Rich-Baghuelou impressing ahead of Tokyo
With the Olympics rapidly approaching -- the Olyroos squad for Tokyo likely to be named just days after the A-League Grand Final -- a collection of Australia's finest young talent wrapped up a three-game tournament in Spain on Saturday; going down 3-2 to Mexico days after being edged out 1-0 by Romania.
The biggest headline to come from the tournament for Australian fans was the form of Daniel Arzani, who started against the Romanians and Mexicans while netting a brace in the latter.
However, the role of Crystal Palace prospect Jay Rich-Baghuelou, who started all three games in his first callup to an Australian national setup, also gave hints at another potential figure to watch heading forward.
"I like to play on the front foot," the 21-year-old told ESPN. "I like aerial battles and I'm good with the ball at my feet. I've got good passing range. I think I'm quite the modern-day centre-back; I'll dribble out with the ball and am an exciting player."
A towering figure at nearly two meters tall, the Gold Coast native is no lumbering statue -- making an instant impression on the Australian staff with his speed and agility.
"We do the GPS every day with the players in regards to high-speed meters, distance covered and top speed and if he's not the top speed of the day, he's in the top three," Young Socceroos boss Gary van Egmond, who has been leading the Olyroos, told ESPN.
"He's very quick. He's obviously athletic and has a good vertical jump ... he's got a lot of great attributes."
Moving to Britain as a teenager after time with Gold Coast City in NPL Queensland, Rich-Baghuelou plugged away with non-league sides Dulwich Hamlet and Welling before impressing enough on trial to earn a move to South London.
Recently helping Crystal Palace's under-23 team earn promotion to Premier League 2, that decision to back himself with a move to England looks to be paying off.
Socceroos taking their chances
The Socceroos made it seven wins from seven on Friday, cruising past Nepal 3-0 to seal the top spot in Group B and their sixth consecutive win on the road.
However, though the Nepalese never looked threatening, the Socceroos could only add a single goal in the contest's second stanza despite playing with a one-man advantage.
Nonetheless, coach Graham Arnold isn't concerned about the profligacy -- believing his side are poised to bring the pain sooner rather than later.
"The most important thing is that we're creating chances," said Arnold. "The boys are playing to the principles of play. The intent of what they're doing is exactly what we expect.
"Sometimes the last pass was a little bit hard ... but the hardest thing in football is to create chances.
"The fact that we're creating a lot of chances, one day it will all come together and we will really hurt someone badly."
While the Socceroos have produced a significant quantity of efforts on goal -- 11 goals from 76 shots -- in their three games since resuming World Cup qualification, the actual quality of these chances has sometimes lagged behind.
Though their dominance of games would suggest it should be more, according to ESPN Stats and Information Australia's goal-scoring efforts have actually outperformed expectations: 11 goals actual against 9.86 xG. Against Nepal, they produced three actual goals to an xG of 2.3 from their 28 shots.
Given the gap in talent between Arnold's side and their opposition thus far, the virtuosity of chances hasn't really mattered much but, with sterner tests ahead in the final stage of AFC qualifying, it's something to monitor.
Good Football Thing of the Week
Some things are bigger than a football match, and the outpouring of support for Christian Eriksen from the fans in attendance at Parken Stadium, more than any goal or tackle or save, represents the game at its best.
Finland and Denmark fans came together to chant Christian Eriksen's name in support ❤️ pic.twitter.com/AVgkOzceYP— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 12, 2021
Mariners bow out
On Saturday evening, Mariners magic left the building with Central Coast downed 2-0 by Macarthur FC in extra time of the A-League's first elimination final in Gosford.
Whereas the Mariners had been able to absorb the Bulls' pressure before punishing them up the other end in their three regular-season wins, the absence of captain Oliver Bozanic loomed large in the contest; his imperturbability under pressure difficult to replace.
Furthermore, despite bouncing back from a poor opening stanza to put the visitors under some modicum of pressure in the second, the Mariners' inability to get going in transition when they forced a turnover -- their biggest strength this season -- meant they otherwise struggled to create meaningful shots.
Despite possessing a one-man advantage from the 75th minute onwards, it took until the 115th for the hosts to produce a single effort on target and while both sides had the same amount of shots (12) at the end of the 120 minutes, the Bulls had produced 2.10 xG to the host's 0.86 -- suggesting a much higher quality of opportunities.
In some ways, the struggles the Mariners had in getting Plan B going were reflective of their season.
After storming out of the gate to sit seven points clear atop the A-League table after their opening 11 fixtures, opponents getting multiple looks and increasingly zeroing in on them and, ironically, treating them with greater respect meant they took four wins from their remaining 15 regular-season games.
Resourcing undoubtedly plays a large role in this -- the investment in depth and facilities of the A-League's big spenders creating an uneven environment that means even a third-place finish is a remarkable achievement worthy of celebration.
But short of owner Mike Charlesworth selling to a new moneybags owner, that challenge will remain.
Thus, the challenge in the evolution of Stajcic's Mariners heading into 2021-22 will not only be retaining the foundation of what has brought success -- easier said than done with both Alou Kuol and Daniel De Silva already revealed to be moving on -- but somehow building on it in a manner that brings an increased level of adaptability.
Good Social Media Thing of the Week
There's European, and then there's "Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma in the middle of the Stadio Olimpico before the Azzurri play" European.
Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma 🎤— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 11, 2021
The perfect way to start Euro 2020 🙌 pic.twitter.com/L0l9Wy1AhL
Matildas staying focused
Stealing the ball in the middle of the park in the 50th minute of the Matildas' 3-2 loss to Denmark last Friday, full-back Ellie Carpenter drove forward, performed a one-two with Sam Kerr to bypass Sofie Junge Pedersen and looked to lace a pass in behind the Danes' lines for Kerr's peeling run; only for Australia's captain to abandon her chase in the knowledge that she had strayed offside.
It was a moment symbolic of the Matildas' performance: moments of promise and dangerous intent let down by a lack of that final killer touch and/or problems of timing and familiarity.
In the above instance, Kerr had been open in an onside position for the pass from Carpenter a second earlier than when it came.
"I wasn't at the first camp so there are a few things that have come up this camp for me that the girls would have learned and gone over last time," left-back Steph Catley told ESPN.
"For the ones that weren't there, we're just catching up a little bit. There are definitely still people on different levels of understanding, which is pretty normal when you're in this situation with a new coach."
Nonetheless, regardless of the contact levels, Catley says that six months into the job, coach Tony Gustavsson has achieved buy-in and understanding of his vision from all his players -- with it now just being a matter of putting in the time to make it work on the field.
"[Gustavsson is] clear," she said. "We've had a lot of meetings and I think everyone's on the same page in terms of knowing what he wants from us and the philosophy and the idea behind the way we want to play are quite clear."
Welcoming Carpenter and Catley to the starting XI for the first time in the Gustavsson era, the opening exchanges against the Danes gave the clearest hints yet at what can potentially be achieved by the Matildas in the years ahead.
The two full-backs getting high and wide early and often, Australia dominated the early exchanges without reward against the Danes, controlling the ball and pressing fiercely when they didn't. Catley herself got forward and delivered a cross that Kerr, her timing again just out of sync, volleyed home from an offside position early in contest.
And those strikes weren't enough to overcome the three-goal deficit that resulted from a horror stretch that followed the Matildas' early control: the Danes feasting on defensive errors and a drop in intensity to score three goals between the 15th and 25th minute.
"I think the first 15 minutes or so was really a snapshot of how we want to play for 90 minutes," Catley explained. "I really just think [the subsequent collapse] was a case of not much time together. We hadn't looked at set-pieces, that's something we're going to be doing a lot of leading into the Olympics. Just little individual things that we can clean up, little errors that are quite fixable."
For Gustavsson, he's looking for signs of progress amongst his group in a number of key areas, both tangible and intangible, to continue on the upcoming friendly against Sweden on Wednesday.
"One of those markers [of improvement] is seeing that we are who are and that we believe in what we do," he said.
"You can see in that Denmark game ... we opened brilliantly, the first 10 minutes was close to perfect except we didn't put it away.
"You saw in those 10 minutes that the identity in the team is starting to get clear, who we're about; we want to be on the front foot, we want to be an aggressive, pressing and attacking team who don't shy away. That's one marker.
"The other one is the attitude and the 'never say die' attitude that we're always going to work on and see that that's always there. We went down 3-0 against the Danes and a lot of teams would have given up, but this team never does that and that's a marker as well.
"We can talk about tactics all day but if you want to win something you need to have that mentality.
"Then we have a couple of markers on fitness.
"This team has been, even before I arrived, one of the fittest teams in the world and we need to bring this, we know we're going to be the fittest team [at the Olympics]."