Australia’s World Cup campaign opened with a loss on Saturday evening; Bert van Marwijk’s men putting up a tenacious fight before going down 2-1 to a highly favoured France outfit at the Kazan Arena.
The Socceroos performance – whilst not resulting in any points – contained within it a great number of building blocks that can be taken into the upcoming fixtures against Denmark and Peru; as the Socceroos were able to frustrate a French line-up that entered the contest packed to the brim with star power.
Mostly keeping the game highly compact, the Socceroos were able to spend long periods of the game dictating the tempo: slowing down the contest and frustrating their French opponents whilst minimizing the damage that the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé are capable of producing at their free-flowing best.
Trent Sainsbury and Mark Milligan might have both had major question marks hanging over their heads entering the contest –the latter especially – but were able to produce magnificent performances in the heart of the Australian defence. Sainsbury put in a man-of-the-match performance against the très magnifique attack of France, his cool, calm and collected presence acting as a rock for the Socceroos defence and almost certainly earning the 26-year-old at least a look-in in a higher quality European league than his current Swiss outpost.
Even players such as Robbie Kruse and Aaron Mooy, whose defensive liabilities have been a concern for themselves both individually and for the limitations it places on the Socceroos structure, put in decent defensive performances; reading the play, making several key interceptions and giving the French headaches with their positioning on the counter.
The organisation, grit and determination displayed by the Socceroos will hold them in good stead in their upcoming fixtures against the Danes and Peruvians. And the ever-pragmatic van Marwijk will likely have tailored game plans designed neutralize the strengths and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents already prepared.
Important for the Socceroos will be the ability to take these lessons and move forward – rather than dwell on the French fixture.
One of the most frustrating concepts in sports, a frustration that is magnified under the scope of a knock-out tournament such as the World Cup, is that of the gallant defeat.
The desire to bury one’s thoughts in nostalgic recollections of the positive aspects of a defeat is a seductive prospect for players, coaches, fans and the media alike. The pain of defeat is significantly lessened by the act of siphoning off the glory of the victor; reframing the narrative until it isn’t the final score that determines the winner, but instead the attributes that oh so coincidentally happen to match those displayed by your side.
Important to remember is that, whilst Australia may have avoided the embarrassment afforded to van Marwijk’s former side Saudi Arabia in their opening day 5-0 defeat at the hands of Russia and won plaudits the world over for the way that tenaciously took it to their French opponents, both sides will enter the second matchday of group play on the same amount of points.
Any extended dwelling on the what-ifs against France ignores the fact that regardless of the good showing in defeat the Socceroos now find themselves well and truly behind the eight ball in their quest to progress from Group C, and that it is winning – not brave performances or plucky draws – that must be the goal in the next two games.
Remember that the Socceroos were also lauded for their pluckiness after the 2014 World Cup, Ange Postecoglou and his squad winning plaudits for the way they went about taking it to the highly rated Spanish, Dutch and Chilean outfits; but the history books ultimately only display three losses and a first-round exit for the Socceroos in that tournament.
There will also be those who point to the invisible hand of technology as a mitigating factor for the Socceroos defeat; with both the VAR and goal-line technology both being called upon in both of France’s goals. Such discussions nevertheless, as well as being pointless distractions from the upcoming games fixtures against Denmark and Peru, ignore that in both cases on Saturday night the technology was correct.
Replays on the VAR decision, no doubt the more contentious of the two, showed that Socceroos right-back Josh Risdon did unfairly bring down Antoine Griezman inside the penalty area and that – regardless of if one believes it was a clear and obvious error – a perfect referee would have immediately called it as a penalty.
There were many lessons imparted on the Socceroos in their contest, as well as twists of fate and contentious decisions. For the sake of qualification for the Round of 16, it is vital that it is the lessons to be taken from the game that is focused on: not the spirit of the performance or the ins and out of the VAR because, as fans of the Newcastle Jets will know all too well, hypothesizing on the VAR in the retroactive does nothing to alter the final result.
Progression to the Round of 16 cares little for matters of sentiment, nor cries of misfortune or a cruel destiny.
And while the prospect of fanning the flames of hatred towards the cold, absent and unanswerable nature of the VAR in a search for retweets, likes, favourites, upvotes and follows from a Socceroos fan base yearning for catharsis may be seductive, it distracts from a proper analysis of the breakdowns in the Socceroos play that led to the French striking.
What has to matter is results.
Without a doubt, that is something that van Marwijk knows; the Dutchman and his Socceroos group will almost certainly already have their minds turned to the task of Denmark in Samara.
Socceroos fans would do well to follow their lead.