Form but also reputation count in Socceroos’ World Cup squad selection

After all the hysteria and innuendo of a transfer deadline day had been poured into a few weeks of World Cup squad speculation, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold finally named his 26-player squad for football’s global showcase on Tuesday. It is a group full of what Arnold called “boxing Kangaroos”.

Fresh as this new slogan may be, the motif and messaging represents a continuation of the fighting spirit that has been a hallmark of Arnold’s tenure – not least when qualification for the tournament in Qatar became less certain and backs were against the wall.

For much of that qualifying process, it was about expecting to win. After the wheels came off, it was about “Aussie DNA” and nostalgia for a bygone and rose-tinted era where Australian teams ran all day, backed themselves in and fought like hell. Now, it’s about Australia’s signature marsupial clad in combat apparel for games against France, Tunisia and Denmark.

It was inevitable, really. Having reached this point employing a combative ethos over all else, was there ever any question the coach would stick with it for the tournament in Qatar?

But what of the squad itself? Garang Kuol, Jason Cummings, and Cameron Devlin are all in; Adam Taggart, Mitch Langerak, Tom Rogic, and Trent Sainsbury will watch from home. Reflective of the country that Australia tries to be, four who arrived in Australia as refugees will represent their home on the grandest stage in Kuol, Miloš Degenek, Thomas Deng, and Awer Mabil. Another four will represent the land of their parents in Scotland-born Cummings, Harry Souttar, and Martin Boyle and Croatia-born Fran Karačić.

Seventeen will be taking part in their first World Cup and, combined with a talented crop of players overlooked or still coming through the system, it is a squad that engenders enthusiasm not only for the coming weeks, but also for future Asian Cups and World Cups. This is something for which Arnold rightfully deserves credit. Kuol’s selection alone is a story that will capture imaginations far beyond Australia’s borders.

Broadly, though, despite a long-stated desire to reward players who have been getting regular game time with their clubs and then excelling, Arnold’s squad contains an eclectic mix of some in-form players and others with strong reputations.

Some of this is by necessity; simply too few of the available pool of talent are injury-free and playing regularly to justify using form as a sole metric for selection. Having principles is all well and good but if Fifa’s showpiece event is good for one thing, it is as a demonstration that they also don’t get you too far ahead in football. Ajdin Hrustić, for example, should have been included even if only on one leg.

An immediate flow-on from this, though, is that one of the biggest immediate questions facing the squad is fitness. Arnold has said he is a risk taker and will not change (selection and matters of approach are obviously different things) but six potential starters have spent various degrees of time on the shelf during the build-up to this World Cup.

Then there are the players who haven’t been injured, but have hardly seen minutes on the field. Joel King and Awer Mabil, for example, have largely been relegated to the periphery of their clubs but are still preferred over the likes of Jason Davidson, Marco Tilio or Daniel Arzani. Overlooked right-back Ryan Strain must be wondering what more he needs to do.

Given that Mat Ryan has largely been a No 2 in recent years and has reportedly picked up a knock, the omission of Langerak is also perplexing. The 34-year-old has consistently been Australia’s best-performing goalkeeper in clubland for years but has been overlooked for Andrew Redmayne and Danny Vukovic on the advice of goalkeeping coach John Crawley. Former Socceroo Tommy Oar labelled the decision “an absolute wind-up” and even being charitable, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

Nonetheless, acknowledgement is needed that, further up the pitch, Arnold has focused on form. The inclusions of Keanu Baccus and Devlin over Denis Genreau and Connor Metcalfe come off the back of strong domestic seasons in Scotland, while that of Cummings is validation of his form for the Mariners. Rogic’s absence can be justified by his inclusion likely causing either Riley McGree or Hrustić to miss out. Mat Leckie, Craig Goodwin, and Jamie Maclaren have all been standouts in the opening weeks of ALM. At the back, Arnold’s move to drop his own son-in-law Sainsbury takes gumption.

But regardless of intellectual consistency (why should Australian football start worrying about that now?) the squad is set. All that is left now is for the players selected to get through one last weekend of football before the roos lace up their gloves in Doha.