Wednesday, June 30, 2010

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.

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