05/03/2024

Ajdin Hrustic in training for the match against UAE. (Credit: Socceroos.com)

The Socceroos' have a must-win match against the UAE on June 8th. This is how Graham Arnold should approach this massive game.

It’s one of the biggest games in Australian Football history. In what has been a turbulent 24 months for Australian football, it is imperative that the Socceroos qualify for the World Cup. To do so, they must get through the UAE in their first playoff match.

The Socceroos and the UAE have plenty of history in competitive matches. Starting from 2015 when Ange Postecoglou’s men knocked UAE out of the 2015 Asian Cup, on their way to winning the trophy for the first time in the country’s history.

However, the UAE returned the favour four years later, as an Ali Ahmed Mabkhout strike with 22 minutes to play crushed the hearts of Australians, as they saw their attempt to retain the Asian Cup crushed.

From a Socceroos’ perspective, they must approach the game in the correct manner.

The match will be played in Doha, with temperatures potentially reaching as high as 33 degrees Celsius at the time of kick-off. This is going to have a massive impact on how Graham Arnold instructs his team to play.

The worst thing that the Socceroos can do is allow the UAE to have the lion’s share of possession. The United Arab Emirates has had more than 50 per cent possession in seven of its ten matches this qualification campaign.

Couple this with the heat factor, the worst thing the Socceroos can do is allow the UAE to control the ball, dictate the tempo of the match, and make them chase shadows, tiring them out and being able to overrun them.

The best course of action for Australia is to fight fire with fire. Control possession and play a methodical and systematic game that can break down the United Arab Emirates defence. The UAE has not scored or conceded more than two goals in a game this qualification campaign, showing that they are very good at not getting into see-sawing, end-to-end affairs built on momentum.

Making the UAE uncomfortable and putting them into a position where they haven’t been too often, will be the best course of action for the Socceroos in getting the much-needed victory.

The question is, how do the Socceroos go about deploying this game style?

Putting the strange switch to the 4-4-2 to one side, Australia’s system is a 4-2-3-1. This formation suits the squad to near perfection due to the versatility it offers.

Out of possession, the Socceroos slot back into a 4-4-2, with the attacking midfielder playing as a second striker, with the wingers dropping back in line with the midfield double-pivot.

In possession, the system maintains a similar shape, however with a very key advanced difference. Instead of the wingers being in line with the midfield double pivot, they move in line with the two forwards, with the full-backs taking their place. Thus creating a system that setups as a 2-4-4.

This system is heavily reliant on the centre-backs to play the ball out from the back and be able to act as the first line of attack. This system aims to have patient build-up in the initial stages of the attack, before increasing the tempo as the ball is moved into the advanced areas.

Due to the nature of this system, this allows for overloads in attacking areas. In some cases, making it a four vs four with the opposition defence at the attack. Apart from this creating a man-on-man style, which doesn’t require any tactical nous, and succeeding with this system is all about individual ability, this also puts heavy emphasis on the defensive work from the opposition wingers, something that can be exploited through overlapping runs from the wing-backs.

Furthermore, due to the overloads that can present from this heavily offensive system, this can open up space in the half-space and in-between the lines, space that can be exploited through a third man run coming in from deep.

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Taking all of this tactical and systematic information into consideration, the line-up that the Socceroos should set up needs to be deliberately chosen to suit the system and the way it should be deployed.

Considering the high-possession, methodical way that this system more often than not is suited to, the players that are comfortable on the ball and have the ability to both take risks and recycle possession must be first on the team sheet.

This game suits the likes of Gianni Stensness, Nathaniel Atkinson, and Jason Davidson perfectly. With the former in particularly establishing himself as Australia’s best ball-playing centre back. Atkinson and Davidson have both had fantastic seasons with their clubs, and they would be perfect playing a system that needs their full-backs to get higher up the pitch. These three defenders should join Trent Sainsbury in the back four.

With the absence of Tom Rogic, the midfield conundrum that has plagued Graham Arnold this campaign has now become very clear. Ajdin Hrustic should move into the number 10 position, and Jackson Irvine should partner Aaron Mooy in midfield. This allows for the perfect balance of creativity, endurance, and playmaking, making this the most balanced midfield that the Socceroos can put out.

The front line picks itself, as Awer Mabil and Martin Boyle are the two best wingers in the squad, and Jamie Maclaren has the prolific instinct that could prove to be invaluable in games like these. This leaves the likes of Denis Genreau, Marco Tilio, Matthew Leckie, and Nick D’Agostino to come off the bench and provide some x-factor.

Should the Socceroos get through the UAE, they will face Peru with a chance to qualify for their fifth World Cup in a row. 

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