Graham Arnold promises to pick Socceroos squad for vital World Cup qualifiers in January on ‘form not reputation’, writes Joey Lynch
With the Isuzu UTE A-League now in full swing, Graham Arnold has one clear message for the Socceroo hopefuls amongst its ranks: their form, not their reputation, will govern their national team destinies.
Football Australia announced on Monday that the Socceroos would be returning to Melbourne for the first time since 2017 next January; taking on Vietnam in a crucial 2022 World Cup qualifier at AAMI Park on January 27. It will mark the first time an Australian national team will play a home fixture outside of New South Wales since the descent of the coronavirus pandemic.
Though not a frequent one, the venue has proven a happy hunting ground for the Socceroos in the past: Australia’s men undefeated at the venue across its short history.
Such history looms large for coach Graham Arnold’s side as, despite having their record 11-game winning streak snapped by a 2-1 defeat to Japan in October and dropping points against both Saudi Arabia and China during the November international window, their World Cup destiny, just, remains just about in their own hands heading into qualifiers final stretch.
Four wins from their coming four games against Vietnam (home), Oman (away), Japan (home), and Saudi Arabia (away) would guarantee them a place in Qatar next December.
“I’ve been [to Melbourne] with Sydney FC. It’s always a fantastic atmosphere but I’ve been on the opposite side of it! So I’m asking everyone if I can be on their side this time!” Arnold said.
“Having the fans closer creates more energy and that goes into the players and the team. We’ve experienced five out of six qualifiers away from home with nobody, no crowds at all or in Japan with 50%. It definitely gives a lot of energy to the home team.”
Providing a further boost for Arnold beyond what he hopes will be a partisan home crowd, though, is that for the first time since the third phase of Asian World Cup qualifiers began, the Socceroos boss will be picking his coming squad with the A-League Men competition in full swing.
Figures such as Jamie Maclaren, Rhyan Grant, Chris Ikonomidis, Mat Leckie, and Craig Goodwin are already familiar picks in green and gold but with the domestic season now in full swing, the Socceroos boss is quite clear: every single A-League Men player will be in his sights in the month ahead.
“The most important thing for me is [match minutes], that was the hardest thing during the last three camps is the ALM not being started. I was picking players on reputation, not on form,” he told KEEPUP.
“Now, I can sit and watch all the players – I’m watching every game every weekend. You can see that there’s a bit of ring rust and players going down with cramps after 60 minutes. It’s been tough on clubs with this COVID long pre-season and everything.
“But by the time the camp comes up for the Vietnam game, these guys will have had six or eight games under their belt and they’ll be match fit and ready.
“It’s good to see some players come back from overseas like Jason Davidson and Josh Brillante at Melbourne Victory. And then you look at Melbourne City here and you’ve got a Socceroo frontline there in [Andrew] Nabbout, [Jamie] Maclaren, and [Mat] Leckie.
“They hadn’t kicked a ball since the start of June but I had to pick [City’s attacking trio] for the last camp – like I had to pick Chris Ikonomidis [in October] – because we were short of players up front. There was a problem in the last window, a lot of those European based boys weren’t getting match minutes as well.
“So the most important thing for me from now until the camp is that the players get a lot of match minutes, game time and get themselves ready.”
Clearly a significant boost for fringe Socceroos such as Curtis Good and Ben Halloran, as well as key Tokyo 2020 contributors such as Marco Tilio, Connor Metcalfe, and Joel King, Arnold’s emphasis on minutes and form could prove auspicious for another youngster still seeking an elusive Socceroos debut: Newcastle Jets midfielder Angus Thurgate.
The 21-year-old – christened ‘The Port Macquarie Pele’ by the Novocastrian faithful – has become a key figure in the midfield of Arthur Papas’ surprise-packet Jets early on in 2021-22, staring all four games.
“[Thurgate] impressed me even when I had him in with the Olyroos but he’s impressed me even more [this season],” said Arnold.
“He’s doing exceptionally well and Newcastle is doing well as well. It takes sometimes different coaches to get the best out of people and Angus is doing very, very well.
“So I’m watching every game and for me, it doesn’t matter: for me, form is better than reputation.
“And the fact that everyone is playing now, they can show me their form.”