Harry Souttar took the field for the Socceroos' 2-2 draw with Mexico in Texas on Saturday without having logged a competitive fixture for his club since May and yet, for the majority of the 90 minutes, loomed as its hero. A towering titan of defensive fortitude, the Leicester City centre-back had opened the scoring and was calm and cool at the heart of the Socceroos' defence. However, with just minutes to go, Souttar's evening turned sour, with that lack of sharpness appearing to come to the fore in an error between he and keeper Mat Ryan that ended up costing his side on the night.
It also kick-started a conversation for the future.
Now, it bears noting that a Souttar with very little football under his belt is responsible for one of the finest individual performances in an Australian shirt in decades: a indomitable display helping to steer the Socceroos to a 1-0 win over Tunisia and send them on a path towards the 2022 World Cup's knockout stage. But, this time around, things were different; both in outcome and circumstances.
In Qatar, Souttar was coming off the back of an ACL injury, riding the emotional wave of his recovery. Last month, conversely, as Deadline Day approached in the Championship, he was looking to escape the purgatory of the Leicester bench and secure a loan move north to slot in alongside his brother John in Rangers' backline. Only when midnight struck in Glasgow, slamming the window shut on Sept. 1, the towering Scottish-born defender remained a Fox.
An inauspicious state of affairs for not just for him but, as Saturday showed, for Graham Arnold. The Socceroos coach kept faith by starting Souttar and, for a while, looked like being rewarded. Bursting in front of Johan Vásquez and sending a glancing header past Guillermo Ochoa, he gave the Socceroos the lead in the 16th minute before partnering with debutant Cameron Burgess to blunt an attack led by in-form Feyenoord striker Santiago Giménez.
It was a demonstration of the utility Souttar holds for Arnold, whose gameplan increasingly relies on set-piece play when denied a chance to establish a transition-based game and, against stronger nations, needs his defence to be able to withstand repeated waves of attacks from a ball-dominant foe. The coach, in addition, had challenged Souttar to prove to new Leicester coach Enzo Maresca why he deserved to be playing when he returned to England, so it potentially had the ability to address that problem too.
With less than 10 minutes to go, Australia were clinging onto a 2-1 lead against a fast-finishing El Tri -- Raúl Jiménez having halved the deficit from the spot in the 69th minute after Martin Boyle scored, also with a penalty, in the 63rd minute -- when a catastrophic mix-up between the 24-year-old and keeper Ryan brought it all undone.
Setting up for what appeared to be a regulation clearance of a long ball forward, Souttar instead ducked out of the way at the last moment, seemingly to allow Ryan, who had been retreating with the flight of the ball, to claim. Instead, Cesar Huerta was waiting to pounce on his international debut: claiming the ball and rifling it beyond the Socceroos skipper to salvage a draw.
Could Ryan have come out to claim it? Probably. Should the communication between the team's captain and defensive leader have been better? Absolutely, especially when the keeper perhaps erred in not coming out to claim the ball on the passage that had seen Burgess foul Uriel Antuna for Jiménez's penalty. Arnold would also cite the diabolically patchwork artificial surface at Cowboys Stadium as playing a role.
"You could see the bounce of the ball was completely different," he said. "If it was on normal grass, both of those balls would have gone through to Maty Ryan or out."
And yes, the coach, perhaps, has a point. On a grass surface, such as the one that will be in place at this venue when it hosts official World Cup matches in 2026, maybe Ryan recovers to get forward after Souttar leaves it and comfortably claims. Whatever the case, the ankle injury to Jackson Irvine late on in the contest, which Arnold suggested might keep him out a couple of weeks, suggests Football Australia may need to be a bit more discerning when sourcing future venues.
"They will struggle to probably walk for five days after this," Arnold said.
Nonetheless, one only needs to look at the position of Huerta relative to Souttar, Ryan, and the ball's trajectory as it descends to think that most in-form defenders would normally be clearing away the ball regardless of the surface.
Such an error is out of character. Saturday was just Souttar's 17th appearance in green-and-gold, but there is plenty of evidence from previous international appearances to assert that normally he's getting his sizable head on that. Instead, it's more accurate to say that misstep is indicative of a player entering a game with nary any football to their name in months and faced down with a crucial decision, has their dulled instincts go with the wrong one.
And that, really, might be the conundrum facing Arnold, particularly with the Asian Cup in January. It would probably be one even if Mexico's equaliser never happened. Right now, his centre-back isn't playing and even if Arnold is hopeful that Maresca was enthused by what he saw prior to the error, evidence coming out of Leicester suggests the defender might not be getting many minutes for a while.
Souttar's star turn at the World Cup, arguably Australia's best player over their four games, led to a high-profile transfer to then-Premier League club in January. He made 11 starts across 12 appearances at the King Power Stadium in the months that followed, starting positively enough with wins over Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur but ultimately unable to prevent his new side from being relegated.
The coach that signed Souttar in Brendan Rodgers departed and Maresca, a former assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, arrived and very quickly, he was banished from contention. An unused substitute in a 2-1 win over Coventry City in the Championship's opening week, he has since been left off the teamsheet in six games across league and cup play.
That loan move to Scotland was in the offing but, according to reports, Rangers' inability to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League and secure the bounty of prize money that comes with it, as well as failure to offload Ben Davies, meant that a move became unrealistic. Given that Leicester sit third in the Championship table and the Italian coach appears to see Jannik Vestergaard and Wout Faes as better options in his ball-dominant plans, it's tough to see how Souttar's situation changes in the near future without injuries.
Amidst this, the question for Arnold is: What does he do if Souttar continues to ride the pine? When he's fit and firing, he's Australia's best option at the back, a potentially dominant difference-maker. The World Cup also demonstrated that he's got enough talent that he can't be totally discounted even without form, but the draw against Mexico has now offered a counter to that.
And while an in-form Souttar likely won't be needed by Arnold to record wins over Bangladesh or the Maldives (depending on a playoff result) and Palestine in World Cup qualifying in November, the Asian Cup kicks off on Jan. 12, meaning that even if the defender is finally able to secure a move away come the next transfer window, scant few opportunities may be available for him to find minutes before the Cup commences. There's little doubt he'll be in the squad, and that might be a problem in itself for the defender. Few clubs will want to sign a player in January only to see him immediately become unavailable for the duration of a continental tournament.
With Arnold preaching the need for regular minutes with clubs -- Souttar was the only starter on Saturday not playing regularly domestically -- can the coach justify starting him unless he's played? If Miloš Degenek is getting action with Red Star Belgrade, in both the Champions League and league play, surely he must be in contention? If Burgess continues to feature for Ipswich Town or Alessandro Circati racks up the minutes in Serie B with Parma, do they enter the frame? What if a bolter suddenly emerges from the heavens?
Arnold's efforts to build depth and have multiple options at every position are increasingly bearing fruit at the international level but, sometimes, the problems of abundance can be just as challenging as those of scarcity. Having a number of options playing regularly, in good leagues, inevitably shines a spotlight on those that aren't.
The best-case scenario is Souttar finding form and playing for Leicester, rendering this as moot. But as was ruthlessly exposed by England and Sweden against the Matildas, what's the point in depth if you don't use it?