THE moment Bert van Marwijk took the Socceroos job on, he knew he was racing the clock to prepare the side for the World Cup in Russia.
But less than three months out until Australia play France in Kazan, the size of the task has become clear.
The abject display in Oslo to an average Norway side was the stuff of nightmares for Australia.
Let’s not panic after one game, and any analysis of the display against Norway needs to come with the obvious caveat: new coach, short preparation, two debutants, key central defenders injured and an experimental XI in a formation not used by this side since 2014.
But the disappointment about this outing goes beyond the result, or the level of the performance – because of the sad reality of what it represented.
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Rather than building on the strides from qualifying, it’s almost back to square one.
For the second time in four years, with the second coach in a row, Australia are going to a World Cup hoping to be ready in time, when it was supposed to be the climax of four years’ work.
This was the reminder of that.
Ange Postecoglou’s departure, during a haphazard time for Australian football off the park, left the country’s flagship side in limbo on the park as well.
That’s what played out against Norway: a national side now caught in between eras.
The players looked lost, confused and devoid of confidence.
Where previously they pressed, this time they retreated.
Where width was once a trademark, gold shirts struggled in a cul-de-sac on an ugly pitch.
Where once they tried to set the agenda, this time, they didn’t and couldn’t.
If you want an example, look no further than the confusion for Norway’s third goal: Mat Ryan with a ball into the feet of Mile Jedinak in midfield. The goalkeeper was implored to play the ball out from the back previously. Now, it is not as compulsory. Jedinak was not in a position to receive the pass. Confusion reigned. It was sloppy. Australia were punished.
Mistakes happen, but it was emblematic.
Van Marwijk, judging by his post-game disposition, was as disappointed and surprised by the limp outing as anyone, especially as he had seen good things at training, and pledged through the lead up to try keep his messaging simple so as to not overcomplicate his new charges.
But where six months ago they were implored to think proactively, in Norway, it was clear there’s now a more reactive streak being taught.
That doesn’t make it wrong.
Indeed, the point of the appointment is to have Australia as battle hardened for a competitive tilt in Russia.
But it is the polar opposite of what this team was, and understandably, players appeared in two minds as they acclimatise, like cramming for an exam.
“The first half showed really a lack of personality and we need to find it quickly,” Andy Harper said in commentary for Fox Sports.
“Just given the short time frame of the appointment, it’s all about winning. It’s not a building phase, it’s purely and utterly about results and we’ve looked pretty shaky so far.”
For some, this is a question of ‘who do we want to be’. That’s another conversation entirely. We can’t expect miracles from van Marwijk in a week, and it’s harsh to ask as much.
On a simpler level, the Dutchman’s appointment is meant to make Australia more street smart for dates with the World No.9, 11 and 12 in Russia.
Given the direct, robust and simple game plan World No.57 Norway executed successfully, there’s a long, long way to go to shut out France, Peru and Denmark.
It’s not saying it can’t be done. There’s just not a lot of time to fix it.
POSITION BY POSITION REPORT CARD
WHAT THEY SAID
Mark Bosnich: “There are very few positives. He would have learned a hell of a lot tonight. At international level, Bailey Wright at right back is a no-goer… Mark Milligan as well seem to be caught out by the pace.
Jurman and Sainsbury will be quite safe and secure as our starting options. It just looked very uncomfortable. We saw the fullbacks not pushing up, Mile Jedinak was poor by his own standards, Nabbout was very isolated and we barely saw Mathew Leckie.”
Robbie Slater: “A performance that wasn’t good enough on pretty much every level, but it is first game.
“He said before the game the players wouldn’t know the full system, I don’t think they were even at 80 percent. There were players playing out of position, it was experimental and we were found out. It was all a little bit perplexing.”
It was a messy night out for a makeshift rear guard missing Trent Sainsbury and Matthew Jurman, while acclimatising back to playing with a back four.
Back four, back three, back five – Australia still has defensive shortfalls even though a return to a 4-2-3-1 was hailed.
Playing Bailey Wright at right-back was an immediate indication of a less adventurous approach to using fullbacks linking in attack, but more alarming for Socceroos fans was the way the Bristol City captain, who has played plenty of fullback for his Championship club this year, found the going tough defensively.
It didn’t help that Mark Milligan and Milos Degenek simply could not cope with the aerial threat presented, and the veteran utility was uncharacteristically poor.
He, like Ryan, was caught in between the ideas of then and now – with options to play forward to often congested, with less of an outlet from his fullbacks as well.
Playing with two No.6s didn’t help Australia dominate, nor did it protect the back four. Mile Jedinak and Aaron Mooy seems the logical combination, on paper, to provide a balance between brawn and brains in the middle of the park but it is certainly a work in progress.
Jackson Irvine was the quickest to click into gear, playing in a No.10 role, and was rewarded with the opening goal from a set-piece. But his involvement also started to wane as the game became more ragged, while Massimo Luongo and Tom Rogic’s introduction, albeit with the result all but settled, added a little more continuity to Australia’s play.
There’s little to judge, because it was so isolated.
While many fans was buoyed by the prospect of Mathew Leckie being unleashed further forward, it was nigh on impossible for the No.7 to make an impact. He carved his way to the byline on occasion but like Dimitri Petratos, on debut, was only seen in fits and starts.
Petratos didn’t look out of his comfort zone when he was able to inject himself, mainly down the left, but it was not a night to make a thorough assessment of his, or Andrew Nabbout’s bona fides. Indeed, Nabbout thrown in as a No.9, with the industrious Irvine at No.10, was another sign of van Marwijk’s thinking.