World Cup Group Qualification
Another match in which the commentators have fallen over themselves to praise Australia for their ability to concede easily, while looking occasionally threatening. The Netherlands set up in a similar formation to that used against Spain, and it led to exactly the sort of frenetic long-passing game predicted. The down-side for Australia is that leaving, as Michael Cox noted, "a series of 1 v 1 battles all over the pitch", played into the hands of the Dutch strengths: van Persie's skill and Robben's pace, and a lost-ball and missed lunge was sufficient for an early concession.
Netherlands playing five at the back also made it theoretically more difficult for crosses to find their mark, but Cahill came up with something remarkable to immediately equalise. His play in the two games making you wonder if his career in the midfield has wasted a natural number-9, good at getting on crosses and holding the ball up.
Unlike Spain, conceding Australia possession is dangerous, as they put numbers forward and have pace on the wings. Australia should have scored with Bresciano, and later Leckie - though that was on the break. Those chances are ones Australia can ill-afford to waste, especially as defensive errors continue to haunt.
The Dutch switched formation and had more of the ball, particularly Sneijder and Depay, the latter knocking a simple ball to an Persie when he was played onside and scoring from distance when not shut down.
All told, Australia scored two relatively fortunate goals - a brilliant volley, but don't count on it, and a penalty - and conceded three from sloppy back play against a side who could afford to wait for those opportunities, and knew they could take them. As good as it looks to be streaming forward, there is a naivety in Australia's approach; a looseness that allows good teams to cut them apart, and there aren't any sides in this world cup with the quality to overcome conceding two soft goals (or more) per match.
Spain lacked any of their usual verve and movement against Chile, but it would surprise if they can't find something for this game. If so, Australia will offer them plenty of small openings, and a blowout is entirely possible. Their lack of pace can be exploited though, and Australia has shown glimpses of quality in this world cup. It would be out of character for them to leave anything on the park.
Expectations were low at this world cup. After the maulings by Brazil and France that led to managerial change and the grim acceptance that the old guard was done, and the group draw that could barely have been more difficult, none thought Australia anything but rank outsiders to progress. A draw in any game would perhaps count as a success, a good showing sufficient to provide hope in a young side. Against Chile, we got the latter, but we shouldn't be happy.
To anyone that asked I said we'd probably come away from the first match asking "what if". This wasn't based on prevailing form but a long history. Australia rarely fail to rise (or fall) to their opponents. They've done so against better teams than Chile, with less technically accomplished players. But they also rarely fail to concede soft goals, or come away from the inevitable defeat with the local media back-slapping them for going toe to toe with a superior teams.
Honourable losses still see you to the exit. And what-if losses based on a persistent failure to keep the opposition out aren't that honourable. They are a failure to reach your potential.
Australia could not have started worse. Whether for nerves or the raucous Chilean anthem, it took two concessions before they managed more than two controlled touches. The immediate turnovers making it easy for Chile to maintain a press even in the heat. Both goals combined some Chilean skill with defensive panic. The first should never have led to an open shot, the second had two defenders chasing one man. Two mistakes, two goals. Even the best team in the world would struggle from there.
Fortunately the goals seemed to give Australia time to regroup. Theirs is a simple tactic. Get wide where they have pace and space; cross to Cahill. But Bresciano is the key. The only player capable of killing the ball in traffic and distributing. He is let down by too few players finding space close enough to provide an outlet or quick return ball. Once he worked his way into the game, Australia was matching Chile through the midfield.
For the next hour, Australia, as widely noted, played well, and in the manner of socceroos teams gone by: aggressive (both Milligan and Jedinak were booked), fast and dangerous on the cross. They have little else and Chile eventually shut down the distribution from the wings. Australia were arguably unlucky not to equalise by then, but this is the tactic of a side who holds firm and wins on the break, not one chasing the game. Chile could afford the extra defenders.
What Postecoglou will do against the Dutch is a mystery as they are set up to completely negate Australia's width, and their three man attack will feast on errors. Against Spain, and in the warmups they played the ball quickly from deep, which could signal an ugly, but frenetic game if both sides abandon any sort of buildup through the midfield. That could suit Australia. Despite the opening matches, the Netherlands remains Australia's best chance of a result.
Watching the world cup is a complex business. There are too many games at too many odd hours to watch everything and remain gainfully employed, but it can be hard to decide whether to stay up late to watch an obscure CONCACAF side play a European superpower, or crawl out of bed for a showdown between a pair of star strikers and their traffic cones come team-mates.
If quality is all you're after then the answer is obvious, but the most interesting games are those both teams need to win. In a previous post I defined match meaning as
the total change in probability that each team will qualify for the next round based on the result of a single game.
For a knockout match between two evenly matches teams this will be 1: 2x(0.5x0.5 + 0.5x0.5). A knockout where one team is 70% likely to win will be 0.84: 2(0.7x0.3 + 0.3x0.7). For a group stage, the calculation is more complex, so a monte-carlo method was employed:
Meaning = | P(Qual) - (P(Win)xP(Qual|Win) + P(Draw)xP(Qual|Draw) + P(Loss)xP(Qual|Loss)) |
Total meaning being calculated for all four teams in the group, for each game.
Match probabilities were calculated using the Elo Ratings. Historically, draws are normally distributed around the rating difference: ~40% for evenly matched teams, with a standard deviation of 200. The win/loss probabilities are taken from the Elo formula on the site.
The results indicate that the least interesting match will be Brazil vs Cameroon, the home side being near-certainties to qualify, and the latter unlikely to overcome Croatia and Mexico. The most: Croatia vs. Mexico, being a virtual knock-out, followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina vs Nigeria, the two middle sides in a group containing Argentina and Iran. A full list of qualifying probabilities, and predicted match meaning follows:
|Ivory Coast||Japan||14 June||0.431|
|Colombia||Ivory Coast||19 June||0.388|
|Greece||Ivory Coast||24 June||0.402|
|Uruguay||Costa Rica||14 June||0.383|
|Costa Rica||Italy||20 June||0.421|
|Costa Rica||England||24 June||0.402|
|Argentina||Bosnia and Herzegovina||Iran||Nigeria|
|Argentina||Bosnia and Herzegovina||15 June||0.330|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||Nigeria||21 June||0.440|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||Iran||25 June||0.407|
|Ghana||United States||16 June||0.333|
|Portugal||United States||22 June||0.378|
|Germany||United States||26 June||0.358|
|Russia||South Korea||17 June||0.390|
|Algeria||South Korea||22 June||0.330|
|Belgium||South Korea||26 June||0.418|
I don't have much to say about this game that hasn't been said elsewhere, but, for closure, it is worth finishing things off. This was a typical Australian performance, attacking without controlling the game, giving chances but largely stopping the opposition from scoring (bar the inevitable soft goal), scoring without any particular beauty, and fighting until the end.
Pim Verbeek will no doubt leave us now, wondering why he tried to mould a footballing team so foreign to his preferred manner of play. That we seem capable of playing in only one manner means Australian fans are doomed to suffer the frustrations and joys that the team brings.
This campaign was a failure - the second round should be the aim, even if going further is a matter of luck. But it wasn't a total one. Qualification, firstly, and third in the group are successes of sorts, even if you hope for more, and even if, with a bit more luck, we could have had more - perhaps much more, in a quarter boasting Uruguay, South Korea and the USA.
Finally, on a completely unrelated note, the comparative failure of Africa (at home) has hidden the resounding success of Asia, with two teams moving forward. Given those two continents relative ability to foster the game, don't be surprised if we have an Asian champion before an African one.
Presented without further comment, for my own benefit. Top diagram represents first place, bottom second. Both possible teams are represented where decided on goals scored.
No team is a more natural to the role of plucky losers than Australia. No doubt everyone involved in Australian soccer is happy and comfortable with the situation: last in their group, extremely unlikely to qualify, but teeming with righteous indignation.
Naturally, the Kewell send-off is the main talking point, not least because Australia had dominated the game up to that point, and for long periods after, against a poor Ghanaian side.
The law is suitably unclear, but it is not a foul unless the handball was "deliberate". Given the shot from 8 yards, Kewell's reaction time (roughly 0.2s), and the speed of shot (probably 24 m/s) it is impossible for Kewell to either avoid the ball or make a play at it. The determining factor therefore is whether Kewell had his arm in an unusual position, such that he could have expected the ball to hit it. Clearly, as the photo shows, that is not the case. His hand might have been out a little, but his upper arm couldn't have been much closer to his body.
As always with football, plenty of these are given (plenty of referees are rubbish and most players are unfamiliar with the laws). But if it was a foul, it was a penalty, and it was a red card. Triple punishment is a bitch.
On a related note, this is one of several football laws that are poorly implemented in comparison with other sports.
But back to Australia. They played their natural game against Ghana, getting numbers forward (a sloppy goal), harassing the players on the ball (fouling indiscriminately), and pumping the ball long. Australia makes up for a lot of poor technique and organisation with effort, but we also fail to score from opportunities where a clinical finish is required, and give up soft goals from sloppy play. Ghana's build-up to the goal was a typical example of this, where Wilkshire and Emerton failed to stop the cross, despite having an opportunity to put the ball out for a corner.
Ultimately, Australia should ave won, even with 10 men, which makes the draw galling, as now we depend on either a Ghana win, or a thumping result by either Germany or ourselves (or both) to get through. Unlikely.
Like Dileep Premachandran, I've several times suggested that cricket could learn a lot from football, not just in terms of the world cup - the forthcoming edition of which promises to be an utter debacle - but in several other ways: its regional focus, its qualifiers, its willingness to accept mismatches and in the centrality it gives to domestic competition.
But what if it was the opposite, what would football look like then?
Alternatively, England would run the game and internationals would be the exclusive preserve of the home nations. Perhaps their historical indifference to the world cup was more of a blessing than we realise?
Predictably, the immediate coverage of Australia's hammering by Germany has been an over-reaction to a shoddy loss. And, admittedly, it couldn't really have gone much worse. The worst bit was that we were lazy and disorganised in defence, and, needless to say, Germany have a knack for cracking weak defences. The second worst bit was losing Cahill to a rash but not red-card offence. The third worst bit was shipping four goals, which ends any hope of sneaking through on goal difference. The loss itself wasn't that important, we always expected to lose, but must continue to hope that Germany keep on winning, to even out the competition for second-place.
It is the defence Australia has to worry about. The midfield was nowhere to be seen, leaving the Germans free to time simple balls in behind the defence for the cut-back. The first and fourth goals were classic examples of this problem, with noone picking up the run, nor more crucially marking the players joining from midfield. Frankly, given how frequently the Germans got free inside our penalty area, we were lucky not to let in more.
Tactically, Australia is ill-suited to play on the counter-attack, being both likely to concede goals regardless of the formation and unable, for lack of technical proficiency, creativity and pace to score on either the break or via the leading forward. Nevertheless, after five minutes it still appeared to be a sensible option, as Australia started well. You cannot win on the counter if you concede easily, and unfortunately, I have yet to see an Australian side that doesn't do that. Klose's goal being yet another demonstration of Schwarzer's frustrating inability to command the box and let in unnecessary goals, even if he saves several others.
That all said, Verbeek can be expected to turn out a different lineup for the next two games, against sides Australia are not only capable of defeating, but now have to defeat, which should force his hand. The evidence against Germany suggests Australia remain a team whose best, if not only, chance of scoring comes from the wings, and that means getting players forward.