With much analysis of the game in the popular media focusing on the merits of individuals rather than the organisation of teams as collective entities, it was particularly nice to see New Zealand showing how a well-constructed system can overcome a lack of individual quality in their 1-1 draw against Slovakia in Rustenburg this afternoon.
Set out in the expected 3-4-3 formation by manager Ricki Herbert, the All Whites went about pressing the Slovaks to good effect, covering for each other superbly and generally showing excellent organisation and positional intelligence.
The wing-backs, Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead, were instrumental to the Kiwis’ impressive first-half showing, with Lochhead – the deeper of the two – more cautious in going forward but providing some good service into the front three, whilst Bertos played as more of a traditional wide midfielder, supporting Shane Smeltz on the right side and providing the team with useful natural width and an extra attacking outlet.
In the defensive phase the pair dropped back swiftly, giving the back line an extra insurance policy so as not to afford the likes of Vladimir Weiss and Zdeno Strba the space and time needed to get in behind and create the plethora of opportunities the Slovak’s were expected to have against the rank outsiders from Oceania.
In the centre of midfield Ivan Vicelich (usually a centre-half) and Simon Elliott, 33 and 35 respectively, were excellent at putting pressure on the ball and played their roles very efficiently. The defensive qualities of Vicelich saw the Auckland City player sit deep and shield the back three, affording Elliott the freedom to get up the pitch with surprising energy for a player in his mid-thirties and provide an added attacking threat through the middle.
The wide attacking players also played a key role, Smeltz and Chris Killen tracking back when Slovakia were in possession to create what was essentially a 5-4-1. With their forwards outnumbered by a stout New Zealand defence, the Eastern Europeans were – with the exception of their goal at the start of the second period – continually frustrated, their attacking play blunted by some resolute Kiwi play.
Although going with three strikers may appear to be a high-risk tactic for Herbert considering his team’s lack of top-level experience, the system he has opted for is one with beautiful balance and an admirable level of pragmatism and organisation. New Zealand may be highly unlikely to progress beyond the group phase, but today they showed that good footballing intelligence and hard work can overcome sizeable gaps in the class of the two sets of players. A draw was the very least the All Whites deserved.