Australia’s bald, beloved Premier League star has injured the medial ligament in his knee, as per The Australian, and could face up to six weeks on the sidelines, casting serious doubts on his eligibility for selection at January’s Asian Cup. Even if the Pasty Pirlo makes an early recovery in time for the knockout rounds, he’s unlikely to be at the peak of his powers.
Australia is starved of Premier League stars these days, and as a result, fawning headlines tend to follow Mooy’s exploits with Huddersfield, and rarely does the discourse emphasise his deficiencies. He is undoubtedly an elegant player: he has a delicate first touch, strikes a dead ball cleanly, and can pick out an eye-catching Hollywood pass. If Mooy had played fifty years ago, when the pace of the game was so much slower, he would have been a true superstar.
However, the demands placed on the modern midfielder are somewhat out of step with his more languid style. In today’s game of compact high blocks, the ability to quickly apply pressure or find space off the ball is crucial, particularly at the base of midfield. And against the smaller Asian countries, who will sit deep and pack their defences tight, the speed of ball movement is arguably more important than the accuracy.
Mooy barely dribbles, and plays as if he has leaden weights in the boots, with none of the lateral agility or 5-yard explosiveness which characterise the very best in his position. He is something of a dime-store Toni Kroos – for all you gain in eye-catching passing ability and set piece acumen, you sacrifice in speed, movement on and off the ball, defensive positioning, and the ability to press.
Factor in that Graham Arnold’s sides typically create most of their chances in transition, by forcing turnovers and breaking rapidly. In Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill, he had two of the A-League’s fittest and most hard-working destroyers; the perfect platform for the creators ahead of them to work their magic in numerically advantageous scenarios.
In addition, the Socceroos’ most successful period under Ange Postecoglou came without Mooy – or indeed Rogic – in the side. The underappreciated Massimo Luongo was instead the catalyst for Australia’s Asian Cup triumph in 2015. While Ange rotated through various assortments of Jedinak, Milligan, Troisi, and Bresciano in his midfield three, Luongo was the constant. His quick feet, mobility, and ability to receive the ball and turn out of tight areas opened up the middle of the park, and reduced the Socceroos’ reliance on crosses to Cahill as a route to goal. Luongo is a willing worker who can occupy any number of roles, and in some ways his versatility is also his downfall. Too many coaches have shunted him to the bench as a catch-all substitute, or, like Arnold, play him as a deep-lying #6, dropping between the centre backs to receive the ball – a frankly gratuitous waste of his box-to-box talents.
In the end, Ange almost drove himself mad trying to accommodate both Mooy and Rogic in an unbalanced 3-2-4-1 system, and in the process eroded the faith of the Australian public who had once so sincerely believed in him. Perhaps the solution to his midfield dilemma was staring him in the face all along.
If nothing else, Mooy’s injury will prove an interesting experiment. Will Australia strike a tactical balance in his absence? Or desperately hasten his return, half-fit, after stumbling unconvincingly through the group stages?