18-year-old Premier League-bound prodigy Garang Kuol headlines Graham Arnold’s 26-man squad for the 2022 FIFA World Cup as regulars Trent Sainsbury and Tom Rogić miss out.
Kuol, who will join Newcastle United from Central Coast Mariners in January, is joined in attack by teammate Jason Cummings who has shone since moving to Gosford. Born in Edinburgh, Cummings joins Harry Souttar and Martin Boyle as current Socceroos who were born in Scotland but are eligible to play for Australia through their parental origins.
Cummings’ gain is Adam Taggart’s loss as the injury-plagued No.9 misses out on selection despite performing admirably when called upon during the World Cup Qualifying campaign. Unfortunately for Taggart, a mixture of untimely injury woes, lack of minutes and an average goalscoring record placed him as Arnold’s fourth choice centre-forward with Cummings being joined by Mitchell Duke and Jamie Maclaren in the final squad.
The point of attack remains a problem area for Arnold as there is an absence of Australians performing well in Europe in this position.
While Maclaren’s seven goals in five A-League games this season place him firmly in contention to lead the line in Qatar, Duke is set to get the nod as Arnold looks to overpower France, Tunisia and Denmark with his side’s physicality. Duke also started in the Socceroos’ two crucial fixtures against UAE and Peru which qualified them for the tournament.
However, it is the opposite end of the pitch where Arnold’s true worries linger. First-choice pairing Kye Rowles and Harry Souttar have both been selected despite carrying injury worries into the tournament. To compensate for this, Arnold has brought five centre-backs to the tournament as the aforementioned duo are joined by Bailey Wright, Thomas Deng and Miloš Degenek who will provide reinforcement options.
While Arnold has frequently mentioned that he would like two players for each position, his decision to pick an extra player at the heart of defence is largely shaped by the concerns that exist around Rowles and Souttar as well as the fact that Japan-based Deng and USA-based Degenek will join the squad in their off-seasons.
Not selecting experienced defender and son in-law Trent Sainsbury is a bold call from Arnold but one that had to be made. Sainsbury has undergone a swathe of injury troubles which kept him out of the matches against UAE and Peru. Prior to that, he was struggling for form both with club and country.
Now plying his trade for Al-Wakrah in the Qatar Stars League, Sainsbury has not played since September 15 and has been training with Melbourne City to keep fit ahead of the World Cup. Taking a third defender who lacks match fitness was seen as too great of a risk for Arnold as he prefers Rowles and Souttar who have each proven their worth in the Socceroos shirt when called upon.
Right full-back shapes as another potential problem area for Australia as Nathaniel Atkinson and Fran Karačić each carry injury concerns into the tournament. While both are said to have recovered, neither have played consistent minutes of late which makes the decision to leave out St Mirren’s Ryan Strain quite perplexing.
Strain has starred in the Scottish Premiership this season, establishing himself as one of the competition’s premier full-backs. The former Adelaide United man is adept at overlapping down the right-hand side and provides attacking threat through his delivery from out wide and ruthless work rate. He is hard in the challenge and aggressive off the ball but there remain concerns surrounding his ability to defend inside his own half.
Regardless, the 25-year-old has started all but two of St Mirren’s games thus far and is arguably the most in-form of any Socceroos defender.
This iteration of the World Cup will certainly be one like no other, and this squad is certainly reflective of the intriguing environment the Socceroos will be playing in.