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  • Dylan Bozicevic

Does a new era dawn for the Socceroos?

Graham Arnold exceeded expectations after Australia qualified for the Round of 16 at the World Cup for the second time in the nation’s history. However, the four years before the tournament were nothing less than a dramatic, stressful, and overwhelming ride for the former Sydney FC manager.

Socceroos manager Graham Arnold applauds those who travelled to Qatar after the 2-1 loss to Argentina in the Round of 16. (Twitter: @FIFAWorldCup)


Questions were raised about Arnold’s future as the leading man to bring success to the Green and Gold. The qualifying campaign was nothing short of a failure, with Australia finishing third in a group that also hosted Asian and Middle Eastern powerhouses Japan and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, his contract was set to expire following the World Cup, and his role preceding the tournament was in jeopardy.


A successful campaign in Qatar has now seen Football Australia initiate talks to renew Arnold’s contract. But many other names have been mentioned as possible replacements, with Kevin Muscat and John Aloisi headlining the candidates to become the next Socceroos manager.


We look at all the potential and realistic appointments the FA may look into to replace Arnold should he not renew his contract.


John Aloisi

Aloisi recently spoke publicly about a possible future role with the Socceroos.


At age 46, John Aloisi already has ten years of coaching experience dating back to 2011, when he first began coaching the Melbourne Heart youth team. His managerial career has gone from strength to strength throughout the years. Hence, he's now being linked as Arnold's replacement for the next four years.


Aloisi’s coaching career has seen him take the reins as the Melbourne Heart and Brisbane manager, where he oversaw two top-four finishes with the Roar. Of course, he is currently at Western United, where he won the Grand Final in his first season in charge. The same questions have always been asked throughout and wherever Aloisi has ended up. Has Aloisi received jobs solely because he was part of such a strong, core group of players in the Golden Generation? Have these clubs given him managerial roles due to the emotional attachment involved with that period?


From the 184 games Aloisi has managed, he only has a win percentage of 36.5%. To put that in perspective, Arnold currently has a 68% win record with the Socceroos. It proves that Aloisi may need to continue fighting at a club level before he decides to manage a national team. His style of football has adapted over time. Aloisi started with more of an attacking philosophy at the beginning of his managerial career and now deploys a more conservative approach. We saw it in many Western United games last season, with as many as nine wins coming by a 2-0 scoreline or less and including a clean sheet.


Aloisi’s finer numbers would not be enough to grant him a spot as the leading man for the national team. But his adaptability depending on the playing style of his players is more than admirable. It's vital when involved in a national team setup due to the limited time players and coaches spend together. With time, Aloisi may become the manager, but at this stage, it would be a step out of his depth in his managerial career.


Rating of potential appointment: 4/10


Nick Montgomery


We now move from a man who has coached for over a decade to the most recent success story of coaches plying their trade in Australia, Nick Montgomery.


Montgomery has had a brief career as a manager, having taken charge of 38 games since being promoted from assistant coach at the Central Coast Mariners, a role he undertook from 2018 to 2021.


He has revitalised a team that finished bottom in the 2019/20 season to one of Australia's most exciting and free-flowing football teams. His approach to trusting youth is nothing short of amazing.


In the Mariners' Elimination Final against Adelaide United last season, Montgomery’s first in charge, his back four, minus goalkeeper Mark Birighitti, had an average age of 21. This statistic underlined the trust and responsibility he shows to young players.

Montgomery speaking about one of the Mariners' new signings this season, Brian Kaltak, which highlighted the incredible passion and love he shows publicly for his players.


Montgomery's intriguing philosophy and confidence in young Australian players would make him an enthralling selection should he be appointed.


He is still at the beginning of his managerial venture. But it would be interesting to see 'Monty' lead a young and exciting Socceroos squad. It's a squad that boasts the likes of Kye Rowles, Garang Kuol, and Jason Cummings, all of who have previously been or are still managed by him. Add to that up-and-coming future Socceroos such as Jacob Farrell and Nectarios Triantis; this aspect may influence the FA’s decision. Montgomery knows how to get the best out of his players, but there will be concerns about his inexperience.


Rating of potential appointment: 7/10


René Meulensteen


The FA may see Meulensteen as the easiest choice to transition into the role, as he currently is the assistant to Graham Arnold in the Socceroos setup.


Meulensteen is the most experienced coach of the three that have been mentioned. He began his coaching career in 1990 when he was appointed as the youth team manager of NEC Nijmegen, a top-tier club in the Netherlands, Meulensteen’s country of birth.


From there, he had stints with the Qatar U23 national team, Al-Ittihad (now known as Al-Gharafa) and Al-Saad, in the Qatari first division. His most high-profile role was as a technical coach at Manchester United under arguably the most outstanding manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson.


Meulensteen was at the English giants from 2001 to 2006. The experience he would have gained working with Sir Alex is one very few other jobs in football can provide.

His other, more recent roles included short stints as Premier League club Fulham's manager and as a strategic advisor for MLS club Philadelphia Union. Meulensteen also briefly managed Maccabi Haifa in Israel and the Kerala Blasters in India.


Some concerns surrounding Meulensteen are highlighted in his short stints as a manager. Despite the numerous clubs he has managed, Meulensteen is yet to complete an entire season as a head coach.


Critics would also raise questions regarding a concrete playing style. But there is no doubt that the transition from assistant to manager may prove to be a blessing in disguise for Meulensteen. He already understands the players’ strengths and weaknesses and their off-field attitudes. These aspects can't hurt Meulensteen's chances of becoming the new Australia manager.


Should he be appointed, it would allow him to find an identity with the current squad and mirror the habits of Graham Arnold. Whether success follows would depend on how Meulensteen manages the team. But he certainly brings an understanding of the squad's dynamics and the experience of overachieving as a team at the World Cup.


Rating of potential appointment: 5/10


Marcelo Bielsa

A family tree showing that out of the 280 retired former players Marcelo Bielsa has managed, 163 are now working as football managers or coaches. (Twitter: @kevnicholson1)


Marcelo Bielsa is a football fanatic not for the faint-hearted. He has managed over 700 games as a manager in some of the biggest leagues in the world.


Dating back to 1987, the 67-year-old Argentinian has coached at clubs such as Espanyol, Athletic Bilbao, and most recently, Leeds United. He also boasts international experience having coached over 130 games split between his home country Argentina and local neighbours Chile. Furthermore, Bielsa has won many different trophies such as the Primera Division in Argentina and English Championship, along with finishing as a runner-up in the 2004 Copa America.


But his highest achievement might be that he is viewed as an absolute icon when it comes to philosophy and identity. It is widely known that Pep Guardiola is a fond admirer of Bielsa, which just underlines the impact ‘El Loco’ has had on the football world.


His impact at Leeds, the most recent club he managed, was nothing short of remarkable. Bielsa achieved promotion from the Championship to the Premier League in the 2019/20 season. It was the first time since 2004/05 that Leeds had played in the top flight of English football.


His philosophy at Leeds was simple. Run for 90 minutes and entertain those who pay the money they do to watch you play. This identity was shown in his one and a half seasons at Elland Road in the Premier League. In 2021/22, Leeds’ shots per game stood at 13.59, with only five teams faring better in this metric.


The troubles for Leeds and Bielsa were defensively, where they conceded 17.46 shots per game, a league high from that same season. Their goals conceded prior to Bielsa’s sacking in February 2022 stood at 2.13 per game. That statistic further highlights the openness and willingness to get forward with a lack of defensive mindset garnered from Bielsa’s philosophy.


Should he be contacted, it wouldn’t be the first time the FA has looked into him for the role. Not long after his sacking from Leeds earlier this year, he was reportedly contacted as someone who could help grow the world game in Australia. More importantly, to achieve success as a short-term manager with a long standing impact down under.


Being the oldest on this list, his longevity would be short. But his undeniable passion and heart-shaking footballing approach, along with a celebrity-like status, would be one that no other manager has ever brought to the Socceroos. He's an option the FA should look at for the next World Cup cycle.


Rating of potential appointment: 8/10


Tony Popovic


Tony Popovic has always flown under the radar compared to his colleagues.


He has had some standout seasons as a manager in the A-League Men, most notably in the Western Sydney Wanderers' inaugural season. Popovic led the new club to a first-place finish in the 2012/13 season before losing to the Central Coast Mariners in the Grand Final.


A year later, Popovic was again the protagonist for the Wanderers, leading them to their first-ever trophy, the Asian Champions League. To this day, the Wanderers are the only Australian team to win silverware on the biggest stage in Asia.


Now Popovic is at Melbourne Victory, where he has been for the last two seasons.


Wherever he has gone, Popovic has been a serial winner. In his first season with Perth Glory, they finished the regular season first, going on to narrowly lose the Grand Final. In the 2021/22 season, Melbourne Victory finished second, losing a two-legged semi-final against cross-town rivals Western United. Popovic has had a win rate of approximately 45% throughout his managerial career. In Australia's domestic competition, he stands with a win rate of about 48%, just short of a win every other game.


At every club Popovic has been to, there has always been one big marquee player in the dressing room. This factor can sometimes be intimidating for upcoming youth players. These names include Shinji Ono at the Wanderers, Diego Castro at Perth Glory, and Nani at Melbourne Victory. But his man-management skills stood out. It's clear to see that trust and respect were shown by all players towards Popovic at his previous clubs, as many former players have rejoined him at Victory. Whether it was Chris Ikonomidis, Tomi Juric, Brendan Hamill, or former defender Jason Davidson, all four chose to move to the club and play under Popovic.


Whichever team Popovic coaches, he adapts his playing style to the players he has or to the opposition he plays. Setting up his sides in a 4-2-3-1 formation that can sometimes adapt into a 4-5-1, Popovic's experience as a manager is second to none. But the only question mark will be that he has never coached internationally. In saying that, it will only be a matter of time until a national team snaps up Popovic, and it certainly could be one in Asia. Australia must act fast to avoid a rival nation potentially strengthening its coaching ranks.


Rating of potential appointment: 9/10


Kevin Muscat


Finally, Kevin Muscat is the man everyone is tipping to spearhead the Socceroos to more outstanding success. He is coming off a championship-winning season in the J-League with Yokohama F. Marinos. He is being touted as the next Australian manager to move to Europe.

Muscat pictured lifting the J-League trophy with Yokohama after a successful first full season in charge. (KeepUp)


Another manager who has been highly successful throughout his career, Muscat was a tough tackling defender who seamlessly transitioned into a manager. He started as a caretaker, managing one game for Melbourne Victory before officially being given the leading role in October 2013. From there, he never looked back, staying put until May 2019. Success arrived instantly, winning the premiership-championship double in his first season in charge.


Intriguingly, Muscat has already had a stint on the backroom staff for the Socceroos. In 2017 under Ange Postecoglou, he was called up to be part of the backroom staff for the team at the Confederations Cup. The experience, though unusual and indifferent, would have no doubt helped Muscat when he went on to manage Belgian first-division club Sint-Truiden. That move proved to be a step too far for Muscat, who, after 15 games, was given his marching orders, having won only two games whilst suffering eight defeats.


For some, what would have been a demoralising experience has only helped Muscat in his coaching career. A six-month break from football gave Muscat more than enough time to rejuvenate before being appointed as the manager of Postecoglou's former club Yokohama F. Marinos.


Success in Japan through winning the championship has seen Muscat linked with a move to a bigger club, which is bound to happen. But could he be persuaded by the Socceroos' job?


A playing style not too dissimilar to Arnold's may provide a perfect fit for the FA. It would also allow a fresh face in camp to give up-and-coming Socceroos a new chance to prove themselves to the English-born, Australian-capped defender.


A sure long-term manager, Muscat would be an ideal fit to be involved in the Socceroos' setup. Such an appointment also allows him to grow his coaching CV, should he find success.


Rating of potential appointment: 8/10


Graham Arnold


We cannot be talking about potential Socceroos managers without mentioning the man that, for the first time in 16 years, took Australia further than the group stage at a World Cup.


Graham Arnold's determination, grit, and never give in attitude have been admirable at times. It has also been emulated by the players via a never say die, play-to-your-strengths philosophy. Australia was clearly up against nations with technically stronger players, as seen in virtually every game they played at the World Cup. But what each country did not have, which Arnold recognised instantly, was the hunger and fighting spirit that drives the Australian spirit. Every game was a fight that saw Australia defend their goal for long periods, withholding constant pressure. They proved to be a united nation. Arnold's Roos looked more like a brotherhood of many decades than a team that had only been together for some weeks.


It has been a long four years for Arnold, who began his reign in 2018. The journey to reach the last 16 included finishing third in a qualifying group behind Japan and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Australia crashed out of the 2019 Asian Cup in the quarter-finals against hosts the United Arab Emirates. Finally, there was qualifying for the World Cup after a penalty shootout win against Peru.


He arrived at the World Cup with many critics and left Qatar a national hero. The tactics Arnold deployed suited his players to an absolute tee. Specific decisions regarding positions and team selection for particular games raised eyebrows. But the confidence that Arnold showed to support those players chosen was immense.


A loss to Argentina, particularly to a little man named Lionel Messi in the Round of 16, was a scenario many Australians dreamt of heading into the tournament. They were placed in a group with the reigning champions France, Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark, and the unknown entity of Tunisia.


By finishing second and progressing to the knockout stage at the most significant international tournament in football, with more points than Spain, Croatia, Germany, and Belgium, many Aussie football purists regained hope. So when the full-time whistle went against Argentina, and the result read a 2-1 win to the South American side, many Australians were excited about what was to come. It was quite the opposite of what you would expect from people whose country has just been knocked out of the World Cup.


Arnold restored hope in Australian football, showcasing its young talent on its shores. His involvement with the Olyroos at the Tokyo Olympics highlighted his passion and commitment towards changing Australian football forever. It's an aim he has echoed when speaking to the media.


Should Arnold continue as manager, there is no doubt he will continue to have his critics. But on the other hand, when has he ever been a media favourite? Arnold would continue to prove these critics wrong and improve the national team shining a light on the young talent that is often rarely seen on the big stage.


Rating of potential reappointment: 7/10

 

There is no doubt that there are many great candidates who are capable of taking over from Arnold as manager. But it all likely depends on the FA's major decision regarding a new contract for Arnold or whether they start fresh to build on the 2022 success. So, what decision seems the most sensible?


All statistics sourced from Transfermarkt.


Click here to read about how Federation Square and the Socceroos proved a point at the World Cup.

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