Monday, 10 October 2011

Australia's Progress under Osieck

Tomorrow evening, Australia will play Oman in the 3rd match of Round 3 of Qualifying for Brazil 2014. This encounter might be the first competitive match since Australia became expectant of regular participation in the World Cup that the manager will be without at least one of Socceroos stalwarts Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton; only Lucas Neill remains, and it is a testament to his ability and leadership that he really is the only one of the 'Fab 5' that is literally indispensable to the team.

Not so long ago, the majority of the media, and even the majority of the fans were calling for wholesale revolution in the playing squad (seriously, Matt Leckie scores a handful of goals and suddenly he's the next Viduka). Admittedly they might have had a point, insofar as Pim Verbeek was overly reliant on overseas based players and strangely reluctant to utilise new talent. But continuity in international football is a precious resource, given that there is so little preparation time compared to club competition. And yet, here we are; a year on from the South Africa, six months on from Qatar, on the threshold of a prolonged qualifying campaign for Brazil, and the playing squad is almost unrecognisable.

In my opinon, Harry Kewell, match-fit and injury free, is the best contender to lead Australia's front-line, and yet we have Josh Kennedy, Scott McDonald and Robbie Kruse performing brilliantly as central strikers in the Green and Gold. Similarly, Vince Grella and Jason Culina have been completely supplanted by Mile Jedinak, Carl Valeri and Neil Kilkenny in central midfield. Brett Emerton has performed to his usual excellent standard on the right flank, and yet since the Asian Cup, Brett Holman and Matt McKay have been prioritised over the former Rover, and been more important in the manager's tactical plans. Tim Cahill, a living Australian legend, finds himself under pressure for the second striker role from an arguably more effective Brett Holman; prior to South Africa, who would have thought that? Mark Schwarzer, No 1 for over two decades over the likes of Bosnich and Kalac, already has successors in place in the form of Federici, Coe and Langerak. Only Captain Fantastic remains. Lucas Neill's leadership and organisation has been central in successfully and swiftly integrating Michael Zullo, Matt Spiranovic, Sasa Ognenovski and Rhys Williams into a new-look Australian defence, and his intellgent distribution and clever defensive positioning are vital to a successful Socceroos campaign.
Holger Osieck is truly presiding over the transition of the Golden Generation to the Next Generation. I still wouldn't bet against some of the Fab Five boarding the plane to Brazil, such is the value of their quality and experience, but Osieck has assuredly introduced and groomed new and young Australian talent, so that the fortunes of our national team are no longer inextricably tied to the form of the Heroes of 2006. Matt McKay, Ognenovski, Jedinak, Valeri, Kilkenny, Zullo, Williams, Coe, Kruse, Brosque; are all players that were largely ignored by Osieck's predecessor, and have found new leases on life since his arrival. The way these players have been carefully prepared for the stresses of international football is indicated by how quickly they have adapted, and then thrived, under the demands; most look like they have Socceroo stalwarts for years.

Moreover, the style of play has completely transformed. Verbeek produced dour, defensive fare that had Australia grinding out 1-0 wins against minnows, relying on Josh Kennedy's height and Tim Cahill's predatory skills at set-pieces. Gradually, Holger has introduced a fluent, fluid and aggressive possesion based style, enabled by his introductions of the likes of McKay, Kilkenny and Zullo. He has also shown a high level of tactical intelligence; Verbeek was utterly exposed against Germany; Low's use of Ozil as the playmaker bamboozled him. Since Osieck has taken over, he has only been outsmarted in the dug-out once; by Zaccheroni in the Asian Cup Final. Osieck even exacted a measure of redemption against the Germans by winning 2-1; and he did it by getting Australia to put the ball on the deck, and pass and move.

As an aside, there have alse been a few players who have since found themselves out of contention under Osieck, without apparent reason. There are many players who have despaired of receiving a call-up, but Holger at least tended to the likes of Scott McDonald, Josh Kennedy and even Grella and Bresciano publicly; not so with Nathan Burns, Richard Garcia or Nikita Rukavytsya. Strangely enough all are pacey right wingers, a commodity that has been lacking in our line-up, so it is perplexing that none have received attention, even through the media, from Holger. Burns was handed the No 11 during the Asian Cup, Rukavytsya and Garcia were unable to attend due to injury (though Kennedy was in the same situation, and he has been welcomed back into the fold). Burns and Rukavytsya have found themselves down the pecking order at Athens and Berlin respectively, so perhaps that might go some way to explaining their strange state of affairs.

LATER ADDITION: The media applauded Osieck for his introduction of McKay, Kruse and Brosque, then of Brisbane Roar, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, into the Socceroos set-up. McKay has gone on to become an essential contributor, while Kruse has surely improved his stock with his mobility and lethality in front of goal. Their improved form has earned all three contracts overseas, with McKay departing for Rangers, Kruse leaving for Fortuna Dusseldorf and Brosque moving to Shimizu S-Pulse. This now means there are no A-League based played in contention for the Socceroos. Are there any others capable of stepping up?

Josh Rose and Alex Wilkinson of Central Coast look likely. Rose is phenomenal as a left-back, while Wilkinson was supremely confident last season in the heart of defence; he in particular seems like a talent likely to improve among a more competitive atmosphere. Erik Paartalu has been dominant as a holding midfielder for Brisbane, providing physical secuirty, aerial ability and assured passing, while Ivan Franjic rampaged up and down the right flank all season. Jon McKain was used as a utility during the Asian Cup; he has returned to captain Adelaide. His club mates Djite and Vidosic were former prospects who lit up the domestic league, but for one reason or another, failed to impress overseas; hopefully they can improve their form and move back to Europe. Michael Thwaite was given a look-in by Holger alongside Brosque and McKay but has not been called-up since. David Williams and Michael Marrone look like becoming lethal and prolific performers for Melboune Heart; Marrone was on the cusp of a move to Serie A. Similarly, their stable mates Dugandzic and Behich have been in impressive nick for the Olyroos. Kantarovski is another Olyroo stalwart, and was reputedly the subject of interest from Bayern Munich. Topor-Stanley has been a wall in defence over the past few season.

No comments: