Are we a mature enough football nation to honestly discuss the Socceroos?
In a parallel universe, Graham Arnold would be preparing to face Jordan in the Asian Cup semi-finals as undoubtedly the most successful Socceroos coach of all time.
The Socceroos were barely a minute away from sealing their place in the final four of the Asian Cup in Qatar.
Craig Goodwin’s 42nd-minute opener was one of the finest team goals of the tournament, the Aussies had kept Korea Republic’s star striker Son Heung-Min quiet for the entire contest, and all that was left was to see out the remainder of stoppage time and sail on to the semis.
We all know what happened next.
Hibs defender Lewis Miller probably needs counselling after coming on in the 73rd minute, fouling Son to concede the penalty in the sixth minute of stoppage time, smashed in by Hwang Hee-chan, and giving away the free-kick winner ultimately curled home by Son in extra-time.
But to blame Miller for the defeat – and let’s be honest, it was a nightmare cameo off the bench – is to overlook a few key points.
Starting with the fact that right back has been a problem for the Socceroos for years now.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it was Josh Risdon who gave away the penalty that sent France on their way to a 2-1 group stage victory.
Four years later, Arnie started Nathaniel Atkinson, Fran Karacic, and Milos Degenek at right back in three consecutive World Cup group games.
The previously uncapped Gethin Jones started two group stage games at this Asian Cup, didn’t feature against Uzbekistan after struggling with a groin injury, before limping off after 69 minutes in the Round of 16 win over Indonesia – which led to Atkinson starting against the South Koreans.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying not a single player has made the right-back position their own.
So it would be wrong to pin the blame for Australia’s exit wholly on Miller – he was making just his second appearance of the Asian Cup, but played only one minute against Uzbekistan – even if it’s perfectly legitimate to ask questions about team tactics and tournament performance.
This is an act that appeared to irritate the usual candidates – Arnie, his close friend Robbie Slater, and even skipper Mat Ryan – after that 4-0 win over Indonesia.
That’s been part of Arnie’s modus operandi ever since he took charge for his second spell as coach, and it’s clear his players have bought into the ‘backs-against-the-wall’ mentality – one that yielded an unexpected trip to the World Cup’s knock-out stage.
But it led long-time Socceroos watcher and Network Ten commentator Simon Hill to question some of those attitudes on The Global Game podcast, with Hill rightly pointing out that players in other countries face much tougher criticism on a far more regular basis.
It’s true the Socceroos were hardly the most fluid team at the tournament, struggling to break down some limited opponents and falling at the first difficult hurdle.
Equally, however, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not Arnie’s job to mark Son Heung-Min or put away diving headers at the far post.
He can only work with the national team players he’s got.
All of which paints the discourse around the Socceroos and Graham Arnold in an interesting light.
There are plenty of critics who dislike Arnie for his gruff personality and links to certain A-League clubs.
But then, many of those same critics had the knives out for Ange Postecoglou for switching to three at the back for the Socceroos as well.
Yet it’s equally hard to escape the notion that some in the Socceroos camp are just a little bit thin-skinned.
All of which would have been a moot point had Mitch Duke managed to convert a couple of glorious chances to make it 2-0 against the Koreans.
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These are the fine margins of international football.
But the question now is whether we can have a rational debate around the performances of the Socceroos, or whether the culture of negativity that surrounds everything to do with Australian football makes that a redundant exercise.