Sunday, June 03, 2007

Still plenty to ponder beyond the first 11

Asia Cup warm-up, Socceroos 1 v Uruguay 2

ENCOURAGING signs in some quarters, but still plenty to ponder for Graham Arnold after last night's friendly loss to Uruguay in Sydney, not least the choice of who he takes to Asia in the back up positions.

The goods news is that this was a predominantly second string unit that did well to compete with a first choice Uruguay side that were clearly set on righting the perceived wrongs of November 05.

Lets face it, unless there is a radical rethink by some of the first choice European stars, only six of last nights starters - Neill, Emerton, Culina, Sterjovski and possibly Wilkshire and Kisnorbo - can expect to be a part of the first choice 11 in Asia. Compare that with a Uruguay side bristling with first choices - Carini, Lugano, Dario Rodriguez, Diogo, Garcia, Perez, Christian Rodriguez, Forlan, Recoba and Sanchez.

So the performance was decent without being spectacular.

But the point of last night wasn't so much about the overall performance but to find out if the second tier players could cut it at this high level and whether they can be relied upon to provide the requisite back-up should the firsts miss a game or two in Asia.

Overall, the jury is still out on a number of back-up positions.

Lets start between the sticks where the back-up goalkeeping position has been providing the most headaches, with a succession of experienced keepers - Covic and Petkovic - failing to grasp their chances. Last night it was Brad Jones's turn and he added to the headaches, responsible, in my opinion, for both goals.

As I had speculated in my pre-match look at Arnold's squad, I wasn't surprised to see him so hesitant in dealing with both cross balls. It had been a feature of his work at Middlesborough when he was first choice for a period throughout 2005/06.

Brilliant at shot-stopping (most keepers at that level are!), he is a one who prefers the comfort of his line (much like Dudek), and last night's two efforts provided further evidence.

While there might be blame apportioned to the likes of Thwaites, Neill and Kisnorbo for some ball-watching for the first goal, there is little doubt Jones reacted slowly to Recoba's cross. That moment of hesitation cost him and his country dearly. These are the types of balls defenders cry for the keeper to pick off, and the best exponent at dealing with these types of balls across the six yard box is Petr Cech, decisive and brave.

The second was a shocker, another example of a keeper not entirely comfortable in commanding his area.

So what to do now for Arnold? I have held the view that Clint Bolton has been among the top two or three Australian keepers for at least the past five years, but that he has often been denied opportunites by the fact he continues to ply his trade at home, that he has been percieved as having a lack of ambtion and the fact his main competitors have been playing bigger games in Europe.

This belief has been fostered by having watched him develop into a conistent leader over the years, able to dominate games from the back through his ability to control the area from the first minute to the 95th. After an inconsistent start to his career at Brisbane, he has done it all at Sydney Olympic, Parrmatta Power and now Sydney FC.

The pity for Bolton is that the door has finally opened, but his performances of late haven't been of the standard to warrant him walking through it. After a brilliant season one in the A-League, he had a bust up with Terry Butcher early in season two (after an error in Perth) and his confidence and form have fluctuated since.

Now back with a former mentor in Culina, his form has also been a little disappointing in the Asian Champions League, but Culina puts that down to the fact he hasnt been playing every week, so crucial to keeping consistently.

It's hard to pick him on the form in the ACL, but in an even money choice for the senior back-up role, for mine he is ahead of Covic and Petkovic.

As for the third choice youngster, with succession planning in mind? After Jones's performance last night there is little doubt in my mind that Danny Vukovic should be in the Asia Cup squad. Here is a young kid that has grabbed every opportunity. Second choice behind John Crawley at the inception of the A-League, he is now firmly first choice for both the Mariners and Olyroos and, given a chance in the national first team, would more than likely snap it up.

Not only a solid shot-blocker, he is confident, brave, decisive, has decent distribution and loves to look after his area, all key ingredients.

At the back, most of the pre-match conjecture centred around what Arnold would do in the left back area given the missing Chipperfield and the lack of a likely successor. Thwaites was given the gig and didnt do too bad a job in the main, but the fact remains that both Uruguay goals came from crosses from his side.

While he still appears more suited to the central role, his adaptablity might be enough to get him on the plane to Asia.

So what then off Nurnberg's two towering defenders, Beauchamp and Spiranovic? Neither saw time last night and, if Thwaites is chosen on his adaptability, at least one appears likely to miss Asia. The former appears to be behind Kisnorbo as Neill's preferred partner, while Spiranovic is still waiting to debut, much to the disppointment of many fellow Socceroos fans at yesterday's game.

With Milligan (who can play in the holding role in midfield or anywhere across the back) seemingly a shoe-in, both might miss.

In midfield there are less headahces for Arnold. Grella is the obvious anchor with Milligan as back up. So what of Valeri? After a good first hour against China he was up and down against the higher quality of the Uruguay midfield, and might need a bit more time against quality opposition to feel entirely comfortable at this level.

While he always presented and went looking for the ball, often his use of it lacked conviction, little wonder when you had the impressive no. 7 Christian Rodriguez buzzing away nearby and Recoba and the eye-catching Vicente Sanchez (no. 22) popping up all over the place to cause problems.

The question for Arnold is whether he feels the back-up of Milligan is enough or whether there is room for another out and out sitter in the mould of Grella?

Nearby Culina was his usual efficient self. Believe it or not, it was 34mins before I saw him give up his first ball, so easy on the eye. At times though I find his contribution too disciplined and it would be nice to seem him drive into the box on the odd occasion, with Wilkshire dropping off to lend defensive cover.

With Wilkshire also a defensive minded player, there was little foward thrust from central midfield, and it showed, with McDonald and Holman increasingly isolated as the La Celeste midfield gradually took control.

Early on there was plenty of change for the Socceroos front three, with Sterjovski in particular giving Carlos Diogo a working over. His goal was scrappy and owed much to some indecisiveness from Fabian Carini, but the drive of Emerton and willingness of McDonald to attract a defender were also telling.

McDonald had the odd decent touch and put himself about but once again failed to impress overall, adding to the mystery of why he continues to be picked in the sole striker role when it clearly doesn't suit him. Late in the first half he snatched at a long range shooting chance and then skied one high and wide on the left peg in the second period.

As noted in my most recent post, it is a role that is tailor made for Viduka thanks to his remarkbale ability to withstand defensive pressure and bring those nearby into the frame, but others in the mix (Aloisi, McDonald, Thompson and Allsopp) appear more suited to two up front.

After working McDonald out, Lugano and Dario Rodriguez (when he shifted infield for the injured Andres Scotti) were in total control, while Pablo Garcia soon saw to the early influence of Brett Holman, who disappeared after being robbed of a shooting chance about half an hour in.

It was about that time the momentum swung to the visitors, who gradually got the likes of Sanchez, Christian Rodriguez, Forlan and Recoba onto the ball.

The Socceroos were now struggling to hold the ball up front, and the midfield and defence were under greater pressure. The game, at the break or soon after, was crying out for the introduction of Carle, who might have been able to hold the ball up and relieve some of the defensive pressure.

Conversely, he might be have been able to conjure up a moment of brilliance - as we so nearly saw with his first touch - for the likes of Allsopp and Thompson, but they too were given little time to make an impression.

The pity for all three - like all the A-League players not involved in ACL or Olyroos - is that they haven't been playing regularly since late February (depsite Carle being at Sydney Olympic), an issue the A-League powers need to address.

It now leaves them and Arnold with a headache ahead of the Asia Cup. Given the lack of impact from the likes of Ryan Griffiths and McDonald, there is still enough of that 'joker' element, as Hiddink liked to call it, in selecting Carle and Thompson, and maybe even Allsopp.

Certainly Carle, as an option off the bench, might even provide some decent delivery at the dead ball, an area the Socceroos have consistently been poor in. This time it was Emerton entrusted with most of the delivery, and almost every time the next touch was a Uruguay head.

Carle, when he came on, either wasn't given the repsonsiblity or didn't take it on. Either way it was to Australia's detriment.

Thompson, meanwhile, is worth persisting with. All of these local based players need to be loved and told they are a part of this.

But Arnold appears altogehter more conservative and willing to choose a European based man over a local, as witnessed by the demotion of Carney, Bridge and North from yesterday's 20, and the noises earlier in the week from Carle that he needs to go overseas to become a Socceroos regular.

It sounds all so depressingly 'here we go again'.

Arnold could do the A-League a massive favour by chosing a number of the locals ahead of the second tier Europeans. Perceptions count, and sight of a 23 that rewards some of the players that have done well in the A-League would be another boost for the game downunder.

And importantly, it doesn't appear like it would detract from the quality of the squad.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

I just read your analysis on your website. I agree that the keeper position is a major headache along with left back. Personally I would like to see Vukovic also given a chance and I think Spiranovic should be given a chance at left back. If he’s good enough to do the job at Nurnberg I am sure he’ll be OK for Socceroos. Valeri I felt did well, he’s no Grella just yet but a good back up.

I strongly support what you said about A-League players, they deserve more than that. Carle and Thompson looked very lively. I was also very disappointed with Carney missing out. These guys are class players that with a bit more exposure can contribute greatly to Socceroos. They are definitely better than Homan, McDonald and Griffiths in my opinion.

Bring on the WC qualifiers I say when we see the A-League players in action!!!!

Peter Kandy

Tue. Jun. 05, 02:07:00 pm AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Hi Pete, thanks for your ongoing interest.....

Pity you couldnt make it up for the game with Andy but great to get your team line-up was a pretty vibrant atmosphere, much more relaxed than when you were last up in Nov05....

The make up of Arnold's Asia Cup squad will be very fascinating indeed. Like you I'm of the opinion that a number of the A-League's best should be a part of it as they're at least the equal of a number of the overseas based players.

Last night I watched the second half over again and there's little doubt in my mind that Carle made a decent impact, but it could have been even better if he'd either been given the responsibilty or taken it upon himself, much as he does with Newcastle. Up until his arrival the Socceroos had barely touched the ball in the final third in the second period. Soon enough he was turning, facing goal, playing people in and helping us regain the control we had in the first 30mins.

But I still think he should have taken responsibilty at a number of decent dead-ball situations, but it always seemed Emerton and Wilkshire were the ones, and the delivery was poor in the main. Other than that silly effort of trying to cross with his 'wrong' froot, he did provide one excellent cross from the left.

I thought Archie also had an impact, while Allsopp did a couple of good things and it would have been good to see him for a little bit longer as a replacement for McDonald, who worked hard but didn't really have that subtlety around the box.

Left side is a massive concern as all the back-up options we have don't provide the drive of Chipperfield (they're more defensive), but I liked the way Arnold adjusted by starting Sterjovski high on the left and allowing Emerton the freedom to get forward on the right. It worked for a while and might even have caught Uruguay by surprise.

Tue. Jun. 05, 03:27:00 pm AEST  

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