Australian soccer has always been slightly uncertain of itself. It stems from years of being the nation’s “backwater” sport, marginalized as a pastime for migrants who were “afraid” of the other more physical football codes such as rugby league, union, and AFL.
The national soccer league was plagued by administration and crowd issues and eventually scrapped in 2005 for the franchise-based A-League, where any links to the sport’s checkered past were abolished in favor of a shiny, idealistic future. Throughout this turbulence, the Socceroos have always painted themselves as plucky underdogs, fighting against their diminished place in the national sporting landscape.
This mindset of inferiority also stems from years of disappointment in World Cup qualification. They have been robbed, unlucky, and sometimes just plain bad across several decades of staring into the international abyss. Even after defying the odds to break a 32-year drought to not only qualify but perform well at the 2006 World Cup, the national team still cast itself as victims.
For many years under different coaches, this was characterized by a conservative, defense-first approach befitting of their assumed role as little guys in the world’s biggest sport.
It is within this context that Ange Postecoglou found himself when appointed manager following the sacking of Holger Osieck in the aftermath of two dismal 6-0 defeats to France and Brazil in September 2013, just nine months out from a World Cup for which Australia had qualified. Postecoglou’s mantra right from the start was to rejuvenate the squad and change the mentality of the team.
This was clear from his first press conference. “I've been a little bit frustrated by our constant painting a picture of a team that's not good enough, a league that's not good enough, players that are not good enough,” he said. “Regardless of the state of the game — and it's been a lot worse than it is right now — we've never taken a backward step.”
Right from the start, “never take a backward step” has been the motto of Postecoglou’s Socceroos. Quite literally, from the kick-off of their first match in the new regime, the team went forward, signaling their new intent. In the build up to the 2014 World Cup, Postecoglou went about doing things his way: employing a new backroom staff to “transform the environment into a world class one,” making dramatic squad selections to cull the last of a Golden Generation in favor of several younger, locally based players and developing what he called a “modern, aggressive, and attacking” style of football befitting of their new motto.
The changes were most evident at the 2014 World Cup, where Australia was drawn into the same pool as defending champions Spain, eventual semifinalists the Netherlands and the hipsters’ favourites, Chile. Even against top-class opposition, Postecoglou was not shirked.
He encouraged his side to constantly play on the front foot. They always pressed high, attacking quickly from advanced positions on the pitch, and in build-up play, tried to work the ball forward quickly and effectively from the back. Three defeats suggested a poor tournament, but Postecoglou’s constant remit was that this World Cup was all about building a new future with a younger generation of players who are playing a truly Australian way.
The “true” Australian way, in Postecoglou’s eyes, was a team that was aggressive and proactive. There was no place for shrinking violets. Over the next six months, Postecoglou continued to impose this mindset on an ever-changing squad. Throughout the course of his tenure, he has used some 50-odd-plus players in a bid to increase the depth of the team, give players the opportunity to learn the new style and expose some players who may have been struggling at club level to potential new suitors.
Everything up to this point, however, was really about succeeding at the Asian Cup in 2015, which Australia was hosting. Postecoglou was aware that winning the tournament would not only be a landmark moment for the national team, but also an unprecedented opportunity to convert fans who had drifted away from football in previous years to a new era of dominant, attack-minded football.
Emboldened by the occasion, the Socceroos triumphed in dramatic fashion, winning the final in extra-time against South Korea. It was a landmark moment — Australia’s first major trophy in international football — and justification for Postecoglou’s daring revolution.
After all, the journey had not always been easy. At every stage, Postecoglou and his players have faced criticism. The selection of players sometimes not playing regularly or even being club-less has raised eyebrows. Additionally, not everyone shares Postecoglou’s stubborn belief in the ability of the squad and his unwavering vision that they always play the creative, dynamic brand of modern football he craves.
Yet throughout his reign, the team has always exhibited the core principles of his preferred style of play. When in possession, it is all about going forward — players must be positioned where they can face forward and play forward, particularly in midfield. This allows the team to play as vertically as possible, with center-backs and even the goalkeeper encouraged to break defensive lines with penetrating forward passes.
The aim is always to get one of a creative playmaker, such as Tom Rogic of Celtic or Aaron Mooy of Huddersfield Town, on the ball facing forward between the lines. From these positions, penetration in the final third comes from out wide, with the wide players encouraged to cut inside toward goal with the knowledge the fullbacks will get forward and deliver dangerous balls early into the box if they receive out wide.
At the heart of it all, Postecoglou’s philosophy is about penetration, creativity and playing forward. These have been the core concepts that have underpinned every step of the evolution of the team, and particularly, the formation. Originally starting with a 4-2-1-3, he then flipped the midfield triangle at the Asian Cup to a 4-3-3 to fit a second No. 10 into his team. As creative young players such as Massimo Luongo of QPR broke through, Postecoglou saw the need to change to a 4-4-2 diamond. The next step has been the most drastic, with Postecoglou changing to a 3-2-4-1 formation on the eve of a recent World Cup qualifier against Iraq.
This radical new system — where the wingbacks are positioned high in line with two No. 10s, making the defense a true back three — is the result of indifferent performances in recent matches, where Australia have struggled against teams defending deep and have lacked the usual pace and intensity that characterize their style of play.
From Postecoglou’s point of view, the new formation embodies all the key principles of his philosophy, but from the public’s perspective, it’s simply too attack-minded. With the back three often overloaded on the counter-attack, it is hard to disagree — especially after a 4-0 rout at the hands of Brazil in a friendly.
However, Postecoglou’s success stemmed from his stubbornness. Right from the start, he swam against the tide, daring to believe Australian football was capable of more than the underdog status it had carved out for itself. That is why, at the outset of this Confederations Cup, he has said publicly that "we want to win it mate,” exemplifying his ambition. "I'm not going to coach in between, just notch up a stint for my country as a coach flat-lining. Let's go there and see what we can do.”
That sums up his personality and the change in attitude he has fostered in a team for so long playing on the back burner of international football.