Australia’s hopes of automatically qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup were thwarted by Hajime Moriyasu’s Japan outfit as they came away 2-0 victors in front of 41,852 people at Stadium Australia.
A match that will be forensically analysed incessantly by Australia’s governing bodies, Graham Arnold’s Socceroos merely failed to match the class of the Japanese who looked evidently more composed, skilled and fit as the game drew on.
For the most part, Australia looked to meet the match of the Japanese by looking to overpower their technical ability with sheer strength and physicality. The selection of Gianni Stensness and Connor Metcalfe at the base of midfield in place of the more technically astute Denis Genreau and James Jeggo was aimed at thwarting the attacking threat posed by the likes of Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino and in-form Genk star Junya Ito.
Asserting this physicality from the outset, Australia often looked to play long balls over the Japanese press which caused them so many troubles in Saitama. The selection of Mitch Duke proved justifiable in this respect given his ability to outmuscle Japan’s centre-halves in aerial duels.
Primarily adopting a 2-3-5 shape while in possession, Australia’s wingers Martin Boyle and Awer Mabil looked to pin back the Samurai Blue full-backs which, in turn, vacated the half-spaces for Connor Metcalfe and Ajdin Hrustić to receive the ball. While Metcalfe often looked to support the team’s screening destroyer Gianni Stensness in build-up, he preferred to adopt more advanced positions in an attempt to overload Wataru Endo between the lines.
Perhaps more importantly, this positioning of Arnold’s ‘number eights’ often allowed Boyle and Mabil to attack their respective markers in 1v1 situations where the two of them thrive given their dribbling ability and acceleration. Neither experienced campaigner Yuto Nagatomo nor Sakai replacement Miki Yamane looked particularly comfortable in dealing with these situations.
In many situations, Australia were the orchestrators of their own downfall as the side lackadaisically lost possession under little pressure on too many occasions. When contrasted with the ever-amplifying temperament of the Japanese, the Socceroos were simply no match.
In his first start for the Socceroos, Metcalfe seemed slightly overawed by the occasion and often dallied on the ball leaving him to cheaply surrender possession. Unfortunately for the future St Pauli midfielder, his night came to a close at half-time with the in-form James Jeggo called upon to steer the ship and offer a level of composure at the base of midfield.
However, where Metcalfe struggled was effectively where Hrustić excelled as the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder demonstrated his off-ball intelligence in spades, often finding space in advanced areas while maintaining and redistributing possession in tight spaces. This quality, in conjunction with his footballing ability on the ball explains why Hrustić has largely been Arnold’s preferred creative outlet in midfield.
Japan seemed to struggle with Sydney’s trying conditions as the rain poured down at Stadium Australia. There was noticeably less pace in their play and crispness with their passing than in the first tie between the sides where the midfield trio of Endo, Tanaka and Morita outclassed the Socceroos. The physicality and desire of Stensness helped in this respect given he frequently battled for second balls and timed his tackles perfectly to halt some Japanese attacks.
The Kiwi youth International impressed on his Socceroos debut and thought he had opened the scoring early in the first half when he soared above his Japanese marker at the back post to head home from a set piece. However, the imposing midfielder’s celebrations were swiftly cut short when the referee disallowed the goal due to a foul that Trent Sainsbury was deemed to have committed on the Japanese goalkeeper.
While the aggressive intent of Arnold’s side was effective in these situations, it came with its downfalls. This was particularly clear in the selection of Rhyan Grant who struggled to defend Japan’s creative fulcrum Takumi Minamino. Picked over the likes of Fran Karačić and new Hearts signing Nathaniel Atkinson, Grant was repeatedly outwitted by Minamino’s quick feet and intelligent finding of space.
With Grant starting despite some inconsistent performances for Sydney FC in the A-League this season, his selection demonstrates the swings and roundabouts that come with picking a player over his more technically gifted counterparts. Minamino continually challenged Australia’s last line as his ability to receive the ball while under immediate pressure proved a highlight.
As the game continued, Australia began to alter the state of the game and force Moriyasu’s side into a game that they did not want to play. A clear directive to play long from the back managed to disorganise Japan’s defensive line as Mat Ryan’s trademark side-volleys kickstarted multiple transition opportunities for the Socceroos.
This seemed to increase the game’s tempo which suited the helter-skelter nature of Australia’s approach to proceedings. In marshalling his side from the back, captain Maya Yoshida repeatedly called for calmness from his side as a means of ensuring that the Samurai Blue played to their strengths with regards to quick interchanges and clever combination play.
The man that stole the show, however, was Hrustić whose sublime first touch never ceased to stun the strong crowd in Homebush. This quickly became a theme of Ryan’s long balls as he often searched for a marauding Hrustić who looked to quickly break forward in an attempt to score in transition.
Hrustić’s touch combined with Duke’s constant ability to overpower Ko Itakura in aerials duels ensured that Australia always had a way of getting the ball up the pitch without necessarily having to play through Japan’s co-ordinated pressing structure. Aside from his superb delivery of these long balls, Mat Ryan was characteristically defiant between the sticks as he swatted away a swathe of Japanese chances early on.
However, the Socceroos began to tire and they could not maintain this approach for the full 90 minutes. As the game drew to its close, the technical ability of the Japanese came to the fore as they stretched Australia’s last line and repeatedly created overlapping opportunities down the flanks which left the side’s centre-halves overly exposed.
The absences of Aaron Mooy, Riley McGree and Tom Rogić among others meant that Arnold was calling upon the inexperienced duo of Ben Folami and Marco Tilio to save the game from the bench. This, in itself, is largely demonstrative of the ever-growing gulf in class that exists between Australia and its Asian neighbours.
On the flip side, Brighton loanee Kaoru Mitoma torched Rhyan Grant from the bench, scoring two goals in quick succession to leave the Socceroos’ dream of qualifying for a fifth consecutive World Cup in tatters. The wily winger brought the strong Japanese contingent in Homebush to their feet as he smashed home the game’s decisive goal after a sublime cutback from Miki Yamane before he forced an uncharacteristic error from Ryan with his second.
With this result, Australia are now rooted to third spot in Group B as a playoff against the third ranked country in Group A looms on the horizon before an inter-continental playoff against the fifth ranked team in South America.
While the Socceroos demonstrated the aggression and desire synonymous with the national team for years against the Samurai Blue, the chasm in class and technical quality between Arnold’s side and the truly elite nations of the footballing world may ultimately prove insurmountable.