So that`s that then
Russell Degnan

Like a goodly proportion of other people, the sight of a Spanish referee pointing to the Italian penalty spot was enough to make me instantly despondent last night. Since neither a little gallows humour [1], nor a little random destruction [2] made me feel much better, I'll have to settle on dispassionate analysis.

There is an inevitability about Australian losses in these sort of big games. They are preceded by endless comments on how we shouldn't be under-estimated by our superior opponents; then, during the game, Australia plays well to look like getting a win, before, well, not winning, because of a silly tackle, defensive or goal-keeping lapse, dodgy refereeing decision, or spectacular goal; then everybody comes out and says how well we played, and how unexpected it was, and how unlucky we were, and how we've now "proven" we can match it with the world's best.

And it is crap.

SBS is to blame. They love to hark back to the days when noone liked soccer in Australia and persist with some myth that football is a persecuted minority sport, and the national team a bunch of amateur battlers. They aren't, and it isn't. Until a year ago, the national league was little respected, and did not deserve to be; it was run by incompetent petty political hacks. But the national team has drawn big crowds and bigger audiences since the mid-90s, when the combination of wall-to-wall World Cup and European Championship coverage in '94 and '96, and a resurgence in the popularity of English football there and here [3] led to a general (if slightly superficial) interest in the sport.

With the possible exceptions of Bruce Arena and Alvaro Recoba, no-one of any credibility has under-estimated Australia in a decade. Plenty of people thought they'd make the second round. If the analysts were surprised by anything, it was that Australia did it in the haphazard, high-risk manner they did. And that was as much a result of our tendency to give up soft goals, and our inability to convert chances, than any particular attacking flair. It should have been much easier than it was.

To the Italian game then, where several soon to be prevalent myths should be punctured: Italy did not under-estimate Australia, they watched how we played and chose their game plan accordingly; Australia did not "out-play" Italy, the game was close, the result could have gone either way, but possession of the ball and pumping said ball into the box repeatedly should not be confused with the likelihood of the ball hitting the back of the net. Italy were good for the win, and tactically superior for much of the game. Unlike the Croatia game though, and no doubt to the bemusement of all Australia's new fans, this was one for the connoisseur.

The Australian game plan has been the same since Hiddink took over. A 4-5-1 or 3-5-2 depending on circumstances. A high posession game, trying to feed Viduka or cross for the late runs of attacking midfielders. It meant selecting players who were fast and fit over players with better skills -- Wilkshire over Skoko for example. It is effective enough, although Australia -- particularly Kewell and Bresciano -- had been wasteful before this game. Having watched Australia's barn-storming efforts in the group games, Lippi was tactically astute in his efforts to counter it.

To date in this World Cup, the Italians had been more open in play than usual, but they shut down against Australia, and for good reason. By playing deep in midfield they slowed Australia in attack, setting the tempo to suit their style. It also meant that Viduka was generally triple-teamed or more. For all Australia's possession they lost the shot count, and that is significant.

Generally speaking, the game had three phases. For the first thirty minutes Pirlo killed us. Australia played both too deep -- giving Pirlo far too much time on the ball to distribute long balls to his strikers -- and too short -- leaving Toni to take on Moore and Neill one on one. Italy's best chances occured in this period, and only Schwarzer saved Australia from having to come from behind again.

Credit to Hiddink -- though not much, as he'd be a poor manager if he didn't make the change -- the next 45 minutes belonged to Australia. Pirlo was pressured, his distribution became erratic and Australia dominated both possession and had their best chances (albeit wasted by shooting straight at Buffon). Materazzi's dismissal obviously helped. Under normal circumstances the tackle should have been a yellow, not a red, as he wasn't the last defender, and the challenge, while late was not dangerous. But with cards flowing like water from an alpine range in this World Cup, he can have no complaints.

For all that possession though, Australia not only didn't score, they hardly threatened. This again, was a personnel thing. Fast, fit players are great, but we have a history of playing ones who are also rubbish at distribution. None of Chipperfield, Wilkshire, Cullina, or Sterjovski can cross, and it was no surprise that the only real threat was Bresciano (who played an excellent game). As Adam rightly pointed out too, Viduka needs support. He is an excellent player (when fit), holds the ball up well and a good finisher from close range; but Viduka won't drop deep, dodge a defender and crack in a shot from thirty yards. By not playing Aloisi from the start, Hiddink sacrificed a lot of attacking options for patient build-up and control [4].

Ine introduction of Totti changed the game again. Italy started to break in numbers, and for all their vaunted fitness, Australia were stretched several times, became sloppy, and left too much space. Given Australia could still make substitutions, you have to question Hiddink's tactics. If he was waiting for extra time, then Australia shouldn't have been so far up the park; if not, then why leave on tired players?

Finally, the penalty. It was a cynical dive, no question, but I've seen them given often enough, particularly in Serie A. Neill shouldn't have been off his feet; forcing Grosso to pass should have been enough. It sucks to lose that way, but ultimately (and here is my point), Italy played Australia the way they wanted, and won the game.

So I am not happy, not because of the tragedy of it all, but because we shouldn't be happy with anything other than a win. The days are finished when Australia was incapable of getting a result against quality opposition -- even superior opposition which Italy is. A good looking loss is still a loss. Putting the ball into the back of the net more often than your opponents is much more satisfying.

I liked the style Australia played for much of this World Cup, but the results (a win, a draw and 2 losses) were no better than average, if not worse than that. As I put it in an sms after the Brazil game:

Fuck this honourable loss shit. I want to win

[1] I wanted to trip over someone in an exaggerated manner then say "don't mind me, I'm Italian", but decided not to.
[2] As is now traditional, I kicked a rubbish bin. It made a nice sound too.
[3] Australian football, like many things, is very English. Most of the overseas players play there, and for all the 'ethnic' talk, most football supporters here are of English descent as well.
[4] A very Dutch way of doing things, except good Dutch teams [5] always had a Cruyff, Van Basten or Bergkamp to create something from nothing as well.
[5] Ironic too, that after the Netherlands friendly the Dutch were a lovely team and Australia derided as uncultured hatchet men. Yet, four games later the opposite is true.

Football 28th June, 2006 02:10:57   [#] [4 comments] 

Where Is My Fixture List?
Russell Degnan

Any follower of Australian soccer, even a part-time one like myself, had high hopes that the new A-League and Frank Lowy's involvement would see an end to the comical reulctance to run themselves sensibly. But now I am not so sure. Lowy's plea to fans to come to games smacks of desperation, which is not the best thing to be 17 days before the first game.

It shouldn't be necessary. There are plenty of soccer supporters, both old (ethnic) and new in Australia, who would be happy to give the league support and keep it going. The problem now is the same one that plagued it several years ago when the short-lived Carlton side sank without a trace. Namely, they aren't communicating what is going on to the casual supporter to get them interested.

I don't follow the football closely, but last week a trip to the MCG was mooted while we are at the pub. We asked the publican if he had a fixture list and an inch high pile was procured in about 3 seconds. Easy. Keeping in touch with the footy in Melbourne is simple because the AFL prints several million fixture lists a year, and because the results are easily accessible.

But here we are three weeks from the kick-off of the A-League and I can't answer some basic questions about the local side because the basics haven't been covered (even while they talk up wasting $3 million in tv advertising):

Where are the Victory playing?
When is their first and subsequent home game?
How many rounds are there?
What is the finals format (if any)?
Are the games predoiminately at night? Day? Saturday? Sunday?
What television network is it on? If any?

You can't run a league if one of your major target markets can't answer these questions. And I am the league's major target market.

There is a billboard in the city, near Spencer St., that shows Melbourne's water levels. Fascinating billboard, because it is always different, so like the Nylex sign and its temperature you always check it. The A-League needs something like that, that is visible in the city, giving last week's results, the table, and the fixture list. Because unless I can find out who won without trying, I just don't care. And nor will anyone else.

Football 9th August, 2005 12:17:36   [#] [0 comments] 

Same old, same old
Russell Degnan

I wish the Socceroos could play Germany more often. They might not be stylish, they won't beat a team with a piece of individual brilliance but they find problems in a defence like a well paid structural engineer. And it shows that Australia has not improved on their biggest faults. Faults that have cost us in world cup campaign time and time again.

Problem 1: defensive lapses. There is no excuse for this, they are not amateurs, but the marking was shoddy against Germany and goals were scored. Once I'd have said this was because they don't play together enough, but Popovic and Moore have played together at least 30 times if not more.

Problem 2: lazy players. Watch Zidane, Beckham or Ronaldinho and they obviously want the ball because they track back to get it. Watch some of Australia's players and you wonder whether they really do. Once you are past the Australian midfield you can run at the defence in numbers. It makes them vulnerable on the break, and a lot of soft goals go in: see home against Iran '97, and away to Uruguay '01 for example. Kewell is the worst offender -- see the semi-final against Juventus -- but others are as bad.

Problem 3: one paced. England are one paced, but they are always intense. Australia never controls the pace of the game, it is always worked around methodically. You rarely see the lightning break, the holding of a ball in defense for long periods, the midfielder who waits then accelerates isn't there. Defensively, the sudden speed rips Australia to shreds. Offensively, there is not a lot of penetration through the centre. Shut off Australia's wings -- difficult though that is -- and there aren't many other options.

Having said that, the offense is not a problem, Australia has a surfeit of quality attacking midfielders -- just think, Bresciano and Kewell have to fit into a side that scored thrice against Germany. Viduka, when and if fit will allow them to hold the ball up in attack and bring Cahill and company into play. The wingers get forward and there are backups.

But if there are two soft goals scored over the two-leg play-off, then Australia will miss out. Again.

Football 16th June, 2005 14:19:59   [#] [2 comments] 

Chelsea`s Premiership
Russell Degnan

Now that Chelsea has secured their first title for 50 years, the assessments of how good they are can begin. Last week, The Insider was very critical of their performance against Liverpool in the Champions League; highlighting their lack of attackign options and reliance on the midfield to score goals. A closer look at the league table shows he may have a point. Despite having the highest points-per-game of any champion in the last decade, Chelsea have mostly achieved it against the bottom half. An incredible one draw shows a remarkable consistency, and both Chelsea and Arsenal are not just winning, but thrashing sides down the table.

But look at the top half performances and they are less dominant. Despite numerous complaints from Manchester United supporters, their performance against better opposition is comparable, if not superior, to Chelsea's. The problem for Chelsea, especially in light of games against Liverpool and - potentially - Milan in the Champions League, is a lack of goals against decent defence. 15 goals in 16 games puts them a very poor 10th in attacking terms against the top half. Where they have been outstanding in attack it has been on the back of perenially injured midfielders Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, rather than a quality striker.

However, in a league competition, Chelsea's strengths: consistency and a parsimonious defence are sufficient to lift the title. It remains for Arsenal and Manchester United to lift their game in those two areas if they are to challenge next season.

For the remainder though, a more worrying long term trend is emerging. This graph shows the points per season of each league position since the contraction.

At the very bottom it shows a marginal decline in the relegated sides - from high to mid 30s. Given the three sides likely to drop this season are the same three who came up there is something to the argument that the first division and the premier league are getting further apart. It should also be noted that the sides to survive in recent years have also had large supporter bases - such as Birmingham; similarly, it is Sunderland making a return next season.

The midpoint has remained roughly the same, at 50 points per season. However, the big change is occuring right above them as the mid-table gets closer to the European places. Articles lamenting the low quality of potential Champions League participants are correct. They are well placed because the league is so tight, rather than because of any particular quality. While the graph shows clearly how first and second are scoring more highly and more consistently, the graph is less clear on the other places because the fluctuate quite sharply. However, looking at the standard deviation of the points distribution at the top level shows it increasing from around 9 to nearer 13. In short, the top teams are going away even as the rest of the league gets more competitive.

Year on year the number of teams within 25 points of the top has gone: 8, 7, 9, 6, 4, 6, 5, 6, 2 and 2. Perhaps the last few years have been an anomaly, but the ability of mid table teams to challenge seems to be dropping, which is not a positive development. Not every team will get a fairy godmother in the guise of an oil-rich Russian oligarch to buy their way to the top.

Football 2nd May, 2005 01:08:33   [#] [0 comments] 

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