As World Cup starts go it’s hardly controversial to suggest this has been one of the greatest ever. There have been comebacks and drubbings aplenty and a few contentious decisions to boot.
Pretty much every match has yielded something spectacular and the Socceroo’s first run out was no exception.
Ange Postecoglou’s men paid a dear price for early nerves but showed the kind of guts and grit that has allowed Australian football to punch above its weight for decades.
They were unlucky not to find an equaliser and were desperately unlucky to concede a third in the dying minutes.
That said, there were plenty of positives to take from the performance, not to mention the fact that Australia’s young squad made a team whose only two losses in their last 16 games have been to Brazil and Germany, look pretty average.
However the task in front of them on Thursday morning (Australian time) is altogether more daunting.
If there was a standout performance from the first round of group matches, the Netherland’s demolition of reigning World and European champions Spain, was it.
If Postecoglou's men are going to escape their brush with the mighty tulips (not their actual nickname) with their dignity intact then here are the key battles they’ll have to win.
The right line
Spain, as is their way, tried to play a high line, high pressure game against the Dutch, attempting to stymie their possession.
Unluckily for the Spanish, the man in charge of the Dutch is the mastermind who was the first to develop the tactics to undo the tiki taka high pressure game of Barcelona with Bayern Munich.
Postecoglou can’t afford to play a high line given the quality of the raking diagonal passes from the Dutch full-backs.
If Australia are going to frustrate the Netherlands into committing men forward they should maintain a broad deep line, with the midfield bank of four playing narrower.
They should look to play a counter attacking game, committing key players forward, through the inside channels created by playing a narrow midfield.
Key to the success of this tactic is a disciplined and cohesive line that requires someone to step up and take charge.
Speed and quality delivery
The Socceroos’ best chance of scoring remains the aerial threat of Tim Cahill, but unlike the Chilean munchkins, the Dutch defence has got some solid six footers.
Scoring from set pieces will be difficult, so the Socceroos should focus on breakaways and good delivery from out wide.
We all know about Tim Cahill’s ability in the air, what is less spoken about is his movement, which is absolutely exemplary.
Sure his leap and timing are formidable, but more fundamentally he understands when and where to be at the crucial time.
Mathew Leckie, Tommy Oar and Ben Halloran will need to exploit the inside channels, then work to get on the outside of the fullbacks and deliver quality crosses.
The Socceroos will need a breaking midfielder. Ange won’t want to commit too many men forward from central midfield, so both wingers will have to go at the same time.
Their job will be to provide runs that look to draw defenders away from Cahill and yet still be in a position to mop up any rebounds.
Playing on the break and delivering crosses will give Cahill the best chance to generate some space.
Taking Chances and not conceding early
Australia had chances against Chile to equalise. Granted, some were half chances and some were only quarter chances but at this level, and it’s almost trite to say, if you’re going to be competitive you need to take them.
The USA proved it, Italy proved it and England proved how costly it can be.
Postecoglou’s men will not find the same penetration they did against Chile. The Dutch midfield is too experienced and too strong to allow the Socceroos to go piling through the middle.
Chances will be scant and they will require fast breaks and accurate passing to fashion.
The Socceroos should look to frustrate the Netherlands – getting to halftime goalless would be an enormous win.
The Netherlands will commit more men forward as their frustration grows and that is when the Socceroos have to strike.
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