yesSitting third in Group B, one point off second place as the third phase of AFC World Cup qualifying enters the final stretch, the Socceroos find themselves walking a tightrope as they prepare for crucial matches against Vietnam and Oman. Not helping his precarious position is the absence of Graham Arnold, who will miss at least the first of the next four crucial games that will likely define perceptions of his coaching career.
Win against Vietnam in Melbourne on Thursday night and Oman next week, coupled with wins over Japan and Saudi Arabia in the next international window, would guarantee the Socceroos an automatic qualification spot for Qatar 2022 and avoid a sudden-death playoff against a South American nation. Alternatively, unpleasant as such a tiebreaker is, a win over Oman, even if wins over Japan and/or Saudi Arabia don’t come in March, would go a long way towards ensuring the Socceroos don’t suffer the ignominy of falling in fourth place and missing out completely.
Unfortunate as it is, Arnold’s diagnosis is nonetheless a fitting twist in the story of this qualifying cycle, which will forever be framed as the Covid campaign, the biggest logistical challenge an Australian team has ever faced.
Numerous players and staff have contracted the virus, leaving them unavailable for individual windows and, for some players, it left them with lingering effects that have hampered their fitness and form. With Australia’s borders closed and other nations introducing arduous quarantine requirements, the external effects of Covid have also led to a number of men’s A-League club players and the likes of Aaron Mooy withdrawing from the squad.
The border situation has also meant that the Socceroos have been forced to stage all but one of their last 10 qualifying matches outside of Australia, robbing them of one of Asia’s biggest home-court advantages. Additionally, thanks to the team’s reliance on commercial airlines during a time of massive flight cancellations and disrupted services, the team has often had little time to train and prepare for games as a unit. The lack of flights from Qatar to Japan forced them to split into two separate travel groups arriving on separate days between their 3-1 win over Oman and 2-1 loss to Japan.
It has been a management nightmare.
These are all mitigating factors that need to be acknowledged, but they don’t fully explain the precipitous state the Socceroos find themselves in. The off-field aspects don’t help, but there are undeniable weaknesses on the field, aspects that Arnold, as a coach, has significant influence over, that have put the team at this crossroads.
While Australia have always seen more of the ball than almost every other AFC team in qualifying, their ability to create high-quality chances, rather than just high volume, has continued to be a vexing problem. An increasingly forceful attack has relied heavily on the likes of Tom Rogić and Ajdin Hrustić to provide a creative spark, and in the absence of immediate breakthroughs or moments of magic from that duo, conservatism in approach and an over-reliance on speculative crosses and set pieces. have come to the fore.
In the Socceroos’ last game, a grueling 1-1 draw against China, Arnold’s team had 65% of the possession but could only muster as many shots and had fewer dribble attempts than their enemies. However, they crossed the ball 34 times.
These issues have been around since they returned to action but, with most on display during an 11-match winning streak largely against weaker opponents, there was a prevailing lack of appetite among the Australian rules football spirit to take them on properly. The motivations for not looking a gift horse in the mouth or judging the national team too much in a difficult moment are obvious. But now there is a chance that reality will bite at the most crucial junctures.
In recent months, as concerns have mounted, Arnold has, not without reason, constantly pointed to the challenges his team has been forced to overcome en route to Qatar.
He proclaims that his team will still qualify, but there is an air that the coach’s famous waterproof veneer of belief under pressure is wearing off. He has also been quick to clarify his view that his career will not be defined by what happens in the coming months, and has discussed the developmental aspects of his role as manager of Socceroos and Olyroos.
However, now in his second stint as boss of the Socceroos, his legacy in the eyes of many rests on the upcoming games. The 58-year-old has been working at a disadvantage, but any Australia manager’s tenure will always be defined by his ability to achieve World Cup qualification. For Arnold, whether via Zoom or in person, this starts all over again with Vietnam on Thursday.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism