Sunday, 11 September 2011

Australia's Squad Analysis: Goal Keeper and Defence

This is an examination of Australia’s squad depth, which has developed considerably under Osieck. Although Australia remain reliant on an experienced core, a number of players have staked successful claims to berths in the squad and team. This analysis is based on a back-four.
Goal Keeper:
Mark Schwarzer (Fulham) is still the undisputed no. 1 custodian. A superb shot stopper, Mark’s greatest quality is the confidence he instils in the backline, with the knowledge that they have a reliable keeper behind them. One of Mark's deficiencies is his relative weakness with the ball at his feet. Like most keepers of his generation, the distribution out of the back is left to the defenders in front of him.
Mark Schwarzer
The pecking order behind Schwarzer is largely the same, except for Brad Jones who seems to have slipped out of contention due to family reasons. Waiting in the wings is Adam Federici (Reading) and Nathan Coe (Sonderjyske). Both players are considered the No 1’s at their respective clubs. Behind Federici and Coe, the Socceroos also have Mitch Langerak who has only made one starting appearance for Dortmund, but performed brilliant against Munich. Ostensibly, he is considered the long-term option for Dortmund.
Of the A-League contingent, Michael Theoklitos (Brisbane) and Eugene Galekovic (Adelaide) are the stand out performers, but I don’t foresee Holger calling them up to be anything other than backups.

Central Defence:
Contrary to popular opinion, Lucas Neill (Al-Jazira) is still very much a crucial component of Australia’s line up, and will continue to be so until another young defender can stake a strong claim as his replacement. Neill’s most important qualities are the leadership he provides, the organisation he imposes on the backline, and his distribution. Neill is crucial to building Australian attacks from the back line, and having experience at RB means he is able to compensate for Emerton’s cutting in and Wilkshire’s overlapping quite comfortably.
Lucas Neill
Sasa Ognenovski (Seongnam) has proven to be an effective defender and partner to Neill. His determination manifests itself on the pitch by his ceaseless harrying of the opposition attackers, and his technical ability in the tackle has been showcased with some particular athletic challenges, especially against Germany. He is also a considerable threat during set-pieces, scoring against Uzbekistan after a free-kick. However, there are several factors counting against him. Ognenovski has no European top flight experience; while this isn’t so significant against smaller Asian teams, it may become a factor when Australia face top 20 national teams. He also seems noticeably less sure on the ball than Neill, often playing the short pass to his defensive partner to then distribute. And Ognenovski has bloomed relatively lately as a player.
Sasa Ognenovski
Matthew Spiranovic’s (Urawa) stock has risen considerably recently. His best performance for the Green and Gold was undoubtedly against Wales. In Cardiff, he displayed poise, confidence, versatility and technique. Undoubtedly, provided he remains injury free, he will one day usurp Neill as the backline’s distributor. He showed his comfort playing on the flanks, when compensating for the runs of Zullo and the drifting of McKay. And when challenged by Bellamy, Spiranovic displayed his intelligence, awareness, calmness and elegance, performing a languid turn to shake the Welsh attacker before passing forward.

Luke DeVere (Gyeongnam) and Mark Miligan (JEF United) have been called up by Holger recently, and with both playing in Asia, seem to be possible defensive alternatives. DeVere performed brilliantly for Brisbane, showcasing an ability to attack and defend in equal measure. Perhaps he is another candidate for a full-back position. During the Asian Cup, Jon McKain (Adelaide) and Jade North (Tokyo) were called up as defensive backups. McKain has returned to Australia while North is not a regular contributor to Tokyo.

In PM’s view, our ‘1st choice’ defensive pairing should be allying the versatility and mobility of Spiranovic to the distribution and leadership of Neill. It is encouraging to have access to such depth of proven performers; 7 defenders for 2 berths.

Although no A-League central defenders have been called up, the outstanding performers would have to be Alex Wilksinson (Mariners), Michael Thwaite (Gold Coast) and Nikolai Topor-Stanley (Newcastle). It seems particularly unfair that Wilkinson has not yet been named even for the squad; similiar to McKay, Wilkinson seems to be a talent that will improve among better players.

Left Back:
David Carney (unattached) was the incumbent of Australia’s left-back berth, performing excellently during and after the Asian Cup. Under Holger, Carney has scored goals against Paraguay, Uzbekistan and Germany.
David Carney
Michael Zullo (Utrecht) is another young player who has made his mark for Australia, performing well against New Zealand, Serbia, Wales and Saudi Arabia. Zullo made his name as a tricker winger for Brisbane Roar, and moved to FC Utrecht in the Eredivise.
Michael Zullo
Both players contribute similar qualities to Australia’s line-up, which isn’t too surprising given both started their careers as attacking players and were converted to attacking fullbacks. When deployed on the left flank, Zullo and Carney are expected to work in tandem with Matt McKay, providing width and pace on the left flank which McKay lacks, as he cuts inside to dictate play.

There does seem to be subtle differences between the two however. Zullo’s instinct when attacking seems to be to stay wide and cross the ball, whereas Carney seems to have a preference for heading toward goal; Zullo retains his instinct as a genuine winger, racing for the goal line. Carney however presents a significant goal threat, looking to cut in and present himself as an option for the through ball, with goals against Paraguay, Germany and Uzbekistan, all coming from attacking forays down the left.

When Kewell started up front, Australia’s left side become a remarkably potent attacking force. When dropping deep, Harry would often drift left, a remnant of his days as a marauding left winger. This compensated brilliantly for Carney’s rampages up-field while also bringing Harry into natural proximity with McKay, facilitating rapid passing moves. This was illustrated by Australia’s first goal against Uzbekistan, which came from a McKay through ball to Kewell.

Although no left-backs from the A-League have been called up, the stand out performers would seem to be Josh Rose (Central Coast) and Aziz Behich (Melb Heart). Behich is another converted winger, while Rose is a converted striker.

Right Back:
Luke Wilkshire (Dynamo Moscow) is the incumbent in Australia’s right-back position. He is an extremely versatile and reliable player, always performing to an exceptional standard for Australia. He can be counted upon to defend and attack in equal measure, rarely allowing either facet of his game to interfere with the other. His crossing from the right flank is a regular outlet for Australia, and he is seemingly Holger’s 1st choice penalty and right-sided corner taker.

Wilkshire’s greatest strength is his relationship with Brett Emerton. Both players are also extremely versatile, and have developed a close relationship on the pitch, compensating and complementing the other’s movement. When Emerton cuts in, Wilkshire comes close to cover; when Wilkshire overlaps, Emerton drifts wide and deep to cover. 
Luke Wilkshire
Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough) is a similar player to Wilkshire, being superb in defence and attack. His club boss has yet to decide where to regularly deploy Williams; he has been given starts in central defence, at right-back, defensive midfield and attacking midfield. His versatility is indicative of his numerous qualities. Holger however has publicly declared William’s best position to be right back and in this Holger has displayed his tactical astuteness. Most of the media were rather perplexed with Osieck’s decision, but as Zonal Marking and Jonathan Wilson have previously explained, fullback is now one of the most influential positions in the team, as they are regularly the only players with space in front of them. The duties of the obsolete box-to-box midfielder, whose appearnce in the game has disappeared with the advent of four bands in formations (4-2-3-1 over 4-4-2) have been outsourced to fullback.
Rhys Williams
Chris Herd (Aston Villa) has never made any appearances for the senior squad, but has recently staked a claim for Villa’s right-back position with the departure of Young, the incumbent. He performed well against Wolverhampton, attacking and defending in equal measure, and nearly stole the points with a last-gasp header. There have been whispers of Herd defecting to Scotland, but these should probably be dismissed as an agent’s attempts to engineer a cap. Holger has acted prudently in securing Australian talent; if Herd is plays regularly, he will probably receive a call up to the up-coming qualifiers.

Again, no right-backs from the A-League have received call-ups, but the stand out performers would seem to be Ivan Franjic (Brisbane) and Michael Marrone (Melb Heart). It is similiarly encouraging to have a plethora of options for the right-back berth. Marrone was on the cusp of a move to Serie A before the manager was sacked; expect a move for him next year if he performs to a similar standard.

There is plenty to be optimistic about in Australia's options for defence. We have immediate successors already in place for the positions of Keeper, Central Defence (distributor) and Right-back and two realistic 'starting' prospects for Left-back. It would be more encouraging to have an option for a different type of left-back however; more inclined to defend than attack.

Given the fact that Australia's next 4 qualifying games occur during the A-League season, it would be particularly encouraging for Holger to call up a squad, for at least the last 3 games (when the A-League is in full swing), largely composed of Australian and/or Asian based players. There is plenty of experience to leaven the number of potential debutants, if you include Kewell (Melbourne Victory), Emerton (Sydney), Culina (Newcastle), Ognenovski (Seongnam), Brosque (Shimzu),  and Spiranovic (Urawa). It could make for a fascinating test of the A-League's quality.

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