The Breakdown: Defence is key for Socceroos

A natural consequence of football is that superior sides generally dominate possession against inferior sides. Stronger individuals, and stronger team structures, make it difficult for underdogs to achieve success with a proactive style of play.

Think of the great underdog victories in recent years, particularly at international level, nearly all of them – like Greece at Euro 2004, Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup or more recently, Atletico Madrid with their remarkable success both domestically and in Europe – are sides with a strong defensive record.

It's just very, very difficult for a weaker side to outscore a stronger opponent.

It is only realistic, too, to accept that Australia are an underdog side at the forthcoming World Cup - not only in terms of their FIFA ranking, but also in the quality of individual players and the punishing draw. If they are to succeed against Spain, Chile and the Netherlands, it's very unlikely they'll win 3-2. History suggests, rather, that Ange Postecoglou's side will have to be strong defensively and win by a narrow margin.

Somewhat ironically, Postecoglou, appointed primarily for his positive, possession-based football, will have to particularly focus on defensive aspects if he is to achieve tangible success. With that in mind, then, Monday night's pre-tournament friendly was a good opportunity to see how the Socceroos will set up defensively under the new regime, even if the opponents – a second string South African side who were happy to sit fairly deep and play on the counter-attack – were stylistically different to the opposition Australia will face in Brazil.

Therefore, much of the match was shaped by Australia's play in possession, where they worked the ball out from the back of defence wide, pushing the full-backs high up the pitch to allow the wingers to cross aerially for Tim Cahill wherever possible.

From an attacking point of view, this made sense despite becoming largely predictable as the game wore on.

More concerning, from a defensive perspective, is that the advanced positioning of the wide defenders left lots of space down the sides of the two central defenders.

South Africa were able to counter-attack into the channels, exposing the isolated centre-back partnership of Alex Wilkinson and Ryan McGowan. Even when Ivan Franjic positioned himself more cautiously as Jason Davidson pushed on from the left – making something of a back three – there was loads of space in behind the latter, which might be more fatally exposed by Alexis Sanchez and Arjen Robben than it was by Tukelo Rantie at ANZ Stadium.

The defensive issues were compounded by an obvious, if understandable, lack of cohesion between the makeshift pairing at the back.

Wilkinson and McGowan simply never seemed comfortable playing alongside each other and struggled with basic defensive tasks like dropping to cover. Wilkinson, in particular, was dragged out of position by the movement of the South African striker across his face – caught marking the player, rather marking the pass.

The problem was exaggerated in the second half when Matt McKay was substituted on for James Troisi and, more pertinently, Postecoglou began to encourage more fluidity from his midfield trio. James Holland and Mark Milligan began making more forward runs, leaving the side without a dedicated holding midfielder.

Naturally, when Postecoglou has all his first-choice players available, the feel of the side should be rather different. With his disciplined, dogged approach to a central midfield role, captain Mile Jedinak should give the back four more protection, just as he did in the Premier League season just past for Crystal Palace.

Furthermore, Matthew Spiranovic will almost certainly start at the back – the hope being he can strike up a good partnership with either Wilkinson or McGowan, or perhaps even Bailey Wright, to give the defence a more settled feel.

Thankfully, the next friendly against Croatia will give the Socceroos a far more appropriate test. Niko Kovac looks set to field a highly technical, creative midfield of Real Madrid's Luka Modric, Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan's Mateo Kovacic - three playmakers together in the centre of midfield.

Australia will see far less of the ball, face less of the rapid counter-attacking of the South Africans and more sustained, patient passages of passing, and be tested for longer periods for their ability to withstand pressure without the ball.

When Postecoglou's side has more possession, they are often stretched in that transition between defence and attack - when you play with great width, the distance for players to move to become compact and narrow becomes greater, and thus leaves the defence exposed to counter-attacks. With less of the ball in Brazil, this should be less of a problem, although it remains to be seen whether the Socceroos' defensive organisation will be strong enough to hold firm against the inevitable waves of attack they will face in the challenging Group B.

Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at

1 comment


The Socceroos are planning on playing as the dominant team in Brazil. Tim Palmer is presuming we'll be having little of the ball. The Roos aren't planning on parking the bus and doing counter attack. The Roos are planning on full-on attack from kick-off till the siren on 90 mins. Nothing disguised. I also think they are capable of being the team that the other team is fearing, of being the team that the other team is struggling to contain and yes attack is the best form of defence, like we did first half against Ecuador, but this time hopefully for the full game.
I also think Tim Palmer is presuming a lot. Presuming that Iniesta is better than Milligan. Presuming that Arjen Robben is better than Halloran. Presuming that RVP is better than Tommy Oar. We'll see... I have faith in the Roos. We are fast and skilful, hopefully fit and determined without injuries.