This winter, Australia will make its fifth consecutive appearance on the biggest international stage, having gone through the intercontinental play-offs after failing to qualify for the tournament directly. The Aussies beat both the UAE and Peru on a memorable route to Doha, with the game against the Peruvians, in particular, going down to the wire. The tie was eventually decided by penalties, where third-choice keeper Andrew Redmayne became a national hero. His antics and unique style of keeping forced the errors from Advincula and Valera, sealing the ticket for the World Cup.
But as Graham Arnold has said on multiple occasions, the job is not done yet. He wants his players to know that reaching the World Cup is a great achievement in itself, but it’s also just the start. The former Sydney FC coach believes that he has a special group on his hands that is capable of going out and nicking results from the very best. Their COVID-hampered qualification cycle also means that they are one of the few teams that are already comfortable with the unique conditions in Qatar, having played there three times in 2022, winning two and drawing one of the games. But despite their previous experience on Qatari soil, winning points in Group D will still be a hard task.
Australia will open the group against defending World Champions France, just like they did in 2018, when they lost 2-1 against Didier Deschamps’ men. After that, they will face Tunis at Al Janoub Stadium, before taking on Denmark – another rival from their group in Russia.
The 26-man squad for these group games (and beyond, if they do achieve the unthinkable and progress to the Round of 16) was revealed earlier this month. Graham Arnold surprised quite a few people with his decision to leave out experienced internationals like Tom Rogic (West Bromwich Albion), Trent Sainsbury (Al-Wakrah SC), and Adam Taggart (Cerezo Osaka). However, the biggest surprise was the exclusion of Nagoya Grampus shot-stopper Mitchell Langerak.
Langerak, who is widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the J1 League in Japan, just recently came out of international retirement and was considered by many to be a lock in for the squad. Some fans even went as far to say that he should be starting ahead of former Arsenal keeper and current national team captain Mathew Ryan.
There was also a lot of talk surrounding Australian-born wonderkid Cristian Volpato, who reportedly rejected the opportunity to represent Australia and decided to back himself and wait for the call from Squadra Azzurra. The current AS Roma playmaker was born in Camperdown, Sydney and is eligible to represent both the Socceroos and Italy, due to his Italian heritage.
Anyway, enough said about the players that haven’t been picked. It’s time we focused on the 26 that were chosen to wear the Green and Gold shirt in Qatar.
Socceroos Squad Analysis
- Mathew Ryan (FC Copenhagen)
- Daniel Vukovic (Central Coast Mariners)
- Andrew Redmayne (Sydney FC)
These are the three goalies picked by Graham Arnold and goalkeeper coach John Crawley to defend Australia’s goal against the likes of Karim Benzema, Christian Eriksen, and Wahbi Khazri. All three have been ever-present throughout the qualification campaign, with Ryan taking on the mantle of undisputed #1, and Vukovic and Redmayne providing support for their former Central Coast Mariners teammate and friend.
- Nathaniel Atkinson (Heart of Midlothian)
- Fran Karacic (Brescia Calcio)
Right-back is arguably one of the weakest links in the current setup. Both Nathaniel Atkinson and Fran Karacic have spent time as first choice picks, but neither has really managed to make the spot his own. Atkinson is the more attacking of the two and currently has the upper hand in the battle for the role, but considering that Arnold’s men will have to defend a lot against France in their opener, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he decides to start with the Zagreb-born Karacic instead.
- Aziz Behich (Dundee United)
- Joel King (Odense Boldklub)
In contrast to the right-hand side, the competition for the starting spot on the left is much less. Dundee United’s veteran defender Aziz Behich will most likely start all the games in which he’s available, while youngster Joel King will be hoping to impress in training and break into the XI.
- Harry Souttar (Stoke City)
- Milos Degenek (Columbus Crew)
- Kye Rowles (Heart of Midlothian)
- Bailey Wright (Sunderland AFC)
- Thomas Deng (Albirex Niigata)
Arnold was probably breathing a sigh of relief after seeing Souttar and Rowles recover from injuries and playing for their clubs sides. The two 24-year-olds are expected to be the starting centre-back pairing at the tournament, as they bring the natural balance of a right and left-footed duo and possess the technical and physical ability to match the occasion.
Bailey Wright and Milos Degenek will provide experience and know-how off the bench, if needed, and Thomas Deng is another competent player who the coaching staff really likes and trusts because he’s capable of playing as a right-back or a right centre-back in a back-three.
- Aaron Mooy (Celtic FC)
- Jackson Irvine (FC St. Pauli)
- Cameron Devlin (Hearts of Midlothian)
- Keanu Baccus (St Mirren FC)
- Ajdin Hrustic (Hellas Verona)
- Riley McGree (Middlesbrough FC)
Midfield is probably the strongest area of the side in terms of quality and at the same time the most problematic from a tactical perspective. Aaron Mooy, Riley McGree, and Ajdin Hrustic have all shown that they possess the necessary skills to hurt teams in the final third, but in the past the lack of a trustworthy #6 meant that they were forced to play out of position or drop deep to link up play and sustain possession.
This time around, Arnold has two options for that deeper role, with Scotland-based midfielders Cam Devlin and Keanu Baccus being called up following their impressive runs of form with Hearts and St Mirren respectively. This could work in Mooy and Hrustic’s favour as the two were previously tasked with carrying most of the burden in the second phase of build up.
Mooy, who was part of the squad in 2018, has been playing in a more advanced role for Celtic in recent months and the Socceroos could look to use that by moving the former Brighton man higher up alongside Hrustic or Irvine, in order to accommodate someone like Baccus or Devlin.
- Martin Boyle (Hibernian FC)
- Mathew Leckie (Melbourne City)
- Craig Goodwin (Adelaide United)
- Awer Mabil (Cadiz)
- Garang Kuol (Central Coast Mariners)
Left and right wing are arguably two of the most competitive positions, with players like Mat Leckie and Craig Goodwin coming into the tournament in peak form, while, regardless of their issues at club level, Martin Boyle and Awer Mabil will be pushing for a start right from the off.
Young sensation Garang Kuol will also be waiting for his chance to shine and show the world why he’s considered the next big thing coming from down under and why Newcastle United decided to sign him outside of the transfer window.
- Mitchell Duke (Fagiano Okayama)
- Jamie Maclaren (Melbourne City)
- Jason Cummings (Central Coast Mariners)
Australian strikers have generally struggled during the last two years of Arnold’s reign as head coach, with only 10 of the 33 goals scored, since the start of 2021, coming from the boot (or head) of a conventional #9. The trio of Duke, Maclaren, and Cummings all offer different qualities and they will be hoping to change the tendency and give the ‘Roos the best chance to succeed in the group stage.
Tactics and formations
Arnold usually uses a back four, and despite him recently hinting that they could move to a more defensive shape, with a back three, that change remains unlikely. The Socceroos normally lineup in a standard 4-3-3 formation, which tends to change to a more traditional 4-4-2 when they defend, with one of the advanced midfielders dropping back, while the other supports the striker at leading the press.
They have also shown versatility, using their full-backs in different ways, depending on the opponent and the available resources. For example, in the play-offs against the UAE and Peru, the two wide defenders were asked to tuck in and support Aaron Mooy, who was playing as a defensive midfielder, in order to provide legs in the middle of the pitch, and allow the other midfielders to push up.
It’s very likely that we’ll see a similar setup in the first game against France, unless Arnold decides to go for a more conservative approach, by fielding a double pivot in front of the back-four. That could be an option, especially if Ajdin Hrustic is not ready to start the game following his ankle injury.
Regardless of formations and principles of play, the Australians will have to give more than 100% if they want to achieve something memorable and history shows that starting strong can be crucial. Back at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, an Aussie team led by legendary manager Guus Hiddink, and his assistant coach Graham Arnold, managed to do just that, qualifying for the second round of the finals thanks to their early 3-1 win over Japan.
More than 16 years later, Hiddink’s former prodigy will be hoping to recreate those special moments and write down his name with golden (and green) letters in the history books of Australian football.