Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Saint Guus, Part 2
In my view, Hiddink's chief contibutions were in three areas: fitness, flexibility and firmness (especially in defence). The three Fs.
Oddly enough, apart from the occasional gripe about a leaky defence, none of these factors tended to be mentioned inamongst the scathing criticisms of Frank Farina during the last days of his reign. Many of the calls were for changes in personnel, an end to the loyalty shown to favoured players of the Farina era, etc. Much to the surprise of these critics, Hiddink made few changes in personnel when he took over.
What did change was that the players, as they themselves often mentioned, became more comfortable adapting to different tactical schemes, and different positions. Farina had favoured a 4-4-1-1 system for most of his tenure, with Mark Viduka typically toiling as the lone striker. Hiddink played three at the back, four at the back, one up front with two out wide, two up front (often via substitution), and more. It required a level of adaptability from the players which noticeably improved in Hiddink's brief period in charge.
Occasionally, in fact, his belief in the flexibility of his players backfired. But more on that later.
It was significant that Hiddink, in his choice of squad members for Germany, preferred players who were comfortable in more than one position. Much was made of the non-selection of Ahmad Elrich and Ljubo Milicevic, but their omissions are quite explicable with the Dutchman's preference for tactical chameleons in mind. Elrich rarely strays from the right wing, while Milicevic is known as a permeable central defender.
One of the most consistent Socceroos of recent times, Stan Lazaridis, saw little action under Hiddink. This can be put down partly to his advancing years, but it's worth remembering that he has spent much of his Socceroo career shackled to the left wing, seldom moving inside.
Certain team regulars found themselves fulfilling many different roles. Brett Emerton played as right-back, as right wing-back, or in central midfield. Jason Culina played in central midfield, as left wing-back (against Japan), or as a supporting forward. Luke Wilkshire played...well, almost everywhere.
Most significantly of all, Harry Kewell found himself obliged to bend in the wind with Hiddink in charge. Not that he seemed to mind.
The great positive to come out of this insistence on flexibility was that the players could adapt quickly to sudden tactical changes. The turning point in the second playoff leg with Uruguay was unquestionably the introduction of Kewell after an uncertain opening half-hour; it is a tribute to the new flexibility of the Australian players that they should immediately look comfortable in their new shape.
The name Scott Chipperfield is worth a mention here. No Australian player, with the possible exception of Lucas Neill, blossomed so pleasingly during the Hiddink era. Used to seeing him on the left side of midfield, the fans found that he could play dependably as a left wing-back, a left-back in a flat back four, even in a central back three. In that tactical switch in Sydney, Chipperfield's contribution was crucial.
The first half against Croatia in Stuttgart was a marvellous display of tactical suppleness from the Socceroos. They were helped by the fact that the Croatians, after Srna's goal, basically played come-and-get-me, but this is a side issue. You could have been forgiven for thinking that you were watching the Dutch side of the 1970's rather than the Australians of 2006, so easily and effectively did the players switch roles.
Harry Kewell was asked in the post-match press conference whether this Total Football demonstration had formed part of the pre-match plans. "No," he responded nonchalantly, "that's just the way we play now."
Impressive, indeed. Yet in the very next game, the same strategy would prove, in a way, Australia's undoing.
More on that anon.
I've got a mate who keeps propounding on me a theory he has about Hiddink, that he only takes on teams with no chance of winning the World Cup because he's afraid of failure in some way. My mate (you met him once, ages ago at the Campsie when the A-League was still but a puppy and not the steroid-enhanced behemoth of today) had wondered how Hiddink would look back on a career in which he never took out the big one, and this theory is the result.
Also I reckon people would appreciate you allowing anonymous comments (I'm sure you won't get the type of rubbish that littered ManYoo's blog). Blogger's sign-up process is pretty painful.