The Socceroos will look to extend their record-breaking streak of ten consecutive World Cup Qualifying victories in crucial matches against Oman and familiar foe Japan.
Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium will play host to the Socceroos’ ‘home’ encounter against Oman on Friday 8 October (5:30 am AEST) before travelling to Saitama to take on the Blue Samurai in what could be a decisive match in the context of the group. Both fixtures will be broadcast across Network 10 while the Japan game will take place on Thursday 12 October (9:14 pm AEST).
Kick360’s Jack George and Thomas Williams have again come together to examine some of the burning questions that loom ahead of the Socceroos’ two crucial qualifying matches that could indeed go a long way in deciding the nation’s fate in terms of qualifying for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Who plays up top?
With Melbourne City’s Jamie Maclaren set to miss out once again due to the need to quarantine back in Australia, Graham Arnold will look to turn to other alternatives to fulfil the team’s all-important No 9 position.
Adam Taggart has been playing sporadically in the J-League for Cerezo Osaka and was the preferred option in the wins against China and Vietnam last time out.
The former Perth Glory forward played an unselfish yet crucial role in the 3-0 victory against China as he often sought to come between the lines and draw defenders out from China’s defensive line, thus leaving space in behind for Awer Mabil and Martin Boyle to run into.
However, Taggart was less impressive in this role against Vietnam where the team’s compact 5-4-1 defensive shape ensured he had little space to work with when receiving the ball as the Vietnamese outfit nullified his influence on the match.
With this in mind, Taggart is more likely to start in the match against Japan because the Blue Samurai will be braver in possession and will likely seek to dominate the proceedings. This will leave space in behind Japan’s back four as he’ll look to get on the end of through balls from the likes of Aaron Mooy and Ajdin Hrustić.
Additionally, Taggart’s ability to judge when to drop between the lines could prove useful against the Blue Samurai given that Australia will look to create a numerical advantage in midfield to maintain possession against a side who can dominate when given the chance.
Taggart was brilliant at creating this numerical advantage against China.
However, against Oman, Arnold could look towards Mitchell Duke as an option up top due to his aerial prowess and ability to sense opportunities in the box.
Oman successfully stifled Japan’s attack with a resolute 1-0 victory away from home in a match where they utilised a 4-4-2 defensive shape. Japan often struggled to find space between Oman’s compact defensive lines, thus often ensuring that the ball was circulated out wide.
Graham Arnold was largely complementary of Oman’s resolute, disciplined and compact style as he lauded their performances against strong Asian opposition in Saudi Arabia and Japan.
“They’re a typical strong Middle East team defensively, they defend deep, they make it hard for the opposition to break down,” said the Socceroos manager in his pre match press conference.
The midfield conundrum
The central midfield areas are perhaps the strongest and most stocked for the Socceroos.
Within the squad, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, Ajdin Hrustic and Jackson Irvine all deserve game time in some form, while Denis Genreau, James Jeggo, Kenny Dougall and Riley McGree are pushing for positions.
The maximum number of central midfield players Arnold can play sits at four, which would imaginably mean taking the box midfield from the previous qualifying window.
This would likely see Jackson Irvine and Aaron Mooy in deeper positions, with Hrustic and Rogic playing as floating attacking midfielders within both halfspaces.
While a sensible strategy against Oman, who will play in a low block, it could be a gamble against Japan, who have an extremely technically gifted midfield and look to press and counter-press intensely.
Out of those Australian four players, there’s no real six, or ball-winning midfielder, which is why Jackson Irvine has been playing noticeably deeper within Socceroos games than in Germany with St Pauli.
Arnold may look to outplay and override the midfield areas against Japan, but it would be a bold move, considering the ability of technical midfielders in their squad, such as Wataru Endo, Gaku Shibasaki, Daichi Kamada and Junya Ito.
However, the four aforementioned are the best four the green and gold have in Hrustic, Mooy, Irvine and Rogic, and perhaps a ‘strikerless’ system, with Martin Boyle and Awer Mabil playing as a front two in advanced half-spaces could be the way to go against Japan or benching one of them for Adam Taggart, a more natural number nine.
“The benefit of that is that they’re (the midfield) very flexible in their positions, they can play different roles”, said Arnold.
It will allow for quick, fluid counter-attacking moves, which would mean that Mooy could sit deeper, allowing the Socceroos to remain solid in transition and would allow positional superiority in midfield from an individual point of view.
Mooy could play alongside Irvine and hold his own line, floating between the left centre space/halfspace, while Hrustic and Rogic could play as two drifting attacking midfielders, in a fluid front four.
Rogic could also be dropped, allowing a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 to take shape, which could indicate a more aggressive press from the front, while a caveat is that Arnold always looks for his sides to press in a 4-4-2, and Hrustic prefers to sit deeper in a wide or central midfield position rather than being the first line of engagement.
That being said, Hrustic won possession in the final third nine times in the six games he’s played in World Cup Qualifiers in 2021, more than any other player within the competition, and it would be interesting to see him pressing in a front two up top.
Adam Taggart could also drop deep to create the box midfield, as he did in the victory over China.
Meanwhile, Mooy may also not start, due to a lack of playing time in China – This could see Rogic come into the side as the attacking midfielder with Hrustic in the position previously reserved for Mooy.
“At the moment, Aaron isn’t playing in China because China as a competition has stopped”, said Arnold.
“He’s been working extremely hard and I thought against China and Vietnam Aaron came on and really controlled the game and played it out very well for us.”
A strikerless system would be a gamble, but the Socceroos need to take the game to and challenge Japan with something different and this is perhaps the circumspect way to do so.
How will Australia look to break down a low block?
It is widely accepted that Australia struggled to break down Vietnam away from home in the side’s 1-0 victory. Despite maintaining over 70% of the ball possession, Australia struggled to create chances as the Vietnamese sought to limit the influence of the Socceroos’ dangerous midfielders.
By employing a compact 5-4-1 defensive shape, Vietnam restricted Australia’s ability to find space in between the lines and often forced the Socceroos to circulate the ball to fullbacks Brad Smith and Rhyan Grant.
Left-back Smith was less than impressive in his performance and he was eventually substituted for Aziz Behich. Arnold is likely to have advised Smith to play more crosses and look to overlap more down the left flank to give his side an outlet passing option when the midfield became overly congested.
Smith struggled to time his runs and was often caught having to play passes backwards due to Vietnam’s clever shadow pressing.
In order to rectify this issue, Arnold may look towards Callum Elder to start against Oman because he is arguably braver in attack than Australia’s other options at left full-back and will look to provide a solid attacking threat in the final third which could help to break down Oman’s resolute defensive shape.
The Socceroos manager also cited the air-conditioned stadium in Qatar as an advantage for the team heading into the match against Oman.
“It’s not an excuse in any way but the pitch will be much better (against Oman than against Vietnam) and the ball will move much quicker”, Arnold acknowledged.
“There will be more fluency with the ball where it wasn’t as fluid against Vietnam”.
Oman used similar tactics to what Vietnam used against Australia in their victory against Japan as they succeeded in nullifying the influence of Japan’s key creators Daichi Kamada (who provided 15 assists for Eintracht Frankfurt last season in the Bundesliga), Genki Haraguchi and Junya Ito.
Despite the similarities in their general style, Arnold distinguished between the systems employed by both Vietnam and Oman.
“They play a different system to Vietnam (a 4-4-2 compared to a 5-4-1) and their structure is set up differently,” explained Arnold.
Oman sought to frustrate the Japanese by employing a tactic of forcing the ball out wide and encouraging the Japanese to cross the ball.
Oman was under clear instruction for their two defensive lines of four to play incredibly narrow and thus allow Japan space on the wings. This was largely aimed at curtailing Japan’s one-touch passing sequences where they can often cut through teams in midfield.
Despite their compact shape, the Socceroos manager asserted that he has identified flaws in Oman’s game that his team will look to exploit.
“I don’t want to give anything away but we have our strengths and I think our strengths will expose a few of their weaknesses,” said Arnold.
One such weakness is Oman’s deficiency in dealing with players that arrive in the box for crosses. Australia could gain an advantage over Oman by overloading the box with late arrivals and encouraging wide players to cross the ball.
By overloading Oman’s last line, Australia could give themselves a better chance of breaking down an elite defensive unit. Japan managed to do this on a couple of occasions but failed to capitalise on their chances in their 1-0 defeat against the Middle-Eastern opposition.
For Australia to break down Oman’s low block, they will need to focus on crisp passing sequences whilst also ensuring that when the ball is circulated out wide, there are enough teammates arriving in the box so that the player out wide has an option to cross the ball towards.
Another aspect that will be crucial particularly against Japan is set pieces and the Socceroos’ abilities from corners.
Set pieces are a vastly underrated part of football, and often resolve as the crucial goal within tense matches of football. In fact, last season in the A-League, set piece goals accounted for 28.2 per cent of all goals scored, thus highlighting their importance.
And when considering the height of the green and gold side partnered with the technical ability of the corner takers, it becomes a crucial part of Australia’s game plan.
During the games against China and Vietnam, Ajdin Hrustic, who was the usual corner taker, created three chances for Trent Sainsbury; One can assume the majority if not all came from set-pieces.
Set pieces will be a key facet in both upcoming matches, but particularly against Japan, where chances may be hard to come by.
When Japan played Oman, they chose a mixed system when defending corners, consisting of man-marking and zonal marking.
Japan had all but one player stationed in the box (10) – they had 1v1s with Oman’s seven who were inside the attacking third, while two defenders stood in the six-yard box – one in line with the near post and the other roughly two metres in front.
When Oman piled five of their players inside the six-yard box, their markers followed while the two zonal defenders remained more or less in similar positions.
Oman piled the six-yard box to attack the lack of ariel ability and height of Japan’s goalkeeper, Shuichi Gonda, who at 187cm tall, isn’t the biggest goalkeeper (although bear in mind Mat Ryan is 184cm).
Against Japan, the Socceroos will likely deploy a similar tactic, with Harry Souttar being the obvious ariel target.
This animation depicts how Jack believes the Socceroos should attack their set-pieces when Japan is defending.
Japan’s weaknesses structurally from their set-pieces are their reliance on each player to win the individual duels, and the space they leave at the back post, from both of which Australia can profit.
At first, players are piled towards the near post and middle of the goal, indicating the cross to come into that position.
Trent Sainsbury will attack the middle, hoping for a fumble from the keeper, while the rest of the players – bar two – will crowd the box in search of a scramble.
The best aerial weapon, Harry Souttar, then is free to move towards the back post and can be in an isolated 1v1, where his height and strength in the air can be relied on to win the duel.
The other player who is in the box – either Mooy or Hrustic depending on where the set-piece is being taken from – will hold off on the edge of the box, a few metres in front of the D in search of scuffed clearances.
The two fullbacks who remain outside of the box will press aggressively and look to get an early second cross in, should Japan’s clearance reach them.
Often teams deal with corners on the first occasions but struggle with a second cross as the defensive line is disorganised, often with one player keeping a host of attackers onside.
In this set-piece theory, Hrustic will take corners from the right side and Mooy from the left, to ensure an inswinging whipped ball towards the back post.
The Socceroos will need to counter their fear of opposing a well structured low block and show an ability to conquer a deep defence and grind out a result against Oman.
The midfield conundrum and striker situations transpire as selection headaches for Arnold, while set pieces could be the key to gaining a positive result against a gifted, technically strong Japan side.
Australia take on Oman at 5:30am AEST on the 8th of October and Japan on the 12th of October at 9:15pm AEST.