In the wake of Australia’s 2-1 defeat to France in their World Cup opener, headlines screamed of injustice after Les Bleus scored courtesy of a VAR penalty decision and a crazy deflection.
True enough, it was a resilient and largely disciplined performance from the Socceroos, but if Bert van Marwijk’s men are to grow as unit in this tournament and those to come, there must be a deeper reaction than simply pointing blame at technology.
The decision to award hot favourites France a penalty after a review was difficult for the Socceroos and their fans to take, but that does not mean it was an incorrect one. Right-back Josh Risdon did clip the heel of Antoine Griezmann, bringing the Atletico Madrid marksman down inside the area.
But, rather than re-examining that single second frame-by-frame, over and over, it would serve Australia well to understand how the opportunity presented itself in the first instance.
Having held on so tightly to keep scores level for the first 45 minutes, the Socceroos were simply a little naive in the wrong situation.
Ten minutes into the second half, after giving away possession cheaply again, this time with an aimless ball down the left, the Socceroos were exposed when Aaron Mooy was beaten in midfield by a delightful touch from N’Golo Kante, who instantly spotted Paul Pogba in acres of space.
For the first time in the game, the Manchester United man was able to run at Australia’s defensive line and subsequently open them up. Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe — who, incidentally, was marginally offside when Pogba played his pass — both got in behind their markers. This forced Risdon to make a split-second decision, in which he chose to go to ground in an attempt to get a last-ditch touch on the ball.
Replays suggest he may just have got the faintest deflection, causing very reasonable conjecture among football pundits across not only Australia but the world.
That aside, the lesson for the Socceroos has nothing to do with VAR. It is that giving the ball up so easily and so often will usually come at a price against truly world-class players.
Recognising this, perhaps it wasn’t wise for Mooy to press so hard and high up the pitch. Perhaps, in seeing this unfold, Tom Rogic should have chosen to drop back and cover Pogba instead of moving forward and leaving Mile Jedinak with two French midfielders to defend. Maybe nothing would have stopped the French from scoring in that circumstance. We’ll never know.
What is certain, though, is that players like Pogba and Griezmann are so highly regarded because of their ability to turn one opposition mistake, one glimpse of time and space, into a one-on-one attacking opportunity.
Similarly, France’s 80th-minute winner was understandably labeled “lucky” by Van Marwijk after the contest. But, aside from a one-in-a-million deflection from a Pogba touch off the outstretched boot of Behich, which sailed over goalkeeper Mat Ryan, there’s more that can be examined.
Substitute Tomi Juric was caught walking instead of closing down passing lanes when the ball was played to the feet of an unmarked Pogba. Again, given time and space, the midfielder made his own luck by playing one-twos with Mbappe and Olivier Giroud, using his forward momentum to go by Jedinak and Mooy in the process.
The most gifted player on the pitch was free to turn and face goal before running 40 yards untouched into the penalty area. It’s supremely difficult to win games at the highest level when this happens, even if it only happens once or twice.
Of course, the final touch was incredibly fortuitous, making it an infuriating way for the gritty Socceroos to lose the game. However, it would be a shame if the flight of the ball, or the fact that similar goals have gone over the line and then back out again, which have not been given at World Cups in the past, remain the focus.
There are lessons to be learned here. Harsh, rich lessons.
Australia did a brilliant job of making life difficult for Didier Deschamps’ more fancied outfit. But can they minimise and cover their mistakes further in the future? Can they create similar goal-scoring chances in the rare moments to do so at the other end? For example, it’s difficult to recall a moment when Australia’s chief playmaker Rogic found space and used it to his advantage the way Pogba did on two occasions. Ultimately, that’s a huge difference.
This is what separates the good teams from the great ones. And Van Marwijk knows it. He has taken the Netherlands to a World Cup final, after all.
Rest assured that as soon as emotions settled on the way back to the team hotel from the Kazan Arena, preparations were already underway for Australia’s clash with Denmark on Thursday.
There is still great potential for the Socceroos to progress from Group C if they can regroup and employ Van Marwijk’s game-plan against the Danes and Peru over the next 10 days. After showing promise in spells against the might of France, there is every reason to believe they can make it happen.
In terms of the bigger picture, Australia wants so desperately to be respected as a football nation on the world stage. Who doesn’t? And, to be fair, the strides made in the past 12 or 13 years have been remarkable in this regard. But Australia won’t progress from a World Cup also-ran to a serious threat without learning from its mistakes — even if they happen to be pointed out with the help of technology.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks