The Breakdown: Australia v Netherlands
An emphasis upon short passing football is the most discussed feature of Ange Postecoglou's strategy, but the 3-2 defeat to the Netherlands demonstrated an underrated aspect of his coaching.
Defensively, Postecoglou is generally as positive as he is in the media. Like how he constantly demands his players make a statement in press conferences, so he instructs them to make a statement with their pressure, asking them to close down high up the pitch and win the ball back quickly.
The exact level of pressing has, naturally, deviated according to game context, but both Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory had a proactive approach to defending - pushing up and shutting down passing options, rather than soaking up pressure.
That was obvious from the opening moments against the Dutch, where Australia's front three charged forward energetically, springing immediately into their clearly defined roles.
Postecoglou had obviously studied the Spain v Netherlands match closely, and prepared for the 3-4-1-2 formation Louis Van Gaal has recently turned to. Forty-five minutes of Australian domination eventually forced the Manchester United-bound manager to change shape.
The key was the discipline of Tommy Oar and Mathew Leckie to press in a very particular way.
As the Dutch worked the ball across the width of their back three, the Australian wingers positioned themselves to cut off passing lanes to the Dutch wing-backs. Also they maintained pressure on the man in possession so there was no time on the ball, and no options to pass to.
With Tim Cahill working tremendously hard to cover the space between the 'middle' centre-back, Ron Vlaar, (and eventually booked for a vicious lunge on Bruno Martins Indi, which summed up his defensive contribution), Australia constantly forced the Dutch into long, unambitious balls towards the front two, or frustrated, over hit passes towards the wing-backs.
Importantly, the Socceroos press was replicated by the rest of the side, with Mark Bresciano, Matt McKay and Mile Jedinak occupying Nigel de Jong, Jonathon de Guzman and Wesley Sneijder respectively, thus matching up 3v3 in midfield.
That prevented any of the Dutch midfielders from time on the ball, with McKay in particular combative against De Guzman, constantly forcing him backwards.
As the nature of the formation battle meant Australia's full-backs had no direct opponents against the Dutch wing-backs (who had to cover lots of ground if they were to close down Jason Davidson and Ryan McGowan), there were lots of opportunities for them to step forward and swing in crosses. A rather exaggerated example of this was Cahill's goal, with McGowan providing the assist from a deep position. Conversely, the opening goal just seconds earlier demonstrated the vulnerabilities evident in this approach, as it gave Arjen Robben the space to break into when Bresciano gave the ball away cheaply.
Australia basically conceded one and scored one from the advanced positioning of the full-backs, but that understates the importance of their defensive pressure in dictating the tempo of the game, and establishing their unexpected dominance.
Such was their troubles, Van Gaal might have considered the substitution of Bruno Martins Indi for Memphis Depay even if the former had not been injured. As it were, it gave him the opportunity to reshuffle his side into a more conventional 4-3-3, the shape they used throughout qualification, and one which gave his side natural width high up the pitch, thus pinning back the Australian full-backs.
Now, Oar and Leckie couldn't be as bold in pushing forward to close down. Instead, they had to track the full-backs into deep positions, understandably concerned about the ability of Daley Blind and Darryl Janmaat to create 2v1 opportunities down the sides.
That meant Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij, now a centre-back partnership, had more time on the ball, allowing the Dutch to establish more rhythm in possession. It was still 3v3 in midfield, however, and Sneijder drifted left to find space, linking up nicely with Depay to bring the winger into the game. The substitute was the match-winner, with an assist and the third Dutch goal.
Fatigue was clearly a huge issue in the second half for Australia. Cahill was withdrawn specifically for the energy he had expended, while Oar was also substituted and Leckie was clearly exhausted by the end of 90 minutes. Australia simply couldn't maintain the high-tempo closing down.
Still, they'd done a tremendous job pushing the Dutch as hard as they did, both literally in terms of the defensive pressure and in the scheme of the match itself. That is a tribute to Postecoglou's preparation, as well as the ability of the players to execute it. No mean feat in the demanding schedule of the World Cup, and especially against, on paper, vastly superior opponents.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com