It is easy to undersell the magnitude of the Socceroos’ achievement. Consider the opponents: Chinese Taipei, Nepal, Kuwait, Jordan. Hardly the strongest of oppositions.
But the Socceroos nevertheless have achieved something special and well worth reflecting on. Australia has a long and difficult history against Asian and particularly Middle East opponents. The heat, the humidity, the quality of pitches, the often brutally parochial crowds – these conditions have made playing in Asia and the Middle East a difficult test which Australia has struggled with across the years. And to those factors the impact of Covid-19 and this campaign is unique in its toughness.
Between the two sets of four matches there was an 18th month hiatus, a period in which Graham Arnold did not see his Socceroos team in action, or even unite them for a training camp. When things restarted Arnold had just a handful days to prepare for four matches in the space of two weeks. It was a brutal return to the fold, the opposite of easing Australia back into the international footballing waters.
No team ranked above the Socceroos in the FIFA World rankings had been placed on ice for such a long time. Group B rivals Kuwait and Jordan had both racked up a significant number of matches at the end of last year and the beginning at this year.
Many of the Australian players have been away from their families for months, but still opted to travel to Kuwait to pull on the green and gold jersey instead of seeing their families at the soonest opportunity. That includes Western Sydney Wanderers Captain Mitch Duke, separated from his UK-based family for around 200 days. Duke flew home from camp before the final match against Jordan, having been told he was not needed for that fixture – but only after having more than done his part for the squad with two goals in a top-quality display against Chinese Taipei.
Then there was the added challenge of a Kuwaiti hub: limited to living in a hotel shared with one other national team, the Socceroos were taken by police escort for training each day. They were not even allowed to use the pool at the hotel – and given the 40-plus-degree temperatures in Kuwait City, that must have been a sore temptation.
But despite all the difficulties, the Socceroos emerge with the perfect record of eight wins from eight games. Just two goals conceded and 28 scored. Yes, it means nothing if the Socceroos don’t succeed in the next stage and reach the FIFA World cup in 2022. Stronger challenges will emerge. But plenty of good teams struggled to make it through this stage – needing victories today to ensure their place in the next round. Only one other team had an unbeaten record, Asia’s top-ranked team in Japan.
The Socceroos passed this test with flying colours. It’s a promising sign for the future, and well worth celebrating in the present.
FRESH FACES SHINE
Equally as important as the results that the Socceroos put on the board was the development of the playing group itself. Compare the current team to those from the 2018 World Cup and the differences are stark. No wonderkid Daniel Arzani, no Mark Milligan or Mile Jedinak or Robbie Kruse. No Tim Cahill.
But since then, the number of players that Graham Arnold trusts to perform at a high level has been significantly boosted.
Increasing the depth of the squad is something that Arnold has repeatedly highlighted as one of his key aims this World Cup qualification campaign – and it’s fair to say that he is succeeding. Names that were unheard of two most Australian football fans years or even mere months ago have now taken centre stage.
Many have almost certainly booked themselves of a place in the Socceroos team going forward – not just in the short term, but also for many years to come.
In the past four matches alone seven fresh faces have made their Socceroos debuts.
That number would almost certainly have been higher had Callum Elder, the Hull City left-back who constantly impressed this season, not been injured in the final game of his club campaign. Elder had been a near certainty to feature in this Socceroos camp, and to challenge incumbent Aziz Behich for the left back role.
With players like Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic missing the past four matches for family reasons and injury rehabilitation respectively, Arnold was forced to rely on a new central midfield corps to stand up and guide the Socceroos to victory. Ajdin Hrustic did so superbly. His creativity, his ability to take players on, and his midfield combination with Jackson Irvine in particular have made him a strong contender for the playmaker role in the future. As I wrote previously, his performances so far this campaign have handed Graham Arnold a selection headache: How does he fit the breakout number 10 alongside players like Mooy or Rogic – or does he simply have to pick between them?
Hrustic is just one of many stars to a put the names up in lights this campaign. Fran Karacic, plucked from the second division in Italy was immense on debut against Kuwait, scored in his second appearance, and has already heaped pressure on Sydney FC veteran Rhyan Grant to earn his ongoing selection at right back.
Kenny Dougall, fresh off a career year with Blackpool, was given a standing ovation when he arrived in Socceroos camp after scoring two goals in the Championship play off at Wembley. He brought that red-hot form straight into the green and gold with an extremely impressive showing as the defensive linchpin of the midfield.
The list goes on and on. One thing’s for sure: no one’s place is guaranteed in this Socceroos line-up. And no matter where the players ply their trade – 17 countries were represented in the 31-man Socceroos squad this fortnight – Arnold is watching, ready to hand a jersey to those who shine.
THE MENTALITY MASTER
It is clear to see just how much playing for the Socceroos means to the current group of players. Trent Sainsbury, who sometimes captains the Socceroos, fought back tears after the victory against Jordan as he described his difficult journey to reaching a milestone 50 appearances in the green and gold.
“To get 50, it’s a pretty big thing – but I just love being part of this team, this family, with the boys,” he said.
Family is a word oft repeated by different players in interviews, and particularly by coach Graham Arnold. Despite the disruptions of COVID-19, the group appears to be closer than ever. It’s not just the bond between players like Jackson Irvine and Martin Boyle who are teammates at Scottish side Hibernian and have transferred that club connection to the worlds stage. There seems to be a genuine connection between all the players. Perhaps absence – all 18 months of it – made their hearts grow fonder.
The fraternity that Arnold has engendered in the group is entwined with a remarkable confidence and belief. Before every match Arnold declares that he expects victory, demands it. His players appear to have bought into that ideology wholly.
Arnold said ahead of the Jordan match: “We’ll treat this as a final against Jordan, we want to eight in a row, we expect to win eight in a row.”
Mat Leckie said: “We came here to try and win the four games and so far so good, we’re three from four. We definitely want to go into the last game and look for the ‘W’ as well.”
The shared hunger and desire to win is obvious. At every stage along this journey, winning has felt like an almost undeniable truth just waiting to be realised.
Arnold has managed to wipe away a history of failures and disappointment in the Middle East and replaced it with an all-conquering sense of purpose. Winning has become a habit.
Trent Sainsbury said after the game: “It’s such a strong group we got here and the belief is unbelievable… Eight wins from eight, I can’t think of anything better. We’ll go on to get more and achieve bigger and better things.”
VERSATILITY AND CONSISTENCY
Ahead of Wednesday’s clash with Jordan, Graham Arnold said: “I’ll put out the best side that we have and I expect to win with another great performance.”
Then the team sheet was released, and it came with a shock – Arnold had named three central defenders. A 5-4-1? A 5-3-2? It was a formation rarely, if ever, employed by Arnold in his time as Socceroos boss.
He had used his favoured 4-2-3-1 for most Australia games so far, sometimes adopting a 4-3-3 or a similar variation. Against a more dangerous attacking threat in Jordan, he went for greater defensive solidity and the additional experience of having both Trent Sainsbury and Milos Degenek in the line-up – without opting to drop rising star Harry Souttar. The Socceroos managed to stifle Jordan, who didn’t manage a shot on target all game – though one free kick whistled past the upright by the barest of margins.
But while the formation and the teams have changed throughout this qualifications stage, the style of football has not.
As Trent Sainsbury said: “Teams are going to be surprised how we set up. They’re not going to be able to pick us as a one-formation team; whether it be 4-2-3-1 or 5-4-1 we’re going to stick to our principles and play the way we want to play – play to our speed, play to our tempo and get the win wherever we go and against whoever we play.”
A possession- and passing-oriented approach with attacking fullbacks and marauding central midfielders: the hallmarks of the Graham Arnold style.
The more things change – with regards to who plays and where – the more things stay the same.
One more note on flexibility. With the Olympics coming up, that will prove crucial to the success or otherwise of the Olyroos. With a smaller squad size – just 18 players – and rapid turnarounds between games, players who can play multiple positions are worth their weight in gold. Arnold brought a host of Under-23 (or 24, at these delayed Tokyo Games) players to camp, and gave them plenty of action on the field. That experience will be a huge boost next month. If they can copy the efforts of players like Curtis Good, who featured in an unusual left-back role, or Mat Leckie, who played out wide and as a centre-forward, the versatile Olyroos can go far. Bring it on.
THE BIG CONCERN
Goals are goals, right? 28 of them scored in total, an average of 3.5 per game. But the source of those goals is intriguing to say the least. Harry Souttar – the tallest-ever outfielder for the Socceroos – top-scored across the eight games. His six goals in five appearances is a staggering start to life in the green and gold. Even more so for a central defender! His winner against Jordan, combined with the clean sheet and four intercepts earned him man of the match honours. In the box, he is simply unstoppable.
Defenders Sainsbury and Fran Karacic also added goals in the past four games. From set-pieces and crosses, Australia is extremely dangerous.
Goals have come from across the park – forwards Mat Leckie, Jamie Maclaren, Mitch Duke and Adam Taggart have all got multiple while Martin Boyle has one, while midfielders Jackson Irvine, Ajdin Hrustic and Aaron Mooy have each pitched in on the scoresheet. That will please Arnold immensely.
But in recent games the strikers have struggled to get on the ball. Against Jordan, Maclaren managed about a dozen touches. That has become something of a habit and heavily-compacted defences, and is not always a problem – if defences prioritise the centre of the park, it provides more space for fullbacks and wingers to create chances out wide.
Given how clinical Australia’s attacking corps are – none more so than Maclaren – Arnold will be hoping for more touches and greater involvement from his forwards in the next stage. It’s just one improvement that needs to occur if Australia is to make it to the World Cup.
Of course, Graham Arnold is always dreaming of bigger and better things – and expecting them to happen. “Where are we at [as a side]?” he pondered after the match.
“I reckon we’re at about 25 per cent of where we’ll end up.”
While Euro 2020 and the Copa America are taking centre stage at the moment, the transfer window is bubbling away in the background as clubs attempt to secure deals for players before their stock rises too much due to a good tournament.
Manchester United are one of those, and are reportedly deep in negotiations with Borussia Dortmund over the transfer of Jadon Sancho before he makes his tournament debut with England.
But here is some of the other gossip doing the rounds in today’s Rumour Mill…
Cristiano Ronaldo became the all-time top scorer in the Euros this morning with a late brace to cap off a 3-0 win for Portugal against Hungary.
It moved him just three goals short of Iran’s Ali Daei’s international goalscoring record of 109 but question marks remain about exactly where he will be playing next season.
He only has one year remaining on his current Juventus contract and the Italians are reportedly keen to offload him and begin a rebuild after a poor season – even if Ronaldo did claim Serie A’s golden boot with 29 goals.
And Italian outlet Gazzetta dello Sport are reporting that Manchester United have actually tabled a £17m-a-year ($31m) offer to bring him back to Old Trafford, with Paul Pogba, who is also in the final year of his deal, going the other way.
However, they add that Ronaldo would be reluctant to go back to the place where he won his first Ballon d’Or and would prefer to go to Paris and join PSG.
‘AGENT MAHREZ ON DUTY’
Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez has sent the rumour mill spinning with a cheeky Twitter tease involving Erling Haaland.
Haaland is the most-wanted striker in the world at the moment, with Europe’s biggest clubs becoming more and more tempting to move for him a year earlier than when his low release clause comes into effect at the end of next season.
Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and more are all interested but Mahrez may have just got Manchester City to the front of the queue.
Mahrez has been partying with while on holiday on the Greek island of Mykonos and who happened to be at the same bar as the City winger at the same time? Haaland of course.
A video of the two dancing around and waving napkins together quickly went viral.
Mahrez, after seeing the video online, re-posted it to Twitter, with the caption “Agent Mahrez on duty”.
He later clarified the pair were “just having fun” but it won’t stop the rumours coming.
LEEDS IN SHOCK MOVE FOR REAL STAR
Leeds United are reportedly leading the race to sign Real Madrid legend Marcelo, according to the Daily Mirror.
The British newspaper is claiming the 33-year-old is not in the plans of new Real boss Carlo Ancelotti and will be moved on after 14 years, five LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues with the club.
However, Everton are another club reportedly interested as they look to sign a left back to compete with Lucas Digne, who is being linked to a move away himself.
The Brazilian is said to want a two-year deal and is available for as little as £5m.