5 March 2009

Low Point

A brief return to make a few comments about the low point of Pim Verbeek's tenure tonight in Australia's 0-1 loss to a very spirited and quite fabulous Kuwait.

I should say I'm a fan of Verbeek. He's tactically astute, got us prepared for Asia, pulled out the necessary results and even managed to be quite humorous at times.

But I think he might need a team of experienced and savvy players at his side who understand his requirements and can execute accordingly, i.e. the marvelous internationally-based technical virtuosos who comprise our 'A' team, particularly Grella, Bresciano, Culina, Emerton, Neill, Kewell.

The A-League just doesn't seem to be a good breeding ground for the technical, thinking players that Verbeek needs on the pitch to execute his chosen methods. He needs a young Ned Zelic or Paul Okon in the heart of midfield, someone who can routinely think their way through a 90-minute performance and guide the rest of the team. On the basis of tonight's performance, Craig Moore's body just won't follow his mind fast enough any more, which is sad but not entirely unexpected. Reid is a decent punter who makes good decisions, but he seems to find it hard to get the ball moving and he's certainly no general. Archie tries, but he's an enigma whose best skills erupt in a flash, not as a result of careful build-up, planning and execution. McKay dashes about and seems to have a handle on the situation, but he doesn't seem able to inspire or provide that killer final ball. At least Vargas approaches the sublime aura of someone like Milan Ivanovic, something you yearn for in your backline. But it's not enough. Going forward is where the cracks start to appear in Verbeek's troops, at least insofar as the way they go about adopting Pim's systematic approach.

In response to the obvious lack in the league's technical acumen, Pim seems to be trying to build something afresh, a new generation who can embrace the challenge and learn to appreciate his highly thoughtful approach to the game. Tonight he may have learnt an awful lot about the capacity of some individuals to respond to his erudite, laudable (but perhaps misguided at this moment in time) agenda.

Whatever the reasons - Kuwait's excellent break-up and counter-attacking play chief among them - tonight we witnessed an utter meltdown of the Verbeek system, which several times has teetered on the edge of failure but not finally spluttered to a void of hopeless nothingness until now.

It's not panic stations yet, but it seems fairly obvious that the experiment cannot continue over the next few matches and some alternatives will need to be re-examined.

In my mind, Travis Dodd has been very hard done by. Here, we have a dynamite player, man of the match last time out versus Kuwait, certainly leads and inspires, can achieve the brilliant at important moments, and has every physical asset Pim ostensibly admires in the so-called 'modern' athletic player: explosive speed, big leap, powerful shot, bit of a dribble, strength in the challenge. Yet he's been stranded for some peculiar reason. Is it his lack of defensive energy? Proneness to lapses of concentration? Bouts of stray passing?

After tonight, potential excuses thrown at Dodd can surely be put to the wayside. There are at least 5 or 6 players who made it on the pitch against Kuwait who clearly and self-evidently have deficiencies that equally preclude them from instant success in Pim's system. I won't go into them because I'm sure there'll be more than enough negativity about the team's performance found elsewhere.

So, here's my plea to a boss I will continue to like and respect. Keep it positive, keep it real, but put Travis in the squad for goodness sake.

4 July 2008

Team for Beijing

Okay so here it is:









It seems that Arnold has gone for adaptability with his three over-age selections, current or recent A-Leaguers North, Carney and Thompson. Given that both McClenahan and Topor-Stanley have been selected, I imagine Carney will be used in the left or right attacking forward position in a 4-2-3-1, probably with Troisi on the other flank.

The selection of Archie was a bigger surprise than either North or Carney. He's still getting over a knee injury and has hardly impressed in his brief recent appearances. He'll fit into the team's on- and off-the-park dynamic okay, though.

Given the abundance of decent centre halfs and Arnold's previous strategies, Milligan might be pushed in front of the back four to partner Musialik. Or he could even play right-back, much as he is known to dislike the position. The only viable alternative is North, but I suspect he'll be asked to mark the likes of Aguero and Drogba. (EDIT: My contempt for Zadkid precluded my consideration of him on the right side of defence. I guess he'll start for sure.) Milligan may also lose the captaincy if Arnie decides to hand North the responsibility.

Strangely, Arnold hasn't opted for any midfielder possessing great flair or match-breaking ability, which could be a weakness. Nathan Burns' move to Greece probably ruled him out. Kaz Patafta has barely played of late. James Holland looked a bit raw and out of sorts against China, but even so his absence is a bit strange. Nick Ward hasn't been a major presence in that regard (but then again neither has Celeski). Sarkies would appear to be main candidate to fill the hole behind the lone striker, which could be fine if he plays at his very best. Otherwise . . . .

The selection of Zadkovich is a bit on an irritation. His capacity to play just about anywhere has helped him gain favour, I think, but he seems to lack the discipline, mentality and maturity to succeed among the very best.

I'm happier with the selections of Federici, McClenahan and Rukavytsya. The latter was the natural choice to take Bruce Djite's place in the squad. Djite like Burns will arguably gain more from training with his new club in Turkey than joining the team in Beijing at an important juncture in his career. Maybe the decision to overlook David Williams was similarly motivated, with Brondby facing UEFA Cup matches in July and August.

30 June 2008

Olympian Challenge

Assuming Graham Arnold selects the full complement of 3 over-age players in his 18-strong squad for the Olympics, there're only 15 spots up for grabs for the current U-23s.

Speculation over the 3 hasn't exactly been rife, but Kewell, Schwarzer and Holman have been mentioned as likely candidates. Each may be with a new club and hence will have a strong reason not to go. Bresciano, Sterjovski, Culina, North, Joel Griffiths, Vargas, Covic could just as easily be among Arnold's thoughts.

Assuming he takes an over-age goalkeeper, defender and striker, here's the 15 I would select to join them:


Velaphi - backup; only 2 goalies needed in a squad of 18


Topor-Stanley - probably a touch more versatile than McClenahan


N. Burns - has to go, surely
Ward - over Kilkenny and Sarkies
Broxham - one of the few mids who can perform fullback duties in a pinch



23 June 2008

Draw Mechanics

Just glossing over the AFC draw and schedule for Round Four World Cup qualification, it seems Australia will have a fortunate run for the crucial final three matches in June next year, with an easier away game preceding two home games.

Seeded in the first pot (along with South Korea, who consequently we will avoid), Australia's group foes will be determined on 27 June from the following qualifiers:

Pot 2 (one of):
  • Iran
  • Japan (or Saudi Arabia)
Pot 3 (one of):
  • Saudi Arabia (or Japan)
  • Bahrain
Pot 4 (two of):
  • Uzbekistan
  • North Korea
  • UAE
  • Qatar

The schedule for Australia will be:

Match Day 1 - 6 September 2008 - bye
Match Day 2 - 10 September 2008 - away vs first pot 4 team
Match Day 3 - 15 October 2008 - home vs second pot 4 team
Match Day 4 - 19 November 2008 - away vs pot 3 team
Match Day 5 - 11 February 2009 - away vs pot 2 team
Match Day 6 - 28 March 2009 - bye
Match Day 7 - 1 April 2009 - home vs first pot 4 team
Match Day 8 - 6 June 2009 - away vs second pot 4 team
Match Day 9 - 10 June 2009 - home vs pot 3 team
Match Day 10 - 17 June 2009 - home vs pot 2 team

The difficult period with two tough away games on Match Days 4 & 5 at least offers our European stars a lighter travel predicament mid-season. No jetting back to Australia with 36 hours recuperation. The two games are also nicely separated from one another by a period of three months. Even better, our run through June next year minimises travel (the first away match offers the potential of a pre-match camp just a short hop from Europe) and allows home support to become a major influence should the matches still be important for us to win (pretty darn likely).

Such are the virtues of being a top seed, I guess.

Ten Remain

Here are the ten AFC teams advancing to the final round of qualification for the World Cup, with current FIFA and Elo rankings in parentheses:

Australia (35 FIFA; 40 Elo)
Japan (38; 23)
Korea Republic (45; 43)
Iran (48; 29)
Saudi Arabia (54; 44)
Uzbekistan (58; 47)
Bahrain (72; 74)
Qatar (83; 76)
United Arab Emirates (95; 92)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (118; 69)

From this, the task of qualifying looks simpler for Australia (on paper) if we draw at least two of Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and North Korea in our group of five while avoiding Japan.

During Round Three of qualifying, Bahrain defeated Japan and North Korea did not concede a single goal, so it seems to me that the most fortunate draw we could hope would include Qatar and the UAE in our group. That might mean difficult weather conditions for the away games, but it might be easier to deal with a bit of heat rather than one team that almost qualified for the last World Cup (Bahrain) and another that involves visiting one of the most reclusive nations on the planet (North Korea).

20 June 2008

Nice Surprises

One thing I love about the Verbeek era is the opportunity he has been happy to provide to younger players and established old hands who deserve a chance to bloom late. And we're not just talking about those players whose reputations precede them. While Verbeek seems to have time for the likes of Milligan, Sarkies, Nathan Burns, he's been far more generous with his selections to a range of other players:

  • throwing lifelines to Coyne, Vargas, Petkovic; Jedinak
  • thoroughly establishing 'potential guys' like Holman and Valeri in the squad
  • hauling into the spotlight starlets who not so long ago were quite secondary to the aforementioned group of young guns: Holland, Topor-Stanley, Musialik, Zadkovich, Spiranovic, Djite, and, above all, Troisi.

When you consider that we've still got Patafta, Vidosic, Leijer and other previously heralded guys coming through (and probably now having to make up a bit of ground on the others), the future of the national team seems to be in a fair state at the very least.

The experience being given to both the younger players and the older, wiser lot, suggests pretty careful risk management and multi-level goal-setting on the coaching staff's behalf. Yes, we've got to think about the World Cup qualifiers and the squad for the finals of the tournament if we make it that far, but we've also got to think about the logistics of friendly internationals (with our 'home' locations on either side of the planet), other important tournaments (the Asian Cup, the Olympics, various youth championships) and of course the long-term future.

I still think we're yet to find the next 20-something up-and-comer who waltzes into the squad and changes the composition of the starting team (ala Tim Cahill or Jason Culina in recent years, or even Scott Chipperfield, in a sense). But maybe 'find' is not the right word. We've probably already seen who the next big thing is but they're yet to establish themselves on a regular basis. Maybe it's McDonald. Or David Carney might just keep getting better. I don't know. But the squad seems about ready to accommodate a riser. I'm not sure it'll be an 18-year old. Historically our players don't seem to bloom until they're in their early-20s. Kewell was a massive exception. But who knows? It'd sure be a nice surprise.

13 June 2008

Measuring Success

The Asian Football Confederation's recent assessment of its member associations' professional leagues makes for interesting reading.

Each association has been graded across ten different areas to arrive at a score out of 500.

Unsurprisingly, Japan has the highest scoring association in Asia, with a score of 470.1 and the best score in every category except for the "technical standard" of its football (scoring 82.4 out of 100). Here, the Korea Republic triumphs (scoring 94.8).

Australia fares quite poorly in the assessment, scoring 306.0.

Compared with the top three (Japan, the Korea Republic and China), Australia is left behind in terms of its organisation, technical standard, governance/soundness, business scale and media. Business scale, especially, is a category where Australia loses out quite significantly in comparison to the big three in East Asia. Presumably this has something to do with the smaller size of our national population and the relatively tiny Australian diaspora, factors that restrict the potential amount of earnings from TV rights, sponsorship and merchandise. (On the other hand, match attendance is an assessment category in which Australia scores quite well.)

The low organisation score for Australia is a factor of the A-League's new beginning. With only eight teams in the league and no promotion and relegation structure in place, there is room to improve this score steadily over the coming years.

For Australia to score just 12.5 out of 50 in governance/soundness is rather provocative and suggestive of the level of esteem that our corporate structure is held within the Confederation. Only Singapore scores lower than Australia in this category, while Hong Kong, India, Uzbekistan, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan all share an identical score.

A supporting document spells out the problem areas for Australia within the governance category. As listed below, most of the criteria are concerned with the absence of clear legal separation between the activities of the country's professional league (i.e. the A-League) and it's governing body (the FFA):

  • The league governing body must be a legal entity owned governed by its football association
  • The league governing body must have a management structure that controls competition, marketing, media and finance
  • The executive committee of the league must contain representatives from (a) the clubs, (b) the football association and (c) league management
  • The league CEO must be engaged full-time
  • The league must have an audited profit & loss statement and balance sheet
  • The league must have an auditor

The signal is quite clear: independence, transparency and accountability are very important to the AFC.

While it's hard to see how we can improve our business scale score, gains in our organisation and governance scores may provide the few extra points we need to obtain an extra team or two in the Asian Champions League and additional leverage in any other sense, presuming the AFC's assessment methodology becomes a standardised instrument for decision making.

But the gains in other categories could be doubled if we can improve the perception of Australian football's technical standard. Scoring just 51.3 out of 100 we are a long way behind our major competitors. To put the score in perspective, here's the hierarchy as it currently stands:

Korea Republic - 94.8
Japan - 82.4
Saudi Arabia - 78.8
Iran - 69.6
China - 61.5
Uzbekistan - 59.5
United Arab Emirates - 53.7
Australia - 51.3
Jordan - 51.2
Syria - 49.1
Qatar - 46.4
Bahrain - 46.4
Oman - 42.1
Singapore - 40.5
Kuwait - 34.6
Thailand - 33.0
Hong Kong - 30.9
Vietnam - 26.9
Indonesia - 24.4
India - 23.1
Malaysia - 19.4

It's both a little bit alarming and kind of hard to argue with. My only gripe: for all the AFC's ambitions to be more transparent, I haven't found any evidence of how these technical standard scores were arrived at. While they might seem 'about right', I have no idea what they're based on and it would be very interesting to be privy to any studies, statistics or whatever else went into their fabrication.