Despite all the doubt and death-riding, Graham Arnold is only the second Australian coach to lead the Socceroos to qualify for the World Cup Finals.
Okay, hands up for a decent serve of humble pie (a dish best served hot). Lots of us (me in particular) have been calling for Arnie to step aside (or be pushed) from his Socceroos position for some time.
Those tired, desultory performances in the last phase of qualifying did nothing to inspire confidence so it looked like the only answer was a new broom to get rid of the Old Guard and put some zing into the team.
To be fair, there were some extraordinary hurdles: we’ve always been very strong at home so playing only a handful of games in Oz was a handicap. There were injuries and other complexities keeping key players out at critical times, and Arnie himself missed time in camp due to COVID.
I think we would (for the most part) have forgiven him for that. What riled most of the fans was his insistence on picking players who simply weren’t performing. Rhyan Grant had lost his pace; Aziz Behich had lost his positioning sense and composure on the ball; Jackson Irvine was playing like a 50 year old in the 35As; Aaron Mooy was old and slow and out of practice; and Mitch Duke and Awer Mabil were completely ineffectual.
All of this amounted to a complete absence of service for Jamie McLaren who therefore looked utterly lost because he’s not the sort of striker who makes his own goals.
And yet, against Peru, some of these players had blinders.
Jackson Irvine was quoted in the last week, saying he’d finally had the time to get some niggles resolved, which might explain why he played well against UAE and Peru. But it also raises the query why he was picked previously when not 100%?
Arnie’s faith in Mooy as the linchpin of the side absolutely paid off against Peru. He was really important in terms of how we set the pace – back to his metronomic best. The fitness program he underwent in Scotland with Andrew Clark clearly paying off.
Mitch Duke, selected ahead of McLaren, did a great job of hounding the defence and Aziz Behich had his best match in a very long time. Awer Mabil also looked much better than his last few outings and massively improved our penetration when he came on.
To Arnie’s further credit, some newer selections also did very well. Hrustic and Boyle have been around for a while now and were two of our best. But I was so impressed with Kye Rowles. His positioning was outstanding and he was monstrous in the air – a very big career awaits.
I was very glad to see Arnie persist with Nat Atkinson after a torrid time against UAE. His positioning also was very good and made some crucial interceptions. Picking Atkinson again took some balls, but it paid off. Mind you, Fran Karacic also looked good when he came on so no doubt there’ll be a tussle for that spot in months to come.
But when it comes to balls, the biggest call of the night had to be Andrew Redmayne coming on with a minute left in extra time.
It was clearly pre-determined, although Maty Ryan must have been disappointed. Redmayne is an accomplished penalty saver and, while he looked bizarre with his broken puppet dancing routine, it appeared to pay off with one penalty missed and one saved. His Punch-like grin will stay with us all for many years.
In the end, Arnie prepared the team well and all his calls paid off. The players and fans can’t ask for more from their coach so this becomes a career-crowning glory for him.
So, turns out Arnie knows better than all us armchair critics.
Who’d have thought?
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His first sci-fi novel will be published by Hague Publishing in 2022.
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