When Holger Osieck's three years at the Australia helm were brought to an end against France in Paris last year, the blood pressure of Socceroos fans no doubt rose a little with their flights to Brazil just nine months away, no coach, and just a handful of games to go. However, with the arrival of Ange Postecoglou a few weeks later, they had not only hired one of the most trusted names on the Aussie scene, they had also bought themselves some time.
Postecoglou has spent almost half of this century leading various Australian youth teams, as well as having stints at Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory, and with many of his former charges among the Socceroos squad at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, familiarity has allowed for a speedy transition. Matt McKay, Matthew Spiranovic and Mile Jedinak had all crossed paths with Postecoglou at FIFA youth tournaments, and were in agreement that having an insight into his signature brand of slick football has been a key asset.
“It gives you a bit of a head start if players know the coach well, know what style of football he likes to play and his philosophy,” Western Sydney Wanderers defender Spiranovic told FIFA.com. “I played under Ange at the U-17 World Cup in Peru [in 2005]. It was a great experience, playing on such a big stage at such a young age is a fantastic learning experience.
“It always helps the player-coach relationship if they know each other well, and Ange has known me from a young age and I understand what he expects and requires from players, so that is only an advantage for a coach and a player.”
McKay and Jedinak were part of the set-up two years earlier – also featuring fellow Brazil 2014 team-mate Alex Wilkinson – when the Young Socceroos travelled to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2003. “It's a long time ago and we won our group in UAE, but we got knocked out in the next round, so that was disappointing,” McKay recalled. “It was a good experience and I'm delighted for him that he can lead us into a World Cup.
“Even back then he liked a similar style of football – the player movement, quick ball movement, being possession-based. I've had him at [Brisbane Roar] as well and it was the same there too. He's a good manager and he really encourages players to go out and play an attractive kind of football.”
We've got nothing to lose. We've got to be brave, we've got to fight, and that's what Australians do.
Ivan Franjic, Tommy Oar and Mark Milligan complete the septet of Postecoglou's previously primed personnel. But with a fresh group of youngsters to integrate into the team, alongside some more experienced heads, producing a coherent unit in just five games before their opening meeting with Chile in Cuiaba was always going to be tough. In Jedinak's eyes, the boss' clarity of vision has made the process infinitely more fruitful since beginning in October.
“The style is very clear,” the Crystal Palace man and Australia captain told FIFA. “When he did come in you got to know that straight away. Speaking personally about it, I think that's a great thing. You know what's required, what methods he's going to use and how he wants to approach the football side of things. That's something we've needed for a little while now.”
After the crushing pair of 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France that ended Osieck's reign, a slim 1-0 loss to Croatia in their final warm-up game shows strides have been made. But, with Chile, the Netherlands and then world champions Spain to come in a devilishly tough Group B, they are set to get really tested. Spiranovic nevertheless feels their relatively unfamiliar and inexperienced backline stood strong against the Balkans.
“We've been working very hard over the last few weeks to better the understanding amongst us in the defence and midfield in particular,” the 25-year-old said. “Against Croatia there were a lot of good signs and I think the defensive structure is pretty good.
“We're going into these games as the underdogs and that's fine by us. Within the camp and the group there's still a lot of belief that we could go out there and surprise people. It's a young team and there's no fear amongst us. I'm confident we can go out there and surprise them.”
Arriving with freedom
That lack of expectation is very much being viewed as a positive inside their complex in Vitoria. Being grouped with the South Africa 2010 finalists and one of dark horses for the latter stages could easily send some sides into their shell, but McKay is adamant that will not be the case. He also feels the absence of pressure will give them one thing the others do not have.
“It's freedom,” McKay said defiantly. “I think we're not expected to do anything and that will suit or style of football. We've got nothing to lose. We've got to be brave, we've got to fight, and that's what Australians do.
"We're going to stick to our guns, we've got our own style and know how to play in the way that has been drilled into us over the last few months. Of course we'll respect three extremely good nations, who all have different styles of football, so we'll adapt to that, but ultimately we want to play the way we want to play.”
The sentiment of maintaining courage in their convictions was echoed by Spiranovic, as he trained his focus on the Arena Pantanal and their South American opponents: “That's the way the coach wants to play his football and we definitely want to be dictating terms to the opposition, rather than allow them to come at us. We'll be going out there with the belief that we have the quality to hurt them.”