Socceroos' draw with Saudi Arabia exposes the flaws in Graham Arnold's tactical approach

"Goals change games." That was the assessment from Australia national team coach Graham Arnold, following the Socceroos' 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia.

For a manager whose approach, system and in-game adjustment at club level was so inherently outcome-dependent, the comment was a telling punctuation mark to Australia's tactics in Thursday's World Cup qualifier.

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The assessment was fitting, specifically because it was ignoring cause and effect.

Almost like a microcosm for this international window itself and the situation the Socceroos are now in, while everything looks fine on the surface, volatility looms because so much is happening under it. Despite the scoreline, there was a lot that went on in Thursday's draw with the Group B leaders in AFC qualifying -- with a peculiar relationship between occasion and tactical plan.

It was the Socceroos' first qualifier on home soil in more than two years, so the initial wave of energy from the home side was seemingly inevitable at the start of both halves. In both halves, however, tactical sustainability eventually came to the fore and Saudi Arabia finished the better of the two sides.

For two teams using what was effectively the same formation, there were two very different tactical approaches in possession. It was for that reason that Saudi Arabia arguably benefitted more from that relationship between occasion and tactical plan as the match progressed. In reality, the break in play with Harry Souttar's unfortunate knee injury only served to accelerate the inevitable swing in the Saudis' favour.

The dominant question and theme with Arnold as Australia's coach -- with his period of success as Sydney FC coach in mind -- has always been: How flexible or inflexible can he be at international level? Evidence from Thursday subtly emphasised an ever-increasing tilt in favour of the latter.

The scoreless draw only further underlined the importance of Adam Taggart to this current Socceroos setup and, to a lesser extent, Tom Rogic. Arnold went with Mathew Leckie and James Jeggo in their absence, while Ajdin Hrustic was deployed as a second striker. As a result, Australia were even more rigid than usual and, despite leading the shot count 5-1 over the first 45 minutes, the two sides were even for shots in the penalty area. By the end of the game, Saudi Arabia eventually held the higher average for xG per shot, despite Australia finishing with five more shots.

As a result of Jeggo's deployment next to Jackson Irvine for a highly conservative tandem both in and out of possession in midfield, and Leckie replacing the far more incorporative Taggart up front, Arnold's plan created an unhealthy reliance on Hrustic to receive and look for the ball in tight areas.

If Hrustic couldn't receive the ball in tight to then release Martin Boyle or Rhyan Grant down the right flank, the Socceroos were simply lumping passes over the top of the Saudi defensive line. While Jeggo tried to keep distribution tidy and relatively short, unsuccessful long passes from Irvine, Souttar and Trent Sainsbury hit double digits in the first half alone. From those three players over the same period, only two passes into the Saudi defensive third were successful. Without multiple passing avenues that would scramble the Saudi defence -- a direct result of Arnold's starting lineup -- that bombardment of passes over the defensive line felt more like hope than actual purpose. A last resort.

The touch maps from the Australian starting XI on Thursday only reinforced how much of an abyss the middle of the pitch was for the Socceroos in advanced areas.

With Boyle and Awer Mabil high and wide in positioning -- only partially allowing Hrustic room to operate -- Australian entry into opposition half was heavily filtered down the right side. But the flip-side to Boyle and Mabil maintaining such high and wide positions meant Australian attackers were isolated, both in build-up and in more advanced areas.

Regardless of pass length, the next pass after Australia's entry into the opposition half was generally unsuccessful or of little consequence. But as is the case with the weight of numbers, only one of those long pass attempts can come off and it can have the potential to suffice. As it turned out, Australia's best chance of the game came from such a scenario in the 59th minute.

After Mathew Ryan's long kick up the pitch, the ball eventually fell to Aziz Behich, who launched it over the defensive line for Leckie to run on to. The Melbourne City forward muscled his opponent out of the way before firing straight at Saudi keeper Mohammed Al-Rubaie. When taking in Australia's only other decent chance -- Al-Rubaie's double save from a Mabil free kick -- it's not hard to see that Australia's best opportunities came from dead balls and transitional play; hardly a good outcome for a home side that had the majority of possession.

Yet as energy collectively dissipated within Australian ranks, despite being invigorated by the spirited home crowd, a more connected Saudi Arabian side grew into the game. The comparative distances between players in respective phases of play impacted the visitors' eventual ascendancy in categories such as high pressing success (60% to 38%), dribble success (45% to 27%), crossing accuracy (29% to 6%) and eventual shot count in the second half (6 to 5). The latter is a layer on top of the aforementioned disparity in average shot quality, and Saudi Arabia could realistically have taken all three points in the end.

Along with bringing Saudi creative fulcrum Salem Al-Dawsari into the game, in comparison to Hrustic's burden, it was a more sustainable way of play in what was a game of fine margins.

With all this in context, Arnold's post-match assessment felt way off the mark. When asked about the sustainability of the situations chances came within on Thursday, the Australian coach was overtly outcome-focused.

"Goals change games. Mathew Leckie, Rhyan Grant and Andrew Nabbout haven't had much time, because the A-League hasn't kicked off yet," he said.

"Overall, the energy from the boys was fantastic. I thought it was a very good performance and one that we'll build on.

"We had our chances to score. When we did have those chances to score and make it 1-0, then it's a totally different game. The Saudis fought back well when a bit of fatigue set in, but at the end of the day, the draw was a fair result."

Let's ignore Arnold's unintentional contradiction on Australia's collective energy during the match and focus on what he says about chances. Suggesting that not scoring off sporadically created openings offsets the scenarios which they created is either frighteningly inaccurate or disingenuous, depending on whether it was intentional or not.

All the while, aspects like shoehorning incompatible players into a tried-and-tested system, a lack of tactical flexibility and a pragmatic ideological approach that only amplifies under duress, has been and will be exposed against higher-quality opposition.

It is why this international window is pivotal in the overall World Cup qualification picture, especially after the chance to keep Japan at arm's length in October -- and Oman to a lesser extent -- was spurned.

While qualification is still relatively in Australia's hands at this point, even with Saudi Arabia now firmly placed for automatic qualification, it is hard to say this complication of matters was unforeseeable. Now with the air getting thick, to borrow a phrase from Sydney FC's Milos Ninkovic, can Graham Arnold and Australia adapt?