Despite the positives, the Olyroos tournament was ultimately a disappointment
It filled the air as the final whistle sounded at the Miyagi Stadium.
You could see it in Daniel Arzani as he slumped to the ground, his valiant efforts in vain.
You could see it in the players in the dugout, heads in hands.
Contrasted against the backdrop of the songs of delight from the Egypt camp, it was all the more painful.
Disappointment. It was the word of the moment for Australian football fans last night as Egypt extinguished the Olyroos’ Olympic campaign with a 2-0 victory. Australia only needed a point in their final group game, yet in the humidity of a Japanese summer’s night, they simply melted away along with their dreams of a first quarter-final appearance since 2004.
As the dust settles from the crushing defeat, fans and pundits will begin to process the whirlwind events of the last week, a week that began so brightly with a shock 2-0 win over Argentina yet ended with an all too familiar sinking feeling.
Assessing the outcomes of this Olympic tournament is not a cut and dry exercise. There are many contradictions when it comes to judging the performances of the players and manager.
The opening game against Argentina was a fantastic all-round team performance. The defence was rock solid and was complemented by a masterclass in counter-attacking and breaking down the game in the midfield. The players looked hungry, alive. Graham Arnold had a clear game plan and the players executed it. Both manager and players alike deserved praise.
Three days later against Spain, the Olyroos earned plaudits for a resilient and gutsy defensive display that saw them hold out a world class Spain side for the majority of the match as they eventually fell to a noble 1-0 defeat. Whilst the attacking threat from the previous game was not as potent, it was still seen as a positive result.
Then along came Egypt.
Before the game, Arnold was debating how he was going to cover for the suspension of three key players: Mitchell Duke, Nathaniel Atkinson and Riley McGree. Atkinson, who was man of the match against Spain, would be particularly hard to replace.
The other tactical dilemma was what shape he would employ; would he remain conservative with a solid shape that had yielded success in the previous two games, or would he opt for an expansive 3-5-2 formation that would utilise attacking wing backs and put pressure on a defensively strong Egypt.
In the end, he went for the conservative option. He broke up the previously successful centre-back partnership between Harry Souttar and captain Thomas Deng by moving the latter to right back. He also introduced Nick D’Agostino in place of Duke up top and drafted in Dylan Pierias, who many thought would play at right back.
Instead of going toe-to-toe with a previously defensive Egypt side that had to attack to get the win they needed, Arnold gambled on his defence being able to withstand an attacking onslaught for the third game in a row.
It backfired badly in the first half. A reshuffled defence was put under relentless pressure by a desperate Egypt, D’Agostino failed to be the impactful focal point offensively that Duke so often is, and a McGree-less midfield was simply anonymous. Egypt scored just on half time, rendering Arnold’s game plan obsolete.
He attempted to change the game in the second half by introducing the dropped Arzani and Keanu Baccus to reinvigorate a lethargic outfit. It gave life to the team but not the cutting edge needed. So, Arnold and Australia grew desperate, exemplified by bringing on centre-back Jay Rich-Baghuelou as a second striker in the 63rd minute.
Australia did eventually create meaningful opportunities, but they were then denied by multiple superb saves by Egypt’s goalkeeper Mohamed el Shenawy as the game reached its climax. It was off the back of one such save that Egypt countered and put the game to bed with the second goal.
Expectations were low for the Olyroos heading into the tournament. Having rarely played due to COVID, they flattered to deceive the few times they played and were in a group featuring powerhouses Spain and Argentina.
Their first two games of the tournament changed that. And going into the final game only needing a point against a difficult but beatable opposition means that the expectations are going to be altered.
Ultimately those expectations were not met.
And that means despite the promising performances of Harry Souttar and Marco Tilio, despite the joys of the Argentina victory, this Olympic tournament has to be regarded as a disappointment.
It is now up to the manager and the players to ensure that the positives from this Olympic experience outlive the negatives.