Inside the mind of van Marwijk
I see what Bert van Marwijk is trying to do with the Socceroos.
I know from the experience of playing under him.
Bert coached me for three years at Feyenoord when I first went to Europe. The principal elements of his approach remain the same.
Addressing the defensive structure was always going to be his first priority. Bert is huge on that. Everyone loves the idea of attacking – and Bert likes his teams to be able to play attractive football – but you’ve got to have a solid base to work off and that’s being strong at the back.
Only then does the idea of playing attractive football become realistic.
Bert firmly believes that, in any set-up, you’ve firstly got to be hard to beat. Then, with this Australian team, you need to try to penetrate in attack when the time is right, whether that’s being patient and waiting for an opportunity to open up or trying to hit teams on the counter.
I think that’s what he’s trying to get the players to recognise – when is the right time to try to penetrate and hurt the opposition.
Bert came in late and hasn’t had a lot of time to work with the boys. That’s why he regarded the training time as more important than the playing time. Training is when a coach gets the chance to hammer home his idea of how the team should play and work on the style over and over again.
These last few weeks in camp will have been invaluable to him and the Socceroos.
For a new coach planning to change the way a team plays, a couple of days with the boys and then playing a game is not remotely enough time.
That’s why it really wasn’t a shock when the Socceroos lost their first game under Bert 4-1 to Norway. You can’t implement things that quickly. But only a few days later, there was a decent turnaround for a 0-0 draw with Colombia.
Over the last couple of friendly games, we’ve been a bit more solid at the back. That’s great to see.
There have been a few nervous times and lucky escapes, but the only goal we conceded against the Czech Republic and Hungary came through a mix-up between Trent Sainsbury and Brad Jones at the back.
We’re going to need to be very solid at the back in the World Cup – especially in this first game against France.
It wasn’t the best of performances by the Socceroos last time out against Hungary, even though they won 2-1, but when you don’t play well it’s about trying to grind out results.
Australia managed to do that. I think that’s a good sign.
THE WISDOM OF VAN MARWIJK
Bert doesn’t hesitate to put young players in the first team if he thinks they’re good enough.
He did it with me.
He got me over from Sydney Olympic and I was playing in the Dutch Eredivisie as a 21-year-old.
This is the sort of manager he is.
I wasn’t at all surprised when Bert picked Daniel Arzani in his World Cup squad and started playing him in the lead-up matches. Daniel’s the youngest player in the tournament at 19, but Bert obviously knows he’s got the potential to do something on this stage.
It’s all about your performances with Bert – not who you are or where you come from.
He was the perfect manager for me at that time of my career. He gave me the opportunity to play first-team football straightaway and I enjoyed a successful three years under him that included Feyenoord winning the UEFA Cup in 2002.
I grabbed my opportunity and never looked back, but first you’ve got to have someone who’s prepared to give you that opportunity.
That was Bert.
He also put Robin van Persie in the first team when he was just 17 in that 2001-02 season.
Bert made it very clear from the beginning what your role and responsibility was within the team structure and that, if you didn’t fulfil that role, you’d quickly find yourself out of the side.
He was direct and he could be blunt. You knew where you stood with him but, at the same time, he had a good personality, a good sense of humour. I loved his managerial style.
Every day before training, we’d play a version of keep ball we called ‘sheva’ – one or two players in the middle and the rest around a square. Bert and the rest of the coaches would join in and we’d all have some fun and a bit of a laugh trying to nutmeg each other and all that.
Once that was over, we knew the serious work had to start. He found a good balance between keeping the players happy and demanding a lot of them on the training pitch and on the weekend in games.
He was a good man manager.
We had some big personalities in the team at the time, including three or four players who were in the Dutch national team. The majority of the team were foreigners from all different backgrounds and cultures and speaking different languages.
He was able to get everyone on the same page. We all respected him.
Bert’s flexible. He sees what players are at his disposal and who can fill certain roles and builds a playing style around that, rather than coming in with a set style.
He doesn’t necessarily see you in one position. He’ll move players around. I went to Feyenoord as a right midfielder – I’d played virtually my entire career in that position up until then – but he converted me to a right back almost immediately.
I wasn’t happy with it at first, but he saw something different in me and what it did was give me the chance to play first-team football. It was an unfamiliar role, but I became accustomed to and did well at it.
I still liked to get forward as often as possible, but sometimes he would put the reins on me and say, ‘You stay there, your first job is to defend, not always to attack’. He’d let me overlap, but only when the time was right and so long as the right midfielder or winger was covering.
It’s all about your performances with Bert – not who you are or where you come from.
I played a few positions at Feyenoord. Right back, right wing and also defensive midfielder. I became quite versatile. Bert obviously liked that about me.
He’s doing it again with the Socceroos. Mark Milligan is a very versatile player who can play anywhere in the back four or midfield. He’s probably best known as a holding midfielder, but Bert’s got him in a crucial position at centre back. He saw something in Mark there and ran with it.
Bert adapts with his formations. We basically played the same system all the time at Feyenoord, but he would make subtle changes according to the teams we were playing against. We might play a bit higher up the pitch or drop a bit deeper in defence. It worked exceptionally well.
Australia got lucky when we were able to get Bert to do this job.
He’d qualified Saudi Arabia for the World Cup ahead of us, but then he had a disagreement with their federation who didn’t want to do things his way. That goes back to Bert’s personality. He’s got his beliefs about the right way to go about doing a job and he sticks to them.
So he walked away and we were able to pick him up.
It’s hard to think of anyone who would’ve been better prepared to accept the challenge.
THE ARZANI QUESTION
Bert is the type of manager who won’t be afraid to pick Arzani. And I don’t think Arzani would be overawed if Bert decided to start him against France.
He’s obviously the player everyone’s talking about and there has been a lot of discussion about how much game-time he should get and whether he should come off the bench or start.
Obviously, you have to make decisions on substitutions according to how the game is going but, if the opportunity is available, I’d like to see him get the chance to make an impact and go out there for 30 minutes at least.
Is it a bit too early for him to start? I’m not so sure. I’ve seen enough of him in the A-League and in a couple of short spells with the Socceroos to believe he’d handle it.
He’s a very confident young man and, given the opportunity to start, he’d do well.
It’s hard to figure out what the World Cup campaign might hold for Mile Jedinak.
He’s known as a holding midfielder, but there’s been talk about him training at centre back as well, so maybe that’s a possibility that could eventuate. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a couple of players playing in unfamiliar positions.
I was very surprised Jedinak didn’t start the last friendly game instead of coming on for the second half. It might be a ploy of Bert’s to not give the French our exact starting XI. I wouldn’t put it past him.
I know when Mile eventually came on against Hungary he made a difference and gave the team a bit more stability through our midfield. I guess Bert’s got some decisions to make leading into the first game. I’ll be interested to see what he does.
Tim Cahill is there to be used as an impact player off the bench and he’s proven in the qualifying campaign that he’s still able to do that effectively. Let’s hope he can produce another spectacular World Cup moment for us.
I’m most hoping to see a few new faces given the opportunity to make names for themselves.
Andrew Nabbout is one of those. It looks like he’s ahead of Tomi Juric after Tomi came on as a sub against Hungary and was then subbed off.
It’s looking good for Andrew at the moment. He’s been starting games and nobody else has really stepped up to take that spot away from him.
HOW TO APPROACH FRANCE
You can’t go into a game against France and park the bus. That’s pointless.
A team like that will almost certainly get you eventually and, at the same time, you’re giving yourself no chance of winning.
I believe Bert will try to prevent France from having too much time and space in and around our area, try to stop them from turning and getting between the lines and running at our defenders.
That’s what’s most dangerous about them. They’ve got so much ability and pace, they can trouble any defence in the world. We’ll eliminate that as much as possible.
We’ll try to move the ball quickly in general play and rely a lot on the counter-attack. We’ve shown in the past against bigger nations we can actually do that quite well.
We have the players and some pace upfront in guys like Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse who can hurt teams on the counter, so I think that will play in our favour.
I don’t think Arzani would be overawed if Bert decided to start him against France.
We’ll be trying for a result, but in a certain way. Our approach will be measured and we’ll have to stay compact and work extremely hard for every one of the 90 minutes.
We have to recognise France have better individual players than us, but it’s a team game and a set of great individuals don’t always win football matches. They still have to play well together, so we’ll be hoping to be a better team on the day than they are.
I think France might be too good in the end, but I definitely give us a chance of getting a result. I’m always hopeful.
If we do lose, it will be crucially important to minimise the scoreline and give us the best opportunity to still progress. Denmark and Peru are within our range and definitely beatable.
So, regardless of the result in our first game, we’re a real chance of advancing from the group stage.