Thursday, 13 October 2011

Ohhhh, Holger we love you

On the eleventh of August 2010, Australian football followers had one phrase on their lips - "Who the f**k is Holger Osieck?". 14 months later, Humourous Holger is the toast of the football media, enjoying an extended honeymoon with the fans, and the Socceroos are playing some of the most fluent, fluid and attacking football ever produced by the Green and Gold. Australia is no longer totally reliant on the Golden Generation, and young talent is being brought into the squad. Pass and Move have quite a favourable opinion of the friendly German, and we thought it an appropriate time to examine the changes Holger has affected in his time in charge.

What has Holger done right?

Osieck has brought in a bevy of new talent to rejuvenate the squad. McKay, Ognenovski, Jedinak, Valeri, Kilkenny, Spiranovic, Zullo, Williams, Kruse and Brosque; none of these players were considered Socceroos 'starters' by Verbeek. The A-League based players in particular had no hope of ever representing their country under the Dutchman's reign. Osieck invested faith in all of them, and he has been handsomely rewarded with fantastic performances. Osieck has established Australia's central midfield for the next half-decade, in Jedinak, Valeri and Kilkenny, and has re-built a youthful and faster defence around a foundation of Neill, with Zullo, Spiranovic and Williams. McKay is probably the pick of the pack; the dynamic midfielder has produced dominant performances drifting central from left, and has single-handedly won matches with his creativity and ceaseless motion, notably against Germany and Thailand.

Holger has lent his firm support to the A-League as the first step for the next generation of Australian players, and has backed his words with action, by elevating McKay, Kruse and Brosque to his squad, then of Brisbane, Victory and Sydney, and moreover, making them central to his plans. As a positive for those players, their improved form has earned them contracts overseas, at Rangers, Dusseldorf and Shimizu. During last season, Holger went to numerous games to scout players which was a huge sign of support for the 'ailing' competition.

Osieck made the obvious choice that no one else had ever really considered, when he paired Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill up-front during the Asian Cup. It was a perceptive tactical decision by Holger; our two biggest attacking threats partnered together. The fact that both players have spent the majority of their careers in midfield meant that both were very hard-working off the ball, especially in a defensive sense. Kewell's natural drift left also meshed well with Carney's raids from leftback and McKay's drifting central from left midfield.

After the World Cup, many were calling from the removal of the Golden Generation and a wholesale revolution from the playing squad. Osieck however has relied on these experienced and stalwart performers to help transition and settle in the Young Guard. Neill's leadership, as captain off the pitch, and as a defender on the pitch, has been essential. The fact that we have completely remoulded our defence seems to have escaped scrutiny.

Deploying Brett Holman as a playmaker has been a particularly effective decision. Holman's elevation to the squad is actually owed to Pim Verbeek, but Holger has gone one better, and has used Brett, along with Matt McKay, as the lynchpins of his squad.

Adopting a respectful and cautious tone towards opposition has helped to remove shades of dangerous overconfidence, complacency and unnatractive arrogance. As the newest addition to the continental federation, Australia had a reputation for entitlement. Osieck's manner has gone a long way to redressing this.

The attitude towards squad numbers is another example of an obvious policy that no one else had ever really considered. Previously, the squad numbers of the senior players, for example 4 for Tim Cahill or 10 for Harry Kewell, were untouchable if they weren't in camp. This lead to some ridiculous looking jerseys, such as 101 being worn by new players. Now some might discount the significance of shirt numbers, but they are a prominent and traditional symbol of status within a squad. Leaving a player with no other option but to sport comical squad numbers is quite a strong indication that they are not up to standard. Under Osieck, if a player is absent from the squad, the vacated number is up for grabs. Imagine the boost in confidence Alex Brosque received when he was handed the No 10, or to Michael Zullo when he was handed the No 3 in his leftback berth. LATER ADDITION: I know my confidence took a slight hit when I was demoted from No 2 to No 17.

Osieck went from 'Holger Who' (sorry for the cliche) to a media darling within a matter of months. He was cheerful, direct and engaging in his manner of speech. For example, consider these Holgerisms - on absent players; "I have to dance with the girls in the room", on the term 'fringe players'; "If I play someone in the team, they must be good", on playing weaker opposition; "First, we have to win", on Lucas Neill's fitness; "Well at your age you have to watch out", on possible FFA influence; "I don't need a lawyer to defend my position, I can do it myself", and on an Aussie win; "I'm happy, but not satisfied". Cultivating a positive relationship with the football media can have a powerful effect on the perception of the general public, and lead to a positive atmosphere around the team. Consider the position of Fabio Capello; numerous gaffes have created an intense and unproductive siege atmosphere to the England squad.

Holger has experimented with his line-up and when necessary committed to or reversed those adjustments. For example, with Brett Emerton suspended during the Asian Cup, Holger switched Holman over to his preferred right side and moved McKay up from left-back. When this combination proved superior, he left Emerton out of the starting line-up for the subsequent tournament games. As another example, he tried squeezing in Cahill, Holman, McKay, and the partnership of Emerton and Wilkshire into the same side against Thailand. When that experiment failed due to a lack of mobility and width, he rectified it, dropping Cahill and moving McKay up from leftback.

The best thing Holger has done for the Socceroos has been the gradual implementation, without sacrificing results, of an attractive, possession-based, short-passing style to our play. Learning to rely on passing angles, incisive movement and intelligent distirbution is eminently more preferable to banking on crosses from deep, set-pieces and physicality. Holger has managed to fuse a modern style of play to Australia's traditional strengths of athleticism and competitiveness. And it is reaping incredible results. There's been talk of an annual 'Test' match between ourselves and the Old Enemy; under Osieck, while we can't guarantee a victory, we can be sure of an assured and composed performance.

What has Holger done wrong? 

It's not all been sunshine and lollipops of course. Holger has made a few mistakes in his time in charge.

Getting Australia to the Asian Cup Final, while no easy feat in and of itself, can be described as a case of simplification; Holger concentrated on the strengths of his squad in a direct 4-4-1-1 formation that focused on crossing from wide areas. Australia held a edge over most Asian sides in professionalism, physical condition, psychological strength and skill. It was 'just' a case of Holger successfully managing the squad and prescribing fairly orthodox tactics.

When it came to the match against Japan however, Holger was out-smarted by his counterpart Zaccheroni. Zaccheroni identified the aerial threat presented by Kewell and Cahill; he altered his formation from a 4-3-3, to a 3-4-3. The extra central defender helped to deal with Australia's forward pairing in the air, while largely freeing Nagatoma from his defensive responsibilites. Nagatoma, who had started the match at left fullback, was now free to raid down the left as a wingback. That tactical switch enabled Japan to score; Nagatoma got the better of Wilkshire, who was undermanned on the right, and his cross was put away by Lee. Carney shouldered the blame, and while he did make a mistake by guarding the post instead of marking his runner, in truth Holger failed to deal with Zaccheroni's gambit.

Under Osieck's reign, a number of pacey right wingers have received short shrift from the manager. While Holger attended to the likes of Kennedy, McDonald, Cahill and Kewell publicly when the media questioned their position in the squad, neither Nathan Burns, Nikita Rukavytsya or Richard Garcia have received any such public consideration. Burns was actually part of the Asian Cup squad, and was given the No 11, while Rukavytsya and Garcia were unable to attend due to injury. Since the Asian Cup, none of the three wingers have received a call-up. Rukavytsya even gave an interview to FourFourTwo lamenting his lack of direct contact with Osieck. As PM have mentioned before, Burns and Rukavytsya have fallen down the pecking order at AEK Athens and Hertha Berlin respectively, so that may go some way to explaining their lack of a call-up, but not the lack of public attention.  

LATER ADDITION: Actually not too sure why PM bothered to post this. It's remarkably similar to "Australia's progress under Osieck". Oh well.

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