Which defensive duo does Graham Arnold start in Qatar?
Three weeks out from the Socceroos starting another World Cup campaign in Qatar, manager Graham Arnold has a few selection headaches heading into their opening fixture against reigning world champions France. He may be scratching his head most at which centre-back pairing will be most suitable for the tournament, with viable options aplenty.
Milos Degenek, Trent Sainsbury, Bailey Wright, Kye Rowles, and Harry Souttar have decent arguments about why they should start against Les Bleus. Other bolters include Thomas Deng, Curtis Good, and Harrison Delbridge. But with Arnold favouring a back four in defence, there is only room for two.
Before we take a closer look at each option, let's cast our minds back to the last time the Socceroos played a competitive fixture. On that day, a 2-0 friendly win at Eden Park against New Zealand, Arnold rotated his squad heavily, with Delbridge and Deng the starting pair. The game before at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, a more experienced duo of Degenek and Sainsbury also kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 win.
So, these friendlies didn't tell us much. It would be more pertinent to consider which centre-backs were most crucial in getting the Socceroos to Qatar in the first place.
In qualifying, Sainsbury and Degenek were Arnold's two most trusted defenders, with Sainsbury starting 14 times, whilst Degenek made 12 appearances. None of the other central defenders listed above made anywhere close to that number or were barely featured.
For starters, although solid together in Australia's most recent fixture against New Zealand, Deng and Delbridge did not feature in a single qualifier. Both are intriguingly in similar positions as late bolters coming off excellent campaigns in two top Asian leagues. However, you could only see them genuinely starting should injuries befall Australia's more established centre-backs.
As for Curtis Good, he would be considered the 'A-League bolter' of this position. Although the 29-year-old has impressed at Melbourne City, his lack of experience internationally would surely be too much of a risk.
Next is Bailey Wright, who is arguably between the two tiers of bolter and starter, usually utilised as a backup for the national team. In recent times, Wright's trajectory at an international level has gone from one extreme to the other. In the initial qualifying phase, the Sunderland defender only appeared once. Yet, he was crucial alongside Kye Rowles in the crucial play-offs against the UAE and Peru .
Although Wright's starting case is potentially bolstered by those displays being fresh in Arnold's memory, what won't persuade him is the 30-year-old's lack of club football this season. After being a mainstay at the Stadium of Light in 2021/22, the team's promotion to the Championship has likely contributed to Wright's minutes falling by the wayside. He has only started twice for the first team and was dropped to the club's U21 side on two occasions.
So, that narrows it down to Sainsbury, Degenek, Rowles, and Souttar. All four have viable arguments, whether that be international caps, experience at the top level, or previous performances for the national team.
From an experience standpoint, Sainsbury and Degenek are clear. As previously mentioned, they both featured the most in the qualifying stage. But it goes beyond that. Arnold's trust in Sainsbury is not only because the latter is the manager's son-in-law. The 30-year-old has worn the armband before and earned 61 international caps. One mustn't forget that he played every minute of the 2018 World Cup and Australia's 2015 Asian Cup triumph.
Sainsbury is the most experienced option at Graham Arnold's disposal, having won 61 caps for his country. (AAP)
As for Degenek, one could point to his club experience as a decisive factor. Again, it's easy to forget that he has played 12 games in the most elite club competition in world football, the UEFA Champions League. Furthermore, those appearances came against the elite, including Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool, Napoli, Tottenham, and Bayern Munich. The Socceroos will face similarly daunting opponents in France and Denmark. Potentially coming up against reigning Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema in game one is less likely to faze the former Crvena zvezda man than any other Socceroos defender.
Rowles and Souttar can't make the same case based on experience. Both have made a combined 13 appearances for the national team. But their previous form for Australia remains a critical factor in this decision. Souttar was immense at the start of qualifying, albeit against weaker opposition, scoring six times across ten starts as a defender. He is a set-piece threat, and with the Socceroos likely to rely on this scoring method, he would be an ideal weapon. Despite his three caps, Rowles handled the most high-pressure games of his career against the UAE and Peru like a much more experienced defender.
However, match fitness and injury concerns remain a critical stumbling block for the duo. Souttar has made his return from a lengthy ACL injury. But there are concerns over whether the 24-year-old will be ready for such top-level fixtures, having started only twice for Stoke City's U21 side since his return. Rowles is in a similar predicament, suffering a foot injury in August. However, recent reports claim he is targeting a return for Hearts' next league fixture this weekend against Motherwell.
Despite returning from a lengthy injury layoff, building match fitness remains a concern for Harry Souttar. (Socceroos)
Speaking to Front Page Football recently, renowned Australian football commentator Simon Hill weighed in on who he thinks will start the Socceroos opening fixture against France.
"I guess it's all up in the air because Sainsbury has dropped a bit of form (and is in his off-season - he's training with Melbourne City to get ready), and Souttar is only just back. I think they were Arnie's first choice for a long time," Hill said.
"Degenek seems to have fallen away a bit - Bailey Wright is a good backup. I'd be going with Deng and Rowles (if he is fit). Deng did well in the J2 [League] and the New Zealand game...Rowles has come on a bomb.
"[I'm] not sold on Delbridge at that level (though he's new to it), and Curtis Good could yet make a late run at it. If pushed though, I'd say Sainsbury will start - maybe with Rowles alongside if he is ready."
As Hill alluded to, question marks remain over Souttar, given his lack of minutes at a senior level of late. But should he be in peak condition come the France game, Souttar's previous qualifying performances and key physical attributes make him the first choice for Arnold.
The other centre-back slot becomes more complex to fill. Given Arnold's trust in Sainsbury, the manager will likely opt for his former Central Coast Mariners star. Both he and Souttar do complement each other nicely.
Personally, Rowles' cool, calm, and collected performance in such a nerve-wracking game against Peru was eye-opening. Should he and Souttar be ready, it would make an ideal pairing, with Rowles' composure working in tandem with Souttar's more combative approach. Going off his performance against New Zealand at Suncorp Stadium, Sainsbury is more likely to have a mistake in him, which will undoubtedly be punished against such quality opposition. He looked poor in that friendly and almost gave the All Whites two goals. Either way, a fully fit Souttar must be the key figure anchoring Australia's back four.
Perhaps Arnold is aware of that and is sweating on the defender's match fitness. For his and Australia's sake, hopefully, health favours the Socceroos. There's no doubt they will be up against it in each game and, once again, are underdogs. It makes the selection in defensive roles imperative and one that Arnold needs to be sure of going into the tournament.
One can only hope he gets it right when the Socceroos open their campaign against world champions France on November 23 at 6am AEDT.
All statistics sourced from Transfermarkt
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