Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Socceroos: For god's sake don't panic!

It has been decided

The FFA has spoken. The new man to lead Australia to glory is homegrown wonder-coach, Ange Postecoglu. The Melbourne Victory manager was picked to lead the national team after the FFA matched up the man's credentials with what they wanted for the national team, and it was good.

Before I go ahead and make any more value judgements, I want to say that this is a very pro-Ange piece. I am once again not really living up to my name here, but I really want people to know that just because we have an Australian coach doesn't mean we should immediately dismiss the whole idea or panic. KEEP CALM. Hiring an Australian coach on a five year contract is a good move and if you look at the Australian candidates for the job there are very few better suited to being given a go at national team level other than Postecoglu. The current state of the team is a perfect situation for an Angified-regneration. But it won't be without cost. If we want regeneration, we are going to have to step very far away from the Osieck method to more uncharted and for some, undesirable waters.

I will now present my argument for what we should be expecting, what is realistic, what Ange brings to the table and a case study to support my argument for regeneration with the example of Louis Van Gaal. I will go into more detail on this later in this piece.

What Ange brings to the table

I have seen a multitude of Eurosnobs on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms deriding the choice of an Australian coach over a European one. Just because you have an EU
passport doesn't make you any better a coach for a particular environment. Osieck and Verbeek, whilst getting us to the World Cup, were largely derided for their negative style, at times baffling selections, and overall just simply their personalities. I get the cynicism over Australian coaches. I get it particularly when you look at Graham Arnold's sojourn through the Socceroos first Asian Cup. Furthermore, the Frank Farina experience was not without its controversy either, not quailfying for the the World Cup certainly didn't help things, but Terry Venables before him didn't either and Venables was, shock horror, a European coach. Guus Hiddink will forever be held in the limelight as the one that brought significant change to the way Australians thought about football and he rightly keeps a place in most Socceroos' fans hearts, but we have to move on. We need something sustainable, not a band-aid solution.

Many in the fallout of Osieck's sacking were suggesting a big name foreign coach to get us playing decent football in time for Rio next year so that we could be competitive. Whilst this idea was not without merit, it certainly doesn't fix the endemic problems in the team. The sooner the revolution starts, the better and if that means poor results in Brazil then so be it. Going in with Osieck was no guarantee of good results and forking over a million bananas to a foreign coach for 6 months doesn't really make much sense in terms of growth for the national game. Whilst there is the possibility that the fair-weather fans will drop off after the World Cup given a poor performance this in only a short-term issue. However I would say that a football mad nation prior to a continental tournament would only do wonders for the game, hiring a foreign coach like Hiddink, Marcelo Bielsa or Bert Van Maarwijk is no guarantee of success. The gamble on an Australian coach needs to be taken.

Ange is one of the most successful club coaches in Australian history and is certainly the most successful in the A-League era. His two title wins with Brisbane Roar put him head and shoulders above the rest of the league. His successful combination of style and success won him many plaudits and few would argue that, given the resources, Ange can win you a title. Add to this the two titles he won in the NSL with South Melbourne and  there is even more fodder for the argument that he has a gifted, tactical mind. Postecoglu has even won the Oceanian Federation Cup, if that really means much, to add to his cabinet of trophies.

Ange is a manager that is willing to make difficult decisions. In his first season at Brisbane Roar he came in mid-season and saw the team finish 9th. Hardly an impressive start, but it was what he did to the playing personnel and his signal toward a particular style that impressed the most. Out went Craig Moore, Danny Tiatto and Charlie Miller only to be replaced by Adam Sarota, Tommy Oar and Pieter Collen in the starting line-up. Craig Moore's departure in particular was made all the more significant when the defender apparently made a "me or the manager" statement that ultimately saw him ousted by the Roar administration. From the outset, Ange showed what he wanted to do. He wanted fit, technical players that could play the way he wants to play. Ange even helped the transition of Michael Zullo to left-back with Oar ahead of him that has since helped Zullo find his niche on the outskirts of the national team. Whilst the Collen experiment didn't last long, Postecoglu quickly started reshaping his squad. Whilst the young talents of Zullo, Oar and Sarota were sold on to FC Utrecht, Ange otherwise was able to keep what he felt useful and cut what wasn't necessary. Out of the grand-final starting eleven the following year, only Matt McKay, Mitch Nichols and Ivan Franjic were the left-over relics from the Farina era. Ange successfully transformed a team of underperformers into a championship team in one year. 14 players went out and 14 came in.

This is one point that I must stress when looking at the long term objectives of the national team. We need to rebuild. Ange has done it at Brisbane and was on his way to completing his rebuild at Melbourne Victory before he was plucked for the national team job. Considering the aging nature of the national team, and the politics that seems to be infecting the team. (One only has to look at Lucas Neill and his comments to have a fairly good guess at this) and the same old revamp is in order. The regeneration of the team hasn't happened and the average age of the squad is still a little on the high side. If you look again the Brisbane Roar grand-final eleven, only Shane Steffanutto was over 30. Ange evolves teams. He includes experience alongside youth and that ability to meld the two together as well as sort out the egos will in exchange create a much better environment for the players as well as a better platform for the future. One could argue that Osieck was starting this melding, but he was far from successful to that end.

Some will point out that Ange's systems are only club based. If you look at this mass exodus of players it is obvious that Ange was bringing in players that he knew could fulfill certain roles. This is a luxury that will be seldom afforded. Ange will either have to call-up players already familiar with his system, press the system on his players and train them hard when he does have them or adapt his system to fit his players. Now, this argument about tactics is fairly sound. Ange is a good club coach and has a specific system he wants his team to play. This argument falls apart when you consider that Ange might well just change the way he plays with the Socceroos. It is utterly ridiculous to think that he would be so inflexible to change. The national job is a different one, Ange know that and I am sure that he is well aware of the challenges he faces but he has proven again and again that he is a capable tactician. He is well spoken, he is firm when he needs to be and brings the confidence of several title wins to his name. What we might see for the Socceroos might be different to what Ange brings at club level. It will probably have to be. He is a smart enough guy to realise his limits. He has taken on national team duties before with the Joeys, and I'm sure he has learnt much from that experience.

That brings me to another point, many will finger this spectacular inverview as to the many reasons why Ange has been tried and why he has failed at national level. Again, this argument assumes too much. This assumes that Ange has learned nothing in 6 years. This assumes that his achievements at club level to not transfer to international level. This also assumes that a coach, new to Asia, was infallible at a time when Australian football was emerging in a new landscape. It ultimately assumes far too much. To think that Postecoglu has learned nothing from self-reflection or from club management is just unbelievably narrow minded. For a manager, Ange, at 48 is still on the young side, and having led the Joeys in his late thirties to early forties there would have been a very hard learning curve that even the most talented coach would have failed at. I would even go as far to say that any other Australian coach in the same position would have run into the same circumstances. This was also at a time when Australian football was being reinvented and the Dutch way was being introduced to Australia's international youth sides. Whether or not you believe he was unsuitable or a victim of circumstance, it is unfair to judge him by the yardstick of the past.

Now before I get into my case study, I want to say that it really is not all fans that are pessimistic about this appointment. By all accounts, A-League fans are either very positive, cautiously guarded or bitter (I'm looking at you Victory fans). On the other side however are those that either do not watch the A-League or look down their Euro snobby noses at it. The vocal Eurosnobs have been the most critical of this appointment and they themselves are probably the one's that least watch the A-League. Nevertheless, I feel this following part of my article will give some historical correlation to what will likely happen with the Socceroos and draw some parallels between the Louis Van Gaal and Postecoglu experiences.

Blood Oranje

The reason I chose Louis Van Gaal as my case study will become more apparent as I discuss his career ups and downs. There are many differing factors that of course separate he and
Postecoglu, but I feel there are enough parallels and similarities that we can learn something.

Firstly, I will say that van Gaal is significantly older than Postecoglu and as such has had a much more extensive career as a coach. Also, given his stature in Europe, it is really hard to argue how similar these two are, but there are some situations both have struggled with.

At the start of his managerial career, van Gaal started off as an assistant at AZ Alkmaar. Later, he would make the move to Amsterdam to become Leo Beenhakker's assistant. Under the eye of the experience Dutch coach, van Gaal learned his trade in one of the most fruitful environments in world football.
Following the departure of Beenhakker in 1991, van Gaal become head coach of the Amsterdam giants but few would predict what would come next. In his six years as Ajax coach, he won all that was possibly available including the famous Champions League victory over AC Milan in the 1995-95 season. How was it that van Gaal achieved this? He trusted in youth. Danny Blind, Ajax's captain and Frank Rijkaard were the only players over 30 in the starting line-up against Milan in the final. Sound familiar?

With all this success with Ajax, it wasn't long until van Gaal was brought to an even higher calling with Barcelona with whom he enjoyed moderate success taking home two league titles in his three years at the club. His tenure was not without controversy however with many well publicised spats with Barcelona star Rivaldo not helping his cause. Similarly, his injection of many Dutch players into the Barcelona team was not accepted by all despite the success it brought.

Van Gaal then went to the Dutch national team with, despite their talent, he failed utterly. Qualifying Holland for the world cup is generally a fairly easy task for most managers, but van Gaal found a way to fail with the Dutch missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Here is where I would like to highlight a manager that failed with the national set up. This is something Postecoglu has also done but granted, his fall was much harder than that of van Gaal.
He once again returned to Barcelona only to put them close to relegation before Radomir Antic took the reigns.

Van Gaal is no stranger to conflict. His publicised rows with the press and his players has earned him a reputation of someone that has either his way or the highway. Van Gaal subsequently has further issues with a return to Ajax as a technical director and during his management at Bayern Munich where he was largely criticised, however his triumphant return to football was marked at AZ Alkmaar. After two year away from management, van Gaal was able to wrest the Eredivisie title from the traditional top 3 to give the Alkmaar side it's first title in 28 years. His cosmopolitan blending of youthful players from home and abroad helped build a very competitive side with a good philosophy. Largely reliant on youth, van Gaal showed his magic once again.

His time at Bayern Munich, whilst at times controversial, was marked by the introduction of Thomas Muller, Holger Badstuber to the first team as well as the rise to prominence of Bastian Schweinsteiger in his new defensive midfield role.

Now at the helm of the Dutch national team, van Gaal has been quick to discard older unwanted players and introduce a wave of youth. With the exceptions of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt and Rafael Van Der Vaart, van Gaal has been quick to refresh the squad. Players in the ilk of Jetro Willems, Kevin Strootman, Jordie Clasie and Bruno Martins Indi have come to the forefront of the team in a regeneration that was needed following the abject failure of Euro 2011. Losing all three games in a major tournament does that to a team. So far, van Gaal has been very successful with his new team having not lost since taking over. Four draws are the only results that tarnish his record.

Overall, van Gaal has had similar ups and down to Postecoglu, albeit on another level. Failure at the national level, time out of the game to reflect, a triumphant return followed by a move into the national team once more. This connections are vague but they illustrate a point. Van Gaal has been successful at winning with youth at international level as well as domestically. Van Gaal's desire to bring through young players has been much to the delight of fans everywhere. This is how talent is unlocked, managers throw the dice and sometimes it works. Postecoglu did this with the Roar, he threw the dice with some players who he felt worked with his system, and it came off.

What van Gaal is doing with the Dutch national team now is what we need to expect to happen with the Australian national team under Postecoglu. Complete rehabilitation. The squad needs to be rebuilt and youth needs to be injected. However we need to be careful not to place too high an expectation on the team. I feel there would be few Dutch supporters right now that would be confident of their team doing well at the 2014 World Cup. It would take an audacious supporter to even assume that a run at the semi-finals was on the cards due to the inexperience of the side.

Van Gaal has even gambled with players that aren't even regulars with their clubs. When calling up Ricardo van Rhijn for his first few games, the Ajax defender was behind the pecking order to Gregory van der Wiel, but van Gaal saw enough in him to have a good look at the player. Similarly in the most recent squad with Mike van der Hoorn, the young centre-back is behind Niklas Moisander and Stefano Denswil but still manages to get a call-up.

The Dutch showed that with experience they could be a force and much of the 2010 finalists
were players that were introduced wholesale by Marco Van Basten in the 2006 campaign. Robben, Van Perise, Kuyt, Sneijder, Heitinga, etc were all introduced by Van Basten 4 years before. They had plenty of experience by the time they got to the World Cup in 2010 but it took the experience of a first-round knock out to Portugal in 2006 that turned them into such a team.

Postecoglu needs the same time afforded to him. He has a five year contract that will take him all the way to Russia in 2018. This has to be the national teams goal. Being flailed in Brazil is a distinct possibility, but we need to see it as a platform toward the next world cup. Had we had Osieck leading the squad, we would have late-20s and 30 something year olds masquerading as the national team getting pummeled rather than early 20 something that have the next World Cup to look forward to who will learn from the experience and bond with their teammates as a result. I know what I would rather. We're going to get licked anyway, we may as well use the opportunity to prepare for the Asia Cup in 2015 and Russia in 2018.

What van Gaal is doing now will benefit the Dutch in Russia. What Postecoglu does now will benefit the team in Russia as well. These are not stop-gap solutions. These are realistic views where talented young players are targeted with a view to many years down the track. We need to have this long sighted view if we are to have any chance of being competitive come the next World Cup. And who knows? One of our young lads might get picked up by a better club as a result if he were to appear in the world cup which would only help our chances in the future.

In summary, we don't know what Ange can do with the national team as he hasn't done it yet but I believe there is plenty of reasons for optimism. While there are concerns over how transferable Ange's tactics are to the national set-up, we don't even know if they will be the same. The best thing supporters can give Ange at the moment is time, judge him at the Asian Cup in 2015 or better yet the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup. It's a long time, but this sort of thing can't be rushed and we don't want the same thing happening with Ange as with what happened with Verbeek and Osieck. The pressure on them to qualify meant sacrificing development. Let's hope that Postecoglu's mandate from the FFA is far from too scrutinising at this early stage.

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