In the months since qualifying for the Qatar World Cup, Australia coach Graham Arnold will have had tomorrow’s date circled on his calendar – and one big question on his mind: How can the Socceroos beat reigning champions France?
To do so would be an upset of the highest order, and one they couldn’t quite pull off in a 2-1 defeat in Russia 2018.
But Mile Jedinak, the Socceroos’ captain at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, says Australia’s strategy is obvious, declaring: “I have no doubt that’s what the plan will be.”
Meanwhile, key selection calls could be the deciding factor for the Socceroos – especially with injuries playing a role. But fellow Socceroos great Harry Kewell has urged Arnold to avoid one key selection mistake.
Here are all the burning questions ahead of Australia’s World Cup opener.
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‘HOW DO WE BEAT THEM?’
In many of the early matches on the road to qualifying for Qatar, the Socceroos came up against lowly-ranked opposition who sought to defend deeply and hit on the counter-attack.
That offered Australia plenty of the ball and space to operate, with the key issue being how to break down a compact defence. But against tougher teams this year, like Japan and Saudi Arabia in March, or Peru in the playoff in June, the opposite was largely the case – the Socceroos had less possession than their rivals, and adopted a far more defensive, compact approach.
Against Peru, the tactic worked exceptionally. The Socceroos addressed a major weakness, their inability to stop teams in transition, by setting up deeper and compressing the defensive lines. Meanwhile, the Socceroos looked to hit on the counter-attack using the pace and directness of the attacking corps.
Given the Socceroos have not played a friendly match in the shortened run-in to the tournament, we haven’t been able to see them in action against a truly elite attacking team like France.
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But the core strategy will likely be to sit deep without the ball, reducing the space behind the defence for France’s lightning-quick Kylian Mbappe to exploit. Arnold has typically emphasised a hardworking, energetic defensive press to limit time and space for rival attackers – and ensure the game is played on the Socceroos’ terms.
As Mile Jedinak wrote in a column for KeepUp: “How do we beat them? Well, we go and impose ourselves on them, whether we look for those moments where we are going to be nice and compact, then we break. But then we’ve got to commit.
“I have no doubt that’s what the plan will be. We won’t be able to soak up every single bit of pressure because France is a very good team. We’re going to need to impose our game on France. And I’m sure the lads are confident of doing that.”
His former international teammate Harry Kewell made a similar argument in a column for KeepUp, arguing the Socceroos must play ‘with a clear identity’ rather than a completely defensive mindset.
Kewell wrote: “The aim should be to do Australia proud, and to go out there and have a clear identity. If you just go out there and sit behind the ball and not have a go, that’s going to disappoint a lot of Australians … I hope to see a style of play.”
“Even if it’s not executed perfectly, people will appreciate the team having a crack and the players’ attitude should be – we can and will show you we can play as well as you guys.”
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HOW MANY DEFENDERS?
In recent weeks, there has been significant discussion over the formation and make-up of Australia’s defensive line.
France’s star-studded attack includes the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele – despite the absences of injured Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and Christopher Nkunku. Such is their attacking weaponry that a swap to a five-man Australian defensive line has been mooted. That would see three central defenders rather the two favoured in a four-man defensive formation.
But it’s a strategy that invites disaster, as Kewell wrote.
“A move like that, if done for defensive reasons, can send the wrong message and invites a team like France to pile on pressure. You’re already telling the world we’re hoping to draw.
“Last time I saw this was 2010 (the World Cup in South Africa) when Pim Verbeek sent us out without a striker. Germany scored in the first five minutes and it was over. I hope he (Arnold) plays with the 4-3-3 or something similar, which is what they played in most of their qualifiers.”
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As far as personnel goes, veteran and sometime captain Trent Sainsbury – also Arnold’s son-in-law – was omitted from the 26-man squad, while towering Harry Souttar was included despite only recently returning to action from a 12-month ACL injury exile. Fellow 24-year-old centre-back Kye Rowles also made the squad despite a broken foot in August. The pair is believed to be the first-choice starting combination in the heart of defence despite their lack of recent match minutes. Arnold said of Souttar: “Harry’s in great shape. He’s done every session and he brings such good leadership and energy into the group and, he’s in shape ready to start the game.”
Souttar – the tallest-ever Socceroos outfielder at 1.98m – has scored six goals in his ten Socceroos appearances, with his aerial threat invaluable on set pieces.
30-year-old Bailey Wright made his first Socceroos appearance in three years in the playoff win over Peru, and was highly impressive alongside Rowles in that match. Wright’s pace and experience could earn him the nod. The other options are Milos Degenek – the most experienced of the centre-back options, though he has fallen somewhat down the pecking order of late – or Thomas Deng, who also plays as fullback. His versatility could prove crucial should Arnold swap between a four- and five-man defensive formation during the match.
Given Arnold has almost exclusively used a four-man defence in recent years, swapping to a five-man defensive line would be a major shock – and a huge risk. As Kewell wrote, it would also send the wrong message to both the Aussie stars and their rivals.
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WHO REPLACES HRUSTIC?
An injury to Hellas Verona midfield star Ajdin Hrustic has created another significant selection headache for Arnold. Hrustic has been arguably the most consistent and influential player for the Socceroos over their long World Cup qualifying journey, but an ankle injury means he is not fit enough to start against France.
Arnold said: “Ajdin trained with us fully yesterday. He’s in good shape. He will start on the bench.”
Arnold has predominantly deployed a 4-3-3 formation in recent matches, with a midfield triangle – two at the base of the triangle close to the defence, and one further forward in an attacking playmaker role (Hrustic’s #10 position).
Hrustic had been expected to start beside experienced duo Aaron Mooy and Jackson Irvine. His absence could spark a reshuffle, though Riley McGree is the favourite to replace him in the attacking midfield position.
Jedinak wrote: “One of the differences this time (compared to 2014/2018) is that the first XI is less clear cut. My old position, the number 6, or defensive midfield role, was played by a host of players in qualifying. A number of players can fill this role in Qatar – Cameron Devlin, Aaron Mooy, Keanu Baccus or Jackson Irvine, probably as a pairing.”
But Kewell has pinpointed a specific trio that he believes could worry the champions.
“The make up of the midfield will be interesting. There are lots of options for Arnie, and there is a huge opportunity with N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba missing … One Socceroos midfield combination that I believe could cause France issues is Mooy with Irvine and Keanu Baccus. Jacko and Baccus can run and that could be interesting against France.”
Irvine typically adopts a more box-to-box role when paired with Mooy, who tends to roam forward less frequently, instead using his vision and range of passing to act as a deep-lying playmaker.
Baccus is a tireless runner, a dogged and hard-tackling defender with an excellent ability to break up play and stifle attacks. Putting him in the line-up could deliver Mooy greater freedom to push forward – something Kewell believes could unlock the French defence.
Kewell, assistant coach for Ange Postecoglou at Celtic, wrote: “The key to getting the best out of Mooy for the Socceroos in Qatar is to give him some license to roam and attack. I hope he doesn’t just think he’s a holding midfielder, because there’s so much more to his game. His attributes can be a real match-defining asset in the front half and the attacking third … And if we can get Mooy close to the box he could do damage against France.”
WHERE ARE THE GOALS GOING TO COME FROM?
It’s no secret that the Socceroos must score goals to make it into the Round of 16.
But the bigger question at hand here is this: where are the goals going to come from?
There’s no Tim Cahill to bail us out anymore.
There’s also no Mile Jedinak who scored our two goals at the 2018 World Cup and both were from the penalty spot.
In the entire 26-man squad, there’s only one player who has scored over 10 goals in national team colours and that’s Mat Leckie with 13.
Leckie will be a strong candidate to start against France, but it is unknown if that will be as a winger or in a support striker role alongside fellow likely starter Mitchell Duke.
When analysing the goalscoring fortunes of the Socceroos throughout the third round of World Cup qualifying in the AFC, the Aussies topped the scoring charts alongside Iran with 15 before adding another two in the playoffs against the UAE.
Those goals were spread out among several members in the 26-man squad in Qatar, with the only goalscorers not playing a role in the World Cup consisting of Martin Boyle (injured), Tom Rogic and Rhyan Grant (both not selected).
Duke led the way with three goals, while Awer Mabil, Ajdin Hrustic and Jamie Maclaren scored two each.
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Craig Goodwin, Jackson Irvine, Aaron Mooy and Riley McGree all chipped in with one goal as well.
However, only a solitary goal was scored against more fancied opposition and that was Hrustic’s screamer of a free-kick against Japan in Tokyo, with no goals scored home or away against Saudi Arabia.
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances behind each match and camp: player availability, fitness and the inability to get meaningful work done in training sessions with such little time between games.
But it cannot discount the struggles to score against stronger teams and at the World Cup, the opposition doesn’t get much stronger than the defending champions in France or the world No. 10, Denmark.
Set pieces will no doubt be crucial to any and all of the Socceroos’ attacks given the threat Souttar poses on those and the dead ball skills of midfielders Aaron Mooy and Ajdin Hrustic.
Although set pieces are critical when it comes to tournament football, they can’t be relied upon for goals and Arnold must find a system that helps create chances.
Hrustic will be paramount to that but he is not fit enough to start against France, however Arnold stated he is “in good shape” and could make an impact off the bench.
So too could the teenage enigma that is Garang Kuol.
The 19-year-old has a goal involvement every 36 minutes for the Central Coast Mariners and did not look out of place when playing for the A-League All Stars against European heavyweights Barcelona in May.
Should he see game time, Kuol has that X-factor ability to break a game wide open and cause nightmares for tired defenders.
However, Arnold is wise enough to know he cannot entrust the attacking fortunes to a youngster yet to start a professional match and will no doubt call on his experienced goalscorers like Leckie and Duke to find the back of the net.