Football systems are all about bringing out players’ strengths while hiding their weaknesses.
Some coaches believe that it is a player’s job to adapt to their philosophy while other coaches adapt in order to suit what is at their disposal.
The worldwide argument becomes ever-present in national team coaching.
The limited preparation before games means compromises between players and coaches must occur for sides to be successful.
A system will never truly suit every player – at least from the off – and beliefs differ on which positions and players should be adapted around.
Do you look to adapt around your two or three best players, exposing weaknesses in lesser one’s?
Or do you look to provide more of an equilibrium, meaning a side might be less spectacular, but more equal across the board.
The fundamentals and philosophies of coaching have been long debated, but ultimately, it all comes down to what will get you the most success.
The Socceroos’ system has been a never ending debate, pursued by football fans, journalists and coaches alike.
This article proposes a flexible and relatively edgy tactical framework, but one that key players find familiarity in, and others who can adapt.
A team that could – maybe, just maybe – guide the Socceroos to that evasive 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Fundamentals in possession
While on paper the team is presented in a 4-2-3-1, the side will begin in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid in build up, before switching to a 2-3-5 in the final third.
Fran Karačić will come inverted in the right of a midfield 3 alongside James Jeggo and Ajdin Hrustic in the 2-3-5 in a role perhaps more suited to Nathaniel Atkinson, who wasn’t picked for the squad.
While Atkinson offers more dynamism, creativity, ball carrying and compatibility to the role, Karacic could also excel, in his composure in possession, passing range and crossing from deeper areas.
For the build-up/progression phase, James Jeggo can drop in between the two centre-backs to help speed up the tempo of play, although this would be highly temporary considering the pressing traps that can open up on Hrustic and Karacic, two players who struggle with their back to goal.
A more sustainable solution can be to have one of Hrustic or Karacic drop in to form a back three at different phases of play, where Hrustic can face his opponents and use his passing range to find Matthew Leckie and Aziz Behich overloading the left side or Martin Boyle in one versus one situations on the right.
A key facet of the Socceroos’ build-up will be looking to stretch the play vertically to open up pockets for Tom Rogić and Ajdin Hrustić in more central positions.
Hrustić is a fantastic ball progresser in the weight and technique of his passing range, but struggles when playing with his back to goal, and looks under-confident when playing passes in between the lines.
Boyle will usually remain wide on the right, looking to stretch the play with width and verticality, while Jamie Maclaren will occupy a similar role from a more central position.
Matthew Leckie has struggled thus far under Melbourne City, with the style of play not suiting his qualities.
To combat this, he will have the freedom to come inside both in the final third and in more of a build-up phase, which will leave a channel for Ajdin Hrustic to exploit with possible, albeit rare overlapping runs.
From these positions, Hrustić can use his technique to bend passes in behind the high/mid block.
Hrustić will be suspended for the first game at home against Vietnam, which means Aaron Mooy will likely play in his place in midfield.
The prospect of Mooy as a super-sub is tantalising – his versatility means that when required, he can replace Hrustić in a deeper role, where he can look to control the tempo of the match with his press resistance in tight areas and clever short-mid passing.
However, if Australia are in need of energy and replacements in attacking areas, he could replace Rogić instead, and would likely thrive in more of a direct, chance creating role.
Meanwhile, Hrustić would form a key part of this proposed Socceroos squad – with time on the ball, he is one of, it not Australia’s greatest threat in his creative play in deeper areas.
When winning second balls off crosses, the ball will be shifted quickly towards Hrustić in the left halfspace, or one of Karačić or Rogić on the right side, where they can capitalise on a disorganised defence with an early cross from deep.
Jamie Maclaren thrives off early, unpredictable crosses with his movement in a disorganised defence, and Leckie also offers a healthy threat in the air when arriving at the back post.
Hrustić’s technique in his lofted, curved passes could see Behich or Leckie in behind often on second balls, where they can reach the byline and cutback the ball in a dangerous position across the goal.
Another obliviously key player to this system will be Tom Rogić, who is currently excelling at Celtic in a similar system to our proposed tactic.
Rogić’s ball carrying and passing from deep will form a key part of the Socceroos in possession, while in build-up he can pick up the ball in between the lines and also drift wide, allowing for combination play with Karačić.
However, perhaps the greatest asset of this proposed framework is that it allows for great flexibility in areas across the pitch. One prevalent example of this is the capacity for right-sided overloads in attack which could provide a valid mechanism to generate opportunities against low-block defences.
Unlocking Asian teams who prefer to play conservatively and sit deep with the aim of scoring via transitions and set-pieces has been somewhat of an achilles’ heel for the Socceroos in World Cup qualifying, primarily because the team is often predictable in attack.
These overloads on the right side of the pitch involve Fran Karačić, Martin Boyle and Tom Rogić rotating positions in the shape of a triangle to outnumber opposition defences in wide areas while also adding a semblance of unpredictability to the Socceroos’ attack.
Against a 4-4-2 (seemingly the preferred defensive system of teams in Asian WCQ), positional rotations between Rogić, Boyle and Karačić on the right-side allow the team to always create a 3v2 on the wing. This means that the primary aim of the rotations is to find the spare man and generate scoring opportunities via crosses and cutbacks into the penalty area.
While the pattern of play would naturally occur so that Karačić is occupying a position as an inverted full-back with Boyle wide on then right and Rogić between the lines, all three of these individuals are comfortable at performing each of these roles meaning that rotations between the three positions could theoretically occur seamlessly, thus increasing the chance of a defence becoming disorganised due to clever rotations.
When deploying this pattern of play against a low block, there are set principles which must be followed. One player must always occupy the width, one player should always be making runs to stretch the opposition last line and the other player should always find himself in the half-space in a position normally occupied by a number 8.
In practice, this plays to the strengths of these three individuals given that Boyle is adept at beating his man and crossing, Karačić has the capacity to play inverted and has a good passing range both in his vision to find channels and passing from deep while Rogić excels at making intelligent runs and creating chances in the final third.
As such, rotations between these players could disorganise the opposition’s defence by drawing out their left-back and left-midfielder leaving less players to defender players making runs into the box.
The fundamentals of this in possession Socceroos side will be the requirement of width to stretch the halfspaces for Hrustic, Rogic and Karacic, the verticality provided by the front three and quick ball movement for chance creation.
Boyle will suit having a wide role before coming inside and arriving late at the back post for crosses, while Leckie will excel in a more inside role, where he can use his smart combination play around the box and physicality in the air.
In Jeggo, the Socceroos have a fantastic water carrier to help spread possession, while Hrustic and Rogic will form the key creativity of this side.
Fundamentals out of possession
Under this tactical framework, the Socceroos will have a systematised defensive setup aimed at reducing scoring opportunities for the opposition while maximising chances to win the ball high up the pitch and spring shots in transition.
In the opposition build-up phase, pressing in a unit with a high and aggressive defensive line is of the utmost importance in order to compress the space for the opposing team. This is no different for the Socceroos who should employ a high press at times in order to force the opposition to either attempt to play long over the press or risk playing through the press and losing the ball in their own half.
While the national team does not possess many attacking players renowned for their defensive work rate, the objective is to inculcate a high press in a coordinate fashion that involves consistent pressing with a cover shadow and bending runs to place the opposition under more pressure when attempting to play out from the back.
Graham Arnold has largely sought to press in a 4-2-4 and this remains consistent within this tactical framework as Rogić joins the first line of pressure with Jamie Maclaren beside him and Ajdin Hrustić fulfilling the position next to Jimmy Jeggo in the double pivot. While Hrustić is suspended for the game against Vietnam, Jackson Irvine and Aaron Mooy are both adept at fulfilling this role defensively and could therefore fill in for the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder.
However, for the most part, the Socceroos should look to play in a 4-4-2 mid-block with the aim of winning the ball in midfield and making the field big in transition. When the opposition is progressing the ball, this involves minimising the space between the midfield and defensive lines to ensure that opposition creative players are not given time to face forward and play incisive passes.
This type of defending requires a good level of communication and understanding between the team which can be facilitated by the likes of Miloš Degenek and Trent Sainsbury who have each been handed the captain’s armband for the Socceroos on separate occasions.
When defending in a 4-4-2 mid-block, the team’s wide players Boyle and Leckie will tuck in and look to compact the space in the middle of the pitch with the aim of forcing the ball out wide and using the sideline as an extra defender. The team will look to stop crosses and cutbacks but should crosses be launched into the box, Degenek and Sainsbury are adept at clearing their lines.
Therefore, the main principles of this approach to defend include remaining compact, disciplined and active to reduce the amount of opportunities that the opposition can create inside the penalty area.
Transitioning seamlessly from defence to attack and from attack to defence is important for any football team and that remains true for the Socceroos.
When transitioning from attack to defence, the Socceroos should consider counter-pressing with several players after immediately losing the ball, with the aim of winning it back and playing the ball forwards quickly before the opposition has had time to organise their defence.
Under Graham Arnold, the national team has not been particularly focused on playing in this fashion, primarily due to the tactical profiles of some of the players in the final third not being conducive to playing a high-intensity style of football.
With this said, however, opting to make the most out of transitions suits arguably Australia’s best player in Ajdin Hrustić who is accustomed to playing in a team that looks to counter-press when they lose the ball and break quickly when they win the ball at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Specifically, according to StatsBomb data via FbRef, Hrustić ranks in the 97th percentile among midfielders playing in the top five leagues in Europe for tackles in the attacking third. This, in conjunction with his ranking in the 76th percentile for pressures in the attacking third demonstrates Hrustić’s preference to press at a high intensity.
Harnessing this facet of Hrustić’s skillset could prove to be beneficial for the Socceroos so long as both Jeggo and Karačić hold their respective positions to allow the German-based midfielder to attempt to win the ball aggressively in the final third.
Given that this tactical setup involves the Socceroos playing a lot of their time out of possession in a mid-block, winning the ball in midfield before attempting to transition quickly is a crucial way of creating chances.
Hrustić equally excels in this respect and thus when the ball is won in midfield, he will be encouraged to play forwards and release the team’s wingers in transition with the aim of using their speed to create opportunities for cutbacks and crosses.
Hrustić’s capacity to make smart decisions on the ball also opens the opportunity for Maclaren and Leckie to make dummy runs for each other so that Hrustić can pinpoint and pick out whoever is in the best position to receive the ball or open space on the right side for a potential diagonal pass to Boyle.