The Socceroos are closer to success in 2022 than 2018
After a frustrating and nerve-wracking qualification campaign, Australia enters its fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup in Qatar. They've already had their chances dismissed by most of the population, let alone the rest of the world. But the Socceroos are much better placed in 2022 than four years previously and heading into the future.
Australia's 2022 FIFA World Cup squad is in a much better place than it was four years ago. (Socceroos)
Stability in the coaching position
You don't have to be a Graham Arnold fan to reflect on the importance of stability. Calling the 2018 and 2022 World Cup qualification campaigns turbulent would be an understatement. But there is one big difference this time around.
After qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Ange Postecoglou resigned from his position. It led Football Australia to hire experienced Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk to lead the Socceroos at the tournament. There is no doubting van Marwijk's quality as a coach on the international stage - he reached the 2010 World Cup Final with the Netherlands. The Dutchman also demonstrated his passion for the job by paying his Socceroos coaching team out of his pocket. But this sudden switch so close to the World Cup was far from ideal.
Regardless of fans' thoughts on Graham Arnold and his playing style, he is a coach that has built a good relationship with his squad. He has been in charge of the program since 2018. He has a vast knowledge of the Australian football landscape and the qualities of the group he has selected. Consistency in the top job is crucial. Going into Qatar 2022 with that box ticked is a huge positive for the Socceroos, which they did not have in Russia in 2018.
The emergence of capable centre-backs
At the 2018 World Cup, Australia's lack of confidence in its central defenders was apparent. It started the partnership of Trent Sainsbury, a capable centre-back, and Mark Milligan, a midfielder that can do a job in defence, in all three games. The other two centre-backs in the squad, Miloš Degenek and Matt Jurman, were much newer to the Socceroos setup. They were not consistent members of the starting XI, let alone the squad at times, before or since.
Only Degenek remains in this squad from that group, with Sainsbury and Jurman out of favour and Milligan retiring. But since 2018, capable options have emerged. First and foremost, Stoke City defender Harry Souttar is a colossus at the back and a player who was in excellent form before rupturing his ACL. The defender's recent return to fitness saw him picked for the World Cup squad.
Former Central Coast Mariners defender Kye Rowles also came of age when he was thrust into the deep end during the cut-throat stages of qualification. Thomas Deng's excellent form in Japan and Bailey Wright's consistency at Sunderland have also been rewarded with World Cup berths.
The presumed starting partnership of Souttar and Rowles, which FPF described as an "ideal pairing" at the start of this month, has been under an injury cloud. But it could be formidable when fit as it combines physicality and ball-playing ability, which will be crucial against tough opposition. Should either or both re-aggravate their injuries, the three backup centre-backs selected by Arnold can slot in and perform capably.
Depth of skills out wide
The 2018 World Cup saw Australia rely heavily on Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse to make an impact on the wings. Live-wire Daniel Arzani was subbed on in the second half of games for a more direct approach when chasing a lead. In 2022, Australia has more to show out wide than speed on the counter.
Since 2018, Scottish-born forward Martin Boyle has declared his allegiance to Australia. He has been a game-changer on the right, making his country's limited chances count. Unfortunately, Boyle could not overcome his knee injury, which saw Marco Tilio enter the squad with the ability to play out wide and in the midfield. Australia could benefit from the winger's direct play, technical quality, and work rate. An opportunity on the world stage will surely help the young star in the long term.
Along with Tilio, Adelaide United's Craig Goodwin has been included in the squad. In the past few years, he has also shown he is lethal in front of goals. Alongside his goalscoring prolificacy, Goodwin is a set-piece and crossing specialist. With Australia mostly playing against higher-quality opposition, the South Australian's quality of delivery may be crucial. Additionally, his flexibility allows him to play at left back if required.
Both Mathew Leckie and Awer Mabil are also players who have shown in the past that they only need one moment to change a game of football with their pace. Garang Kuol's inclusion in this squad will also give Graham Arnold a similar option to what van Marwijk had in 2018 with Daniel Arzani. A raw prospect with the license to relentlessly attack a tired opponent while trying to make something happen. It's a quality that Mariners coach Nick Montgomery has used effectively.
Versatile midfield balance of youth and experience
When selecting his squad, Graham Arnold stated that his goal was to select two players for every position, and that fact was clear in midfield. The retirement of Mile Jedinak left a gaping hole in the holding midfield position. But Cameron Devlin and Keanu Baccus have the defensive attributes to shield their backline successfully. However, one should note that they are still yet to gain the former skipper's poise and experience early in their careers.
Jackson Irvine enters 2022 as a prominent squad member. He can be utilised as a box-to-box or even a holding midfielder in a double pivot. Experienced midfielder Aaron Mooy remains a crucial player in another World Cup campaign. The Celtic man's versatility makes him capable of playing wherever Graham Arnold wishes to deploy him in the centre of the park.
Ajdin Hrustic enters his first World Cup, displacing Tom Rogic - who did not make the squad - as Australia's most technically gifted player. He will be critical to most of the team's creativity. Meanwhile, Riley McGree can also play in the attacking midfield position. But he is also well-adept to playing in a box-to-box role. His work rate and trademark aggression may be helpful against physical, battled-hardened opposition.
The midfield may not be as experienced as previous years, but it is physically up to the challenge. With the correct deployment, it can cause headaches for teams like France. Despite their immense firepower in the final third, France is light on a couple of star midfielders and has had trouble moving the ball with purpose in the last year.
Trusted, recognised strikers with a range of qualities
Despite taking four strikers to Russia with him, Bert van Marwijk started Andrew Nabbout in the first two games. Tomi Juric led the line in the final match after the former succumbed to an injury. Meanwhile, Jamie Maclaren received no playing time, and Tim Cahill only received minutes in the last game to show respect for his service to his country.
Nabbout may not have been a recognised striker, but his form and pressing ability earned him the coach's trust. It was also clear that van Marwijk did not feel comfortable with the rest of his strike force, which is not the case in 2022.
The most likely scenario will see Mitch Duke start. He's a striker that Graham Arnold is familiar with and suits the game style the Socceroos will be playing. A focus on crossing, set-piece threats and defensive effort characterise that style. Jamie Maclaren is back for another World Cup. Since 2018 he has returned to the A-League Men, dominating the competition and earning respect. Arnold could turn to Maclaren if he is looking for a fox-in-the-box that can press the opposition throughout the game.
Alongside them, Scottish-born forward Jason Cummings has been selected to provide the Socceroos with an X factor. Cummings' ability to connect play and work in tandem with his fellow forwards while always being a threat is a unique attribute for an Australian striker. On the back of a World Cup where zero to no trust was shown to the strikers, having a group of diversely skilled forwards is refreshing. But it is now crucial that the rest of the team plays to their strengths.
Who missed out
A squad is only as strong as its selection pool, which is undoubtedly clear when comparing who missed out on selection in the 2018 World Cup to 2022.
In 2018, some unlucky names included Bailey Wright, Josh Brillante, Apostolos Giannou, Dario Vidosic, Tommy Oar, Alex Gersbach, Fran Karacic, Nikita Rukavytsya, James Troisi, and Adam Taggart. A list of solid names but not spectacular or game-changing on the international stage by any stretch of the imagination.
Come 2022, despite being given three more slots to utilise, the Australian football public engaged in one of the most spirited Socceroos selection debates in recent memory. Plenty of players genuinely felt hard done by missing the squad, be it due to their strong form or reputation. Leaving a family member out is never easy, but that is precisely what Graham Arnold did to son-in-law Trent Sainsbury, showing how competitive selection was this time.
Along with Sainsbury, players such as Mitch Langerak, Tom Rogic, Denis Genreau, Connor Metcalfe, Ryan Strain, Jason Davidson, Adam Taggart, Kenny Dougall, Alex Gersbach, Daniel Arzani, Andrew Nabbout, and originally Marco Tilio, before Martin Boyle's late withdrawal, all had cases to play for the Socceroos. Some arguments were more substantial than others, but Arnold heartbreakingly denied all. You can only imagine the heartache three more unlucky individuals would have suffered if FIFA did not increase squad sizes from 23 to 26 for the 2022 World Cup.
Pessimism is second nature to Australian football fans, so dismissing the Socceroos' chances at the World Cup is easy. Australia indeed finds itself in a challenging group, and in all likelihood, it will end in disappointment. But the Socceroos are better placed to succeed than they were in 2018.
It is more profound than three games of football, though. Rome was not built in a day, and thus Australian football certainly won't be either. Positive signs are emerging, the quality of players being produced is improving, and instead of discussions based on production, utilisation is becoming a hot topic.
After going close to missing this World Cup, the Socceroos can treat the three upcoming group games as somewhat of a free hit. Australia should be encouraged to play their game without the fear of losing.
Whichever way this tournament goes, it is an invaluable experience for the young players in Qatar. Let's not forget about the next generation that once again wakes up early in the morning or stays up late at night, daring to dream.
With or without Graham Arnold post-World Cup, the Socceroos can move on to the Asian Cup with the hope of trending in the right direction. Australia should be brave in integrating the next generation of players that are knocking down the door for opportunities. The plan should be to enter the next World Cup even more prepared than this time as the expectations rise from participating to making an impact.
Click here to read more about the Socceroos upcoming opponents at the FIFA World Cup; Tunisia, Denmark, and France!