On Sunday morning at 6am AEDT, the Socceroos kick off one of the biggest matches in their 100-year history – and indeed the history of Australian football.
Argentina, the South American heavyweights and one of the pre-tournament favourites, stand in the way of Australia reaching a men’s World Cup quarterfinal for the first time.
An all-time great in Lionel Messi leads a team that has lost just once in 2022.
The statistics are so heavily piled against the Australians that they are hardly worth mentioning. Argentina are 35 places higher in the world rankings. Their entire starting 11 plays in Europe’s top five leagues or the Champions League – only one of Australia’s XI against Denmark, Aaron Mooy, featured in the Champions League this season, while none of that XI play in a top-five league.
The Socceroos have beaten the Argentines just once in seven appearances, back in 1988. A second win would shock the world and extend a historic campaign for the Australian underdogs.
So can it be done – and how? These are the burning questions ahead of tonight’s monster clash.
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SHUT DOWN MESSI … THEN WHAT?
He’s one of the greatest players of the modern era, if not the finest player to ever lace up his boots and kick a ball around. For well over a decade – five World Cups now – stopping Messi has been a challenge many have faced, and typically lost. Assign a player to follow him all day, double or triple mark him, close him down with multiple defenders the instant he receives the ball, chop him down, or try and starve him of the ball by shutting down teammates before they can pass to the diminutive magician. All of those tactics have been tried and tested, and all too often Messi has found a way. His movement on the ball and his dribbling is dazzling, his passing sublime. The Socceroos will be forced to use a combination of each of those approaches to nullify the star man.
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But the Australians have shown an impressive ability to nullify star opponents this tournament, particularly Christian Eriksen of Denmark. They have done so by compressing the spaces in between the lines, especially the defensive and midfield lines. The Australians have typically adopted the approach of overloading the central channels to force rivals to play the ball wide – often to an advanced fullback – then closing down rapidly to tackle quickly or force the opponent into a poor pass inward or a backwards pass.
Should the ball be played centrally from that wide position, Aaron Mooy has been waiting to pounce. He has the most ball recoveries of any player still in this World Cup, with his 26 bettered only by the eliminated duo of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen (30) and Uruguay’s standout Rodrigo Bentancur (29).
Magical Messi scores a missile! | 00:29
The concern is that Messi drifts inward and roams across the field, pulling apart the defensive structure to create gaps – and if given too much attention, he excels in using his off-ball movement to facilitate opportunities for his teammates.
Brighton midfielder Alexis Mac Allister has been the key beneficiary so far this tournament, but Argentina boasts stars in every position. Mac Allister scored the opener against Poland and was rightly awarded man of the match after racking up a whopping 66 touches across the park and tearing the Poles apart.
The Australians must do their utmost to stop Messi – but must equally avoid the trap of obsessing over the legendary No. 10.
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WHO HAS THE LEGS?
Coach Graham Arnold has made just one change to his starting line-up for each of the group stage matches – fielding a different right-back on each occasion. Making too many changes to either the side or the tactics would only cause confusion among the players, Arnold said. And there’s no doubt the starting side has been remarkably impressive to a man. Their performances fully justify Arnold’s decision not to rest or rotate his key players during the group stage – he fielded his strongest side at every point and made history with two wins and a place in the knockouts. However, it means that many of Australia’s starters have racked up huge minutes in quick succession – with the short turnaround between games placing an immense physical burden on players in Qatar.
Five of the starting XI – goalkeeper Mat Ryan, defenders Kye Rowles, Harry Souttar, and Aziz Behich, and midfielder Aaron Mooy – have played every single minute of the three games so far. Jackson Irvine and Mat Leckie are each about five minutes shy of that mark. In fact, ten of Australia’s starting XI have played over 200 minutes this tournament – the obvious exception being at right back, the position Arnold has rotated his starter each time.
For Argentina, only six players have notched over 200 minutes, a significant advantage in terms of freshness for the Round of 16 clash. Furthermore, Australia’s defence has been founded on high-intensity pressing, a physically draining approach.
Arnold said “honest conversations” with players about their fitness and readiness to back up will prove crucial to deciding his starting line-up.
Sweeping changes to the XI would be a surprise – but perhaps necessary given the workload the gutsy Australians have got through.
However, there are several players who should have gas left in the tank.
Playmaker Ajdin Hrustic has managed just 27 minutes in total after recovering from a pre-tournament injury. If fit, he could finally earn a maiden World Cup start. Keanu Baccus starred after coming on at halftime against Denmark and could also line up in the midfield.
The man he replaced – winger Craig Goodwin – is one player that Arnold will be hoping has more left in the tank. Striker Mitch Duke was taken off around the hour mark in the opening two matches, so hopefully has more to offer. And versatile veteran Milos Degenek started at right-back against Denmar, after just 20 minutes off the bench across the opening pair of matches.
Those players, and their relative freshness, could prove crucial to Australia’s hopes.
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WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM SAUDI ARABIA?
The South Americans have been beaten just once in 2022 – and that happened just a fortnight ago, when Saudi Arabia stunned the heavyweights in their opening match of the tournament.
Their strategy was high-risk and different to anything the Socceroos have done so far. While most expect minnows to park the bus and get as many players behind the ball as possible, Saudi Arabia set up in a high block – pushing their entire defensive structure up the field – and leaving space behind the line for Argentina’s forwards to run into.
They also allowed certain Argentina players to have the ball without pressure (like centre-back Nicolas Otamendi) while targeting and pressuring the players most capable of pinpoint through balls. The result was that Argentina played far too many long balls over the Saudi defence, who played an off-side trap to perfection to catch Argentina off-side a whopping 10 times.
Australia so far has deployed a mid-block – neither sitting deep, nor holding a high defensive line. Like the Saudi side, the Socceroos operate with a unified defensive press and a desire to compress the spaces between the lines. And, also like Saudi Arabia, the Australians have also enjoyed great success on the counter-attack.
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One of the biggest tactical calls facing Arnold surrounds whether he will stick to a mid-block or adopt the high-risk strategy that paid off in stunning fashion for Saudi Arabia.
Argentina will surely have learned from their tactical mistakes in the opener, but there are other aspects of that match the Australians will have learned from, like Argentina’s vulnerability to counter-attacks – and especially their slump immediately after halftime that cost them the game.
The South Americans have started slowly on multiple occasions this tournament – and in both halves – while the Socceroos have caught opponents off-guard with their lightning starts.
All three of Australia’s goals this tournament have come in the opening 25 minutes of a half.
The game plan is straightforward: start fast and ramp up the pressure on the favourites to respond.
Vidmar reflects on Argentina challenge | 08:50
CAN WE REALLY DELIVER THE IMPOSSIBLE?
Conventional wisdom says Argentina are almost unbackable favourites. But this Australian team has pulled off two magnificent upsets in two games. Why not one more?
Besides the belief and togetherness of the side, something we’ve waxed lyrical about over the last fortnight, the Australians have exceeded all expectations – and not just because of their fighting spirit or backs-to-the-wall approach. Graham Arnold delivered a pair of tactical masterclasses against Tunisia and Denmark, and the team executed the gamelans almost to perfection. Individual performances have been immense – from Harry Souttar to Aaron Mooy and across the park – but equally important has been the capacity to adjust tactically to respond to changing situations in the game.
Barring the France game, substitutes have been deployed at the right time and have played crucial roles. Formations and defensive structures have been rejigged when rivals change their attacking approach. In short, the Socceroos have not just been the plucky underdogs using dogged determination to battle past ‘better’ rivals – they have been a strategically savvy unit capable of frustrating more fancied opponents.
Hope and belief underpins the success of this generation of Socceroos. But it’s not blind faith – it’s a confidence in the players, the tactics, and the team as a whole.