Friday, January 30, 2009

Pass marks, even minus the sparks

Asian Cup qualifier wrap, Indonesia 0 - Socceroos 0

WEDNESDAY night's scrappy draw in Jakarta was hardly the most pleasing on the eye, but as far as an exercise in getting a job done, a means towards an end, it was satisfactory, and perhaps a touch better than that.

Ultimately the objective is a spot in Qatar 2011, and for Pim Verbeek and the powers that be, in the midst of a far more important world cup campaign, this Asian cup campaign provides an ideal opportunity to gauge how the crop of A-League players, Australia's third or fourth team, are developing and how they handle the mental rigours of an international campaign.

As such, it's an early tick, with the players responding to the occasion, handling the pressure and competing well enough to earn a valuable away point.

Not a pretty job, but a job nonetheless.

Given the short turnaround time, and the lack of opportunity for the squad and starting 11 to find the same page, Verbeek went down the safe route, both in terms of squad selection and team make-up.

Verbeek, a seasoned Asian campaigner, familiar with the potential for a pit-fall or two, would have no doubt reasoned that the intimidating atmosphere and the conditions required a few level heads.

As such, he went for a conservative, experienced line-up, even if it was raw at this level. In a squad of 20, Verbeek went with the veterans, the likes of Pondeljak, Allsopp, Heffernan and Matt Thompson chosen in the most contentious spots ahead of the likes of Celeski, Simon, Elrich, Cole and Zullo.

The youth would be kept for later.

In truth, it was only when Celeski and Simon came on late that the Socceroos started to show any kind of fluidity in the front third, and there may have been a case for both of these guys starting.

But Verbeek went down the safe route, and while both Pondeljak and Allsopp were solid without being spectacular, Verbeek will reason that they did a job.

He may well have had a point, with the youngest starter, Jamieson, looking at times the most uncertain. For a player seemingly with a very bright future in the national team, it is a very valuable early lesson.

Indeed, with Heffernan struggling in the unfamiliar left midfield role (strange that Verbeek played him there given his pre-match comments that no-one would be played out of position), Australia's left side looked short on combination. Heffernan didn't know whether to face the goal, or play with his back to it.

With Indonesia defending deep, in truth there was little success on either flank for the Socceroos. Matt Thompson tried to get around Pondeljak down the right, but kept running into cul-de-sac's.

Indonesia's tactics meant there was no room for Allsopp and Archie Thompson in behind (take note Aurelio Vidmar!)

Perhaps Verbeek had no idea the hosts would be defending so deep. Otherwise, it would have been more obvious to play the more physical Simon alongside Archie Thompson, thus allowing the Socceroos to go longer, occasionally.

As it was, both Thompson and Allsopp had to keep dropping deep for the ball, only adding to the congested midfield.

With neither central midfielder - McKay or Reid - breaking forward, and Pondeljak, Matt Thompson, Heffernan and Jamieson failing to penetrate on the flanks, it was a static formation, offering little of the creativity required to break the well organised Indonesians, superbly marshalled by Charis Yulianto and Maman Abdurahman.

Indeed, the central defensive players were the best for both sides.

Moore and Vargas were bricks at the back, and but for the odd bit of Indonesian penetration down the flanks, the Socceroos defensive formation worked.

Given the short preparation, and the players at Verbeek's disposal, this was a successful exercise, definitely one the manager can build on over the next five Asian Cup games.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An all A-League 11 for Indonesia

JUST 24 hours out from the first all A-League Socceroos 11 in some time and there's quite a bit of fun to be had in trying to predict Pim's starting side from the 20 assembled in Jakarta.

But first a quick reflection on the original 21 named. The biggest surprises for me were undoubtedly the omission Travis Dodd and Adrian Pellegrino, which suggests to me that Verbeek wants to play with a pretty narrow midfield, with the width possibly coming from the fullbacks.

Joel Griffiths' form of late means he can hardly feel too aggrieved. Ditto Caceres, who, like many of his teammates, has gone off the boil since Jedinak left.

With the Mariners form in mind, perhaps the most fortunate selection is Dean Heffernan, who is lucky to get the back-up left back gig. Surely Matt Thompson could have covered Jamieson if required.

Shannon Cole's return to form higher up the pitch in the final third of the season (after a dip in the middle third), and his technical ability over the dead and moving ball earns him his spot, while Topor-Stanley's recent solid work confirms he is best at central defence.

Others from Perth shining of late and unlucky to miss are Pellegrino, Coyne and Srhoj, but keep and eye on all three.

Another late bloomer was Michael Zullo, who may well have carried Minniecon, Murdocca and De Vere with him.

It's a safe, hard working selection, sure to offer a contest. Evidently the plan is to run all day and grind Indonesia into the ground.

Which brings us to Verbeek's 11.

Let's start in goals. A month or so ago I suggested Vukovic should start. He wouldn't let the Socceroos down I don't think, and perhaps he's the best long term proposition, but on current form it's hard to begrudge Galekovic the start. His effort a few weeks ago, low to his left, to keep out a Harnwell header, suggests he's at the peak of his powers.

In terms of formation, the composition of the squad suggests a fairly narrow 4-4-2.

In central defence, Moore and Vargas should start, although Topor-Stanley would also compliment Moore. Jamieson picks himself on the left, and will look to get beyond the midfield and combine with his left midfielder.

On the right is more tricky. Elrich and Cole seem the only options, but Cole has proved at Sydney he is still learning the art of defending. The same could be said of Elrich, but his pace and energy gets him the nod, and having Moore alongside him should be a great help.

In midfield, I think Verbeek will use Reid slightly withdrawn, behind a hard working midfield trio of Celeski, Matt Thompson and McKay.

All four offer plenty of mobility and are sound on the ball, exactly what Verbeek loves, and Thomspon and Celeski in particular can be expected to get forward and support a front two. All four also offer dead-ball options.

Another starting alternative is to use Pondeljak on the right, Celeski through the middle and Thompson on the left. Pondeljak, as I've said before on this blog and many a times prior, should have played far more games under Frank Farina (admittedly the attacking midfield competition was hot), so it's great to see him getting some belated recognition, even at a time when his game doesn't posses the drive and penetration it once did. He can still do a job, as he's proving in Melbourne.

Either way, I expect to see the right and left midfielders tuck in, allowing Elrich and Jamieson to bomb-on. But, away from home, in front of a bumper crowd, they will need to go one at a time.

Later, if more width is required, Zullo can be unleashed.

All of this leaves the front two, and, while club combinations are tempting, I'd be going for an Archie Thompson-Matt Simon combination. The later appears to have the mentality to deal with most things, and gets crucial goals. Allsopp is in great goal-getting touch, so you wouldn't begrudge him a start, while Macallister offers physicality off the bench and the opportunity to play three up-top.

So, here's an 11 one hopes can get a job done in Jakarta;

-----Celeski----M Thompson---McKay-----
----------A Thompson------Simon---------

UPDATED 10.45pm 28/01/2009; According to the FFA website, this is the starting 11

82 Eugene Galekovic (gk)

3 Craig Moore (c)

32 Archie Thompson

33 Danny Allsopp

41 Matt McKay

44 Paul Reid

51 Rodrigo Vargas

66 Scott Jamieson

72 Dean Heffernan

83 Tom Pondeljak

86 Matt Thompson

So yes, there's a surprise start for Heffernan. Interesting to see whether Verbeek uses him at left back or left midfield, as one can easily see Jamieson slotting in at left midfield. Matt Thompson also gets a start, so could well be starting at right back.

Verbeek has gone for the more experienced squad members, and given the expected crowd, thats understandable. It's the Victory duo up front.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A-League season 4 review, Newcastle Jets

It starts at the top

LIKE Sydney FC after season one, the seeds of this seasons demise for Newcastle were sown shortly after their v3 victory, with a succession of key personnel departing, most notably Musialik, Durante and Bridge. Like Sydney in season two, their replacements just weren’t up to the task, and in truth, the clamour to ‘jump ship’ throughout the season underlined what must be some deep issues within the club. Indeed, the sight of the club’s chairman on the victory podium after last season’s success dropped a hint on where the problems might start.

The work of the manager, widely lauded over the past two seasons, particularly on this blog (for example here and here), was disappointing to say the least. The van Egmond honeymoon is well and truly over, and he must now take-stock and have a massive re-think on the way he does business ahead of the ACL campaign.

While his out-bursts at officialdom are almost par for the course for managers these days, his treatment of the likes of Hakansson, Patafta and Jesse Pinto was far less acceptable, and painted him in a far from complimentary light.

While circumstance rarely allowed him to field a consistent 11, leading to inevitable frustration, his inability to “find a solution”, something that was a hallmark of his work in 2006/07 and 2007/08, was telling. While the defence was leaky, in truth the biggest problems were an inability to find a midfield boss and a functional front third. With Bridge gone, Zura failing to settle (the whole saga was poorly handled by the club), Song struggling to handle the physicality of the league, too much of the burden fell on Joel Griffiths, who, with a bunch of kids for support, soon became a sitting duck for the opposition.

The miracle is that there were still a couple of outstanding contributors this season, most notably the flying fullback come front-third “option”, Tarek Elrich, and the outstanding youngster Ben Kantarovski, who appears to have a big future (we hope).

Another to do well this season was Jobe Wheelhouse, cleverly converted into a defensive player after failing to impress higher up the pitch in past seasons. The consistent Matt Thompson was one of few bright points, especially when moved higher up the pitch.

It is with these few pluses that van Egmond must start building the next campaign, and great starting point, as it proved for both Adelaide and Melbourne, is the ACL. The more technical nature of the competition might just suit the style van Egmond and the Jets like to play, and a player like Song could well regain some confidence.

The biggest issue though is the mass exodus of players that threatens to leave the likes of Elrich and Kantarovski as the most experienced. After the departure of Musialik, Durante and Bridge last season, the likes of North, Holland and Zura this season, and the impending departures of the Griffiths brothers and Milligan, what’s left?

A season or so ago, when Durante, Musialik and Bridge were negotiating, Con Constantine made public his views that players are expendable, an attitude that has seen the club’s stocks decimated. The rebuilding process may well need to start with the attitude at the top.