Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Verbeek: the new Dutch for "Let's not go there again"

Written 27/6/2010

So what does Pim Verbeek leave behind after his three years as Australia manager? A squad in urgent need of refreshment, a published history of disdain for the A-League and dismissal from a crucial World Cup at the Group Stage. Isn't every World Cup crucial? True. This Cup was especially important because the 2006 World Cup began a revolution in football in Australia, begetting momentum the roundball game had never seen in our country. As next year's Asian Cup campaign gears up, what is most pressing is that the FFA makes a quick managerial appointment, allowing smooth transition rather than repeating the Advocaat debacle that occurred prior to Verbeek being given the keys.

There is an argument that Verbeek has left Australia with no legacy, which may be true. ( After the Serbia match the Chairman of the FFA admitted as much, stating publicly that Verbeek had pretty much left Australian football in the same state he found it. There certainly is evidence supporting this case, but it can also be said that Verbeek's legacy is to sketh a much clearer picture as to what Australian soccer it isn't looking for in a mentor.

Australia's best-ever manager was Guus Hiddink, who navigated a team of unknowns through qualifying and into the second round of Germany 2006. On arriving in Germany, he was quoted “Our goal is the second round. Why not?”. Hiddink's blueprint – at South Korea, PSV Eindhoven, Australia, Chelsea and a lesser extent Russia - encouragement to both players and their fans. He has cottoned on that it's not necessarily the team made up of the best players that wins, it is simply the best team that wins. His modus operandi is to encourage and then empower the playing staff and the results follow. Management and players on the same page produces the best results. With this empowerment comes player buy-in and following that, discipline. And it's no coincidence the best sides at this World Cup have been the endowed with this discipline.

As tacticians, neither Hiddink (or Verbeek) will ever be mistaken for Mourinho, and that's fine. Developing soccer nations don't really need tacticians, they need organisation and belief.

The greatest criticism of Pim's reign will be in his man-management. He was brought in as an autocratic leader after the failed Graeme Arnold my-coach-is-my-friend approach, but may have misread the situation and was heavy-handed with criticism at the wrong times. Case in point: Archie Thompson. Where in 2006 Hiddink brought him in to PSV Eindhoven on loan before the tournament, Verbeek called him “Absolutely hopeless”; Luke Wilkshire and John Aloisi have similar stories to tell. Where Hiddink cajoled, Verbeek railed. A coach who worries about uncontrollable elements tends to engender a playing staff with an all-encompassing attitude of constantly being wronged.

After the Germany fiasco, Pim stated in press conferences that the spirit of Australia was to fight. That's only partially true. The Aussie way is to make the best of poor situations, which may mean having to fight forces beyond your control. We Skippies call this “Toughing it out”; not just shutting up shop and hoping that circumstances change, but admitting the situation and actively going about changing those circumstances you can control.

Certainly the A-League is not of the utmost standard, but for a five-year old league it is a much more effective top-flight than the old NSL. The next coach must prepared to work with the A-League rather than disregard it as a pain in the butt. Australia has world-class players. and the manager must have authority in himself, as well as to empower the players and the nation as a whole. Absolutely the talent-pool of Australian footballers is scattered over the globe. However, this is a consequence of our location, and the reason why we have such a can-do attitude. Our next coach must embrace Australia – and Australian football - for what it is, rather than for what it is not.

All said, but very little done

Written 24/6/2010

Welcome to life post-World Cup, Australia. After being eliminated on goal difference from the tournament, it's now time to look forward to seeing the next generation of Australian talent force their way into the side for next year's Asian cup campaign.

The team this tournament has been patchy, at best. The deconstruction by Germany was horrifyingly beautiful from a football perspective but simply horrifying as a fan. The severity of the defeat can be put primarily down to a lack of tactical acumen from our brainstrust and the demotivation suffered when Tim Cahill was shown his (possibly unwarranted) red. The draw against Ghana was mired in occasionally enterprising play but marred with the Australians losing the midfield battle to the young Ghanians. That Harry Kewell was shown a red in this match was also (probably) unwarranted. Easily the best performance came during the Serbia match where we won and deserved to. The Socceroo Bomb-Squad worked well, with Australia dominating the air inside the Serbian penalty area, but deficient in some of the flank positions.

This is attributable to the types of players that Australia produces. If you take the Australian outfield players from Wednesday's game and assign them each to their best position the results are: One central defender, two right-backs, a left mid, two right-mids, three central midfielders and a striker. It's easy to infer that Australia produces right-backs and central mids. Which is, really, true. The lower ranks of Australian soccer needs to emphasise playing players who have that ability to read a defense and pick out a pass rather than harrying and disrupting opposition attacks. Priority must be placed on allowing creative-minded players easy passage into our national team.

So where can talent come from? In each of the games of this World Cup, the Australians fielded lineups with average ages of 31, 30 and 30. It's been a rule of thumb recently that experienced teams win World Cups; Verbeek has had at his disposal the best years of Australia's best-ever crop of footballers. Of the players involved in this tournament, Chipperfield, Moore, Neill, Bresciano, Cahill, Emerton, Grella, Beauchamp and Kewell will definitely not play a role in 2014 Qualifying. Carney, Wilkshire, Schwarzer, Culina and Josh Kennedy are question marks – Schwarzer, though the oldest player in the squad is coming off two career years with Fulham and shows no inclination to pick up the gardening gloves any time soon. Off all those who played, only Jedinak, Rukavytsya and Holman will still be in their prime as we approach Brazil 2014.

That refreshment of the squad must come now. The best teams take a few years to gel and mesh together, to allow each to intuitively know what the other is thinking. Give Mark Milligan the centre-back role. Milligan may not be of the same quality as older aspirants like Jade North & Chris Coyne, but has proved his athleticism and ability in the 2008 Asian Cup finals but has been relegated to the bench ever since. Entrust the other role to Matthew Spiranovic or Rhys Williams. Have young Shane Lowry deputise. 26 year-old Carl Valeri actually showed he had some ability during this World Cup, for years something Aussie football fans have been looking for for years. It is well past time that – as Guus Hiddink did for Luke Wilkshire in 2005 with stupendous results – an Australian manager suggests to a first-division European club that he's worth taking on. It's fair to say that the bodies of Grella, Kewell and potentially Bresciano & Emerton could not permit them to play any more than cameo roles in any further competitive internationals.

The A-League can't be disregarded by our next coach as often as it has been by Verbeek. With Djite, Langerak, Oar, Federici, Cole, Zadkovich and Vidosic waiting in the wings, Australia should qualify easily for Brazil 2014. As always, the challenge will be in ensuring Australians abroad get the first-team football they so desperately need to grow the sport back home. Perhaps Turkey and Holland are the best places to move – not England. Any move from Australia to MLS should be celebrated. We've got world-class talent at home – let's show it to the world.

Verbeek: Dutch for "No surprises there".

Written 3/6/2010

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.

Seven circles, seven horn blasts, final score 3-2

Australia vs USA, Saturday 5th June
(written Monday 7/6/2010)

Saturday's Australia/USA tussle was the last hit out for both teams before the Big Dance begins on Friday. The US will play England in possibly the most over-hyped group stage match in World Cup history; the Australians take on Germany. Many fans and pundits were slightly surprise by the 3-2 scoreline given both sides recent lack of goalscoring pop, but it must be said the better side on the day were victorious.

Why did the Aussies come up short? The loss can be put down to failings in the three most important areas of the game – offence, defence & in Jedi Mind Tricks. Offensively the Socceroos failed to make use of that which is their strength, while defensively they shopped three goals to strikers who – and let's be fair – aren't exactly world class. Showing all the mental resilience of a teething six-month old, they came awfully close to losing their bottle subsequently we all glimpsed their cynical side.

That's not to say there weren't positives. The Socceroos showed good creativity from both flanks. Wilkshire was as steady as ever on the right, while Scott Chipperfield could have been Australia's player of the match from the left fullback slot. Tim Cahill was up and about in the 45 minutes he played and Josh Kennedy had his moments. Plenty of creativity either sat or didn't play: neither Brett Emerton nor Harry Kewell played at all and Brett Holman played only 20 minutes. The Australians weren't outclassed athletically and probably won the physical battle, though even this positive comes with a caveat.

Unfortunately the negatives outweighed the positives. The midfield failed to fire: while Culina was good, Vince Grella had an absolute Barry Crocker*, gifting the ball to the opposition regularly and in indefensible positions. We can fully expect Bresciano to bounce back after also lowering his colours slightly. The centre backs were reasonable in patches, but were found out not so much for pace as had been the fear before the match, but for lateral movement. The small, mobile forward pair of Buddle & Findlay didn't so much burn Moore & Neill outright for pace but on the turn. Moore in particular has a turning circle that makes Aretha Franklin look agile. Australia thrived in the physicality stakes except in the striker position. Josh Kennedy is great taking a run-up to the ball in the air, but markedly less comfortable holding defenders at bay and involving the wings. He may be effective as a starter in Asian competition against smaller opponents but against a burly CB like Jay DeMerit his best role may be that of impact sub. This then leaves a selection dilemma as Verbeek's striking options are severely limited.

Mentally, it seems Australia takes on the personality of their coach and this is evident in the attitudes and performances of his players. I'm not calling Bob Bradley a Sith Lord, but you don't need to be Obi-Wan to see that Yoda pulled the strings in 2006 while this year our coach has the mental stability of a hormonal teenage Anakin Skywalker. At the last World Cup, everything Guus Hiddink said instilled a calm confidence in the team and in the fans. Verbeek has railed against the training facilities, the A-League and Gordon Strachan in the last two weeks, resulting in Australia looking harried and a little chippy. The Socceroos are one of the most aggressive sides in World football but must not become a team of bullies as they did last month against New Zealand. They must focus on winning each individual contest while maintaining one eye on the bigger picture – scoring more than the other team.

A spirited defeat against a team better on the day. Several players below-par but enough positives for hope. Not the best preparation for a World Cup campaign. Australia's immediate future depends on whether they've learned as much about themselves as we have.

Short forwards, short pants

Written 14/6/2010

Let me take you back to school. Like the Germans did to the Socceroos yesterday. Specifically, back to Grade 6 (or is it 7 here – the top of Grade school) where you werer the gangly kid who was king of the schoolyard. If challenged by a troubled thrid-grader you could choose to be benign or thoroughly malignant depending on their attitude.

Why all this about school? Because that's the best comparison I can see from yesterday's World Cup match between Germany and Australia. The Aussies, for so long the biggest kid in their primary school, have graduated to secondary school and have now discovered that survival depends solely at the whims and hormones of any 12th-grader they happen to run into. After a wonderful debut Cup in which they were unlucky to make the Quarter-Finals, this year the Socceroos were welcomed to the Big Boy School by 12th Grader Germany. Through ninety minutes, the 'Roos endured later after an atomic wedgie by Lucas Podolski, a Miroslav Klose wet willy, and subsequent dackings* by Muller and Cacau; mentor Pim Verbeek has probably decided that this school isn't best for his boys and perhaps a private school might suit better.

It felt horribly like a puffed-up 7th Grader going up against a 12th Grade football player who's had just a little too much criticism from their science teacher and then been rejected by the girl he's had a crush on for six weeks. One of the Aussie strengths is their size and athleticism, and they show it off reglarly in Asia. And of the Australian starters, only Richard Garcia could be accused of being blinkered on the football pitch and not necessarily clever player. But pit an athletic, clever 7th Grader against an athletic, clever 12th Grader and unless that 7th-Grader has a plan, the 12th Grader wins every time.

Here lies the problem: Verbeek's plan for his 7th Grade son(s) is for them to absorb all the punishment the 12th-grade Soccer nations can dish out, then hit them on the counter-attack. That's like a watching the 7th-Grader try to rope-a-dope! Against big teams like Germany, Brazil or Spain the Socceroos can't hope to absorb this much pressure and then have the energy or wherewithal strike back – they need to be able to carry the fight to the opposition when the opportunities are there. It's unreasonable to expect Verbeek to change his tactics now as he's shown no inkling of doing that for three years. What is puzzling however, is why he changed the personnel best equipped to carry those instructions out. Starting Richard Garcia in his first competitive international instead of battle-proven Mark Bresciano? Not starting your lone target man Joshua Kennedy and forcing Cahill to play out of position? The only explanation is that Pim has looked at the opposition and opted for damage control: better to come out of the match with one black eye rather than needing new dental work. Unfortunately this backfired and now Australia needs both the new retainer and sunglasses to hide their black eyes.

A second conundrum remains. Not only did the 'Roos go into the Germany match with the wrong battle plan, this flawed plan was executed poorly as well. This means that either they can't execute Verbeek's orders or they won't. My money's on the latter – all the tools are there for this to be a successful team. So, either Verbeek has to reverse three years of negative reinforcement by empowering his charges against Ghana or they rock up and apply three years worth of tactics hoping they will work against (allegedly) weaker opposition. As much as I hate to admit it, there's merits to both arguments. But as a fan, I hate to see any side turning up to a game banking on hope.

One schoolyard confrontation down, two to go. Against slightly smaller students, no doubt: 8th Grade Ghana and 10th Grade Serbia. It's hard to see out of the two black eyes that Germany gave us, but whatever plans the brains trust comes up with, the execution of that plan is paramount. A better plan, or great execution of a flawed plan and we can win both these scuffles. Let's see what Dad Pim has to say.