Australia's quest to secure a fifth straight appearance at a men's World Cup has begun to show dangerous signs of burnout, as coach Graham Arnold's side put forth their third uninspiring result in a row with a 1-1 draw with China in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Knowing that anything less than a win would open the door for Japan to overhaul them for one of Group B's two automatic qualification spots for next year's World Cup, and coming up against what was nominally one of the weakest sides left in Asian qualifying, the contest at the Sharjah Stadium -- China are still forced to stage "home" fixtures at neutral venues due to quarantine requirements in the country -- bore significant real-world ramifications for the Socceroos. But given the prevailing circumstances, it also served as an important litmus test for their approach.
Following his side's draw with Saudi Arabia on Nov. 11, ESPN's Ante Jukic took note of the increasingly outcome-dependent approach that Arnold was taking to his task of guiding Australia's men, asking the question if his "tried-and-tested system, a lack of tactical flexibility and a pragmatic ideological approach that only amplifies under duress" would, or even could, be set aside to adapt to the changing circumstances ahead of the side or doubled down on.
Considering Arnold's comments before the game, his squad decisions and, finally, the way that his side actually played; Wednesday morning's draw gave the first indication that it is the latter.
"We've played 13 games," Arnold mused in his pre-game media conference on Monday. "Out of those 13 games, we're holding a world record with 11 straight wins, we've had one draw that we should have won and just one loss."
Those words continued the refrain the Socceroo boss had taken up in the immediate aftermath of the Saudi fixture -- the "draw that we should have won" -- in which he reflected ruefully not on the nature of play that had proceeded a high volume of half-chances (at best), but that one of these chances hadn't found its way into the back of the net and, in doing so, changed the complexion of the game in his side's favour. It was a focus on outcomes rather than process.
The teamsheet that emerged in the hours ahead of Tuesday's game, with just two changes, reinforced that the pragmatism would continue until results improved.
One of these alterations was forced -- Milos Degenek replaced Harry Souttar in the heart of Australia's defence after the towering defender's devastating ACL injury against Saudi Arabia -- while the other was more philosophical. Mat Leckie was shifted out to the left (where he will play for new club Melbourne City this season), Awer Mabil was relegated to the substitutes bench and Mitchell Duke was placed at the top of the side's attack.
Nominally, Duke was the obvious choice to come into the XI for a team that had failed to find the back of the net from open play in 180 minutes against Japan and Saudi Arabia. The 30-year-old had already contributed two goals in limited minutes during this phase of qualification, including one in the first meeting between Australia and China back in September, and boasts an impressive goals-per-game ratio at the international level.
That said, the selection of the Fagiano Okayama attacker was another indicator of Arnold's pragmatism. Unlike the injured Adam Taggart, who does some of his best work dropping back and incorporating his teammates in build-up play, or the on-the-bench Jamie Maclaren, who enjoys playing off the last defender's shoulder but has worked on his support skills in recent years with Melbourne City, Duke is a battering ram of a striker; he'll harangue and harass his foes with relentless pressing and be a clinical finisher when his side gets out in transition. But in a scenario where his side expected to have the lion's share of possession, his primary utility (especially in comparison to the other options in the side) comes through the air -- which, it turns out, was a perfect fit for the frustrating approach that came to define the draw.
As was the case last Thursday against Saudi Arabia, the Socceroos' approach to breaking down their opponents was seemingly one of volume and waiting for that game-changing moment to arrive: they simply provided a constant stream of speculative balls into the penalty area against an embedded defence in the hope that one would bear fruit.
Indeed, no side has delivered more crosses than the Socceroos during Asian qualifying for Qatar 2022, and by the time Duke put the Australians ahead in the 38th minute, his side had delivered 15 into Yan Junling's penalty area. By the end of the game, the Socceroos would deliver 29 crosses -- primarily from Rhyan Grant, Martin Boyle, and second-half substitute Fran Karacic down the right -- compared to just four successful passes into the penalty area. It would take until the 93rd minute for an Australian, Karacic, to successfully complete a dribble in the front third of the pitch and they could only produce five efforts on target, compared to China's four, despite having two-thirds of the ball.
While Duke's goal briefly led to a more composed approach, VAR's intervention -- and the subsequent decision to award a penalty dispatched by Wu Lei in the 70th minute -- returned the Socceroos to yet more cross-spam. This wasn't helped by the decision to remove Ajdin Hrustic, Australia's most creative player and the one most comfortable with the ball in tight spaces, in favour of the all-action Riley McGree.
Now, following Japan's 1-0 win over Oman in Muscat, Australia finds itself out of the automatic qualification slots for Qatar 2022 and staring down the barrel of a form slump. With over two months until they return to action for a home fixture against Vietnam, the question will be what response can they, and Arnold, produce to put the Socceroos back on a positive path.