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World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

2022 FIFA World Cup Tactical Preview: Australia

When thinking of countries that have been consistent attendees at World Cups in the 21st century, the names that immediately spring to mind are the likes of Brazil, Germany and England. However, an often-forgotten team who have been ever present at football’s most prestigious tournament in recent times are Australia, yet 2022 will be their sixth appearance in total in the tournament and their fifth in a row, with that run stretching back to Germany 2006.

Despite consistently making it through the qualifying rounds, the Socceroos are never expected to progress far, with the last three editions of the tournament seeing them fall at the group stages. Nevertheless, the arrival of the World Cup and the chance to see their team locking horns with some of the best national sides in global football always leads to a lot of excitement down under, and this year will be no different.

Graham Arnold’s side have been drawn into Group D this time around and will meet old friends in France and Denmark, who both faced Australia four years ago in Russia, as well as Tunisia, who are a team that some people might underestimate and yet have some dangerous players who will cause problems for their opponents, including former Sunderland forward Wahbi Khazri, who currently plays for Ligue 1 side Montpellier.

This tactical analysis will look at the Australian national team in more detail, with analysis of their players, preferred tactics and key statistics. The scout report will identify the players that they will be reliant on when the tournament gets underway, as well as form a prediction on how far realistically they might go.

Predicted starting XI

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

The most likely starting formation that Australia will use is a 4-2-3-1, given that it has featured in 52% of their matches this year and is therefore their preferred setup. However, it should be pointed out that they do have other structures to fall back on if things need to be changed around, with a 4-4-2 their second most-used formation, having been utilised 44% of the time.

In goal, the most obvious candidate to start is former Brighton and Hove Albion stopper Mathew Ryan, with the experienced stopper currently the Socceroos captain and therefore a player that holds a lot of influence in the side. However, he will have strong competition from players like Sydney FC’s Andrew Redmayne, who became a national hero when he made the penalty save against Peru that sealed Australia’s place in Qatar.

In defence, the two full-backs will be tasked with getting up the pitch and supporting attacks as often as possible, with both Nathaniel Atkinson and Aziz Behich having shown themselves to be adept at that side of the game. In between them, it will be important that Arnold selects the right combination of players, making sure that he can be strong without the ball and have a good passing range once they win the ball back, and the most likely partnership is that of Bailey Wright and Kye Rowles, as they give Australia a mix of qualities but also some much-needed experience.

In the two holding roles, again it will be important to find the right combination of players, with Arnold likely to want one player who can sit back and one who prefers to push forward. Aaron Mooy, formerly of Brighton and Huddersfield Town and currently of Celtic, has proven to have a strong presence in the defensive midfield roles throughout his career and will have a key role in offering defensive protection when it is required, and he is likely to be joined in that area by former EFL player Jackson Irvine, who is the archetypal box-to-box player and has shown speed around the field and poses a significant goal threat, as well as being a key figure at set pieces.

Ahead of them, Riley McGree is a very highly-rated player who Australia will need to be at his creative best, with the amount of space that he can move into likely to dictate how many chances the Socceroos create. However, he will need options on either side of him to play at his best, and the two obvious candidates for the wing roles are Mathew Leckie and Awer Mabil, who are both capable of getting behind opposing defences and exploiting any spaces that they leave open.

However, whilst it is important to create opportunities, Australia will also need a player who is capable of converting them, and it will be especially important to have the right player on the pitch given that the formation only allows one striker to be on the field at a time. The most likely player to fill that role is Mitchell Duke, who has shown during recent friendlies that he can lead the line and pose a threat in the final third, and the fact that he has featured in their last few matches suggests that Arnold trusts him to be his main target player.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

There is still a long time before the World Cup, meaning that Australia, like every other team, will not rush naming their final squad. However, this graphic indicates every player who has a strong chance of being included and shows how Arnold could split his squad across youth, prime and experienced age ranges.

Looking at the goalkeepers, it is evident that the Socceroos favour experience in between the posts, with this likely to be down to them wanting to settle those in front of them and have a player at the back who can look at the bigger picture ahead of them and dictate how the rest of the team plays, and the fact that the majority of the defenders named in this chart also fall within the prime or experienced sections shows how they want players who will be hard to beat.

However, when looking at their options in midfield, it is clear that the need for experience is not as important, with most of them nearer the start of their international careers as Arnold looks for raw pace and creative quality in the central third, trying to keep the ball moving at speed and make it as difficult as possible for their opponents to win possession.

Meanwhile, at the top of the field, he once again is looking for experience, with the majority of the players who will spend the most time in the final third either in their prime or in the experienced age range, and this is likely down to his desire to give the rest of the team target players that they know will have the stamina to feature in the majority of their games and therefore will allow those behind to recognise how they like to play.

Attacking phase

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

The key point to make about Australia’s offensive phases of play is that they have different ways of building attacks, with them able to vary their tactics depending on what their opponents are doing. Primarily, they will look to win the ball and then send it up the pitch to find those target players mentioned in the last section of this analysis, and this is reflected in the above graphic through the Socceroos ranking near the top in percentile terms of long passes per match. In conjunction with that, they have a lower percentile ranking for possession, which shows again how their game plans tend to focus on winning the ball and then counterattacking when spaces open up.

However, when needed, they are capable of playing shorter passes and building play up, but the focus in these moments remains focused on moving the ball up the field and ensuring that they can pose a threat at every possible opportunity, which is shown in the graphic by the way that they rank highly for forward passes made per game. However, the difference with these situations is that they rely on the pace of the wingers to take the ball behind opposing lines, and the passing skill of their midfielders to move the ball into their paths, and that shows again how they can attack in different ways and alter their style of play if there is a need to do so.

However, for all of their hard work when moving the ball up the field, where they often slip up is their goal conversion rate, with it clear to see in the graphic that they have a very high percentile ranking for shots on target, but a low ranking for goals per game. Therefore, whilst it is likely that they will create plenty of chances in Qatar, it should not be expected that they will score many goals, which will hinder any chance that they have of progressing to the knockout stages.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

As mentioned, Australia’s primary tactics are to move the ball into the final third as quickly as possible and to target key players, and one of those who often receives long passes is Leckie. The reason that the Melbourne City winger is trusted with this responsibility is that he can slow play down or to speed it up, depending again on what the opposing side is doing. Here, he has received a long ball and is holding onto it, waiting for support to arrive from their own half, and this is because he knows that he is not in a realistic position to shoot at New Zealand’s goal.

Therefore, those watching Australia’s matches in Qatar should look out for how Leckie and others control the flow of their play, because the more that the Socceroos get these players on the ball and lean on their awareness and calm judgement in situations like this, the more chance that they will have of keeping the ball and converting some of their opportunities.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

When numbers do arrive in the final third, Australia’s focus immediately switches towards creating space and allowing their more inventive players to take the ball into areas where they can either penetrate the opposing defensive line or have a shot at goal. This relies on a great deal of teamwork, with players needing to know their roles, and this situation is a good example of how dangerous they can be when they get these details right.

Here, the trio of Hearts defender Atkinson, Fagiano Okayama striker Duke and Melbourne City forward Marco Tilio have found themselves in the forward line and all push forward simultaneously, which forces the New Zealand players around them to also move backwards as they look to protect their goal area.

This opens up the space in front of the defensive line and gives Australia a chance to move the ball infield and have time to control the ball and drive towards the goal. In this case, it is Middlesbrough midfielder McGree, in the blue circle, who makes that forward run, and he then opts to take the ball forward and set up Tilio to have a shot at goal, which doesn’t find the back of the net. However, the key thing to take from this tactically is that the Socceroos are an effective team when given spaces to play in inside the final third, and it will be interesting to see if they can manipulate their three World Cup group stage opponents in the same way once the tournament gets underway.

Defensive phase

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

When defending, Australia tend to focus on getting numbers back behind the ball and making it as difficult as possible to score against them, and, as this graphic shows, they don’t engage in many defensive or aerial duels but do win a lot of the ones that they get involved in. They also don’t make many recoveries in the final third, and yet rank highly when it comes to recovering balls in their own third, and that again shows how their main aim once they lose possession is to get back and protect the goal at all costs.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

This determination to not let teams score easy goals against them is shown here, with five players forming a protective line in front of the box and four more moving around in front and trying to apply pressure on New Zealand and force them into making a mistake. The five-player line is compact and disciplined, with players tending not to move out and try to close the ball down when there isn’t a realistic chance of them winning the duel.

It is also worth noting that their favoured formation only allows four defenders at any one time, so there is a great deal of reliance on the midfielders and even some of the forwards to get back here and play their part in making the team hard to beat. Therefore, again, there are clear indications of the team ethic that is ingrained in so much of the Socceroos’ play.

With all of this now in place, New Zealand have no clear route through to goal, meaning that their only option is to play sideways and to try and find a weakness in the Australian defensive line. Therefore, it is an effective way of playing when out of possession and one that immediately shuts down opposing attacks, and it will be interesting to see if they manage to hold out the types of attackers that France and Denmark in particular will throw at them when the group stages commence.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

It is important to note though that they are not watertight, and there are ways of breaking them down and getting into the spaces behind them. New Zealand worked this out and subsequently stationed Newcastle United striker Chris Wood in front of the defensive line, targeting him with long balls, as this situation shows.

This tempted individual Australian players to come forward and win the ball, as Trent Sainsbury did here, but they struggled to compete with the strength of Wood and allowed their geographical rivals to exploit the gaps left open in their defensive line, with this situation ending in a goal narrowly being avoided. Therefore, this is what Australia need to watch. Equally, it is something that opponents can look at when forming their game plans ahead of their meetings with the Socceroos.


World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

It has already been mentioned that Australia’s primary focus when they lose possession is to get players back behind the ball, but it was also mentioned that not all of their players do get back, with some staying higher up the field to enable any long counterattacking passes to be made.

However, the role that those players have in the initial stages is to press their opponents and to try and force them to move the ball up the field quicker than they would like to, increasing the potential for them to make a mistake. In this case, New Zealand’s Brøndby midfielder Joe Bell is being closed down by three Australian players and needs to make a quick decision, and the lack of time that he has decreases the accuracy of his pass towards forward, Alex Greive.

As a result, Greive is unable to control the ball cleanly enough and Socceroos defender Harrison Delbridge is able to get forward and win it back. It is not always as easy as this situation was, but this does show a different side to Australia’s defensive play that France, Denmark and Tunisia will all need to be aware of.

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

When in defence-to-attack transitions, Australia are again adaptable, with their different tactics meaning that they can assess the situation ahead of them and then act depending on what the best option is.

In this case, they are looking to move the ball around at the back and see whether Peru would apply any pressure on them, and, once they realised that there would be no Peruvian press, they knew that they would have time to keep the ball on the ground and increase the accuracy of their passes. Irvine was the player who came back to offer the passing option here, and, as the yellow arrow shows, he was then able to turn and pick out the run of Mabil with a well-weighted pass.

Mabil is just one of several quick players in the Australian side, with striker Garang Kuol, who will join Newcastle in January, another who has pace to burn. Therefore, if the Socceroos are allowed to keep the ball on the ground, then these players running into open spaces will give Australia’s opponents definite cause for concern.


With Australia putting a lot of focus on their wingers controlling play, either through winning long balls or running onto shorter passes, it would be expected that the players who operate in those areas would be good at creating opportunities and winning duels against opponents.

However, this is not where their strengths lie, with the four players likely to feature in those positions on most occasions (Tilio, Mabil, Leckie and Hibernian’s Martin Boyle) not showing many promising statistics for deliveries into the middle (these statistics are from international matches only).

Tilio has the highest average value out of this group, with 50% of his crosses finding their intended target, but it then goes down as Hibernian’s Martin Boyle’s accuracy is just 31.7%, Leckie’s is 29.9% and Mabil’s is 25.4%. It was mentioned earlier when looking specifically at Leckie’s role that he often holds the ball up and waits for teammates to get up the pitch, and this goes some way to explaining why he doesn’t send long crosses into the box instead.

Another area where they might be expected individually to be strong is in winning offensive duels, and this could be important in the World Cup when considering the calibre of player that they will be facing. However, again, all four players have low values, with Boyle this time having the highest percentage, having succeeded in 47.6% of his duels, whilst Tilio has won 43.8%, Mabil 42.6% and Leckie just 35.7%.

This might look like a problem, but actually, it reflects how Australia don’t specialise in winning duels and prefer not to be caught in 1-v-1 battles, with them ranking in the third lowest percentile band for this area of the game. Therefore, whilst it might be what lets them down at times, the fact that it is not something that they focus on tactically during matches means that it will not give Arnold too many major concerns.

The striker options also offer different qualities to the team, with some of the likely candidates for that position staying high up the pitch and some tending to drop back and play a larger role in their build-up play. As a result, how Australia approach a game tactically will ultimately determine which player starts, with Duke’s average of 4.27 touches in the penalty area and former Fulham striker Adam Taggart’s four meaning that they would be ideal players to include if Arnold wanted to have a target player on the pitch.

If, however, he wanted a striker who could drop back and help to move the ball around the pitch, then the best options would be either Andrew Nabbout, who was used in the role in Russia until an injury ruled him out of the tournament, and who averages 2.01 touches in the penalty area or the aforementioned Kuol, who has only played once for his country and averaged just one touch inside the box. Therefore, these two players are more likely to link up with teammates and potentially draw opposing defenders out of position, giving Australia a different way of playing in the final third if they felt that they needed a tactical alteration.


The main roles of the midfielders are to offer defensive protection and, if Australia looked to play short passes along the ground, to give the defenders passing options and to help transfer the ball through the thirds. Therefore, those who play in the central third will need to be good at one aspect of the game or the other, with this scout report already mentioning that getting the combination right will determine how effective the Socceroos are in possession.

Beginning with the defensive side of things, the statistics suggest that the best player to have sitting back would be Denis Genreau, as he averages 4.4 interceptions per match, whilst Irvine averages 4.05, Mooy 3.62 and Blackpool’s Kenny Dougall just 1.22. However, the reason that Mooy was selected in the predicted starting XI is that he offers experience that the other players don’t have so much of, which fits in with Arnold’s desire to have older players nearer the goal area.

When passing up the pitch, the same four players have different values, with the best player to give this role to being Dougall, who has an 83.7% accuracy for passes to the final third. The next best option would be Mooy, who has a 77.8% accuracy, whilst Irvine’s value is 74.7% and Genreau is the lowest out of this group of players, with just a 67.6% accuracy. Therefore, what is clear is that Dougall is at his best when given licence to get forward and work with those ahead of him, and the best combination statistically would be him and Genreau. However, with Irvine’s speed and quick decision-making, he will likely start and both Dougall and Genreau will be used as impact players, with the way that the matches go determining which of them is required.


With defending being such a key aspect of Australia’s tactics, the players in this section of the pitch will need to have high statistics in all areas of the role to have a chance of featuring in Qatar. These include winning duels both on the ground and in the air and passing out from their own third, and finding the right centre-back combination could be what decides whether the Socceroos keep a clean sheet or not.

Beginning with their duels won, the best player to have in the team for this statistically is Rowles, who, despite playing just twice for his country, has won 87.5% of his individual battles. The next best value for this statistic comes from Sainsbury, who has won 61.5% of his duels (although can be caught out against stronger opponents), whilst Wright has won 60.9% and Delbridge, who has only played once for the Socceroos, exactly 60%.

However, when examining the aerial battles, it is Delbridge who has the highest value, with him winning 89% of his individual battles in the air, so he would be a useful player to have if Australia find that they are facing a team who play a lot of long balls and try to target spaces behind them. In comparison, Wright has won 63.2% of his aerial duels, Sainsbury 58.8% and Rowles just 33.3%, so the right combination in theory would be Delbridge and Rowles. This doesn’t change when considering how each of these players ranks when it comes to passing out from the back, as Rowles has the highest accuracy with 93.8%, whilst the worst of the four in this area of the game is Wright, although he still has a 90.1% accuracy.

Therefore, when all of this is considered, what seems the most likely is that Arnold will put together one of Delbridge or Rowles, depending on what they think they will face, and then one of Wright or Sainsbury, giving the team some experience at the back and leadership qualities, but getting the right mix of abilities will be critical for them in every match.

Key player

World Cup 2022 Tactical Preview: Australia

This analysis of the Australian national side has so far largely focused on their defensive strength and the different roles of the forwards, but the one position that has not been discussed and yet brings the whole team together is the attacking midfielder.

More often than not, this role will be given to McGree, who has grown as a player in recent seasons, with the media praising his work ethic and versatility during his loan spell at Birmingham City whilst he has shown promise since his permanent switch to the Riverside Stadium in January. On his first start for the Australian senior team, he assisted two goals against Chinese Taipei and was named man-of-the-match for his efforts, and he will quite simply be a vital player to have in-form if the Socceroos are to have any chance of being competitive in Qatar.

It’s telling that, in the above graphic, he ranks well above the league median for the majority of attacking metrics, which shows how involved he is in his team’s offensive play both in terms of creating chances and shooting at goal. However, the one area where he doesn’t rank as highly is in offensive duels won, with him succeeding in just 33.46%, although the likely explanation for this is that, because he stays in open spaces so much, he doesn’t often win the ball on his own as other players are more suited to that aspect of the game.

When it comes to moving the ball around, the metrics indicate that this is a strong area in his game, with an 84.17% passing accuracy showing that his teammates can rely on him to find them around the pitch and to create opportunities in the central and final thirds. He doesn’t rank highly for progressive passes and passes to the final third, but this is likely down to the fact that he tends to stay in and around the final third anyway, so other players will be tasked with moving the ball into his path and allowing him to then look for others ahead of him, and this also explains why his pass length percentile rank is so low, with an average of just 16.47m made every time he sends the ball onwards.

Being an attacking midfielder, the defensive side of the game is not one of his main responsibilities. However, what Australia will be happy about is that he has a high percentile ranking for the number of duels that he engages in, and he also blocks a good number of shots each game too. Therefore, whilst it is not his main role, they can ask him to get back if required and fill in, and he would be able to contribute something to their efforts.

Tournament prediction

Given everything that has been mentioned in this analysis, it is clear that Australia have a great deal of quality in their squad and are not a team to be completely written off, with a clear idea of how they want to play football and the ability to adapt in all areas through formations, tactics and personnel if things aren’t going their way.

However, it is still difficult to see them reaching the knockout stages, given that their first three games will be against the defending world champions, a team who reached the Euro 2020 semi-finals and a team who have claimed recent wins against Japan and Chile. The Socceroos will be the clear underdogs in all three matches and therefore the side least expected to progress, and even the most optimistic of Australian fans would admit that their chances are not great.

However, the thing about the Socceroos is that they don’t know when to accept that they are second best, with their win in the final playoff match against Peru upsetting the odds and pre-match predictions and showing that Graham Arnold’s side are a tough team to throw off. Their fans will hope that, whatever happens, they will be able to leave Qatar with their heads held high and the squad will be ready for another qualifying push ahead of 2026.