Ange Postecoglou is at the crossroads. He has been coaching Australia for a few years now, about the same time he spends at most in a job at club level, where he left a comfortable gig in Melbourne to take up the national role. In fairness, things did get off to a bright enough start early in his tenure: taking over a national team setup that had been struggling to replicate or build on what had been achieved almost a decade earlier, Australia fought valiantly on the international stage and generally got some its respect and self-esteem back over the next couple of years.
But now things have become awkward. Ange’s young Socceroos have just failed to finish as one of Asia’s top four teams to qualify for the World Cup and it follows an unconvincing 12-18 months in which the team has seemingly regressed, or at the very least stagnated as challenges change. People are pointing to the talent simply not being there, but the manager himself is copping plenty of flak for how he may have misused what is at his disposal.
Postecoglou faces up to the media following this qualifying disappointment. He is not in a good mood. In fact, it is deeper than just a mood. He looks a tired, thoroughly fed up man, irritated by long-term things that go beyond what did or didn’t happen on the pitch. He is sticking up for himself and his players, but he looks worryingly close to the end of his tether, which is problematic when he can be an irascible figure even at the best of times. The media is prodding him and he is battling to keep his frustrations to himself.
The shield breaks.
“Look, it’s quite obvious what’s happening here. You guys think I should resign, I’m saying I’m leaving that decision to people who will make it. Now, if they come to the same conclusion as Craig Foster, the eminent expert in the studio, then great, I walk away, everyone’s happy, you’re happy, everyone’s happy right? I’ll move on with my coaching career. But I’m not going to sit here and be criticised [with] people telling me I should resign when I’ve worked damn hard over the last five to six years to do as best as I can with the conditions that I’ve had.”
Postecoglou is being interviewed on SBS’s The World Game program and being taken to task, to put it lightly, by Foster. It gets more heated, and Ange, overlooking how continuing such an argument won’t help his wish to continue to be employed by Football Federation Australia, is not holding back. “The actual garbage I’ve had to put up [with] today for coming on to your programme is, I just think, a) disrespectful to me when you can’t even get the facts right, and b) isn’t going to change my mind about what I’m going to do. I’m going to leave that in the hands of people who are informed, and like I said, if they come to the same conclusion as our expert in the office there then great, I move on with my coaching career.”
This is Ange November 2006, and this furore is over his Young Socceroos that he was supposed to leave in a better place than when he took over. #SokkahTwitter may have been several years away, but even on two-bob Australian football forums of the time, the incident leads to significant discussion over Postecoglou and where Australian football is going.
The Australian Men’s Under-20s team failed to progress beyond the group stage in the 1999 FIFA Youth Championship – something of a shock to the system given it was the only time that it happened in a decade that begun most memorably with two straight semi-final appearances in 1991 and 1993. In-between that was another semi-final campaign with the (then exclusively) Under-23 Olyroos in Barcelona, and the let down of three defeats at Sydney 2000 with what was expected to be one of Australia’s better (mostly U-23) Olympic teams reinforced the feeling that some kind of rut had set in at youth level.
Accompanying this downturn was Postecoglou’s entry into NSL management. After replacing former Socceroos coach Frank Arok during the 1995–96 season, Ange’s first three full seasons involved a 3rd-place/preliminary final run with a young South Melbourne side (including a dramatic home finals win in extra-time against Adelaide City) followed by back-to-back championships. It was enough to make him a candidate for the vacant Socceroos job in 1999, but not enough to be offered the job ahead of former ’80s/’90s Australia forward Frank Farina, and he would have to be content with the youth national team job a year later.
An early embarrassment under Ange was averted as Australia struck an extra-time winner at home to overcome a New Zealand side they had lost to earlier in 2001 OFC U-20 qualifying, and following that were two proof-of-concept FIFA Youth Championships in which the Young Socceroos restored the knockout stage habit from most of the ’90s. Round-of-16 defeats to Brazil (4-0) and the United Arab Emirates (1-0, right after beating Brazil 3-2) in 2001 and 2003 respectively were disappointing, but generally there was a promising improvement in how Australia played and some seemingly solid ground to build on going forward in the upcoming A-League era.
Alas, it’s not that simple. The third Under-20 campaign in 2005 finished with a return to group stage elimination backed by disjointed football and so it was judgement time come the first qualifying campaign as an AFC member the following year. A large number of games would have to be navigated to qualify for the 2007 Under-20 World Cup as one of the 2006 AFC Youth Championship semi-finalists in India and it would have to be done with a group of players compromised by a lack of club game time and experience in Asian football. Partly to accommodate the talent at hand, and partly to improve or make up for where Australia were found wanting in 2005, Postecoglou changed to a back three. It works only intermittently; Ange’s boys finish ahead of Thailand and the UAE but below China in Group B before failing to make Asia’s top four after a 2-1 quarter-final defeat to South Korea.
It was a result that flattered an Australian side unable to find the right mix in midfield and subsequently had deficiencies at the back continually exposed. Moreover, the failure to qualify for FIFA’s world championship — the first time at U-20 level since 1989 — makes it clear that the problems of 2005 were the start of something larger rather than just a blip or short-term growing pains. The inquisition begins and Postecoglou loses his job in February 2007.
Take two. This is Ange September 2017, and these are his Socceroos that he was supposed to leave in a better place than when he took over. Australia’s (very) senior men’s team limped over the line in 2014 World Cup qualifying and Holger Osieck was knocked out of the job in straight sets (6-0, 6-0) against Brazil and France in friendlies that followed. For an obtuse governing body like the FFA that hoped AFC qualifying would be a relative breeze in the hands of experienced, unadventurous foreign coaches told to heavily prioritise it, the problems are something of a shock to the system, especially after the near-miss of the 2011 Asian Cup campaign under Holger and the supposedly hardest part of the last decade in surviving the pivotal 2005 qualifying playoff with Uruguay. But after those embarrassingly heavy defeats to Brazil and France, it was plain as day that some kind of rut had set in.
Accompanying this downturn was Postecoglou’s entry into A-League management. After turning the tables replacing former Socceroos coach Farina in Brisbane during the 2009–10 season, Ange’s first three full seasons involved back-to-back championships in the Sunshine State and then a 3rd-place/preliminary final run with a young Melbourne Victory side (including a dramatic home finals win in extra-time against Perth Glory). It was enough to again make him a candidate for the vacant Socceroos job after Osieck’s dismissal in 2013, and unlike 1999, he got in ahead of a former ’80s/’90s Australia forward, this time Graham Arnold (the U-20 national team gig, meanwhile, was left to Paul Okon, whose coaching experience then comprised of a short stint at APIA Leichhardt and some assistant roles).
An early embarrassment was averted as an under-strength, in-early-transition, vulnerable Australia competed valiantly in a nightmare 2014 World Cup group in Brazil, after which the Socceroos restored the winning habit with something of a proof-of-concept Asian Cup title, secured with an extra-time winner at home to a South Korean side they had lost to earlier in the tournament. Three defeats in that World Cup and several more in shoddy friendly performances in Postecoglou’s first year in charge were disappointing, but generally there was a promising improvement in how Australia played and some seemingly solid ground to build on going forward with a fairly young team, many of which had or were still coming through in the A-League.Embed from Getty Images
Alas, it’s not that simple. The third major tournament campaign gets underway in the form of 2018 World Cup qualifying; the Socceroos face a marathon of 18 games to qualify for the World Cup as one of Asia’s top four and it would have to be done with a collection of players compromised by a lack of club game time and experience in Asian football. For the most part Postecoglou’s team stay on course for qualification but some of the earlier disjointed football hangs around: in the preliminary group stage, Kyrgyzstan make most of the running in a fortunate 2-1 win for the Socceroos in Bishkek, Jordan conversely get things right at both ends of the pitch to win 2-0 in Amman and the Socceroos find themselves rather short on answers in a trio of mid-2016 friendlies against England (away) and Greece (twice at home).
A few months later, after starting the main qualifying group stage fairly well with seven points in three games, the Socceroos hit some unexpected roadblocks. Deploying a staggeringly narrow and immobile 4-4-2, Postecoglou’s Australia scratch out an unimpressive 1-1 draw at home to a circumspect Japan side before finishing the year playing no better in a 2-2 draw away to bottom-placed Thailand. The latter comes with a switch back to the standard 4-3-3 that had been in place (or something like it) in the best games of Ange’s tenure to date, but on the back of this and games like the aforementioned ones in Amman and Bishkek, it was now also the framework from which some of the most concerning performances had been produced.
Ange has a few quiet months going into 2017 to analyse things and consider some changes. Partly to accommodate the talent at hand (plenty of midfielders, but preciously little to choose from at right-back), and partly to improve or make up for where Australia have recently been found wanting, he changes to a back three with wingbacks. It works only intermittently; a dicey 1-1 draw with Iraq in Iran first up to extend the winless run to four games, some more scratchy home performances that nevertheless end in wins against the UAE (2-0) and Saudi Arabia (3-2), and then a Confederations Cup campaign that goes down similarly frustrating and mixed lines for a group stage elimination with two points. Most critically, the World Cup qualifying group stage is finished off with a 2-0 defeat in Japan and what deep down feels like an insufficient 2-1 home win full of unlucky what-ifs over the Thais. Ultimately it’s only enough to finish ahead of Thailand, Iraq and the UAE for sure with Saudi Arabia and their healthy goal difference just needing a home win over an already-qualified Japan to exclude Australia from Asia’s top four.
Postecoglou faces up to the media in the post-match press conference amidst this qualification uncertainty. He is not in a good mood. In fact, it is deeper than just a mood. He looks a tired, thoroughly fed up man, irritated by long-term things that go beyond what did or didn’t happen on the pitch. He is sticking up for himself and his players, but he looks worryingly close to the end of his tether, which is problematic when he can be an irascible figure even at the best of times. The media is prodding him and he is battling to keep his frustrations to himself.
Yet again, the shield is breaking.
“It’s been unbelievable and it’s been magnificent,” says Ange, snarkily yet somewhat earnestly in response to whether the performances have not been as good as hoped. “I’ve been sitting here frustrated for the last two years and listening to some of the garbage that’s been thrown around at these players. You know, it’s tough qualifying for a World Cup. It’s even tougher when it’s your first one for a lot of these guys … We’ve played 10 games, we’ve lost one, they’ve done everything I’ve asked of them. I’m the one putting them out there trying to win games of football and you know what…”
Ange shakes his head before staring at a water bottle in contemplation. Just over three seconds of tense silence pass by, feeling at least twice as long. And it feels like the shield is about to snap under the pressure of an oncoming, self-harming tirade.
“…Yeah no, that’s all I’ll say. Thank you.”
Postecoglou gets up and leaves the press conference. The media quickly tweets about the dramatic and swift end to it, but the following day a calm Socceroos manager is able to front another presser in a positive enough de-brief on what is next after Saudi Arabia’s overnight win confirms that Australia have missed out on direct qualification. This time around, for the senior World Cup, Asia has 4.5 places and a playoff route is on offer, beginning with the incredible and complicated story that is Syria. Precariously and amidst much debate and angst, Ange’s second national team coaching tenure has a second chance.
People are right to point out how much of an easy ride Postecoglou gets compared to many other national team coaches around the world and how sensitive he can be to criticism. For all the lavish praise he has received for breaking boundaries and affirming what Australian football is capable of — as a player and then coach in all four of South Melbourne’s joint-record NSL championships, then guiding Brisbane to dizzying domestic heights and Australia to its first senior men’s major title — he is nevertheless a product of that Australian environment and carries some of its long-held insecure shortcomings with him. It’s evident when things go wrong and he is taken to task over it, even mildly. After the UAE game in March, Ange’s contention that he heartily welcomes criticism and debate came awkwardly attached — almost in the same sentence — with disdain over how people are reacting to and not understanding what the Socceroos are doing. Similarly, there is a curious juxtaposition between his perpetual desire for Australian football to shred its inferiority complex and a personal determination that is driven by a football upbringing of feeling trampled on. Ambition, fearlessness and insecurity all rolled into one.Embed from Getty Images
The validity of that sensitivity, however, somewhat increases when so much of the criticism directed at Postecoglou is thoroughly flawed and poorly researched. One of the more staggeringly misguided points of contention in particular has been the cake possessing and eating regarding Ange’s tactical rigidity and excessive tinkering, not least in Fox Sport’s post-game show after the Thailand game last month. Fox do a sterling job with their Socceroos coverage overall, but in another curious contradiction almost made in the same sentence, Mark Bosnich and Robbie Slater expressed their frustration over Postecoglou supposedly lacking a Plan B for his teams before promptly ruing his change to a back three. But not only was the angst over tactically restless Ange stubbornly sticking to a back three nonsensical, the argument for switching back to 4-3-3 came with some remarkably selective amnesia.
“For me, [the problems] didn’t start here tonight. This started about eight or nine months ago when the manager started tinkering around with the system,” said Bosnich. “He comes with the three at the back system – for me that’s not a problem, the problem is the timing. Right in the middle of a qualification [campaign], when for me, I wouldn’t say we were plain sailing, but we looked comfortable. He did that and since that time we’ve now played nine games and we’ve only won three including tonight. That includes the Confederations Cup and includes Brazil … This has been a [result] of all those games – Iraq away, wonderful example and that was the first game [with a back three].”
Slater continued the rewriting of recent Socceroos history: “I think Ange lost his way [in] the Iraq game. I think he dug his heels in on this back three … Everyone went on about the Chile game – and it was a good performance against Chile – but against Japan we were exposed and tonight…we’re in this position tonight, my belief is, because of what we did against Iraq.”
First things first, the notion of a downturn due to winning just three games in nine with the back three used since the turn of the year is deceiving – three of those non-wins were against Brazil, Germany’s excellent Confed Cup-winning alternatives and Chile, and in the three 2016 games the back-four Socceroos played against non-AFC opposition, they didn’t exactly fare much better, winning once and losing twice against lesser England and Greece teams. More significantly, comparing like-for-like qualifiers, the back four Socceroos went 2W-3D-0L in the group’s first five fixtures, picking up nine points, while the back three team went 3-1-1 in the last five…picking up an additional point.
Secondly, Iraq was one game. It was a fixture Australia drew – the same result Japan achieved a few months later (1-1 again, giving up a half-time lead just like the Socceroos). Including the preliminary group stage, Iraq played eight “home” (sadly neutral) qualifiers in total, losing just the once. That defeat was, to Australia’s eventual downfall, against Saudi Arabia, a curious fixture that a) was moved from Iraq’s somewhat familiar assortment of homes away from home in the Middle East far away to Malaysia due to diplomatic issues, and b) the Saudis were second best in before snatching the win courtesy of two late penalties. As poor as the Socceroos performance was against Iraq in Tehran, the result itself wasn’t too bad, all things considered.
But most importantly, this cannot be said so much for the preceding game away to bottom-placed Thailand, who in their five home games in the group picked up just two points (eliminated UAE being the other victims), six less than Iraq. This was the last game the Socceroos used a back four in and it is instructive to listen to Bosnich and Slater’s justified but not so ancient – and, I hope you understand, retrospectively significant – criticism and questioning of the performance and where the team is heading. Pre-game, there is some considerable optimism hanging about, with much positive focus on Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic starting together in midfield, while Slater mentions the “bonus” of rare extended training time together with the game being Australia’s only fixture in the international break.
It doesn’t take long for things to turn once the game is played. “Massive wake-up call” says a rather worried Bosnich, highlighting a lack of club game time for many of the players, the difficulty of playing hi-tempo football in awkward conditions and Rogic in particular lacking end product and seemingly just being happy with some neat touches here and there. Slater continues the theme, lamenting the general lack of composure and how much space there is in midfield in transition. And that’s at half-time. After the final whistle, both Bosnich and Slater contend that it was the worst Socceroos performance they have witnessed to that point under Postecoglou, with Bosnich going as far to call the Socceroos “pathetic”. He says without hesitation that Thailand deserved to win (not fanciful, given the phantom penalty called for Australia’s equaliser) before adding that “this result is going to make it very, very difficult to make sure we get automatic qualification.”
That’s some discrediting difference to the “I wouldn’t say we were plain sailing, but we looked comfortable” revisionism of 10 months later, and it’s remarkable how much this struggle in Bangkok seems to now be overlooked in general Socceroos debate. Additionally, none of the scrutiny from the broadcast that torrid night made any mention of the back four despite there being structural issues at play that would continue to fester in the back three period (and had been for quite sometime with a back four). Mark Rudan went close before the game lamenting the problems at right-back, but compared to the storm surrounding the back three in the coming months, the silence is deafening in retrospect.Embed from Getty Images
Beyond Fox, much of the debate about the Socceroos has gone down similar lines. “The players are comfortable with it” now seems the familiar catchcry in support of changing back to a back four, obscuring how plainly uncomfortable Australia looked playing it (and with decent training time) in Thailand. And Bishkek, And Amman. And in Melbourne against Japan. When the scrutiny is so over the place and habitually contradictory, Postecoglou’s frustration with it becomes somewhat understandable.
There is, however, another problem here: does that frustration of Postecoglou’s lead to him taking his eye off the ball regarding more legitimate concerns under his watch?
Both of the goals the Socceroos conceded against Thailand in Bangkok shared issues that have plagued Postecoglou’s Australia before and after. For Teerasil Dangda’s first goal, a ball was too easily played past left-back Brad Smith, as was the case for Taisir Al-Jassim’s opener in Jeddah previous to that and (with Smith as a wingback) Takuma Asano’s opener in Saitama afterwards. For Teerasil’s second goal, it’s the right side of Australia’s penalty area that gets exposed, with poor defending from Mathew Leckie not helping a slack Milos Degenek at right-back. This situation is replicated a few months later in Tehran against Iraq when Mark Milligan fails to cover for Degenek (now the right of three centre backs) for Ahmed Yasin Ghani’s equaliser. In Australia, meanwhile, the goals scored by Genki Haraguchi for Japan and Salem Al-Dawsari for Saudi Arabia’s first involved the opposition passing through the back four Socceroos central defence with alarmingly smooth ease.
But it’s not just centre backs, fullbacks and wingbacks that are the issue here. In almost identical fashion, Mile Jedinak and Mooy’s immobile deficiencies in central midfield gave those passing through to Haraguchi and Al-Dawsari plenty of time to do so. Despite being routinely talked up as a Socceroos talisman in midfield, the defensive indiscipline of Mooy in particular has been a recurring problem. In Bangkok, Mooy alllowed Tristan Do through to cross to Teerasil after curiously and awkwardly finding himself placed outside of Smith, and in Jeddah and Tehran, he was caught indulging in inertia instead of providing cover as the opposition again broke through down the flanks for the other opening goals for the opposition. And for all the faith placed in Mooy’s on-the-ball aptitude, it’s still reasonable to expect more dependable defensive support from a traditional number 8 (it’s also rather important in a system that looks to press high and push the opposition back as a way to mitigate defensive weaknesses that, again, are present with a back four or back three).
Things are different for a classic number 10 like Rogic, but here too we have player not truly fulfilling his role. It wasn’t just his performance in Bangkok for which Bosnich’s critique of him was fair; away to Jordan in the preliminary group stage and in the majority of his performances in the main one (Saudi Arabia at home being the big exception), it was much the same flattering-to-deceive story. And the track record of midfield functionality when he and Mooy start together is not an encouraging one, with the Confederations Cup being one of the better examples after the Socceroos produced by far their best performance of the tournament once Mooy and Rogic were dropped for the final game against Chile.
When both started together again as direct qualification went down to the wire at home to Thailand, it quickly became apparent that, in a line-up that very much required selfless midfield movement with two poachers in Cahill and Juric starting together up front, they were both looking to be their team’s hero to their team’s detriment. Instead of moving into what were regularly vacant pockets of space around the edges of Thailand’s penalty area to drag out defenders, both players made a habit of either coming short to receive the ball and dictate play or waiting on the edge of the box in anticipation of having a shot of their own. This was in contrast to a feature of Australia’s Asian Cup triumph two and a half years earlier when the midfield (devoid of Mooy and Rogic) worked the channels productively and, in fairness, to much of Mooy and Rogic’s own club form. Just a few weeks after the Thailand game, Rogic’s decision-making in the Old Firm derby was thoroughly selfless and near flawless, while Mooy’s £8m transfer fee paid by Huddersfield Town owed much to what falls under the category of doing the little things that aren’t so fashionable but certainly conducive to a strong midfield.Embed from Getty Images
How did it come to this? It’s worth recalling here that another feature of the Asian Cup was Postecoglou’s unwavering belief in his players. Having relentlessly heard from all and sundry about what Australia’s emerging players lack for the preceding few years, Ange handed a particular lesson to Australian football with the Asian Cup win: focus on what our players can do, not what they can’t. The title-winning goal was one of the best examples of this, involving three players whose selections (even in the squad) had been widely questioned: Juric with the doggedness to get free at the byline, the unmarked teammate he was planning to cross to at the far post in Jason Davidson, and goalscorer James Troisi.
The last of these players is an instructive case. Troisi possesses some interesting talent but also a narrow-minded self-belief in his potential influence on games, not least an eagerness to shoot that could make Ruben Zadkovich say “hold my beer”, unretire and provide JayFC with further source material. Postecoglou sees that interesting and occasionally helpful talent of Troisi’s well ahead of the more problematic conceited play, and regularly turns to him as someone to tip the balance in games. Where he was rewarded with a cleverly-finished goal against Chile, he was then left with routinely bad decision-making in the next two games against Japan and Thailand.
There are other players who have been given an almost inexplicable generous run of opportunities under Postecoglou – not least Smith and Bailey Wright right now – and there is a sense here of an “I’ll show you” sentiment being at play with Ange growing determined to make good of highly criticised or doubted players, fuelled by that long-held desire to shred Australian football of an inferiority complex. That desire blinding him to the logic of some plainly sensible changes or adjustments could extend to the style of play, too. One nagging possibly factor behind Australia’s bright Confederations Cup performance against Chile may have been how much the directness and urgency involved was made necessary by needing a two-goal win over strong opposition to progress. There is usually no such ambitious, do-or-die scoreline requirement in games, and for a side as new to tough international football as most of these Socceroos are, the team’s normal aim of controlling games under Postecoglou can easily become an ambiguous and disjointed purpose.
Worse still, that ambiguity can exacerbate the self-indulgent tendencies of reputed creative players like Troisi, Rogic and Mooy if certain standards are not enforced. One could be forgiven for thinking none of them are receiving stern but ultimately helpful reality checks now and then from a manager prioritising continual positive reinforcement of the capabilities of his players. This is by no means a coach foreign to dishing out constructive criticism – plenty of it has gone down in his club management tenures, including most visually a half-time whiteboard bashing Fox Sports caught while he was coaching Brisbane – but it’s fair to wonder if the pressures and spotlight of the national team job that’s now gone past the average length of Postecoglou’s club stints have lead to him struggling to find the right balance between support and tough love for his players.
One final point of revisionism that needs some addressing is the contention now made by some that the more conservative ways of Pim Verbeek for the 2010 qualifying campaign and Osieck for 2014 were intrinsically of more value in qualifying football. Correct as it is that they managed a top-two direct qualification spot where Postecoglou didn’t, and inevitable as it is for it to now become a point of discussion, there is a need for context here. Besides Verbeek and Osieck having teams at their disposal that were far more experienced in the nitty-gritty business of qualification than Postecoglou has had, the main competition for a top-two spot has surely kicked up a gear in this campaign. Japan are roughly like Japan as in 2014 and 2010, but a Saudi Arabia team with some idea of how to finish (not to mention 50,000+ home crowds) and an impressive Asian Cup semi-finalist in the UAE (who also managed to start the group with a win in Japan) must be seen as a step or two above Jordan and Oman in 2014 qualifying and Bahrain and Uzbekistan in 2010.
The finishing of Australia’s opposition in the 2010 campaign in particular left plenty to be desired, quite unlike the Saudis in Jeddah and Adelaide this time around, and it’s also worth pointing out that these current Socceroos finished just one point off top place, as opposed to four in 2013 when another last matchday scramble was required (and not exactly executed more convincingly than the Thailand game last month). Unlike Osieck’s team, Postecoglou’s men were also never quite on the verge of losing two straight games, as was the case away to Iraq in 2012, or a home defeat approaching the humiliation of the close shave against Oman in Sydney in 2013. Simply put, it is naïve to assume that a pragmatic foreigner like Verbeek or Osieck would have done better in this group given the tougher circumstances of the era and the group’s draw (the latter includes a team of Saudi Arabia’s historical mental fragility having the considerable benefit of no true away games in their first four fixtures before their must-win final game rather helpfully being Japan’s only dead-rubber).
Then there is the bigger picture of a coach’s legacy. Verbeek and Osieck left the Socceroos with thoroughly ageing teams after their departures. The prospect of a rebuild then comes with the awkwardness of having a lot of inexperienced young players coming through all the same time, busy learning each other’s names as much as the ropes of international football. This is partly why Osieck found it difficult to move on from established players despite their use-by date looming fast or already passing by, after Verbeek left him with very little to work with in terms of reasonably experienced players who would still be younger than 30 by the time of Brazil 2014.Embed from Getty Images
Most of the focus on Postecoglou’s potential legacy seems to revolve around style and self-belief. The more likely scenario is that he will leave his successor with a sizeable core of players young enough to be in the prime of their careers (or close to it) by the time of the 2022 World Cup and with a decent amount of experience playing national team football together before that qualification campaign kicks off (an important way to help make up for the lack of training time international coaches generally get with their players). This is a complete difference to where the Socceroos were when Osieck was sacked in October 2013 and Postecoglou is well placed to finally leave an Australian national team in a better place than where he inherited it.
…Except, well, all that World Cup qualification business that is now very much up in the air. This is the catch for Postecoglou’s Socceroos tenure – of the three tournaments it has involved, two were positive or went agreeably enough (avoiding embarrassment in a nightmare World Cup group in Brazil in a rather vulnerable transitional phase, and winning Australia’s first men’s senior title in a home Asian Cup), and succeeding in the third (qualifying and putting up a good fight in Russia) would make it a job well done. But slipping up in these playoffs to not qualify for the first time in the AFC/FFA era would suddenly leave the Socceroos in a worse place than when Postecoglou took over and could lead to all sorts of repercussions – financial being the obvious aspect, but the impact on Australian football’s psyche with regards to tactics, strategies and self-confidence after such an ambitious manager endured such a momentous failure would be significant too.
Regardless of how these playoffs go, the rest of this Socceroos campaign may well be the last big act in Australian football coaching for its most successful and influential local coach of the last two decades. Postecoglou has been here before, almost 11 years ago, but without the second chance he now has, and it will be interesting if he can suitably learn from past mistakes, as he may have done when cutting short the Thailand post-game press conference. Either way, Postecoglou now tries to guide home a team still growing accustomed to the technical and psychological demands of high-stakes international football against a desperate group of players on the verge of an incredible achievement for their war-torn country, having been through (and continually dealing with) things no human being should endure. Maybe these crossroads for Postecoglou’s Socceroos aren’t so significant after all.
– Shane Davis