EEconomist Paul Samuelson once remarked that “the good questions outweigh the easy answers”, and while the American would probably have much preferred to spend his time questioning questions of consumption or the theory of capital, his point is that after their 2-1 loss to Japan, rings true for the Socceroos.
Seeing their 11-game winning streak interrupted, Graham Arnold and his team were finally given their first tough question on their way to the 2022 World Cup. And while the loss was far from being a fatal blow, the way it was they will respond not only will significantly illuminate whether the loss to Saitama is just a blow in the road to Qatar, but also just where they stand in the Asian football hierarchy. .
“The winning record is over, but we still have that record and it’s a fantastic achievement from the players,” Arnold said after the game.
Under significant pressure as the competition approached – Japanese media reported that coach Hajime Moriyasu was about to be sacked if his team failed to collect three points – the Samurai Blue made his point very clear. inventions at Saitama Stadium when Ao Tanaka leapt to grab the first game. just the eighth minute.
Subsequently kept in the game by a combination of their opponents’ reluctance to back their early advantage and lavishness in front of goal when they broke on the counter, the Socceroos reduced it to one goal apiece when Ajdin Hrustić took stroked a free kick in the 69th minute. Shūichi Gonda kicked into the net, only for the hosts to find a deserved late winner when Behich, closing his nightmare game, inadvertently spun the ball into his own net in the 85th.
The loss, along with the quality gap between the performances of the two teams, added additional complexity to a qualifying campaign which, despite the easy surface narrative, proved difficult to pin down.
Starting with a record-breaking streak of 11 wins, he has so far produced 36 dominant goals and only five conceded. Even after the loss to Japan, the Australians remain in possession of one of their group’s two automatic qualifying slots and, historically, an inability to secure a victory in Japan has never held them back from qualifying for the Cups. previous world. Next month will almost certainly see the team finally able to return to play at home – where history suggests their record improves significantly – for the second half of this qualifying phase.
Yet despite these undeniable positives, despite all the talk about the records or the rise of the Fifa world rankings (the ranking of the United States one place above Germany should tell you all you need to know about this topic), Arnold’s group still haven’t produced a performance that really threw the gauntlet of this campaign. As impressive as their streak is, Japan have made it to the World Cup six times – four more than the sum total of the seven opponents who contributed to the Socceroos’ run. A very first victory over the Samurai Blue on Japanese soil in nine attempts, which would almost certainly have dashed Japan’s hopes of an automatic qualification, would have provided that moment. But it went begging.
It is an intellectual incongruity that comes back to the debate that perpetually haunts football: does the way the sausage is made matter? When a team wins, the easy answer is always to say no and point to the scoreboard. It doesn’t matter, according to the argument, how the three points are earned as long as they are accrued. Playing with a winning approach just because you let the perfect be the enemy of the good is the fastest way to end up with neither.
Almost invariably, however, reality bites. The Socceroos’ inability to play with a well-organized defense came home to roost against Japan. Despite leaving what was on paper their best midfielder quartet of Hrustić, Tom Rogić, Aaron Mooy and Jackson Irvine, a lack of cohesion and individual skill mistakes made it difficult for them to move. the ball in the last third of Japan after sitting down after the first goal. . When the Socceroos succeeded in doing so, the chances for quality proved elusive.
With the kind of soul-searching that only defeat can bring, the Socceroos had the opportunity to reassess and recalibrate their approach in time for a visit from their group’s other Asian power, Saudi Arabia.
Although perhaps a lower level than Japan, South Korea or Iran, a match against Al-Suqour – in front of a home crowd for the first time in nearly two years – will immediately give the Socceroos an opportunity not only to bounce back from a bitter loss, but also to answer some of the pointed questions of their performance without fear of tinkering with a record – breaking formula. The answers are not easy, but they might be necessary.