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Graham Arnold doesn't know his Socceroos best XI and that is his greatest failure

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Expert
6th June, 2022
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Mathew Ryan will start in goal for the Socceroos against United Arab Emirates in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Yet there appears to be zero certainty around the identity of the other ten men charged with guiding Australia through to the second phase of fourth round qualifying and a match up with Peru in a weeks’ time.

National coach Graham Arnold surprised many with his selections in the friendly lead up fixture against Jordan five days ago; choices that saw Jamie Maclaren, Ajdin Hrustic, Aziz Behich, Jackson Irvine and Trent Sainsbury selected on the bench.

Of that list, all bar Sainsbury received minutes last week, perhaps providing insights into Arnold’s intentions tomorrow morning. It is possible that Behich will start on the left side of defence, with Sainsbury slotting in alongside Bailey Wright in the heart of it.

Irvine could well assume his role on the right side of midfield, with Aaron Mooy on the left and Hrustic either as the third member of that trio or slightly more advanced as part of the 4-2-3-1 formation that Arnold implemented against Jordan.

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As the Socceroos highest scorer in qualifying, many will see the inclusion of Jamie Maclaren at the arrowhead in place of Nick D’Agostino as a logical move, with Awer Mabil perhaps the only member of the front four certain to keep his position.

Jamie Maclaren

Jamie Maclaren. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

However, Arnold has a history of pulling selection surprises. That, combined with the solid form and fitness levels of Jordanian starters Craig Goodwin and Riley McGree, as well as the almost certain inclusion of Saudi based Martin Boyle, results in a very unclear picture in terms of the make-up of the eleven that will eventually take to the pitch.

And that uncertainty may well be Graham Arnold’s most significant weakness as a coach.

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As punters predict, select and hypothesise on the best group to blunt the UAE threat on Wednesday, the question of whether Arnold is actually convinced of his own best starting line-up is a fair one.

One would hope that the backbone of the team would be clear to all heading into such a crucial fixture and aside from the odd variation due to illness, injury or unavailability, a team Socceroo fans knew was capable of getting the result would be selected.

There is an argument to be made that aside from Ryan, Hrustic and Tom Rogic, a seemingly rotational system exists in the manager’s mind, with a hodge-podge-like approach taken since Arnold took the reins permanently in 2018.

That scenario appears to have developed due to Arnold’s loyalty to certain players despite weaker performances that should have seen them left out at different times and a reluctance to provide consistent minutes for players that many good judges believe are destined to be Socceroos for plenty of years to come.

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The global pandemic saw opportunity become the over-arching theme of the A-League Men across the last two seasons, as a host of young players put their names up in lights.

However, that same level of opportunity has been limited for a group of young Socceroos that are part of the selection merry-go-round that Arnold has overseen and it is fair to say that we still don’t really know just how effective they can be in national colours.

Graham Arnold head coach of Australia looks on

Graham Arnold (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Reno Piscopo was ignored at the selection this time round, Denis Genreau is doing great things overseas yet been given just two caps at 23 years of age, whilst McGree has long been one of the most promising young Aussies and represented just eight times at the same age.

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Marco Tilio is another looking for greater opportunity and Nathaniel Atkinson appears to be a lock for squad selection, yet to this point and aside from one cap, not trusted enough to assume the defensive role for which he was lured to Scotland to play.

Gianni Stensness is another 23 year old desperate for opportunity and still being starved of it.

Of the more seasoned players, Bailey Wright appears to come and go, with most of us still unsure whether he can do his defensive job on a consistent basis and Arnold seems to remain uncertain of Adam Taggart, Mitchell Duke and Jamie Maclaren and which of the three he believes in the most.

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Arnold’s role as national coach is to not only win games of football, but to also work out his best and most reliable players, as well as those young men deserving of selection and development, considering their likely long term involvement in the Socceroos set-up.

However, across his four years at the helm, I am at a loss as to whether he has done any of the above.

Heading into the most important game of football the Socceroos will play in four years and despite holding strong views on the squad, I have no idea of the eleven Arnold should or will select to face UAE.

No doubt there will be a surprise or two in there, yet I would feel much more comfortable knowing that a settled eleven, win or lose, was selected based on an efficient selection approach over an extended period of time.

For now, we will have to settle for the scatter-gun approach. Let’s hope it works.

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