The Socceroos are leaving Australian shores with a 1-0 victory over New Zealand in tow as Graham Arnold’s troops continue their preparations for the FIFA World Cup in November.
However, not even the presence of legendary Socceroos manager Guus Hiddink was enough to inspire the Aussies in what was a relatively insipid display against their trans-Tasman rivals.
An Awer Mabil goal was the difference, but it was the sole bright light in an otherwise dim attacking display from the Aussies.
There’s also the horror performances from most of the backline, with three players doing little to help their chances of starting the Socceroos’ first group game against France.
Equally worrying was the lack of bite and ruthlessness up front, with not one striker staking their claim for being the top dog while a star’s missed chance summed up the attacking woes perfectly.
Foxsports.com.au breaks down the biggest Socceroos Talking Points from the first New Zealand friendly.
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Harry Souttar, arguably Australia’s best centre-back, is racing against the clock in a bid to be fit for the World Cup as he continues his rehabilitation after tearing his ACL last November.
Bailey Wright and Kye Rowles were the centre-back pairing for the Socceroos’ all-important World Cup play-off qualifiers against the UAE and Peru.
With Rowles also injured for this window, it meant there was an opening for another centre-back to join the starting line-up.
Arnold opted to bring in Trent Sainsbury and Milos Degenek to the heart of defence, with the duo flanked by Fran Karacic on the right and Aziz Behich on the left.
However, no-one exactly took their crucial chance by the scruff of the neck and if anything, Karacic and Sainsbury did their chances of starting in Qatar some serious harm.
From the get-go, Sainsbury gifted the Kiwis a gilt-edged chance that should have seen the Socceroos down 1-0 and had several other moments that left fans with their hearts in their mouths.
Karacic struggled to contain New Zealand left-back Liberato Cacace, as the Socceroos man also failed to offer much, if anything, going forward.
Degenek didn’t quite put a foot wrong, but he also wasn’t faultless as he failed to win a crucial header in the 9th minute that allowed Chris Wood to flick the ball onto the path of Andre de Jong who should have scored.
Joel King, Behich’s main competition, didn’t get enough time to make any impact.
Although Behich got forward well, he didn’t have enough end product and had some worrying defensive lapses throughout.
Nathaniel Atkinson came on midway through the second half in a direct replacement for Karacic and immediately looked better.
The Hearts defender also made a crucial block in the final minutes of the game to prevent a simple tap-in for New Zealand.
Without Souttar and Rowles, the heart of the Socceroos defence could be its weakest point and this friendly will have given Arnold plenty of food for thought.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR YOUNG GUNS
Despite calling up seven uncapped players to an extended 31-man squad, Graham Arnold opted to name a conservative starting XI, prioritising players who had featured in the qualification campaign.
But fans were surely hoping to witness the likes of Garang Kuol, the breakout 18-year-old attacker who sent tongues wagging with his impressive A-League All-Stars effort against Barcelona.
He was widely talked about in the lead-up to the match, having delivered a charming press conference after his maiden call-up. He was joined in that press conference by Central Coast Mariners teammate Jason Cummings, a fan favourite for his impressive on-field feats as much as his larrikin personality off the park. Sadly, neither got the chance to step on the field at Suncorp Stadium – a disappointing outcome for the over 25,000 fans who lobbed up to farewell the Aussie side.
Arnold has promised to field an almost completely-new starting side for Sunday’s rematch, with plenty of opportunities for debutants. But the decision to not blood any fresh faces in this match robbed Arnold of the chance to see who would gel well with the existing core group.
Nevertheless, the final international clash before the World Cup gives the debutants a slim window to earn a ticket to Qatar.
Socceroos coach at the 2006 World Cup, Guus Hiddink, told Channel 10: “It’s always good to have a mix of experienced players and not being scared of bringing young players as well. If you bring in the right mix than it is nice for development of football as well. But you have to perform on a World Cup of course. I hope that the squad is getting even a bit more experienced, I had a team with a lot of experience. This is a young team, not super experienced but yeah, let them go to this adventure.”
SHARPSHOOTERS FLUFF CRUCIAL AUDITION AS GLARING ISSUE REMAINS
It was a frustrating night for both Australian strikers – first Adam Taggart then substitute Jamie Maclaren. They were isolated at the top of the attack and starved of opportunities, while they worked tirelessly in defence but were often chasing the ball individually, with Australia’s defensive press lacking cohesion. Taggart touched the ball just 15 times in his 61 minutes on the pitch – by far the lowest figure of any starter – and was clearly disappointed by the poor service from his teammates. Maclaren took a snap-shot from outside the box with his first real opportunity, desperate to make an impact on the game.
The number nine position has proved to be one of the major selection conundrums for Graham Arnold in recent years – or ever since Tim Cahill retired, to be frank. Despite Arnold’s stated preference for attacking football, the Socceroos have long struggled to regularly get strikers involved in the play.
29-year-old Taggart’s club form is arguably the best of any Australian striker – five goals in his last 12 games in Japan’s top flight – and he looms as the first-choice for the position come Qatar. Maclaren’s A-League season doesn’t start for another few weeks, giving him precious little time to get up to full speed before the World Cup.
It’s the same situation for Jason Cummings and Garang Kuol, the uncapped Central Coast Mariners duo who will be crossing their fingers for a chance to play – and score – in NZ on Sunday. Japan-based Mitch Duke is a physical and hardworking hold-up striker who offers Arnold a different style of attacker, which is likely to earn him a place on the plane to Qatar.
But the statistics reflect the extent of the problem: Taggart has six goals in 17 Socceroos appearances, while Maclaren has eight in 26, and Duke seven in 20. Their records hardly inspire confidence – especially when chances will come at a premium against top teams like France at the World Cup.
The Socceroos’ have proven in recent years that they can be deadly in transition, with many of their goals throughout the World Cup qualifying campaign coming from counter-attacks. That was the case in Awer Mabil’s strike on Thursday night, while Mat Leckie hit the post late in the match following another counter-attack.
Getting to the World Cup was one thing. But the Socceroos won’t win matches in Qatar without scoring goals – and Arnold must finally find a solution to his isolated, invisible strikers.
WHY EVERYONE SAW OUT-OF-SYNC TRIO’S FIZZER COMING
The Socceroos’ midfield trio of Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine and Ajdin Hrustic struggled to find any rhythm against New Zealand.
On paper it is an unbalanced trio: Mooy is not the tough-tackling CDM the Socceroos need, Irvine’s key traits lie in his ability to ghost forward in the final third and Hrustic can’t afford to be shackled with defensive duties when he’s the key attacking threat.
The game played out exactly how many predicted it to.
Mooy was often dribbled past by the Kiwis with ease and had to make sloppy fouls or sliding challenges to break up play, Irvine completed just 65 per cent of his passes and Hrustic simply couldn’t get himself into the key positions where he does his best damage.
The play was disjointed when the Socceroos needed to progress the ball up the field and result in several long balls and switches being sprayed around.
Additionally, it left the Aussies worryingly open to a rapid counter-attack from New Zealand whenever Arnold’s midfield decided to go on a forward foray.
Again, that’s how it played out as the Kiwis burst through the midfield before attacking the Socceroos on the flanks.
Perhaps the pest-like nature of midfielder Cameron Devlin would have been best suited to a match like this and it was also crying out for Tom Rogic’s creativity and ability to unlock an opposition backline.
But should Arnold opt for Mooy, Hrustic and Irvine in a midfield three in Qatar, there will be serious problems.