Five lessons from the Euros for Australia

There were noteworthy tactics and trends in the football played at EURO 2016 that could be very useful to Australian football.

Antonio Conte

Source: Getty Images

1) The pull of the underdog is as powerful as ever

Ange Postecoglou has rightfully asked this nation to get over its obsession with the underdog tag and embrace expectation - because that means you’re respected as a powerhouse football nation. I couldn’t agree more.

But until Australia is both the world’s number one ranked team and the reigning World Cup winner, we shouldn’t be afraid to milk this cow.

I’d go a step further and say the underdog values are quintessentially Australian values in any case: sticking together, always believing and never giving up, no matter the odds.

That’s the lesson everyone should be learning after watching Portugal, Wales, Iceland, Hungary and Northern Ireland over this past month.

I don’t think being the underdog has to mean being the lesser fighter or winning with brutal tactics, either. It’s more about defying expectations.

Ironically, I think it’s the Matildas who are starting to encapsulate this mix nicely. They’re a superpower, but still act like they’re defying the odds every time they step out. It’s served them very well indeed.

2) The 3-5-2 is back - could it work for the Socceroos?

Have we seen the dismantling of the 4-2-3-1? It wrapped itself around football - including the A-League - and offered managers exactly what they wanted: control, pragmatism and defensive accountability, with a small sprinkling of attack.

But there was always a feeling it wasn’t the most dynamic formation, especially with two holding midfielders, who sometimes made it look more like six defenders.

That’s where Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 may offer hope to some nations - including Australia. The beauty is that it morphs into a 5-3-2 in defence, with one of the two strikers used as a hard-working “defensive” forward.

It’s a system that requires very fit and tactically-drilled players, two boxes Italy ticked, especially in the critical wing-back roles. Alex Gersbach and Ivan Franjic may need tactical work but both have the stamina to play wide.

Would an extra central defender alongside Trent Sainsbury and Matt Spiranovic give the Socceroos the stability they lacked in Brazil? It’s worth discussing.

3) Australia won’t generate enough stars without a second division

You’re welcome to be "anti-second division" in Australian football - but do be warned that the nation cannot be competitive on a world stage without it. It is almost without peer as a breeding ground for elite talent.

Take the French team, for example. N’Golo Kante, Laurent Koscielny, Adil Rami, André-Pierre Gignac, Dimitri Payet and Christophe Jallet all began their professional careers outside Ligue 1.

Antoine Griezmann and Blaise Matuidi were highly-touted youngsters but still signed for then-second division sides Real Sociedad and Troyes respectively.

While they might have signed for big academies in their teens, Moussa Sissoko, Morgan Schneiderlin, Hugo Lloris, Yohan Cabaye and Olivier Giroud all cut their teeth with long stints in reserve teams, who played in the fourth tier. At least some A-League clubs have NYL teams in the state leagues now - a small step in the right direction.

Countless others - think Karim Benzema, Lassana Diarra, Mathieu Valbuena - all did stints in lower leagues, either through Ligue 1 reserve teams or with senior teams. In fact, it’s just a handful who enjoyed a comfortable A-League style promotion from the youth team to the seniors.

The Australian model has served its purpose for the past decade, but if we’re talking about creating elite players the public want to watch, there’s no debate to be had.

4) One true star, plus a team of workers, can make something special

In the peak of the Harry Kewell-era, I always believed that no matter who Australia played, the Socceroos would be competitive. One, because they were a balanced team but two, because they had a true game-changer.

No disrespect to others (especially Mark Viduka), but Kewell could single-handedly change a game against any opponent at any time. Critically, it gave his teammates hope they were never out of a game.

You’d prefer more, but having at least one truly mercurial, world-class player does have an impact on a team. Cristiano Ronaldo is the obvious example, but there were plenty of others, too.

I have no doubt Gareth Bale’s deeds helped inspire the oft-derided pair of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, likewise Luka Modric lifting the entire Croatian side. Marek Hamsik’s presence gave Slovakia enough to through a difficult group.

On the next level down, but of no less importance, Gylfi Sigurdsson is a player of immense talent and his presence clearly fuelled belief galore among the Icelandic players. Xherdan Shaqiri gave a solid Swiss squad a turbocharge of unexpected brilliance.

Perhaps the exception to the rule among smaller nations was Robert Lewandoskwi, who looked like he had to be lifted by his excellent team - not the other way around.

5) A lack of great number nines has only proved their importance

They were meant to be dead and buried - long live the false nine, the experts told us. Unfortunately, not every club or country has a player capable of playing that role as well as Lionel Messi. 

It’s a very effective tactic, if indeed you have the right player. Remember, you’re basically having one player play two positions - maybe the hardest two on the whole field.

Germany tried to use Mario Gotze for this role but ended up having to rely on Mario Gomez, who was much more effective. They missed him in the semi-final.

Like Gomez, a true number nine doesn’t have to be a world beater to be effective. Giroud worked his socks off and allowed Griezmann and Payet to get all the space in the world.

Cristiano Ronaldo shouldn’t be played as a classic nine but when he did, he still sucked attention away from Renato Sanches and Nani.

In the post-Tim Cahill world, and with no Messi on the horizon, it would seem sensible that Australia develops a top-class, hard-working striker or two capable of both drawing defenders and putting the ball into the back of the net. Tomi Juric appears the best option, but I hope we see Jamie Maclaren, Adam Taggart, Paul Giannou and Eli Babalj all come thundering into contention.

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6 min read
Published 13 July 2016 at 4:06pm
By Sebastian Hassett