History. That's a common thread running through the Socceroos' coming international window. Yes, the games against England and New Zealand may technically be classified as friendlies -- albeit coach Graham Arnold insists there's no such thing -- but it nonetheless feels like plenty is riding on them all the same.
A friendly win over England, of course, is still spoken about as one of the Socceroos' best-ever 20 years on: a 3-1 win at Upton Park thanks to goals from Tony Popovic, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton -- the first two which came in the opening 45 against a first-string Three Lions outfit -- lifting Frank Farina's side to a famous win. Playing England is always going to be special for any Australian sporting team, anyway, it's a rivalry that transcends the actual history of the two sides themselves -- the Matildas and England had never met in a competitive fixture before the 2023 Women's World Cup semifinal -- and is absorbed into a greater narrative that's foundational to Australia's sense of self.
This time around, though, there's also the added inducement of the fixture at Wembley Stadium; the first time an Australian side will have played a fixture at the venerable football home. Some grounds around the world are just special -- the likes of the Maracanã, San Siro, Bernabéu, Estadio Azteca, and Camp Nou -- and Wembley is right up there. It's a bucket list item for coaches, players, fans, and anyone associated with the game.
Days later, the Socceroos will clash with New Zealand at Brentford with the 'Soccer Ashes' on the line - the first time the historical prize has been up for grabs since 1954. First played for in 1923, the artifact of Antipodean sports was found earlier this year after being lost for almost 70 years, still in pristine condition and containing a silver-plated razor case carried at Gallipoli and housing the ashes of cigars enjoyed by the Socceroo captain Alex Gibb and Kiwi skipper George Campbell after the first meeting between the two nations on Australian soil in June 1923.
Of course, even when the historical weight is disregarded and the series is examined through a footballing prism, October represents a vital window for Arnold as he prepares his side for the commencement of World Cup qualifying and next January's Asian Cup. The fixtures represent the final occasion that the Socceroos' boss will be able to run prospective players through their paces, be that in camp or a game itself, before a tangible outcome becomes linked to the result - be it for a place on football's biggest stage or continental glory.
For players who find themselves on the bubble, or those staging a late push to force their way into Arnold's plans, the window, therefore, is critical. If you're one of Ryan Strain or Lewis Miller, for example, battling it out to fill the void left by Nathaniel Atkinson being ruled out for two months, being able to impress under Arnold's nose this month could prove a tiebreaker of sorts if one was needed come next January.
Presenting Arnold with a headache for the series, however, is the commencement of the A-League Men season. The coach has long bemoaned the late start and relatively short length of Australia's domestic competition compared to other leagues around the world, picking a squad almost entirely made up of players based overseas for the 2-2 draw with Mexico last month as he cited the out-of-season nature of the A-League Men.
Not only has the league still yet to kick off this time around but the clash with New Zealand is scheduled to start at 5:30 am on Wednesday the 18th on the Australian east coast - just two days before Adelaide United hosts the Central Coast Mariners to open the 2023-24 A-League Men season. Arnold is now faced with a conundrum of players based in Australia who are probably fitter now on the eve of the season but selecting them for this window would, at a minimum, put their availability for round one of the A-League Men season in doubt.
He doesn't have to worry about this, of course, it's a FIFA-mandated international window after all, and lord knows that Football Australia and the Australian Professional Leagues don't normally go out of their way to make life easier for the other. But as a national coach, managing these relationships and making sure that players don't spend 24 hours on a flight, play a game, and promptly get hurt are matters he needs to look at. It's in nobody's interest for another Mat Leckie situation to occur.
Further, there is now uncertainty surrounding the national teams' collective bargaining agreement, which expired on Sunday after already being rolled over once as a stopgap solution ahead of the Women's World Cup. Potential industrial action could be under consideration if negotiations -- which have been underway for eight months -- don't produce a resolution soon.
Possible Socceroos Depth Chart for friendlies against England and New Zealand:
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Arnold revealed in the lead into the Mexican clash that he'd turned down interest from Scottish Premiership side Hibernian to remain in charge of the Green and Gold, doing away with speculation that the Socceroos would soon find themselves searching for a new coach on the eve of World Cup qualifying and the Asian Cup.
If he does end up departing before the end of his contract for pastures anew, however, be that because he's received a club offer he can't refuse or disaster strikes with the Socceroos and he moves on, there are Antipodean options in addition to what would undoubtedly be a worldwide search by Football Australia.
Muscat's Yokohama F. Marinos lost a top-of-the-table clash with Vissel Kobe in the J1 League this week but his success in Japan means the 46-time Socceroo shapes as the obvious candidate should the federation again want to go local. Talay continues to work with Arnold in the national team setup after leaving the Wellington Phoenix at the end of the 2022-23 season and remains without a new club, while Aloisi, who is on the verge of commencing the 2023-24 A-League Men season with Western United, has never hidden his ambitions to one day coach the Socceroos.
Former Central Coast Mariners boss Nick Montgomery ended up taking that opportunity with Hibs, removing his name from consideration for now.
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Ryan admittedly had lapses for both of Mexico's goals last month but remains the Socceroos' best available keeper and the number one heading into the start of World Cup qualification and the Asian Cup. Looking like he's finally found a club to properly call home, the 31-year-old has been a key part of AZ Alkmaar's strong start to the 2023-24 Eredivisie campaign: keeping five clean sheets in ten games across all competitions with Kaaskoppen losing just a single game -- to Zrinjski Mostar in the Europa Conference League -- thus far.
Glover has exclusively been used as Middlesborough's League Cup custodian since landing in England during the offseason, most recently in a 2-0 win over Bradford, but given that he's in-season he may just be above Gauci in the pecking order until the Adelaide United custodian can start to string some strong performances together in the A-League Men.
With the Olyroos last window, 21-year-old Bilokapic has been starting regularly for Peterborough United in League One and shapes as another young option between the sticks for years to come. Benefitting from Arnold calling up an almost entirely overseas-based side for the Mexico game, Charlton Athletic keeper Maynard-Brewer got his first taste of Socceroos camp last month but will have to work to remain in consideration after losing his number-one role at the Addicks to Harry Isted.
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After missing the Mexico clash due to an appendectomy, Bos has returned to action with club side K.V.C. Westerlo and, health permitting, the Socceroos' long-term answer at left-back should return to the national setup for the coming series. Whether Behich will be called up on the eve of the A-League Men season is unknown but, all things being equal, the veteran remains a reliable option at left-back. Elder has been getting minutes in League One with Derby County but hasn't been starting and now is dealing with a hernia injury that will keep him out for at least a couple of weeks.
Jason Davidson, Brad Smith, and even Joel King are others in the pecking order but Arnold perhaps provided a window into his thinking on the state of the Socceroos' depth on the left last month when, with Bos unavailable, he opted to only call an out-of-season Behich up for the and then played centre-back Kye Rowles in the position when it came to the game with Mexico itself.
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Souttar finally got his first minutes of the season midweek when he lined up for Leicester in the League Cup, only to then end up on the wrong side of a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool - closing the door on further Cup minutes for the towering defender. The 24-year-old remains a key figure for the Socceroos and shapes as a possible future captain but his seeming exile from the plans of Leicester boss Enzo Maresca - whose approach is working, given Leicester sits atop the Championship and in the box seat for promotion - remains a concern. He will be called up and should probably start the Socceroos' upcoming fixtures to find confidence and form as well as demonstrate his worth to Maresca but if he's still not playing at the King Power Stadium by the time the Asian Cup comes around, Arnold will have to make a big decision in his starting XI.
Rowles had come under scrutiny for his performances with Hearts early this season but was hailed after a man-of-the-match shift against Aberdeen in his first game back following the international break and has anchored a defence that has conceded just two goals in four games since. Combined with Degenek's relegation to the bench amidst FK Crvena zvezda's form slump in Serbia -- the veteran was an unused sub in their 1-0 win over FK Radnički 1923 overnight -- Rowles probably retains his place in Arnold's plans.
Though he gave away a penalty in his Socceroos debut, Burgess' role in the heart of Ipswich's backline -- the Tractor Boys are second in the Championship and looking like promotion challengers -- should see him get another appearance in camp. Circati is still waiting to see the field for the national team despite multiple call-ups but with two games scheduled for this window, that can't be too far off. The 19-year-old continues to regularly start for Parma in Serie B and even popped up with a goal in their 1-1 draw with Sampdoria last week -- ensuring that I Gialloblu remain undefeated in league play.
Grant and Delbridge have consistently started throughout the entire K League season, the former's Pohang Steelers sitting second on the table, and present well in-season and in-form options, as does J1 League-based, Albirex Niigata defender Deng. Triantis featured for the Olyroos last window but is still looking to establish himself at Sunderland with either their first-team or U23 side. Rich-Baghuelou has been starting regularly for Accrington Stanley in League 2 but saw red in a 2-0 loss to Tranmere last week.
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All of a sudden the right-back position is one of the most competitive in the entire Socceroos setup, even if injury looks set to rob incumbent Atkinson of at least a couple of months. The Tasmanian had been featuring regularly for Hearts this season and getting forward and producing shots at a similar rate to when he was in Melbourne City. However, after being stretchered off against St Mirren with an ankle injury, scans confirmed that the 24-year-old had suffered ankle ligament damage that appears set to ensure he will miss the coming international window and the start of World Cup qualifiers.
In his place, Strain shapes as the next man up. Named the Scottish Premiership's player of the month for his sterling wing-back play with St Mirren - who sit second on the table at the end of September - and scored the winner in the Buddies 1-0 win over Hearts last Sunday. The former Adelaide man, however, then found himself downed by Miller and the rest of the heavy Aussie contingent at Hibernian in the Scottish League Cup quarter-finals midweek. Already playing regularly at Easter Road, the defender has had a strong start to life since the arrival of his former Mariner coach Montgomery, inducing the own goal that started the new era in a 2-2 draw with Kilmarnock and scoring in a 2-0 win over St Johnston.
Centre-backs Degenek and Deng provide versatile depth but Fran Karacic cannot be considered until he finds a new club - the 27-year-old, ostensibly in his prime, is still a free agent after leaving Brescia at the end of the last season.
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Irvine has already returned to training with club side St. Pauli after suffering a scary-looking injury on a horror artificial surface at Cowboys Stadium but with World Cup qualifiers and an Asian Cup on the way, there's little sense in hastening his return to risk him in friendlies. In his place, Baccus, Genreau, and O'Neill have all been playing regularly either as a start or off the bench at St Mirren, Toulouse, and Standard Liege respectively and should be able to fill the void while being given extra scope.
Luongo, in a rich run of form for Ipswich, surely should be called back into the national setup and play Socceroos minutes for the first time since the Asian Cup in 2019 - a combination of him and Genreau in the same midfield an intriguing prospect moving forward.
After playing with the Olyroos in September, Yazbek's continued minutes in Norway are increasingly bringing him into consideration alongside the likes of Devlin and Nieuwenhof, who are both featuring for Hearts in Scotland. Also in Scotland, Jeggo doesn't bring the excitement or youth of others in contention but continues to rack up minutes and do a job in Europe: starting all of Hibs' last five games in the Scottish Premiership - keeping his place under Montgomery.
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After an indifferent start to the season, McGree has finally begun to string some minutes together for Michael Carrick's Middlesbrough and exploded in their 3-2 win over Watford on Saturday: scoring a quickfire brace inside the opening 15 minutes. Metcalfe, likewise, has begun to see the field more as of late, probably benefitting from the absence of Socceroo teammate Irvine in the St Pauli XI. The Newcastle-born midfielder has started for the Kiezkicker across their last three fixtures and scored an absolute thunderbolt in their 5-1 win over Holstein Kiel - if the net hadn't gotten in the way it would probably have landed on the moon by now.
Robertson is receiving a vital run of consistent senior football since arriving at Portsmouth on loan and has recently begun starting in a variety of roles for John Mousinho's side -- grabbing an assist in a 2-1 win over Lincoln City last week and playing a full 90 and grabbing an assist in their win over Wigan overnight.
Unable to secure a move he had been looking for during the transfer window, per Arnold, Hrustic remains on the books of Hellas Verona and, unfortunately, in purgatory: not playing a single competitive minute thus far in 2023-24. Given the other options around, the supremely talented Melburnian needs to find a solution as soon as possible.
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Mat Leckie (Presumed)
Thanks to what appears to be a not-all-that-harmonious move from Adelaide United to Saudi side Al-Wehda, Goodwin is in-season and, based on early returns, in form. The winger has started and scored in his first three games in Arabia, albeit the last of those came in a 5-1 defeat to Al Fateh by his new side and their Neopet-looking logo. Across from him, Boyle should again feature after returning to the Socceroos setup for the first time since injury robbed him of the chance to play in a World Cup. The 30-year-old has continued to feature for Hibs post Nick Montgomery's arrival and scored a brace in their 4-2 Scottish League Cup quarterfinal win over St Mirren.
Though not starting week-in-and-week-out Silvera continues to see the field with Middlesbrough after making his senior international debut against Mexico (albeit he was unused against Watford) and he and the versatile McGree and Metcalfe provide depth and other wide options. So does Kuol, who has begun to start with Eredivisie club Volendam - where he is on loan from Premier League powers Newcastle - and for whom he scored his first goal in a 3-1 loss to Fortuna Sittard.
With so many options, Mabil risks falling even further back in the pecking order unless he can start regularly featuring for Swiss side Grasshoppers, with his lone start this season coming in a 3-0 Swiss Cup loss to FC Sion. He'll soon be challenged by Tilio, as well, who has begun his comeback from injury with Celtic's youth teams.
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Duke's run of form with J2 League side Machida Zelvia has continued since the international break, notably captaining the side for the third time this season and scoring in a 6-0 thrashing of V-Varen Nagasaki. After coming off the bench in a series of games throughout August, he appears entrenched as a starter as his side pushes for promotion.
Behind him, could this be the window where Toure pulls on the green and gold? The 19-year-old had been called into Tony Vidmar's Olyroos squad last month but, due to injury, was forced to withdraw. But having returned to the field with Paris FC -- where he is on loan from Ligue 1 side Stade Reims -- and opening his account in a 3-0 win over Amiens, Arnold could opt to bring the youngster in and expose him to the senior setup with new father Maclaren and Borrello still yet to commence the A-League Men season.
Mohamed Toure scores his first Ligue 2 goal of the season from the spot against Amiens ⭐️🇦🇺 pic.twitter.com/0qDbpXN3SY— ozhubfootball (@ozhubfootball) September 16, 2023
Cummings has five goals and two assists in nine games thus far in India but is working against the weight of history when it comes to players from the Subcontinent getting call-ups and could (and, hopefully, given their exciting potential) have Botic and Kuol coming into contention once the A-League Men season begins - the pair, especially with Botic's Western United saying goodbye to Aleks Prijovic, should be given the chance to lead their side's lines this season.
After suffering a meniscus injury with Viking, D'Agostino appears set for an extended period on the sidelines. Yengi has been waylaid since August after injuring his ankle ligaments but is targeting a return to training with Pompey in the coming weeks, potentially bringing him into contention for World Cup qualifiers.