The Road to Rio #2: The first squad

The Socceroos kick off their World Cup qualifying campaign tomorrow night when they tackle Thailand in Brisvegas. So I decided to run my eye over the squad selected by Holger Osieck for this very important game. This squad will also travel to Saudi Arabia to play the second qualifier four days later. The squad (in alphabetical order) is:

Alex Brosque (Scott McDonald originally named, but ruled out with injury)
Tim Cahill
Nathan Coe
Luke DeVere
Brett Emerton
Adam Federici
Brett Holman
Mile Jedinak
Josh Kennedy
Neil Kilkenny
Robbie Kruse
Matt McKay
Mark Milligan
Lucas Neill
Sasa Ognenovski
Adam Sarota
Mark Schwarzer
Matthew Spiranovic
James Troisi
Carl Valeri
Luke Wilkshire
Rhys Williams
Michael Zullo

There are really no surprises in the squad. Some mention has been made of the fact that there was no place for Vince Grella or Marco Bresciano. I was unsure if they were retired or no longer putting their hands up for selection. However media reports this week have stated that they are both now back in the mix, with Osieck suggesting they may be called up for the next batch of games. At least in the case of Grella, I think his time has come and gone as a Socceroo anyway. He was a force through one of our golden ages, but let’s face it, it was apparent to anyone that he was behind the pace and a liability during South Africa 2010.

So the real interest will surround not the omissions from the squad, but rather who actually plays. Here are my thoughts on what may happen (bear in mind this is what I think will occur, not necessarily my own personal views).

I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say Mark Schwarzer will start in goals. The kid has talent. In all seriousness though, I don’t think there is any doubt that Schwarzer is our number one guy. He has been a stalwart in goals for a long time now, and is currently locked in a back and forth battle with Brett Emerton for the honour of being the Socceroos second most capped player. He is not perfect – he has been guilty of misjudging crosses perhaps more often then he should. But no keeper is perfect. And Schwarzer’s record of keeping the Aussies in big games is phenomenal. The backups for the #1 shirt selected for this qualifier are Adam Federici and Nathan Coe. The Aussie production line of keepers continues unabated, and every fan has their opinion on who should be the next in line (Mitch Langerak and Brad Jones are two other names often mentioned). For me personally, Federici is the guy. He is first choice at his club, playing at a pretty high level overseas. He is assured, young and has all the physical tools to play many games for the Socceroos. I am not sure of the pecking order between the two backup keepers in Osieck’s mind, and I daresay that neither will be needed. I should make the disclaimer here that I have seen very little of Nathan Coe, so am not entirely sure of what he brings to the table.

Many of the doubts and issues surrounding the Socceroos squad centre on our back four. Probably all those in the mix have had doubts raised concerning their tactical nous, fitness or just ability. Luke Wilkshere will be the starting right back. After bursting onto the scene around the time of the 2006 World Cup, he has established himself as one of the first players picked. He runs hard, gets forward a lot and is able to put in crosses which often show a lot of class. Wilkshere has had a couple of quieter games of late. I don’t think that there is any suggestion his spot is in imminent danger but he perhaps needs to re-establish his stranglehold on the spot. This is especially because on the bench is a young bloke by the name of Rhys Williams, who looks to be the future of the Socceroos (the excellent Four Four Two Australia magazine recently predicted he will one day captain his country). In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before Williams demands selection in the starting side. I think he will start from the bench for the time being, providing fantastic utility value. One of the positions Williams excels at is right back, so it may be the case that Wilkshere eventually gives way. But given the fact he is still a very valuable player, coupled with the fact Williams plays in the centre of defence, central midfield and right midfield, he may well establish his place elsewhere across the park.

In the centre of defence, I would be very surprised if Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenevoski do not start in Brisbane. Neill is the captain, and in my opinion ‘The Ogre’ is our most important player. He was a towering force at the Asian Cup – I think he was our best player throughout the tournament. The late bloomer, Sasa, is continuing to excel at an exceedingly high level in Asia and has quickly become an integral part of the Socceroos setup. On the other hand, Neill is becoming an increasingly divisive player amongst fans of the game in Australia. Heading into the 2006 World Cup, he was a player with only a moderate profile. His performances throughout that tournament though were exceptional, and established him as one of the Socceroos top players. It has to be said though that he has been exposed at times over the last couple of years. Neill has a tendency to dive in and make rash challenges, especially inside the box. This is obviously a liability in important, one off matches. Another massive personal gripe of mine is his tendency to stand there, belligerently waving his arms around when an opposition player springs the offside trap. By stopping and yelling at the assistant in these cases, Neill allows the opposition attack to build, or even worse for a shot to occur. The final reason that Neill is ‘on the nose’ with some amongst the Australian football community is his actions following the end of his last few contracts. There is a perception that Neill is all about money (he is often cruelly referred to online as Luca$h Neil. From the outset let me make it plain that I don’t think there is anything wrong with sportsmen changing clubs for money. At the end of the day, this is their job and they need to provide for their family. There is this strange discrepancy in society where a player changing clubs just for money is a scumbag. But if I changed jobs in my working life and got a whopping pay rise, all my mates would congratulate me. Where is the difference? I do have some issue with Neill’s conduct in these transfer sagas, based on being a massive Socceroos fan. My concern is that the relatively long absences he has spent not playing, in order to get a better payday, have impacted on his ability to perform at his best for the Socceroos. Also, his decision to sign for Al-Jazira and play in the UAE Pro-League means that Neill will now be playing week in week out in a substandard competition. Substandard in the sense that Neill could, without a doubt, still be playing in a reasonable European league. But I am thankful that Neill is back playing, and hopefully can approach his best form. One major positive to come out of recent games for the Roos has been the form of Matthew Spiranovic. This youngster has long been touted as the next big thing as far as central defenders go for Australia. And of late, he has started to live up to the hype he has carried for a number of years. Look for Spiranovic to get some game time if there are any injury issues to our main two, or if Osieck looks to ease their load somewhat with two games in quick succession.

Without a doubt the one position that has given Socceroo coaches the most headaches over reason years is that of left back. Scott Chipperfield was all class in that role, but is no longer on the scene. David Carney has been the man for quite some time, but many people myself included, have never felt that he is the solution. Yes he can score the odd belter of a left foot goal, but being a left back is about much more than that. Football is a team sport, but it is an unfortunate fact that much of the blame for the loss in the Asian Cup final can be attributed to a horrible piece of defending by Carney. As a cross came in, Carney inexplicably left his man and headed to the goalmouth, seemingly to act as a postman (this idiotic ploy has been seen too often in Socceroos games, most commonly by Lucas Neil). At any rate, Carney is currently returning from injury and clubless so will not be appearing. So it looks as though Michael Zullo will be the man against the Thais. This is an exciting prospect for Socceroos fans. Zullo set the A-League alight as a young player, and it is excellent to see him making a fist of the early part of his overseas career. Zullo is an exhilarating attacking player, and can play higher up the park as well as across the back four. But he also has promise as a classic, overlapping wing back. He shows the ability to get forward and support the left midfielder, whilst also the nous to track back and defend well in one on one situations. Along with the aforementioned Rhys Williams, additional cover across the back four will come from Luke DeVere and Mark Milligan. The latter is seemingly back in favour after a pretty horrific 2007 Asian Cup and club issues put his international career on hold. Look for DeVere to get some game time over the two games to get his maiden international cap.

It is always harder to guess how the midfield will set up. I suspect Osieck will play two up front, meaning a four man midfield. The tradition of late has been to play two screening midfielders in the form of Carl Valeri and Mile Jedinek. It is possible that we will see just one of these players deployed in Brisbane, given that we are at home against an opponent ranked far below us. These two players are regarded very similarly, so it would be difficult to know who drops out. I would suggest that based on recent form, especially the Asian Cup, that Mile Jedinek would retain his spot. He is a very solid screening type player, who probably shades Valeri in the areas of getting forward and distribution. Valeri is perhaps slightly more adept at the defensive aspects of the game, and never stops, appearing to be one of the fitter Aussie guys. Unfortunately both players have a tendency to foul too much, and unnecessarily, a facet of their games that can hopefully be weeded out.

Assuming that Osieck elects to play just the one holding midfielder, then I think the starting midfield will also consist of Brett Emerton, Brett Holman and Matt McKay. Holman can be expected to start centrally, in the hole so to speak but also tracking back with his work ethic being one of his major strengths. Holman has overcome a lot of negativity from fans regarding his place in the side. Some, admittedly myself included, long felt that he was undeserving of his place, having the ability to run around a whole lot, but very little else. However his inspirational performances at South Africa 2010 proved that at the moment, he is one of our most important players. Whilst his distribution is occasionally lacking, his ability to spot and execute runs, brings a dynamism to the Roos midfield that they otherwise do not possess. And even Holman’s most ardent critic could not have any issue with the effort and heart he puts into his performances in the green and gold.

I don’t think it is too hyperbolic to state that Brett Emerton is a Socceroo great. Whilst the performances of Matt McKay in the Asian Cup left him somewhat on the outer, I think Emmo still has a lot to contribute to the Socceroos cause, and should start a lot more games than he doesn’t. Emerton is probably the best crosser of the ball in the Aussie side. I keep saying this about players, but Emerton is one fit dude. Commentators love to talk about how big his engine is. For a long time he has been the Socceroos fittest player and he is still right up there. This gives him an excellent ability to track back and cover his man when need be. The fact that Emerton has a reasonable amount of experience playing in the back four also means that once he gets there, he is able to execute his tackles well and also intercept a lot of passes. Emerton will start on the right, in front of Luke Wilkshere, which will rekindle what has been a very successful partnership for the Socceroos. These two players have a real understanding of each other’s games, and when players can link as well as these two do, it is a major plus. Look for lots of nice interplay between the two of them. Emerton to find Wilkshere overlapping, Wilkshere looking to release Emerton further up the park and all that kind of jazz. The importance of partnerships such as this highlights the need to establish consistent selections through these positions, so that players can get to know each other’s styles intimately. Hopefully the Wilkshere/Emerton duo will see a lot of game time, and hopefully we can unearth a similar combination down the left.

The man who I think will play a major role in this desired left side combination is Matt McKay. Over the last 18 months, the performances and associated profile of McKay has skyrocketed. Osieck’s refreshing willingness to give A-League players a fair go has resulted in the Brisbane Roar captain (who will leave to take up a contract with Scottish champions Rangers after these qualifiers) to cement his place in the squad. Along with Ognenovski who I have already mentioned, McKay was one of our standout players at January’s Asian Cup. The nerve jangling quarter final against Iraq was sealed by a brilliant, early, floating cross delivered to perfection by McKay (and finished emphatically by Harry Kewell). His ability to burst into the box with impeccable timing is also a major boost, reminiscent of Tim Cahill in that way. The one major flaw I have seen in McKay’s game, both for the Socceroos and in the A-League, is his finishing. After making these excellent, bursting runs into the box, McKay just does not seem comfortable finishing the opportunities. More than any other aspect of the game, striking is a confidence thing (just ask Scott McDonald). Natural strikers have an inherent bravado and almost arrogance that makes them confident in their ability to score in any game. Obviously if McKay is not a natural striker than this cannot be forced. But he needs to practice it a hell of a lot, pick his favourite spots to put the ball and finish it. I make it sound so easy. But I don’t want to dwell on that. I think McKay will play a massive role throughout this qualifying campaign. He is still relatively inexperienced as far as Socceroo caps go, but I look forward to him building his confidence in the team surrounds. This can only be a good thing, because as evidenced by his ability to lead the Roar to the title last year, McKay is an excellent leader.

There is some real excitement amongst the backup midfielders in this Socceroos squad, and the players chosen give Osieck a lot of scope to change things up when all is not going to plan. I am a big fan of Neil Kilkenny, the Bristol City midfielder. He is an extremely gifted and intelligent footballer, who I think can be a big point of difference throughout this campaign. He is the best distributor of the ball in the squad, and coming on late will let him split the gaps in the defence which is what he is best at. Some of his Socceroo performances have been a little below his best. But I personally really want Osieck to persevere with him because we do not have another midfielder like him. Plus the more opportunity he has to play with the likes of Holman and McKay, the better he will get at reading their runs which will make the Socceroos midfield far more dangerous. The other options for Osieck off the bench come in the form of whippets James Troisi and Adam Sarota. These guys are quick, young, skilful and incomplete. I don’t think they are ready to play 90 minutes in a big, must-win qualifier. But late in games, these are the kind of players you want to bring on to terrorise tiring defenders. It is a nice mix the coach has gotten himself on the bench.

The other obvious contender for a place in midfield is a bloke called Tim Cahill. But given the fact that Scott McDonald has recently been ruled out (Alex Brosque comes in), I think that Cahill will start upfront. I much prefer Cahill as a midfielder. There is much hype in relation to him as an attacker given the fact that he scores a lot of goals from midfield for Everton. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of these goals are derived from the very fact that he does play in midfield. He is able to make blistering runs from deep to get on the end of crosses, and he possesses one of the deadlier headers in world football. Deep down, I think that Osieck would have started McDonald against Thailand. But with the Middlesbrough man out injured I think he will go with Cahill. And whilst I would prefer to see Cahill in midfield, given the sheer quality of guys that will line up through the centre, I am happy to see him starting further up the park. And I think that if you are going to play Cahill up front, the ideal is to have him playing alongside someone who he can run off. And that man is Jesus. For me personally, it is exciting to see Josh Kennedy back in the mix. The tall attacker is in exceptional form for Nagoya Grampus, scoring almost at will. I think Kennedy always should be the Socceroos first choice, starting striker assuming we are playing two up front. He has a very good scoring record for the Socceroos and poses a constant threat to opposition defences. The Socceroos are without a doubt a much better side with the big guy from Beechworth High leading the line. The fear with two such adept headers of the ball starting is that the instructions will be to hoick the ball long for them. Hopefully this will not be the case, and I think that Osieck is too smart a manager to fall into that particular trap. Kennedy’s feet are vastly underrated. And without suggesting that he is the same calibre of player as Mark Viduka, he can perform a similar role for the Socceroos. He can hold the ball up, and wait for reinforcements in the form of Cahill, and the overlapping midfielders to arrive. Look for the much improved, and ever improving Robbie Kruse to get a reasonable amount of game time in the two matches, with Brosque providing further backup.

So there are my thoughts on the squad for tomorrow night’s game. Sorry it ended up being far more longwinded than I had intended. Thanks if you read the whole thing. Make sure you get out and watch the game. Personally I am going to take my gorgeous girl out for a lovely Ethiopian meal, and then hit up the ever classy Tradies Club to watch the game. Enjoy it!

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