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Van Marwijk era begins, so what did we learn?

by Sebastian Hassett on Apr 05, 2018

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After all the talking, waiting, wondering and hoping, we finally got a look at the Socceroos under Bert van Marwijk.

It was an instructive week more than an inspiring one. We, as fans, learned about how the team will play under the Dutchman’s reign and the sort of approach they’ll go for in Russia.

In previous columns, I predicted that the 4-2-3-1 would be quickly installed and this is exactly what happened. But that’s hardly being Nostradamus; that’s pretty much the default formation for any manager who is unsure about his team.

Did it work? Against Norway it failed miserably but against Colombia, it was better. How can we account for such disparity in performance?

One, it takes some time to get used to the new coach, for players need to adjust to their new roles and demands. Add in an unfamiliar environment, some new faces and new voices and it’s not hard to see why it all fell apart in Oslo.

The players seemed slightly more prepared in London, albeit had the South Americans been 10 per cent sharper around goal, they’d have won 3-0 or 4-0.

From the adventurous style of Ange Postecoglou, which built up from the back, we now have a style that retreats from the front. Ultimately, you get what you pay for. Pragmatism will be the name of the game under the Dutchman.

It’s clear that Australia’s strategy will be about sitting back, absorbing the waves of attack, and then grabbing a goal on the break.

There are two problems with this. One, Australia isn’t that great defensively and two, we probably lack the mix of technical expertise and raw speed to expose high-level opposition on the break.

My personal preference would be for a higher press, one that forces the opposition into longer balls, which our defenders would be happy to deal with. But that’s just not going to happen under this coach. It's a real fingers-crossed job.

The problem with van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 is that it reveals Australia’s undeniable issue in defence – our wide defenders can get exposed when left one-on-one. While Aziz Behich appears to be the first-choice on the left (like it or not), we are beholden to a slew of unsatisfying options on the right.

Bailey Wright was found in cold blood against Norway. There were few redeeming qualities about his performance out wide, even if that’s where he’s been playing his club football recently. Josh Risdon was better against Colombia but needs more opportunities at this level before getting the final seal of approval.

I’ve long advocated for Mark Milligan to be used at right-back but I might reconsider that view. I’ve been told Milligan, who turns 33 in August, doesn’t fancy playing there. Perhaps it is more sensible to think of him as a bench option in Russia.

Ivan Franjic is starting to get through 90 minutes on a regular basis, albeit not always at right-back for Brisbane Roar. If he can put together a barnstorming month in the A-League, you’d have to look at him again. Another thing to cross the fingers about.

Pleasingly, Massimo Luongo has booked his spot in Russia with an outstanding display against Colombia. He wasn’t in my starting XI but there’s an argument to say he could push either of Tom Rogic or Mile Jedinak out of the side, assuming Aaron Mooy is a lock.

So good in the qualifying play-offs, Jedinak struggled in the past week and soon a conversation will emerge about the choice between he and Luongo. The incumbent still has my vote. I won’t forget his presence under pressure, especially in both legs against Honduras.

Is there room for Dimi Petratos and Andrew Nabbout in Russia? It certainly wasn’t lack of effort that cost them. In any event, you get the feeling they need to go through a proper World Cup qualifying cycle to be ready to compete at this level. Maybe the Asian Cup is a better time for their insertion.

I wouldn’t read too much into the performances of Robbie Kruse, Mat Leckie or Tomi Juric. We know what they can do. They’re not perfect, but they’re the best of what we have right now.

Probably the best news out of the past week came from elsewhere.

France capitulated to Colombia in Paris and were lambasted by critics for a dreadful 45 minutes, perhaps exposing their frailties. Maybe we won’t get wrecked by them, after all.

But with Peru and Denmark both posting wins against World Cup opposition this week, it’s clear that Australia has their work cut out in Russia.