“Our best chance [to win] is the Aussie DNA. If the boys run, fight, kick against the South Americans and really play a physical game, I believe that type of thing will rattle those type of nations.”
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold’s comments on the eve of Australia’s biggest footballing occasion in years have seen widespread condemnation by fans and media alike.
Speaking ahead of Tuesday morning’s do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Peru, Arnold’s thoughts could easily be read as a note of submission. The type of acquiescence you see when – to use a footballing analogy – a side like Burnley fronts up against Premier League Champions Manchester City.
In these fixtures, it often feels like David vs Goliath as the smaller and significantly less-resourced team fights tooth and nail in a compact defensive block before counting their lucky stars that they will be able to pinch a goal in transition through sheer determination and willpower. Recent encounters between Manchester City and Burnley have only added further validity to the suggestion that such games are a mere procession for Pep Guardiola’s side as his team functions like a well-oiled machine that will eventually produce a moment of brilliance.
And in that context, it is easy to forgive the likes of Burnley for fighting with what they have and attempting to play at a level that is greater than the sum of the side’s individual parts.
However, for Arnold and the Socceroos, it is almost impossible to overlook the irony behind such comments. It is not as if La Blanquirroja can call upon a significantly superior group of players to the ones that Arnold has selected.
While many have bemoaned the lack of Australians plying their trade in Europe’s top five leagues as a reason for the Socceroos’ troubles, Peru’s squad contains just two individuals playing in the top tiers of England, Germany, Italy, Spain or France – a number which parallels that of Arnold’s squad.
When Awer Mabil’s contract concludes on the 30th of June, he will join Cadiz FC in Spain’s top flight meaning that, on that date, Australia will have more players in Europe’s top divisions than La Blanquirroja.
Many of Peru’s top talents ply their trade in similar leagues to those of their Australian counterparts. Most notably, midfield maestro Sergio Peña finds himself at Mälmo in Sweden while attacking livewires Christian Cueva and André Carrillo are rivals of Australia’s Martin Boyle in Saudi Arabia. Their captain Pedro Gallese plays in Major League Soccer, the same league as fringe Socceroo Brad Smith who was snubbed in favour of Joel King, Jason Davidson and Aziz Behich in the most recent squad.
Like the Socceroos, Peru’s squad contains a smattering of individuals situated within their domestic competition. And like Australia’s domestic league, the Peruvian Primera División is struggling on a continental scale and is not at a standard that can match Europe’s top tiers.
The similarities between Peru and Australia are almost uncanny. However, these points of commonality are offset by a couple of crucial differences – namely, the manager of the respective sides.
Despite their floundering domestic competition and struggles to produce talent capable of hitting the highs set by predecessors Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán, manager Ricardo Gareca’s progressive yet robust football has allowed his group of players to perform at a stronger level than some of his star-studded South American rivals.
Led by maestro of their domestic league Yoshimar Yotún and Italian-born poacher Gianluca Lapadula, Gareca’s high-octane and technically refined football has caught the eye of observers. So much so, in fact, that his side defeated a star-laden Columbia outfit headed by Liverpool’s Luis Díaz en route to booking their place in the intercontinental playoffs in a match that all but consigned Columbia to missing out on their first World Cup since 2010.
If Gareca’s side is built to compete with teams that have more individual quality, then Arnold’s side is quite the opposite.
Australia managed just one point from a possible 12 against automatic qualifiers Japan and Saudi Arabia in Group B of AFC qualifying. Prior to World Cup qualifying, Arnold also oversaw a woeful attempted defence of the Socceroos’ Asian Cup crown as the side lost to Jordan before scraping past Uzbekistan on penalties in the Round of 16 and eventually being bundled out by host country United Arab Emirates in the quarter-finals.
The Socceroos have also failed to beat South Korea in two separate international friendlies during Arnold’s tenure. Since the 2018 World Cup, Australia has recorded zero wins in six matches against Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea meaning that, under his tutelage, Arnold has failed to beat any Asian side currently ranked higher than 68th in the world with that victory coming last week against the UAE.
The UAE are also the highest ranked team that Arnold has managed to defeat during his time as boss.
Although Arnold’s defenders cite the quality of individuals in the current squad as worse than previous years, there is still enough quality at Arnold’s disposal to at least compete with Asia’s best. Unfortunately, no excuses can be made for the passive and often disjointed football that has pervaded Arnold’s reign as Socceroos boss. In addition, Arnold has struggled to extract the best from creative fulcrums Tom Rogić and Aaron Mooy while the likes of Riley McGree, Jamie Maclaren and James Jeggo remain criminally under-utilised.
If his side falls at the last hurdle against Peru, Arnold’s time as Socceroos manager will be remembered as nothing other than an unfettered disaster marred by failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since the country broke a 32-year drought in 2006.
A solitary victory over Argentina at the Tokyo Olympics for the Olyroos could be deemed the greatest achievement by Arnold over his tenure as national team boss.
Thus, while Arnold’s observations on the ‘Aussie DNA’ (whatever that means) can be read as a subtle concession to the opposition, they are actually perhaps most accurately read as a holistic summation of the type of football he has inculcated with the Australian national team throughout his tenure.
At times devoid of ideas, tactical organisation and, most poignantly, goals, the difficulties of Arnold and his technical staff to instil a concrete footballing identity within the Socceroos has led to this grasping of straws. The knee injury to 200cm defensive stalwart Harry Souttar was arguably Australia’s most seminal attacking loss as Australia had become reliant on his set-piece threat.
Make no mistake, this is a situation where – and this is quite literally what Arnold admits in his remarks – the national team’s saving grace is to outmuscle and overpower the opposition with physicality, rather than organisation and ability. This is a scary paradigm compared to the confidence and footballing ability that was abundant during Ange Postecoglou’s time as national team boss where he managed to win an Asian Cup and register deadlocks with Chile and Cameroon at the Confederations Cup while also competing with some of the best nations in the world.
Most importantly though, the most defining feature of Postecoglou’s reign was his ability to make others believe – fans, players and media alike. His attitude was always to focus on his team’s qualities rather than to submit to the strengths of the opposition. It is both scary and saddening to witness the stark juxtaposition in mentality that has evolved over the past five years.
In that sense, Arnold’s desire to fall back on physicality as a last resort almost perfectly encapsulates the plight of the Socceroos and the mentality that now permeates the camp. It didn’t work when he recently started Mitch Duke, Gianni Stensness and Connor Metcalfe in a crucial match against Japan where his side surrendered to the guile and temperament of the Samurai Blue by launching too many long balls.
La Blanquirroja head into Tuesday’s clash as strong favourites and deservedly so.
Suffice to say, Graham Arnold and the Socceroos will need to harness more than just the ‘Aussie DNA’ to book their place in the World Cup.