Following an arduous 120 minutes and penalty shootout on Monday, and an even more arduous road to get to the playoffs in Qatar, Australia have qualified for the World Cup. In victories over the United Arab Emirates and Peru, the Socceroos chased, harassed, fought and scrapped their way to qualification for world football’s showpiece, and even with significant slices of luck in mind, it is undeniably a positive thing.
The sight of Australian players rushing to Andrew Redmayne after he saved Alex Valera’s final penalty makes for as iconic a picture as any in the history of the Australian game. It’s also hard not to feel happy for the players and technical staff, given the sacrifices they have made in both professional and personal terms to achieve that, in a Covid-19-interrupted qualification cycle.
Yet Monday’s penalty shootout win does not wash away the nature of their performances, both in these playoffs and in this World Cup qualification phase in general. More pertinently, the playoffs were merely a continuation of what we had seen to that point with the Socceroos under Graham Arnold.
The two games against the UAE and Peru arguably condensed the Socceroos’ previous two international windows into one, reflecting the flakiness of midfield approach, which extends to collective approach. It served as a fitting end to this chapter in the story of Australian football on the pitch– one that as previously discussed, is defined by its full heart and its empty soul.
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Because much like the games against Vietnam and Oman, then Japan and Saudi Arabia respectively — games from which they gained four points out a possible 12 — Australia’s approach was ultimately conditioned by the opponent. Arnold’s pre-match assessment of Ricardo Gareca’s Peru practically recognized as much.
“Look, I’ve obviously reviewed Peru on a number of occasions, the typical South American team that, you know, they’re disciplined but they’re all over the place,” he said on Sunday. “When I say that they’ve got quality players, of course, and when I say disciplined and all over the place, sometimes they’ll have two wings on the same side of the pitch, sometimes they’ll have two eights on the same side of the pitch, and, you know, they’re a bit off the cuff.
“We have to adapt to that, make sure that our communication is very, very good. And that we pass people on. But, look, overall, I think that we have our strengths as well. And we’ve got to play to our strengths.”
For the time being, let’s ignore the sizeable differences in approach between Peru and who they finished ahead of in CONMEBOL qualifying, in the form of Chile and Colombia, in that generalisation of what is typical South American team.
It was inevitable that despite its impracticalities and the body of evidence, in relation to both individual utilisation and more systemic flaws, the Socceroos coach would return to his 4-2-2-2 setup. Australia’s conditioning towards risk-aversion and the consequent inability to actually function with the ball, which most clearly manifested in an unconducive reliance on Ajdin Hrustic, was evident from very early stages on Monday.
One passage in the sixth minute was illuminative: Hrustic retreats from his high starting position and finds himself in acres of space on multiple occasions, but because the defense remains in front of the ball, it creates a reticence to actually feed him the ball and turn . Aziz Behich looks long and the ball hopelessly flies out of play.
— Ante Jukic (@ajjukic) June 14, 2022
One of Australia’s three shots in the penalty area in open play over 120 minutes is another small window. Following passes between the centre-backs from a goal kick, as Jackson Irvine and Aaron Mooy don’t ask to receive, the ball finds its way to Hrustic after Kye Rowles’ lofted pass over Andre Carrillo to Behich. Hrustic is bereft of any real penetrative options as Martin Boyle angles his run outward and Mitchell Duke half-heartedly looks for a pass behind the defensive line. It culminates in a Boyle cross and a tame Irvine header from just inside the penalty area.
— Ante Jukic (@ajjukic) June 14, 2022
This comes after one of the match-defining moments against the UAE, where Hrustic effectively gets the Socceroos up the pitch by himself before Irvine’s opening goal, which is then promptly followed by a sequence of errors from the rest of Australia’s midfield both in and out of possession that leads to Caio Canedo’s equalizer four minutes later.
However, as noted even in the Irvine SSR, his penalty area threat comes at a sizeable tradeoff in midfield. Not in position to anticipate and bring down the second ball, then caught slipping getting back into the penalty area, which forces the awkward, missed clearance.#UIEvAUS pic.twitter.com/tp55HwFrJD
— Ante Jukic (@ajjukic) June 8, 2022
No logic, just vibes. Penalties were the inevitable platform upon which Australia would progress on Monday, if they were to progress. Much like in 2017 against Syria in the AFC playoff, it could have all been undone if not for the frame of the goal providing salvation in extra time.
With the Socceroos’ continued dysfunction in possession, Sunday’s pre-game assessment from Arnold and the nature of the result in mind, it raises the question: what are Australia’s strengths? Here’s where a distinction has to be made, however, also taking into account the rhetoric from the Australian camp coming into these playoffs.
“That’s something I’ve been driving since we got into camp and bringing back the Aussie DNA,” Arnold told SEN. “I do feel that we’ve lost that in Australia compared to what it used to be in the days when we were playing sport and we loved the challenge, the backs-to-the-walls stuff. So getting back to that DNA, the old way, the Jeff Fenech (former Australian boxer) way, the way we were that no matter what happened you kick, you fight, you scratch, you run till you drop and leave nothing on the park and have no regrets.”
It speaks to the “why” in Australian football, as opposed to the aforementioned “how.”
Arnold is not an exclusive actor in this respect. We only need to have watched the recent A-League Men’s finals or the sizeable contrast between Australia’s energy and functionality at the AFC Under-23 Asian Cup. Our definition of character, especially when faced with adversity, informs the overwhelmingly cautious approach on the pitch.
Because in these terms, the pitch is always the compass.
What it boils down to, while there is an abundance of faith placed in the effort of Australian footballers, it is ultimately accompanied by an absence of belief in their footballing capabilities. That’s where the conflict lies, in interpretation of what constitutes bravery and character in football. It is as binary as our interpretation of the game itself, which then allows Australian football at all levels to be held ransom by the last result.
You can’t be competitive with kids. Do you want to win or play well? While such prevalent sentiments create an illogical distinction between aesthetic and practicality, they are ultimately problems for solutions, as opposed to solutions for problems.
However much will can be a skill in sport, in international football, it should be a base expectation. That’s arguably why a dissonance exists with the Socceroos’ qualification for the World Cup in the immediate wash.
Determination is an undoubtedly valuable quality in football, but all too often in an Australian sphere, it comes at the expense of the ball itself, along with other qualities that constitute character in football.
It is in moments like this the immortal Johnny Warren’s assertion, that Australia should try to win the World Cup and not just qualify for the finals, becomes as powerful as ever. The impractical and uninspiring football of this qualification phase will likely continue in November against stronger opposition, returning to the fact that what Australia values in its football inherently defines the game’s ceiling both on and off the pitch, placing it in this continued cycle of volatility.
While the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 can potentially undermine the very incentive to improve, despite the aspirational sentiments of the Australian game, in the end, what do we want Australian football and Australian footballers to be?