After loss to Sydney, Olyroos need to improve but time is on their side

Full story first published on SBS’ The World Game:

Graham Arnold has talked up the Olyroos chances of securing a first-ever Olympic Medal at the Tokyo Olympics but, as shown by their 3-0 loss to Sydney FC, there’s lots of work needed to make that a reality. Luckily for him, though, Arnold’s got plenty of time to do it.

Quickfire goals to Paulo Retre, Trent Buhagiar, and Alexander Baumjohann inside the first 20 minutes put the defending A-League champions into cruise control on Thursday night; the Sky Blues able to ease up and run out comfortable winners in their final hit-out before they jet off for Qatar to re-commence their Asian Champions League campaign.

Coming together as a group for the first time since they punched their tickets to Tokyo, the domestic-based Olyroos group were disjointed, off the pace and lacking in confidence in the opening stages of the contest.

Suspect defending was on display in all three of the Sky Blue’s goals, while all too often up the other end moments of penetration would be squandered with an awkward pass, mistimed cross or lack of communication. 

But given that the Olyroos squad only came together as a unit for the first time on Sunday after a nine-month break and were playing a largely stable A-League side that had been training as a unit for a number of months, this shouldn’t really have come as too much of a shock.

“[Sydney] has been together for the last few years, our boys have been together for the last few days – we haven’t seen each other since January,” Arnold noted.

Though in an actual competitive context it would be the coldest of cold comforts – and it’s impossible to declare any side that folded the way they did in the opening exchanges as playing well – Arnold’s side was able to clamp down on the bleeding following their horror start and the right flank of Nathaniel Atkinson and Ramy Najjarine, in particular, showed flashes.

“I think for 75 minutes out of the 90 we did very well,” Arnold said following the game. “Conceding a sloppy goal in the first couple of minutes off a set piece probably knocked the stuffing out us a little bit, because the boys have only come into camp on Sunday – we’ve had three training sessions.

“When you get off to a good start it gives you belief and confidence. I can only look at what we practised at training and what we practised at training was excellent. Results-wise, Sydney FC did well in patches, and I thought we did well in patches as well.

“When we got down to the final third our crossing let us down or our last pass let us down. What we practised I was very happy with; I think that we didn’t get the time to practice our last passes or our delivery and we will do that over the next few days.”

Indeed, Thursday evening’s contest, in concert with next Tuesday’s meeting with A-League newcomers Macarthur FC, isn’t so much about establishing the Olyroos’ bonafides as much as they are about laying an important baseline for the squad heading into the next nine months of preparation. 

With Arnold making clear in his pre-Sydney FC press conference that the squad will, in some form, be coming together in every international break between now and next July, Australia’s best U23 talent know that – with a limited number of tickets to Tokyo available – growing and developing in every game for both club and country will be absolutely vital to their chances of becoming Olympians.

And with the likes of Daniel Arzani, Riley McGree, Alex Gersbach, Zach Duncan, Harry Souttar, captain Thomas Deng, and Fulham youngster Tyrese Francois unavailable for selection thanks to their overseas club commitments and border and fitness issues keeping away figures such as Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Al Hassan Toure, Nick D’Agostino and Ben Folami, there remains a level of depth waiting in the wings to punish any complacency. 

Whereas it might be more developmentally beneficial to leave them out, it also mustn’t be forgotten that of the players that will assemble in Tokyo, three of their number can be overage ringers.

“We’ve still got a good nine to ten months to go and a lot can happen in that time,” Arnold said. “What I’ve seen, with the players getting more game time in the A-league, they’re going to improve out of sight.

“I expect a huge improvement on what you saw tonight just on the individual side of it: fitness levels, technique and touch.

“Once we get together and we’re able to be together for a few weeks then the rhythm will come.

“It’s about getting to know each other as players, we’ll do a great review on that tomorrow and we’ll move forward.”

Ultimately, if the Olyroos still look like they did on Thursday night when they head into the Olympics next year, then yes, Australia’s medal chances look bleak. 

But that’s a long time from now. 

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