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Australia depth chart: Who will deliver on Graham Arnold's vision?

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What 'Ernie the Disruptor' will bring to Football Australia (2:48)

Football Australia boss James Johnson says newly appointed chief football officer Ernie Merrick will operate as "a technical director with teeth." (edited) (2:48)

Australia's' two-game series with New Zealand has concluded -- a 1-0 win in Brisbane and a 2-0 victory in Auckland secured -- and now the real fun can begin for the Socceroos. After four long years and a qualification campaign that will inevitably come to be remembered as being among the most arduous in the history of Australian football, the next time the nation sees its senior men's national team in action will be at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar when they line up across from reigning world champions France at the Al Janoub Stadium on Nov. 23.

That is a fifth straight World Cup appearance for the Socceroos, and it's worth briefly pausing to reflect on the ramifications of such a feat -- especially in the context of the team's centenary celebrations.

Australians that dreamed of watching the nation take its place amongst the world's best have been forced to make do with only a single appearance in 1974. Yet, 17 years on from John Aloisi's famous spot-kick in the playoff penalty shootout against Uruguay in 2005 -- which secured a place at the 2006 World Cup -- the Socceroos are fixtures at the World Cup, to the point where one of the criticisms now laid against the powers that be in Australian football is that they have become too complacent.

As deeply rooted as cynicism is in the local footballing psych, they are circumstances worth remembering. For all the significant challenges confronting the game in Australia, those that populate it today are living in what their predecessors would consider a golden age. One earned by decades of thankless blood, sweat, and tears, finding a way to keep going, to continue to build a foundation that would allow qualification for five straight World Cup appearances -- one of the best active marks in the world. As the Socceroos celebrate their 100th year and start to look ahead to the next century, it's important context.

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Nonetheless, there is also scope for a short-term outlook. While two fixtures against New Zealand may have been a fitting celebration of the two nations' first-ever international fixture in 1922, they also served as the final opportunity to assess the Socceroos before the World Cup rolls around.

Of course, this appraisal was made complicated by an approach from coach Graham Arnold that gave both games a completely different dynamic; the 59-year-old basically fielding two different squads across the two fixtures. All but two of the starters in the Australia's 1-0 win in Brisbane were given leave to return to their clubs ahead of the 2-0 win in Auckland three days later -- the other two, Milos Degenek and Martin Boyle, didn't see a minute of game time in Aotearoa.

In effect, the first game in the series -- the last on home soil before the World Cup -- was about rewarding players that had been the biggest contributors to qualification in Arnold's mind, as well as zeroing in on the XI that the coach will rely on in Qatar. The second was about finding who would fill seats 15 through 26 on the plane, as well as coming up with a backup plan in case of emergency.

The selections for the game in Brisbane gave it the feeling of a dress rehearsal for the Socceroos' opening World Cup fixture against France and only a moment of brilliance from Awer Mabil stood out in what was an otherwise uninspiring affair. Certainly, there was nothing that will have given World Cup Group D coaching rivals Didier Deschamps (France), Kasper Hjulmand (Denmark) or Jalel Kadri (Tunisia) much pause for thought.

For all the talk of winning physical battles, the high press that led to Jackson Irvine forcing the turnover in the Kiwi half and feeding the ball to Mabil was a rare moment of boldness in an otherwise conservative deployment that rendered losing tests of strength a secondary concern. There was an overarching conservatism in possession, in defensive positioning and thinking that has become familiar during this cycle. Football as Australia has come to know it.

Ultimately, the game served not as an omen, but as a reminder. Nothing on display in Brisbane, or in the first half in Auckland, presented any new information. It was an aide-memoire that for all the (deserved) excitement surrounding qualification for the World Cup, this is a Socceroos team that has set a consistent baseline when it comes to their play across the past four years -- and that no amount of goal-line jigs from Andrew Redmayne and dramatic penalty shootouts should obfuscate that.

Qualification is not an outcome, it is a journey. To discount what the cycle as a whole has revealed not just about the Socceroos, but also what Australian football, values in a footballing sense, and doesn't value, is to do the entire endeavour a disservice. It's not an attack on any of the players or Arnold as people. It's simply about competing visions for football.

The World Cup representing the ultimate realisation of four incredibly tough years of his vision, to expect Arnold to suddenly deviate from his playbook at this stage would be folly. This is his team and the vision that Football Australia backed and, in spite of the naysayers, he's made the World Cup and has earned the right to see it through.

The question, one that new chief football officer Ernie Merrick and the FA should already be asking themselves even before the World Cup, is if this approach will continue to shape Australian football heading into the 2026 cycle. And if it is reflective of what the country it represents wishes to be.


Predicted Depth Chart:

In the wake of a host of new figures being called into the Socceroos' squad for their final games before the World Cup, a greater picture of Arnold's thinking surrounding his 26-player squad for the game has come into view.

And with the A-League Men season finally set to commence on Oct. 7, players that still ply their trade in Australia will finally get their chance to put their case forward in six games before Arnold names his final squad on Nov. 18. Meanwhile, with European club campaigns long underway, there has already been an opportunity to potentially reassess some players -- with minutes, or a lack of them, boosting or draining their chances.

The below depth chart is based on the best estimation of what Arnold may be thinking heading into the defining moment of his coaching career.

Goalkeepers

- Mat Ryan
- Mitch Langerak
- Andrew Redmayne

Langerak's surprise return from his pandemic-enforced international retirement serves to instantly shake up the goalkeeper's union hierarchy, with the 34-year-old sliding in as both a top-class safety net for Ryan, as well as a challenger capable of pushing him for the No. 1 role. Iron sharpening iron, this can only be a positive.

The 33-year-old Redmayne, complete with all his dancing moves, also retains his place in the pecking order. The Sydney FC keeper, according to Arnold, was given the start in the second game of the New Zealand series because of his dearth of recent competitive football compared to Langerak.

Left-back

- Aziz Behich
- Joel King
- Jason Davidson

Despite a less than ideal start to life with Dundee United -- sitting bottom of the Scottish Premiership with a -17 goal difference after seven games -- Behich seemingly remains the first-choice left-back: starting the opening game of the New Zealand series before being given leave to fly back to Europe early.

The only other left-back called up for the two friendlies, King started the same game in Auckland and, at this stage, it's difficult to see the likes of Jason Davidson, Callum Elder, or Ben Garuccio forcing their way into Arnold's plans outside of injury.

Centre-back

- Trent Sainsbury
- Harry Souttar
- Kye Rowles
- Bailey Wright
- Milos Degenek
- Thomas Deng
- Harrison Delbridge

Fortunate that the Kiwis weren't able to capitalise on one of his errors to take the lead, Sainsbury's struggles in the Brisbane fixture did nothing to douse concerns surrounding his form heading into the World Cup, which were already raising alarm bells due to his level of competition in the Qatari league. Nonetheless, given his levels of experience and history of contributions in a Socceroos' shirt -- something that Arnold values highly -- it's difficult to envision a scenario in which the 30-year-old isn't brought to Qatar. The same goes for Souttar and Rowles if the duo can overcome their injury concerns.

After that is where it gets interesting.

With Wright recently unable to link up with the side due to the birth of his second child, Degenek got the nod to start alongside Sainsbury in the Brisbane friendly but, like his teammate, didn't have the strongest of performances. Deng, in contrast, was amongst the side's best in Auckland and has always been highly rated in the national setup -- the 25-year-old would likely have much more than two caps if not for a horror run of injuries.

Degenek and Wright will benefit from incumbency, but, starting regularly with promotion-bound Albirex Niigata in the J2 League, a strong end to the season from the Olyroo captain could easily see him vault up the ranks quickly -- Arnold's desire to foster the pathway to under-23s to senior team another hallmark of his tenure.

Right-back

- Frank Karacic
- Nathaniel Atkinson
- Ryan Strain

Karacic got the nod to start in the Brisbane friendly and was subsequently permitted to return to Europe. His stronger domestic start in Italy with Brescia than Atkinson's at Hearts appears to put the Croatian-born defender ahead in the race to start in Qatar -- albeit this is a battle that likely won't be decided until the teamsheets are submitted ahead of the France fixture.

Making his international debut on Sunday, Strain appears the most likely beneficiary should injury hit either of the first-choice duo. Deng's ability to play right-back in a pinch, though, might end up costing Strain as Arnold tries to fit the most value possible into a 26-player squad.

Central Midfield

- Aaron Mooy
- Jackson Irvine
- Riley McGree
- Denis Genreau
- Connor Metcalfe
- Cameron Devlin
- Keanu Baccus
- Gianni Stensness

Mooy's move to Celtic is going just about as well as anyone could have hoped for and he retains his place at the top of the midfield rankings next to Irvine, who has played every minute of every game with German 2. Bundesliga side St. Pauli this season. The duo appear all but certain to start against France in the opening game of the World Cup.

Starting in the Auckland leg of the New Zealand series, the young triumvirate of McGree, Genreau and Metcalfe appear to be next in line -- although their struggles in the first half of that game mean the door is very much ajar for Devlin, who made an impressive international debut off the bench.

Playing regularly for Middlesbrough in the English Championship, McGree's space would appear safe, short of a disaster. But should Genreau and Metcalfe's sparse minutes at Toulouse and St. Pauli continue, Devlin could strike if he can step up his game at Hearts. In a 26-player squad, the hope would be that you could bring all of them -- given that could be the core of the Socceroos' squad for the 2026 cycle -- but Arnold might not have that luxury.

Baccus' debut didn't make the same levels of noise as Devlin's, however he is also playing regularly in Scotland with St. Mirren and earning rave reviews under Stephen Robinson, meaning he can't be ruled out. Despite battling an injury that has kept him out of Viking FK's side since May, Stensness' versatility and Arnold's obvious appreciation for his talents also mean he can't be discounted if he finds fitness.

Attackers

- Ajdin Hrustic
- Tom Rogic

Hrustic is going to Qatar and is going to start against France. As a technical and tactical reference point for the side in possession, he's probably the Socceroos' most important player in their quest to secure a first World Cup win since 2010. Simple. Glad we cleared that up.

With Arnold insisting that he'll be in contention for selection if he can get minutes in his leg, Rogic's re-emergence at Championship side West Brom is another potential boon to the Socceroos. Arnold needs to find a way to deploy both him and Hrustic in a manner that allows them both to thrive, but a healthy and in-form Rogic certainly makes this squad stronger.

Wingers

- Martin Boyle
- Awer Mabil
- Mat Leckie
- Craig Goodwin
- Marco Tilio
- Garang Kuol
- Daniel Arzani

Boyle, Mabil, Lecki, and Goodwin have all become fixtures in the squad and despite Leckie coming off the bench in the Brisbane dress rehearsal and Goodwin not being selected for the series entirely due to fitness concerns, it's difficult to see Arnold not calling them up for Qatar.

Tipped to start in the Auckland fixture, Tilio was able to rebound from his horror miss but was unable to solidify himself as a must-pick for Qatar. This wasn't helped by Kuol's head-turning second-half cameo that featured him setting up the Socceroos' second goal and putting everyone on the edge of their seat every time he got on the ball. No matter what anyone says, narrative factors helping put a player over the top are absolutely a thing in World Cup selection and the groundswell surrounding Kuol is becoming increasingly cacophonous.

As is the case with the central midfield situation, in an ideal world you'd be able to find a way to bring both youngsters. But in case Arnold can't, Tilio will need to find consistent minutes in Melbourne City's crowded attack to retain one of his aces over his 18-year-old rival, who is still yet to start a single senior ALM game.

Arzani, meanwhile, is a long shot, but he has the talent to do something special in the six games before the league breaks.

Strikers

- Adam Taggart
- Mitch Duke
- Jamie Maclaren
- Jason Cummings

Taggart and Maclaren both featured in the win in Brisbane before being given leave to return to their clubs, seemingly indicating that their place in the squad is, if not locked in, very close to being so. And after opening the scoring in the Auckland game, Duke, the avatar of Arnold's "Aussie DNA" spirit, appears set to join them. All three have been there, fitness allowing, every step of the way during qualification and that's something that Arnold values.

Cummings, however, looms as the joker in the deck. He scored on debut in Auckland and, arguably, should have already earned a call-up to the squad based on his form towards the back end of the 2021-22 ALM season. With 26-places now on offer in the squad, the 27-year-old's odds of earning selection for his adopted homeland are greater than they normally would be, but he could fill his boots in the opening six games of the ALM season. With the Mariners only set to play one side that finished above them last campaign in that stretch, he's got a good shot.