Podcast View: Popa for Socceroos? ‘He’d do very well’

Here is this week’s episode of the Official A-Leagues Podcast, where analyst Robbie Cornthwaite flagged Melbourne Victory head coach Tony Popovic as a possible Socceroos boss during Jason Davidson’s guest appearance.

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It’s a topic inciting ferocious debate in the fallout of the Socceroos’ 2-2 draw with Oman, which put Australia on the path toward an almost inevitable run of playoffs to attempt to seal a spot at the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup: how long does current head coach Graham Arnold retain his position, and if he was to depart the role, who comes in to replace him?

Under Arnold the Socceroos have accrued 15 points from eight games to sit third with two World Cup qualifying games to play against Japan (second) and Saudi Arabia (first) in Group B.

The Socceroos have let four points slip throughout the qualification campaign with goals conceded in the last five minutes of fixtures against Japan (2-1 loss) and Oman (2-2). 

Australia trail second-placed Japan by just three points and have a healthier goal difference than the Samurai Blue, with the highest two finishers guaranteed a place at the World Cup.

Cornthwaite says the Socceroos have power and pace and play with heart – but that’s not uncommon in the national game, and it’s not enough to set Australia apart, while touting Melbourne Victory head coach Tony Popovic as a possible replacement.

“Even if we beat Japan and Saudi Arabia – I’ll go out and put my head on the line – we’re not going to go through automatically,” said Cornthwaite in a damning assessment of the Socceroos’ current position in Group B of AFC World Cup qualification.

“You’d expect Japan to pump Vietnam in their other game so it looks as though we’re destined for the playoffs,” Cornthwaite added. “Then it’s a bit of a lottery who we get and whether or not we show up.

“I don’t think there’s anything to be excited about the way that we play. It’s reserved, we rely on power, pace, ball in wide areas, set pieces – surely we’re better than that.

“It’s not enough to say we’ve got to lift, we’ve got to be together, we’ve got to have fighting spirit – every country in the world is going to do that, it’s the bloody national team. 

“It’s what Tony Popovic does: it’s the one percenters, the little differences that add up to the big picture, and I don’t think we have them at the moment.”

A week of intense focus on the Socceroos boss and the nation’s chances of progressing to a fifth-successive World Cup ended with one Australian coach masterminding the latest of his string of transformative feats at club level in the country – and that was Popovic, as he led Victory to FFA Cup glory after just months at the helm.

Jason Davidson, who has served under Popovic in successful spells at both Perth Glory and Victory, says his current boss has the pedigree to achieve success with the national team, however different the challenge may be to what presents to Popovic at club level.

“His record speaks for itself, especially with Australian players in Australia,” Davidson, who scored a stunning free-kick in Saturday’s FFA Cup triumph against Central Coast Mariners, said. “He knows what it’s all about here, he knows the players inside out.

“I think it’s obviously a different type of football, national team to club level because you don’t have as much time with the team, you only have a certain amount of time leading up to games.

“It’s interesting, because we talk about his attention to detail, it would be very different if he did the national team because he’s got a shorter amount of time. But I definitely believe in his quality as a coach. I think if he did get the join he’d do very well. In the future you never know, I think he might get that job in the future and if he does, full support to him.”

The Socceroos are next in action against Japan on March 24 at Stadium Australia. It’s a crucial qualification fixture which gives Arnold’s side the opportunity to jump into second spot of Group B on goal difference.

Official A-Leagues Podcast football analyst Amy Chapman says any managerial turnover between now and Australia’s final two qualification fixtures would come too soon to enact any genuine change.

“It’s just such a short time, that’s the only concern,” Chapman said. “Give Popa six weeks to eight weeks, he can obviously cause a miracle. That’s my concern, whether you want to point fingers at the coach or not there’s not enough time to bring in someone new to turn over something that isn’t probably just luck in the end.”

Cornthwaite added: “Tony Popovic’s attention to detail, which we talk about ad nauseam and Jason Davidson touched on it as well, but that’s day-to-day contact with the players driving those standards every day. If you’re not with those players every day, I don’t know if Tony Popovic can have that level of influence over a national team.”

Davidson: What makes Popa ‘one of the best I’ve seen’ in Oz and abroad

Despite winning the AFC Asian Champions League with Western Sydney Wanderers and two Isuzu UTE A-League premierships between both the Wanderers and Glory, Popovic had failed to emerge victorious in a one-off final as a head coach in Australia – until Saturday night.

A manager renowned for his attention to detail, Davidson said the definition of the term is often misconstrued in the context of how Popovic operates – and the true meaning of the phrase is what makes the Victory boss one of the best coaches Davidson has worked under throughout his career.

“When you say attention to detail people might think that’s rocking up to training, discipline, training schedule, or what we do at training but it’s more than that,” he said.

“For example: each player needs to be handled differently. Some people can be smashed, and maybe I’m one of those players he needs to push every day, and keep getting motivated and disciplined. 

“Some people can’t handle that, for example, they need to be nurtured and given positive feedback all the time… I think his player management skills are (some) of the best I’ve seen, comparing to coaches overseas. I think he’s someone that when it comes to everything and every aspect of coaching he ticks all the boxes, he doesn’t leave any stone unturned. That’s on and off the pitch.

“And he’s also an unbelievable person, from a personal side as well, the relationship that I have with him and everyone has with him, he’s a nice guy first and foremost, and he’s always been honest and respectful. For me, how I’ve worked with him in the past and now is if he can see you’re honest and a hardworking person and there to develop, or to be there for the team and work hard, he’ll give you his everything. He just expects that back from you.

“For me he’s one of the best coaches I’ve worked with, and I’m just happy he got a trophy. I know we won the premiership and he’s won premiers plates before, but to win a cup, he’s lost a couple of grand finals but to win a cup in a final, I’m just happy that he’s accomplished that.”