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Graham Arnold’s side are treading a fine line between success and failure with crucial games coming up against Vietnam and Oman
Sitting third in Group B, one point off second-place as the third phase of AFC World Cup qualification enters the home straight, the Socceroos find themselves walking a tightrope as they prepare for pivotal games against Vietnam and Oman. Not helping their precarious position is the absence of Graham Arnold who will miss at least the first of four crucial upcoming fixtures that will likely come to define perceptions of his coaching career.
Wins against Vietnam in Melbourne on Thursday night and Oman next week, along with victories over Japan and Saudi Arabia in the next international window, would guarantee the Socceroos an automatic qualification slot for Qatar 2022 and avoid a sudden-death playoff against a South American nation. Alternatively, as unpalatable such a playoff is, a win over Oman, even in the event that wins over Japan and/or Saudi Arabia are not forthcoming in March, would go a long way to ensuring that the Socceroos would not suffer the ignominy of falling into fourth and missing out entirely.
Unfortunate as it is, Arnold’s diagnosis is nonetheless an apropos twist in the tale of this qualification cycle, which will be forever framed as the Covid campaign – the most logistically challenging any Australian side has ever been handed.
Numerous players and staff have contracted the virus, rendering them both unavailable for individual windows and, for some players, left them with lingering effects that have hampered their fitness and form. With Australia’s borders shut and other nations introducing arduous quarantine requirements, the external effects of Covid have also led to various players at A-League Men clubs and figures such as Aaron Mooy withdrawing from consideration for selection.
The border situation has also meant the Socceroos have been forced to stage all but one of their last 10 qualifiers outside Australia, robbing them of one of Asia’s strongest home-field advantages. Further, thanks to the side’s reliance on commercial airlines during a time of mass-flight cancellations and disrupted services, the team have often had little time together to train and prepare for games as a unit. A lack of flights from Qatar to Japan forced them to split into two separate travelling parties that arrived on separate days in 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 must be acknowledged, yet they do not fully explain the precipitous state in which the Socceroos find themselves. The off-field aspects do not help, but there are undeniable on-field foibles – aspects that Arnold as coach retains significant influence over – that have put the side at this crossroads.
Whereas Australia have consistently seen more of the ball than almost every other AFC side in qualifying, their ability to consistently create high-quality, rather than simply high-volume, chances has remained a vexatious problem. An increasingly blunt attack has relied heavily upon 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 fixture – an arduous 1-1 draw against China – Arnold’s side had 65% of possession but could only muster the same amount of shots and had fewer attempted dribbles than their foes. They did, however, cross the ball 34 times.
These issues have been present since they returned to action but, given that most were exhibited during an 11-game winning streak largely against weaker opposition, there was a prevailing lack of appetite amongst the Australian footballing zeitgeist to properly confront them. The motivations not to look a gift horse in the mouth or not judge the national team too hard in a time of hardship are obvious. But there is now the possibility that reality may bite at the most crucial of junctures.
In recent months, as concerns have grown, Arnold has, not unfairly, consistently pointed to the challenges his side have been forced to overcome on the road Qatar.
He proclaims his side will still qualify, but there is an air that the under-pressure coach’s famed veneer of impervious belief is wearing thin. 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 spoken of the developmental aspects of his role as both Socceroos and Olyroos coach.
Yet, now in his second stint as Socceroos boss, his legacy in the eyes of many rests on the upcoming games. The 58-year-old has been working with a handicap, but any Australia coach’s tenure will always be defined by their ability to deliver World Cup qualification. For Arnold, be it via Zoom or in person, this starts again with Vietnam on Thursday.