Goodwin stars in a win emblematic of Arnold's Socceroos tenure

CANBERRA, Australia -- With a full moon rising over Bruce Stadium, tinged red as it began its ascent amidst the last vestiges of daylight, Socceroos winger Craig Goodwin darted into a pocket of space on the left flank. It was grass left absent by Lebanon defender Nassar Nassar stepping up to challenge Connor Metcalfe, with the midfielder promptly playing a pass beyond this encroachment and into the path of Goodwin's run. Meeting the ball in stride, teeing it up for a left foot so cultured it probably has strong thoughts on impressionist art, Goodwin delivered a cross that Kusini Yengi almost had to score from, with his first effort crashing off the post but his hasty second finding the net. Less than two minutes had been played.

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As far as individual performances go, Goodwin's Tuesday evening in Canberra likely ranks amongst the most authoritative in many a year, up there with the likes of Harry Souttar's rearguard against Tunisia during the 2022 World Cup, or Tom Rogić putting Vietnam to the sword in Melbourne during the last qualification cycle. It was the kind of game that felt like a "What if?" -- leaving one to ponder the various sliding doors moments that resulted in the 32-year-old not establishing himself as a Socceroos regular until very recently, or how his time spent in Europe was restricted to two not-all-that-fruitful seasons with Sparta Rotterdam.

What would have happened if he got on the park during those 2016 qualifiers he was called up for, for instance? It still feels incredulous that a player who scored against France and Argentina at the World Cup didn't have at least a few European clubs throwing money at him.

Tuesday's early goal began an evening that, eventually, became a memorable 5-0 win for Australia, staged in front of a record crowd of 25,023 at Bruce Stadium, the largest attendance for a football match in the nation's capital. Nearly two hours of real time after the opener, it was Goodwin putting a bow on things in the 81st minute when he took advantage of Walid Shour's inability to clear a cross from John Iredale and prodded the ball home at the back post.

Goodwin's sealer was his second goal of the night, his first arriving in the 48th minute when a sumptuous, lofted pass from Ajdin Hrustić teed him up to welly an effort beyond keeper Mostafa Matar. That itself came moments after a free kick from the former Adelaide United talisman found the head of Souttar, whose header was initially saved before being bundled over the line in the chaos that followed. Iredale had the Socceroos other goal, the only one without Goodwin's fingerprints all over it, when he was found by fellow debutant Patrick Yazbek on the counter-attack.

Creating seven chances over the 90 minutes (the next best was Lebanon's Karim Darwiche with two), the creative load that Goodwin carried across the contest was significant. He was the only Australian player to successfully complete a pass or cross into the Lebanese penalty area across the opening half, with his five successful crosses making him the only player on the park, for either side, to complete more than one. On another night, Goodwin would have ended up with four official assists rather than the two he took in spirit, with Hrustić sending a cutback into orbit in the 31st minute and Souttar heading a trivela cross into the post just before half-time.

For a bloke who missed last Thursday's win with illness and had needed to be pumped full of antibiotics to get ready for this contest -- coach Graham Arnold jokingly hitting him with an exaggerated side eye after he coughed during his post-match media duties -- it was pretty damn good.

"When I knew younger Craig Goodwin, he didn't believe in himself like he does these days," said Arnold. "Obviously he's a top-quality player, but he's a fantastic person and a great leader in and around the dressing room and on the pitch. But his delivery and his set pieces are fantastic. With his finishing, it's just got better and better as he gets older."

Beyond the Goodwin show, Australia have now played four 2026 World Cup qualifiers and won all of them without conceding a goal, assuring themselves of a place in the next round with two games to spare. In the FIFA rankings, they are in a dogfight with South Korea for status as the No. 3-ranked side in Asia. Should they seize this ranking through to the start of the third phase of qualifiers in September, they will be ranked as one of the top seeds and be able to avoid Japan and Iran in their qualification group. With that, the task of securing a place in North America in 2026 -- already made less perilous by the tournament's expansion to 48 teams -- will be rendered even more regulation.

Thus, Tuesday was a good night for Arnold and the Socceroos, one that was probably needed for more than just qualification reasons. Coming off the back of a grinding performance against Lebanon in Sydney's west last week, which itself came off the back of a blunt Asian Cup, the longstanding grievances associated with Arnold's time in charge of the Socceroos have found themselves thrust into the limelight once again in recent times; the luminescence of the halo from a World Cup quarterfinal appearance given way to the day-to-day reality of international football.

Indeed, external interpretations of Arnold's tenure have undoubtedly shifted from earlier in his tenure, when a record-run of qualifying wins did its bit to obfuscate pitfalls that would bite as the Socceroos were forced into the intercontinental playoff route to book a place at the 2022 World Cup. Now, conversations surrounding not just if Australia are winning, but how they are doing so, are becoming increasingly common, even if the significant reduction in football media means that the volume of this analysis remains incredibly low. And though some invariably do their best to spoil things with a level of unacceptable toxicity, this, when done for the right reasons and with the right focus, is a good thing, a sign of an increasingly mature discourse.

And in that spirit, it's not unfair to say that things, especially the first half, could have been better on Tuesday. Bah humbug. Goodwin's standout play, for instance, shone as brightly as it did due to the limited impact his teammates were having. With his evening cruelly ended after 55 minutes after being scythed down by Ali Tneich, Hrustic only touched the ball 36 times in Canberra, fewer than any Australian starter not named Yengi or Mitchell Duke. This isolation, not exactly ideal circumstances for one of his country's most technically gifted and creative players, was reflective of the Socceroos' inability to fashion play through the middle of the pitch against a side mostly content to give them the ball, going over and around Lebanon's defence rather than playing through them. That old chestnut. When goal-scoring opportunities were fashioned -- Metcalfe's one-on-one in the 20th minute, and Hrustic and Souttar's aforementioned chances -- Australia's finishing was wasteful.

Things kicked into gear in the second half, and Arnold deserves acknowledgement for adjustments he made, but the shift also coincided with Lebanon opening themselves up in pursuit of a result. The Cedars had 51% of the ball in the second stanza compared with their 30% of the first, shipping the second goal from a set piece and the third and fourth when caught scrambling. Arnold was absolutely correct when he observed that players need to take their chances and Lebanon's negativity and frequent moves to stop play and any burgeoning momentum didn't help. However, the Socceroos' challenges in breaking down embedded defences and establishing reliable penetration through midfield are also longstanding and relevant.

Arnold does plenty of things right, probably more than he is given credit for. His side is arguably Asia's best on set pieces, is stout defensively, and strong in transition. Goodwin had a single cap before 2019 and two players brought in under his watch in Yengi and Iredale scored maiden international goals on Tuesday. A further two made their debuts in Yazbek and Josh Nisbet. And Tuesday was a fun night and a good win. But Arnold's idea of how he wants his team to function, which then informs the attributes he values in players and how he uses (or doesn't use) those at his disposal, inevitably governs what the Socceroos can and cannot do, especially in possession.

When things go right, you beat Lebanon 5-0, or Denmark 1-0 at a World Cup. When they don't, you need two jammy goals to get past Lebanon in Western Sydney, or draw 2-2 with Oman and 1-1 with China in must-win qualifiers.

Two outcomes, born of the same philosophy. That's the bargain you make when Arnold is head coach of the national team.