian Cup, where largely A-League players were used. Also most of the caps have been one-offs, not part of a grander plan of introduction and long-term assimilation.

Sure, circumstances, injuries and form have played their part, and some players have not taken their chance, but seemingly there has no grand design or overall thought to selection. In key matches, and often in friendlies too, Osieck has resorted to the same names – Schwarzer, Neill, Ognenovski, McKay, Cahill, Bresciano, Wilkshire, Thompson, Holman – time and time again. The problem is that if all of these veterans remain in the XI at the World Cup in 2014, the Socceroos will undoubtedly falter. A handful can be accommodated but not eight or nine in a starting side.

While the class and commitment of these older players cannot be questioned, as well as their years of invaluable service, age makes no allowances in sport. Some have remained in the squad because there appears to be no adequate replacements; no newcomer has displayed enough to unseat them. Some have stayed because Osieck has not been bold or brave enough, as for far too long the Socceroos have been picked on reputation rather than form. Every player wants to play for as long as they can, with the ultimate goal of representing your country and playing in the World Cup. But it is up to the head coach to decide that, not the player.

Left back remains an issue for the Socceroos. David Carney has largely gone missing until recently, Matt McKay has freshly been exposed in the position and both are not natural left-sided defenders. Several rookies have been tried fleetingly – Behich, Davidson, Thwaite, Zullo, Goodwin – but no sound replacement appeared. Meanwhile other candidates, among them Shane Lowry, Joshua Rose and Bailey Wright, are out there. At right back Luke Wilkshire has a mortgage on the position. But this shouldn’t be the case for a player who has been struggled to get regular game time at his club.

Goalkeeper is another issue. Do the Socceroos preserve with 40-year old Mark Schwarzer who will be riding the pine this season with Chelsea? Mitch Langerak’s situation is difficult, as he is not playing, but surely Mat Ryan at Club Brugge is an option to be considered?

Questions abound across the Socceroos squad. Neill and Ognenovski are too slow a central defensive partnership but who should replace them? Is centre half Rhys Williams best position? Can Luke DeVere get past his injury problems and can Matt Spiranovic realise his full potential? Is Trent Sainsbury the long-term answer?

Osieck has had some success with the positive introductions of Tommy Oar, Robbie Kruse and James Holland. But Australia still lacks a natural striker apart from Josh Kennedy. How is a talent such as Tom Rogic not being used more? Scoring goals away from set pieces and long balls remains a problem.

It can be argued that the Socceroos do not have the same quality of players to call on as they did in 2006 or in other eras. It is true that at the moment most our best players are not playing in the best leagues in the world, as has happened in the past.

The flood of Australians to the Middle East and to weaker cash-rich leagues in Asia like China is a concern. The standard of the A-League has risen and many potential Socceroos are staying home instead of chancing their arm in Europe. But I disagree with the belief there is not enough talent, not enough quality to put together a strong and effective Socceroos side. Australia is still producing good footballers, sure we would like to produce more, but they must be correctly harnessed and nurtured for the good of the national team. Our scouting and coaching must improve, and we need to sufficiently identify and then invest in our future stars.

The writing on the wall for the Socceroos under the man from Duisburg has been there for some time. Many, myself included, have tried to ignore it. We have buried our heads in the sand, prayed that things would get better and that some of the poor performances were just one-offs. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. The time for change has come.

Just who should replace Osieck in the Socceroos’ hot seat is a tough decision. Guus Hiddink could be a stop-gap that may work, but the nostalgia of 2006 might be clouding our heads. Hiddink has recently failed to get Turkey to qualify for Euro 2012 and Russia to qualify for the 2010 World Cup under his watch, although both countries operate in notoriously difficult qualifying environments.

Ange Postecoglu, Graham Arnold and Tony Popovic are all worthy candidates, but their appointment would weaken their respective A-League sides. Football Federation Australia has an unenviable choice to make. We wait to see with bated breath what they do, and hope to hell they get it right. There is little time left.