Adelaide: Australia’s decision to press high up the pitch and attempt to pin Saudi Arabia in their own half throughout their FIFA World Cup qualifying meeting in Adelaide on Thursday just about paid off as Ange Postecoglou’s side ran out 3-2 winners.
While Tomi Juric was the main beneficiary of Australia’s tactics in the first half, scoring twice for his team, the Saudis were able to exploit the Socceroos’ lack of pace in defence on the counterattack to produce a thrilling opening 45 minutes.
Despite being put under pressure for much of the game, Bert van Marwijk’s team sought to keep possession as much as possible, and the move almost paid off thanks to the individual skill and pace of the Saudi midfield and front line.
Salem Al Dawsari and Mohammad Al Sahlawi cancelled out Juric’s double, only for Tom Rogic to score with a fine strike into the top corner that gave Australia a win that puts them back in contention for one of Group B’s automatic berths in Russia next year.
Socceroos defend from the front
Australia’s dominance of the ball was significant in the opening 15 minutes, with Postecoglou’s team holding almost 56 percent of possession and much of the game being played in the middle third or close to the Saudi Arabia penalty area.
That pattern changed as the half wore on, with the Saudis becoming more assertive after conceding the opening goal and, although Australia still had a lot of the ball, more of the game was being played in the Australian third of the pitch. That pressure paid off with Al Dawsari’s equaliser in the 23rd minute.
Indeed, the Saudis were dominant for the final 15 minutes of the first period, holding the ball for 53.5 percent of the time at a time when both teams registered on the scoresheet again.
The key change to the game came, however, in the second half. Postecoglou’s introduction of Aziz Behich for the ineffective Brad Smith saw Australia become more assertive, possessing the ball for almost two-thirds of the first 15 minutes of the half. Tellingly, 36.3 percent of the play took place in the Saudi third of the field as Australia became more assertive.
Australia took the lead through Rogic’s strike in the 63rd minute and from there the home side sought to tighten things up, with Robbie Kruse’s introduction for Jackson Irvine ensuring the Saudi full backs remained hesitant about pushing forward.
While the Saudis had much more of the ball in the final 30 minutes, much of the game was still played in their third of the field as Australia successfully defended their lead from the front.
Juric doubles up as pressure pays off
The signs the Saudi defence would be put under pressure were evident from the first whistle and Juric almost capitalised as early as the third minute when the striker managed to block Yasser Al Mosailem’s attempted clearance, only for the ball to bounce to safety.
A continuation of the same approach, however, brought the opening goal when Al Mosailem rushed his next clearance, slipped and the ball fell to Juric in an advanced position, allowing him to score into an empty goal.
The early pressure bore fruit but, with the intensity of the Socceroos’ pressing dropped after the opening goal, the Saudis pulled themselves back into the game, with Al Sahlawi scoring his side’s second to ensure the teams went in level at half-time.
Behich introduction makes the difference
The introduction of Behich at the start of the second half for Brad Smith gave Socceroos a boost.
Average position of substitute Aziz Behich
Smith had struggled to keep Saudi full back Mohammed Al Burayk at bay, and it was from his cross field ball to Taisser Al Jassam that Al Sahlawi scored Saudi Arabia’s second equaliser.
Behich, however, kept Al Burayk pinned back deeper into his own half, ensuring Australia controlled that flank.
The Australian wingback rarely ventured into his own half as the Socceroos kept the Saudis pinned in their own half and was a key reason behind the visitors’ inability to break at pace as they had in the first half to such devastating effect.
Photo: Lagardère Sports