Graham Arnold was asked in the pre-match press conference about how his philosophy will translate to the pitch – a fairly pedestrian question that is asked almost as standard at pressers. “I’d rather remove the word philosophy,” Arnold replied.
“For me it’s about principles of the game, because you have to be flexible in any system to play.
“Whether it’s a back four or a back three, it doesn’t matter; it’s all about principles on how to press, how to rotate, how to build up, how to penetrate, how to score goals, and how to defend.”
The semantics inherent in differentiating ‘philosophy’ from ‘principles’, in this context, is less interesting than analysing why Arnold is keen to rid the conversation of that word.
The rigidity that sets in when a manager lashes himself to a so-called philosophy was, manifesting at opposing ends of the spectrum, one of the reasons for the downfall of both of Arnold’s predecessors.
Arnold has never been the kind of manager to fall in love with the romanticised ideal of the manager-as-philosopher, crafting football as much using grand existential concepts as he does crossing drills and witches hats, but this also seems like a strategic manoeuvre.
Differentiating himself from the past two regimes might be a natural inclination, but it’s a wise one regardless.
‘Principles’ allow for pragmatism to sidle into the dressing room, and offer up an opinion.
‘Philosophy’ – at least as stereotypically defined – would faint like an 18th century dandy at the mere sound of pragmatism clearing its throat.
So, what did this 1-1 draw with South Korea – Arnold’s second match in charge – tell us about what the Socceroos will be like under his stewardship?
Arnold started Jamie Maclaren, hometown lad, alone up front. Aaron Mooy and Mass Luongo – the central pairing Arnold seems to like best – were flanked by Matt Leckie and Robbie Kruse on the wings.
Mark Milligan, the newly anointed captain, partnered Trent Sainsbury in defence, with the usual full backs.
Milligan is not playing as a centre back for Hibs, and with Milos Degenek playing so regularly and with such distinction for Red Star, it’s a little odd to play Milligan at centre back. His passing is of course excellent, but so is Sainsbury’s.
It feels as though this is the most elegant solution to the problem of playing all four of Tom Rogic, Luongo, Mooy and Milligan in the same team; one of these players must be played somewhere other than the midfield, and if they all have to be included, Milligan-as-centre-back is the best fit.
Of all the members of this starting unit, only Maclaren hasn’t worn a clear, snug groove at their position in the national team – remember, against Kuwait the striker’s spot was Apostolos Giannou’s, and he scored, but was dropped from this squad.
So, Maclaren aside, there were no surprises, no experiments, no gambles. Perhaps we’ll see some against Lebanon.
Rogic got hearts pumping with an early sighter, hit while running at pace, after fine, busy work from Maclaren, pivoting under pressure to activate the counter attack.
Josh Risdon sent said hearts racing with a snap shot into the side netting, a tantalising mirage of a goal.
With Kruse and Leckie sitting just inside the central corridor, the full backs were gleefully accepting the role of providing attacking width.
As is the customary Arnold mechanism, with the full backs forward, the centre backs split, and it was Luongo who was chiefly dropping back to occupy the gap the centre backs created.
At the other end, the positioning of Kruse and Leckie, and the unexpectedly advanced position of Rogic meant that – along with a roaming, pressing Maclaren – Australia were almost playing with a level line of four central attackers.
All four players were intermingling, harrying the defence as a unit, and splitting organically when they had the ball and were rushing toward goal.
Often Rogic would be ahead of Maclaren, or Kruse closer to the centre than his striker. It was an aggressive arrangement, both in and out of possession.
Aaron Mooy had a 10-pace running start, right onto an Aziz Behich cross dropping onto the edge of the box, with a view to a shot.
It was a cross-and-run that drew a yearn from the crowd; put your boot through that, Aaron. He did, but it flew high. Rogic, by the way, was gliding through the Korean defence like the blade of a scissor through a sheet of wrapping paper.
Then, one long ball sliced as convincingly right through the Socceroos.
Kruse had charged up to press the Korean right back, Lee Yong, but not quite quickly enough to stop him from whacking a length-of-the-field pass up toward the in-form striker, Hwang Ui-Jo.
Ui-Jo ran beyond Sainsbury – who had not been well-placed to guard against the run – and the ball held up on a sopping pitch.
His finish was pin-point, smacked low inside Mat Ryan’s right hand post. A salmon swimming up a coursing stream, the goal had come so starkly against the run of play, its impact was doubly winding.
Korea were bolstered, as teams usually are, by the goal, and Australia’s play – while still positive and conducted with intensity – dropped a little, natural self-preservation tugging on the reins.
Korea had adjusted to Australia’s flying full backs, and were dissuading long diagonals out to them.
Rogic was seen dropping a little deeper now, and the passes between Mooy and Luongo and the front four were connecting less frequently.
Korean players were stepping up, instead of cowing back, and were disrupting the Socceroos’ attacking rhythms.
Two Korean players, including the goal scorer, went down and were forced off with injury. 1-0 down, Australia walked glumly into the sheds at half time.
The second half began tepidly, and it made the memories of the game’s opening flurry all the more melancholic; Australia needed to have capitalised on that early pressure, and put away one of the three or so good chances they created.
Rogic’s pep had cooled slightly, and he missed a wonderful chance to equalise, after Josh Risdon had set him up perfectly.
Risdon had made a right-to-left slaloming run that had dazzled the crowd – he was having an wonderful game.
Robbie Kruse was yanked on the 55th minute, with Awer Mabil jogging on to replace him.
A scorcher of a free kick, narrowly missing Ryan’s top left corner, seemed to rouse the Socceroos, who promptly raised the pace of their play.
Mooy shot from distance, the ball thudding into Kim Sueng-Kyu’s chest. The ferocity of the Australian press bore its teeth again. A second wind had been discovered.
So much relies on Rogic; when Mooy and Luongo are so deeply placed – largely by design, and to varying degrees of suitability – Rogic’s role linking the midfield and the attack is vital.
The team functions best when Rogic has the ball and has turned, is dribbling ahead, with runners peeling off him.
When Rogic is in the mood, this all seems easy; he seeks out the space, or humiliates a marker with some saucy flick or swerve.
When he isn’t, suddenly it’s all tortuously difficult, and this is something Rogic needs to address as much as Arnold’s tactics or team selection.
Mabil and Luongo combined via Mabil’s bicycle-kicked cross, but Luongo’s shot flew wide. Mat Ryan then made a superhuman save, leaping to his right to stop a wicked Ju Se-Jong free kick. Ryan may well be our best player at the moment.
Martin Boyle came on, representing the country the soil of which he had stepped foot on for the first time this week.
Maclaren made way, a quiet night for a hungry player who had not been well-fed. Leckie moved to centre forward.
The Socceroos were slowly building up a surge, and as the game slipped into the final quarter-hour, you could see Korea retreat more than a little.
Mabil was lively, Mooy was finally creeping forward with a bit of zest. Mooy and Rogic, combining deftly to play through Mabil but his shot was blocked.
Boyle had a searing run, but his shot was deflected, then saved, and Behich dithered on the rebound.
All these chances were exactly the kind we haven’t been able to convert over the last three years, and the continuing trend was like a hollow knocking in the mind, a sound we’re all familiar with, if not quite one we can tolerate.
Tomi Juric came on, a late cavalry charge. The dying embers were almost extinguished. A pair of corners came.
And from the second corner, Australia equalised, in literally the last second of the match. The corner, headed out, was smacked back at goal by Rogic, and the keeper spilled the shot.
Boyle – the only one of five attackers who was onside – was charging in, and his shot may have been prodded out from under Sueng-Kyu’s pawing hand.
It spun away, and Luongo was there to prey on an open tap-in. It was a scruffy goal, but a goal nonetheless, and the VAR check for offside was all clear.
1-1, and Arnold celebrated the draw like a win as the final whistle blew.
Australia had begun this game with all the verve and energy befitting a side deployed by a manager eager to impress on his home debut.
The system worked, and the number of early chances we created – against a good opponent – was encouraging in the extreme.
Most of the rest of the night, however, was tinged with a list of familiar issues, with our finishing coming most primarily to mind.
Risdon was excellent. Luongo seemed a slightly ill-fit placed so deeply – his instincts are to play ambitious forward passes, which are riskier when hit from the deep midfield.
Mooy can have spells of sluggish, uninventive passing and listless movement that, because he’s the more advanced of the midfielders, can be damaging.
Mabil looked a better option than Kruse. Maclaren, in this system, is not the answer up front. An engaged Rogic is our most valuable player.
Korea played in the way a great number of Asian sides will play, especially away in Australia; long balls, conservatism, and the hope of capitalising on errors.
It’s no use bemoaning this approach in defeat, and we need to solve our problem with finishing chances.
Arnie clearly wants to place a partition – erected verbally, or otherwise – between his era, and those that have preceded it. Like rising damp, though, the problems of the past cannot simply be walled off.