Amidst a swirling sea of noise and colour, the challenges were coming in thick and fast. It was Derby Day. Sydney FC against the Western Sydney Wanderers, the most deep-seated and visceral of the rivalries that the A-League Men has birthed in its short history. Flare smoke that blanketed the ground at kick-off was still lingering as Wanderers attacker Brandon Borrello, just returned from the Middle East after representing the Socceroos midweek, began coming in for repeated physical attention from the Sky Blues.
Less than 15 minutes in, the 28-year-old was down on the turf, trainers immediately applying ice to his foot before taking him down to the changing rooms. He would soon be replaced by Zac Sapsford, who went on to provide the game's only goal as Borrello watched on from the bench, his weight now supported by crutches, sparing a potential broken foot. A blow for the Wanderers but also Ausralia, less than a month out from when Graham Arnold will need to settle on his squad for January's Asian Cup.
It's cruel, but as much as one might like to pretend otherwise, sheer chance still governs a lot of what happens in football, sliding doors moments whose ripple effects change destiny.
Hours after Borrello's Asian Cup hopes were placed on a knife-edge, Marco Tilio made his long-delayed debut for Celtic off the bench in a 1-1 draw with Motherwell. The day prior, Daniel Arzani had again performed strongly for Melbourne Victory, just missing that end product. Riley McGree is "still a few weeks away" from returning from a foot injury according to Middlesbrough boss Michael Carrick, who introduced Samuel Silvera as a 73rd minute substitute in a 3-2 loss to Bristol City. On Sunday, Garang Kuol played 67 minutes in FC Volendam's 3-0 loss to Mathew Ryan's AZ Alkmaar. Mat Leckie is still missing for Melbourne City with an LCL injury and Mitchell Duke's domestic season in Japan is now over. That's just some of the non-exhaustive developments surrounding just one potential attacking role in Arnold's Socceroos squad. The only thing certain is that nothing is.
Of course, external developments putting best-laid plans in peril should be something of a familiar feeling for the Socceroos boss. Not just because the 60-year-old has experienced enough in football to know that, be it on the field or off it, one can only ever hope to harness or mitigate the chaos that exists at the game's core, never outright eliminate it.
As 2023 concludes, the Socceroos coach finds himself in a different place to where he imagined himself, an angst between two paths that both need to be walked but, simultaneously, frequently branch in divergent, even diametrically opposed, directions.
After a year of friendlies, his side finally commenced qualifying for the 2026 World Cup in November, thumping Bangladesh 7-0 in Melbourne before labouring to a 1-0 victory over Palestine in Kuwait a few days later.
With Jamie Maclaren netting a hat trick, Duke grabbing a brace, and Borrello and Harry Souttar both chipping in, the win over Bangladesh was about as straightforward as one would expect from a team that had made the knockout stages of the World Cup the year prior against one of the lowest ranked sides in Asia. Beyond chemistry, the sheer disparity between the two belligerents meant there were very few long-term lessons to be gleaned.
The Palestine fixture, though, served as a reminder that challenges of punching above one's weight clash against the likes of Argentina is a vastly different proposition to operating as the ball-dominant heavy hitters of Asian qualifying. In difficult conditions, after significant travel, the Socceroos were far from convincing with the ball: Struggling under a fierce early Palestinian press, being sloppy and making silly errors in possession, and struggling to fashion any chances, let alone quality ones, from open play. Ultimately, it took Souttar, who at over two metres tall represents something of a cheat code with an Aberdeen accent in these games, to provide the game's lone goal from a corner.
It was a flashback to the challenges that confronted Arnold and his squad during the dog days of the last World Cup cycle, struggles that almost led to the coach being sacked before intercontinental playoffs that ultimately sealed qualification. And while the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams and the swelling of slots from Asia has removed significant tension, an increase in expectations would demand that the same travails from the past four years be addressed this time around. Yes, prevailing circumstances added difficulty and that needs to be acknowledged, but it can't exactly be said Palestinian players had it easier.
But it is here where we return to the angst. Because while Arnold's approach, short of disaster striking and World Cup qualification suddenly coming under threat, already feels like it will inevitably become a point of simmering contention in the years ahead, what was also apparent across the past window was that this is a Socceroos team almost caught between two eras: The genesis of the squad that should be leading the way into 2026 sharing the same space as the veteran core that has earned Arnold's loyalty eyeing the Asian Cup and sliding doors thrusting them together.
Upon signing a lucrative new contract at the commencement of a new cycle, Arnold had been beginning to plan for a similar changing of the guard to the one he had first ushered in when he took over in 2018. Many coaches do similar things at this point in a cycle. But China's withdrawal from hosting the Asian Cup due to the COVID-19 pandemic saw it shift from June 2023 to January 2024 in order to accommodate Qatar as hosts.
"I'm going through a little bit of the same stage," Arnold told ESPN, reflecting on the ageing squad he inherited four years ago. "It's a bit of a pity that this Asian Cup is going to be in January, where it should have been in June 2023 in China.
"And we're going to push on with these older players and push them as far as they can go. But at the end of the day, it's down to what they're doing at their clubs."
Thus exists a situation wherein Jordy Bos, seemingly the left-back of the Socceroos' 2026 cycle, starts against Bangladesh before Aziz Behich, the stalwart rock of the past four years, gets the nod against Palestine. It's perhaps why even with Miloš Degenek absent, Alessandro Circati cooled his heels on the bench during qualifiers that nominally would be seen as opportune times for minutes, as did Silvera on the wing, and why Kusini Yengi was the only debutant across them.
Perhaps it's why players like Calem Nieuwenhof, Ryan Teague, and Mohamed Touré spent the past window with the Olyroos rather than the senior side, and possibly why players like Alex Robertson and Kuol stayed with clubs they're getting regular minutes with and maintain their rhythm. It's the philosophical differences between a pre-Asian Cup squad and a post-Asian Cup one.
Admittedly, and welcomely, some talents simply demand consideration even if it's not convenient. St. Pauli midfielder Connor Metcalfe has reached a level wherein he's just flat-out one of Australia's best; a player that demands inclusion on the team sheet regardless of Arnold's plans. Yet this presents its own problems associated with renewal, such as how you effectively use him in the same midfield as Keanu Baccus and Jackson Irvine, especially if you're also going to be deploying Craig Goodwin and Martin Boyle out wide and preventing Metcalfe from playing out there himself.
Further, there's nothing stopping players from emerging later in the cycle becoming well-established by 2026. Souttar, for instance, first featured in green-and-gold in AFC Under-23 Championship qualifying in 2019 and within a few years had established himself as a future Socceroos captain. Baccus went to the Tokyo Olympics and didn't debut for the Socceroos until a few months out from Qatar, where he would eventually be trusted with marking Lionel Messi in the Round of 16. Indeed, given the broader context and the importance Arnold placed on the pathway from the Olympic team and the tournament itself, Paris 2024 next July -- should the Olyroos qualify -- feels like it may become something of a natural inflection point for Arnold's squad rejuvenation.
But for now, he will have to juggle the demands of a generation of highly-talented youngsters coming through with those in no hurry to give up their spots (and figuring out when the former has turned potential into reality and simply presents as a better option). Along the way, injuries will waylay players tapped as contributors and others will race against time to prove their health.
Every decision represents a sliding doors moment. For both Arnold and the Socceroos.