Getting a first proper chance to observe his squad in almost two years, the transformation that several of his players have undergone has led Graham Arnold to re-issue a plea for Australian football to provide its youth with more minutes.
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Set to finally resume their 2022 World Cup qualification campaign against Kuwait in the early hours of Friday morning - an astounding 599 days since they last were in competitive action - the Socceroos arrived in centralized qualification venue Kuwait City two days ago after undertaking a training camp in the UAE.
Following their meeting with Al-Azraq - who are second in Group B with ten points from five games - Arnold’s squad are set to meet Taiwan on June 7 (2:30 am June 8 AEST), Nepal on June 11(2:30 am June 12 AEST), and Jordan on June 15 (4:30 am June 16 AEST).
Top of the group with four wins from four games, the Australians are well-placed to progress to the third round of AFC qualifying nominally set to begin in October as either group winners or as one of the four best runners-up.
A lot has changed since Arnold's side stormed out of the blocks and claimed 12 points with 16 goals scored compared to just one against -- Rhyan Grant, for instance, no longer has a mullet.
But speaking to journalists ahead of his side’s clash with Kuwait at the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium, Arnold said that since reuniting with his squad he had, in particular, been struck by the growth demonstrated by a number of its younger players.
“Harry [Souttar] came into camp with a very slight hip injury but he’s in great shape,” Arnold said. “Believe it or not, I think he’s actually grown taller.
“Riley McGree is a different specimen now as a footballer. His body has changed, as has Harry Souttar’s.
“I know we’ve talked about this many times before, but in Australia, we don’t play enough football - Harry Souttar this year has played 46 games.
“Riley McGree is a completely different footballer today than when he left Adelaide and that’s down to the number of games he’s played in the Championship and playing and (training) for ten months of the year - not six months.”
Arnold has been increasingly vocal on the need to provide young Australian players with opportunities to play competitive football since ascending the role of Socceroo and Olyroos' boss in 2018.
He, alongside National Technical Director Trevor Morgan and Lead Football Australia Technical Analyst Doug Kors, was amongst federation staff that produced a ‘Performance Gap’ report during international football's COVID-enforced hibernation in 2020 that outlined the challenges faced in developing Australian players in an ecosystem where senior minutes were very difficult to find.
While youngsters seeing the field has been one of the highlights of the 2020-21 A-League season, the Socceroos' gaffer wants to see reforms instituted that would ensure there were increased opportunities for kids to accumulate minutes in non-COVID affected years.
“We’ve spoken of this before,” Arnold said. “During COVID, we did the document on the Performance Gap.
“The APL will do what they want to do, will do what they do. But, for me, it’s all about match minutes and being able to play the game longer.
“Is 26 rounds enough rounds in the A-League? No.
"I think that’s at least six or seven games too short.
“If there are 12 teams, 3 (games) x 11 (opponents) is 33 rounds. Add the finals series and the FFA Cup and all of a sudden you’re getting to around 40 games and we’re getting closer to players playing overseas instead of not training and having long offseasons.”
“You’re asking me the difference between the players - all these kids - and it’s all-around match minutes.
"Denis Genreau. We talk about Denis Genreau. Last year at Melbourne City he hardly played and look at the difference this year when he does play at Macarthur.”
Two players in Arnold’s extended squad that have benefited from opportunities to play and/or train year-round in Europe are Fran Karačić and Ajdin Hrustić.
Three years on from being a late cut from the Socceroos 2018 World Cup squad, Arnold confirmed to journalists that defender Karačić, who is on the books at Serie B side Brescia, is set to make his international debut by starting against Kuwait.
Hrustić, meanwhile, is set to back up his first-ever Bundesliga start with Eintracht Frankfurt by featuring as a ten across the coming four fixtures.
"Ajdin has come in, in my view, a completely different player the last time we saw him in Holland," said Arnold.
"He’s at a great club in Germany, he’s doing exceptionally well.
“We’ve got some great depth [at ten]. Riley McGree is here, Jackson Irvine as well.
"We’ve got players that can play in those roles and the best part is, is that we can be flexible with our tactics and team structure."