The reality of Australia's ceiling under Graham Arnold has reportedly become unbearable for Football Australia, following their 2-0 loss to Japan on Thursday, but changing coaches this late in the qualification phase calls Football Australia's understanding of the problem into question.
Irrespective of what this qualification phase has said of Australian football and the opponents the men's national team will face in June, Thursday's loss still exhibited the isolated issues on the pitch that come with Arnold as the Socceroos coach. Let's just focus on those going forward, shall we?
Because long before Kaoru Mitoma's game-breaking goal in the 89th minute, there was a 30 second passage that encapsulated everything wrong with the Socceroos' approach with the ball under Arnold.
It was in the 29th minute, and it began with Trent Sainsbury winning possession for Australia. The ball found its way to Gianni Stensness who immediately bounced a pass to Rhyan Grant, who then fed Martin Boyle on his back foot.
With Japanese numbers converging, Boyle somehow wriggled his way out. With metres to gain without the ball, Connor Metcalfe remained deep and square in midfield, meaning Japan can recover and get back in front of the ball as play circulated out to Awer Mabil on the other side.
Mabil passed backwards to the approaching Metcalfe and from there -- with little else in front of him in terms of passing options -- he had to try and thread a diagonal pass from half-way to an running Ajdin Hrustic.
In the event Hrustic even received that pass behind Japanese left-back Yuto Nagatomo, it's on the Japanese byline. No Australian player could have reasonably covered the ground necessary to get into a dangerous position in the penalty area for the potential subsequent pass from Hrustic. With the wet surface, however, the ball skidded out.
The Socceroos' attacking dysfunction within Arnold's system in a high-stakes game was again plain to see: The use of Metcalfe in midfield alongside Stensness and the untenable distance to Hrustic, the disjointed relationship between Hrustic and striker Mitchell Duke as an attacking tandem, the consequent inability to incorporate Australia's wide players, the Socceroos' ability to even keep the ball -- let alone create chances -- all in a game they had to win.
That is important, and needs to be stressed again: This was a game Australia had to win. A grotesquely apt example of Australian coaching in high-pressure situations. Arnold theoretically put a team out there not to win, but to not lose.
In addition, though, the Japan game exhibited the very worst of Arnold and his adherence to his system -- especially in a situation where he was forced to call on unknown quantities in such an environment. That was evident before this World Cup qualification phase even began.
How Arnold evaluates players in relation to his system, at the player's expense, was evident in comments on his midfield options after the defeat.
"Connor Metcalfe's been doing very, very well for Melbourne City," he said. "I wanted two players there, especially with Stensness, who were defensive-minded.
"And Connor obviously got that yellow card early, and I think that knocked a little bit of confidence out of him."
Metcalfe's defining attribute is his late entry into the penalty area and, in earlier phases as the ball crosses into the opposition half, his ability to attract the defensive line's attention from midfield, much like Jackson Irvine. And like Irvine over this qualification cycle, deploying Metcalfe so deep in midfield took away the one thing he excels at. Talk of confidence sounds so off the mark in context of such gross misuse.
"As I said I needed more of a defensive-minded No. 6, because of [Takumi] Minamino that comes inside all the time," Arnold said post-match.
"Denis Genreau plays No. 10 in France, he's more higher up the field, and we decided to play Ajdin Hrustic instead tonight."
Yet, as neither a defensive midfielder or a traditional No. 10, Genreau doesn't fit within the unmoveable framework of Arnold's 4-4-2. So, despite Australia having to chase the game for automatic qualification and despite the reality that his system was negatively impacting on the game's complexion for Australia, James Jeggo was subbed on at half-time instead.
Because, much like the scoreless draw with Saudi Arabia in November, Hrustic was inevitably forced to operate in isolation. That he was still able to provide Australia's best opportunity of the match does not suddenly excuse how they played. The Socceroos' consistent inability to combine and penetrate once they got the ball into the opposition half, as a direct result of players being utilised badly, was clearly evident.
The other significant parallel to that Saudi match, the Socceroos looked particularly disjointed and lost once the game slowed down and the initial waves of energy subsided in both halves. The double substitution of Bruno Fornaroli and Marco Tilio have to be viewed within this context, because they as players within that system would not have altered -- and eventually did not alter -- that complexion.
The inevitable cut-off of an intended pass for Fornaroli before Ayase Ueda's chance in the 69th minute was inherently reflective of this.
Hrustic's frustration -- ever-increasing over the course of the 90 minutes before erupting at the final whistle, with his booting of a ball into the stands -- was arguably borne of the fact he really had nobody to play or combine with. For an attacking player, there is not a worse or more demoralising feeling on a football pitch.
This is where pretexts over absentees in this window, the supposed need for Fornaroli following injury to Adam Taggart, narrative building on the Presence of Footballing Cattle or difficulties COVID-19 have presented in this World Cup qualification phase fall short. Because the reasons as to why Australia have claimed six of the last possible 18 points were still evident under the surface of an 11-game winning streak at the beginning of qualification.
At the core of it all, Arnold has exhibited an incapacity to maximise the strengths and minimise the flaws of his players, and worse still, has arguably done the opposite in subservience to his system.
Whether another Australian coach who could be considered a candidate for the job does better -- given the likely realities of match complexion the Socceroos would face in the AFC playoff -- is frankly questionable.
Yet the predominant question from Thursday going forward, especially considering the fact Tuesday's match in Jeddah provides a rare opportunity to experiment, can, or more importantly will, Arnold take his chance to adjust?