Australia Camp Focus – Verbeek’s negativity leaves Australia facing an early exit

Ahead of Australia’s first game at this year’s World Cup, there was a feeling that given what seemed a tough-yet-competitive group, a dose of the adventure that carried the Socceroos forward in 2006 would be a vital weapon in the fight to reach the second round. Somebody evidently forgot to inform Pim Verbeek, who continued his stint of negative team selections first seen in qualifying for the tournament. Then, the ends justified the means as Australia bettered new opposition in Asia to book a place in South Africa. Now they have arrived in the country of the vuvuzuela, Verbeek has to quickly realise playing for a draw is not an option when faced with the well-rounded teams that make up this year’s World Cup.

Sitting deep, bringing every player behind the ball and attempting to frustrate your opponents may be sound theory, especially when you possess a centre-back pairing as glacially slow as Australia do. But in practice, against a Germany team of high quality if not famous names, such a tactic merely invites pressure and allows talented creative players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil time to weave their magic. You may succeed in drawing the opposition high up the pitch, but if you do not have the pace to exploit the grass behind the defence, there is no benefit to be found. The line-up chosen by Verbeek was not without its plus points, full of typical Australian drive as it was, but pace in forward areas was not amongst the starting XI’s qualities. A deep backline and an attacking unit bereft of the speed to relieve the ensuing pressure is a recipe for disaster, and so it proved.

An Australia team that sets out to contain the opposition and little more seems to directly contradict with the Aussie ethos that has served numerous greats so well in other sporting arenas. The idea of doing anything but playing for the win would be anathema to Steve Waugh or David Campese, legendary figures in cricket and rugby union respectively. But that was the mindset Verbeek set out with his team selection, which nominally saw Richard Garcia supported by Cahill in attack, but realistically was designed to get as many bodies behind the ball as possible. If Cahill had converted a free header in the third minute, or the rebound had been knocked home by Garcia, it might have given the Socceroos something to defend and justified Verbeek’s negativity, but the Everton midfielder’s effort was blocked and Australia were two goals down inside half an hour. Australia’s static and disorganised rearguard was ripped apart by a Germany side brimming with clever movement and the passes to match.

The Coach’s hands were tied by his squad selection. This writer expressed doubts over the lack of firepower in the 23, with only Josh Kennedy and Nikita Rukavytsya as out-and-out strikers and Cahill joining injury-prone and injured Harry Kewell as attack-minded midfielders. Scott McDonald, the Middlesbrough striker culled by Verbeek early in the selection process has anything but a stellar record of goals at international level, failing to find the net in 16 appearances, but Verbeek does not have an embarrassment of riches to work with in that vital area. The Dutchman made his reasons clear, saying McDonald does not fit into his single striker formation, which in itself indicates a worrying tactical rigidity, and to discard a forward when so few are available, especially now in light of Cahill’s suspension, is the sign of a Coach far too tightly welded to one particular formation.

Even before Cahill was dismissed, Australia had Mark Schwarzer to thank for avoiding a score line of historically embarrassing proportions. It would not have been unfair to Australia if they had been 5-0 down by the hour mark, such was their total submission to a Germany team in impressive form. Quite where Verbeek takes his men from here is unclear, as the Coach’s top heavy squad selection and the question marks over Kewell’s fitness leaves forward power ready and able to join the starting line up in short supply. Rukavytsya, a second-half substitute could start with Kennedy to offer a mix of pace and speed but that would require Verbeek altering an ideology he has clung to in limpet-like fashion since stepping into the Coach’s job. Curing the defence is a whole other task, one that will be down to Verbeek’s post-World Cup replacement. After a Coach whose football is, like that of Greece’s Otto Rehagal, from a different time, Australia require a leader with modern ideas. Guus Hiddink managed it once, finding someone to do it again may be easier said than done.

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