MATCH PREVIEW: Australia v Spain

On Sunday night at 8:30pm AEST, the Olyroos take on Spain in the second match of their Olympics campaign. 

And after shocking the world in their opening match against Argentina, what can we expect from this clash?

The Olyroos were fantastic against Argentina, putting in a dominant performance right from the first minute of the match. Although the Argentinians dominated possession in the match with 56%, the Olyroos did not provide them with much time or space to utilise this possession, and whenever they did look like developing a strong attacking possession, the defensive resilience of the Olyroos shone through and nullified the threat.

 The Olyroos won 67 duels on Thursday, compared to 56 by the Argentines, and at the heart of this stellar defensive effort were, in my opinion, three standout players. 

Central defensive pairing Harry Souttar and captain Thomas Deng were monumental in the clash, combining for four clearances, seven successful duels, four interceptions – and one vital blocked shot from Deng. They kept Adolfo Gaich, the lone Argentina attacker for much of the game, incredibly quiet during the match, limiting him to only one shot. 

Another key cog in Australia’s defensive performance was Conor Metcalfe, who was operating as a midfield anchor. With much of the match played in the middle-third of the pitch, it was Metcalfe who was kept busiest on the defensive end, and his performance was vital to the team’s success. The importance of Metcalfe’s defensive duties during this game cannot be understated. He won eight duels, blocked two shots, made four tackles and five interceptions – his midfield disruption a key component in Argentina losing possession 151 times during the game. 

These three key defensive performances were at the heart of this famous Australian win, and without the will and determination of Souttar, Deng and Metcalfe, who were world-class in their ability to win and recycle possession to Australia’s more potent creative talents, the result of the match could have been incredibly different. 

However, despite the unwavering defensive shift put in the Olyroos all over the pitch, their major weakness during their game was their ability to polish off attacking moves, whether that be their finishing or their ability to play a killer final ball. Several times the Olyroos broke through the Argentine defence and midfield and were unable to finish their chances, with the Olyroos hitting the bar twice and squandering another major chance through Daniel Arzani in the second half. 

Australia created 14 chances, including four big chances, and with better finishing and end product, they could have converted these chances into goals and left the Sapporo Dome with a more comprehensive victory. If the Olyroos want to get anything from Spain on Sunday, they will need to be able to find the perfect marriage between their defensive solidity and a polished off attacking display.

As for Australia’s opponent on Sunday night, Spain, they are coming off the back of a disappointing draw against Egypt in their opening match of the tournament. Despite massively dominating possession in true Spanish fashion with 71%, Spain only managed to generate 12 shots all throughout the game, with only five of those finding the target. Ball dominance is the philosophy Spain has subscribed to for just over the past decade, and when it works it can produce some of the most scintillating football in the world, but when it does not come off, such as against Egypt, it can easily turn into a boring, uninspiring match. 

Spain no doubt has the personnel to dominate not just Australia, but the whole tournament, with five of its starting side against Egypt also starting in Spain’s semi-final defeat to Italy at last month’s Euros. The talent and experience are there for Spain, but their lack of an out-and-out number nine could prove to be their downfall. Mikel Oyarzabal can perform that role, but his expertise is in wide areas, particularly on the left-wing, where he played almost all his club football for Real Sociedad last season. For Spain, the style for victory is there, and like Australia, it is lying underneath a lack of goal-scoring efficiency. 

At the heart of this stylish Spanish side is Barcelona’s very own wonderkid, Pedri, who broke out last season under coach Ronald Koeman. Pedri continued his breakout campaign at Euro2020 under Spanish national team manager Luis Enrique, winning the Best Young Player of the Tournament award. He’ll be looking to continue his run and lead Spain to its second ever Gold medal. 

Against Egypt Pedri once again showed the world why he is highly touted to be the simultaneous future of both Spanish and Catalan football, completing 89% of his 76 passes and proving to be the most progressive Spanish midfielder. Pedri’s skillset means he is the Spanish player most likely to create a breakthrough against Australia. Pedri is undoubtedly the master key to Spanish success: he is the heart of the team, pumping balls and chances out to his teammates like they’re blood, vital to their own survival and success. 

If Australia has any chance of getting a result against Spain, the onus is on Conor Metcalfe and Denis Genreau to produce a defensive midfield masterclass to nullify the brilliance of Pedri in midfield. If Pedri is afforded any time and space against the Olyroos, he has the class and talent to punish Australia and put chances on a platter for his attackers. Whether Spain finishes these chances or not is up to them – and Harry Souttar and Thomas Deng, whose physicality in the back is another area where Australia may be able to nullify the Spanish threat. Both Souttar and Deng were stubborn in defence against Argentina, able to match them both in the air and on the floor, and another monstrous performance by the central defensive pair is crucial for Australian success. 

Aside from stellar individual performances, Australia’s best chance at success is to follow the model that has worked at limiting the chances for both Spain’s main national team and its Under-23 side. It’s a model that worked for Egypt in the opening match of the Olympics and Sweden in the group stage of the Euros. In both matches Spain’s opponents sat deep, forfeited possession of the football and invited Spain to breakdown a low defensive block. This limited the spaces available in central areas and forced Spain into wider spaces and, ultimately, into crossing the ball. In both 0-0 games, Spain attempted 23 crosses (Egypt) and 29 crosses (Sweden) 11 of which were successful. 

One of Australia’s biggest defensive strengths is their ability to deal with crosses into the box, which is in no small part thanks to the size and presence of centre-half, Harry Souttar, who won 3 of his 5 area duels against Argentina. Forcing Spain into an unwanted crossing game and then aiming to use the pace of Australia’s wingers and attackers to play on the counter could be the key for success for Australia. 

As for Spain, its best chance of winning the match is just by being Spain. Any side that dominates over 70% of possession against their opponent is a great chance of claiming victory and given the wealth of creative talent available to the Spanish, possession will be easy to claim for them. The difficult question for Spain will be whether their possession will be proactive and generate chances. If Australia does opt for a low-defensive block, it will be up to Spain to play to their strengths, be patient and wait for a lapse in Australian concentration to break them down and create chances. 

Another key to Spanish success will be their finishing. If they do opt for Mikel Oyarzabal as a striker on Sunday, it will be at the expense of having a traditional number nine in his place. This could prove costly for Spain if they have another wasteful match in front of goal. Dominate possession, be patient and the chances will come. They have the talent; they just need the cutting edge. That will be the key to Spanish success come Sunday evening. 

It will no doubt be an interesting match-up this Sunday. Pedri holds the master key for Spain’s success, but it will be up to Australia’s defensive troops to answer the door when he comes knocking. If Australia nullifies the Pedri threat and forces Spain into an unnatural style of play, then another shocking result could be on the cards. 

However, if Spain plays the Spanish way, the Aussies both on the pitch and at home could be in for a long evening. 

But if there is one thing Australia showed in their opening match, it is that they have the capabilities and belief to shock the world. Only time will tell if they are able to repeat this shock factor on Sunday night, but a little faith never hurt anybody.

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