Monday, 26 September 2011

Australia's Squad Analysis: Central Midfield

Central Midfield:
Holger has demonstrated a preference for a double pivot in midfield. ‘Double pivot’ refers to a pair of midfielders that operate in tandem. Stereotypically, one fulfils the tackler role, by providing an extra layer of defensive security and disrupting opposition attacks, while the other fulfils the passer role, keeping possession in midfield, ensuring he is free to provide a safe outlet and distributing the ball. Together, the double pivot acts as a bulwark in front the back-four and a platform for the attacking four. The five players below are central midfielders at club level, but for the national team, Holger prefers to station McKay at left midfield to drift inside. This may indicate Holger holds reservations about McKay’s ability to operate in midfield without the security of the double pivot behind him, or simply that Holger prefers the ‘safety first’ approach common to international football short on preparation time.  

Matt McKay
Matt McKay (Rangers) has been a revelation since breaking through the Australia squad. He has established himself as one of the most important players in the line-up, thanks to his creative short-passing, intelligent movement, endless stamina, and determination to become a decisive influence. Matt’s performances under Osieck speak for themselves; extra-time assist to send Australia past Iraq into the semi-finals, 3 assists in the Uzbekistan rout, match winning assists against Germany and Thailand; it’s fair to say we wouldn’t have reached our first continental final without him. McKay’s creative movement and passing have become indispensible for Osieck; next to Brett Holman, Matt is now firmly established as a cornerstone of this Socceroos squad, surpassing Australian legends like Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell.

His arrival on the international stage will hopefully become the prototype for the progress of future Australian internationals; excellent performance in the A-League to earn chances to impress for the Socceroos, which will then place them in the shop window for clubs overseas. McKay is the first player to move on from the A-League not just as a young and talented prospect, but a near-complete ‘1st team’ option.       

Mile Jedinak

Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace) is another player who made his name in the A-League. He is a lumbering physical presence, dominant in the air, and the prototypical ‘destroyer’. Jedinak is adept at disrupting opposition attacks, but he also looks to impose himself in Australia’s attacking half. He scored twice during the Asian Cup, against Bahrain and Korea. His strength and height also render Jedinak a considerable threat during set-pieces. Jedinak is tireless; during the Asian Cup, he was repeatedly running the longest distances; his impressive stamina ensures he remains influential throughout entire matches, which is crucial to the fulfilment of his defensive responsibilities. Osieck relies on Jedinak when a robust presence is required in midfield, and more often than not, Mile delivers.

Carl Valeri
Carl Valeri (Sassuolo) possesses attributes ideal for the double pivot; able in the tackle and composed in possession, Carl’s abilities complement and contrast those of Kilkenny and Jedinak. For many years, Valeri was saddled with the unenviable position of understudy to Australia’s midfield enforcer, Vince Grella, and a matching nickname of “Mini Vinny” to boot. Under Osieck, Valeri has established himself in the Socceroos line-up, and will most likely remain a vital component for World Cup qualification. Holger seems to prefer pairing Valeri with either Kilkenny or Jedinak; the former combination is more adept at rapid passing moves in concert with McKay (against Wales), while the latter pairing seems to be preferred when a more defensive approach is required (against Saudi Arabia).      

Neil Kilkenny
Neil Kilkenny (Bristol City) is another player who has benefitted immensely from the arrival of Holger, and the consequent clean slate. Frozen out of contention by Arnold and Verbeek for unfathomable reasons, Kilkenny is an excellent passing midfielder. His contribution to Australia has been criticised for being only ‘sideways passes’; but this overlooks Kilkenny’s obvious function – to distribute the ball and keep possession. In this, Neil has produced consistent and reliable performances. Kilkenny’s best performance for Australia to date was the match against Wales. In Cardiff, with McKay drifting central and Valeri alongside, Australia’s midfield was intelligent, dynamic, fast and penetrative. This rapid tempo of play seems to suit Kilkenny best, where he looks to distribute the ball to wide players, and keep possession with his midfield partners.
Jason Culina
Jason Culina (Newcastle) Jason deserves acclaim, respect and gratitude for returning to Australia and foregoing the fame and Dutch honours on offer at PSV in order to establish a legacy back in his homeland. Unfortunately, Culina has suffered a second serious knee injury requiring surgery, and he will not be able to play again until 2012. He had already arguably slipped down the pecking order in central midfield under Osieck, having not played since sustaining a separate injury in the group stages of the Asian Cup. With Valeri, Jedinak and Kilkenny delivering dynamic performances in the Green and Gold, and Culina part of a group of senior Socceroos in their early to mid 30s, it is difficult to see how Culina can stake a stronger claim for a role at Brazil 2014.

It will be interesting to see whether Holger perseveres with his 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid; shifting McKay from left midfield into the double pivot, partnered by either Jedinak, Valeri or Kilkenny, may become a viable option, though it would require sacrificing security in central midfield in exchange for a genuine left winger. Countering that, is the fact that Osieck has concocted a system that works well and suits the players at his disposal.

Since McKay, no other A-League players have broken through into Socceroos contention. The obvious options are Massimo Murdocca (Brisbane), Erik Paartalu (Brisbane) and Matt Thompson (Heart). With the current surfeit of performers available, it is difficult to envision any A-League central midfielders receiving a call-up.

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