Graham Arnold and the Socceroos: Match Made in Heaven or Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Over a week ago, the Australian National Football Team managed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, catching the last train to Qatar, after beating Peru in a fairly dull game where they didn’t really dominate or impress a whole lot. These performances by the Socceroos are something that the majority of football fans in the country have gotten used to.

In the end, a miraculous save from the most unlikely hero, Andrew Redmayne, in the penalty shoot-out was needed in order for the Socceroos to get to the Promised Land and earn the right to play on the biggest of stages for the fifth consecutive time.

Australia World Cup 2022 Peru Qualifier Graham Arnold Socceroos
Art by Charbak Dipta

Overall, it’s really hard not to appreciate this team and admire their effort, considering what they have gone through in order to qualify, and the fact that the third-choice goalkeeper was the eventual hero does add to the feel-good factor. Yet the sudden change of narrative surrounding the squad seems somewhat premature.

Not too long ago, the majority of fans and media alike wanted to see head coach Graham Arnold gone, with some even saying that he should be sacked before the crucial WC qualification game against the United Arab Emirates. And they did have their valid arguments.

Following last year’s impressive record-breaking winning streak of 11 wins on the bounce – a new world record for the most consecutive victories in a single World Cup campaign – Arnold’s team collapsed in the later stages of the AFC Asian Qualifiers. Australia won just one point from the available 12 against direct rivals Japan and Saudi Arabia in Group B, while also failing to win against Oman and China. Both teams currently rank at least 30 places below Australia in the FIFA World Ranking. 

During his tenure, the former Sydney FC boss also failed to beat any Asian side ranked higher than 68th place, with his only victory against a team above 70th place coming in the recent qualifier against the UAE.

People will be quick to say that football is a results-based business and they’d be right. Graham Arnold definitely deserves more credit than criticism, considering the fact that he managed to get the team to the WC, and he did it in the absence of some very important players like Harry Souttar, Tom Rogic, Adam Taggart, and Trent Sainsbury. But the manner in which this goal was achieved shouldn’t be ignored as well.

In their last five competitive games, including the playoff against Peru, the Socceroos dominated possession on only one occasion (versus Oman) and accumulated a higher xG value than their opponent just once, against Saudi Arabia. They also managed to overperform their Expected Goals only twice and kept just two clean sheets.

Injuries, fitness issues, COVID cases, and long, tiring flights are just some of the reasons behind this underperformance. But regardless of the tough circumstances, Graham Arnold should also take part of the blame for the poor results and negative approach in vital qualifiers. His reluctance to play with a conventional #6 and desire to necessarily have Ajdin Hrustic, arguably the best ball-playing midfielder in the squad, positioned as an advanced #10/9 (in a 4-4-2/4-2-4) often resulted in the team being extremely disjointed in midfield as the Socceroos struggled to establish control over games.

As seen from the images below, this disjointed shape was very evident in the game against Peru, where Aaron Mooy was used in a fairly unorthodox defensive midfield position, tasked with the role to create from deep, which he rarely managed to do.

In this instance, Mooy drops deep to collect the ball from the centre-backs, while Hrustic and Irvine (not in the photo) push up in order to stretch the Peru defence, which leaves a massive gap (marked with X) between the two lines and forces the players in Green and Gold to go long.

Just a few minutes later, we have a similar example where this time Nathaniel Atkinson, who has inverted to pick up the ball, is facing forward, but due to the advanced positions of Irvine, Hrustic, Boyle, and Leckie, and the passive movement of Mooy, is forced to look for alternative options instead of playing the ball to feet.

These kinds of persisting issues have been a consequence of Arnold’s unwillingness to adapt to his team and move from the formation and principles that made him successful with Central Coast and Sydney FC in the A-League Men’s competition.

Nonetheless, the qualification should still be seen as a massive achievement and one that will definitely be remembered due to the manner in which it happened. But people should also try to look beyond the results and understand that the iconic save from Redmayne and the playoffs against the UAE and Peru could have been avoided if Arnold had addressed the problems in the squad earlier.

There are exactly five months and one international window left until it is time for Australia to face France, a well-known opponent, in their first match of the 2022 World Cup. On paper, that’s enough time for any team to improve and work on its flaws. But in order for that to happen, Graham Arnold and his coaching staff must look at themselves and decide how they are going to approach this tournament. Will they stick with the disjointed midfield shape, or reposition the side to better control the games in Qatar?

One of the greatest ever players and coaches, Johan Cruyff, once said: “Before you can coach others you must learn to coach yourself.” If Graham Arnold is capable of doing this and revisiting the issues that lead to his team being forced to play a do-or-die qualifier, then maybe the Socceroos could surprise a few people when they come up against the current World Champions at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah.