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   [#] 


Par effort...

But roll on the Asian Cup and Iran, Japan, South Korea and us as semi-finalists.
Rob  28th June, 2006 15:24:20  

So that`s that then
A long way to get before the semis. The Asian Cup will be a good contest, not least because we need practise breaking down sides with the team bus parked in front of goal.

The fallout for Asia from this world cup will be interesting. Only Australia made the second round, the other teams' records being 1 win, 4 draws and 7 losses. Arguably in quite weak groups too. They'd like 5 places with Australia on board, instead of the 4 1/2 they had, but Oceania will probably still get an undeserved 1/2 and Africa will get the hosts' place, but they might lose a half (from 5 to 4 1/2 as well). CONCACAF fared worse than Asia, so they should lose a 1/2 (their 3 1/2 now is a joke). And the squeeze will be on from European and South American teams as usual.
Russ  28th June, 2006 16:14:50  

So that`s that then
Terrific analysis, Russ, the best I've read or heard anywhere.
Nick  29th June, 2006 21:17:54  

So that`s that then
thanks Nick. I'd recomment Les Murray's take. And not just because he makes much the same points.
Russ  1st July, 2006 01:41:46