A winning formula off the field is helping Australia coach Ange Postecoglou achieve success on it, as the Socceroos prepare to take the first step towards the 2018 FIFA World Cup with their first Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifier in June.
Armed with laptops, smart phone apps, GPS devices and test kits to assess players’ saliva for signs of fatigue or infection, the national team’s backroom boffins are harnessing science and technology to ring every last ounce of performance from the Asian champion.
So sophisticated and advanced are the measures being used to both enhance and monitor players’ fitness levels, that after the Socceroos turned on the style to draw 2-2 with world champion Germany in Kaiserslautern last month, the DFB ((Deutscher Fußball-Bund) approached the Socceroos hierarchy to learn some of their sports science secrets.
Former Socceroos star Luke Casserly, FFA’s head of national performance, set about instigating a more systematic and coordinated off-field approach after his appointment in 2013, explaining that for Australia to play the “proactive, high pressing style” that Postecoglou has pioneered for the national team they need every player operating at optimal level.
“We need every player in the best possible condition to perform for the national team, especially going into big tournaments like World Cups and Asian Cups where there are games every four or five days,” Casserly said.
“If you are not in peak physical condition, you can’t play at the tempo and intensity we aim for.
“Whenever a player comes into camp we already have daily data on their club training loads at our disposal.
“We also have our own history of when they have been with us and we know if they are at peak levels or not, and what assistance they need.”
In-house testing revealed that at the AFC Asian Cup in January, not only was Australia the fittest team, it also had the tournament's four most highly-tuned athletes: Mathew Leckie, Matt McKay, Robbie Kruse and James Troisi.
“They were a cut above in terms of their physical output,” Casserly said. “Leckie in particular is a machine … he has enormous physical qualities.
“We have a computer program which looks at the distance they cover, their high speed activity and the recovery time between these bursts."
It’s not just the outfield players who are burning up the turf. Mat Ryan covered a staggering 7.8 kilometres against Germany, according to Casserly. “I would be very surprised if there was keeper in the world who could match that sort of output,” he said.
Without a sports science arm when he arrived, Casserly quickly set about changing that.
“We always look to do things better and we are now leaders in the field which is why the DFB are interested in what we are doing,” he said.
In what amounts to a high-tech diary, players punch information into a smart phone app on their sleep patterns, muscle soreness, fatigue levels and a variety of other physical indicators throughout the season.
“They are also continuously tracked by GPS, in collaboration with their clubs, and the players shoot the information through to us,” Casserly said.
“When they’re in camp there’s also a saliva test every day to determine immune function and hormone levels. We are trying to take things to another level."
Diet is also closely watched, although at their clubs players are allowed to follow common sense rather than strict edicts.
“Because they are monitored and tested every time they come into camp, it’s not hard to tell if anybody has gone off track,” Casserly said.
"Mile Jedinak is gluten and lactose intolerant and he has diet of his own. He is very particular in what he eats and his body is in fantastic shape."
Australia flew a travelling support cast which ran into double figures for the games against Germany and Macedonia last month.
The ensemble included team doctor Mark Jones, sports science chief Dr Craig Duncan and his assistant Fabian Ehrmann, video and data analyst Peter Cklamovski, physiotherapists Les Gelis and Kurt Lyle, and masseur Luke Atwell.
Australia has a bye on match day one of the opening qualification rounds for Russia 2018 and won’t play its first match until 16 June away from home.
The draw, which takes place in Kuala Lumpur on 14 April, will include 40 teams split into eight groups of five.
The winner of each group and the best performing four second placed teams advance to the final phase of qualifying.
With all of Australia's national teams under the auspices of Postecoglou, the plan is to have them all playing the same way, so players can make a seamless transition from the youth teams to the senior squad.
“When a player comes into the Socceroos from junior teams he will know the environment he’s coming into and that’s reflective of our curriculum,” Casserly said.
“In the past under Holger Osieck, the Socceroos would play the way he thought was right, while the Olyroos would play their way and the Young Socceroos would do their thing. That’s all changed now.
"What you saw against Germany is how we want to play, the Australian way if you like.
"It’s no mistake that Ange is the coach, he is philosophically aligned with the curriculum."