Socceroos forced into balancing act for coming World Cup qualifers

Australia’s border restrictions continuing to play havoc with the Socceroos’ attempts to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, Graham Arnold’s squad for coming fixtures against China and Vietnam serves to reinforce one of sport’s great truisms: the best ability is availability. 

Much to the chagrin of clubs still involved in finals football, Arnold brought a heavy A-League contingent to the hub-based conclusion to the Socceroos opening phase of 2022 World Cup qualification back in June; ten members of the 31-player squad that descended on Kuwait plying their trade in the A-League at the time. 

But just over two months on from those games — which ended with the Socceroos topping their group with eight wins from eight — just a single A-League representative was present in Arnold’s 27-player squad named for the commencement of the next phase of qualifcation: Sydney FC’s Rhyan Grant. 

See Also: Socceroos call on their Foreign Legion as Mooy, Rogic, Wright, and Arzani all return for World Cup qualifers

Likely to be the Socceroos starting right-back in the wake of an injury to Fran Karačić, Grant will remain with the national setup throughout the month of September and also feature in the October qualifiers in order to avoid the need to spent 14 days in quarantine for two months in a row.

Rhyan Grant will be the lone A-League representative in the Socceroos squad
Image Credit: Football Australia

The inability of players to avoid two weeks of quarantine at the core of the scuppered efforts of Football Australia to stage home qualifiers across the short FIFA international windows , this requirement is also behind the disproportionate reduction in domestic players in the Socceroos. 

Fresh off being named captain, new Melbourne City signing Mat Leckie ruled himself out of contention for the national side indefinitely while the strict quarantine procedures remained in place and, though not publicly declaring their unavailability, newly crowned PFA Player of the Year Jamie Maclaren and Harry Kewell Medal winner Connor Metcalfe were also notable A-League absences from that June squad. AAP has reported that Chris Ikonomidis was willing to follow a similar plan to Grant, only for Melbourne Victory to nix it.  

“Probably about another seven or eight [players],” Arnold said when asked how many players from the A-League were unavailable due to quarantine regulations. “At the end of the day, everyone has personal reasons and personal issues in life and for a lot of those players, it was around the 14-day quarantine coming back to Australia. A number of them had already done it twice in the last three to six months.

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“I think that through this pandemic, I think the coaching role, the managing role is more about man-management and being there to support the players with those type of decisions and I do support them 100%.

“Mat [Leckie] has come back from Germany. He’s still in an Air BnB because he hasn’t been able to get out and find a house to live in. He hasn’t been able to put his kids in school and his wife’s pregnant. So he’s there to support his family. I clearly and totally understand that more than anything.”

These circumstances, combined with the nascent nature of the 2021-22 season, has forced Arnold into a juggling act with his squad: not just calling upon players that possess form and match minutes at club level but also those that, though the former may be lacking, he deems to have international experience, technical ability to contribute, and/or a place in his future plans.

Denis Genreau’s Toulouse may be flying atop the French second-tier, for instance, but his recent arrival means that while he may very well be the future of the Socceroos midfield, he has thus far been confined to a bench role by new coach Philippe Montanier. Daniel Arzani flashed undoubted potential at the Olympics but has played just a single game for new club Lommel SK and Riley McGree’s contributions to Birmingham City have been entirely restricted to the League Cup. Potential debutant Ryan Strain’s minutes at new club Maccabi Haifa have only been in UEFA Conference League qualifiers and 44 minutes against Hapoel Tel Aviv in the League Cup.

Minutes have also proven difficult for some of the more established brigade in Arnold’s squad — individuals who will be expected to provide leadership, coolness under pressure and steel against China and Vietnam.

Newly recalled Bailey Wright has found himself on the outer at the beginning of Sunderland’s 2021-22 campaign while fellow defender Ryan McGowan — who drew praise from Arnold for his leadership in June –has yet to start his season in Qatar. Jackson Irvine has yet to feature for his new club, FC St. Pauli, Aaron Mooy hasn’t played for Shanghai Port since May, Aziz Behich just signed with Giresunspor in Turkey, Adam Taggart has only just started to string together starts with J1 League side Cerezo Osaka and Mat Ryan has yet to play for Real Sociedad since July knee surgery. 

See Also: Australia’s World Cup qualifiers will test Socceroos’ squad depth

“We’ve had to take a different strategy, obviously, with challenges all around Australia,” Arnold said. “For me, it’s a good squad. It’s a squad that I’m excited about. One that I do believe will bring great energy into the camp — and that’s the most important thing, that they bring that energy in.”

Denis Genreau has been eased into the setup of new side Toulouse
Image Credit: Football Australia

It’s readily apparent that form is not all his player’s strength right now but, with his options limited, Arnold is banking on them having what it takes to contribute across the next two games regardless.

The national team boss is aware that some of the squad may even benefit from the exposure to international football back at their clubs: demonstrating form that demands more gametime, refuelling their emotional batteries or giving them the confidence that can make them better players for the Socceroos in the future. 

It unlikely they every player in the 27-player squad will play, some may also simply been tapped as future key contributors for the road to Qatar, the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in China and qualification for North America 2026: their presence a part of intergrating them into the ‘family’ that Arnold has strived to build since ascending to the role.

Would these criteria have been considered in normal times? Maybe. But they certainly take on greater import when the cupboards are relatively bare.

See Also: “He thoroughly deserves his selection” – Daniel Arzani continues national team comeback

And, of course, that’s not to say that the squad that will assemble in Doha in coming days will be utterly devoid of players in form.

Adjin Hrustić, one of the select few Australians still playing in one of the Big Five European leagues, has started back-to-back Bundesliga games for Eintracht Frankfurt, while Martin Boyle is scoring for fun at top of the Scottish table Hibernian. There remains significant continuity in the backline: Miloš Degenek, Harry Souttar, Trent Sainsbury, Callum Elder, and Brad Smith all regular contributors to the Crvena Zvezda, Stoke City, K.V. Kortrijk, Hull City and Seattle Sounder backlines respectively. Kenny Dougall plays regularly for Blackpool and Tom Rogic has found a new lease on life under Ange Postecoglou at Celtic.  

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They form part of a squad that, despite the challenges of their selection process and the lack of flow a number of them carry, should still have the talent to take results from their coming fixtures — if deployed in an optimal manner. 

Though the possible effects of going through an entire phase of qualification without a single home qualifier is a disturbing unknown, complaints around stringent quarantine processes can’t be used as a band-aid on Tuesday: China also forced to relocate its home games to West Asia in the face of domestic COVID restrictions. In fact, in terms of preparation, this coming Tuesday might be the best time to play coach Li Tie’s side: the almost entirely domestically based group heading to Qatar prepared to spend up to three months in an extended training camp between games — the Chinese Super League suspended until December to aid in these efforts. 

And as their coach explained earlier this week, their tails are certainly not yet up. 

“It’s not like I stand no chance against you because you are stronger than me,” Li said of his coming fixtures against the Socceroos and Japan. “Our players won’t believe me even if I tell them we can beat Japan and Australia because they lack confidence.

“Few of them had winning experiences at this stage of the qualification. They need victories to build confidence, especially when we go this deep in the tournament. We need to give players instructions to help them adapt to different games and show them what modern football looks like.”

Challenges certinaly await on the road to Qatar 2022, the extent of which are impossible to determine in the face of the rapidly evolving situation that surrounds COVID. Logistically, the coming campaign is the most difficult that the side will have ever had to face.

Yet though the temptation will be to allow it to dominate the conversation, that will not be the only factor that determines the fate of Australia’s string of consecutive appearences at men’s World Cups — the coming months crucial for the nation’s football’s direction.

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
You’re seeing this advert because this is an unpaid, self-published piece.

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Header Image Credit: Football Australia

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