Socceroos vs Ecuador, news, scores, results, video, highlights, Alex Robertson, Awer Mabil, Jackson Irvine, analysis, reaction

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On Friday night, the Socceroos gave fans an insight into what the road to the next World Cup (2026, in Canada, the USA, and Mexico) might look like. There were young talents, plenty of guts and determination on show, and – perhaps most rewarding for the near-21,000 fans in Sydney – goals.

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Their 3-1 victory over Ecuador was thrillingly chaotic, the kind of scene where it’s hard to make sense of it all. In other words, a party – a celebration of the Socceroos’ finest showing at a World Cup.

But for all the talk of the past, the team and manager Graham Arnold have turned their gaze firmly to the future, to World Cup qualifiers which begin in November and the huge opportunity presented by the Asian Cup in January.

Here are the big talking points from the Socceroos’ first match of 2023.

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‘UTILITY’ IRVINE STEPS UP FOR ABSENT MIDFIELD PARTNERS

He opened the scoring, set up the second goal with his defensive pressure, and quite simply was everywhere for the Socceroos. Jackson Irvine had an absolute day out – and it’s no surprise, given the form he is in at St Pauli in Germany’s 2. Bundesliga.

The captain of that club, he has started all-but-one game (and missed another through suspension) and led them on a promotion charge, scoring four goals and adding an assist in his last five league games. With Ajdin Hrustic and Aaron Mooy absent, he was in charge of the midfield on Friday night – and promoted forward to a number 10 position until youngster Alex Robertson was brought on with an hour to play.

“I’ve played a variety of different roles throughout the national team and at my club. It all ties into the way I like to play which is obviously high energy, win the ball back, get in the box and be effective at both ends of the field,” he said.

Irvine led from the front last night.Source: Getty Images

Irvine’s impressive performance in that position – especially his link-up play with the attacking trio – could signal more minutes in that role in the future.

Arnold said: “I see him more as a bit more of a utility (than a 10). He can play at six and he’s got the energy to go box to box. So if I restrict him to stay at six, then I don’t think we’re getting the best out of him.

“He can play as 10 and play up beside Dukey (Mitch Duke), but against other teams that sit back further we can play one six (rather than two) and Jacko can go box to box, when we lose it he gets back into the block and the defensive unit.

“He’s great at making late runs into the box. He’s playing as a double six (double pivot) in St Pauli but he’s in the box 20 times a game! So he can do both roles.”

Arnold said before the game that the development in the depth of the Socceroos at the six position (such as starting pair Keanu Baccus and debutant Aiden O’Neill last night) could free him up to move Aaron Mooy to a more attacking role akin to how he plays at Celtic. Irvine might also be the beneficiary of the arrival of the young defensive midfielders – and it could prove a big boost for the Socceroos’ attack and high-pressing defence in the future.

Marvellous Mabil scores Socceroos second | 00:47

‘THE BROTHERHOOD IS BACK’: ARNOLD’S ‘FAMILY’ ON FULL DISPLAY

For years, Graham Arnold has spoken of the Socceroos and the youth teams below the senior squad as a ‘family’. Unity and a selfless work ethic for the team have been at the core of a culture that the veteran manager and former Socceroos player himself has tried to instil.

12 months before Friday’s win – to the day – the Socceroos lost 2-0 to Japan in Sydney. It was a gutting defeat, even if both goals came in the dying embers of the game. Outplayed across the pitch, saved by the woodwork on multiple occasions, the Socceroos suddenly found themselves out of contention for automatic qualification to Qatar – and Graham Arnold found himself on the brink of being sacked. He wasn’t, and the rest is history.

Arnold’s focus on developing that team culture was crucial to the success of the World Cup.

But looking forward, it’s Arnold’s efforts to get the younger generation to buy into those ideals that could lay the foundations for even greater success.

Arnold took charge of the under-23 team, the Olyroos, to guide them to the Tokyo Olympics. It not only developed their talents – and resulted in many of them earning transfers to Europe and becoming fully-fledged Socceroos – but it strengthened the ties between the veterans and the next generation.

As 18-year-old Garang Kuol, who scored his maiden international goal, said after full-time: “The brotherhood is back, especially after the World Cup. It feels like a second family and a very special place being around the boys.”

Even the injured Martin Boyle, who was anointed ‘Chief Vibes Officer’ at the World Cup, flew from Scotland to Australia to be a part of this camp.

Just as impressive was captain and 80-cap veteran goalkeeper Mat Ryan sprinting the length of the field in the 84th minute to celebrate with Kuol and the entire XI after the teen tyro became the fourth-youngest Socceroos scorer in history.

Jackson Irvine poses for photographs with the crowd after the game.Source: Getty Images

‘PASSION’ AND ‘BITE’ IS ‘WHAT WE’RE ALL ABOUT’

It might have been a friendly in name, but the Socceroos burst out of the blocks with plenty of aggression and maintained the rage for the full 90 minutes.

Jackson Irvine said in the post-match press conference: “It’s gotta be the mentality when you play at home … everybody wanted to come out and show that aggressiveness from the beginning.”

His workrate in defence was second to none, and he created the second goal for Australia with a brilliant piece of team pressing to pinch the ball on the edge of Ecuador’s box – the exemplification of Arnold’s pressing defensive approach and the Socceroos’ mindset.

“There’s nothing more satisfying sometimes than scoring a goal from a high press … that was the perfect example of what we’re trying to do in those moments,” Irvine added.

But the most heated moment of the match came in stoppage time when Manchester City youngster and the first third-generation Socceroos player Alex Robertson went down in the box. He appeared to have been collected by a defender, but the referee waved away his penalty appeals – and instead brandished a yellow card towards the Aussie for simulation.

An Ecuador player patted Robertson on the head as he lay on the ground, which incensed the 19-year-old, who leapt to his feet and sparked a melee.

Players came rushing in from both sides to join the push-and-shove, with towering defender Harry Souttar playing bodyguard for his debutant teammate – and probably striking a dose of fear into the visitors’ hearts with his immense frame.

“I’m playing for my country, a country that means a lot to me and my family and I’d do anything for the shirt and the team I’m playing with. It comes with the passion,” said Robertson.

Things got heated at the end!Source: Getty Images

Souttar couldn’t get enough of Robertson’s attitude.

“I just said I love it from him. He is still young, he has that bit of bite and we love that. That’s what we’re all about,” he said.

Arnold had extremely limited time to drill his charges with tactical nuance before this clash, which makes the leadership of the veterans and the hardworking mentality of the team even more important.

As Arnold said afterwards: “The messaging won’t change much. The boys like it and it’s simple … yesterday we were doing a tactical session and got wiped out by the lightning, so we didn’t get that much of a session.”

Looking forward, there will surely be tactical tweaks and opportunities to try new things. But when it comes down to it, the Socceroos’ never-say-die attitude is what sets them apart.

Just how much do they believe? Ask Robertson, after just 30 minutes in the green and gold.

“You’ve obviously got to reach for the stars and win a World Cup,” Robertson said, per AAP.

“You never know what can happen, you saw what the Socceroos did at the last one.

“For the next few years, building up to the next one, I think we can do some really big things in the future, why not say it? Let’s try and win the World Cup.”

Or there was goalscorer and Young Australian of the Year Awer Mabil, who said: “This is a movie, and we want to keep directing that movie”.

Awer Mabil is feeling the movie magic.Source: Getty Images

‘CAN’T SPEAK HIGHLY ENOUGH’: KIDS STAKE THEIR CLAIM

Robertson delivered an eye-catching debut, never looking flustered under pressure with his ball movement and dribbling (9/10 passes completed, two fouls won) and throwing himself about in defence (two tackles, four passes pressured, two forced turnovers).

Arnold said the teen’s performance was ‘very very good’, and was also ‘extremely happy’ with the performance of the night’s other debutant, Melbourne City midfielder Aiden O’Neill.

Harry Souttar told Network 10 after the match: “Aiden O’Neill making his debut, you’re not going to get many better debuts than that.”

Irvine said: “I thought Aiden was exceptional, you can see the kid’s got class, composure, he wasn’t fazed. Can’t speak highly enough of his performance … (he’s) got a good understanding of the game, he has that already at a very young age which is very impressive.”

Co-commentator Andy Harper said during the game on Channel 10: “I couldn’t be more impressed.

“He has not missed a beat. Looks completely at home I’d say.”

Aiden O’Neill of Australia tackles Angelo Preciado of Ecuador.Source: Getty Images

Combine that with the performances of Kuol (18), Marco Tilio (21) and the 24-year-old trio of Souttar, Kye Rowles, and Keanu Baccus, and it was a great day for Arnold’s youth brigade.

There are three more potential debutants in the second friendly against Ecuador on Tuesday in Melbourne – defender Jordan Bos, keeper Joe Gauci, and attacker Nestory Irankunda, who could become the youngest-ever Socceroo at 17.

Asked whether Irankunda will take to the field on Tuesday night, Arnold closed his press conference with a smile and dead-batted: “We will see, we’ll see.”

It’s clear that the Socceroos boast greater depth across the park than they have for some years – and the young guns are staking their claim for a place in the core squad for the looming World Cup qualifiers and Asian Cup.

“These young boys are tapping the older boys on the shoulder, which is great,” Arnold said with a rare smile.

Alex Robertson with the ball.Source: AFP

With Martin Boyle, Aaron Mooy, Ajdin Hrustic, Jamie Maclaren, and Mathew Leckie all out injured, Arnold has a fantastic opportunity to blood the next generation – and his bold decisions certainly paid off on Friday.

He said: “We will make changes. I didn’t bring everyone here to not play!”

But for all the hype around Robertson, Kuol, O’Neill and the other teen talents, Arnold had a word of caution.

“Let’s not get carried away because these kids need a heap of experience and plenty of game time at their club.”

Let’s not get carried away, either, by last night’s scoreline, especially considering the opening goal should almost certainly have been ruled out for off-side – and perhaps even Kuol’s late goal too.

But where’s the fun in that? This was a celebration of the heroes in Qatar, and a night to celebrate and dream about the bright future of this team.

As Robertson said: “Why not say it? Let’s try and win the World Cup.”

Why not, indeed.

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