With defence settled, Arnold’s attacking mix will decide Socceroos success
Graham Arnold’s Socceroos may be in the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup, but they remain far from convincing22 January 2019 | Matthew Galea
The defending champions gave a solid overall performance in the quarter-final against Uzbekistan, but it took a nervous penalty shootout to defeat an Uzbekistan team which failed to live up to the promise of some of its group stage displays.
The hard-working Uzbeks managed to get something of a foothold in the contest early in the first half but were otherwise expertly managed by the best defensive performance of the tournament from the Socceroos.
The Uzbeks attempted to recreate Jordan’s performance, which resulted in a shock 1-0 win for the less-fancied Jordanians in Australia’s tournament opener but lacked the pace and efficiency required up front to make much of their counter-attacking opportunities.
Bolstered by the return of Trent Sainsbury and with Mark Milligan returned to his marshalling role in midfield, the Australian spine looked significantly stronger, which undoubtedly helped manage the risk for Australia when committing so many players forward in attack.
It helps having Asia’s best goalkeeper behind you and Mat Ryan was on hand to make some important saves during the match and of course during the penalty shoot-out.
However, while the base of the spine was strong, it was somewhat toothless with Jamie Maclaren up front.
The former Brisbane Roar frontman has been Arnold’s number nine of choice all tournament but has really failed to own the role. With Australia’s opponents playing so deep against the Socceroos thus far this tournament, Maclaren has struggled to find the space behind opposition defences he so often thrives on, and with much of Australia’s advances coming from wide positions, he has been easily out-crowded in the box by his taller opponents.
Giannou Apostolou looked the far better option again once brought on and one wonders just how many more games it will take for Arnold to get the hint.
Of course, Maclaren may still have a role to play against some of the stronger teams in the competition, such as South Korea or Japan – should Australia progress beyond the quarter-finals.
It is unlikely these teams will sit back as deep as some of Australia’s other opponents thus far, and Maclaren's pace and one-on-one ability may be key in the latter stages of the tournament.
Still, Arnold’s insistence on sticking to a striker who has provided just one goal from four starts this tournament despite the amount of possession the Socceroos have enjoyed raises questions about Arnold’s team management throughout the tournament.
It would be fair to say that Awer Mabil and Chris Ikonomidis’ struggled to replicate the form they displayed in the group stage did not help Arnold’s cause.
The duo has been Australia’s best and most reliable creative outlet but struggled for inspiration against an entrenched defence.
If the question over Mathew Leckie prior to his return from a hamstring injury off the bench in this game did he deserve a starting berth over Mabil, then he gave a strong response with his impressive cameo.
Leckie’s pace and power posed massive problems for the Uzbekistan defence, however, the Aussie’s struggle to deliver the crucial final pass, or put the finishing touches on a goalmouth scramble frustrated once again.
Leckie more than made up for it with his impressive match-winning penalty and Arnold will hope that match-winning moment provides the Melbournian with the inspiration he needs to kick into what could potentially prove championship-winning form for the defending champions.
With the winger still fresh off a soft-tissue injury, it may be that his best role remains that of the super-sub, with his destructive pace better employed in short bursts against tired opponents.
The Socceroos will face the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who will be backed by a bumper home crowd in an intimidating atmosphere.
With the Socceroos defence and midfield providing a solid base in front of the brick wall that is Mat Ryan, it will be up to Arnold to find the right balance of attacking weapons to find victory and book a semi-final berth.
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