Australia will head to the 2018 World Cup in Russia on the back of two consecutive wins after defeating Hungary 2-1 in Budapest on Saturday.
Though this result — along with their 4-0 drubbing of the Czech Republic a week prior — brings with it a degree of confidence, the Socceroos’ performance also raised a number of fascinating questions in the lead-up to the clash with France on June 16.
Most importantly, Bert van Marwijk will have a few critical personnel decisions to make over the next six days, despite starting with the same 11 players in both World Cup warm-up matches.
Midfield triumvirate Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Massimo Luongo seemed to be nailed on as starters, but impressive second-half cameos from regular skipper Mile Jedinak and Hull City’s Jackson Irvine may have changed all that. Having introduced Jedinak and Irvine, the Socceroos appeared far more sound in terms of defensive structure, which gave Australia’s attacking players the opportunity to remain forward and penetrate Hungary’s defensive line — something sorely lacking in the first 45 minutes.
It could be that Luongo will need to make way for the returning Jedinak to give Australia’s starting line-up a little more strength and experience, while keeping the QPR man and Irvine on the bench ready to add a different look if a more attacking approach is possible.
Further up the pitch, many in Australia are calling for Melbourne City winger Daniel Arzani — the youngest player at this year’s World Cup — to start against France. The 19-year-old certainly made an impact against Hungary, scoring the first goal with the help of a woeful attempted save by goalkeeper Denes Dibusz, before sliding through an exceptional pass to Irvine, whose low cross was turned in by defender Tamas Kadar for the injury-time winner.
Injecting Arzani’s dynamism into the starting 11 is certainly a tantalising prospect, one Van Marwijk will seriously weigh up over the coming days. However, playing from the opening whistle, particularly against a side with the firepower France possesses, will require a great deal more effort in defence than Arzani needed to display in his 20 minutes against Hungary. Van Marwijk may deem it wiser to bring on the starlet to run at tiring defenders midway through the second half.
At the back, a mix-up between captain Trent Sainsbury and substitute goalkeeper Brad Jones cost the Socceroos a goal, a moment which would have changed the outcome of the game against a better opponent.
However, that will be the least of Van Marwijk’s defensive concerns, and not just because Mat Ryan is certain to start ahead of Jones in goal.
Right-back Josh Risdon was targeted by Hungary and the Western Sydney Wanderers’ full-back was caught out of position on a handful of occasions, especially during a grim first half. Roland Sallai blew by Risdon two or three times in the first 45 minutes, which would again be even more telling against a ruthless opponent.
Mercifully, Risdon grew into the game, helped by the fact that Australia forced the home side further back in the second half. Indeed, Risdon’s performance was a timely reminder of the importance of these pre-tournament friendlies, which allow less experienced international players the opportunity to become more comfortable and consistent.
Hopefully the same can be said of Sainsbury’s central defensive partner Mark Milligan, who appears to have been included in the starting line-up ahead of more robust defenders such as Milos Degenek because of his passing game. Sadly, his radar was way off on Saturday.
One of the reasons the Socceroos struggled so much in the first half was because Milligan’s wayward passes slowed down the build-up of the attack, allowing Hungary to find their defensive structure early and press at will when the ball entered midfield. Whether this was a one-off poor game or part of a bigger issue which needs to be addressed is something Van Marwijk must wrestle with before his defence is exposed against the likes of France star Antoine Griezmann.
The Socceroos, of course, lack a similarly world-class presence up front, but it seems clear that Urawa Red Diamonds frontman Andrew Nabbout will lead the line, with Tomi Juric — who is returning from a knee injury — failing to impress after coming off the bench in the second half. Goalscoring chances against France will likely be scarce and Nabbout, at this stage, is evidently the best option to seize one of those rare opportunities.
Just how much the might and power of Les Bleus weighs into Van Marwijk’s team selections remains to be seen, but the week ahead will have Australia’s coach searching for the right answers to his line-up headaches — both the pleasant ones and the not-so-pleasant.
One thing is for sure, and that is there will be no second chances to get it right once the World Cup kicks off.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks