Australia men at crossroads after Tokyo Olympics disappointment, Graham Arnold exit

Australia sent both men's and women's sides to the Olympics for the first time since 2004, but, alas for Green-and-Gold aficionados, neither could end the nation's wait for an elusive footballing medal.

Both sides had moments that captivated but, unlike the Matildas, there was no bronze-medal match, or even a single knockout fixture, for the men: Coach Graham Arnold's Olyroos were bundled out in bottom place of their group after the opening win against Argentina was followed by back-to-back defeats by Spain and Egypt.

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For those who competed in the men's tournament, the preeminent destination now becomes the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. On Wednesday evening -- a week after Brazil were crowned Olympic men's champions -- it was announced that Arnold would be stepping away from his Olyroos duties to focus entirely on the Socceroos and their coming World Cup qualifiers, although Football Australia chief executive James Johnson's comments made clear that this had been the plan all along.

"We would like to place on record our thanks to Arnold and his staff for their enormous contribution to the Olyroos program over the past three years," Johnson said. "Through their passion for Australian football and commitment to Australian kids, Graham and his staff took on the Olyroos in addition to their roles with the Socceroos, with the aim of helping to develop Australia's elite player depth and to return Australia to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Having achieved both goals, Graham and his staff will now place their full focus on guiding the Socceroos to next year's FIFA World Cup, as was always the plan post-Games."

Given the significant strain that Arnold has been under since the return of international football -- living out of a suitcase and unable to return home to see his family due to the logistical challenges presented by the combination of the national teams' calendar and Australia's border restrictions -- there is little reason to doubt the plan to depart the Olyroos after Tokyo wasn't the plan heading in.

But with the departure of Arnold definitively concluding the Tokyo 2020 chapter of the Olyroos' story, it raises the question about how to assess their campaign. Needing only a point against Spain or Egypt to ensure progression to the knockouts, the Olyroos' group stage exit was, in an immediate sense, a disappointment.

Though the understrength nature of the Argentine team downed 2-0 in Sapporo perhaps unduly inflated expectations, a point against Spain, who showed outright dysfunctionality with the ball at times, or a profligate Egyptian team was not a fanciful task.

Yet, in a more intermediate sense, few would have turned their noses up at the prospect of three points and a chance at progression on the final day of play in the Group of Death; remember, going back to the start of this Olympic cycle, that significant doubts existed around Australia's ability even to qualify for Tokyo after they had been bundled out of the 2018 AFC U23 Championship in the group stages while young players were receiving very little game time in the A-League, .

But one only needs to look at the celebrations and joy that a gold medal brought the likes of Dani Alves, Neymar and Lionel Messi to see that Olympic success is a worthwhile goal, and that an inability to mount a proper challenge on the medals counts against a campaign.

Rightly or wrongly, the pursuit of a medal was also a vociferously stated goal of Arnold -- an objective repeated too frequently and with too much enthusiasm to simply be a mark of respect for the competition.

However, unlike the open-age women's format, men's football at the Olympics adopts an under-23 format -- (under- for the delayed Tokyo Games -- with allowances made for three overage players. This, inevitably, means the pursuit of results needs to be balanced, if not outweighed, with development. This devaluation is further reinforced by clubs' ability to block players from playing.

While Spain was fortuitous in being able to deploy a loaded squad, it's almost certain that the Argentina side of Fernando Batista would have been significantly stronger had he been able to obligate players to appear. Arnold himself revealed before the Olympic Games that he received only three positive responses to the "30 to 40" calls he made about securing overage players.

Thus, to properly appraise the Olyroos, we must consider their performance against expectations (both near- and long-term) and their provision of a platform for development. And in doing so, it may be said that the Olyroos mounted an Olympic campaign that was simultaneously a success and a disappointment.

Examining the positives, the past few months have undoubtedly borne fruit that should benefit the Socceroos for years to come -- and that was Arnold's key goal when he took on the role of under-23 boss.

Possessing just a handful of senior caps between them, Olympians Denis Genreau, Conor Metcalfe, Riley McGree, Daniel Arzani and Thomas Deng all loom as key contributors for Australia's senior side over

the coming World Cup cycles, while Harry Souttar appears to have rapidly established himself as one of Arnold's go-to men.

Arguably the standout performer in Tokyo, Nathaniel Atkinson looms as a near certainty to secure a Socceroos cap in the coming months while the progression of his fellow wing-back Joel King and attacker Marco Tilio bodes well.

The volume of information, footage and scouting reports available to clubs in modern football means the days of a player starring at a tournament and earning a move overseas based on that small sample are a thing of the past. Tournaments can, however, offer players a platform that reinforces their place in a prospective club's plans or put them on their radars. Genreau's recent move to Toulouse, for example, was in the works prior to the Games, but his play in Japan didn't hurt his chances of forcing his way into coach Philippe Montanier's plans sooner. Any of his teammates already on the radar of foreign clubs, likewise, may have bolstered the pre-existing case for their capture.

Others may have forced their way under the microscope of potential suitors scouting departments -- scouts examining one of Argentina or Spain's crop taken with their play and eager to learn more.

"I believe there are many players who were involved over the past three years that are ready to take further steps forward in their careers, both with the Socceroos and at club level," Arnold said.

Nonetheless, these undeniable positives don't mean that things couldn't have been better -- especially when examined through expectations forged after Tilio's 80th-minute goal against Argentina. To pretend otherwise is unhelpful. After that triumph, the conservative approach against a team with the firepower of Spain was inevitable but the lack of adjustment to put La Roja under some semblance of pressure when it became apparent just how blunt they were with the ball, with hindsight, was a lapse.

Under no real threat in their back half, the Spanish were afforded the room to find their feet -- the central shift of Dani Olmo key in this regard -- and their eventual late winner carried a sense of inevitability more than misfortune. If the real target was Egypt all along, yellow cards and subsequent suspensions earned by Mitch Duke, McGree and Atkinson in that game should have been accounted for and avoided.

Against Egypt, another conservative approach -- this time with an undermanned squad -- left the Olryoos vulnerable; Ahmed Rayan's goal just before halftime was reflective of the control his side had been gifted by the Green and Gold. Tellingly, his and Ammar Hamdy's subsequent 85th-minute strike were the only goals Egypt scored in the entire tournament. Australia's attempts to get back in the game at the start of the second half showed signs of improvement, but the move to put centre-back Jay Rich-Baghuelou up top suffocated the space being exploited by Arzani and Tilio.

Frustratingly, these reserved approaches flew in the face of the fearless, bold and confident approach espoused by Arnold and his squads since he ascended to the national teams -- one that was demonstrated against Argentina. The phrase has become somewhat of a running gag in Australian football, but the Olyroos simply didn't look like they expected to win against either Spain or Egypt. Of course, these disappointments in and of themselves don't have to be malignant.

As missteps in approach to individual games, they can be rectified and used to inform plans for future Socceroos fixtures; these adaptations -- or an ongoing pattern of a lack of them -- can shape conversation and judgement surrounding future performances.

And that speaks to the true challenge of definitively assessing the Olyroos' performance in Tokyo.

While there were both successes and disappointments, the Olympics' underlying nature as an underage tournament inevitably means the true markers of success or failure won't become readily apparent for months and years ahead.

Much like the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Tokyo may be seen in the future as an international coming-out party for a new generation of Socceroos; the disappointment of the results on the field taking a back seat to the long-lasting legacy of those who took part.

Alternatively, Tokyo may come to represent the starting point of a series of disappointments and stagnation in national team play and approach. Or perhaps it could be somewhere in between: Silver linings and stings in the tail available in equal amounts for those who go beyond the lead and delve into the nuances of the occasion.