Australia's 1-1 draw with China in FIFA World Cup qualifying has significant consequences. Following another inevitably uninspiring performance despite dominating possession, the Socceroos now sit third in Group B of AFC qualifying, with the toughest of return matches still to come against Saudi Arabia and Japan, who now take up the automatic qualification spots.
Naturally, Australian soccer is losing its collective mind. The predominant inability to critically assess results in context of performance is now creating the scramble -- in both media and public circles -- for reasons why the Socceroos are in such a predicament. Much like it did in the previous World Cup qualification phase.
Despite differing outcomes, Tuesday's draw in Sharjah and what it all means -- and this particular qualification window -- is eerily reminiscent of the Socceroos' 2-1 win at home over Thailand in 2017. Long-evident underlying issues in performance are starting to show through outcomes, and panic across Australian football is starting to set in.
Yet of all the narratives that hold varying degrees of validity, those in Australian football should be wary of the idea Australian players are not simply good enough. Especially with this qualification phase in isolation.
Let's be clear. The issue is not individual player quality, but their utilisation. In reality, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold is arguably doing less with more at his disposal, in terms of personnel. As noted following last week's 0-0 draw at home to Saudi Arabia, Arnold's traditional lack of flexibility and his pragmatic approach only amplifies under duress is starting to manifest.
This is all underpinned by an ideological fragility, and it's evident in the smallest of details: His increasing lament in press conferences over the lack of time he has with players; the increasingly jittery demeanour on the sidelines; his barking at players on whom to pass to when Australia have the ball; and, most relevantly in a tactical sense, his pre-game and in-game adjustments.
Both games in this international window spoke volumes on that last point, with the likes of Adam Taggart, Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy unavailable. This becomes even more prevalent when considering how the complexions of the Saudi Arabia and China games were working against Australia, and they still had to chase results.
But in order to find a solution, we have to assess, what is the problem?
As a layer on top of his approach, Arnold shoehorning players who are incompatible within his system is leading to an overall lack of threat in possession, which then impacts the Socceroos' ability to defend in transition. Considering Australia leads teams in Asian qualifying for average time in possession, at just a touch under 35 minutes (per Instat), the problem is interdependent between the qualitative and quantitative.
Taggart leads the Socceroos for expected goals + expected assists per 90 minutes over games in 2021, but the team's xG while he is on the pitch could be optimised, and that's a matter of team composition. Jamie Maclaren's numbers have to be taken with a pinch of salt in relation, however, given the bulk of his minutes came in the AFC's second qualification phase earlier this year.
Against stronger opposition, the past two international windows have provided good evidence in that respect, and it's arguably underlined Taggart's importance. But does Arnold maximise it? As it stands, there is a disjointed relationship between Taggart and the Australian midfield, which then impacts the ability of wide attackers like Martin Boyle and Awer Mabil to tangibly impact the game. The overall shot quality is then, in turn, impacted as well.
Mabil and Boyle need a positional reference point like Taggart, who creates space for them to attack defenders with momentum. That Australia had almost double the possession to China on Wednesday, but the latter had the same amount of successful dribbles and more dribble attempts is a reflection of that.
Taggart is the Socceroos' most incorporative striker in years, but higher shot quantity and lower shot quality from the likes of Hrustic, Mooy, Mabil and Boyle speak to issues deeper on the pitch. Bear in mind overall shot quality in AFC qualification is very low, but the players who provide the majority of Australia's shots are still below the average in this phase. This is all before considering what Jackson Irvine does and doesn't provide in midfield.
The very first minute against China showed Irvine's love for late entry into the penalty area, but with the ball at his feet in tight areas, he's highly panicky and conservative. Playing him at the base of midfield, in a double pivot with Hrustic or James Jeggo, takes away the one thing he actually excels at. Arnold did actually provide a slight adjustment between the Saudi Arabia and China games, with Jeggo rotating between the centre-backs much more in earlier phases of possession on Wednesday morning.
But it was ultimately inconsequential, because Jeggo and Irvine together on the pitch still created an unhealthy reliance on Hrustic to receive the ball in tight. One instance late in the first half hinted to Irvine's hesitation in those phases, the impact it has on Australia's possession and consequent ability to defend.
After getting the ball out to Boyle from in front of China's midfield line, Irvine dashes towards the penalty area but, after Mitchell Duke gets him the ball back, a combination of his first touch and panic bring him to a standstill. Right-back Rhyan Grant then lumps in an unsuccessful cross and China spring into transition. Australia then have no choice but to foul and stop the potential break.
Duke, Leckie and Maclaren have much more conventional attributes up front. When considering that midfield dysfunction, this international window raises the question, do they provide a net gain against the strongest of opposition in Asia in comparison to Taggart? Duke, Leckie and Maclaren are averaging a greater xG per shot to Taggart. Duke even scored against China and as Arnold mentioned after the Saudi Arabia draw, goals change games. But they are far less incorporative, putting even more pressure on a flawed midfield.
Taking recent Socceroos squads into account, a midfield three with Jeggo, Hrustic and one of Riley McGree or Denis Genreau could be more compatible -- to Taggart's attributes and impact, Boyle and Mabil, and the predominant complexion of matches Australia face in Asia. Genreau is a tidier presence in midfield who can pull defences in unconventional ways, particularly compared to Mooy, while McGree could be the ideal medium between Genreau and Irvine.
Yet, every decision Arnold has made to this point regarding personnel is seeped in familiarity to his system and preservation. Preservation regarding the outcome, preservation regarding match complexion, preservation regarding his status as a coach.
That pragmatic interpretation of and need for control, which has then created the need for damage limitation at club and international level in Asia, informs everything he does and says. To expect significant change in this respect, especially this deep into World Cup qualification, would be expecting a lot of the Expectant One.