Socceroos Asian Cup group games show promise
There are negatives in Australia’s performances so far, but also some pleasing positives16 January 2019 | Matthew Galea
It would be easy to focus on the negatives after an average set of group stage performances for the Socceroos at the Asian Cup.
The defence has not been good enough and the midfield has lacked the quality and work ethic to stamp its control over proceedings.
However, while the new-look Socceroos are not short on issues, there has been a pleasing number of positives to take from the opening three games of the campaign and thankfully, there is at least one, and hopefully more, games to come.
How deep the Socceroos go in this tournament will come down to how well Arnold can manage the team’s obvious weaknesses, as well as overcoming the historic issue of struggling to perform in the Middle East.
How far this team can go in the future will depend greatly on how much growth can be achieved from the likes of Awer Mabil and Chris Ikonomidis – undoubtedly the two biggest positives to come out of the campaign thus far.
The two youngsters have provided an incredible freshness to the Australia set-up.
Mabil demonstrated why he could be one of the best prospects to come out of Australia with his stunning strike and industrious performance.
Off the park, he continues to impress, too. The winger revealed his trademark goal celebration was a message to those suffering from mental health issues, and used his post-game comments to raise awareness for the issue.
It was a lovely touch from a player and a man who represents the power Australia as a nation has to provide those less fortunate than us an opportunity to be their best self and give back to the nation that helped them in their time of need.
Over the three group games he was consistently involved in some of Australia’s most dangerous moments and the manner in which he has interchanged fluidly with Ikonomidis on the flanks, particularly against Palestine and Syria, has made him difficult to deal with for opposition defences.
Ikonomidis has certainly played his part too, putting in two good performances with his first two starts of the Asian Cup campaign and has provided the added benefit of being able to bring a fresh Robbie Kruse into the game at a much later stage.
The much-maligned left winger made a positive difference to Australia’s hunt for a late winner after the referee awarded a shocking penalty decision to allow the Syrians a chance to equalise.
While Kruse may have much to do to win over the average punter, there’s little denying that he possesses game-changing qualities and as he approaches the end of a decorated international career, he may still have plenty to offer the Socceroos off the bench.
Ironically, the absence of Mathew Leckie has undoubtedly played a big role in affording the likes of Mabil and Ikonomidis the opportunity to shine, but the potential of having the German-based speedster available fresh for the knock-out campaign is also a massive reason for optimism for the Socceroos.
Of course, whether Leckie deserves automatic re-selection for the starting XI is another matter altogether. For all his undoubted qualities, Leckie has yet to score his 10th goal for Australia despite having 59 caps to his name.
Mabil, on the other hand, has four goals in just seven appearances.
Regardless, this is a good dilemma for Arnold to have.
With Uzbekistan or Japan awaiting in the next round, there is no doubting that Australia will need to find another level.
The return of Trent Sainsbury will be much welcomed, with Mark Milligan struggling throughout the game against Syria in a defensive role.
His return should allow Milligan to return to midfield, where Massimo Luongo failed to convince.
The Socceroos dominated the possession and passing stats for all three group games but struggled to deal with the counter-attacks of their opponents.
The direct nature and hard-running of their attacks consistently caught Australia’s midfield on the back-foot, particularly in the games against Jordan and Syria.
Irvine is the only Australian option with true box-to-box qualities, while Milligan’s performance against Jordan suggests that the structure and discipline he can bring to midfield will go a long way to ensuring Australia maintains a greater control of possession and tempo as the tournament progresses.
Tom Rogic’s assist and a late goal against Syria demonstrated the damage he can do when allowed a free-role higher up the park, even if he remains something of a liability defensively.
Still, the benefits of having Rogic on the park and in higher areas of the pitch far outweigh the negatives of dropping him for someone else, meaning Arnold’s priority should be working out which two partners will best cover him defensively and support him in attacking roles.
On the evidence of the group stage, it would seem Milligan and Irvine are best suited to those roles.
With Terry Antonis and James Troisi tearing Brisbane Roar to shreds in the A-League overnight, could Arnold be ruing his decision to leave one or both of them out?
Time will tell, but despite some poor moments, the evidence of the group stage overall suggests there is a formula within the Socceroos squad which has a chance of pulling off an unlikely triumph.
socceroos, 2019 asian cup, #asiancup2019, awer mabil, chris ikonomidis