BERT van Marwijk names his first Socceroos squad next week in a massive indication as to who holds the inside running for a coveted spot in Australia’s 23-man squad for the World Cup.
Ange Postecoglou might have developed an established core over four years, but with a new man, comes new ideas. One just needs to look at the news out of Holland last week, which revealed conversations between the Dutchman and goalkeeper Brad Jones, who has not played for Australia since 2014, to see how clean the slate is for Australians playing across the globe.
Friendlies against Norway (Saturday) and Colombia are critical on two fronts for the Socceroos: precious time acclimatising to a new boss, while allowing fringe candidates to audition in front of his eyes.
Ahead of a preliminary squad announcement next week, before it is whittled down to 23 the week after, foxsports.com.au is re-igniting its Socceroos Power Rankings, grading the candidates on a players’ indispensability, current role and pedigree within the Socceroos ranks, their club level/form/fitness as well as acknowledging the fresh approach van Marwijk will bring.
An attempt to forecast the Socceroos’ ‘Best 23’ suggests there are, possibly, 17 players all but favourites to make it to Russia. Despite the fact that every day seems to throw up another Socceroos bolter, it means there could be as few as six places up for grabs on that plane.
So, here we go. Let the debate begin!
PODCAST: For more on the Socceroos, David Weiner and Kate Cohen discuss the state of play in the green and gold ahead of the squad news, and looming friendlies.
THE TOP 10
1. Aaron Mooy, midfield, Huddersfield
2. Mat Ryan, goalkeeper, Brighton & Hove Albion
3. Mile Jedinak, midfielder, Aston Villa
4. Mathew Leckie, winger, Hertha Berlin
5. Trent Sainsbury, defender, Grasshoppers
6. Tom Rogic, midfielder, Celtic
7. Robbie Kruse, winger, Bochum
8. Massimo Luongo, midfielder, QPR
9. Tomi Juric, striker, FC Luzern
10. Tim Cahill, striker, Millwall
Australia faces Norway on Saturday 24 March, 4am kick-off, and then Colombia in London, on the 28th, 6am kick-off AEST.
Take the top five and separate it from the rest: they’re the handful of players every Socceroos fan has to hope stays fit and firing all the way through until June. They are all but irreplaceable in their positions.
Mooy takes top billing thanks to his ability to influence proceedings at the highest level in the Premier League. His recent lay-off through injury could be a blessing in disguise for Australia, as annoying as it is for Huddersfield, given it provides a precious and rare rest in a busy calendar for the midfielder.
Mooy and Ryan both come from areas of the park with the best depth, although both are peerless thanks to their Premier League exploits this season. Mooy’s metronomic passing and set piece ability will be pivotal if Australia wants to achieve anything, while Ryan was highly influential during qualifying, is growing into his PL skin by the week and amongst a good crop of Aussie keepers is the undisputed No.1.
Leckie is one of the few x-factors in the Roos ranks. He has been almost the first man picked for the Socceroos down the right flank in recent years, and if the wingback formation is parked for the World Cup, he will be able to unleash the talent that has impressed at Bundesliga level – albeit his fabulous start slowed – further up the park. Without his pace and quality, Australia’s attacking stocks are hit badly.
The skipper had been maligned – and underappreciated – at times during qualifying, but reminded everyone of his prowess and influence on the side against Honduras. In a World Cup furnace, Jedinak’s influence will be vital, sitting ahead of a defence that will have Trent Sainsbury as the first man picked, and hopefully with a strong lead-in with his new club Grasshoppers in Switzerland. If he’s been able to maintain his standards until now, without much club game time, that augers well for the Socceroos.
The next five choices will likely split opinion.
Rogic’s ranking is boosted by his unique, mercurial game-breaking ability, even though his consistent application for the Socceroos and Celtic is still a talking point. Luongo’s club reputation is now matching his national team worth, having worn the armband for QPR in recent months, and his form in the first leg against Honduras was as good as he’s ever played for the Socceroos.
Kruse might be a polarising Socceroos representative but he is one with pace and fitness like none other, an ability to break and get behind the lines and whip a ball in from the flank. Now, he brings regular game time and goals from the 2.Bundesliga to the table too, as he well and truly re-builds his career.
From our last instalment, Mark Milligan has dropped out of the top 10. It’s hard to see the utility drop out of the reckoning entirely, but a move back to the Middle East, after an indifferent A-League campaign with Melbourne Victory, suggests he might not earn the automatic selection in the XI that he’d earned under Postecoglou. But he still presents indispensable variety and leadership.
Juric, as the lead No.9, one of the few players referenced by van Marwijk in his introductory press commitments, enters the top 10, while Cahill remains – on reputation. His presence cannot be underestimated, even if the minutes at Millwall are not being clocked.
The rest of ‘the 23’
11. Mark Milligan, midfield/defence, Al Ahli
12. Aziz Behich, defence, Bursaspor
13. Danny Vukovic, goalkeeper, Genk
14. Matthew Jurman, defender, Suwon Bluewings
15. Jackson Irvine, midfielder, Hull
16. Bailey Wright, defender, Bristol City
17. Alex Gersbach, defender, Lens
18. Milos Degenek, defender, Yokohama
19. James Troisi, midfielder, Melbourne Victory
20. Mitch Langerak, goalkeeper, Nagoya Grampus
21. Josh Risdon, defender, Western Sydney
22. Dimitri Petratos, midfielder, Newcastle Jets
23. Jamie Maclaren, striker, Hibernian
By our calculations, candidates through to Wright would need to do something wrong between now and mid-year to slide out of contention.
But then, it gets interesting.
Gersbach’s move to Lens should help his case down the left, particularly given his ability to be proactive down the flank. Brad Smith enjoyed a great run under Postecoglou but given he has not been sighted in first team football this season with Bournemouth, and hampered by injury, Gersbach surely has the inside running.
Degenek, now under the tutelage of Postecoglou in Yokohama, has proven to be a dependable utility defender who deserves first crack at retaining his place, but has Risdon, who performed so admirably as a rookie in the qualifiers, done enough week-in, week-out, to retain his place as the first choice right back? It remains a position of contention, where someone versatile like Degenek or Milligan or perhaps a bolter like Josh Brillante could stake a claim. Or, could veteran Luke Wilkshire, who was the last man cut before 2014’s World Cup, catapult into the picture again thanks to his exemplary form for Sydney FC? He would be unlikely to put a foot wrong and it will be fascinating to see what hand van Marwijk plays with those players that Postecoglou did not consider. Brett Holman, who the Dutchman signed at Feyenoord and reportedly enquired about upon his Socceroos appointment, is another one.
On a similar note, the Jones speculation set the cat amongst the goalkeeping pigeons, but it would be extremely stiff on Langerak to be eclipsed in the squad IF he finally gains regular first team football again, having moved to Japan to Nagoya Grampus after bad luck at Stuttgart and Levante.
There are certainly a couple of attacking positions up for grabs and entirely impossible to predict, given it will largely come down to the balance of the group, van Marwijk’s style and the role of others selected.
For example, Maclaren could get selected as a poacher, but what if the Socceroos boss wants to opt for an extra creative player, or a speed merchant?
Petratos has been included in our list thanks to his simply irresistible A-League form with Newcastle Jets. He has ticked every box required and his physical data has reportedly been requested by the FFA’s Socceroos backroom staff.
24. Awer Mabil, winger, Pacos de Ferreira
25. Mustafa Amini, midfielder, AGF
26. Daniel Arzani, midfielder, Melbourne City
27. Daniel De Silva, midfielder, Central Coast
28. Josh Brillante, midfielder, Sydney FC
29. Luke Wilkshire, defender, Sydney FC
30. Craig Goodwin, winger, Sparta Rotterdam
31. Brad Jones, goalkeeper, Feyenoord
32. James Jeggo, midfielder, Sturm Graz
33. Nikita Rukavytsya, striker, Maccabi Haifa
34. Brett Holman, midfielder, Brisbane Roar
35. Andrew Nabbout, striker, Newcastle Jets
36. Golgol Mebrahtu, striker, Mladá Boleslav
37. Brandon Borrello, winger, Kaiserslautern
38. Rhys Williams, defender, Melbourne Victory
39. Alex Wilkinson, defender, Sydney FC
40. Mark Birighitti, goalkeeper, NAC Breda
This is a collection of fringe stars from the previous groups, veterans suddenly back in the mix, some younger players worth a look at and two genuine young talents who would be perfect protegees to take as World Cup bolters.
De Silva and Arzani threaten to be the fairy tale selections if the external hype leads to an international nod.
The fact we see them week in, week out means the likes of Mabil, Mebrahtu and Borrello probably haven’t been paid the dues they deserve for their progress overseas. Mabil is playing at the moment for Paços de Ferreira in Portugal on loan from FC Midtjylland; Mebrahtu has found his goal scoring boots in the Czech Republic with Mladá Boleslav and although Borrello’s Kaiserslautern are struggling they are looking to their speedster as a key man in their survival quest.
What about Nabbout? Often deemed too unfashionable to be mentioned in Socceroos despatches, the Newcastle Jets sensation has been scintillating this year – either out wide or leading the line. If you can score goals like his wild strike with the outside of the boot against Western Sydney, you need to be taken seriously.
41. Brad Smith, defender, Bournemouth
42. James Meredith, defender, Millwall
43. Ajdin Hrustic, midfielder, FC Groningen
44. Kenneth Dougall, midfielder, Sparta Rotterdam
45. Riley McGree, midfielder, Newcastle Jets
46. Chris Ikonomidis, midfielder, Western Sydney
47. Paul Izzo, goalkeeper, Central Coast
48. Adam Federici, goalkeeper, Bournemouth
49. Ben Halloran, winger, V-Varen Nagasaki
50. Callum Elder, defender, Wigan
INJURED: Ryan McGowan
The likes of Nathan Burns, Adam Taggart and Tommy Oar have fallen off the radar since the last Power Rankings, while the biggest disappearance is from Matthew Spiranovic, now released from his Chinese second division club Hangzhou Greentown. He needs to find a club to stake any claim at all.
The final 10 here are an eclectic crop of players on the periphery, some of whom have been involved with the green and gold.
It is an intriguing time ahead and van Marwijk, looking at Australian football through different lenses, might even have a surprise from beyond this 50 in mind that has caught his eye: Ryan Williams, Jordan Lyden, Aiden O’Neill, Mitchell Duke, Connor Chapman, Kwame Yeboah, Steven Ugarkovic, Ivan Franjic etc? Wannabe Roo Isaias?
The Road to Russia is heating up in earnest.