It’s time to choose, Holger

by Michael Huguenin on Nov 17, 2011

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‘Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.’

Sasa Ognenovski must be wondering why he didn’t keep his mouth shut.

The Korea-based central defender was very vocal in the lead up to Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Thailand. Ognenovski insisted that Australia’s manager Holger Osieck, make up his mind about his preferred central defensive pairing and stick with it. Osieck had been rotating ‘The Og Monster’ with Matthew Spiranovic.

Unfortunately for Ognenovski, it seems Osieck took his advice. Against Thailand, Spiranovic started again. It was the 23-year-old’s third World Cup qualifier in a row and Spiranovic looks to have cemented a starting spot for the Socceroos.

Since Osieck took on Australia’s top job after last year’s World Cup, the Socceroos have undergone a steady transformation. A combination of Osieck’s football philosophy and pure necessity has seen plenty of new players brought into the national team. Matt McKay, Michael Zullo and Matthew Spiranovic have been success stories. Others, like Neil Kilkenny, aren’t quite there yet.

But as Ognenovski alluded to, it’s time for Osieck to start making up his mind. Both in terms of tactics and personnel, the former Urawa Red Diamonds’ boss needs to settle on a plan so that he can fine-tune his team in preparation for the next World Cup.

Osieck has taken charge of 21 international matches as Socceroos’ boss. Including February’s dead rubber against Saudi Arabia, Australia has nine more qualifiers (assuming we don’t end up in a play-off situation). Plus the Socceroos will most likely play around half a dozen friendlies between now and the 2014 World Cup. So let’s assume Osieck has 15 matches left before Australia’s first World Cup match in Brazil.

15 matches is a lot of game time in international football. But considering Osieck still has some kinks to sort out, he can’t waste too much time. It’s time for the 63-year-old to make some decisions. In my opinion these kinks (and the decisions Osieck has to make) can be summarised in four broad questions:

Does Osieck want a free-flowing, passing team?

After Pim Verbeek’s reign as manager, Osieck’s football philosophy has been a breath of fresh air. The past year has seen, in general, a much more attack-minded, free-flowing Socceroos side. It’s what Aussie fans enjoy.

That’s why Australia’s performances in the past week have been so disappointing. The Socceroos looked flat. Their ball-movement was slow. They stopped moving.

Fellow GGArmy blogger Sebastian Hassett summed it up perfectly: “We only need one holding midfielder.”

The combination of Mile Jedinak and Carl Valeri is too defensive. Not many teams in the world have their two worst passers of the ball in central midfield but right now it seems like the Socceroos do. Both give away possession far too often. They also take too long to make decisions, meaning they rarely turn on the ball straight away and look to attack. Most of their passes go backwards or to the side. I’ve already called for McKay to be put in central midfield but either way, if Osieck wants a team that controls possession, he needs more creative, skilful players in the team.

This will also help Brett Holman. The AZ Alkmaar midfielder has been a revelation since last year’s World Cup but he isn’t a classic playmaker. Holman buzzes around the pitch, plays one-twos and tries to get into scoring positions. But he doesn’t sit on the ball and dictate play from the centre of the park. Someone else needs to be in the middle knocking the ball around and feeding Holman in the final third. In the past two matches Holman went long periods without touching the ball because the midfielders behind him kept losing possession.

Which veterans are going to Brazil?

Osieck has shown a willingness to bring younger players into the Socceroos system but has yet to make the tough calls on Australia’s veterans. Vince Grella and Mark Bresciano seemingly made it easy for Osieck and excused themselves. But Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton all remain and are all keen to go to Brazil in three years time.

The reality is that the Socceroos have gotten used to not having Cahill, Kewell and Emerton all on the park at one time. This trio hasn’t started a match together since Australia’s third group match at the Asian Cup against Bahrain. Osieck has created a team that generally works well together but trying to fit Cahill, Kewell and Emerton into the starting line up squeezes key players like Holman and McKay into unfamiliar positions or onto the bench.

Osieck needs to decide which veterans he can do without.

It doesn’t stop there. In my opinion, Neill’s performances in central defence deserve to be put under the microscope. Australia’s skipper leaves huge gaps in the middle of our back four. For example, against Thailand in Brisbane, Neill neglected to get close to Teerasil Dangda for Thailand’s goal. The cross came in and Neill was at least a metre away from Dangda as the Thai striker scored. Against Oman on Friday, Rhys Williams was the one chasing Amad Al Hosni through the middle. Neill was barely in the picture as the Omanis took the lead.

It seems Mark Schwarzer is the veteran most likely to line up for the Socceroos in Brazil. But a 41-year-old in the starting line up is hard to rationalise. If Osieck has any doubts that Schwarzer won’t be up for it then it’s time to hand Adam Federici the gloves and give him the time he’ll need to be perfectly comfortable on the international stage.

Where are the goals coming from?

Against Thailand, Osieck picked only two players who have scored more than 10 international goals (Josh Kennedy and Brett Emerton). Brett Holman can also be considered a true goal scorer at international level since the World Cup. But Emerton’s recent goal-scoring record isn’t that flash. Just two goals in two years.

Australia looked fairly one-dimensional against Thailand. Kennedy and Holman were the only genuine threats to the Thai goal and the Thai defence swamped them. While Kennedy’s partnership with Cahill didn’t work too well against Thailand in September, it’s hard to see how Osieck can leave Cahill out of the side when he’s fit. The Everton man’s goal scoring ability is invaluable.

That’s another reason why I believe McKay in central midfield makes sense. With attacking fullbacks like Michael Zullo and Luke Wilkshire, Osieck doesn’t need classic wingers who always hug the touchline. The ‘wingers’ in Osieck’s 4-2-3-1 can be more like extra strikers. Holman could be played on the right, allowing Cahill to slot in behind Kennedy. The options provided by extra strikers would stretch opposition defences.

Australia has a bunch of very exciting young attackers who don’t mind drifting in from wide positions. Robbie Kruse has impressed, while James Troisi, Tommy Oar, Nikita Rukavytsya and Matthew Leckie are all worth a shot. Osieck can’t rely on just two players to score goals.

Does Osieck pick his favourites or base his selections on form?

The paragraph above leads me to my last point. Osieck claimed, early in his tenure, that he would pick players based on their club form and not on reputation. Seemingly this meant that there wouldn’t be any preferential treatment. Osieck wouldn’t have ‘favourites’.

It’s time for Osieck to back that up.

Robbie Kruse has been very handy since making his debut for the Socceroos just before the Asian Cup. But the fact is that the 23-year-old has played only two games for Fortuna Dusseldorf since joining the Bundesliga 2 side. Meanwhile Tommy Oar and James Troisi have been constantly on the pitch for their clubs, playing a level of football arguably higher than Germany’s second-tier.

I don’t necessarily believe that Kruse shouldn’t be in the Socceroos’ squad but I do think that some of the other young Aussies doing well in Europe deserve to be called up. Oar hasn’t played for the Socceroos since Australia’s pre-Asian Cup friendly against United Arab Emirates, despite playing in nine of FC Utrecht’s 12 matches this season. Nikita Rukavytsya hasn’t pulled on a green and gold shirt since August last year, despite seven appearances in the Bundesliga for Hertha Berlin.

If Osieck believes Oar or Rukavytsya don’t deserve to be selected he needs to explain why, because on form it’s hard to understand.

Osieck has impressed many so far with his willingness to make hard decisions. The German tactician retained Matt McKay for Australia’s final two matches at the Asian Cup, leaving Brett Emerton on the bench. Osieck made Cahill warm the pine in the Socceroos’ 3-1 victory against Saudi Arabia after the Everton attacker’s poor performance against Thailand in Brisbane. The Socceroos gaffer has seemingly made a decision for the future by selecting Spiranovic over Ognenovski.

But there are still some hard decisions left and Osieck’s choices could be crucial in terms of both qualifying for, and succeeding at, the World Cup in 2014.