A pivotal factor behind the wider condemnation of the Socceroos’ chances at the World Cup is the squad’s lack of players in Europe’s top leagues. There are a few contracted but loaned elsewhere, and a reasonable contingent from the Eredivisie, but in terms of the ‘big five’ - England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France - Mile Jedinak is the only real name of note.
Strangely, though, despite being a regular Socceroo since the 2011 Asian Cup, and now captain of both Crystal Palace and the Socceroos, Jedinak remains somewhat under the radar - appreciated, but not idolised. That can be linked to his role as a defensive midfielder, certainly one of the less glamorous positions.
It’s a shame, however, for Jedinak’s contributions in that pivot space between attack and defence was so fundamental to his side’s remarkable improvement under Tony Pulis in the second half of the Premier League season just finished.
Initially, under the reign of Ian Holloway, Palace played a very attack-minded game that appeared extraordinarily naive as Palace conceded 21 goals in the opening 10 games of the season.
Pulis’ job was immediately simple: introducing a more counter-attacking approach, defensive organisation and demanding discipline all across the pitch, asking the wide players to drop back alongside the central midfielders to form a second bank of four ahead of the defence, as well as instructing the two forwards to drop behind the ball and make the side compact.
Jedinak, in one of the two central midfield positions, became one of the standout performers of the season, dictating the cohesion of the midfield four to slide across the pitch laterally and protect Palace’s back four.
Statistics site WhoScored ranks Jedinak as one of the league’s top tacklers and interceptors, demonstrating his defensive qualities - but more importantly, and intangibly, Jedinak often pushed forward to close down the man in possession, ensuring that the side’s shape retained pressure on the ball without necessarily negating their structure.
In that sense, Jedinak will be the ideal anchor in the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation preferred by Postecoglou - encouraging Australia’s pressing high up the pitch, but also moving in behind teammates to cover at the base of midfield.
As Palace were so patient for long periods without the ball, they inevitably invited opponents onto them and opened up space in behind. This suited the tremendous acceleration of the wide players, Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon, who carried the ball forward swiftly at transitions.
Palace’s comfort in defending for long periods meant they were happy to be carefree when in possession, with Pulis encouraging his central midfielders to hit risky forward balls into the channels for his attackers to chase on the counter-attack.
It’s miles away from Ange Postecoglou’s possession-as-defence philosophy, which lead to the rather strange suggestions that Jedinak wouldn’t fit in under the new regime. On paper, the analysis seems somewhat logical: statistically, he’s a poor passer and a midfield ‘destroyer’ - the type of player that never features in a Postecoglou side.
That ignores context, however, and Jedinak’s statistics demonstrate his role at Palace, rather than his abilities. Indeed, in the attack-minded system implemented by Holloway, Jedinak had an important role in spreading the ball from side to side, as well as knocking long, cross-field passes to switch the play.
In fact, when targeting an opponent’s right-hand side, Holloway sometimes switched Jedinak from his usual left-of-centre position to right-of-centre, so Jedinak could use his stronger foot more often to hit accurate diagonals down the left hand side.
Still, at the international level, Jedinak’s passing is still the subject of criticism, largely, it would seem, because of his characterisation as a purely defensive player. However, the last World Cup pre-tournament friendly, against Croatia, was an excellent demonstration of Jedinak’s passing ability. He mixed the short passing required to satisfy Postecoglou’s desire for possession with more ambitious forward passes, giving the full-backs time to get forward with his initial, safety-first distribution before opening up the attack with a sudden diagonal ball.
It worked nicely for Australia’s new emphasis on attacking out wide, as they now look to cross through the overlapping full-backs or get Matthew Leckie and Dario Vidosic (or Tommy Oar, presumably) on the ball and driving inside towards goal.
At the World Cup, Jedinak will still clearly be a key contributor in terms of his defensive ability, but he may also surprise many with his range of passing.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com