No surprises for Socceroos
When the Socceroos assembled in Melbourne just over a week ago to begin their preparations for South Africa, there were a few things we could safely bet our house on.
We knew that coach Pim Verbeek wouldn't divert from his pragmatic game plan in their farewell match, despite the fact New Zealand beg the opposition to exploit a three-man backline that is patrolled by slow-moving defenders.
We knew that Brett Holman would board the Qantas 747 bound for Johannesburg, despite many on the terraces and in the press box still scratching their heads regarding his international credentials. And we knew that Harry Kewell would still be struggling with his fitness complaint and would be no certainty to be 100% fit for the June 13 opener against Germany.
Above all, we knew that Jade North, Scott McDonald and Nick Carle would all be denied duty free shopping rights en route to South Africa.
North had been battling with a hip injury during the training camp, so his omission was fair and expected. Anyone who has been on 'Carle Watch' would note he had his papers stamped a long time ago. Verbeek publicly told the Australian fans of Carle's culling by failing to field him against New Zealand; to the media, it became obvious he wasn't going anywhere when he failed to get a bib for an 11 v 11 match during training, despite a handful of players voluntarily sitting out of the session.
McDonald, on the other hand, received plenty of game time in training and during the New Zealand match. However, like Carle, the decision to cull him from the squad had already been made before he lined up against the All Whites.
The omissions were not due in part to the players' technical qualities, but rather their inability to fit into Verbeek's 4-2-3-1 formation - a system based on conservatism and predictability. Granted, it's a system favoured by many teams around the world.
Verbeek has made no secret of the defensive brand of football the Socceroos will employ at the World Cup. In a group boasting heavyweights Germany, Serbia and Ghana, on paper Australia perhaps rank in fourth place, therefore the defensive, low-risk mindset Verbeek has adopted is somewhat understandable. What isn't as understandable is the inflexibility of Verbeek's system, leading many to believe the team is bereft of a genuine Plan B, or to put it another way, the ability to surprise.
Removing McDonald from the squad leaves Verbeek with only three strikers to choose from in South Africa, and of the trio - Nikita Rukavytsya, Josh Kennedy and Harry Kewell - only Rukavytsya is fully fit and raring to go. So should the unthinkable happen and Kewell and Kennedy fail to adequately recover from their injuries, Verbeek's hand will be called every time.
Carle is a player who has polarised opinion ever since the debate began for his inclusion in the Socceroos setup. He may not have the explosive pace of the archetypical modern footballer, but what he lacks in speed he adequately makes up for in sublime skill. Carle is a playmaker, therefore he can prise open a defence with an intricate piece of skill or a delicate pass. Unlike some members of the squad, he feels comfortable drawing two defenders and passing the ball at the last possible second to gain that extra man advantage. And given the freedom to operate in a role conducive to his talents, he can change the game and, above all, provide that element of surprise.
But as we've seen throughout this World Cup campaign, Carle has been denied the opportunity to work his magic, much like McDonald, who flourishes at club level in a two-man attack yet has been required to play the Mark Viduka role under Verbeek despite standing at 1.73m.
Verbeek knows Mark Schwarzer to be a reliable goalkeeper, and therefore wouldn't dare play him at left wing or central midfield. Why, then, would the same common sense not be applied to the case of Carle and McDonald?
As politicians differ in their views of how a country should be run, so too are coaches divided in their opinion of how a team should be constructed. Some tend to build a system around the players at their disposal, while others settle on a system first then mould the players into it.
Verbeek obviously belongs to the latter category, meaning those who are unable to conform to the robotic nature of the team, like Carle and McDonald, find themselves hitting the highway as opposed to getting a place on the plane to South Africa.
Sadly, we'll never know if these two players were truly capable of excelling with the Socceroos.