Thursday, 8 September 2011

Saudi Arabia 1 - 3 Australia: Match Report

This was a much improved and professional performance by the Socceroos. Holger recognised and rectified his selection errors from the match against Thailand, and sent out more robust players. While this line-up did not quite achieve the attacking fluency that was on display against Wales, this was still an encouraging performance. Australia attacked with movement, and defended with numbers, never really coming under sustained pressure by the Saudis.

Australia's system:
Holger reinstated his favoured 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid, shuffling a few players around positions and exchanging a few for the bench.

Ognenovski was preferred to Spiranovic to partner Neill in defence. Ognenovski is more a robust and physical defender, but it seemingly less confident on the ball and less comfortable on the flank. With him and Neill at the back, Australia did not hold a high defensive line, as this would have exposed both CB's for lack of pace with high balls in behind.
Zullo was restored to LB, while McKay was pushed up to LM. As stated before by PM, this allows Zullo to provide the width and the pace on the left flank that McKay lacks, as he cuts inside and looks to link with team mates and pass creatively.
Cahill was pushed to the bench with Holman preferred in his stead. Behind the striker in a roaming role is Holman’s natural position, and he was very effective against the Saudis. Freed from defensive responsibilities along the flanks, Holman was adept at becoming the ‘extra man’ all over the pitch, overloading the flanks, playing off Kennedy and dropping deep to help defend.
Surprisingly, Holger persevered with Kennedy up front, and he was well rewarded. Kennedy put in a much improved performance, being noticeably more mobile. As PM called for previously, Kennedy dropped deep, linked with midfield, vacating space, which allowed Emerton and Holman to exploit the area between the Saudi defence and midfield.
Holger also persevered with Emerton and Wilkshire on the right flank, which PM did not believe would happen, as is documented in our Prediction/Preview. Emerton in particular seized advantage of Kennedy and Holman’s more mobile front line, cutting into midfield frequently, and switching the direction of play.
Jedinak was preferred to partner Valeri as the double pivot, with Kilkenny dropped to the bench. While the division isn’t as clear cut, generally, Kilkenny can be perceived as the midfield passer, while Jedinak is more of a midfield tackler. And he had a noticeable impact initially, putting in tough challenges in Saudi’s defensive half.

Saudi Arabia’s system:
Rijkaard set Saudi out in an attacking and fluid 4-2-3-1 shape, which often became 4-1-4-1, when Karriri joined Al-Sahlawi in attack.
There was an obvious strategy behind Saudi’s attack; to try to overlap on the flanks. Sahlawi, nominally behind the striker, spread to the flanks, looking to overload Australia by linking with Jassim and Fallatam, the Saudi wide attackers. Raheeb and Dossary were very attack-minded full backs, getting wide and looking to drill crosses across goal for the attacking 4 to latch onto.
Montashari played very aggressively for a CB at times, joining the midfield and leaving only 3 of the 4 nominal defenders behind the ball.
PM speculates Rijkaard observed the Thailand match and decided that Australia’s wide men lacked pace. McKay, started at LB, looked particularly weak, and Rijkaard probably decided the best way to attack Australia would be to exploit this perceived weakness down the flank.
During attacks, the wide men, aided by their full-back and Sahlawi, would look to penetrate as far to the goal line as possible. When stopped, they would switch play through Karriri, sitting in midfield, to the other flank. Very few attacks occurred through the centre.

Olympic swim team:
Aspects of Saudi’s performance led PM to think it was watching a swimming carnival; that was how often Saudi looked to profit from diving. There were at least 6 discrete instances of a Saudi player either going down too easy from a slight touch, or just randomly collapsing outside the box, and trying to roll inside it. 3 of these occurred in the first 10 minutes, and 1 more immediately after Saudi gained a penalty.
The referee was fairly lenient toward the Saudi’s, but the question remains: if a player goes to ground, and the referee decides it is not a foul, why isn’t the player in question cautioned for simulation?

Australia’s strategy has already been well explored in PM’s Prediction/Previews. Zullo provided width and pace on the left flank, McKay looked to drift centrally, link with the midfielders and dictate play. Emerton and Wilkshire continued their productive partnership on the right flank, Emerton cutting in more effectively in this game. Neill and Ognenovski were stationed relatively deeply, as stated before, probably to not expose their deficiency in pace. Jedinak was generally the more advanced of the midfield pivot, but this was only noticeable in the opening 20. Holman was given free reign, which he revelled in, linking well with Emerton and McKay and playing off Kennedy. He also spread play to the flanks, looking to cut in.
Australia always defended in numbers, with McKay and Zullo surprisingly effectively at halting incursions into their defensive sector, given neither are natural defenders. Zullo was particularly energetic in tracking attacks into the box. Crucially, Australia were never undermanned on either flank, with both Emerton and McKay tracking back to defend. With Valeri and Jedinak providing a defensive shield in front of Neill and Ogenovski, Australia were able to defend comfortably.

Match Events:
40’ Kennedy
Wilkshire intercepted a loose Saudi ball during an attack, laid off to Emerton. Wilkshire overlapped on the right, received the ball from Emerton and unleashed a curling cross. Kennedy and Holman were marked by 3 defenders in the box, but Kennedy was able to put the header away with his 1st touch.

The key however was the speed of Australia’s transition versus Saudi’s relative sluggishness. Wilkshire pounced on a loose ball; the Saudi midfield was already behind the play by the time Emerton received. When Emerton released Wilkshire on the right, there were only 3 Saudi defenders marking Holman and Kennedy. This was where Kennedy was able to use his physical presence and deploy his aerial threat. Andy Harper highlighted the ‘quality’ of Wilkshire’s cross; and while it was indeed a beauty, Wilkshire had found Cahill and Kennedy dozens of times against Thailand; Kennedy was only able to put it away this time because the Saudi defence was undermanned.

56’ Kennedy
This was particularly weak by Saudi, and an example of their occasionally cavalier attitude toward defending. The Saudi LB was advanced, with no CM’s coming to cover. RB passed to GK who attempted a rather foolish low pass to a CM. Holman was quite obviously between the GK and the CM. He showcased his skill in interceptions, dragged the only remaining CB right before laying off to Kennedy making a run on the left, who finished with aplomb.
63’ Shamrani
Saudi Arabia gained a penalty after dragging Australia’s defence out of position and drawing a foul by Zullo. Saudi passed the ball into space and with Jedinak and Valeri out of position, Wilkshire and Neill responded in quick succession, moving into midfield to tackle, both unsuccessfully. This was almost a reverse of Australia’s 2nd goal. With Ognenovski the only CB left in position, he was dragged centrally, before Saudi cut the ball back to their right. Zullo fouled the receiver and Saudi were awarded the penalty. It was taken very weakly, and Schwarzer demonstrated his superb shot stopping skills. The rebound fell fortuitously, and Saudi scored.

77’ Wilkshire
Very stupid by Saudi. Non-threatening corner, Kennedy brought down by Montashari on the edge of the box. Very well taken penalty by Wilkshire; an ‘unsaveable’ shot.

Kruse on for Zullo, with McKay dropped to LB. Some PM readers might be wondering why McKay was able to play LB against Saudi, but was so exposed against Thailand? The answer is simple; as PM have stated before, McKay is an able defender; he can tackle and is aware, two very important defensive qualities. Playing LB against Saudi, in sweltering conditions, clock running down and a winning score line, all McKay had to focus on was defending; he had no inclination to go forward, drift central and create, which was what exposed him against Thailand.

General Observations/Evaluations:
Shameful behaviour by the Saudis, repeatedly diving for advantage. It might have been excused early on as an attempt to win free kicks due to a ‘physical’ Australia; but immediately after a penalty, and rolling into the box? Pathetic.
Holger returned to his winning ways with this victory, by reverting to his preferred shape. The shape against Thailand, as stated, was an attempt to fit Holman, McKay, Emerton and Wilkshire’s partnership and Cahill’s goal threat into the same team. An admirable experiment, but Holger has clearly realised it failed. PM wouldn’t discount the possibility of Holger experimenting again later, perhaps by dropping a lone striker entirely, and returning to the strikerless partnership dynamic displayed by Kewell and Cahill at the Asian Cup.
Holger has spoken previously of the need to maintain winning momentum. His conservative player selection is a reflection of this attitude, with players who have match familiarity with eachother, and the selection of the relatively robust Ognenovski and Jedinak. While PM recognise the merit of this appraoch, I was a little disappointed that Williams and Kruse at least, did not start.
It is noticeable that Schwarzer has already conceded 2 goals in 2 qualifying matches under Osieck, whereas under Verbeek, Mark went more than 10 consecutive matches with a clean sheet. This is probably a result of a generally more attacking approach, which leaves Schwarzer with less defensive cover.
It was Australia’s superior professionalism that won this match; a composed performance of attacking mobility and defending in numbers, while Saudi attacked in numbers, and defended very poorly.

Player Ratings:
Out-field players ranked from 10 -1, GK inserted.
10. Valeri – solid performance, dropping deep to receive and cover the defence
9. Neill – solid performance, with some elegance and composure under pressure
8. Ognenovski - solid performance, not caught out for Saudi goal
7. Jedinak – very imposing early on before fading
6. Wilkshire – improved later in the game, quality cross, excellent penalty/ Schwarzer - ol' reliable, good stop for the penalty, unlucky rebound
5.Emerton - improved later in the game, cutting-in intelligently
4. McKay – influential early on, before fading
3. Kennedy – improved mobility, well taken goal
2. Zullo – provided width, pace and verve combined with a defensive presence
1. Holman – usual star turn, conducting the attack

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