A heartbreaking loss to Japan on Tuesday night in Saitama will not stop the Socceroos.
After a record-setting 11-match winning streak, Graham Arnold’s men have a newly acquired and built-in confidence and belief that will stand them in good stead for the reminder of the Qatar 2022 qualifying campaign and into the short-term future.
The fruits of a great deal of hard work have been on display, all achieved under the demands of travel and primarily ‘away’ play. A new crop of players have begun to make their marks in national colours and Arnold himself looks to be coaching better than ever.
There is so much to be positive about moving ahead, yet, like many of you, I went to bed in a mighty bad mood after a late goal pinched what could well have been a valuable point for the Socceroos against Japan.
One of the best sporting truisms I’ve heard is, “When you lose, you learn” and the Socceroos’ staff will be looking intently at the areas of concern that were obvious on Tuesday night.
The Australians were poor in the first half, potentially set up incorrectly and everything appeared to be happening in slow motion. Most critically, the midfield looked a mess.
I have been consistent in my belief that the Socceroos struggle with Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic on the pitch at the same time. Equally talented players, something clunky exists between them and with neither blessed with sparkling speed, Arnold should perhaps be looking to permanently alter their roles and his use of Ajdin Hrustic.
Potentially the Socceroos’ most consistent player in the campaign thus far, Hrustic seems to balance up the midfield and looks like the man most likely to control it. The calls to play him more centrally more often are valid.
However, where does that leave Mooy in a 4-3-1-2 formation? As we saw against Japan, he struggles somewhat when shifted wider than his traditional central midfield slot.
The intent of bringing Hrustic into the game more frequently and decisively was met, yet the Japanese exposed the Australians’ weaknesses and lack of speed down the left on numerous occasions.
As a part of the 4-2-3-1 employed against Oman, Hrustic and Awer Mabil looked strong on the left with Mooy beginning the match on the bench. It appears wherever Hrustic is deployed, a strength is formed.
However, the logical by-product of that is that cracks appear elsewhere and Arnold then struggles to successfully plug those gaps, as he did during the first half against the Japanese.
It all forms something of a conundrum for the manager.
Seemingly certain to continue to play Mooy regularly in the future, Arnold must decide whether the formation must change depending on his selection and if so, whether Hrustic’s return to the left side of defensive midfield in a 4-3-1-2 is the most advantageous use of his talents?
A fair question is whether Hrustic could potentially play ahead of Mooy in place of Rogic, yet what would that mean for the Glasgow-based Canberran? Alternatively, if Mooy is deemed to be ineffective outside a central midfield role and Hrustic the No.1 choice in that position, are we seriously considering leaving an EPL quality player out of the Socceroos’ best XI?
Rather unfortunately, it is the stellar play of Hrustic that has created such a headache for his manager. In years gone by, Mooy was a lock at No.6 and Rogic at No.10, yet with the emergence of Martin Boyle, Mabil and Hrustic, Arnold now has more than one string to his bow.
However, it appeared the instrument Arnold was playing against Japan was out of tune in the first half. Things improved dramatically in the second when Mooy departed and Hrustic was able to get forward more frequently.
It left many scratching their heads and wondering why Mabil had not started the match and frustrated that Hrustic and Jackson Irvine were not permitted to play in the space they did during the second half a little earlier.
In the end, Japan scored two goals, both with some fortune and at one stage Hrustic appeared to have secured a point with his wonderful free kick. However, the result matters less than getting the learnings right and sending out a Socceroo team against Saudi Arabia in a month’s time that is ready to fire from the opening whistle.
Japan’s pressure on the ball did create problems at the back, just ask Aziz Behich, yet more fluency and control through the centre of the pitch was required. Getting that midfield mix right and utilising Hrustic in the best possible way should be Arnold’s main objective heading into the November qualifiers.