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During the dreaded penalty shootout against Peru to qualify for the World Cup, the Socceroos were only a couple of missed penalties away from Graham Arnold facing the sack and forcing Football Australia into moving in a new direction.
Instead, they prevailed to qualify for Qatar after an underwhelming qualifying campaign in Asia after finishing third in their respective group.
Scrutiny and anger from supporters directed at Arnold was arguably justifiable given the lack of identity on the pitch and conservative tactics used which resulted in negative results and performances.
That was forgotten once the 59-year-old helped guide the Aussies to their fifth consecutive World Cup appearance. Credit was owed to him for his brave and bold decisions as well as the FA who stuck by Arnold after the capitulation that unraveled in losses to Japan and Saudi Arabia.
After a qualifying campaign filled with more lows than highs, many were just grateful and excited at the prospect of enjoying another World Cup with their country participating after experiencing the most arduous route due to the pandemic and playing 16 out of 20 matches away from home.
Upon arrival in Qatar, no one seriously gave Australia much of a chance to achieve anything significant in a group containing Denmark, Tunisia, and reigning world champions France. Arnold, however, was the leading catalyst in galvanising his players and setting the necessary foundations for a solid defence and incredible work ethic to make up for the lack of talent they possessed.
Two World Cups victories in the same tournament, never done before in Australia’s history. Two clean sheets, more than their total of just one in six World Cups combined. A knockout stage appearance equaling their best result in 2006. Those same Arnold doubters were quickly warming up to him and joining in on riding the wave of emotion captured by the rest of the country.
From a scenario of performing with no expectation to all of a sudden having those expectations rise, Arnie will be under just as much pressure, if not more, to get his team to produce at the expected standard in which Australians now know the squad is capable of.
Friday night presented fans at CommBank Stadium in Sydney a chance to welcome home the Socceroos in their first game back from the World Cup with a 3-1 win over Ecuador in a friendly.
Despite Arnold signing on until after the 2026 World Cup, there’s still a changing of the guard in terms of the youthful ability coming through the system. It could be argued that this current generation is the most talented since the 2006-2010 period of the golden generation.
Everyone is fully aware of Garang Kuol’s exciting potential by now. The 18-year-old Hearts loanee managed to get his name on the scoresheet on Friday for his first international goal, providing a glimpse of his bright future ahead. Nestory Irankunda has emphatically lit up the A-League and has deservedly cemented himself as a candidate in the Socceroos camp, notching up four goals and two assists for Adelaide United in mostly cameo roles.
Add Mohamed Toure, Jordan Bos, Noah Botić, Joe Gauci, and Alessandro Circati to name a few, along with experienced figures such as Harry Souttar and Jackson Irvine, and Australian football seems to have finally woken up.
This new discovery of talent now begs the question whether Arnold is the right man equipped to lead this new generation into the next phase of development.
It sounds harsh to be critical of the manager after exceeding expectations in Qatar, but different teams match different coaching personalities.
Similar comparisons can be drawn with Italian tactician Claudio Ranieri and his tenure at Leicester City. During the 2015-16 season, he was blessed with the right ingredients at the right moment to steer the club to one of the most remarkable achievements in sporting history by winning the Premier League title.
That side didn’t contain many standout names, but it was their work ethic and togetherness that helped them overachieve. The season after, Ranieri was sacked after all of that good work due to poor results, and the same could spell true in Arnold’s case for Australia.
For Arnold, experience has always triumphed over youth because it’s more reliable and he is more confident that the job can be done, especially defensively. We saw this at the World Cup where Craig Goodwin, Mat Leckie, and even Martin Boyle before getting injured were all preferred over Awer Mabil due to their ability to track back as one example.
Now, the challenge is to slowly incorporate up-and-coming youth products and get them to play an attractive and attacking style of football that suits the needs of players such as Kuol and Irankunda.
Is Arnold the man to lead the revolution?
Supporters of the former Central Coast and Sydney FC coach will point to the win over Argentina at the most recent Olympics where Arnold was at the helm of the Olyroos, being up close and personal with many U23 players, understanding their potential and room for improvement.
You could also make a case for his tactics to actually suit this new-look squad of fast pace and dynamism, focusing on the same solid defensive structure to build towards a counter-attacking style with the technical quality in the final third.
Nonetheless, it’s important to stress that since the Peru match, Arnold has done an impeccable job and deserves all the praise and plaudits. If there’s one thing you can’t criticise about him, it’s the undeniable passion and enthusiasm he demonstrates for his country and that evidently translates to the players.
No one is calling for his head at this current moment as that would be premature.
In saying that, just be cautious and wary of the next chapter of the Socceroos. Just because Arnold delivered success in one tournament, doesn’t mean he is necessarily the right man to lead a different generation.
Time will ultimately tell.