Socceroos keeping an eye on the future throughout World Cup qualifying campaign

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The Socceroos’ willingness to continue giving opportunities to young players on big stages suggests building for the future remains a priority for Graham Arnold and his coaching team.

Heading into Thursday night’s clash with Vietnam, nothing less than a win would suffice to keep Australia’s hopes of automatically qualifying for the 2022 World Cup alive.

The stakes were high.

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Yet, despite the critical importance of the result, two players made their Socceroos debut on the night.

Joel King started the game at left-back and played the entire 90 minutes, whilst Marco Tilio came off the bench for the final 10 minutes.

Undoubtedly King’s selection was largely a product of circumstance, as regular left-back Aziz Behich was unable to travel to Australia due to a snowstorm.

Still, the decision to play King, alongside the involvement of Tilio, indicate a continued desire to build-up the next generation whilst attempting to succeed with the current one.

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Stand-in coach René Meulensteen was glowing in his praise of King’s performance.

“Joel cannot be more proud of his performance,” he said.

“He was, in one word, outstanding.”

King featured alongside fellow young guns Tilio and Riley McGree, whilst Connor Metcalfe and Kye Rowles didn’t play but were on the bench for the match.

Meulensteen said that the inclusion of young players, including King, is the product of the work he and Arnold have done to establish a strong pathway between the Socceroos and Olyroos.

“We know Joel because Arnie and I have done the Olympic team,” Meulensteen said.

“We did that for one reason: to create depth. So that we can see young players coming through who can make the step up to the Socceroos.”

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For Meulensteen, developing complimentary cultures between the Socceroos and Olyroos camps has been the key to generating this depth.

“That’s part of the environment we are creating,” he said.

“We’ve been able to create the same environment in the Olympic team so that it’s a smooth transition (to the Socceroos).”

Whilst the starting 11 on Thursday night was predominantly made up of experienced Socceroos in their late 20s, the importance of young players to Socceroos squads has been apparent throughout the qualifying campaign.

Younger players are not merely expected to make up the numbers either, but to take on meaningful responsibility in crucial matches.

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Handing out two debuts in a must-win match with Vietnam is clear evidence of the trust the coaching staff are willing to place in inexperienced players.

Meulensteen emphasised the importance of having young players exposed to high-pressure situations in international football.

“They know they’ve got our trust and the trust of the other players,” Meulensteen said.

Ideally, this approach will reap its rewards in the long term.

By instilling belief and confidence in young, future Socceroos, Arnold and Meulensteen are aiming to create a sustainable pathway between the Olyroos and Socceroos.

The Socceroos have been made to consistently work hard to secure results throughout their qualifying campaign.

Even against Vietnam on Thursday night there were periods in which the visiting team were serious threats and Australia’s slender lead appeared to be in real jeopardy.

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Despite these challenges, young players have continued to feature regularly.

The likes of McGree and Harry Souttar (until his injury) were consistently given opportunities over the last year, with several other fringe players getting game time on multiple occasions.

As well as young players, Arnold has embraced slightly older but similarly inexperienced Socceroos who have added a new dimension to the squad.

Both Fran Karicic and Adjin Hrustic at 25 are still in the early phases of their Socceroos careers, and their addition to the line-up showcases the ambition for long-term stability as well as immediate success.

Meanwhile, the Socceroos’ opponents on Thursday night, Vietnam, are themselves a team building towards the future.

With his side’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar already dashed, coach Park Hang-seo used the opportunity in Australia to hand several international debuts to players in his squad.

For the Socceroos, Arnold’s willingness to be similarly ambitious with his youth promotion despite the necessity of victory should benefit the long-term future of the men’s national team.

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Of course, the Socceroos still have plenty of issues at the moment in terms of on-pitch performances. Failure to qualify for the World Cup would be a disaster.

Whilst qualifying remains the top priority, the trust placed in young and inexperienced players during these matches of real significance will surely have long-term benefits for the Socceroos.

Feature Image Credit: Socceroos

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Oscar Rutherford
Sports tragic studying Law/Arts at Monash University. Second-best paid Oscar working in football who has been to China.

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