Reaction has increasingly come to define Australian football. In the A-League Men, prevailing trends of dysfunctionality in possession means that the most effective way of predicting the outcome of a match is simply determining which side will be able to sit back, react and then spring forward in transition.
Perhaps then, it's no surprise that in the first half of their eventual 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in Jeddah, the ability of the Socceroos -- who represent the ultimate realisation of Australian football's philosophy and perceptions of the game -- to sit back and react to a Green Falcons side that took the majority of possession at home allowed them to fashion a series of decent chances.
These reached their zenith in the 36th minute when Ajdin Hrustic laced a pass into the path of a sprinting Martin Boyle. With acres of space in front of him, the Scottish-born Socceroo promptly advanced into the penalty area, rounded Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais and slid the ball into an empty net. It was a meaningless goal in the context of Australia's qualification campaign but, in the short term, it provided some level of relief to beleaguered manager Graham Arnold.
But it was also, after a lengthy VAR review, offside.
Australia would once again demonstrate some level of malice in the 58th minute when Awer Mabil cut inside and drove in an effort goalward that forced Al-Owais to spring upwards and push it out for a corner, but it quickly became apparent that it was less a sign of continued Socceroo resistance and more the final thrashes of a side that, again, was running out of ideas, inspiration and hope.
Four minutes later, James Jeggo lost track of the ball and needlessly brought down Sami Al-Najei inside the box. It was a "s--- penalty" to give away, as Arnold said post-game, and it was made even worse when Salem Al-Dawsari coolly slotted into the bottom corner of the net.
From that point, with Australia denied their ability to sit back and react and forced to come out and chase some sort of result, there was only ever one team winning. Increasingly able to open up the Australian defence with nonchalant ease, the Saudis -- much like Japan in Sydney last week -- could have had three or four on another night; denied by a combination of some fine goalkeeping from Mat Ryan and their own inability to put away some of their gilt-edged chances.
Nonetheless, a successful qualification campaign from Herve Renard's side is now complete. With their win over Australia and Japan's 1-1 draw with Vietnam, the Green Falcons conclude their qualification campaign as the first-place finisher in AFC's Group B and with the wind in their sails. Thoughts can now turn to the World Cup and, for their sakes, hopefully avoiding another 5-0 shellacking in their opening game of this one.
In contrast, Australia will now be forced to pick themselves up off the canvas and prepare for the playoffs. A meeting in Qatar with the United Arab Emirates awaits first on June 7 and, if they win that, a clash with either Chile, Peru, or Colombia the following week.
And while the Channel 10 broadcast graphics may have already been prepared to advertise the latter game, a win over the U.A.E. is far from a certain thing. In a game that would provide a preview of the struggles that would come to define the Socceroos under Arnold, the Emiratis knocked Australia out at the quarterfinal stage of the 2019 Asian Cup and will enter the contest buoyed by a victory over South Korea that was derived from just 22% of the ball.
Despite Arnold's protestations, Tuesday's game was also inconsequential for both his side and the Saudis; the former already consigned to a playoff and the latter already qualified. And yet, despite the lack of stakes, the game still managed to be an almost perfect allegory for the Socceroos' ill-fated quest to secure automatic qualification to Qatar.
As it had with the continuation of a world-record 11-game winning streak and a six-point buffer over Japan after three games, there were genuine signs of hope and promise early. But then, reality bit and, much as their qualification campaign did in the aftermath of a 2-1 loss to Japan last October, the Socceroos wilted in the face of adversity.
Tuesday's defeat means that Arnold's side has now won only one of their last seven qualifiers and that lone triumph came over last-placed Vietnam. For all the talk surrounding logistical challenges and the impact of COVID, this is a run that has coincided with the team once again being able to stage fixtures on home soil. In fact, perhaps their most damning result of this stretch, a 1-1 draw with China last November, was played at neutral Sharjah Stadium because it was the Chinese that were unable to play games at home due to COVID regulations.
Players have been missing through a combination of factors and Australia's ranks were even more depleted on Tuesday, but systemic issues that have weighed down this side have been evident no matter the personnel that have been available for the fixtures. In the end, it is Arnold's system, and his white-knuckled adherence to it, that has been found out by stronger oppositions and high-pressure situations.
Even in his reaction to the defeat to the Saudis, the coach's outcome dependency was on show as he bemoaned the missed chances his side had had in the first half -- brushing off that his side had been thoroughly outplayed in the second-half once he and Renard were called to make adjustments -- and bemoaning a perceived lack of respect for Saudi Arabia by the Australian football public. The latter may or may not be true but it was also completely irrelevant to what had happened on the park.
Reports have indicated that Arnold's time may soon be up as Socceroos boss, with Football Australia seemingly going so far as to brief against their coach less than 24 hours after the 2-0 defeat to Japan.
If the federation reacts to their current predicament with the axe, Arnold's dismissal will dominate the Australian discourse in the coming days but, regardless, it's obvious that something has to change in the green and gold camp if they are to hold out any hope of a fifth-straight World Cup. There has to be some kind of reaction.