Saturday, April 22, 2006

Socceroos World Cup squad; Covering the bases

An ageing defence, right midfield and Lazaridis the biggest headaches for Hiddink

LESS than a month out from the May 15 deadline for the managers of the 32 competing countries to submit their final 23 man squads for the World Cup and while there is little public discourse emanating from the Socceroos brains-trust of Guus Hiddink, Graham Arnold and Johan Neeskens about the make-up of their squad, there is no doubt the trio will be regularly cross-referencing the merits of the various candidates as they seek the right balance.

While little has been discussed openly, for obvious reasons, we do know that Hiddink held a training camp in early March for the core of his squad, those players who featured in the Uruguay qualifiers in November, where they are reported to have fine-tuned their logistical and tactical blueprints, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

We also know from comments by Arnold in the past fortnight that Hiddink favours taking three youngsters along for the ride. Regardless of whether they see much action, the move is clever succession planning, ensuring there is natural progression to the next squad that attempts to qualify.

We also know that you have to take three goalkeepers, but the mystery comes from the make-up of the 20 outfield players.

One of the intriguing aspects will be the structure of Hiddink’s squad, the balance between defenders, midfielders and forwards. Interestingly, in 2002 with South Korea, his official list had four defenders, four forwards and 12 midfielders. While there is little doubt Hiddink does like to stack his teams with midfielders, as we saw against Uruguay, the reality is that a number of the South Korean ‘midfielders’ lined up as either defenders or attackers.

It is all part of the Hiddink way, about keeping the opposition guessing, his own players on their toes, and giving himself the flexibility to move players around like pawns in a big game of chess.

So the balance of the Socceroos squad is likely to remain a mystery until it’s disclosed, and even then it should contain enough intrigue and bluff to spark plenty of debate.

But for now, the main area of debate among the trio is likely to be the defensive area of the pitch and how they re-invigorate an ageing backline, at the same time ensuring they reward those players who have served the green and gold so admirably over the years but haven't necessarily been playing for their clubs of late, the likes of Tony Vidmar, Tony Popovic, Craig Moore and Stan Lazaridis.

Just what Hiddink does with his defence will be the most fascinating aspect of his World Cup squad, particularly after it was so blatantly exposed less than 12 months ago at the Confederations Cup in Germany, where the Socceroos conceded 10 goals in its three games to finish bottom of their group.

In the two Uruguay games he went for the experience of Vidmar, Lucas Neill and Popovic. All where magnificent over the two legs, particularly Neill who was a revelation in the central role, organising and distributing with poise and dominating the likes of Richard Morales with his physical attributes.

There was speculation in the lead up to those crunch qualifiers that Hiddink would opt for a injection of youth to his backline, introducing Michael Thwaites, who had done so splendidly on debut against Jamaica a couple of months earlier, reasoning that he would add some extra pace to a backline that was exposed as pedestrian at the Confederations Cup by the likes of Lucas Podolski, Luciano Figueroa and Francileudo dos Santos.

In the end, with so much at stake and with former skipper Craig Moore out with a long term hamstring injury, Hiddink opted for the experienced duo of Vidmar and Popovic in the twin marking roles either side of Neill. Both had been showing signs of slowing down in the past couple of seasons, but here they repaid Hiddink’s faith with career highlight displays.

Vidmar, at 35, and in his fourth qualifying campaign, turned back to clock 12 years to his first campaign, against the might of Maradona’s Argentina at the then Sydney Football Stadium, when as a raw right back he set up Australia’s only goal for brother Aurelio.

While Popovic was withdrawn by Hiddink about 30 minutes into the second leg, shortly after he'd stopped Alvaro Recoba in his tracks with an arm to the head that went unnoticed by the officials, he’d done his job. No doubt Hiddink had reasoned that Popovic, given his lack of match time at club Crystal Palace and the fact he’d played 90 minutes in Montevideo only a few days earlier, had done enough and it was time to introduce more pace to the backline by shifting Scott Chipperfield to left stopper and introducing Harry Kewell to the left side of attack.

Whether Hiddink’s motivation was to introduce more pace to the backline or provide more of an outlet in the attacking third, his move did both. It was the masterstroke of the tie, instantly giving Australia the control both in attack and defence that it had lacked in the opening half hour.

What it proved defensively is that the Socceroos looked more comfortable with Chipperfield’s extra pace at the back. No doubt Hiddink will have taken note of this as he casts an eye towards the type of opponent we are likely to face in Germany and the type of personnel required to do the job.

In the last week or so he has stated that he will adopt a horses for courses approach to his team selections in Germany, hinting he will want as much flexibility in his squad as possible, which will allow him to tailor his selection for each of his opponents.

So, against the fleet-footed attackers from Japan and Brazil he will be looking for mobile options, while against the likes of Dado Prso and Ivan Klasnic from Croatia he will need a physical presence, particularly at the back.

One defender who provides the agility and strength that Hiddink appears to favour is Central Coast Mariners defender Michael Beauchamp, who did his chances of selection no harm with an accomplished display on debut in Bahrain in the Asian Cup qualifier in February, backed up by an outstanding A-League season and grand final.

Another whose agility was a feature of his debut was Thwaites, although his chances now appear slim after being frozen out of the first 11 at his Romanian club National Bucharest for the past six months, which contributed to a poor first half against Bahrain. Another whose hopes may have faded is big FC Thun defender Lubjo Milicevic, seemingly on the outer since the Confederations Cup, despite featuring in the Champions League this season.

Ditto Simon Colosimo, once a mainstay due to his versatility.

There are other defenders still in the mix, the likes of Jon McKain, Jade North and Alvin Ceccoli, all of who played full games alongside Beauchamp against Bahrain without making enough of an impression. Despite a stellar A-League season, the chances of Adelaide’s Michael Valkanis appear slim after not getting off the bench in that game, while his former South Melbourne teammate Patrick Kisnorbo, a mobile option now at Leicester City, has also had little opportunity to impress Hiddink.

With all the uncertainty at the back, a major boost for the manager has been the re-emergence of Moore to the Newcastle United first 11 over the past month. After a scratchy first game, it is no coincidence that Newcastle’s fortunes have improved since Moore made his long awaited return. Timing is everything, and if he can stay on the park for the next month or so, then crucially Hiddink will have a fresh Moore to lead the rearguard in Germany.

Just how the manager balances the tactical need to re-invigorate his defence with the human need of honouring some of the stalwarts of the Australian game will be fascinating to observe.

There is little doubt that Hiddink will find room in his squad for both Vidmar and Popovic, who should deservedly go to the World Cup along with Moore, Neill and Beauchamp, the outstanding of the younger candidates. That makes it five out and out defenders, with Chipperfield offering the flexibility and mobility to play at left stopper, a job he did superbly in Sydney. Whether Vidmar or Popovic see much game time though could depend on the fitness of Moore.

Given the constant fitness doubts surrounding our rearguard and the option Hiddink has of playing Chipperfield in midfield, there is a strong argument for a sixth defender, with perhaps Jon McKain the next in line, given he can also provide back up in the holding role in midfield and has been around the national team the past few years.

MOBILITY, adaptability and tactical awareness have been the buzz terms under the Hiddink era, and nowhere are they more in evidence in than Hiddink’s midfield, where the likes of Vince Grella, Marco Bresciano, Jason Culina, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell have flourished.

All are now experienced campaigners playing regularly and starring for their club sides in Europe and there is little doubt that, should they get through their respective seasons and the upcoming friendlies against Greece, Holland and Liechtenstein, all will be in Ohringen – Socceroo headquarters - come early June.

One area of concern for the management team would no doubt be at right midfield, where the constant sight of Brett Emerton on the Blackburn bench would be worrying, perhaps even more so given that his natural replacement, Ahmad Elrich, has barely seen any first team action at Fulham and has recently been loaned out to Norway.

While there is no suggestion that Emerton’s position is the squad is anything but assured, especially given he was part of the most recent camp, Elrich’s appears to be less secure. A player who thrived towards the end of Frank Farina’s reign and was beginning to put pressure on Emerton has become a peripheral figure under Hiddink, mainly due to a lack of action over the past 18 months.

The decision of who will provide cover for Emerton might be one that isn’t finalised till the last hour, especially with Elrich starting in Lyn’s opening two encounters, scoring the winner in last week’s 2-1 win over Valerenga.

Playing on the manager’s mind will be the flexibility offered by the likes of Mile Sterjovski and Brett Holman, either of whom can play wide on the right or up front through the middle. Holman in particular has had an outstanding season on loan to Dutch second division side Excelsior, helping them to the championship with 14 goals and attracting the attention of a number of Eredivisie clubs.

He also grasped his opportunity Bahrain, coming off the bench at half time and changing the complexion of the game with his hard running on and off the ball. Perhaps the fact he’s based under Hiddink’s eye in Holland might just give Holman the inside running.

Sterjovski has been given many opportunities in the past without ever really grasping one.

Perhaps this World Cup has come too soon for Sydney FC’s David Carney, but if he continues to develop at the rate he did this season, his claims will be hard to ignore down the track.

As far as central midfield cover is concerned, a wonderful man of the match display against Bahrain gives Josip Skoko a definite squad position. Despite his limited game time at Wigan this season and in the Uruguay qualifiers, Skoko showed his experience by pulling the strings in the second half, providing a link between midfield and attack as well as a constant goal threat.

His delivery from the set piece is another attribute in his favour.

Another versatile midfielder who has featured in a number of Hiddink squads is Bristol City’s Luke Wilkshire, a disciplined player who has even played one game for Hiddink at right back. Yet, if Hiddink does take McKain as defensive back-up, then Wilkshire’s chances may be slim.

Most interesting are the aspirations of another green and gold legend in Stan Lazaridis, arguably the most consistent Socceroo of the past decade. For the first time in his Birmingham career he has been a peripheral figure this season, starting only 11 games, while he failed to see any action against Uruguay. With the left sided positions seemingly bedded down by Chipperfield and Kewell, perhaps Lazaridis’ best hope of making the trip is if Chipperfield is seen by Hiddink as an out and out stopper, still a possibility.

Despite his own spot being under scrutiny, it’s not surprising to learn that Lazaridis recently extended the virtues of his Birmingham teammate Neil Kilkenny to the FFA. It’s this selfless attitude that his endeared him to Socceroos fans and managers over the years and it would be a heart-breaker if Lazaridis was left out.

These are the questions undoubtedly weighing on Hiddink’s mind. If he does take an extra defender in McKain, and given that Grella, Bresciano, Chipperfield, Kewell, Cahill, Culina, Emerton and Skoko pick themselves, there appears only one spot for either Lazaridis, Elrich or Wilkshire.

That’s based on the principle that he will want five strikers. Given that Kewell can also play up front, Hiddink may only choose four, letting in another of the midfielders.

The two strikers that are automatic are skipper Mark Viduka and penalty shootout hero John Aloisi. Archie Thompson’s situation is more puzzling. Loaned out to Hiddink’s PSV, seemingly to get game time ahead of the Cup, he saw little action as PSV marched away with the title.

But Hiddink has shown he likes him, as much for the ‘unknown’ factor, the option of using him right, left or central. In Montevideo, Thompson started on the left of a three man attack, while against Bahrain he did his damage through the middle and then down the right.

Another who can provide that surprise element is Holman, driving from deep off the main striker or from out wide.

So with two big strikers who play through the middle and two small forwards who can play central or wide, just what to do with the final spot? Sterjovski is one option, but the brains-trust might see this as an opportunity for a bolter, possibly a big man like Dynamo Dresden’s Joshua Kennedy or Sydney FC’s Sasho Petrovski, or a more nimble option like Scott McDonald or Alex Brosque.

Which leaves the job of choosing the third choice goalkeeper. With Mark Schwarzer and Zeljko Kalac fighting it out for the number one jersey, does Hiddink stick with the status quo, Ante Covic, does he go for another experienced option like Clint Bolton or Michael Petkovic, or does he look to the future by giving a youngster like Middlesborough’s Brad Jones or the Mariners Danny Vukovic a taste of the big time?

As we know he has already stated a willingness to take three youngsters, and the third goalkeeper, unlikely to see much action, might be an opportunity for one of the spots.

Whatever transpires, there will be some hard luck stories, there will be the odd surprise, but the dictating factor for Hiddink and Co. will be to ensure they have all their bases covered.

THE CHOSEN 23

Goalkeepers; Mark Schwarzer, Zeljko Kalac, one from Ante Covic/Clint Bolton/Brad Jones
Defenders; Lucas Neill, Tony Vidmar, Craig Moore, Tony Popovic, Michael Beauchamp, Jon McKain.
Midfielders; Scott Chipperfield, Vince Grella, Marco Bresciano, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Jason Culina, Brett Emerton, Josip Skoko, one from Ahmad Elrich/Stan Lazaridis/Luke Wilkshire.
Strikers; Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Archie Thompson, Brett Holman, one from Alex Brosque/Joshua Kennedy/Sasho Petrovski.

You’ve read the arguments, you know the headaches facing Hiddink, Arnold and Neeskens, now it’s your turn. Who’s in and out of your 23? Post a comment.

6 Comments:

Anonymous NUMBER 1 FAN said...

brilliant work from a phenomenal journo... your annalysis is something thats missing in all this commercial jargon associated with writing these days. youve got a number one fan in me mr tony tannous.. cant wait for your next issue

Sun. Apr. 23, 02:01:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony, In a previous post you have spoken about the goal scoring abilities of Tony Faria (now signed to an A- League club). What's wrong with taking a wild card to Germany? I am sure he would be more than competent, especially if Kewell's groin plays up.

Cheers, Frank Lopez

Mon. Apr. 24, 09:22:00 am AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Thanks for your kind support and sentiments.....

The unfortunate nature of the business of football is that injuries do throw a spanner in the works for managers.

It would be a tragedy if we did lose players of the calibre of Kewell or Viduka. These guys, when they play as well as they have been over the past few months, aren't easily replaced.

Technically, I don't think we've produced two better players, but the reality is they are injury prone.

Having to replace either would be tough to take, as they have the potential, if on top of their games, to be the difference between a competent Socceroos showing in Germany and one that gets us deep into the tournament.

While Viduka's goal-scoring record hasn't been the greatest in the green and gold, he has that ability to hold the ball up and bring others into the game, and one senses his talents could flourish on the ultimate world stage. If Viduka was injured, the obvious other choice to lead the attack is John Aloisi, but they are slighty different in that Aloisi is more a finisher, a predator in the box, whilst Dukes does some of his best stuff outside the box.

The only other striker that comes to mind that reminds me of Viduka is Sasho Petrovski, obviously not as technically gifted but with good strength and ability to hold the ball up and bring midfielders into the game, and while he was a bit hit and miss at times during the A-League season, is one of those guys that always seems to get chances in games.

As for replacing Kewell, easier said than done. He has proved since the November qualifers that he's on the way back to the stuff we saw weekly at Leeds, not quite there, but on the way.....

Whatever Hiddink whispered into ear before going out on the field in Sydney worked a treat, and Benetiz has managed him well since. What would you do without him? It would probably mean Chipperfield being pushed further up the pitch, a role he plays at Basel where he has been scoring of late and it would probably give Lazaridis a better chance of making it as a back up player.

As for Tony Faria, I would say he'd first have to prove himself at A-League level before being considered a potential Socceroo. Let's just see how he goes at Newcastle next season, and in any case, I would say that someone like Dean Heffernan, who had an outstanding season as a left sided flyer at the Mariners would deserve next crack at a left sided spot.

Admittedly Heffernan played most of the season as a left back, but he did spend some time earlier in the season further up the pitch, at left midfield in the Mariners' 4-4-2 system, and his natural inclination is the get forward anyway and we know he can score.

Lets just hope the Hiddink and Co. don't have to cross that bridge and think of replacements for either of the four guys causing concern at this moment - Schwarzer, Kewell, Viduka and Cahill.

Mon. Apr. 24, 01:05:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous Jean-Pierre said...

Good squad though have to take potential injuries into account. How serious are the injuries to Timmy, Harry and Mark?
All of the squad who were selected for the Uruguay match will go, so that doesn't leave many places up for grabs.

Mon. Apr. 24, 01:47:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous Stan for PM said...

Excellent wrap.....I would like to see Stan the man in there for sure. Like you say he has been a legend for the past few campaigns and deserves to go to a Wolrd Cup even if he doesnt play. Elrich also should go as a back up for Emmo, but I would find room for Lazaridis by either taking one less attacker or by not taking McKain and playing Chippers as a stopper.

Wed. Apr. 26, 11:11:00 am AEST  
Anonymous Pinuts pethia said...

Lazaridis has always performed well for Australia and deserves to be there.

I noticed that Robbie Hooker (ex socceroo) is auctioning his playing services on ebay. If Hiddink is desperate for defenders he might place a bid for Robbie!

Kidding!

Thu. May 04, 12:26:00 pm AEST  

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