It’s do or die in the final group game for the Olyroos, as Graham Arnold’s U23 side comes up against Egypt needing a draw or a win to progress to the knockout stages.
After an astonishingly convincing win over Argentina, Australia went down to a Spanish side featuring Pedri, Macro Asensio, Unai Simon and more, with a header from Mikel Oyarzabal (54 goals in 202 La Liga appearances) in the 80th minute enough for Spain to claim their first win of the Olympic tournament.
The Olyroos picked up three costly yellow cards in that clash, with Mitch Duke, Nathaniel Atkinson and Riley McGree all picking up their second yellow cards of the campaign, meaning they will be suspended for the final group game against Egypt.
This leaves three holes in the Olyroos team that started the first two games of the tournament:
The Olyroos will be losing three important players in the Egypt game.
Mitch Duke brings fantastic work rate and movement, an ability to drift wide into the channels while also show centrally as a target man.
He hasn’t yet scored at the tournament, but, as the only overage player in the squad, has been integral to the Olyroos’ game, both with and without the ball.
His intelligent pressing and physicality is also something that will be missed.
He has been tasked with triggering the structured press for the Olyroos, being the first one to run at his opponent to instigate the aggressive push up the field.
Riley McGree has also been solid as the most advanced midfielder, combining well with Duke up top and often drifting out to the right to allow Lachlan Wales to make aggressive, diagonal runs and use his pace to get in behind.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel Atkinson has been one of the standout Olyroos in the Olympics and was voted as the best Australian player on the field against Spain.
Atkinson has been solid defensively and wonderful going forward.
He is superb in both ball control and carrying, and often sprints at his marker before Cruyff turning inside to give himself and his side time in possession – something that was needed against Spain’s heavy counter-pressing system.
His yellow card deems most frustrating, having come in the 95th minute of the match.
If Arnold wants to continue playing his usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid that’s he’s opted for in the Olympics, he can make straight swaps to compensate for his losses.
Nick D’Agostino will likely start up top, being the only other recognised striker in the squad.
Caleb Watts will likely come into replacing McGree as the number ten, although Keanu Baccus could play instead should Arnold choose to opt for a slightly more conservative system, which is unlikely.
Right-back is perhaps the most interesting spot because it could also be what prompts a formation change for the Olyroos.
Arnold has two options: either Dylan Pierias could come in or he could shift captain Thomas Deng to right-back and bring in Kye Rowles to play in the heart of the defence.
Deng is a centre-back by trade and therefore lacks the ability to push on to the attacking line, as Arnold likes his fullbacks to do.
Meanwhile, Pierias is the polar opposite – usually more of a wing-back or winger – so may lack the defensive ability, but can use his lightning pace and direct running to cause havoc and create chances for the Olyroos.
Moving Pierias into the team could prompt a change to more of a 3-4-3/3-4-1-2, as seen below.
Kye Rowles could come in as an extra centre-back, while Wales could be moved out of the side.
This may seem like a conservative move but would allow for positional fluidity and direct running in the final third which could confuse the Egypt defence that kept a clean sheet against Spain.
The front three could rotate while Caleb Watts comes inside as a 10, with the other winger pushing up alongside D’Agostino.
Both King and Pierias, the likely wingbacks have the ability to get forwards, with Pierias, in particular, getting the license to push on with the attack, as more of a winger.
Deng can play at right-back so can cover comfortably, and the Olyroos could also form a back four at times to compensate for Pierias’ attacking instinct.
Arnold switched to a 3-4-3 against Spain when he brought Kye Rowles on for Lachlan Wales in the 62nd minute, and the Olyroos immediately looked more aggressive in their pressing and ball movement.
It’s likely that Arnold will opt with his standard 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid, but the three at the back system offers positional fluidity, attacking width and solidity in defence that the four-man defence lacks, and with Pierias able to play as a winger, they can always move to a four at the back and switch as necessary if needed.
Some may say that the decisive group game may not be the time to tinkle with formations and tactics, but having that surprise element could be what gets the Olyroos through to the finals, even if Arnold decides to switch mid-game.
The Olyroos must take at least a point out of the Egypt game, and they’ll have to be creative to do so, passing a stern defence that kept a clean sheet against Spain and conceded just once to Argentina.
Switching to a three at the back formation could be the answer.