Australia 2018 World Cup team guide: tactics, key players and expert predictions
A change of manager means the Socceroos’ performance will not be easy to predict but Bert van Marwijk is likely to be more pragmatic and use a conventional 4-3-3
Having changed coaches so close to the big dance, Australia head to Russia as very much an unknown quantity.
Their former coach Ange Postecoglou was emphatic about the way his Socceroos side would play – without fear, an attacking style based on ball possession and high pressing, and at Brazil 2014 his players earned high praise for the manner in which they took games to Chile and the Netherlands.
Some regarded it a watershed moment as Australia finally shed an inferiority complex as a second-rate football nation on the world stage, with the Asian Cup victory of 2015 crowning the transformation.
But the wheels began to come off Postecoglou’s revolution during qualifying for Russia – uncertain results away at Thailand and Iraq exposed the Socceroos as fallible, and after failing to secure automatic group qualification, only a narrow escape against Syria allowed Australia to book their place with a win over Honduras.
Under Bert van Marwijk, philosophically and tactically, it’s expected to be a far more pragmatic Socceroos side in Russia. In friendlies against Norway and Colombia the Dutchman rolled back Postecoglou’s flirtations with 3-4-2-1/3-2-4-1 and overlapping wingers and dual No 10s, reverting to a simple 4-3-3, with full-backs that were noticeably more defence-minded.
Announcing his wider squad of 32, Van Marwijk re-iterated aspects of his philosophy. “I like to play fast football, I like to play offensive football,” he said. “But I also like to win.”
Given the short-term nature of his contract – just for Russia and with a long-term replacement already named in Graham Arnold – don’t expect Van Marwijk to try and radically overhaul things. He will however tighten the defence, and against more highly-rated nations such as France, look to play fast, vertical passing in transition to release pacey players such as Mathew Leckie, Robbie Kruse or Nikita Rukavytsya.
Probable starting XI: (4-3-3)
(Goalkeeper) Mat Ryan; (Defence R-L) Fran Karacic, Trent Sainsbury, Matthew Jurman Aziz Behich; (DM) Mile Jedinak (c), (CM), Tom Rogic, Aaron Mooy; (Attack R-L), Robbie Kruse, Tomi Juric, Mathew Leckie
Which player is going to surprise everyone at World Cup 2018?
The player that will surprise the most is the one that gets unexpectedly picked. With just four experimental friendlies under his belt Van Marwijk’s starting XI against France is still far from certain.
The young Croatia-born right-back Fran Karacic could be the bolter. A specialist full-back in an area that has troubled Australia for years, he’s tall, strong and a leader at club level despite being only 21.
Daniel Arzani is another to watch as a wide forward. After a stellar domestic season in Australia the teenager is not short of confidence or guile and could conjure something special, especially against packed defences.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
If there’s a player that disappoints it won’t be through individual failings but rather the role they’re expected to play. Both Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy have been superb at club level in recent years, but if Van Marwijk opts for Mile Jedinak as a sole defensive midfielder, like England’s infamous dilemma with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, there are question marks as to whether both operate effectively in the same team.
Rogic could even be sacrificed altogether should Van Marwijk look for more industry, with Hull’s Jackson Irvine or QPR’s Massimo Luongo providing better defensive work rate. It would be a shame given Rogic’s mercurial talent – he is one of the few Australia players capable of unlocking a world-class defence.
What is the realistic aim for Australia at World Cup 2018 and why?
Van Marwijk has been tasked by Football Federation Australia with navigating the group stage, with a berth in the knockouts considered a success for the Socceroos. But faced with three opponents ranked in the world’s top 12, only the most optimistic of supporters might consider that a likely proposition.
Still, it’s a less daunting group than that a World Cup 2014, where Australia drew Spain, the Netherlands and Chile. If Van Marwijk can instil a simple shared vision and sense of purpose in his players, there is no reason why the Socceroos can’t look to upset one or more of their more vaunted opponents.