Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Thailand 0-1 Australia: Match Analysis

In an encounter Australia was largely expected to dominate, the Socceroos were insipid and vulnerable to a dangerous Thailand. Winfried Schafer deserves great credit for Thailand's stubborn and animated performances against Australia. Mr Schafer, be honest now - have you been reading Pass and Move? His tactical plan to neutralise Australia's left flank was remarkably similar to PM's feature on 'How to dismantle Australia'. The scoreboard may have read one-nil to the visitors, but it was the Thais who escaped with greater credit. 

Given that Osieck restored the system that had recently been successful, with Holman reverting to the withdrawn striker role, McKay back at left midfield, and Zullo resuming his role as the left fullback, PM readers are justified in asking why Australia was so ineffective. Simply put, those failings that Australia suffered from against Oman and Thailand before, resurfaced despite the switch in personnel. Specifically, Australia were prone to a lack of width on the left flank, a lack of mobility up-front and a failure to retain possession. Ultimately this was probably a match that was tactically significant for the players that weren't present more than for the players that were. 

Australia's System:
Osieck re-deployed the Socceroos in a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid, with Schwarzer between the sticks, Neill and Spiranovic partnered in central defence, with Wilkshire and Zullo at fullback. Jedinak and Valeri were paired in a conservative double pivot. McKay was narrow at left midfield with Emerton advanced at right wing. Holman was the withdrawn striker with Kennedy leading the line.

Thailand's System:
Schafer deployed Thailand in a 4-4-1-1 system. The Thais sought to maintain their defensive shape and only pressed Australia past the half-way line. The most important points however was Datsakorn Thonglao as the playmaker in midfield, and Suree Sukha, a nominal fullback at right wing. 

Vulnerable down the left:
Schafer's offensive strategy was very effective against Australia. Simply put, he instructed Thailand to target the Socceroos left flank, with Thonglao playing through passes behind the Australian defence, into the space vacated by the advanced Zullo, for Sukha to latch onto. And although Thai attacks foundered, largely due to hesitancy and heavy first touches, Thailand was able to penetrate in behind the Socceroo's defensive line time and again. 

To understand how, we must refer back to the theoretical operation of McKay and Zullo on the left flank. When Australia is in possession, McKay drifts central, looking to link up with double pivot, retain possession and dictate play, while Zullo overlaps, providing the width and pace out-wide that McKay is unable to, secure in the knowledge that McKay provides an extra presence in midfield in the event of am opposition counter-attack.

However, with McKay tucked-in narrow and Zullo advanced, there is a window of time when Australia are very vulnerable down the left, during the transition between an offensive and defensive posture. The space behind the left fullback and next to the centre back is left vacant, which is the inevitable downside of using an advanced fullback.

This is the weakness Schafer sought to exploit, by stationing Sukha fairly high up against Zullo. When the ball was turned over and Thailand gained possession, Thonglao launched well weighted through balls into the space vacated by Zullo, which Sukha raced forward to latch onto. Around the twentieth minute mark, the Thonglao/Sukha combination was able to beat Zullo three times in quick succession.

From then on, Zullo became more cautious and noticeably reluctant to advance, mindful of Thailand targeting his area of responsibility. But his absence in the forward areas disrupted Australia's construction of attacks; as noted above, the width, pace and penetration he provides is vital, as he is the only source for these qualities on the left. 

Zullo, forced back and compelled defend, was the worst possible outcome for Australia. Being deprived of his attacking qualities was bad enough, but even with his new-found caution, the Socceroos were still vulnerable to attacks down the left flank because of Zullo's relative naivety in defence. As a winger converted to fullback, his best defensive work is pre-emptive; by pinning back the opposition right winger. But Sukha wasn't cowed; as a fullback himself, Sukha was confident in his ability to defuse attacks higher up the pitch. So basically Australia got the worst of both worlds; Zullo was restricted, but still defensively vulnerable. Australia's left flank was left impotent AND vulnerable, by the same measure. 
Diagram courtesy of Zonal Marking, Valenica v Baines
Schafer's gambit to exploit the space behind Zullo bears similarity to how Sir Alex Ferguson dealt with both Leighton Baines and Ashley Cole; by stationing Antonio Valencia, an aggresive wide player comfortable on the wing or at fullback high on the right, to exploit the vacant space behind. 

Failure to retain possession:
The Australian midfield axis of Jedinak, Valeri and McKay was uncharacteristically porous in retaining possession. Part of this was undoubtedly psychological; finding themselves in a hostile environment and with their fellow team mates playing poorly is hardly conducive to confidence. But Thailand were also efficient in pressing Australia when the ball was carried over the half-way line, preventing effective build-up play. 

But most importantly, Australia were lacking creativity in central midfield. As PM has noted previously, Osieck is able to call upon a degree of tactical variation when it comes to selecting his preferred double pivot. There is Kilkenny the elegant passer, Jedinak the robust destroyer, and Valeri the energetic runner who is able to complement either. 

The combination of Jedinak and Valeri is most effective when Australia require a defensive shield in midfield, ideally to break up opposition attacks. Against Thailand however, Australia did not require two holding midfielders. With Scafer keen to keep nine players behind the ball, and Neill and Spiranovic ably marshalling the lone striker, one of the holders was left redundant.

Moreover, presented with such a massed and organised defence, the lack of creative passing from Jedinak or Valeri became a real impairment. Neither was able to offer penetration through the middle, and Australian attacks were funnelled down the flanks. As noted in PM's analysis of the match against Oman, the Socceroos seem to have lost the ability to play an effective aerial game. So shoving Australia out to the flanks largely obfuscated the attacking threat. 

In such a situation, the Socceroos would have undoubtedly benefited from the presence of Neil Kilkenny, a superb creative passer, in midfield. It seems Kilkenny is now the favoured punching bag for overeager TWG commenters, the very same ones who wrote off Lucas Neill as over-the-hill and dismissed Brett Holman as not being an actual football player. The oft-repeated criticism of the Bristol City player (granted not the best of career decisions) is that he plays 'too many sideways passes'. This is overlooking his very vital function; to retain and then distribute possession. Criticising Kilkenny for too many sideways passes is tantamount to criticising Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso or Michael Carrick for exhibiting the talents that made them world class. Kilkenny is also the only Socceroos player with excellent long-range passing ability. 

Had he been present, Australia would have benefited from faster circulation of the ball, which would have pulled apart Thailand's half-press, and higher distribution, which might have reached Holman more effectively, pulling the playmaker into the game. 

It bears remembering that the best performance by the Socceroos for many years, in which the Green and Gold produced their most fluent, fluid and attacking performance ever, was against Wales, and was facilitated by the short passing, intelligent movement and positional interchange of Matt McKay and Neil Kilkenny. 

Lack of mobility:
If Kilkenny is the favoured punching bag for TWG commenters, then Kennedy should be the favoured punching bag for PM Readers. PM has criticised the messianic target man rather harshly in the past, but against Thailand, the Nagoya man earned every barb. His atrocious movement has been remarked upon in the past, but his performance reached new lows in that he actively prevented his team mates from playing effectively. 

Holman is practically the textbook definition of mobility, such is the verve and fearlessness exhibited by the AZ attacker. But paired with Kennedy, who refused to budge, Holman was deprived of vacant space to exploit. Kennedy staying static prevented Holman from playing. 

This links back to a point made by ZM, that it is simply not enough to just be a goal scorer anymore. With football becoming ever increasingly more systematised, the ability to contribute and facilitate to the operation of the collective has become more valuable than individual quality. Put simply; stuff the goal scorers. The poachers of the past are finished; Fowler and Owen walked into the night a long time ago. It is the goal creators that are important.

Given Kennedy's poor performances, it is imperative that Osieck reconsider the situation of Scott McDonald, undoubtedly the most mobile of our prospective front-men. McDonald's  selfless vacating of space and willingness to run off the ball has the potential to allow Brett Holman's bursting runs to become devastating for Australia, in a manner reminiscent of Tevez's displays for Manchester City, you know, before the whole Munich kerfuffle. 

Goal Analysis:
76' Holman - Best passage of play for the playmaker all night, and it was because he had SPACE to exploit. It was also the first time the theory of Kennedy and Holman up-front actually worked. The Thai back line pushed up ludicrously high. Jedinak intercept, pass to Kennedy on the half-way line. Kennedy shields the ball, holding it up, waiting. Holman makes a run, Kennedy slips the ball to him. Holman dribbles, lays off to Emerton on the right, who measures a chip, which is put away determinedly by Holman.

Take note; Holman is effective at exploiting space and Emerton is really good at delivering the ball. So ask him to do it in Sky Blue, Sydney. Cazarine can really put away the headers. 

All of these failings are inter-dependent. Had Australia been able to retain possession, Zullo would not have been forced back. Were Zullo able to advance unencumbered, McKay would have been able to dictate play down the left. Had McKay been able to dictate play, we might have seen more mobility from the front-line. Were the front-line more mobile, PM would not have an axe to grind.

What is Holger's culpability in this result? It is important to recognise the larger picture. Australia are through to the next round with games to spare, which is a relief considering McKay is suspended. This might allow Osieck the chance to re-call the Scoreless Wonder from his Middlesbrough exile.

As in everything in life, hindsight is 20/20. On initial viewing, Holger's selected line-up was strong and robust, traits that he has fallen back on in tough situations. Hopefully these two trying matches will have reinforced the claims of Kilkenny, and re-energised McDonald's. 

Duh-doi! Open net! Seriously though, bring back the Mac Attack. 


Bela Guttman said...

I spent half the match trying to banish an uncomfortable comparison, the Socceroos uncreative midfield that sapped the life out of the attack reminded me of another broken team in this season's HAL - Melbourne Victory:( Brebner and Broxham create the same difficulties for Mehmet that Valeri/Jedi creates for Holger. McKay naturally drifts to the centre so perhaps it would be better to move him there, the problem is that we are short of genuine left sided players at that level.
On the other hand it was important that we won and we did so maybe the team selection can be justified as the job was done however it was more luck than good planning. We do have some good strikers on the horizon but we seem to be in a bit of a striker drought at the moment.

Pass and Move said...

Cheers for the comment Bela.

Problem with the Jedinak/Valeri and Broxham/Brebner comparison is that Holger deliberately uses those two in a defensive sense whereas Durakovic used those two two play possession football, a job they are not suited for.

One of the reasons McKay is free to create is that he knows the midfield is secure with a relatively conservative double pivot. Apparently, Osieck doesn't trust McKay in a central role, where a mistake carries the potential to be more fatal as opposed to a mistake committed out wide. The left flank works fine attacking, overlapping fullbacks and cutting-in from wide players is a fairly organic strategy. What exposed it as a weakness was sluggishness in transition.

As for the strikers, I think McDonald can be a real prospect paired with Holman. Australia would go from a lone static target men to the most mobile pairing we have seen for some time.

Thanks again Bela

Pass and Move said...

And thanks for the plugs on TWG, much appreciated Bela. I'm not talking about you when I refer to commenters.

Hamish Alcorn said...

Thanks for your work once again Mr Pass and Move.

Especially liked, "With football becoming ever increasingly more systematised, the ability to contribute and facilitate to the operation of the collective has become more valuable than individual quality. Put simply; stuff the goal scorers. The poachers of the past are finished; Fowler and Owen walked into the night a long time ago. It is the goal creators that are important." That has been my instinct for a while now.

A general point though. This type of careful, "Why?" analysis that you do... It seems to me that it becomes less relevant if the players simply miss their passes a lot, for whatever reason of stress or conditions perhaps. There just seemed to be a very low accuracy rate to me (but maybe I'm unfairly comparing them to Roarcelona).

Given that, I was pleased to see that we got plenty of pressing practice, and that we also got possession back a lot. Especially in the midfield both teams appeared to be up for rapid response pressing, which appeared to me a sort of stalemate.

Relating to that or aside from that, I'm interested in this theoretical stalemate. What happens when a possession based team which presses high and fast meets a possession based team that presses high and fast. Now last night the Thais were not pressing so high but it appeared that a type of midfield stalemate was occurring at times.

Anonymous said...

Morning - bit of a worry in terms of the tactical inflexibility that the team showed. Once it became obvious that they were going to attack Zullo's flank - should the defence have reorganised itself?; Spiranovic changing his positioning to help. Don't they work on this stuff? If ABC happens, do XYZ?

I liked what Valeri was doing at the end - he seemed more proactive and positioned higher up the pitch - Can he be like this for 90 minutes?

Were there times when Jedinak dropped back between the centrebacks? Jedi dropping back and allowing either a) the fullbacks, or b) one of the centrebacks to push up creates some interesting possibilities. I would really love to see Neill given license to bring the ball up and join in more - but that can only happen if he has cover.

As to - what can you do when the simple things aren't working ... players mis-hitting basic passes, inability to cross, ball watching. I think there is an element of tactics to even this. Are players being asked to do stuff they shouldn't be doing? Does the players positioning create passing options? Are guys offering options to the passer?

Final thought for the morning - I think P & M had something on this somewhere. J & V is a solution to a problem that didn't exist in this game. Against a Germany or another team with a hard running front 4 running at you - they provide a solution of sorts. But against the Thais, who were much more interested in attacking the flanks?


Pass and Move said...

Cheers for the comment Hamish,

Well if players are stuffing up the simple things, there's still a reason behind it. Thailand were, because they are lower quality players. Australia were because of a lack of movement further up the pitch.

Quite simple; pressing v pressing, whoever's better and more efficient at retaining and then seizing back possession wins. Go to Zonal Marking and read up on any number of Barca v Arsenal games. We're gonna see it ourselves soon enough, that's why I'm so eager to see Brisbane v Heart. I'm quite certain Brisbane will win or prove superior, but it's going to be a beautiful match.

The Thais were using a half press

Pass and Move said...

Cheers for the comment Clayton,

Well Holger has shown a bit of a weakness when it comes to tactics, that Asian Cup Final switch by Zacherooni from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 completely bamboozled him.

Jedinak occasionally came deep but it seemed to be of his own initiative rather than being instructed to. It certainly wasn't consistent. In any case, Zullo remained vulnerable.

Neill generally does very well in distributing out of the back line with his passing skill, but I wouldn't want to see him come too far forward, due to his lack of pace. That role would be more suited to Spiranovic who will undoubtedly eventually usurp Neill's role.

Yes exactly right, Jedinak and Valeri were the wrong tools for the job. I would have chosen Kilkenny and Valeri, movement and passing, not movement and tackling. As noted above, Osieck reverts to robustness and solidity when uncertain, which you can't really fault.

Zullo being a target was important, but we really should have done more and held onto the ball better in the centre of midfield. Holman's goal, was pretty much his only contribution, when usually he's all-action.

Anonymous said...

That is another worry - an unfit player (Holman) was relied upon. Another player might have fluffed their lines if given an opportunity in this game - or they might have done well and given Holger another option to consider. We'll never know. Kruse or Brosque could have been given a run in that spot. McKay?

Interestingly, Ange P gave his preferred Socceroos lineup - and even he would keep Kennedy at the top.


Pass and Move said...

I'd heard Holman was injured previous, but I must admit I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary.

I'm surprised Ange would say that.