Breakdown: Burns ends seven-year itch

Seven years after making his international debut, Nathan Burns returns to the Socceroos squad that will take on the continent's best in January's Asian Cup.

It's a homecoming of sorts for a player originally touted as the next Harry Kewell when he emerged on the scene at Adelaide United.

Disappointing spells in Greece, Korea and Newcastle tempered expectations somewhat, however, he has been reinvigorated under Ernie Merrick, and a Socceroos call-up is befitting of his form.

Burns has become much more of an out-and-out forward at Wellington Phoenix – 10 goals in 11 games says it all. Used out wide or as a #10 at Newcastle Jets, with his role to link the play in the final third, Merrick has now encouraged Burns to push higher up and get into goal scoring positions.

This is confirmed by Burns himself: "I've always been a midfielder, making crosses and linking up the middle play. This year I'm playing a lot more up front, runs in behind, last man, which Ernie really pushed me to do in the first couple of months I was here."

In Wellington's fluid system, Burns making runs in behind fits perfectly. Merrick has four midfielders comfortable retaining the ball and progressing attacking moves upfield, with Albert Riera, Alex Rodriguez, Michael McGlinchey and Roly Bonevacia a technically excellent midfield quartet who knit clever passing moves together.

In a 4-3-3 formation that becomes a 4-2-2-2 when McGlinchey drops deep as a false nine, Burns and fellow wide forward Roy Krishna have to provide the directness that might otherwise be missing.

By running in behind, the two complement Wellington's passing moves, and act as targets for through balls in behind. The result is a pleasing balance between possession and penetration, with Krishna and Burns together responsible for 14 of Wellington's twenty-one goals this season.

Burns points to Merrick's coaching as key to his goal scoring form: "He was on my back probably all through pre-season, 'stop coming to the ball, keep going in behind, we want goals from you’.

“I've never really had a coach expect that from me, so I think Ernie has really pushed me this year and it's paying off."

Think back across the 10 goals Burns has scored and a certain pattern comes to mind. All of his goals have come inside the penalty area (four inside the six yard box), reflecting an emphasis on getting high up the pitch and attacking through-balls and cut-backs.

It's worth noting, too, that Burns is capable of drifting inside and linking the play, as was his original guise at Newcastle, and even in the first few rounds of the season for Wellington. In the first three games, Merrick used Burns and McGlinchey on either side of Jeremy Brockie, a natural out-and-out forward, and encouraged the two wide players to drift inside as #10s.

This made the formation appear something like a Christmas tree, a 4-3-2-1, and Burns was excellent coming into little pockets of space. As the season has progressed, he's increasingly moved higher up the pitch, now evolving into that ruthless finisher we saw score twice against Sydney FC on the weekend.

Having proved himself once more on the club scene, the challenge for Burns is to do the same for Ange Postecoglou.

While Postecoglou's desire to dominate possession and play an attractive, passing brand of football has been ever present throughout his tenure, there has been a subtle stylistic shift away from the original emphasis of crossing for Tim Cahill, towards the use of wide strikers that drift inside and overload the midfield zone.

That was most obvious in their last friendly against Japan, where James Troisi and Robbie Kruse moved into very narrow positions, creating a numerical advantage for Australia between the lines through which they were able to get into good positions in the final third.

The problem lay in execution. Poor decisions and a lack of incisiveness meant the Socceroos had possession, but not penetration.

If Postecoglou persists with this approach, however, it's easy to see where Burns could potentially fit in one of the wider roles. Importantly, Burns could be capable of providing both possession and penetration – coming inside to overload the midfield as Postecoglou wants those players to do – but also darting forward into goal scoring positions.

On paper, Burns could be an excellent fit, especially if Postecoglou continues to encourage the natural evolution of his side away from the crossing-based approach that serviced Cahill, and towards the more fluid system we saw against Japan.

What could be even more encouraging would be if Postecoglou could mesh the two approaches, one that facilitates the control between the lines Postecoglou craves so much, but also includes the aerial prowess of Cahill – Australia’s best and most obvious goal threat – along with the runs in behind that Burns provides.

It would be tempting to say Burns, given his form in the A-League, is capable of being that goal scorer beyond Cahill that Australia so clearly lacks. However, the suspicion is that Burns is enjoying a purple patch, one that isn't truly reflective of his abilities as a finisher.

He's currently converting chances at a rate above 50%, which historically is a level not sustainable over the long term. In all likelihood, Burns' goal scoring feats will decline in the coming weeks.

However, Burns has shown he is a wonderfully varied player, capable of fitting into different formations and systems. His malleability is perfect for the tinkerman Merrick, and ideal for Postecoglou.

It's easy to forget Burns is still only 26, given the way so many got ahead of themselves when he was just a teenager. A Socceroos call-up for the Asian Cup completes a full circle, a fulfilling of his obvious promise. The next chapter under Ange Postecoglou promises to be just as intriguing.

Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com