Crunch time. Australia face Syria in what might not sound like an earth-shattering clash of the titans, but for both sides it is make or break.
Australia notoriously moved into Asia’s World Cup Qualifying groups with hopes of a greater chance of progression – instead, it promises to be one of the most difficult qualification routes in decades.
When Guus Hiddink triumphantly led the Socceroos to their first World Cup in 32 years, in 2005, the Aussies were still in Oceania and had to face the fifth-best team in South America.
On that occasion, Diego Forlan’s Uruguay were the opponents, and they were bested on penalties in Sydney. It was famous, it meant everything to the hosts, and national icons were born that day.
Fast forward 12 years, and the future of Australian football is looking somewhat bleak.
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Skip the 2006 greats, the 2010 failure, the 2014 group of death and we arrive at the here and now.
Ange Postecoglou’s men squandered the chance to confirm their place in the World Cup 2018 when they notched 45 shots against the Group B whipping boys Thailand.
On that astonishing match in September, the Aussies scored a late winner when they needed to win by at least three goals to give themselves a chance of automatic progression.
So it is that Postecoglou and co were faced the chastening task of self-assessment ahead of the crunch tie against Syria.
And if they emerge victorious? Another two-legged fixture; and as it stands it could be the USA who take on Asia’s winner.
Where did it all go wrong?
Beating Thailand, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq at home and drawing with Japan seems a promising set of results but it was the unconvincing, flimsy performances in a new formation which sowed the seeds for this particular mishap.
The quality of teams in Asia is often overviewed, especially in away conditions, and the controlled, rapid counter-attacking pace of Saudi Arabia will be certain to cause a headache or two in Russia.
Add the UAE and Iraq’s ability to cause an upset to the mix, alongside the quality of Japan, and it was never going to be a breeze for the Australians.
Nonetheless, the Socceroos still boasted an experienced squad and having done most of the job at home, it was their away form which was an obvious source of distress.
Draws in Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Iraq, to be blunt.
But the root cause? The manager’s inability to be adaptable.
The Greek-born coach was brought in to embed a fluid, aesthetically-pleasing style of football in Australian culture. A low-budget Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola imitation.
And like most cheap items, or even movies, it’s developing into one hell of a horror show.
Postecoglou made his name domestically for successfully developing players and playing a delightful brand of football at Brisbane Roar, before a brief spell at Melbourne Victory.
It was that success that led him to the Socceroos role. But in a bid to replicate that, following the misfortune of being grouped with Chile, Netherlands and former world champions Spain in Brazil, he met his downfall.
In early 2017, with the Aussies in a decent enough position for qualification, he introduced the system. What happened next? A 1-1 draw with Iraq.
“I’ve sat here for three-and-a-half years and I haven’t changed in anything I’ve said I was going to do,” Postecoglou said after that game.
“I expect to be held accountable for what I say and the kind of football we want to play. But it seems I’ve been held accountable for doing what I said I’d do this week – that’s the bit I struggle with.
“Maybe if it was a foreign coach we’d all sit back and say, `what a genius he is, he’s coming up with new ways to challenge these guys’.”
If it had been confined to that international break, we’d have moved on by now. But he stuck to his guns, and it hasn’t worked. A foreign coach? You’ve got to be kidding. Perhaps now he would be more contrite about that cynical attack.
As Postecoglou alluded to, football loves a good revolutionary. Guardiola himself changed the game when his Barcelona side swept all before them. Antonio Conte made the 3-5-2 system fashionable when his Chelsea stormed the league last season.
But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, tried and tested is best. It’s why Tim Cahill still has a pivotal role with the Aussies. It’s also why he needs to re-assess his system.
The 52-year-old has implemented a 3-2-4-1 formation with his charges which has not worked. No ifs, no buts. It has left Australia weak and lost. Oh, and vulnerable.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the players are out-of-sorts. A 37-year-old Cahill, as professional as ever, has been dropped in favour of Tomi Juric who was profligacy personified in the Thailand match.
Australia do need to look to a future without former Everton talisman Cahill and the FC Luzern man might well be the right long-term choice, he’s certainly shown the promise.
But there are players which Postecoglou should be building a team around – the likes of Celtic star Tom Rogic and Premier League new-boy Aaron Mooy.
As it is, it seems as though the manager is just squashing them into his system, making them work to the formation like a child trying to force shapes into the wrong holes.
Instead of maximising their effectiveness, he’s persisting with the unworkable and it is not doing anyone any favours.
If the Socceroos are to emerge from this campaign still in the World Cup, it will be no thanks to the devilishly rogue formation Postecoglou has set his men.
Before then, before the Syria tie, he must make amends for that extraordinarily damaging formation, he has to resort for the safety before innovation.