05/03/2024

The Socceroos line-up against Oman. (Photo: Socceroos/Twitter)

The penultimate round of AFC World Cup qualification has finished, and with the Socceroos teetering on the edge, we've considered the pros and cons of the last two fixtures.

And then there were two. The Socceroos have just two matches left to secure their spot in the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

They host Japan on March 24, before going to Saudi Arabia to play the group leaders five days later. 

Looking at their two most recent results, a 4-0 win against Vietnam and a 1-1 draw against Oman, there’s plenty to dissect, both what went right, and what went wrong.

What do the Socceroos need to do differently in their must-win matches in March? The Inner Sanctum takes a look.

What went right?

Tom Rogic

Rogic was perhaps Australia’s best player over the last two matches. He was deployed in his natural number 10 role, and he thrived. Having had an excellent run of games for Celtic prior to these international matches, it’s no surprise how well he played.

Creating three big chances over the two matches, his influence was more profoundly felt against Vietnam, however, he was dangerous against Oman as well.

He has a big role to play in the remaining games. Rogic is one of the very few players in the current squad that can create something from nothing and turn a game on its head.

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The midfield trio

It’s the conundrum that has plagued the Socceroos ever since Rogic and Aaron Mooy have been undroppable players. It’s been often said that, due to the similarities of the players, they can’t play in the same midfield. Couple this with the rise of Ajdin Hrustic, this problem grew 10-fold.

The player that has managed to make this click is Jackson Irvine. The ever robust and reliable St. Pauli midfielder continues to plug holes and be the ultimate team player. Having the versatility to play any role in the midfield three, he acts as the ultimate cog in the ultra-important midfield machine. 

Once Hrustic comes back in the fold, it makes this conundrum a lot tougher to untangle. However, based on his recent club and country performances, Jackson Irvine must start, as he makes that midfield work.

The key to success is the midfield. If the Socceroos can construct coherent attacks from deep, as well as become extremely solid and counter-attack proof, that would go a long way to sorting out the many problems that seem to plague them now.

Martin Boyle 

Another player that played very well over the two matches was Martin Boyle. Recently getting a move to Al-Faisaly from Hibernian, the Scottish born winger provided much-needed pace and dynamism off the right flank. 

Providing four key passes across the two matches, the tricky winger was a danger whenever he got the ball, both cutting inside and hugging the touchline. He provides a completely different dynamic and problem for the opposition to deal with, as seen via the penalty he won against Oman.

Boyle can become a real weapon off that right-hand side if he can get continuity in this side. He has assets that very few players in the international set-up have and if he can use them to his full ability, he could be a player that sends the Socceroos to Qatar. 

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What went wrong

Tactically exposed

It’s no shock that Australia is player for player, better than most squads in the group. So, against the likes of Vietnam, coach Graham Arnold can rely on individual brilliance to get his side out of danger.

Rogic, Jamie MacLaren and Mathew Leckie were all good enough to win their individual battles and thus, win the game for Australia.

However, against Oman, the same can’t be said. Despite Oman missing a big chunk of its squad through COVID-19, the Socceroos couldn’t get the job done in their battles.

This is where the tactics come into use. The chosen tactics should expose those weaknesses in the opposition, whilst also mitigating the weaknesses that your side has.

However, the complete inability to create a coherent and effective tactical plan that can stack up in the crunch moments is concerning. Not only this, but the constant inability to break down low/mid defensive blocks is another real weakness of this squad.

At the moment, the Socceroos rely heavily on individual brilliance to get them through games. While in some games that can work, most of the time it won’t. When it doesn’t, Australia doesn’t have any foundations to fall back on.

In attack, there is no clear pattern of play that has had glimpses of success. In defence, the same story can be said. Despite the opposition’s lack of quality in attack, the Socceroos still manage to concede big chances.

Can’t handle the pressure

Time after time, the Socceroos have crumbled under the slightest amount of pressure. It was no different against Oman. After a pretty standard win a couple of days before, once they came up against a slightly organised side, it went downhill. 

After a good first half, the second couldn’t have been more different. Oman started playing more aggressive football, pushing Australia onto the back foot for a good portion of the second 45.

The Socceroos struggled to create a clear-cut chance, while Oman managed two in the second half alone. The weight of the must-win match got to the players and when push came to shove, they got pushed over.

Against a second-string Oman side, the Socceroos should’ve never have been in the position to concede a penalty in the first place. 

Outlook

There have been very few matches in Australian football history that have as much pressure as these two coming up.

Having only taken one point off Japan and Saudi Arabia in the reverse fixtures, the Socceroos need to make drastic changes heading into those fateful days in March.

What we can take from the previous games is that this side can dominate a game. The Socceroos can control the tempo of the game and play it on their terms. As well as this, they have the individual brilliance that can steal three points.

However, the massive brain fades and complete lack of composure under pressure set a damning precedent for what’s bound to be a football match with the most amount of stakes with it in a long time.

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