Socceroos hit first bump on road to Qatar after record winning streak ended by Japan

By Joey Lynch
Australia's Aziz Behich scored an own goal as Japan ran out 2-1 winners in the World Cup qualifier in Saitama.
Australia's Aziz Behich scored an own goal as Japan ran out 2-1 winners in the World Cup qualifier in Saitama. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Economist Paul Samuelson once observed that “good questions outrank easy answers”, and though the American likely would have much preferred to spend his time interrogating matters of consumer or capital theory, his is an observation that, following their 2-1 defeat to Japan, rings true for the Socceroos.

In seeing their 11-game winning streak snapped, Graham Arnold and his side have, finally, been asked their first hard question on their road to the 2022 World Cup. And while the loss hardly comes close to constituting a fatal blow, how they respond will not only shed significant light on whether the defeat in Saitama is merely a blip on the road to Qatar, but also just where they sit in the hierarchy of Asian football.

“The win record’s over, but we still hold that record and it’s a fantastic achievement by the players,” Arnold said after the game.”We can stop talking about that now and we can move forward now with the World Cup campaign.

Under significant pressure heading into the contest – Japanese media had reported that coach Hajime Moriyasu was set to be sacked if his side failed to collect three points – the Samurai Blue made their inventions at Saitama Stadium very clear when Ao Tanaka pounced to grab the opener in just the eighth minute.

Subsequently kept in the game by a combination of their foes’ reluctance to press their early advantage and profligacy in front of goal when they broke on the counter, the Socceroos dragged things back to a goal apiece when Ajdin Hrustić caressed a 69th-minute free-kick into the net of Shūichi Gonda, only for the hosts to the find a deserved late winner when Behich, capping off his nightmare game, inadvertently turned the ball into his own net in the 85th.

The defeat, as well as the gulf in quality between the two sides’ performances, added further complexity to a qualification campaign that, despite the easy surface narrative, has proven a difficult one to nail down.

Beginning with a record-setting, 11-game winning run, it has thus far produced a dominant 36 goals for and just five conceded. Even after the defeat to Japan, the Australians remain in possession of one of two automatic qualification slots in their group and, historically, an inability to get a win in Japan has never served to prevent them from qualifying for past World Cups. Next month will almost certainly see the team finally able to resume playing on home soil – where history suggests their record improves significantly – for the second half of this qualification phase.

Yet despite these undeniable positives, for all the talk about records or rising up the Fifa world rankings (the ranking of the United States one spot above Germany should tell you everything you need to know about those), Arnold’s group are still yet to produce a performance that has truly thrown down the gauntlet this campaign. Impressive as their streak was, Japan have been to the World Cup six times – four more than the sum total of the seven opponents that contributed to the Socceroos’ run. A first-ever win over the Samurai Blue on Japanese soil in nine attempts, which almost certainly would have dashed Japanese hopes’ of automatic qualification, would have provided that moment. But it went begging.

It is an intellectual incongruity that comes back to the debate that perennially haunts football: does it matter how the sausage gets made? When a team is winning, the easy answer is always to say no and point to the scoreboard. It matters little, the argument goes, how the three points are earned as long as they are banked. Messing with a winning approach simply because one is letting perfect be the enemy of good is the fastest way to end up with neither.

Almost invariably, however, reality bites. The Socceroos’ inability to play through a well-organised defence came home to roost against Japan. Despite starting what was on paper their best midfield quartet of Hrustić, Tom Rogić, Aaron Mooy, and Jackson Irvine, a lack of cohesion and individual skill errors meant they struggled to move the ball into Japan’s final third after they sat back following the opening goal. When the Socceroos did manage to do so, quality chances proved elusive.

With the type of introspection only defeat can bring, the Socceroos have been afforded an opportunity to reassess and recalibrate their approach in time for a visit from the other Asian power in their group, Saudi Arabia.

Though perhaps a tier below the likes of Japan, South Korea, or Iran, a game against Al-Suqour in front of a home crowd for the first time in almost two years – will immediately give the Socceroos an opportunity to not only bounce back from bitter defeat, but to also answer some of the pointed questions from their performance without fear of tinkering with a record-breaking formula. The answers aren’t easy, but they might be necessary.


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