There's a reason that Celtic fans know Tom Rogic as the "Wizard of Oz." Reinforcing his importance to the national side, the Socceroos No. 23 turned in one of his finest performances in a green-and-gold shirt on Thursday to power Australia to a comfortable 4-0 triumph over Vietnam in their World Cup qualifier at Melbourne's AAMI Park.
Rogic's strike on the stroke of half-time, combined with another from Jamie Maclaren and first-ever international goals for Craig Goodwin and Riley, snapped a three-game winless run for the hosts that had seen them fall outside the automatic qualification spots for the first time during this stage on the road to Qatar.
Back at the ground he called home for a very brief period while on-loan at Melbourne Victory, Rogic was the undisputed star on his return to the national side after missing the last window with injury. Also delivering the pinpoint assist that enabled Maclaren to open the scoring in the 30th minute, the Canberran consistently occupied positions on the pitch that forced the Vietnamese to alter their defensive shape. He was a creative force and even had a goal disallowed in the opening seconds.
"We knew the significance of the game in terms of qualification," he said after the game. "I think it was a good performance from the team in general. We maybe got a little bit sloppy in the second half but overall, I think it's a good day's work and I was just happy to be back playing in Australia.
"It's probably been a couple of years since before I've seen family and friends and stuff and there were a few in the crowd. So I was just happy to be back and enjoyed the night so it was a good night all around."
While Japan's win over China at Saitama Stadium means that there will be no movement in the standings, the Socceroos did boost their goal difference to a healthy +9 -- well clear of Japan -- but, perhaps more importantly, steadied the ship heading into a crucial run of games. The Socceroos will now take on Oman in Muscat knowing that three points against Al-Ahmar would guarantee them, at a minimum, a place in the intercontinental playoff pathway. Such a result, giving a degree of safety and easing at least some of the pressure, will be vital ahead of games against the top two sides in the group: at home against Japan and away to Saudi Arabia.
But for a night at least, the Socceroos can enjoy their heaviest win of this phase of Asian qualification against a side that, ostensibly, shaped as presenting them with real problems. Indeed, how Vietnam approached the contest wouldn't have surprised anyone. Ever since Park Hang-Seo took the helm of the Golden Star Warriors, his reign has been one characterised by a pragmatic, defensively-minded approach. Almost exclusively utilising a 5-4-1 setup, the Korean coach has made the Vietnamese a side that will defend in a low block, resist the urge to try and win the ball high up the pitch and, most of all, is extremely difficult to break down. With numerous players absent through injury, COVID, and suspension and the Socceroos' increasingly blunt in front of goal as of late, it was one that made sense for the game.
But, much like the Matildas' 4-0 win over the Philippines on Monday, it became readily apparent soon after kick-off in front of the 27,740 fans that this was going to be a game in which the Socceroos, by sheer weight of possession, territory, and chances, were all but certain to eventually break down their foes resistance.
Across the first half Australia, as has come to be expected against the weaker sides in their group, had 67% of the ball and produced nine shots to their opponents' one; a rather tame outside the box effort from Phan Van Duc in the 43rd minute which Mat Ryan saved comfortably. It could have easily been 3-0 heading into the break had Rogic's strike within the opening 20 seconds not been disallowed after VAR determined that Jackson Irvine, having attacked the cross that was knocked back into Rogic's path, had impeded Vietnam keeper Bui Tan Truong from an offside position.
"We were on the front foot," said Rene Meulensteen, who filled in as coach for Graham Arnold after he received a COVID diagnosis. "We've got that attitude always, to expect every game that is our intent always to go on the front foot to put them under pressure and ask questions straight away.
"It helps that we scored that goal in less than 30 seconds, a shame that didn't stand. But it just takes a while to break them down and we always knew that we would have more quality. It takes that quality to eventually break them down, to break the deadlock, get the goal, get your noses in front."
Irvine's positioning for that would-be-opener was indicative of his first-half role playing, in a similar manner to his role at club level with St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga, further up the pitch as Aaron Mooy dropped into a deeper role. Irvine himself didn't do much to directly aid Australia in getting up the pitch as a result, often finding himself in positions where he was surrounded by red shirts and not able to present for the ball to feet. However, his positioning and the attention that demanded, combined with Vietnam sitting back, did enable space for Mooy to operate and allowed Rogic to find space in between the lines and receive the ball.
It's yet another reminder of how much the Socceroos have come to rely upon Rogic and Adjin Hrustic, who was suspended for this game but set to return against Oman, as creative forces during this run of qualification. Nonetheless, it did provide the Socceroos with an important avenue towards goal and prevented them, as has been the case far too often this campaign, from devolving into a level of speculative cross-spam.
Conversely, Irvine's move to drop deeper in the second half, combined with Vietnam shifting formation and getting higher up the pitch, cramped the space offered to Mooy and forced Rogic into wider positions to receive the ball. Combined with the latter's fatigue, Australia's threat when moving forward suffered as a result. In the end their third strike, which broke the backs of Vietnam's resistance, came from a long-ball hoofed forward from Ryan directly to Goodwin.
But now, Hrustic's imminent return raises questions about how Arnold (or Meulensteen, if Arnold is unable to clear COVID protocols in time) will set the Socceroos up against Oman. Assuming he is fully fit, Rogic is effectively undroppable after that performance, but the disparity in his ability to impact the game in the first and second half means will present the coaching staff with some questions: Do they maintain a similar setup and leave Hrustic out? Does Hrustic come in? Does perhaps a figure such as James Jeggo come into the side as well to serve as the six and give Hrustic and Rogic more scope further up the field? Time will tell.