Return to Australia beckons for Daniel Arzani after stagnant two years in Europe

On the eve of Saturday night’s 2-1 derby win over Western United, Melbourne City head coach Patrick Kisnorbo fielded a media query he had probably been expecting. Would he like to see Daniel Arzani back in City’s line-up?

“If that option came up we’d probably talk about it,” Kisnorbo said. “I haven’t spoken to Daniel. At the end of the day, that’s their business. I need to worry about what we want to do here and what we have here at the moment. I just wish Daniel all the best in what he needs to do with his career.”

Many an A-League outfit, granted the opportunity, would accept with alacrity an invitation to acquire the services of a young, spontaneous attacker with a penchant for risk-taking and an aversion to dull mechanics.

Perhaps, though, the A-League’s willingness to welcome back Arzani is less relevant than the question of whether he would actually entertain a return. Even now, unused and seemingly unwanted by FC Utrecht, there remains a sense that the lure of Europe’s promised land will ensure he does not.

And yet a homecoming, however brief, could provide a circuit breaker to a stagnant two years. More pertinently, it would almost certainly yield game time months out from the Olyroos’ Olympics campaign and less than two years before the next World Cup.

Six months after securing a promising loan move to the Eredivisie, Arzani has made four league appearances for a total 58 minutes. Last week, recently appointed Utrecht manager, René Hake, told Dutch media “it’s clear that he doesn’t meet our expectations”, and intimated the 22-year-old could leave imminently.

Should that occur, the next decision taken by his camp and parent club Manchester City shapes as critical to a career that has, thus far, been held at heights that would have even the most precocious of characters wilting under the expectation.

During Arzani’s breakout A-League season of 2017-18, Melbourne City coach Warren Joyce publicly appreciated the then 19-year-old’s “qualities that can win games and create chances”. He also referenced “a lot of bad habits” requiring work. That was not a slight on Arzani, merely recognition of his need for shrewd development.

By April, the public had anointed him Harry Kewell 2.0, an ordination so all-encompassing it practically opted him out of another season with City before he had properly contemplated it himself.

A bolter in Bert van Marwijk’s 2018 World Cup squad, his group-stage cameos in Russia were enough to snuff out the over-cautious who claimed he was not ready. After the tournament, once he was signed by Manchester City and promptly loaned to Celtic, then-Hoops manager Brendan Rodgers attempted to tone down the noise. His words are just as pertinent now.

“Daniel hasn’t played 90 minutes football, here or in Australia,” Rodgers said at the time. “This is a young player who burst onto the scene back home and is regarded as a talent, but he is very new into his life as a professional and has just been with us for three weeks.

“It’s the adaptation to a new country, new club, new football. It’s just time, he’s a talented young player and the idea with a talented young player is to go from a talent to a professional.

“It will be our job to manage the expectation, every young player in Australia they hope can be the next Harry Kewell. Harry was a special talent but Daniel is a young boy who has talent; over the coming years we will see if he has the commitment to go with the quality he has.”

At this point, the former will not match the latter if Arzani does not establish himself in an appropriate club environment. There are hard advocates for Europe being the only answer. Kewell himself recently said as much, noting Australians lack the “kind of grit between their teeth” of a bygone era when he was a Premier League regular at 19. Socceroos assistant coach René Meulensteen hoped this week for Arzani to find another loan arrangement in the Netherlands.

Of course this perspective carries merit – as long as the player is playing. Arzani has 130 top-flight club minutes to his name – he has more in Holland’s second tier – since his last game for Melbourne City in April 2018. A return to Australia to rebuild that base would not be a failure, or a loss of face. Rather, an acknowledgement that game time – in a team with more to play for than Utrecht’s reserves or Manchester City’s Under-23s – should, for now at least, supersede statement moves.

It would be recognition that sometimes circumstances beyond an individual’s control dictate success or failure. These can arrive in the form of an ACL rupture on starting debut for Celtic’s first team, or an unforeseen change of manager. Sometimes a step back to move forward is helpful. That does not fit City Football Group’s business model, but the business of bodies is not always a steady market.

Aaron Mooy, another CFG graduate, was almost exactly the same age as Arzani is now when he returned from St Mirren to sign with Western Sydney, before finding a happier place at Melbourne City that adequately prepared him for success abroad with Brighton via Huddersfield.

There is no shortage of Socceroos in Australia’s domestic competition. Rhyan Grant became an international regular through Sydney FC, while James Troisi (Western Sydney Wanderers) and Tomi Juric (Adelaide United) are back to remind Graham Arnold of their worth.

Reassessing is not the same as admitting defeat, and Arzani is more likely to be the next big thing if small things happen first.