Australia will kick off their 3rd round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup with a crucial fixture against China on Friday morning (September 3 AEST). After naming a 27-man squad for the China match as well as 7 September’s away game against Vietnam, Graham Arnold will look to get the campaign off to a good start.
Possessing an unprecedented array of individual talent, Arnold will face many selection dilemmas as he welcomes back Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogić to a squad where Eintracht Frankfurt’s Ajdin Hrustić and FC St Pauli’s Jackson Irvine performed phenomenally.
Martin Boyle and Harry Souttar are both in great form in Scotland and England respectively which holds the team in good stead going into the match against China.
This article will breakdown a possible structure that could be employed by Arnold for these two qualifying fixtures and it will focus on the following tactical aspects of play:
- Attacking Principles
- Roles of important individuals in the side including Aaron Mooy and Ajdin Hrustić
Attacking Principles (in possession)
Box midfield when building up from the back
The primary reason why this system is valid for the Socceroos is because it allows them to get their four best midfielders into the same team with Celtic’s Tom Rogić playing as a false nine. Rogić can drop deep and play alongside Jackson Irvine in a box midfield allowing wingers Martin Boyle and Awer Mabil to come inside and make runs in behind.
Using a box midfield in the build-up phase would involve Ajdin Hrustić dropping deep to play alongside Aaron Mooy in a double pivot. This is a role familiar to both players given that Mooy has excelled as a playmaker in double pivot for the Socceroos while Hrustić has been used primarily on the left of a double 6 for Frankfurt this season.
A box midfield is not unfamiliar to avid followers of the Socceroos given that it was employed quite extensively by current Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou during his reign as Australia boss.
Ange saw the box midfield as a valid solution for getting Mark Milligan, Aaron Mooy, Mile Jedinak and Tom Rogić into the same side and represented an attack-centred focus of play with the team’s best creative passers picking up the ball in decisive areas. Jedinak and Milligan were both phenomenal vertical passers that could advance the ball quickly while under pressure.
The advantage of building up with a box midfield is that it allows Australia’s two best passers to get on the ball from deep and control the game. It also allows Rogić and Irvine to position themselves between the lines and play through balls for smart wingers like Mabil and Boyle.
Given that Rogić and Irvine are both extremely skilled at taking a first touch and playing a final ball, Arnold could achieve great results by using Rogić as a false nine and getting him to drop between the lines in the build-up phase.
Tactical flexibility in the final third
Perhaps the most important thing that playing a 4-3-3 achieves is tactical flexibility. With Ajdin Hrustić, Aaron Mooy and Jackson Irvine in midfield, Arnold has a lot of versatility given that each player has a vastly different profile.
Arnold has flagged this tactical flexibility as a key asset of this team as he looks to fit his best players into a starting XI.
“Tommy [Rogić] is playing under Ange as an 8, I could always have a great midfield of Mooy, Rogić and Hrustić,” said the Socceroo boss.
“I could also play Rogić as a false 9 and then you got Jackson Irvine [to come in], so we’ve got depth.
“My strategy has always been… the players make the system, the system doesn’t make the players.”
One such way that Arnold could achieve tactical flexibility is by allowing Hrustić to push out of the double pivot and make forward runs once the ball reaches the final third. This creates a semblance of unpredictability for the Socceroos’ attack which in turn makes them more difficult to defend against. Hrustić has excelled in this free role for Eintracht Frankfurt as he often looks to receive the ball in the final third and create goalscoring opportunities.
Overloading spaces between the lines
By allowing Hrustić to push forward in the final third, Arnold can overload the space between the lines with 3 creative players in the form of Rogić, Hrustić and Irvine while Boyle and Mabil make continuous runs off the shoulder.
Overloading the spaces between the lines allows Australia’s most creative players to get on the ball and look to face forward and create scoring opportunities.
Elder and Grant can provide the width in the wide areas for potential crossing opportunities as Irvine would likely look to get in the box and use his heading ability. This is particularly effective against teams that defend with two in midfield (4-4-2 defensive shape being common) because it creates an outnumber in the middle of the park that is very difficult to defend against.
However, this is a very attacking way of playing and relies upon the holding midfielder to be an effective vertical passer that doesn’t lose the ball under pressure. Aaron Mooy is incredibly adept at this and could easily sit in front of the defensive line and attempt to pick out the likes of Rogić, Hrustić and Irvine between the lines.
This was a common theme employed by Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos, particularly after having progressed the ball by using a box midfield.
The role of Ajdin Hrustić
Arguably Australia’s most technically gifted footballer, Hrustić has typically been used as a #10 by Graham Arnold for the Socceroos. However, given the amount of attacking talent at his disposal, the Socceroos boss has flagged his willingness to play Hrustić in the deeper position that he has adopted at Eintracht Frankfurt.
“I watch Ajdin every week playing in a double six…he can help control the game rather than create the game,” Arnold said.
“I’ve already had that conversation [about playing in a deeper role] with him… he can play on the left-hand side box-to-box too.
“It’s great that we’ve got great flexibility, he can also play as a right-winger and come inside…and that’s a great thing about players like Ajdin.”
These comments suggest that Arnold is willing to try Hrustić in a free role in a double pivot similar to how he plays alongside Djibril Sow at Eintracht Frankfurt. This involves coming deep to support the build-up and acting as a deep-lying playmaker. In performing this role, Hrustić’s best asset is using his passing range to pick out players higher up the pitch with perfectly placed vertical passes.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Hrustić is incredible at making intelligent forward runs and knowing when he can break from his double pivot to support an attack.
In the following three frames, Hrustić’s footballing intelligence is at the forefront as he begins in a deep midfield position before choosing to make a support run forward which leads to him creating a goal-scoring opportunity.
In the match displayed above, Hrustić’s Frankfurt were locked at 1-1 before the Australian was summoned from the bench early in the 2nd half. With forward runs such as those shown above, it is no surprise that Frankfurt went on to win 3-1, scoring twice after Hrustić’s arrival in the game.
Hrustić is a very hardworking midfielder and has the desire to track back and support his teammates after making these forward runs. In fact, Hrustić’s fitness makes him a very valuable asset for the German outfit as he averages a distance covered of 11.92km per 90 minutes played this season.
For context, Bayern Munich’s midfield maestro Joshua Kimmich leads the league in this statistic with 12.7km covered per 90 – a number that only slightly eclipses those recorded by the Socceroo.
Given his elite fitness and willingness to work hard for the team, Graham Arnold could really benefit from using Hrustić in this free role during the World Cup Qualifiers.
How does Arnold use Aaron Mooy?
One of the great conundrums faced by many Socceroos managers has been deciding upon the best way to use arguably Australia’s best player in Aaron Mooy. Formerly of Huddersfield as well as Brighton and Hove Albion, Mooy is a complete midfielder with the ability to win the ball back off opposition players whilst also able to remain calm on the ball and spray passes to teammates.
His set-piece delivery will also be extremely valuable against Asian opposition who typically possess shorter players than the Socceroos who have the set piece threat of 200cm tall Harry Souttar.
Graham Arnold could find great joy by using Mooy as a sitting midfielder who can use his ability on the ball to pick out teammates in dangerous areas. When building from the back, Arnold could use Mooy and Hrustić in a double pivot to assert total control over the game – such is the ability on the ball for both of these individuals.
Mooy is very familiar with playing in a double pivot and has performed this role on multiple occasions for the Socceroos but none more famously than at the 2018 FIFA World Cup where he was paired with captain Mile Jedinak.
When Hrustić runs forward in the left channel, Mooy is more than comfortable to play as a sole sitting midfielder and is likely to adopt this role should Arnold indeed choose to opt with a 4-3-3.
Jackson Irvine playing box-to-box
FC St Pauli’s Jackson Irvine is one of the Socceroos’ most important players due to his work-rate, engine and ability to get up and down the pitch. Irvine was brilliant in the second round of qualifying and played both as a #10 and in a double pivot. With this said, however, Irvine’s preferred position is as a #8 in a box-to-box role.
The former Hull City midfielder would excel playing on the right-side of Australia’s midfield three where he can press high to win the ball back but also make intelligent and incisive runs into the box where his heading and finishing ability can be put to use.
This ability to score and create from midfield was especially obvious during the 2nd round of qualifying where the midfielder registered three goals and four assists from seven starts despite playing predominantly as a deep midfielder.
Given that he is an active presser, Irvine could play alongside Rogić in Arnold’s preferred 4-4-2 defensive shape with Hrustić and Mooy sitting behind the both of them in midfield. Irvine would then be tasked with pressing the opposition defenders and winning the ball high up the pitch.
The former Hull City midfielder demonstrated his ability to perform this role during the last round of qualifying where he won possession of the ball more times than any other player.
Ultimately, the 4-3-3 is a tactically versatile system that suits the profile of the Socceroos’ players and allows Arnold to get his 4 best midfield players into the same team.
The contrasting traits of Irvine, Mooy, Rogić and Hrustić can be put to good use in this system that also allows Arnold to continue defending in his preferred 4-4-2 defensive shape.
While it is difficult to predict what lineup Arnold will select against China (he may choose to be more conservative and drop one of the creative midfielders for a ball-winner like Dougall), it is likely that he trials this system at some point in the near future as he looks to solidify a strong push to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Image Supplied: Aaron Mooy Instagram