Could the Socceroos really miss Russia 2018?

by Tunna on Nov 17, 2016

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Qualification is not meant to be easy, and in every campaign there are moments where performances either dip, or the opposition lifts to unanticipated levels, but we are now faced with a once unfathomable possibility, missing Russsia 2018? GGArmy man Adam ‘Tunna’ Tennenini ponders the unthinkable.

Japan has struggled at times, and the general level of ability and competitiveness among the nations in Asia has, at this particular moment, become much closer.

After qualifying via a playoff to reach Germany 2006, and qualification through the Asian Football Confederation under foreign coaches in 2010 and 2014, Ange Postecoglou now faces the serious threat of missing out at his first attempt. It’s an arduous campaign and fans have been left scratching their heads after tasting success as recently as the Asian Cup in 2015.

How has is it gone so wrong so quickly for the Socceroos? Or has it?

Firstly, let's put Australia's Asian Cup success in context. It was our home tournament. Any leading football nation in the region should go in as heavy favorites for a home tournament. Hosts have won 7 out of 16 Asian Cups, with another 2 hosts reaching the final.

It is this statistic which could prove the most advantageous for Australia in this current round of qualifying. The Socceroos have three home games remaining (out of 5), with table-toppers Japan and Saudi Arabia only having two. In such an evenly contested group, it could be the Socceroos' home fortunes which sees them through.

With Japan and Saudi Arabia still yet to face each other in the Middle East, it is guaranteed at least one of these sides will drop points. Postecoglou is correct in saying qualification is still in our own hands. But with three consecutive draws, the likelihood of us pulling off five consecutive victories is very remote indeed.

How did we get in this situation?

Firstly, Ange was explicit some time ago about only starting players that are playing regularly for their clubs. Well, history has conspired against this grand ambition because quite simply a number of our most talented players are not anywhere near playing regularly. If you scratch the surface and you find a number of them getting precious little game time with their club teams or competing in lower leagues.

Robbie Kruse, as the prime example, shows the dilemma we face. So often the talisman in attack and without any doubt the most talented when he is in full flight. He is also one of the most committed on the park. But he has not seen one minute of senior football this season. A lack of credible alternatives means he not only makes the squad, but is in contention to start every time. Matt Ryan, despite some heroic shot stopping in the last few games, looks rusty at best having played more minutes for his national team than Valencia recently. Brad Smith has been nowhere near a start for Bournemouth, while Tomi Juric has been sidelined with injury.

The second dilemma stems from a situation that came around a while ago. At a moment when the national team was in rude health, there was intense speculation about what our starting 11 would be. Ange, acknowledging the situation, suggested through the media that perhaps there is no set starting 11 and instead we would have various players fulfilling roles as needed. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this view, but at the moment our disjointed and sometimes chaotic approach when in possession highlights how little the current squad has a basic understanding of their teammate’s movements and preferences.

Thirdly, a failure to execute at a basic skill level has cost us dearly. Much was made of the poor pitch on Tuesday night in Bangkok, with a number of clear cut chances spurned thanks to a bobbling ball on a bumpy pitch. But that same pitch didn't seem to cause as many problems for our opponents, who were able to thread precise passes the length of the pitch and control the ball in tight spaces even while under pressure. The Socceroos seem to need a bowling green and an absence of any opponent in the near vicinity to have any hope of controlling a pass or hitting an accurate ball to a team mate. And remember, our last home game on a beautiful playing surface was the setting for a particularly poor performance against a relatively poor Japan.

Our combination play is often mediocre and ineffective, leading to an inability to create goal scoring opportunities. If it is not enough that our combination play is poor we seem to have descended to new technical lows. The four core skills in the national curriculum are; Running with the ball, first touch, 1 v 1 and striking the ball. Can we honestly say that as a team the Socceroos are currently performing at the level required to qualify for a World Cup?

Fourth, desire. Yes the Thais were mourning their King. Yes they had an extended camp to prepare for the match. Yes of course they were up for it. But this is World Cup qualification on the line. In football, it simply does not get any bigger than this. Australian fans would be horrified if they ever suspected desire or motivation was in any way lacking from this team. At this level, there is absolutely no excuse for being less motivated than any opponent.

The game against Thailand was so tactically and technically inept it will provide the FFA’s coaching department with plenty of material for future coaching courses. There were enough ‘football problems’ to keep coaching candidates busy in analysis for a few years to come.

With four months until the next World Cup qualifier, Ange has plenty of time to examine the current malaise and devise appropriate solutions. But it will require a singularly focused approach from the Socceroos.