The Socceroos lost a crucial world cup qualifier last week, drawing 1-1 with Iraq in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Failing to secure the three points despite going up 1-0 has left the Socceroos in a precarious position as they look to qualify for their fourth successive World Cup. Eyebrows were raised before the match when the lineups were released, with Ange Postecoglou setting the team up in quite an unconventional formation. It seemed like an attempt to shoehorn Australia’s best talent into the team rather than playing a more conventional system which would have forced Ange to utilise weaker players. Australia were quite poor throughout the match with Iraq failing to make their most of the opportunities, eventually sparing Australia of defeat. Social media circles were quite critical of Ange after the game. The A-League subreddit provided some of the best material. The most upvoted (or popular) comments after the match included gems such as:
“If we don’t get the 3 points on Tuesday, I will 100% be calling for Ange to be sacked. Even Holger Osieck managed to get us direct qualification.”
“I think if Ange wasn’t Australian he’d be sacked by now. Uninspiring tactically”
“we were way too exposed on the wings and too much rooms in between the lines in midfield, coupled with the poor effort on second balls, awful passing and crossing. Not even mentioning how isolated Juric was. You gotta put a lot of blame on Ange for tonight”
“We were lucky to get a point out of that shit show. Both Kruse and Leckie were absolute garbage (Leckie less so because of the goal), piss poor decision-making and shocking final product left our attack floundering. But ultimately Ange has to cop the blame for the poor result, he chose to play that ridiculous formation and play Kruse and Leckie essentially as wingbacks when they’re clearly not suited to the role.”
“Would we be better off just sacking Ange right now? Of course we’d have to get a decent coach to replace him””
After six matches, the only team Thailand has gotten any points from is Australia, and Iraq has only gotten points from Australia and Thailand. We are dire”
Some of the comments focus more on supposed tactical ineptness and they are fair points. The most pressing concern however, is the general quality of Australian footballing talent at the moment. It is fair enough to point the finger at Ange and say his tactics weren’t right, but it is imperative to also analyse the quality of players he has at his disposal, who pale in comparison to the quality Australia possessed in their previous three World Cup campaigns. Note that qualifying for a World Cup is difficult. Very difficult. We as a football nation almost seem to take qualifying for a World Cup as a given now, not accepting that it sometimes may not happen. This desire and ambition to make World Cups and the high standards now placed on the national team are a sign of how far Australian football has come in the last few decades but each World Cup campaign needs to be analysed independently. It is quite unfair to hold Ange to the exact same standard as previous managers, when they had far better squads to work with (Holger Osieck is the exception with the quality at his disposal not much better than Ange’s.).
If you have ever read Soccernomics or Money and Soccer: A Soccernomics Guide, you will be well aware with the great extent to which player quality appears to be a factor in determining success in football. For example, 61% of a teams success in the English Premier League (seasons 2003-2012) was explained solely by the size of their wage bill, which is quite absurd. This is just using the correlation between wage spending and finishing position which does not necessarily imply causation but it is an alarming statistic nonetheless. A proposed figure for management influence on finishing position is significantly less. The Numbers Game cautiously suggested that managers don’t have that much influence on results; maybe between 5% and 30% of a team’s finishing position can be explained by the manager. These numbers have been obtained after analysing data across multiple seasons consisting over at least 30 games, so it will not perfectly translate to international football, but it goes some way to explaining what determines the result of a football match. International football is prone to more random variation though, as teams play far less games than in a league competition. Back to player quality though, if you look at the Socceroos squad over time it becomes quite clear that there has been a severe drop in quality and by extension the wages they would receive (if you were to adjust for inflation in football wages).
The 2006 World Cup squad boasted 20 European-based players, of which 17 were playing top flight football. This included the likes of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton and Mark Schwarzer plying their trade in the English Premier League. There has been a slow decline over time of Australians playing in top European leagues, down to 12 for the 2014 World Cup squad, and 13 in this month’s Socceroos squad. There is also a decline in those playing top-tier European football as well; only 7 of the 13 current European Socceroos play top-tier football, and not in the most reputable leagues either. Trent Sainsbury warms the bench for Inter Milan, Brad Smith shares the same fate at Bournemouth. Mathew Leckie might be the ‘best’ having played regularly in the Bundesliga, while Tomi Juric has struggled to score in the Swiss league. Mathew Ryan struggled for gametime at Valencia and has moved backed to Belgium. It is not great reading when you contrast it to the multitude of Australians regularly plying their trade in top European leagues in past World Cup campaigns.
Playing time is not an issue though. There may be a few Australians warming the benches across Europe these days, but Ange generally likes to pick players who are playing at least some football. Indeed if you look at the second table, the average number of league appearances for players in the Socceroos squad has not really changed over time. The current Socceroos squad have played 538 league matches in the 2016/17 season if you adjust for a full-length season. This is no better or worse than the 2006 and 2010 squads. Only the 2014 squad really stands out. This probably just reinforces the point that the quality is just not there. It is not for lack of playing time that the Socceroos falter, rather it is a lack of quality. Players may be playing the same amount, but they are playing in lower standard leagues.
All is not doom and gloom though. Ange could still quite easily steer his men to qualification with all things going to plan. We still have the chance to take three points off of each of the top two teams in Saudi Arabia and Japan. Furthermore, three of our last four World Cup qualifiers are to be played at home, while we also have the Confederations Cup to play in June 2017 against Germany, Cameroon and Chile. This might just be the perfect preparation for a do or die qualifier away to Japan on the 31st of August. Here’s hoping Ange and his men can do it because a World Cup without Australia will be a little less entertaining.
The 2018 World Cup squad in the tables is given as the most recent Socceroos squad. Their League appearances have been adjusted for a full seasons length, as they have not yet completed a full season.
Most of the data was obtained off Wikipedia so it may be incorrect in places. Data for the recent Socceroos squad was sourced from http://www.transfermarkt.com however, so I can assure you this data is definitely correct.
If you were wondering who the only player in the first table is who was based in ‘Other,’ it was Tim Cahill playing for New York Red Bulls in 2014.
Mark Milligan played just 10 A-League games prior to being selected for the 2006 World Cup. If you fail to remember what the quality of the A-League was like in its inauguration, watch this.
Ange opted to select players who had played a decent amount of football for the 2014 World Cup. He made one exception: Mark Bresciano (11 league appearances in the 2013/14 season)