Alex Wilkinson: Socceroos belong at this level
Socceroo defender Alex Wilkinson says the next game against Netherlands is "going to be tough", while first-choice right back Ivan Franjic admits his World Cup is over.PT2M17S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3a6lh 620 349 June 16, 2014
If the Netherlands can put five past the world champions, what hope Australia? Granted, it will require something special for the Socceroos to extend their unbeaten run against the Dutch but – strange as it sounds – don't rule it out.
The Oranje have spent the past couple of days bathing in the glory of their spectacular win against Spain, and rightly so. It was as clinical as it was unexpected. A triumph of tactics for Louis van Gaal and a coronation of sorts for Arjen Robben, champing at the bit to put himself in the pantheon after an injury-interrupted season with Bayern Munich.
Robben has always been a good player, now he can become a great one. His second goal was the complete package – speed to get past Sergio Ramos despite conceding a five-metre head start, strength to pivot and work the ball onto his left foot, and composure to stroke it into what became an empty net.
Diving force: Robin van Persie heads home in the Netherlands' demolition of Spain. Photo: AP
In the end it was five, but it could have been seven or eight. Ominous not just for Australia, but for the World Cup as a whole. A team that has lost three World Cup finals arrived in Brazil with less than the usual fanfare and ructions over van Gaal's controversial decision to tinker with the time-honoured 4-3-3 formation. Vindication came in Salvador for both coach and players, and then some.
And yet slivers of hope for the Socceroos emerged from the rainstorm at the Arena Fonte Nova, and if they're focused enough, and have recovered well enough from their exertions in Cuiaba, there could be something to grab onto in Porto Alegre. In many ways this was a very British win for the Dutch, something which can conceivably play into Australia's hands.
Notably, the first three Dutch goals came from balls over the top. Two lessons for Australia: put pressure on the delivery, and be physical in the contest. That's about effort, and commitment – things which were once second-nature to Australian players. They're qualities Ange Postecoglou has devoted plenty of time to reinstalling in his dressing room.
The bigger, more complex, task, is to respond to whichever system van Gaal chooses to employ. If it's the 3-5-2 used against Spain, Postecoglou may consider the value of playing deeper in defence in order to create more room in what would otherwise be a super-crowded midfield. The brutal truth is Australia will struggle to keep possession if it becomes hand-to-hand combat.
The potential benefit for Australia if the Dutch persevere with this system is that the wide players used by van Gaal – Daley Blind on the left and Daryl Janmaat on the right – showed little inclination to get over the top against the Spanish. That may give the Socceroos' fullbacks time and energy to be more positive in attack which, in turn, should help Tim Cahill get the service he requires.
If the Dutch instead adopt a 4-4-2 – a switch which van Gaal has hinted at for the game against Australia – it gets simpler for the Socceroos, and suits the 4-2-3-1 Postecoglou prefers. Key issues in this scenario will be defending against Robin van Persie in the air, and meeting the ball-winning challenge of Holland's 'bruise brothers' Nigel de Jong and Jonathan de Guzman, thus minimising the service to the dangerman Robben.
This may sound more reactive than proactive, but there's no shame in that. Catching the Dutch on the bounce from a win that sent shock waves through the world requires careful consideration. Recovering mentally from the disappointment of the so-near-and-yet-so-far performance against Chile is another element of the equation.
A couple of harsh lessons from Cuiaba, particularly in one-on-one defending, need to be learned if the Socceroos are to make it a contest in Porto Alegre. But they've already shown they're learning quickly under Postecoglou, and are willing to adapt. One win in five games (including friendlies) under the new coach may suggest slow progress. Truth is, it's been anything but.