So, the squads are in. Apart from North Korea there are few surprises, and but for England and Italy there are few controversies. Australian coach Pim Verbeek has selected his 23 – the lasts cuts made on Wednesday – and confirmed the most brutal suspicions of Rhys Williams, Nick Carle, Tommy Oar, Scott McDonald and Eugene Galekovic.
Of the five, the most surprising were Williams and McDonald. Williams' demise is attributable only to injury, while McDonald has proven the 5'7 elephant in Verbeek's room. A proven goalscorer in both the Scottish Preimer League and the English Championship, he has a well-chronicled history of failing to flourish at International level – running direct is all well and good, but to succeed as a striker it's usually best to at least look threatening.
There's no doubt as to why McDonald was omitted: he simply didn't fit into Verbeek's preferred 4-5-1 formation. Using a single striker, usually 6'4 gangler Joshua Kennedy, Pim's preference is to maintain a solid defensive presence in Culina & Grella, allowing attacking mids Cahill, Bresciano & Kewell to foray into the box and wreak havoc. McDonald doesn't factor into this, being more effective playing off a Samaras or a Leroy Lita. He lacks both the tricks and crossing ability to play out wide and has neither the frame or inclination to involve the wings. None of this is really Scott's fault, but more just a case of that most generic term -“fit”.
There's a school of thought that to succeed in any sense at a major tournament, you need the element of surprise to work for you. Verbeek has shown his hand early. Anyone who's watched Australia play for the last three years could tell you how the Socceroos mids and forwards are going to line up. The only doubt has been over who the back four would comprise. But – and here's the rub – where is the versatility? Verbeek has married Australia to the 4-5-1, not allowing even a glimpse of a sexy, direct 4-3-3 or a girl-next-door 4-4-2. Can you bring Nikita Rukavytskya on to change the tempo? He may be fast and direct, sure, but does he have the finishing skills? Move Kewell from the left into the middle? Sure, but which creativity replaces him? And what happens for the 75% of tournament where Kewell contracts Ross River Virus or some other freak injury? Teen Tommy Oar is still in South Africa to gain experience but at the selection table Verbeek preferred the more stolid Mile Jedinak. Pim's an evidence-based coach, and because of the results with the favoured form, the Australians potentially lack a second, more surprising option - McDonald or Oar.
Verbeek has painted himself into a corner. Without the most talented healthy offensive players and relying on formation rather than that talent, you start to play more and more defensive-minded football and the results reflect this. Goals are needed to progress to the second round. Take a peek at Australia's recent scorelines: 1-0. 1-1. 0-0. Verbeek faces the “manager's curse” - to win or not to lose? Australia isn't blessed with a multitude of first-rate attacking talent, so Pim is handicapped already. But surely it makes sense to pick what talent there is and not rely on two perpetually injured strikers and one rookie? The talent is there. But is it in the right places? Time will tell.