Watching it back now, as Néstor Araujo’s half-hearted clearance on the edge of the 18-yard box sees the ball squirt out towards New Zealand’s Clayton Lewis 30 yards from goal, Chris Wood is already positioning himself to receive his team-mate’s through-ball. Like a true poacher, the towering forward is alert to the chance.
Pointing to where he wants it placed ahead of him, he shuffles his feet to stay onside before a burst of pace sees him reach the ball before both backtracking defenders and the outcoming Alfredo Talavera can intervene to stop the shot that Wood rifles high and hard into the back of the net.
The strike, only the country’s third-ever in FIFA Confederations Cup action, puts New Zealand 1-0 up just before the half-time interval. Although Juan Carlos Osorio’s charges fight back to ultimately win the contest 2-1 in a tight game that caught the media’s eyes for an aggressive touchline outburst and a two-team brawl, it is New Zealand’s fiery attitude and intelligent style of play that should really have captured the headlines.
If playing poorly and winning is the true mark of a champion, then playing well and losing is the sign of an unlucky underdog; slogging away against all the odds might not seem like the most appealing of endeavours, but that’s precisely what Anthony Hudson has been doing as manager of New Zealand since 2014.
Considering that New Zealand’s 2010 FIFA World Cup squad are spoken of so highly seven years on from their achievements, however, in a country whose landscape is constantly dominated by the presence of rugby, it’s a little easier to see what motivates Hudson.
Having remained unbeaten in South Africa, despite getting eliminated at the group stage, the All Whites held their own on the biggest international stage of them all and managed to prove that the island nation belonged alongside the best. Drawing all three of their matches, and finishing ahead of Italy in Group F, their defiance might not have boosted them into the knockout round, but it did ensure a heroic welcome and proved to be a watershed moment for soccer fans back home.
Reaching the World Cup finals alone was an impressive accomplishment for the team, and in exceeding expectations they broke down a barrier – but for current coach Anthony Hudson, who took the reins a few years after that campaign, it also means having to contend with knowing that they need to return to that level again, a burden of knowledge that is not easy to act upon.
“I’m really proud of what the players have done,” Hudson exclusively told These Football Times recently. “They’ve shown a lot of bravery at times to go and play and try and win games against the best. But I also know we have more in us. I see it, I see it clearly, that we can do so much more. So now it’s the stage where we have [to] demand and graft and squeeze every last drop that we have, so we can do what we set out to do three years ago and probably what everyone thinks is impossible for us to do.”
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Hudson has always struck me as a very motivated coach – it’s a prerequisite for these sort of jobs, sure, but the English manager often tends to aim for even a level above what reality tries to dictate to him. So, naturally, he already has his eyes on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The All Whites’ performances at the Confederations Cup were interesting to behold for several reasons. From a neutral’s perspective, it showed how much heart, determination and desire the team had. Playing an aggressive brand of football, they looked to cause problems for their opponents at both ends of the field and produced some very memorable moments for the fans to reflect on. For Hudson, though, it was a bittersweet spectacle to behold.
Watching his side push the likes of Mexico to the limit in a World Cup dress rehearsal, on pitches that will play host to the real deal next summer, was surely something Hudson enjoyed on a certain level. Having tasted the action personally, he will no doubt want to come back for seconds. But, ever the professional looking to eke out lessons and nuggets of useful information to help his team’s approach, it was first and foremost a reminder of where they need, and want, to be if they are to get back to the biggest stage once more.
Moreover, it was an exercise in how close-run contests can be in the heat of knockout football, and how that is an advantage New Zealand can look to capitalise on if they work hard enough for it. “I know that we can perform and cause these problems. In fact, I know we can beat them. What I learnt [at the Confederations Cup] was that in order for us to do that, we have to be at our very best in every department, and I don’t think over the course of this tour we were,” Hudson said.
“I think at times we have too much respect and for a team like ours to be able to cause upsets, we have to be fitter than every team at that tournament, something I don’t think we were. For example, if we look at the Mexico game, we allowed them back in the game because we dropped off them, we dropped our intensity, and the same with Portugal.
“We started the game very well, but then conceded and dropped off them, gave too much respect and then not enough legs. For the dynamics of our team and where they play, the level, the type of teams, where they are in their respective leagues, sat on benches, amateur, under-23 football, all means that this time of year for us is more difficult to be at a top physical level that enables us to fight for 90 minutes in every game. But that’s where we need to be.”
It’s hard to argue with Hudson’s analysis. Far from making excuses, he is keen to find ways they can improve and pinpoint what issues they can eradicate, which factors they can control. Indeed, that he is disappointed strongly suggests that he knows his team possess what it takes to step up a level, something that will certainly be needed for the qualifying matches to come.
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Next up for New Zealand is a two-legged Oceania showdown with the Solomon Islands – a step down from the world-class opponents they faced in Russia this summer – but Hudson remains wary of their threat and will be drilling his players on remaining focused. When I asked him what the mindset will be heading into the matches, his answer was concise and clear: “To be ultra-professional. These games are extremely tricky. If one player or staff member thinks that this game is a given, then we will stumble. But if we approach it correctly, with the right prep and mentality, I am very confident,” he said.
Get through that match-up and it’s possible that a tie against 2014 World Cup finalists Argentina will await New Zealand – although it could equally be Ecuador or Chile depending on how results go between now and the end of the qualifying campaign. Hudson, though, already had his sights on facing La Albiceleste when I spoke with him and even appears to be relishing the prospect of facing Lionel Messi and company in an inter-confederation playoff match. For Hudson, there is no fear of challenges – only anticipation of how best to overcome them, and what that would mean for him and the players.
“I’m convinced it will be Argentina given the introduction of Jorge Sampaoli,” Hudson said a few weeks before the notion of Chile’s points deduction cropped up, which could see the Argentines leapfrog them into fourth spot in their CONMEBOL group. “But whoever it is, we will be in much better condition in November for starters than we were last year.
“We will have our captain back, which is a huge lift for us. And one thing is for sure, we will have gained so much from this [Confederations Cup] that we will be a far better team as a result. We barely play against any of the top 50 teams. And every time we have now, we are in the game and we are competing.
“Never have we been blown away. Portugal wasn’t a 4-0 game. We started well, we created chances, and late in the game at 2-0 I decided to open it up even more and go for it, with the game ending 4-0 as a result, although we didn’t create more chances due to those changes in tactics.”
After all, in fairness to Hudson, the signs are there that the All Whites have been steadily improving over time so there is no reason they will be overawed by whoever they face, and although he has his sights set on winning games and overturning the big boys, he is confident that his optimism isn’t baseless – he has metrics to justify it. “We are improving as a team,” he declared.
“The last time New Zealand played Mexico in 2013 it was an aggregate score of 9-2, I think. The last [two] times we have played them we lost 2-1 – both games – and gone toe-to-toe and, as you say, we could quite easily have got more. And remembering we have yet to face these teams on home soil. So, we are improving. We are getting stronger. We are trying to play the right way for the players we have. Players and staff believe. And we are on the right track.”
New Zealand fans wouldn’t kid themselves into thinking that they have the best players in the world in their squad, but while they don’t have the same calibre of player as the teams they need to beat to reach the World Cup finals, it would be unfair to say that they have a weak roster either, because they have plenty of pluses and strengths going for them – not least their star striker, Chris Wood.
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Wood netted 27 times in 44 appearances last season for English Championship outfit Leeds making something of a name for himself in the process, and with 20 international goals to his name so far he is their main source of attacking threat inside the 18-yard box. “He’s so important for us,” Hudson agreed. “He’s a leader and has a lot responsibility on his shoulders. And It’s one position that we are still trying to address. We need more people pushing him, he needs support and we need more competition. We’ve a few players now that need to do more and we’ve some young players coming through that need to now get a chance so we have more in that area.
“But with ‘Woodsy’, since I’ve been here, he’s been class. He loves playing for his country and he’s very ambitious. I also know he can do even more on the world stage and I think we only saw a small glimpse at the Confeds. November and the World Cup I know we will see the big player that he is.”
Wood certainly has the potential to score against the best, something his Confederations Cup goal against Mexico attests to. Add that to the fact he is in arguably the form of his life and it’s easy to see why the Solomon Islands will have a torrid time dealing with him in a few short weeks, but also why even Argentina or Chile should be very wary of the threat he possesses. He’s clinical, he knows how to lead the line, and when he’s on his game, he provides a multi-faceted threat with his strength, aerial ability and quick feet.
Wood might be the star attraction, but Hudson has been busy constructing a team chock-full of technically and physically capable players who all seem to savour the important matches and the big-day atmospheres. As Hudson himself put it, they are not afraid of opening up a match and pushing their opponents – whether that’s with a feisty challenge or by getting the ball on the deck and stringing some incisive passing sequences together.
What’s more, a good portion of the squad are young and still developing, which hints at a long-term plan for the future and suggests that Hudson could very well be in the hot-seat for a good number more years to come. “I believe in our younger players, there is some real talent in New Zealand, they just need a chance and most of all to be in good, professional environments, playing regular first team football. I believe we will be at our very best in November, the best we’ve been in three years. All the signs are telling us that, from where the team was when I came in. But I also know that this team is only going to get stronger, due to the age and experience they are getting and the real success will show further down the line, past this window. So, you never know, I’d love to be a part of that success.”
Hudson became the youngest coach to ever take charge of a team at the Confederations Cup back in June. That feat alone says a great deal about where he is going with his career, how much time he has on his hands to achieve a legacy with New Zealand and possibly elsewhere. “It’s never really been in my nature to sit back and take stock,” Hudson said about his record-breaking achievement. “After the [Confederations Cup] I didn’t want to speak to anyone for days. I was hurting badly. I know people didn’t expect anything of us and I was so proud of the players and what they gave, but I also know, and I know every single player knows this too, that we could have done more.
“If we were a poor team and got those results I’d be okay, to a certain degree. But we’ve got more in us and at times we defeated ourselves. But what it’s done now is make me even more driven and even more determined, to find a way to improve and get the best out of our team. And I believe we will – I’m excited about the future,” he added.
There’s no doubt that Hudson himself has a bright future in football management, and there are equally few doubts that the New Zealand side he has built can provide a challenging test to any national outfit. Whether or not the two will merge with an appearance at the World Cup finals next summer remains to be seen, but it will certainly be interesting to follow the final stretch of what has been an interesting underdog journey
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90