Confidence is one thing, but Socceroos coach Graham Arnold is edging dangerously close to arrogance with respect to the Socceroos’ chances of World Cup qualification.
A humbling quarter-final finish at the Asia Cup this year and a comprehensive 2-0 defeat at the hands of South Korea – admittedly with a somewhat experimental line-up – demonstrated that while Australians can remain optimistic about making a fifth-straight World Cup, it will not be a straightforward qualification campaign.
Speaking ahead of tonight’s AFC World Cup qualifying Round 2 draw, Arnold called on the Socceroos to be “ruthless” throughout the qualification process.
“We’ve got a very good group of players and we’ll treat every one of these games as a way of being ruthless,” Arnold told AAP.
“We need to start being ruthless in a sense of nailing the opposition. I expect that over the next few years.”
“Every opponent that we play we treat with respect, but we go out on the pitch expecting to put in a great performance.”
The Socceroos have drawn Jordan, Taiwan, Kuwait and Nepal in what – on paper – looks a straightforward group.
Of course, as we so often learn in Asia, Australia cannot afford to get ahead of itself, especially if the standards of a “great performance” align with Arnold’s comments following Australia’s exit from the Asia Cup.
“I’ll be honest, I think that we’ve done very, very well this tournament,” he told reporters after the game.
To recap, Australia entered that tournament as defending champions and exited with just two group-stage wins, a penalty shoot-out victory after a goalless draw against Uzbekistan before a 1-0 loss after extra-time to the UAE.
The Socceroos also lost 1-0 to World Cup qualification opponents Jordan.
In Arnold’s defence, Australia dominated the majority of those games in terms of possession and spent plenty of time in promising positions.
Unfortunately, the Socceroos just could not find an answer to the packed defences that were set out before them and struggled to deal with the pace and direct nature of their opponents on the break.
Arnold complained after the tournament that his players had not had enough time to learn his style of playing.
“The style that we expect to play takes time,” Arnold said.
“You’ve got to remember I’ve been in charge only for four months, I’ve only had eight games with these boys.”
“The style is completely different from what they’ve ever played.”
These are not unreasonable comments from Arnold, but the issue with this is that he will remain starved of opportunities between now and the start of the qualification process.
Since the Asian Cup, he has had just one game with the Socceroos – the aforementioned 2-0 defeat to South Korea.
The friendly gave Arnold a good opportunity to mix it up and take a look at some new players but, in isolation, it will do little to help the first-team regulars acclimatise to Arnold’s demands of them, nor did it provide enough of a chance to decide if the likes of Mustafa Amini, Brandon O’Neil or Jimmy Jeggo are ready to usurp the first-team regulars ahead of them.
I personally remain unconvinced by Arnold as Socceroos manager, but there’s no doubting the lack of friendly matches in recent times has been a massive contributing factor to the disjointed nature of Socceroos performances.
In between the World Cup in 2018 and today, the Socceroos have played just five friendlies.
Add in the Asian Cup games and we’ve seen Arnold’s team in action just ten times in the last 13 months.
By comparison, Japan had played five matches courtesy of the annual Kirin Challenge Cup it hosts on home soil, in between the World Cup and Asian Cup alone.
In total, Japan has played 19 matches since the last World Cup, including the 2019 Asia Cup and Copa America tournaments.
South Korea has played 16 games, including the Asian Cup.
Moving into what promises to be another tough World Cup qualification campaign, our Socceroos will be learning on the job and while Arnold may be thankful that the nature of the World Cup draw keeps Australia away from some of Asia’s bigger teams, our Asia Cup campaign proves that he cannot afford to take any game lightly.
The Asia Cup in many ways provided a blueprint for teams looking to get a result against Australia and as a result of that Arnold’s Socceroos need to earn the right to be feared by so-called minnows of the game.
The best way to do that is to stop talking about “nailing” opponents and start winning games of football.