Saturday, 19 October 2013

Socceroos a mess; the managerial circus begins

#HolgerOut but who's next?

I have taken a break from my previews mostly because I got inundated with social engagements and essentially to write everything up in time for round 1, but I thought I would make a post directly in relation to current news about the appointment of a new national team coach.

The Socceroos latest 6-0 debacle has ended with heads rolling. Holger Osieck has been turfed and the search for a new mentor has begun. Osieck was warned after Australia's 6-0 loss to Brazil in the Maracana, that if he was unable to get a more positive result against France, his job would be threatened. It was more than that however with the FFA tearing up the German's contract within hours of the defeat to Les Bleus.

Within the day, reports were rolling in of interested coaches looking at pursuing Australian football's top job with the names of former mentor Guus Hiddink and former Irish national team coach, Giovanni Trappatoni. However the offer is probably less tantalising than one would imagine for a high profile coach to lead a team to the World Cup. The FFA has offered a $700,000 net contract to a coach who can lead the team to the Asian Cup in 2015 with a view to appointing a local coach after that in preparation for Russia 2018. The lack of job security for these international applicants along with a relatively meager renumeration (just consider what Hiddink was probably on at Anzhi) has more or less turned away the more high profile applicants. Australia, if they are to go international for this short-term are likely to really only be able to attract managers that fit into the same level as previous coaches Pim Verbeek and Osieck. Both had good international experience but neither really were that successful. (Apart from Osieck's Champions League win with Urawa Red Diamonds).

However, the question now is, with so many turning down the job, is now the time to go for a local coach? The realistic targets would likely be new boy on the block Tony Popovic whom won the league with West Sydney last season, Graham Arnold, whom won the grand final and has been the most consistent coach in the A-League, or golden boy, Ange Postecoglu who not only has brought success to his clubs, but an attractive style as well.

But before I look into the pros and cons of each candidate, let's first have a look at what their objectives will need to be.

Beating a dead horse

The people want regeneration. I think this has basically been the them song for most supporters for the last 6 years. After the 2006 World Cup, Australia lost many of its stars, or at least should have. The likes of Scott Chipperfield, Mark Viduka, Tony Popovic, Tony Vidmar and Josip Skoko were all on their way out of the team and on their way to retirement. Whilst most of these players were replaced by younger up and comers, there are still some 9 of those 23 players still involved in the international squad today. Mark Milligan is the youngest of the 9 at only 28 now, but with the exception of Josh Kennedy at 31, the remaining players are well and truly into their thirties. Mark Schwarzer is the oldest at 41 and Luke Wilkshire the youngest at 32. Whilst the main problem is not so much their age, it is the fact that even those these players have been getting older, younger players have not been getting a run.  Now at the start of preparations for the new World Cup, older players have not shown up against bigger teams and younger players have not been given ample experience to replace them. Osieck's reluctance to use youth, particularly in defensive areas, has severely damaged Australia's ability to compete beyond the qualifying phase. It is a sad state of affairs if we have to trot out a 35 year old Lucas Neill, a 34 year old Sasa Ognenovski and a 32 year old Luke Wilkshire to defend against teams with pace and penetration. This formula has been found out on the world stage. This is all the more baffling when you consider the selections made at the East Asian Federation Cup. Ryan McGowan, a starting centre-back in the Chinese Super League for the 2nd placed Shandong Luneng, made some terrific performances to keep Australia in games. Australia's best defensive talent at home too, Trent Sainsbury was left on the pine for the entire tournament despite every other player taking part at some stage over the 3 games. The particularly odd thing about this was that Robert Cornthwaite, someone tried and tested again and again, was selected ahead of him.

Just to touch on Lucas Neill as well, if we are to judge him upon recent performances and comments, his attitude of invulnerability needs to be ejected from the national team. Whilst a good performer at times, particularly when he was 28-32, the time has come to let the captain go. The next manager will need to coax or talk him down from his high horse and re-assign captaincy to someone likely to wear it with pride rather than as a given. The captaincy has been with Neill for 7 years now, it is time to pass it on to stop the arm band from going stale. As for a contender for the armband, there are few that immediately spring to mind, but Tim Cahill as a leader at the World Cup would not be a terrible idea. A much more daring selection would be Rhys Williams, but I can't see there being too dramatic a change so close to the World Cup

Defence is something that needs to be sorted our quickly. David Carney is playing regularly at club level, but is an incredibly average left-back and with the aging back-line there is really only Wilkshire with his accurate free-kicks and decent age that deserves to stay in contention. The likes of McGowan, Sainsbury, Rhys Williams, Bailey Wright, Jason Davidson and even Ivan Franjic need to be given as much time on the park to show their worth to the national team. All are playing regularly, and Williams in particular has been criminally under-utilised in the national team despite being the captain of his club side and otherwise putting in decent performances when called upon.

Whilst the rest of the team will need an overhaul post-Rio, the likes of Bresciano, Cahill and Kennedy have all proven their use to the team with important goals and positional play. Kennedy in particular has an incredible record at international level. Kennedy added the 17th goal of his international career when he helped the Socceroos to a 3-0 win over Canada on the weekend at Craven Cottage. Cahill as well has proven that he is a prolific scorer, but mostly from midfield and mostly behind a striker with technical ability.

The dilemma for most coaches, is how can you play these two together? Both will get you goals and both will offer you something in the air. The answer is, you can't. Cahill and Kennedy cannot play together. They are in the end too similar and do not compliment each other. You could argue that Cahill is the better player, few would go against you, and given Australia's other midfield options you might be keen to play him at centre-forward, Osieck, Verbeek and even Cahill's former club manager, David Moyes tried this. Unfortunately, this has had very limited success. Cahill's best attributes come to the fore when the opposition defence are busy with a striker in the box. Cahill is able to come into good positions when strikers draw players away from him. He plays best behind the strikers. I wish I could cite this with evidence but I cannot find any real data on goals scored played as striker vs midfielder. As far as my memory serves, Cahill scored maybe a single goal for Everton as a lone striker and zero for Australia. The only way you can really play Cahill is if you play him in midfield.

Now, in Josh Kennedy you have a prolific forward with great presence in the air. He averages half a goal per game at international level and otherwise gets into good positions and causes problems for defenders. Against Asian opposition Kennedy has been great. His towering frame generally dwarfs most of the continent's defenders making it easier for him to score goals. Against quality opposition however his only goals have come against Denmark and the Netherlands. 15 of his goals would be considered against weaker teams. Apart from worries over his ability to stand up in bigger games, Kennedy is still an effective striker but he cannot play with Cahill. They are not compatible. With two aerial players, team play is focused on hoofing the ball up for flick ons. There is a minor problem with this however, if Kennedy was to flick on to Cahill, he would be too slow to capitalise on it and vice versa. The introduction of Oar and Kruse on the wings with their pace however has helped things, but I still harbor cynicism about the effectiveness of both of them up front together. I feel that with Scott McDonald as a striker and Cahill behind him, the combinations were much more effective. Hopeless long balls diminished and Cahill becomes more prolific as McDonald can draw defenders.

This is a personal battle, but I certainly hope that at the World Cup the next coach is able to fix this minor dilemma. The fact remains that this will likely not remain a dilemma for too long as Cahill is likely to retire from international football either after the World Cup or after the Asian Cup in 2015. Kennedy still has legs for a few more years however, but the likes of Tom Rogic, Tommy Oar or Dario Vidosic will likely suit Australia's  style a bit better playing in the hole.

The Candidates

Alright, enough ranting about selections and tactics. There are three local coaches in the running for the top job. Frank Lowy and the FFA have expressed a preference for a local candidate and are only willing to fork out a modest sum for a short-term international one. The idea however would be to allow the Australian candidates to finish their respective domestic seasons and allow them to grow more as coaches. Furthermore, with knowledge that the FFA is scrutinising these managers for the top job over the course of the season, these coaches will be under added pressure to succeed to show off their credentials.

Anyway, the coaches are Ange Postecoglu, Graham Arnold and Tony Popovic. I will list pros and cons where I see fit and we'll see how we go.

Ange Postecoglu

The current Melbourne Victory manager is arguably one of the most successful domestic
coaches in Australia's history. Ange started his managerial career by winning league twice with South Melbourne in the NSL, taking them to the Club World Championships. Following his success, Postecoglu was promoted into the international youth set-up where he managed Australia's future talents for a good 7 years before being acrimoniously sacked following some less than flattering interviews culminating in an on-air argument with World Game pundit and former Socceroo, Craig Foster. Postecoglu then worked as a football pundit and advisor to the Football Federation of Victoria as well as having a short stint with Greek club Panachaiki.
Following the sacking of Frank Farina at Brisbane Roar in 2009, Postecoglu took the helm and revolutionised his playing staff turning them from cellar dwellers to League and Grand Final champions in the space of a season. Ange then followed this up with an amazing 36 game unbeaten run on the way to winning the 2011-2012 grand-final. Not only was the result amazing, but Postecoglu turned on the style as well. Brisbane became the envy of the A-League playing a successful, attacking brand of football that was near impossible to break down. His departure from the Roar following that season coincided with a significant slump in Brisbane's fortune with former apprentice Rado Vidosic failing to replicate what the Victorian master had achieved.
Ange continued his desire for revolution at Melbourne Victory turning the mediocre Victory team into a force to be reckoned with once more. The rise to prominence of young Marcos Rojas helped the team on its way to a third place finish in the league and a semi-final appearance. This season recruitment has once again been superb and Ange has proven that he is not afraid to make the big decisions when called upon.

Pros: For the national team job it is obvious Australia needs a philosophy, a firm hand and someone who can encourage youth. Ange has all these qualities. He brings with him a wealth of experience in club coaching as well as 7 years with the national team set-up. He will be familiar with many of the players already, and his success will have guaranteed him some respect with older more established players in the national set up.

Cons: Ange is very good at constructing a team to play his system, but at international level, with the playing pool much smaller, Ange won't have that luxury. Add to the fact that some of Australia's best players may not fit into that system adds another dimension of doubt. Adding to this, Postecoglu's stint with the U-20 squad is not remembered fondly by most, and there is certainly doubt as to whether he can perform at the international level.

Verdict: Ange is the obvious choice and given his track record he probably should get the job, but I am concerned over whether or not he can construct a competitive team given little hands on training and a variety of players that may not suit his system.

Graham Arnold

Graham Arnold is very good at getting mediocre players playing at a good level. One only has to look at his work at the Central Coast Mariners with the players at his disposal to realise this. He is Mr Consistent. Regardless of the amount of important personnel that the Central Coat loses, they are always competitive and always in the final spots. Arnold has turned the small club at Gosford into an Australian and future Asian powerhouse.

Arnold started his career proper at Northern Spirit in the NSL bringing them to the finals in their debut season. The following season Arnold was whisked away to the international set-up and remained the assistant coach from 2000 until 2007. Working under the likes of Frank Farina and most notably, Guus Hiddink, Arnold gained a lot of experience in the international set up before being handed the reign at the 2007 Asian Cup. Whether a victim of circumstance given Australia's inexperience or simply caught in the headlights, Arnold failed to impress as the Socceroos managed a draw, a loss and a win on the way to being knocked out on penalties by Japan in the next round. The job was a difficult one for any coach given Australia's unfamiliarity with Asian opposition, but the results spoke for themselves and Arnold was demoted to Olympic duty while Pim Verbeek took over. Arnold got the Olyroos to the Olympics but they ended up being knocked out in the first round.

His managerial prowess at the Mariners however is what has gotten him his fame. Arnold has managed 2 grand final appearances, a top 2 finishes in every season he has coached them. Arnold amassed a grand final win and a minor premiership win on a very meager budget to endear himself to the Mariners faithful and send out a warning shot to other A-League teams that might underestimate his side.

Pros: Arnold can grind blood out of a stone. If it is true that Australia has a very mediocre team, then Arnold will be the man to get the most out of them. Whilst not downplaying the abilities of his past and present playing staff, Arnold has managed to get the best out of them as a team time and time again. Arnold's familiarity with the national set-up will also stand in his favour. Furthermore as one of the few Australian coaches in recent memory to have fielded or at least applied for foreign coaching jobs, Arnold certainly has ambition and is a winner.

Cons: His football is not that entertaining. While the Mariners are incredibly consistent, they're not really that easy on the eye. That's one of the few unfortunate traits of the team. Arnold doesn't favour too many overly technically players and his rigid style may not be the best suited to the Socceroos. Add to this his lamentable spell with the national team once already, there are doubts over whether he can lead the Socceroos to a 4th consecutive World Cup.

Tony Popovic

Popovic is the dark horse for the top job. Having risen very quickly to prominence by winning the league with newcomers West Sydney in his first season as a senior coach, Popovic quickly raised eyebrows. The team at his disposal was nothing special, with a collection of up and down A-League performers and a smattering of foreign talent. Somehow though, the 58 capped former Socceroo managed to turn them into a title winning team. Although falling over in the grand final to Graham Arnold's Central Coast, the Wanderers proved what could be done with a bit of grit and a will drilled defence. Popovic's career as a left-sided stopper certainly helped his charges get to grips with being disciplined in defence. One only has to look at Nikolai Topor-Stanley, a left-sided stopper himself, to notice the effect that Popovic has had. Topor-Stanley went from a consistentish performer with Newcastle Jets to an absolute impenetrable rock for West Sydney. Considering the weaknesses the Socceroos have shown defensively, a former defender as a mentor might not be the worst of ideas.

Popovic's real managerial career started with West Sydney, but the Sydney native already had several stints in the background. Following his retirement from football, Popovic was interned as a coach at Sydney FC where he learned the ropes, even having a short stint as caretaker manager after John Kosmina was dismissed in 2009. Deeming himself unready for the top job, Popovic returned to England with his old club Crystal Palace to learn more about the managerial trade only to return to Australia to coach the Wanderers last season. Popovic has managed a great deal of good solid experience and is the only candidate to have experience coaching overseas which will certainly hold him in good stead.

Pros: After looking at the Wanderers season last year you have to admire the discipline and determination instilled in the players. Popovic's stylistically resembles Graham Arnold in many ways and the ability to get the best out of Mark Bridge, Topor-Stanley, Michael Beauchamp and many others considered past it or just as useful squad players. This is an important tool for managing a smaller team on the world stage. Australia is a team that used to punch above it's weight because of the self-belief in the team and Popovic with his national team experience and somewhat legendlike status in Australian football will certainly help in the top job.

Cons: He's only been coaching for one season. It is incredibly hard to judge at present whether or not Popovic's first season was a fluke. Whilst the Wanderers have recruited impressively once more and still look much the team they were last season, whether or not Popovic can keep pushing them is still yet to be seen. Unlike Arnold who has shown his consistency, Popovic is still largely untested and it will be interesting to see how he and his team reacts if the Wanderers find themselves in strife.


I am a big fan of all these coaches for different reasons but they all unfortunately have telling flaws. Ange has his system, but I don't think he'll have the players to execute it, not the time on the training park. Arnold can do wonders with mediocre players but he has shown that he may not be able to handle the larger egos in the national team after failing once. Popovic looks the best candidate in a lot of ways, but his inexperience counts against him.

Whoever gets the call-up, I'm sure will do a half-decent job and will at least be passionate enough about the national team to oversee the regeneration the team desperately needs. It is difficult to compare how good a club coach will do in transitioning to a national team job. Many have done it successfully and find their niche in international management, but there are also many that fall by the wayside.

Whatever the case may be, the change will be a breath of fresh air into a stale and turgid national team.

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