When Graham Arnold announced his starting XI for the Socceroos’ crucial match against rivals Japan in Saitama, it felt as if most supporters were off their seats. An ostensibly attacking side included star playmakers Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogić in the starting XI for the first time since a 1-0 win away to Jordan in 2019.
Fans pondered how Arnold could fit his four best midfield assets – the aforementioned Rogić and Mooy as well as Ajdin Hrustić and Jackson Irvine – into the same team as some floated a box midfield as a solution to the Socceroos manager’s selection headache.
The inclusion of four ball-dominant playmakers promised attacking verve and buoyed enthusiasm in the middle of the park with the goal being to suffocate Japan and stifle their potent weapons by limiting their possession of the ball.
However, what ensued was anything but free-flowing. Over-run in midfield and swept over by sluggishness and disjointed play, the Socceroos fell victim to a 2-1 defeat where the scoreboard did not accurately reflect Japan’s dominance.
Given Japan’s malaise leading into the game – headlined by rumours in the Japanese press that a loss would see Hajime Moriyasu relieved from his duties as head coach – it felt like a missed opportunity, a chance to assuage fears in the Australian public that Japan possess a psychological advantage over the Aussies.
It remains 12 years since the Socceroos have tasted victory over the Samurai Blue.
It is easy to point towards the box midfield as the root cause of the Socceroos’ disjointed performance because it was the first time that star midfielders Hrustić, Mooy and Rogić had all started together for the national team.
It should also be the last time they start together, at least in a box midfield against strong opposition.
On its façade, the box midfield seems like an ingenious proposition, in fact, it is easy to see why Arnold tested it against strong opposition. Not only does it allow the Socceroos to fit all its best midfielders into the same team, but it also stations more players in the centre of the pitch, thus providing a more steadfast route to goal should the team prove capable of progressing the ball through the central channels.
Additionally, against sides that prefer to play in a more disciplined, resolute and organised fashion with men behind the ball, the box midfield allows Australia to create overloads between the lines and encourages creativity.
With this in mind, the box midfield could prove of most use when the Socceroos play against inferior opposition that is less likely to spend time trying to dominate possession. However, experimenting with this structure against some of the strongest countries in Asia should not continue for a number of reasons.
Principally, teams capable of intelligently pressing the Socceroos merely compact the space in the middle of the pitch and force the Socceroos to play the ball wide to their full-backs.
Given that the purpose of playing with a box midfield is to allow the team’s creative midfielders to express themselves on the ball, this way of combatting the setup appears to render the box midfield counter-productive at fulfilling its initial purpose.
In layman’s terms, it allows the defending team to make the pitch smaller because so many players are stationed centrally that there is little width for the team playing the box midfield to work with. On its surface, the box midfield appears to be a direct contravention of the age old rule that teams should make the pitch bigger when they attack.
As the rule continues, it simply makes it far too easy for the defence to achieve its purpose of making the pitch narrow for the attacking team.
The Socceroos’ sluggishness at playing through the Japanese press was obvious throughout the 90 minutes of the match against the Samurai Blue as they compacted the middle of the pitch and encouraged the Aussies to play around their press rather than through it.
However, the performances of full-backs Aziz Behich and Fran Karačić were underwhelming as they provided little to no offensive threat despite often being allowed acres of space out wide. Oftentimes, this was no fault of their own but, rather, the incapacity of Australia’s midfielders and defensive duo to confidently play them the ball.
The Samurai Blue were evidently advised to allow passes to the full-backs knowing that the Socceroos would still attempt to play the ball through a compacted and congested midfield area.
The naivety to continue attempting to play through the Japanese press was frustrating for fans but is a problem that can be abated with ease – the players merely need to be instructed to use the width and encourage more attacking confidence in the full-backs.
However, the most problematic aspect of the box midfield is arguably its choice of personnel and the issues it creates. Specifically, the inclusion of four ball dominant midfielders in the same team ostensibly leads to one conclusion – four midfielders that all want the ball at the same time.
This can be problematic in the sense that it slowly causes the team to lose their shape in possession and results in individuals not performing their role in the team.
This became obvious in Saitama as Aaron Mooy yearned for more touches of the ball. This is no plight on Mooy’s ability – at his best he’s Australia’s best and most press-resistant midfielder – but even he would admit that was largely ominous against Japan’s constricting press.
Despite being stationed as a left-sided No 10, Mooy continually dropped deep to support the build-up which invited his direct marker to follow him and further compact the centre of the pitch. This proved a constant thorn in Australia’s side as it resulted in disorganised midfield combinations and players being horrendously out of position.
Another issue with Australia’s box midfield is the fact that it included too many sluggish defensive players defending high up the pitch. To describe Mooy and Rogić as traffic cones defensively would be to do them a favour – they were sterile without possession and often allowed Japan to play through Australia’s high press (if it can be described as such) with ease.
This is supported by the data.
Between them, Mooy and Rogić recorded just one tackle and one interception while winning just under 42 per cent of their duels. Put simply, this is relatively disappointing, particularly when juxtaposed with Jackson Irvine’s two tackles, two interceptions and 78 per cent duel win rate in the same game.
Although both Rogić and Mooy provide immense imagination in the final third when given the chance, it must be questioned whether their defensive inaptitude is too great of a price to pay for their artistry.
If Australia truly wish to dominate games by putting the opposition on the back foot and keeping possession of the ball, then the box midfield with Mooy and Rogić in attacking areas simply does not allow the team to produce enough intensity or desire to win the ball back high up the pitch.
Clearly, neither are adept in this aspect of the game and will often unilaterally close down opposition players in a manner which seems more ad hoc than organised.
This gives Graham Arnold two options: ditch the box midfield, or stop pressing high up the pitch.
Australia’s attacking quality combined with Arnold’s preference for free-flowing and eccentric football renders the latter proposition redundant. Thus for now, the box midfield experiment should be placed to the side, particularly against quality opposition.
Instead, Arnold should look to revert to the 4-2-3-1 system that proved so successful in qualifying prior to the Japan game.
This does not have to be a strict 4-2-3-1, rather, it would be fluid and involve positional rotations across the pitch.
However, the team would benefit from having its most press-resistant midfielder closer to the defensive line so that the team can adequately play out from the back. Aaron Mooy is the perfect answer to this problem given his superb ability to evade pressure and play long ground passes between the lines.
While much has been made of the struggles with fitting both Mooy and Rogić into the same XI, it appears that Arnold’s hand will be forced for the game against the Green Falcons with the Celtic midfielder likely to sit out due to injury.
With this in mind, Arnold could opt for a midfield double pivot of Ajdin Hrustić and Mooy with the former Huddersfield metronome sitting slightly deeper to aid playing through Saudi’s aggressive press.
Given that Saudi press in a 4-2-4 system with the wingers occupying the opposition full-backs, Mooy could look to drop in between Australia’s two centre-halves and create a 3v2 against Saudi’s intelligent first line of pressure in Saleh Al-Shehri and Salman Al-Faraj.
VFB Stuttgart captain Wataru Endo performed this role effectively against the Green Falcons as he often bypassed their first line of pressure.
Should Arnold adopt this strategy, Hrustić would likely position himself in the left half-space between Saudi’s defensive and midfield lines as he looks to create space while whoever plays the No.10 role could either remain between Saudi’s defensive and midfield lines or drop into the right half-space to create a shorter and more safe passing option.
Alternatively, Arnold could alleviate the team’s issues with playing through a press with a more maverick-like approach which involves goalkeeper Mat Ryan dropping between the two central defenders to again look to create a 3v2 against Saudi’s first line of pressure.
This would allow both Mooy and Hrustić to push into the right and left half-spaces, thus always leaving a central No.10 to operate between the defensive and midfield lines.
Although it may seem farfetched, Ryan is incredible with ball at feet and is capable of constructing attacking sequences in a role similar to an NFL quarterback with his superb passing range.
This was on show against Japan where he completed just over 63 per cent of his long passes – for context, Manchester City’s celebrated ball distributor Ederson averages a completion rate of just over 54 per cent of his long passes.
Australia have a unique weapon in defence, perhaps it is time to get the most out of it.
The idea of having a goalkeeper drop into a back 3 is far from a foreign idea either, in fact, Mat Ryan’s former team Brighton and Hove Albion use this solution quite often to bypass lines of pressure with their keeper Robert Sanchez.
The 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid system also ensures that Australia can operate with two wide players that can beat defenders 1v1 and look to create chances. This is particularly important against Saudi Arabia because their full-backs Sultan Al-Ghanam and Yassir Al-Shahrani will man-mark opposition wingers when they come inside to receive the ball.
Thus, if Australia were to select someone like Mooy in a wide No. 10 position again, it would merely congest the central areas on the pitch as right full-back Al-Ghanam would follow him and look to aggressively press to win the ball back.
This was a strategy that worked wonders against Japan for the Al-Nassr product as he often smothered the influence of Takumi Minamino who continually looked to start out wide before dropping into midfield to aid the build-up.
Al-Ghanam consistently ensured that this could not occur.
However, this was not an isolated incident as Al-Ghanam looked to wear Minamino like a glove throughout the match.
This alteration to accommodate a selection of wide players including Mathew Leckie, Awer Mabil, Martin Boyle and Chris Ikonomidis could prove vital to the Socceroos’s success against Saudi as they look likely to revert to the aforementioned 4-2-3-1 shape.
In its simplest sense, playing with more direct wide wingers would pin back Saudi’s full-backs to ensure they do not assist in pressing sequences and thus help to win the ball back for the Green Falcons.
Although the box midfield could have its benefits further down the line, it seems like this experiment should be put to the side for now. Australia’s short and long-term footballing prosperity may rely on it.