After an unconvincing 1-0 win against the same opponents in Brisbane on Thursday, a rotated Socceroos side showed little sign of improvement across the opening half in Auckland; Marco Tilio's horror miss on the stroke of half-time blowing a chance to give them what would have been a generous lead.
1. Bring the rotations
If Thursday's game at Lang Park was about Socceroos boss Graham Arnold rewarding the players that secured qualification for the World Cup, as well as zeroing in on those who would take the field in their Group D opener against France on Nov. 23, then Sunday was about helping to figure out who would take up seats 12 through 26 on the plane. Nine of the starters that took the field in Brisbane, as well as striker Jamie Maclaren, were given leave to return to their clubs before the fixture by Arnold, with Milos Degenek and Martin Boyle unused subs on the bench.
In their place, figures such as Denis Genreau, Connor Metcalfe, and Thomas Deng were given a chance to establish their bona fides amongst the starters, while debutants such as Ryan Strain, Cummings, and Kuol came off the bench.
Arnold had said on multiple occasions leading into the international window that this was going to be the approach but, given that the two-game series against the Kiwis represented the last fixtures that the Socceroos will play ahead of the World Cup, whether this each-way approach to the series was optimal is a question that, inevitably, will linger.
Would the limited minutes on offer before the World Cup have been better used to try to nail down chemistry and cohesion for the starting XI? Or would the 180 minutes have been better served to give the young and fringe players a greater run at impressing? Was anything learned from the series? Former Socceroo Alex Brosque, speaking on Network Ten's coverage, didn't think so but Arnold insisted postmatch that he had taken numerous benefits from the approach.
Such is the nature of international management on the eve of a World Cup. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
2. A tale of two halves
Across the opening exchanges, there were signs that the lethargy and lack of inspiration that had haunted the team in Brisbane hadn't made it across the ditch as a new midfield trio of Genreau, Metcalfe, and Riley McGree started. But that quickly faded and, as the game settled, errors began to seep into the Socceroos' attempts to carry the ball forward and Arnold's side consistently failed to find a way through the All Whites' press.
By the time the first half concluded, Australia had had more of the ball than the Kiwis but the vast majority of that possession had been in their half. Beyond the obvious difficulties this dynamic presented for the Australian's attacking play, the frequent turnovers in the midfield opened the door for the Kiwis to get out in transition, presenting opportunities that an opponent like Kylian Mbappe and Les Bleus will feast on come November. Of course, the continued foibles with the ball also don't bode well for when the Australians come up against a team like Tunisia, which many of their fans have circled as their most likely path to points -- or at least a goal -- in Qatar.
However, much in the same way that the positions the Australian midfield was losing the ball in during the first half opened up opportunities for the Kiwis to look threatening, the inverse took place after the break. Playing a higher line and looking to press with more energy as proceedings got back underway, the Socceroos were able to win the ball in positions higher up the pitch and, imbued with more confidence as a result, were able to play with more freedom and create more chances. Tilio, in particular, went some way towards making amends for his horror first-half miss by getting on the ball, running at defenders, and all around looking much more like the player that has emerged at Melbourne City. It was an approach that believed in the player's abilities and, ultimately, it was rewarded. This tactical shift, more so than vague generalities surrounding physicality, saw the Socceroos play their best football from across the two-game series.
So what does it mean for the team moving forward? In a vacuum, culpability for the foibles in the first half could be placed at the feet of a young XI thrown together for the first time on a surface that left something to be desired. Or well-worn and misplaced declarations surrounding lack of cattle. Such reasoning though, would discount that these challenges in possession and approach have become the norm and not the exception for the Socceroos throughout their, admittedly arduous, World Cup cycle, as well as the clear benefits a change in approach brought in the second. Arnold has different tools and approaches at his disposal in Qatar, but their deployment, if form from fixtures against Japan and Saudi Arabia holds, will almost certainly be conditioned by opposition, regardless of what is shown in hitouts like Sunday's second half.
3. Boltah Watch!
Given that neither Trent Sainsbury nor Degenek covered themselves in glory in the first leg of the series, Deng's performance at centre-back -- an area of the squad that could potentially be in flux depending on the fitness of Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles heading into November -- should at the very least have solidified him as a potential back-up option in Arnold's mind. Aside from a disastrous turnover in the 68th minute that almost led to a Kiwi equaliser, Delbridge too was solid and brought an important physical presence, albeit likely not to the extent where he will feature in conversations surrounding Qatar.
Doing what he does best in hurling himself at Metcalfe's cross into the box and driving a header into the back of the net, Duke has all but certainly booked his place in Arnold's squad at Qatar and, given the trust that the coach places in him, is perhaps now the favourite to lead the line against France.
But one can't talk about the Socceroos' attack moving forward without mentioning Cummings and Kuol.
Maybe it's because he simply hasn't been a part of a professional setup long enough to have it coached out of him, but Kuol's positive and fearless mindset was on full display with his first touches against the Kiwis: his driving run forward setting up the move that eventually led to Cummings winning a penalty he would convert. He then followed that up with more flashes that were met with bated breath whenever he got the ball.
Kuol hasn't even started an A-League Men game yet. And thanks to the likes of Cummings he might not even do so before the league breaks for the World Cup, but his game-breaking cameo off the bench will do absolutely nothing to diminish his bolter status.
The same goes for Cummings who, ignoring his status as the cult-hero, has now broken the glass ceiling of Socceroo selection, netted his first goal, and is now primed to make a late run at the squad.
Australia: Redmayne 6, Atkinson 6, Deng 8, Delbridge 7, King 5, Metcalfe 6, Genreau 5, McGree 6, Leckie 5, Duke 6, Tilio 6
Subs: Strain 6, Baccus N/A, Kuol 8, Devlin 7, Cummings, 7
Best and worst performers
BEST: Thomas Deng -- Kuol and Cummings will get the headlines, but Deng's first appearance in a Socceroos shirt since 2018, and just second overall, showed little signs of the injury problems that have derailed him since -- intervening on several occasions across the shaky first half and quickly establishing himself as a leader. Able to play at right-back as well as the centre of defence and entering his prime at 25 years old, he's done his World Cup case no harm.
WORST: The Eden Park surface -- Described as "heavy" by Arnold in his postmatch news conference, the players were clearly slipping and sliding almost from the opening kick-off and, with a World Cup looming, it would have undoubtedly given Arnold a few heart palpitations.
Highlights and notable moments
Marco Tilio should have put the Socceroos ahead late in the first half with this gilt-edged chance.
A golden chance is wasted by the Socceroos just before half-time 😬— 10 Football (@10FootballAU) September 25, 2022
Tilio's effort goes wide of the post. It's 0-0 after 45 minutes in Auckland. #NZLvAUS | Live now on 10 and 10 Play on demand 📺 pic.twitter.com/u2FmgVIclN
The battering ram that is Mitch Duke was at it again as he headed home to give the Socceroos the lead.
An end-to-end transition started by Kuol and capped off by Cummings then made it 2-0.
Cummings' cult status continues to grow.
After the match: What the managers/players said
Mitch Duke to Network Ten: "A lot of young boys put their hands up for sure and made Graham Arnold have some tough decisions to make now for sure. I'm 31 now and this is my only opportunity to be on the plane to a World Cup and play a part. That was my motivation. I felt like I did OK with my opportunity and hopefully, I get that final selection."
Jason Cummings to Network Ten: "Absolutely buzzing. I was just chomping at the bit to try and get on over the camp. It's been a good camp, the boys have been class and I just wanted to get on the pitch. I got a good 30 minutes, the ball fell to me and I caught it well and the boy handballed it so I was fuming. I was looking at the referee and he gave me the pen. I thought I've got to step up and take this and finish off my dinner. I'm buzzing."
Graham Arnold postmatch news conference: "Overall it was a good performance. I know those boys can do better than that. But we've had a short couple of games, a short turnaround between the two games. The most important thing was the boys got out there and believed in themselves. I thought the first half was a bit scrappy again but that's what happens when you put 11 players together that haven't played together but I thought the second half when I relaxed the boys down at halftime, they really came through in the second half.
"I'm going to reach out to Panadol to become my new sponsor because I'm going to have quite a number of headaches to fit into a 26-man squad. But today is not the last day for the players to get chosen. I want to make that clear. Because Qatar has a short lead-in of only seven days, the boys have to go back to their clubs for seven weeks and they've got to play And they've got to be fit. They've probably got to be the fittest they've ever been."
Sunday's game wasn't just the first game on home soil that the Kiwis had played since 2017, but it was also just the second-ever men's senior international played at Eden Park in its famous history.
Indicative of the youthful nature of the team, eight of the Socceroos' starting XI against New Zealand featured in the Olyroos' win over Argentina at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Harrison Delbridge became the 623rd player to represent Australia's men's national team in its 100-year history with his start, while Strain, Devlin, Cummings, Kuol and, Keanu Baccus became Socceroos 624 through 628 when they came on.
At 18 years and 10 days, Kuol is the youngest Socceroos debutant since Harry Kewell (17 years and 214 days) back in 1996.
It took just 17 minutes for Cummings to open his Socceroos account.
Australia: Arnold confirmed postmatch that there was "no chance" that the Socceroos would be able to squeeze in another friendly before the World Cup, meaning that Sunday represented the last time the team will be in action ahead of their game against France.
Players will now head back to their clubs with thoughts of doing all they can to impress Arnold in mind, with the A-League Men season finally set to kick off on October 7 and Arnold planning on watching every single game ahead of his final squad being named on the 14th of November.
New Zealand: The All Whites, meanwhile, won't play an international match until March of next year, with questions lingering over whether coach Danny Hay will remain in charge when they return from hibernation.