1. It can all go horribly wrong
Australia were up 3-0 and cruising at half-time when Fox Sports pundit Mark Bosnich declared it the best Socceroos performance he could remember. That’s not to be critical of Bozza, because just about everyone watching was thinking the same, but early in the second half tweets declaring Australia could achieve the impossible in Brazil were hastily deleted and notes for “Five Things We’ve Learned” columns were ever so slightly altered.
Australia’s first-half display showed the way forward in the medium- to long-term, but regrettably the second half showed what it might be like in Brazil. In the first half Australia were given time on the ball and played a very intelligent brand of football, keeping possession well. But they struggled when Ecuador lifted the tempo and the Socceroos were never able to get their foot on the ball and take a breather.
Spaces opened up and Ecuador got one back. From the kick-off Australia tried to keep the ball but played their way into trouble, went long to relieve the pressure, but turned over possession and within the blink of an eye Mitch Langerak made a rash challenge and was sent off. It all went horribly wrong for Australia, and in Brazil they will have to improve at taking the sting out of games.
2. Ange has settled on a formation
Questions over which formation Ange Postecoglou would settle on in Brazil seem to have been answered. In his first game in charge, against Costa Rica, Australia played a 4-2-3-1 and Postecoglou decided to stick with it against Ecuador. It is not a shift away from the formation Holger Osieck favoured when he was in charge, but there has been a huge change in personnel, approach and tempo.
Postecoglou said the Ecuador match was an opportunity to look at “building a new core in the team” and the signs were promising in the first half. Australia played out from the back and maintained possession, yet they were far from tiki-takering their way through an international opponent. They played with purpose and moved the ball around quicker than fans had become accustomed to under Osieck. Mark Milligan and new captain Mile Jedinak provided options in the middle for the defenders to pass to and moved the ball forward quickly to exploit the spaces left in between the lines.
Tommy Oar, Tom Rogic and Mathew Leckie were selected in the band of three behind striker Tim Cahill. Oar is a more natural winger than Alex Brosque, a player who frequently played on the left under Osieck and Rogic provides a greater creative threat than Brett Holman in the No10 role. Robbie Kruse will be a loss, but Oar, Rogic and Leckie provided a distraction for the Ecuadorian defence and made life easier for Cahill.
3. Tim Cahill is always a threat in the air
When Postecoglou was appointed Socceroos manager, a revolution was expected. His success with Brisbane Roar changed the way teams tried to play in the A-League and he implemented a unique style of play at Melbourne Victory which again forced opponents to adjust and adapt.
While his two sides played differently, there was a common element in their final third play – neither relied on crossing. Whereas Brisbane looked to get the ball inside the box and to the byline to look for a cut back, Melbourne tried to break with space in behind and play a square ball across the box. Neither side wanted to cross aerially.
So what do you do with a man who is the all-time leader in headed goals in the Premier League? “Whip it in early, bank on Timmy being there” were the instructions from Postecoglou to Oar during Australia’s only pre-match training session. When you have a weapon, you use it, and Postecoglou has shown he is not afraid to be flexible.
Incredibly, nine of Cahill’s past 11 Socceroos goals have been with his head. All 11 came as a result of a cross (five from set pieces and six from open play). As opposed to the style of play under Osieck, in which Luke Wilkshire at right back had a trademark 50 metre diagonal looking for the head of Cahill, the Socceroos now look to play out from the back, drawing the opposition forward and opening spaces in between the lines for the likes of Oar, Leckie and Rogic. That allowed Cahill to find numerous opportunities where he was left 1-v-1 with a defender. If the delivery is good, there will be only one winner.
4. Congratulations Mat Ryan
There is surely no debate over who will wear the No1 in Brazil. At half-time Mat Ryan would have been thinking it was a job well done. Ryan had little to do, made no errors and looked assured behind a back four that was rarely tested in the first half. After starting in both of Postecoglou’s games as manager, he would have known his closest competitor for goalkeeper’s jersey, Langerak, would have to pull out something special to displace him.
When he emerged from the dressing room freshly showered after 62 minutes, Langerak had managed to concede a goal, concede a penalty and get himself sent off. Within 10 minutes of coming on Brad Jones, the third goalkeeper of the night, had managed to get himself in a tangle, lose possession and watch helplessly as Enner Valencia somehow missed an open goal.
In truth, there never really should have been a debate about the position. While Langerak and Jones warm the pine for big clubs in top European leagues, Ryan is playing every game for Club Brugge in Belgium. Already this season he has amassed more than 30 club appearances, compared with three for Jones and seven for Langerak.
Ryan is the perfect Postecoglou goalkeeper. He has exceptional distribution with both his (favoured) right and left foot, is quick off his line and can sense an opportunity to counter attack by throwing early or using longer Pepe Reina-style kicks from the hand . That makes him comfortable in situations where a patient, possession game is required but also adept at playing in a more counter attacking style.
5. Australia still struggle against fast, mobile attackers
If you are a team that struggles against fast and skilful attackers, you aren’t alone, but Australia seem to have had more than their fair share of difficulties recently. Neymar and Bernard troubled Australia when Brazil put six goals past them, and it was an identical scoreline when France’s Franck Ribery gave the defence nightmares.
Ecuador had no world-class individual, but they did have athletic forwards who looked to run in behind the defence. The first and third Ecuador goals were scored in similar fashion – a ball played in behind Australia’s defence, then across the goal for a relative tap in. Against Chile at the World Cup Australia are likely to face Alexis Sanchez, against the Netherlands it will be Arjen Robben and against Spain (considering it will be the final group match and Spain may rotate players) perhaps Jesus Navas.