Jackson Irvine [1296x729]
Jackson Irvine [1296x729] (Credit: Oliver Hardt/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images)

Paudel Sri Lanka are under more pressure than us

For the Socceroos, next month's FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh in Dhaka then Palestine in Perth represent the end of the beginning. The games on June 6 and June 11 close off the second round of Asian qualification for the 2026 tournament in North America and Graham Arnold's side has already secured progression to the next phase; the Socceroos have played four, won four, scoring 15, and conceding none, in Group I.

Progression at this point of qualifying is a base expectation for a team recognised as being one of the Asian Football Confederation's best. But what have we learned about the side during this run of wins? Not a lot that wasn't already known, in all honesty -- albeit this absence of fresh insights provides some level of illumination about the team and its direction: The strengths of the team remain strong; its shortcomings remain present, and "Arnieball" continues to do what it says on the tin.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

It's year five of Arnold's tenure, and while the halo effect from the World Cup quarterfinals has mostly faded -- the Socceroos' quarterfinals exit at the AFC Asian Cup doing its bit in the dousing -- don't expect sudden shifts in philosophy or vision from the veteran coach. So much of what Arnold does is built upon manifesting a sense of belief and, at his age, at this stage of his career, and given his accomplishments, he's not going to make any kind of sudden changes. Rightly or wrongly, to expect him to do so is self-defeating -- especially when such expectations come at the expense of placing a greater focus on how Australian football's decision makers measure success and the review processes that have been so consistent in backing Arnold and pretty much all those working with the men's and the women's national teams; this latter point is especially pertinent in light of recent junior national team results.

In a recent interview with News Corp, Football Australia's chief football officer, Ernie Merrick, said the lack of Socceroos in the top leagues of the world meant the team inevitably had to adopt an approach such as Arnold's. The federation has also flagged a new 10-year technical plan designed to overhaul the nation's junior development pathways, turn the Socceroos into a top-10 team in the world, and lift the Matildas into the top five. If it's as simple as better leagues meaning better players, though, one wonders if the sudden increase in Australians plying their trade in Europe's best leagues next season -- Jackson Irvine and Connor Metcalfe securing promotion to the Bundesliga, Alessandro Circati winning his way into Serie A with Parma, and Massimo Luongo and Cameron Burgess going up to the Premier League with Ipswich Town -- will see a corresponding shift in expectations.

Snarkiness aside, multiple things can be true at once. And while the success of sides such as Central Coast Mariners and Atalanta during the season speaks to the power of ideas and adaptability overcoming reputational and material shortcomings -- to say nothing of Jordan's run to the Asian Cup final with just one Europe-based player in their squad -- every national setup should always be seeking to improve the quality of its player pool, and foster the development of players who can feature in the world's top leagues.

Alas, youth development is, necessarily, a long-term project, thus the impact of new initiatives from Football Australia won't be felt for quite a while; hence Arnold must work with what he's got. Fortunately, the coming crop of Joeys, Young Socceroos, and Olyroos are part of a generation that has mostly developed entirely within the national curriculum and at well-established, professional A-Leagues academies, and possesses a level of ability and maturity that has won praise from those in the developmental space.

In an ideal world, Arnold could have used the Olympics as a natural graduation point for the next crop of Socceroos. However, the Olyroos' meek exit from the AFC Under-23 Championship, in which they failed to score a goal during their group-stage elimination, has torn such notions asunder. Football Australia is yet to reveal any findings from a promised review of that tournament.

Yet with Australia having already reached the next stage of World Cup qualification, the stakes associated with this window are reduced. In theory, this reduces the risks associated with exposing younger players, such as Nestory Irankunda, to the senior setup. If they excel, brilliant. If not, you're already through to the next round of qualification, have time to adjust before those games in October, and the younger players have gained valuable experiences to take back to their clubs and use to get better for the next time they earn a call-up.

This will be balanced with Arnold's stated desire to secure two strong results in the quest to move up in FIFA rankings before the commencement of the third round of qualifying in September. Australia are just 0.06 FIFA ranking points behind South Korea heading into the final matchday of this qualification phase, and they must overhaul the Taeguk Warriors if they are to be seeded as one of Asia's three best sides and avoid Japan and Iran in the next phase.

Complicating factors further is the end of the A-League Men season as well as various European leagues, leaving players short of match fitness, mentally drained, and, depending on how results went, maybe still recovering from the end-of-campaign celebrations. Arnold has long decried the short length of the Australian domestic season, and has already flagged that he may have to draw upon players who featured deep into the finals rather than those whose seasons ended early. This would appear to favour local players like Grand Finalists Daniel Arzani and Josh Nisbet, but could work against the likes of Nicolas Milanović or Apostolos Stamatelopoulos.

Many of the players who were not in the A-League Grand Final, however, featured in the A-League Men All Stars squad that faced Newcastle United. That game, which Arnold watched in person, wasn't much to write home about, but the players completed a full week of training. And not a normal week of exhibition training. A week of training with Patrick Kisnorbo.

"We had a double session on one of the days, a few of us didn't know if we were going to be ready for this game after a few days," Adam Taggart laughed after the All Stars game. "But I think it worked out well for a few of us trying to stay fit, get some minutes into the legs, and have a tough few days."


First choice: Joe Gauci Next in Line: Paul Izzo, Lawrence Thomas, Nicholas Bilokapic, Ashley Maynard-Brewer Injured: Tom Glover Rested: Mathew Ryan

Reports from News Corp indicate that Ryan will be rested in the coming international window, with the veteran keeper a free agent and considering his next move after his contract with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar came to an end. Those same reports indicate that Glover will be unavailable through injury.

This opens the door for Gauci, who has been restricted to a bench role after moving to Premier League side Aston Villa after the Asian Cup, to put together back-to-back starts this window. Robin Olsen is the established understudy to Emiliano Martínez at Villa, but Gauci and Arnold will be keen for the young keeper to do whatever they can to press a case for a greater role in Unai Emery's plans with UEFA Champions League football in Birmingham next season.

With Ryan and Glover out, standout A-League Men keepers Izzo and Thomas are likely to be selected but this window would be a good opportunity to give Bilokapic time in the senior national team setup after he started 33 games for Peterborough United this season; he was blocked from playing with the Olyroos during the AFC U23 Championships.


First choice: Jordan Bos Next in line: Jacob Farrell Aziz Behich, Jordan Courtney-Perkins, Joel King

Al Nassr's elimination in the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Champions League means that Behich has played just three games since the end of the Asian Cup, but Arnold's affection for the veteran left-back, and the void in leadership given Ryan's resting, means his selection is still on the cards anyway. Still, Behich's dearth of minutes should open the door for Bos, who has been starting regularly for Belgian side KVC Westerlo on both the right and left side of the defence -- getting 90 minutes at right-back in their win over OH Leuven over the weekend -- to be the first choice left-back this coming window.

After becoming a back-to-back champion with the Mariners, Farrell's selection appears more a matter of when not if even if it probably doesn't come this window; he's still got some growing to do, and Melbourne Victory targeted his side early in the Grand Final through Arzani. King was called into camp as an injury replacement in March, and has Socceroos experience, but 21-year-old Courtney-Perkins might be the left-sided defender from Sydney FC whose play merits selection; he is being actively monitored by Socceroos coaches.


First choice: Ryan Strain Next in line: Gethin Jones, Nathaniel Atkinson, Lewis Miller

Despite Arnold's best efforts, the Socceroos are still waiting for a clear right-back of the future to emerge. Strain returned for action with St Mirren after battling injury throughout the year, and the 27-year-old could be another candidate for "super agent" Arnold's school of stock-boosting given his contract in Paisley has finished.

Jones and Atkinson logged minutes at Bolton Wanderers and Hearts, respectively, and should remain in the frame for selection even if both missed the chance to truly establish themselves as a first-choice in Strain's injury-enforced absence. Miller, meanwhile, hasn't played for Hibernian since March.


First choice: Cameron Burgess, Harry Souttar, Alessandro Circati Next in line: Kye Rowles, Thomas Deng, Gianni Stensness, Nectarios Triantis, Alexandar Popovic, Kai Trewin

If there's one position in which the Socceroos are stacked, it's centre-back. Burgess is on top of the world after earning promotion with Ipswich, and shapes as a certain selection for the coming window; as does Circatti, who will be playing in the Italian top flight with Parma next season, and, at 20 years old, he appears a potential decade-long starter for the Socceroos. Rowles is a consistent starter at Hearts whom Arnold has often had moonlight at left-back, and he and Deng will likely be back. Deng has been starting consistently for Albirex Niigata in the Japanese J1 League, and, being in season, he will bring an extra layer of sharpness along with his versatility.

There's plenty in line behind these regulars, too. Lured from New Zealand before rupturing his ACL, Stensness has returned to action in Norway, recently stringing together a series of starts for Viking FK in the Eliteserien -- featuring in a team that has kept clean sheets in his past two games. Another of the Olyroos blocked from the AFC U23 Championships, Triantis is back in Australia and could be given the chance to experience a national team camp; as could Popovic, who has eight starts for Gwangju in the K-League.

And then there's Souttar. The towering 25-year-old is a very good defender but he made only four appearances during the past season for Premier League-bound Leicester City. With the transfer season upon us, Arnold indicated recently that he was likely to use these matches as an opportunity to help Souttar boost his stocks. Just to complicate things that little bit further, though, Foxes boss Enzo Maresca -- whose system Souttar doesn't fit -- is being linked with the Chelsea job, meaning that a new manager in the Midlands could have their own views on the defender.

Central midfielders

First choice: Jackson Irvine, Connor Metcalfe, Josh Nisbet Next in line: Patrick Yazbek, Cameron Devlin, Keanu Baccus, Max Balard, Ryan Teague Injured: Calem Nieuwenhof, Aiden O'Neill, Alex Robertson

After winning promotion to the Bundesliga as champions of the German second tier, St Pauli's Irvine and Metcalfe loom as certain selections.

The newly crowned Johnny Warren Medalist, Nisbet, paced the A-League Men in assists this season and was a gigantic figure in the Mariners' come-from-behind win over the Victory in Saturday's Grand Final. He should be selected, as should Yazbek and Baccus -- the former fresh off his Socceroos debut in the previous window and seeing regular minutes with Viking, and the latter, seen as a regular by Arnold, after his move to newly promoted Mansfield Town. In keeping with Arnold's views on boosting players that need a shop window, there has been consideration towards Devlin coming into the squad to demonstrate his worth either to Hearts or any potential suitors during the coming window.

Devlin's club teammate Nieuwenhof would have been selected had he not undergone surgery on a torn tendon last month, while O'Neill also remains waylaid after injuring ankle ligaments. Balard, who will move to Portuguese side Portimonense in the off-season should they avoid the drop, and Victory midfielder Teague won't be selected this window but are firmly in the eyes of Arnold and Co.

Attacking midfield First choice: Ajdin Hrustić Next in line: Connor Metcalfe, Mat Leckie, Nicolas Milanović Injured: Riley McGree

Hrustić didn't miss a beat with Heracles Almelo in the Eredivisie after his scary-looking injury in Australa's 5-0 win over Lebanon, and he shapes as the Socceroos' key figure in the middle of the park given his ability to unlock a defence and alleviate some of the issues of getting bogged down in possession.

Metcalfe shapes as another option, much as he plays a little bit of everywhere for St Pauli, while Leckie should be in the frame having returned to Melbourne City's lineup late in the season and gone through a mini-training camp with Kisnorbo. McGree required foot surgery after picking up an injury during the Socceroos' previous window, ruling him out for the rest of the season.

Left wing First choice: Mat Leckie Next in line: Sam Silvera, Daniel Arzani, Awer Mabil, Nicolas Milanović Injured: Craig Goodwin, Marco Tilio

With Goodwin out, Leckie's return to the Socceroos setup should almost be assured given his ability to play multiple positions and fill any potential leadership void. Silvera, meanwhile, has become a regular in the plans of Arnold since his move to Middlesbrough, making 42 appearances across all competitions, with 16 starts, and posting six goals and three assists in his first season at the Riverside Stadium.

Arzani has been one of Victory's most important attacking assets this season -- he was on track to win the Joe Marston Medal before Ryan Edmondson's 91st-minute equaliser in Saturday's decider -- and he has a skillet that should be a major asset to the Socceroos if he continues to kick on. The 25-year-old led Australian A-League Men players in big chances created and was second in expected assists through the past season, as well as completing the second most dribbles per game among players who played at least 500 minutes. Often, he was doing this in a Victory attack that got bogged down and saw multiple defenders to marshal him, forcing him to operate off standing starts and adding a degree of difficulty. His call-up will be well earned.

Mabil returned from injury and was a regular for Grasshoppers at the end of the Swiss season, but will need to impress at club level if he's to force his way back into consideration as a Socceroos regular. Milanović should be a Socceroos player sooner rather than later if he can build on the season he's just had for Western Sydney Wanderers.

Right wing

First choice: Connor Metcalfe Next in line: Martin Boyle, Daniel Arzani, Nestory Irankunda, Adrian Segecic Injured: Brandon Borrello

Nineteen of Metcalfe's 33 appearances for St Pauli during their promotion-winning season were on the right, so drifting out to the flank probably shapes as his most likely position to contribute in this window. Boyle has remained a regular for Hibs, and scored a brace in their penultimate game of the season against Motherwell.

Sources told ESPN that Irankunda was shaping as a likely call-up even before his statements surrounding a possible switch to Burundi or Tanzania, with the Sydney Morning Herald subsequently confirming the Bayern Munich-bound prodigy would indeed be part of the squad this window. There's no question the 18-year-old has the talent to be whatever he wants to be in football; it's just a matter of getting the right people around him and ensuring that he does all the things on the training track and off the field that allows potential to actualise in stardom. Part of his call-up will inevitably revolve around that, as well as getting him around veteran figures who can impart advice to him before his move to Bayern.

Segecic almost certianly won't get a call-up this window, but he has made 30 appearances across all competitions on loan at second-tier Dutch side FC Dordrecht this season, making, 16 of them starts; he contributed five goals and an assist -- two of the goals coming in his final three games.

Striker First choice: Kusini Yengi Next in line: Mitch Duke, John Iredale, Adam Taggart, Apostolos Stamatelopoulos, Bruno Fornaroli, Nicholas D'Agostino

Yengi has been given every chance to seize the starting striker role, and he should get another shot after helping Portsmouth secure promotion to the Championship -- scoring a goal every 89 minutes in his limited playing time. Arnold will hope the striker sees the field with a bit more frequency next season. Duke remains one of Arnold's most steadfast options in attack, but the veteran is yet to for Machida Zelvia in the J1 League this season -- albeit, he still has two goals -- putting the 33-year-old under pressure to find a way to kick-on lest he lose his place in the pecking order to younger options.

Iredale, rated by Arnold, who had him in the academy when he was at Sydney FC, made his Socceroo debut and scored during the last window. His SV Wehen Wiesbaden are staring down the barrel of relegation to the German third-tier. He has four goals and two assists in just six starts to this name this season so he, too, too faces a big few months to keep himself in Arnold's mix.

Taggart has retained a level of fitness with Kisnorbo's All Stars after winning the A-League Men Golden Boot despite Perth Glory's struggling season, and he remains in the frame for selection. Fellow veteran Fornaroli is still match fit from Victory's run to the grand final, but the 36-year-old hasn't scored since netting a penalty in April.

Stamatelopoulos missing selection in the previous window but ended the A-League Men season with 17 goals and did score for the All Stars; he shapes as being on the bubble but probably ahead of Fornaroli as, at 25, he can contribute for many years to come.

D'Agostino is back playing for Viking in Norway -- albeit in a mask after breaking his nose -- and has made nine appearances, with four starts, and scored in the young Eliteserien season.