The Socceroos find themselves living dual realities as they prepare for their third and final Asian Cup group game against Uzbekistan on Tuesday, needing to win or draw to secure top spot but at no risk of missing the knockout stage.
On one hand, they’ve kept consecutive Asian Cup clean sheets for the first time since 2015 to sew up progression with a game to spare, have the two most defensively-minded sides they’re likely to play already behind them, and are largely injury-free, save for Mitch Duke’s hamstring complaint.
On the other, they’ve scored just three goals despite monopolising possession against India and Syria (none of which have come from the front three), registered just one shot on target against the latter, and are wanting for creativity in a midfield sans Hrustic, Rogic, Luongo and Mooy.
‘It’s very difficult to figure these Socceroos out. I guess you have to acknowledge that multiple things can be true at once’, Joey Lynch of ESPN & The Guardian told Box2Box.
‘It’s incredibly difficult to break down low blocks in Asian competitions like this, as we’re seeing not just with the Australians; Japan, South Korea, Iran & Saudi Arabia have all struggled to break down sides not as talented, but that are well organised, determined and disciplined.
‘You can recognise that as reality while still wanting improvement from the Socceroos: wanting to see them do a bit more in possession to try and open up sides, or pinpointing areas for improvement, such as seeming to be overly reliant on getting the ball to the flanks and whipping it in, rather than trying to unlock sides through the middle of the park.’
Jackson Irvine appears the only midfielder locked into Arnold’s best eleven to face Uzbekistan and beyond, having added goals to his usual shuttling dependability and leadership. The younger trio of Metcalfe, Baccus and O’Neill that Arnold has shuffled around him have been solid without demanding retention, while Riley McGree has been used conservatively off the bench following a recent foot injury.
‘Arnold is in a difficult position in that one of the best players in unlocking a defence would have been Mass Luongo, while Ajdin Hristic is in the club wilderness with Hellas Verona, and Denis Genreau is battling persistent injury. Arnie’s not dealing with a full hand here.
‘Looking at the tournament as a whole, you can simultaneously say Australia could be playing a lot better, but you also wouldn’t be surprised to see them go on a run and win it. Particularly when Japan, the Koreans, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all look mortal, there is no side that’s stood up and said ‘we are the best.’
If Arnold’s midfield is providing his biggest headache, the left side could provide his greatest strength, although unlocking that is proving to be a puzzle. Young gun Jordy Bos will shortly surpass 33-year old stalwart Aziz Behich as Arnold’s primary left back – although, perhaps not just yet.
That Arnold opted for both against Syria, with Bos forward of Behich on the left wing at the surprising expense of Craig Goodwin, might just have been an innocent mid-tournament experiment, or it could speak to more troubling uncertainty.
‘Arnold has spoken (pre-Uzbekistan) about the various positions Bos could play, but did also note the importance of Behich coaching Bos and giving him advice against the Syrians. That could potentially indicate Arnold thinks, at a major tournament, Bos isn’t quite at the point to be left on an island at left-back, so to speak.
‘Is the sum total of Bos and Behich on the wing greater than having Bos at left-back, Goodwin or Kusini Yengi on the wing? I would be inclined to think not, and that’s not to disparage Behich. He’s been a great Socceroo, is a good player, it’s just these marginal calls one has to make.’