Ange Postecoglou is not someone who demands any sympathy. All he seeks is the opportunity to do things his way. And he won’t be swayed from his vision.
Ever since Brisbane Roar offered him a lifeline from the coaching wilderness back in late 2009 his career has largely been a roaring success.
The Socceroos proved they can come up against the best in the world, drawing with world number 4 Chile and exiting the Confederations Cup in Russia.
Back-to-back titles with the Queenslanders – still the only team to win the A-League in consecutive seasons – led to a lucrative offer from the nation’s biggest club, Melbourne Victory, which he duly took.
Headhunted by the FFA to take over the national team and offered a seven figure salary after German Holger Osieck was dumped from the Socceroos job after heavy defeats by Brazil and France, Postecoglou was able to engineer an exit from his Victory deal without any of the opprobrium that might have accompanied others had they walked out so soon after beginning a new project.
Ange Postecoglou has always done things his way. Photo: Getty Images
Postecoglou was granted plenty of leeway as he dispensed with the last of the golden generation and blooded a succession of youngsters and fresh faces as he looked to find the right blend.
There was little criticism as he adopted a bold and adventurous approach at the 2014 World Cup, trusting to largely young players and several with little international experience.
The results weren’t great – three losses, including a comprehensive defeat by a Spain side that had already been dumped from the tournament – but the performances (including highly competitive efforts against Chile and The Netherlands) were good enough to suggest that his rebuild was on the right path.
Even post-World Cup, when Australia struggled in friendly matches, Postecoglou insisted that the build up was not important: the main goal was the Asian Cup which Australia was hosting in January 2015.
Trust me, was his message. There is a wider purpose here.
And he was vindicated with that extra-time success over South Korea at ANZ Stadium.
That triumph not only gave Australia its first major football success (certainly in the men’s game), it also empowered Postecoglou: he was working for a chief executive in David Gallop who had no real soccer knowledge, while several of the FFA’s management team were not soccer people either, having been recruited from other sports.
The national team coach, buoyed by that success, was afforded the luxury of becoming Australian soccer’s Philosopher King.
He was given the platform to pronounce on the state of the game, suggest ways in which the sport could move forward and build on its success and opine on the decisions the management was taking.
After all, what could any of them – hired from Rugby League and cricket – say to countermand him as he took the players’ side in a pay dispute and argued in a book released last year that lack of A-League expansion was preventing the game’s growth.
Postecoglou was hired by Carlton, the AFL powerhouse, to help with its coaching recruitment and became a regular on television sports shows: his has certainly been a higher profile than any Socceroo coach in history and has given soccer and the national team a voice and a recognition that few others have been able to provide.
What he has also provided is a consistent vision and philosophical approach to the game, one rooted in what he believes is the natural, aggressive default setting of Australian sports teams and competitors.
More than any other national team boss, Postecoglou evokes notions of Australian-ness when he talks about the team.
Its not a mystical, blood and earth type nationalism, more a mindset.
Be proactive, get on the front foot, impose yourself on the opposition, back yourself, have faith and confidence in your teammates, take the game to your opponents, show them respect but not fear, be physical, tough and courageous, but be smart and disciplined.
For him, the Socceroos are far better off dying on their feet than living on their knees.
It’s why he has adopted such a gung ho approach in recent matches against the best teams in the world: he is not only daring his players to live out his tactical and philosophical mantra, he is making a statement about how Australia, certainly under his tutelage, wants to play the game.
Three at the back, four at the back, overloading midfield, playing with a lone striker, three up front, a false nine or overlapping wingbacks – the tactical debate that has accompanied his approach in recent months has been head spinning.
A debate over the national team’s technical approach and philosophy is part and parcel of the game, and something Postecoglou himself called for 12 months ago (even if he and his players now seem to sometimes find it irksome if there is not unstinting praise for their efforts).
It is good that it is happening, and good that both the coach and the players are put under scrutiny and notice: the quality of the debate can only improve as more and more people become involved.
Not everyone is enamoured by the wider brief Postecoglou has taken on. Some believe he should just stick to his knitting and concentrate on preparing a team, arguing that a coach has no business talking about things like A-League expansion, the media’s role in covering the game or how the FFA should try to improve the sport’s infrastructure.
But it’s not in Postecoglou’s nature to just pick up his salary without getting involved in all aspects of the game.
He knows that his window will necessarily be short (he has already indicated he will leave at the end of his deal, which is due to expire at the conclusion of Australia’s involvement in the World Cup) so he must pursue his campaign with urgency.
And he will not be put off by criticism. He is a stubborn man whose inclination is to stick to his guns.
Expect him to persist with his three at the back approach as he believes that in the long run an expressive, adventurous, aggressive approach – in line with the general policy of Australian sport – will serve the team better.
Imagine if the Wallabies surrendered possession, defended on their own 22 and tried to only score on the break. If the Kangaroos were happy to win every game by only a single try.
What response would Steve Smith and David Warner get if the cricket team adopted a policy of containment, slowed the over rate down and always looked to win matches by attrition and waiting for opponents to make mistakes rather than forcing the issue.
Why was tennis Gland Slam champion Pat Rafter, an aggressive serve and volley player, more admired than the baseline slugger Lleyton Hewitt (for most of their careers, anyway).
Why are free scoring footy teams who kick large totals – conceding plenty along the way – always recalled with greater fondness than more efficient teams who lock down midfield and the defensive line and win low scoring affairs.
It’s the way Australian teams play. Postecoglou gets this, and wants his players to tap into that mindset.
Sure, they are going to cop defeats along the way, especially when they play the likes of Brazil, Germany and perhaps Chile, their next Confederations Cup opponents.
But the Confeds Cup is nothing more than an overblown series of friendlies, while the Brazil game at the MCG was an exhibition match. Better to experiment there and get things right when it doesn’t really matter to ensure it comes good when it does.
Postecoglou could have stacked the backline in those recent games and come away with a 1-0 defeat: a respectable scoreline against top opposition. But what would have been learned? Nothing the players didn’t already know.
Most of these players will be in the national team set-up when he is long gone. He is trying to leave a legacy of bold, adventurous, exciting and aggressive play.
Australia doesn’t have the players that the best nations do, so it will always be up against it.
But playing defensively and for a draw will inevitably lead to defeat as it is almost impossible to play 90 minutes without making a single mistake.
Taking the game to the opposition at least gives the Socceroos a fighting chance. If they are not good enough, well there’s no shame in that.
Defending in depth and looking not to embarrass themselves is the road to mediocrity.
This way at least he is encouraging bold play from younger men who know that they will not be lambasted or punished by the coach for trying things out and having a positive attitude, even if the end result is not always what is desired.
Ange Postecoglou is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.