Graham Arnold has a general policy of trying to play his personnel in the positions they play for their clubs. It sounds awfully obvious, but a philosophy not always followed by international managers with experimental attitudes or simply a desire to embed their own brand.
It is a trick the Socceroos coach learned from Guus Hiddink while assistant under the Dutchman in 2005-2006, a means of getting the best out of a player within the limited time frame of a Fifa window, and one which has informed his second coming in the top job. In another almost comically simple move, Arnold has been Zooming his players, from Sydney to all corners of the globe, to ascertain the finer detail of each’s positions and the style in which they are filling them.
In a Covid-19 climate that has robbed many national teams of physical time together in camp, it is almost certain to have served Australia well leading into these delayed World Cup qualifiers. In Kuwait City on Friday morning, at the Socceroos’ first game in 18 months, there was confirmation.
Of course, the 3-0 win over Kuwait cannot be put down to such a straightforward exercise. But the team played as if they had been on the same field more recently than November 2019, and the relatively smooth performance was epitomised in one particular attacker.
Ajdin Hrustic only had three caps before this game – one in a 2014 friendly against Brazil and two World Cup qualifiers in 2019 which included three assists against Taiwan. All of those appearances came off the bench, and the 24-year-old’s starting debut arrived with the added pressure of deputising for the absent Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic.
His man-of-the-match display is a sign the Eintracht Frankfurt player may yet challenge that pair for a future spot in the XI, winning a penalty and following it with an aesthetically pleasing second-half free-kick which found the back of the net via the inside of a post. Arnold said he is a “completely different player” since moving to the Bundesliga from Dutch club Groningen last September.
“I do believe that he’s going to be one of the stars of the future, of the new generation,” Arnold said. “He’s got a great work ethic, a great professional kid, great kid overall, and he’s a joy to work with.”
A left-footer with front-third versatility will not go astray in Australia’s line-up, especially when they enter the third round of qualifying. For now, though, the Socceroos have maintained their perfect record, with five wins from five games and sitting five points clear at the top of Group B.
They did it in 40C evening heat which required mid-game drinks breaks, opening with intent and maintaining the tempo throughout the first half before slowing down the game in the second, perhaps to protect a +18 goal difference.
The Socceroos have a tendency to do things the hard way, of scoring late or not at all. Of lacking cohesion, or having it and not making it count. At Jaber al-Ahmad International Stadium, they made winning look routine.
Hrustic, Martin Boyle and Awer Mabil had fun with Kuwait’s defence, captain Mat Leckie’s header opened the scoring inside the first minute and debutant Fran Karacic – the former Croatia Under-21 international – looked at ease on debut at right-back.
Jackson Irvine, characteristically reliable in midfield, reacted quickly when Boyle missed his penalty to score on the follow-up, and earlier played in his Hibernian teammate for a would-be goal the latter could not quite finish. Kenny Dougall and Riley McGree were also handed debuts off the bench and James Holland and Ryan McGowan made international returns.
It was textbook, as it should be against a nation ranked 107 places lower. And, with 19 shots to Kuwait’s seven, Australia probably could have doubled the scoreline. Still, it marked a fifth-straight win for the first time since 2011. More pertinently, it is a fourth-straight away victory for the first time since 2002, making it the first such run since Australia moved to the Asian Football Confederation in 2006.
Qualifying from the continent is a grind at the best of times, more so in the current environment given Arnold’s side are ceding home advantage to play all their matches inside a Middle East hub. If anything, four consecutive games over two weeks will allow for acclimatisation, and Arnold will approach Taiwan, Nepal and Jordan with much-needed depth up his sleeve thanks to the late-comers into camp. A win and two draws will do the trick.
“That [performance is] only 20% of what you’re going to get from this team,” Arnold said. “I expect a big improvement from the players – [they were] at times a little bit rusty and turned over possession a bit easy – but this team is only going to get greater and greater.”