Australia’s performance in the friendly (though the clash was friendly in name only) was not just imperfect, it was downright poor.
Victory was sealed through two set piece goals, the first of which would not have occurred had VAR been in use for the game, after an obvious penalty was missed by the referee seconds earlier. And there were also some question marks over a potential off-side in Awer Mabil’s late winner.
But playing in the same airconditioned Al Janoub Stadium in Doha where next Wednesday’s do-or-die match against the UAE will take place, the Socceroos faced a tough test – and an ideal one to conclude their preparations.
“We probably could not have had a better game to play. Jordan are a good side … they put us under pressure and that’s the perfect game that you want,” Arnold told Channel 10 after the match.
Throughout this World Cup qualifying campaign, the Socceroos have failed to rise to the occasion when put under the increased pressure of playing quality opposition – with just one win from their seven latest matches before today.
Against Jordan, a host of recurring issues reared their heads once again. Ball movement was sluggish and lacked creativity or incisiveness, while the attacking trio of Craig Goodwin and Awer Mabil on the flanks and Melbourne Victory’s Nicholas D’Agostino were isolated and struggled to get involved.
REPORT: Socceroos’ World Cup reality check as final warm-up ends in win … and even more questions
It was no surprise that both of Australia’s goals came from set pieces given the Socceroos’ almost complete failure to fashion opportunities from open play.
But as Arnold noted: “I think that’s the first time we have come back since I have been in charge. We have gone down 1-0 and come back … in the past few games when we have gone down 1-0 or something has happened we have fallen apart, and tonight that wasn’t the case.”
The Socceroos did not fall apart, but fought hard through to scrape a win, however fortuitous. If the same happens against the UAE and then Peru, with the Socceroos winning ugly, the result will paper over the cracks that have been widening with every passing game.
But in order to secure victory in those two games – and qualification to a fifth-straight World Cup – Arnold faces difficult decisions across the park. It could define his legacy as national team manager, let alone his stature in the Australian game.
Stream Over 50 Sports Live & On-Demand with Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
Before the match, Arnold revealed to Channel 10 that he had told his players: “Today, I don’t have a starting line-up (against UAE) in my brain.”
He might have hoped that throwaway line showed the depth in the national team camp, hoped it would inspire today’s line-up to deliver a performance worthy of starting next Wednesday with Australia’s World Cup dreams on the line.
Instead, it indicated something wholly different – that after years of developing a squad that deserves to compete in a fifth-consecutive World Cup, Arnold does not know his best team because there is no cohesive XI that has proven itself capable of beating meaningful opposition.
Sure, Tom Rogic is absent for undisclosed personal reasons and towering defender Harry Souttar has been missing for months as he continues to recover from a heartwrenching ACL.
But from the A-League Men’s to Europe and around the globe, there are Australians regularly performing at a solid level for their clubs – only for the Arnold’s national team to repeatedly fail to get the best out of its stars.
Such was the case against Japan and Saudi Arabia in recent defeats. Now Arnold has a week to turn that around.
Arnold fielded a much-changed line-up, targeted at giving minutes to those players who needed them most.
Like Aaron Mooy, who has not played a club match since January or any competitive football since featuring in the green and gold against Oman in February. He was rusty to say the least in his hour on the park. The former Premier League midfielder’s passing was wayward – though the entire team struggled in this regard, with a combined pass success rate below 80 per cent. But he showed his timeless class with a sizzling free kick that cannoned off the post.
Captain Mat Ryan hadn’t played for his Real Sociedad since February. Others, like Sunderland defender Bailey Wright, were back in the national team for the first time in years. 2019 was his last appearance. 2015 was Jason Davidson’s last outing for the Socceroos, the left-back rewarded for a sensational A-League Men’s campaign with a long-awaited return from exile.
There was a debut for Kye Rowles, Central Coast Mariners’ young defender and Australia’s only left-sided central defensive option. There were starts for the likes of Mabil, d’Agostino, and Blackpool’s Kenny Dougall.
All in all, it was a chance for those lacking in game time to get up to speed – or to break into the Socceroos XI against the UAE.
Exactly what that XI will be is still up for debate.
Mooy’s combination with Dougall at the base of midfield left plenty to be desired.
Jackson Irvine’s introduction at halftime in Dougall’s stead – combined with what I’m certain were some stern instructions from Arnold in the sheds – saw the Socceroos improve, particularly in their pace of play and ball movement. Irvine did his chances of starting against the UAE no harm.
Mooy grew into the game – on his 50th cap no less – particularly when he was took over almost all ball-playing duties in the second half. He is set to start, having got through this final test. But can he lead the Socceroos to victory if he is still off the pace?
But the make-up of the remainder of the midfield is still in serious doubt. Denis Genreau, who has been in fine fettle as his French side Toulouse FC were promoted to Ligue 1 this campaign, replaced Mooy just after the hour mark and was impressive. His technical ability and attacking nous were on show as he fashioned one of Australia’s very rare open-play opportunities late in the game – something that must be a key priority for Arnold moving forward. The 23-year-old would fancy his chances at starting against the UAE on his form this season alone.
Then there’s Ajdin Hrustic, who recently won the Europa League with his Eintracht Frankfurt and scored a penalty in the shootout win over Rangers. With Tom Rogic absent from the camp due to undisclosed personal reasons, Hrustic’s creative spark is set to prove crucial.
Dougall or Middlesbrough’s Riley McGree now appear unlikely to start against the UAE, as is defensive midfielder Gianni Stensness.
It was a more promising performance against Jordan by the defensive unit. Debutant Rowles and Wright formed a solid partnership – though Wright was extremely lucky not to have conceded a penalty before his goal.
With set pieces likely to remain a crucial path to goal for the Socceroos, Wright’s strike – an unmarked header from a brilliant Craig Goodwin dead ball cross – adds extra weight to his selection credentials. The Sunderland defender’s last match before flying to Doha was at Wembley, where he saw his team promoted to League One after a sensational season where he has racked up over 40 appearances. His experience of that high-pressure scenario can only help when the heat is turned up on the Socceroos next week – but it’s unclear if he will unseat the regular partnership of veteran duo Milos Degenek and Trent Sainsbury. Rowles, while putting in a fine debut, is unlikely to be preferred over the older heads given his international inexperience, though Arnold could pull a selection shock and prioritise his value as a left-sided centre-half.
At fullback, young Joel King was left to sit in the stands as Jason Davidson then Aziz Behich marshalled the left flank. Davidson was guilty of giving away possession far too easily in his first Socceroos appearance in over seven years, and was regularly caught out of position when Jordan counterattacked – and they clearly targeted his side of the pitch. That was the case in the opening goal, when Jordan claimed the ball at halfway and charged up the pitch. Despite the Socceroos having defensive cover, Musa Al-Taamari was given plenty of time to unleash from range, and he duly made Australia pay with a long-range thunderbolt.
Davidson was hooked at the interval, before Behich delivered one of his best performances in months in the second half. The left-back has struggled for form on the international stage in recent appearances, but was given the nod against Saudi Arabia in the Socceroos’ previous match and his performance leaves Arnold with a tough decision over his experience or the youth of King.
On the right side, Fran Karacic put in a typically workmanlike shift on the back of his strong season with second-tier Italian side Brescia, who were unlucky to miss promotion to the top flight. The battle for that role is a close one, with Karacic and Nathaniel Atkinson of Hearts both inexperienced on the international stage but coming off stellar domestic campaigns.
Behind them, Mat Ryan had no chance of saving Jordan’s long-range goal, and had was largely untroubled for the remainder of the match – but did all that was asked of him. The captain is certain to start next week.
And there’s questions up front, too. D’Agostino was very isolated at centre forward in his first start for the national team, but worked hard off the ball to lead a high-pressing line, particularly in the first half an hour. It was that pressing which offered Australia’s best moments in the first half, claiming the ball in good areas and transitioning quickly to attack. Given the Socceroos’ inability to break down well-organised, packed defences – and the UAE is set to copy Jordan in that regard – pressure from the front could be crucial.
Mitchell Duke is similarly hardworking but offers a different skillset in the number nine jersey, but has not scored in his last six club games – with just three goals in 16 appearances this season in all. But given Australia’s failure to move the ball up the pitch against Jordan, and in recent games, Duke could be called upon due to his ability to hold up play and involve his fellow attackers. Melbourne City’s superstar striker Jamie Maclaren is a clinical finisher who can be relied upon to convert on limited opportunities – and opportunities have certainly come at a premium in recent matches. Maclaren has 16 goals in 27 A-League matches this season as he led City to another grand final, so is certainly in form – as is Adam Taggart with two goals in his last three club matches in Japan.
And on the wings, too, Arnold faces tough calls. Awer Mabil was quiet for large portions of the game before breaking a seven-game scoring drought – though he may well have been off-side. His inability to become involved in the play for much of the match was concerning, but he was clearly bubbling with confidence when he labelled Doha his ‘second home’ after his third goal in as many matches in the city. Martin Boyle and Mat Leckie are expected to start in front of him, both being left to sit in the stands and watch proceedings.
Leckie and Maclaren are the two Socceroos with the most goals in the current squad, and their experience combined with their successful Melbourne City connection could see them preferred over potential replacements. Their livewire teammate in Marco Tilio has been hailed as a potential gamechanger for the Socceroos, but Arnold gave him only a handful of minutes off the bench at the death in an indication that the 20-year-old flyer is not yet trusted to start.
The other forward option in Craig Goodwin impressed with his set-piece delivery, which was crucial in Australia’s two goals and looks set to be crucial against the UAE. But will it be enough to earn him a start over the proven performers in Boyle and Leckie? It is doubtful.
One thing is for sure: after years of developing this Socceroos squad, Arnold has less than a week to finally find his best XI. If he gets it wrong, Australia faces an embarrassing defeat – and missing out on a men’s World Cup for the first time in 20 years.