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What went wrong for the Socceroos on the field during the Asian Cup

09:56 GMT 27/01/2019
Socceroos Jordan Aziz Behich Awer Mabil
Shabab Hossain examines Australia's performance against the UAE from a tactical view point

The Socceroos played what was probably their best performance in this year's Asian Cup, however it wasn't enough as a Milos Degenek error condemned the defending champions to defeat against the tournament hosts United Arab Emirates in a 1-0 loss.

Where did it go wrong and are there any positives to take forward for Australia from the tournament? Let's have a look at the Socceroos' tactics throughout the game and the tournament.

What went wrong?

Arnold changes formation, UAE responds

With the suspension of Tom Rogic, one of the key players in the Socceroos set-up, Arnold decided to change formation for this quarter-final clash, which he hinted towards in the lead-up to the match.

Socceroos manager Graham Arnold introduced a 4-2-2-2, allowing both fit strikers, Jamie Maclaren and Apostolos Giannou a starting berth. Robbie Kruse, a man who has divided opinions for years, was also brought back into the first team as Awer Mabil began the game on the bench.

The two strikers combined well for Australia with Giannou in particular impressing with his back to goal, where he would either involve his teammates or quickly spin around to pressure the defence. It was a quality that the Socceroos missed throughout the tournament as Maclaren was left searching for scraps in previous matches.

Although the formation change initially worked well, with the 2015 champions creating several chances early, UAE manager Alberto Zaccheroni responded by dropping Ali Salmeen into a deeper role to contain the two strikers with a three-man defence out of possession.

This led to more of the ball for the Socceroos in midfield as the strikers were now crowded out, but their movement was predictable as Rhyan Grant went high on the right side and launched a cross that would be easily dealt with.

There were not enough attempts of passing to move defenders out of position, which has been a common problem in this year's Asian Cup. Getting the ball out wide for Grant and Aziz Behich to cross looked like the only instruction for most of the time.

Sainsbury and Degenek are vulnerable

On transition, if the Socceroos had time to set up their defensive structure, they looked like a solid unit. But with so much possession, most opposition attacks came from quick, direct counters where Trent Sainsbury and Degenek always looked vulnerable.

Sainsbury in two separate matches was easily ran past which subsequently required the shootout hero, Mat Ryan, to get involved. Although with the ball at his feet the PSV defender was able to provide a solid distribution, he never looked comfortable when he had an opponent running directly at him.

Degenek on the other hand was solid off the ball and positioned himself well, but with the ball he wasn't able to offer the same quality that he showed in defence.

Although Degenek only has himself to blame for his mistake, it's telling that it came as a result of the Emiratis pressing and pressuring him until he was forced to go backwards to Ryan.

If the Socceroos are to improve in the future, it must first start with the defence being more comfortable in possession, as it's the cornerstone of the attacking play-style the Australian public enjoy.

Not clinical in front of goal

In three of the Socceroos' five games in the Asian Cup, they were unable to find the back of the net. That's not for a lack of chances, with Australia creating enough opportunities in front of goal.

Persisting with Maclaren, who looks devoid of any confidence, rather than playing with star-performer Mabil looks to be a mistake in hindsight. Giannou, the other striker in this formation, played his target man role excellently, as he created chances for himself as well as his team. 

Maclaren was unfortunate to be thrown into the deep end as injuries plagued the Australian team, but Giannou looks to be someone that could cement his position in the Socceroos squad, though at 29, he might find that time is against him.

Standout performers from the Asian Cup

There are some players that took their opportunities in this year's Asian Cup campaign and have nailed down their positions for years to come, namely Chris Ikonomidis, Awer Mabil and Rhyan Grant.

Ikonomodis and Mabil were immense in the Socceroos' attacking play in the group stages, and with both only 23, there is still a huge amount of potential for them to improve.

Ikonomidis especially looks to be the real deal, as he was involved in five of the six goals the Socceroos' scored in the tournament. The Perth Glory forward always tried to create something himself if his team weren't offering support, and his performances was a testament to his persistence and effort just as much as his clear talent and quality.

Grant as well, dominated the right side of the field in every single game. The amount of distance he had to cover was immense as he ran up and down the full length of the pitch to offer a wide option for his team. His runs forward were often the only threat the Socceroos had in attack, even if his team couldn't finish them off for the most part.

Returning players to bolster the squad

It's no secret that the Socceroos were unlucky as they were plagued with injuries in the run-up to the tournament that would surely have hurt their preparation for their Asian Cup defence.

Crucially, Australia's best outfield player, Aaron Mooy was confirmed to be injured for the whole month, where his calmness and ability to penetrate a defence would surely have come in handy.

In addition, there was also the loss of exciting talent Daniel Arzani, Hibernian striker Martin Boyle while Leckie and Nabbout unfit to play until the latter stages of the tournament.

The squad that the Socceroos sent to the UAE was still enough to progress further in the Asian Cup, but there is still a great amount of quality that was missing from this competition. A fully-fit Socceroos side will be a handful for any team to deal with, especially with it being quite a young squad.

The future is bright for the Socceroos.

Time for a plan B

Graham Arnold did not have much time to create a winning strategy for the Socceroos and being eliminated at the quarter-finals will certainly be a disappointment to him.

The blueprint for this team was to take the ball wide and cross it in, and perhaps this simple strategy was merely because he didn't have much time with his squad before the Asian Cup, having come in as a replacement for Ange Postecoglou post World Cup.

Now with time on his side, he'll be able to create a strategy so that he can penetrate deep defences like he will face all across Asia as he did in this competition. Next up will be the World Cup qualifying stages at the end of the year, but Arnold should start his preparation now.

Shabab Hossain is an up-and-coming young football journalist. You can view his blog here.