Five Hyundai A-League youngsters gunning for Arnold's first Australia squad

With the AFC Asian Cup under six months away, the talk is already beginning. Just who will put their hand up and earn a place in Graham Arnold's first Caltex Socceroos squad?

There Aussie players all around the world who might fancy their chances to make an impression, including those who went to the FIFA World Cup™ but didn't get onto the pitch, and the nine players who didn't make it after being cut from the initial 32-man squad.

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With Arnold perhaps looking to the future, there are also a number of young Australian players here at home who will be hoping that they have attracted the new Caltex Socceroos' head coach's attention and maybe earn a place in his first squad.

The big prize would be a place among the 23-man squad for the AFC Asian Cup in January, but the first target to aim for is the training camp scheduled for September.

Here are five young Aussies playing in the Hyundai A-League who could earn a place in Arnold's first squad.

Jacob Italiano

Club: Perth Glory
Age: 17

One of the youngest players to feature regularly in the Hyundai A-League last season, Jacob Italiano has really come into his own since debuting for Perth last November.

He featured in his debut at just 16-years-old, starting against Melbourne Victory back in round seven last season, and almost opened the scoring in first-half stoppage time.

An attacking midfielder, Italiano, went on to play 16 times for Perth last season and started in 12 of those matches. He proved a pest for opposition defences, drawing 19 fouls and making 28 successful dribbles.

New Glory boss Tony Popovic has already shown he rates Italiano, and he’s started and scored during the pre-season friendly calendar. Italiano also played 90 minutes in Glory’s 1-0 FFA Cup 2018 Round of 32 loss to Melbourne Victory.

This will be his last season in the Hyundai A-League, with Italiano heading to Germany at the end of the season. He’s signed a pre-contract agreement with Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach, but can’t head to Europe until after his 18th birthday.

Jacob Italiano

Dylan Wenzel-Halls

Club: Brisbane Roar
Age: 20

Dylan Wenzel-Halls is just one example of a player who lit up the NPL QLD and earned himself a move onto the professional stage. At 19-years-old, Wenzel-Halls had already begun to turn heads last season in the NPL QLD with 17 goals in 18 matches.

This year though, he took it to another level and scored 23 goals in just 11 matches for Western Pride. It earned him a professional contract with the Roar, and if his stocks were to continue to rise it would cap a magnificent fairytale story for the youngster.

Wenzel-Halls didn’t appear in the squad for Brisbane’s last-minute FFA Cup 2018 Round of 32 loss to Melbourne City, but one of his main competitors for a spot in the starting line-up did.

That competitor, Adam Taggart, signed for Roar in the hope of learning from a former Australia striker in John Aloisi. The Roar manager has described Wenzel-Halls as ‘one of Queensland’s more exciting football talents’.

Wenzel-Halls will have it all to do if he’s to work his way into the starting line-up, behind Taggart and Brazillian striker Henrique. Should he show enough though, could he be the man to fill the shoes left by Tim Cahill?

Dylan Wenzel-Halls

Thomas Deng

Club: Melbourne Victory
Age: 21

One of Australia’s best and brightest young defenders, Deng has played for Melbourne Victory for almost three years since making his debut as an 18-year-old back in October 2015.

A player who can operate equally well at centre or right-back, Deng played in 24 of Melbourne Victory’s Hyundai A-League fixtures last season, including their Grand Final win over Newcastle Jets.

He’s shown his aptitude in the backline and the stats from last season prove it: he won 27 tackles, made 38 interceptions and 99 clearances in the league’s equal third-best defence.

A move to the Netherlands, on loan to Jong PSV, helped Deng improve his game across the 2016/17 season despite not playing all that much football. He said it helped him mature, and think better tactically.

Deng’s African heritage means he’s eligible to play for three countries: Australia, Kenya, and South Sudan. Given he’s played more than a dozen games for Australia youth sides, it seems his allegiances do lie Down Under.

Deng

Stefan Mauk

Club: Brisbane Roar
Age: 22

An attacking midfielder who is now at his third Hyundai A-League club, Mauk is yet to represent Australia at the senior level despite playing 20 times for his country at Under-17 to Under-23 levels.

His former City boss John Aloisi was a big drawcard for Mauk, who joins from Dutch club NEC. He did spend last season in the Hyundai A-League, on loan at Melbourne City.

The stats for Mauk last season are good: he played 23 times for City in the Hyundai A-League, scoring five times and setting up one goal. He also played 11 key passes and won two penalties for his side.

Mauk played 120 minutes in Brisbane’s FFA Cup 2018 Round of 32 defeat to his former club, Melbourne City, but has impressed during the pre-season and earned some high praise from Aloisi.

One hurdle in Mauk’s way is the depth which Australia has in their attacking midfield stocks. With the likes of Tom Rogic, Aaron Mooy, and Jackson Irvine in front of him it will take a special season for Mauk to crack into the squad.

Mauk

Brandon O’Neill

Club: Sydney FC
Age: 24

One half of the midfield heart which has helped Sydney FC to a blessed life these past seasons, Brandon O’Neill is perhaps one of the best young Australians who hasn’t had a shot at international level.

He’s another victim of Australia’s fantastic midfield depth and as a central midfielder, he’s fighting with the likes of Mile Jedinak and Aaron Mooy for a position shielding the defence and getting attacks underway.

And when it comes to distribution, O’Neill is one of the best in the league. He made 1,275 successful passes last season, 14 of those key. Just think about the players the rest went to – the likes of Bobo and Milos Ninkovic.

Breaking up attacks was another strength of O’Neill’s, making 61 tackles throughout last season. That’s alongside 42 interceptions, 33 clearances, and eight blocks.

What’s clear, is that O’Neill is one of the league’s best midfielders. At just 24, O’Neill has a long road ahead of him. It’s widely known that he was one of Graham Arnold’s favourite players during the coach’s time at Sydney FC. That could hold him in good stead.

Brandon O'Neill