In the afterglow of the Socceroos' best World Cup performance, Football Australia has pursued a strategy that it hopes turns the men's national team into one of Asia's best; a side that doesn't look out of place among the elite of the game.
Having pursued a similar strategy with the Matildas across the past Women's World Cup cycle, Football Australia's logic is simple: Iron sharpening iron, games against the world's best will produce a far greater level of adaptation and improvement than familiar or lower-calibre opposition. To be the best, you've got to beat the best. And that takes practice.
In March, Australia faced off with Ecuador, a side perhaps lacking in name recognition but who were still able to qualify for a World Cup from the treacherous battleground that is South America. There were promising signs, but also harsh, physical lessons delivered. Now, on June 15, reigning world champions Argentina await in Beijing; a rematch of 2022's memorable round-of-16 clash with Lionel Messi and Co. Then in October, the Socceroos will face the old enemy, England, at Wembley.
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However, playing opponents of this magnitude comes with obvious pitfalls. These teams are considered the best in the world for a reason. For the Matildas, their adventures in top opposition began with a 5-2 loss to Germany in what was Tony Gustavsson's first game as head coach, immediately followed by a 5-0 loss to the Netherlands three days later. Just a single friendly win -- 3-1 over Brazil -- would come in 2021 and in 2022, and there was a 7-0 hammering by Spain and back-to-back losses against Canada that had even the coach's most ardent backers glancing at the exits. Ultimately, though, the Swede was backed by the federation, and heading into the Women's World Cup, Australia's women look an improved side from the one that took the field in Wiesbaden back in 2021.
Could a similar path await the Socceroos? Hammerings interspersed with more manageable games in November's World Cup qualifiers in the build-up to next year's Asian Cup? Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, whose bombastic rhetoric and avowed sense of self-belief and purpose, would be loathed to entertain such a notion. The manifestation of a more favourable reality through self-belief and comradery has become a cornerstone of his tenure. He's not one to talk about preparation mode and performance mode.
Football Australia CEO James Johnson, though, whose organization has invested significant intellectual and actual capital in the "Arnie-ball" project being the one to lead it into the 2026 World Cup, appears to be going into the coming games with his eyes wide open.
"We're going to lose games. And that's something that we've got to accept as an organization, but also as a football community," he told reporters. "It's not that we don't want to win games. We do, that's part of our DNA. But the reality is, if we're going to change the mentality, if it's going to become normal for Australia's badge to be up against Argentina in matches, then we've just got to play them more regularly. It's got to become normal.
"Strategy gets tested when it gets a bit hot in the kitchen, that's when it gets tested. And it gets tested when you lose ... if you're going to set a strategy, you've got to have the courage to see it out.
"We've done that on the Matildas' side, We're at the start of that journey on the men's side. Our expectation is we go out and we're competitive. Our hope is we win of course, but the reality is, we might not. If we cop a bad result when we're playing teams like England at Wembley and Argentina in Beijing, we understand that happens but it's part of a process and ultimately where we want to be peaking is the Asian Cup and at the men's World Cup in 2026."
When attempting to critique and analyse a team following this strategy, a particular mindset is required, one that was frequently lacking during the Socceroos' last qualification campaign -- where an unprecedented winning streak against some of Asia's smaller nations papered over cracks that eventually fractured and almost saw Arnold's side miss out on qualification. It's about the performances over results, the development of a discernable and coherent approach that can provide the foundations for continuously improving performances, seeking evidence of adaptation and adjustment as new lessons are imparted, and how players old and new are selected and subsequently deployed (or not deployed) concerning their strengths and weaknesses.
On that last point, speaking to reporters following his side's draw for the Asian Cup -- where Australia were drawn in a group with Syria, India and Uzbekistan -- Arnold gave his clearest indication yet that the side that stunned the world in Qatar would mostly remain intact for January's Asian Cup, with more serious discussions of any kind of changing of the guard taking place after that tournament. One last ride, as it were.
"It's not my job to retire players," Arnold told reporters. "It's a mutual agreement because of the respect that I have for players and I know how difficult it is.
"But for all the older players I've outlined to them, let's do one step at a time -- and that one step is the Asian Cup. Most of them are 30, 31 years of age. They've still got 12 months in them."
So who is in the frame? Who is in Arnold's plans for the next eight months and who isn't?
It should be noted that the below also doesn't represent a prediction for the squad that will be named for the Argentina clash. Marco Tilio, for instance, has increasingly established himself in the Socceroos setup across the past year but has already been announced as a member of Tony Vidmar's under-23 squad that will be competing in the Maurice Revello Tournament in France at the same time that Arnold and Co. head to Beijing. Arnold has also hinted that consideration will be given towards others, veterans who are coming to the end of a long club season with a World Cup jammed in the middle of it, being allowed to rest up for a new preseason at their clubs and future windows.
Socceroos Depth Chart
After making his way to the Netherlands and establishing himself as the first-choice keeper at AZ Alkmaar, Ryan remains firmly entrenched as the Socceroos' No. 1 and captain. Since arriving at De Kaasboeren, the 31-year-old has started 24 games across all competitions and kept eight clean sheets -- seven of which came in 17 Eredivisie fixtures as Alkmaar once again secured European football.
After making his debut against Ecuador, Gauci, 22, appears to have the inside running on the back-up goalkeeping role heading into the coming months, although Thomas' form in the A-League Men, anchoring the league's best defence at the Western Sydney Wanderers, merits opportunity. The weight of Redmayne's incumbency and dressing room presence will likely see him remain in the mix, while Glover's strong rebound season under goalkeeping coach Mike van Houten at Melbourne City, his imminent move to Europe, and history with Arnold from the Olyroos, move him back into contention.
Given his consistent form in a Socceroos shirt and his starting role in both games against Ecuador, Behich would still likely be Arnold's first choice for a competitive fixture if he had to name a starting XI today. And despite it ultimately being a season to forget for his now-relegated Dundee United, he did at least regularly see the field for the Tangerines under both Liam Fox and Jim Goodwin -- even if most of his play came further up the pitch on the left wing.
Behich's starting role, however, will come under serious pressure from Bos, the newly minted most expensive outbound player in Australian football history, in the years, if not months, ahead. The 20-year-old continued to go from strength-to-strength with Melbourne City this season and has now joined a club in KVC Westerlo that was specifically targeted for its ability to give him immediate opportunities to play in Europe.
Now on the lookout for a new club after leaving Hull City, 28-year-old Elder might have moved ahead of King in the pecking order; the youngster quietly dropped for the Ecuador series and facing a potentially defining offseason as his loan spell at Sydney FC ends and he returns to Odense Boldklub, who, he revealed to AAP earlier this month, has told him "we like this other boy more than you."
First choice: Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Milos Degenek
Next in line: Gianni Stensness, Thomas Deng, Cameron Burgess, Alex Grant, Harrison Delbridge, Trent Sainsbury, Bailey Wright, Nectarios Triantis, Jay Rich-Baghuelou
Souttar's first foray into the Premier League, in the end, was a brief one with Leicester City officially relegated on Sunday, but he and Rowles -- whose season ended in much happier circumstances as Hearts again secured European football -- still shape as the cornerstone defensive pairing for Arnold. Degenek, meanwhile, is still a dependable leader at the back and, though he hasn't featured since limping off in the 13th minute of an April 30 loss to Inter Miami CF, was playing regularly at centre-back for Columbus Crew.
Starting week-in-and-week-out for a Viking outfit that sits fourth in the Norwegian Eliteserien, Stensness is increasingly mounting a case to log his first national minutes since playing a full 90 in losses to Japan and Saudi Arabia last March -- even moreso with Deng in and out of Albirex Niigata's lineup in the J1-League. Lurking behind them, Scottish-born Burgess was a regular starter as Ipswich Town won promotion to the Championship and can also play on the left.
Grant and Delbridge are both playing regularly in the K-League's ongoing season, contrasting with Sainsbury recently wrapping up his Qatari Stars League season with Al Wakrah. Wright is a leader but suffered ligament damage to his ankle in April. After a breakout ALM season, Triantis is in Vidmar's Maurice Revello Tournament squad, while Rich-Baghuelou is targeting a return to play with Accrington Stanley next season as he recovers from an ACL tear.
After starting at right-back at the World Cup and against Ecuador, Degenek should probably be considered first-choice at the position heading into the coming months until Arnold gives us a reason to think otherwise.
A constant presence in St Mirren's lineup in the Scottish Premiership, Strain's domestic form deserves to see him considered as the next man up (depending on his apparent groin injury over the weekend), with neither Atkinson nor Karacic logging domestic seasons they will have been pleased with in 2022-23 (albeit Atkinson's increased minutes at the end of the season for a European-bound Hearts does bode a bit more promise than Karacic's Brescia battling relegation in Serie B).
There are no indications yet that either Mooy or Irvine's status as first-choice players are under threat under Arnold, albeit the former's injury issues at the end of the season for Celtic -- for a 32-year-old who was already not blessed with physical dynamism -- bear watching.
A move away from St. Mirren not materializing after the World Cup as reports suggested, Baccus played 36 times across all competitions for the Saints this season and has been trusted to go up against the likes of Messi and Moises Caicedo in his first two senior international starts, showing the faith Arnold has in him. After missing the Socceroos' World Cup squad and undergoing surgery on a long-standing groin issue, Genreau has been regularly starting with Toulouse in Ligue 1 at the back end of the season and with Branco van den Boomen reportedly on his way to Ajax, the door is ajar for more opportunities next season.
O'Neill has had a standout ALM campaign for Melbourne City and is also rumoured to be off to France next season, albeit that would be for Ligue 2 after Troyes were relegated under his old (and potential future) coach Patrick Kisnorbo. After officially debuting against Ecuador, Devlin has continued to battle away in Hearts' midfield and deserves greater opportunities this coming cycle.
Jeggo, meanwhile, has been a near-constant starter at Hibernian, and Luongo is experiencing something of a renaissance at Ipswich, becoming a regular starter at the base of the midfield and helping the Tractor Boys win promotion after initially arriving on a short-term contract. Nieuwenhof, 22, is at the vanguard of Australia's next generation of stars that are beginning to blossom in the ALM.
McGree's promotion push with Middlesbrough may have fallen agonizingly short but, after a standout season at a variety of positions under Boro boss Michael Carrick, he can perhaps console himself with the knowledge he increasingly shapes as a regular starter for the Socceroos. With Hrustic only just returning to relegation-threatened Hellas Verona from ankle surgery, Metcalfe has a big opportunity to impress Arnold after a strong campaign for St. Pauli in Germany's second tier.
Given his debut against Ecuador, 20-year-old Robertson clearly has the talent to become an important figure for the Socceroos, and it's very easy to see the Manchester City starlet getting called up for the Argentina clash, but he will hopefully find regular, senior football next season. Jelacic and Peupion are shaping as ones to watch in the future with both heading to the Maurice Revello Tournament -- the former is courting interest in Belgium, while the latter recently became Australia's latest Premier League player with Brighton & Hove Albion.
Two of the standout players during the ALM season and first-choice in Qatar, Leckie and Goodwin remain perched atop the pecking order -- their status helped by Mabil continuing to struggle to find regular minutes even after going on loan from Cadiz to Sparta Prague. Tilio's standout play in the ALM and likely move to Europe during the offseason bodes well for his continued prospects, but McGree and Metcalfe's use on the wing at their respective clubs means that their deployment out wide provides more competition.
"Chief Vibes Officer" Boyle continues his recovery from an ACL injury and Kuol has been named in the Maurice Revello Tournament squad as he heads into a vital offseason, looking to bounce back after a tough loan spell at Hearts.
Netting two goals and four assists in 12 starts with J2 League side Machida Zelvia, there's little to suggest that Duke doesn't remain the first-choice striker for Arnold heading into the coming months. Maclaren continues to set records in the ALM and, after missing the Ecuador series with injury, shapes as a likely returnee. So does Borello, who replaced Maclaren in that side and was a driving force for Western Sydney after moving centrally this ALM campaign.
Cummings continues to score and be an important contributor for the Central Coast Mariners but his place in the pecking order will come under scrutiny should a reported move to India eventuate -- especially with D'Agostino grabbing two goals and four assists across the opening seven games of Viking's Eliteserien season.
At 29, Perth Glory's Taggart enters the ALM's torturously long offseason likely knowing that he'll need to find form and fitness very early on in 2023-24 to fight his way back into the national setup, especially with the likes of Toure and Botic waiting in the wings.