Eleven games into the A-League's re-start and calamity has, so far, been avoided. Thus, it's time for another A-League recap!
With Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United's 1-1 draw -- which infuriatingly denied us the prospect of the Reds going through an entire season without a single stalemate -- Sydney FC confirmed their capture of the traditionalist's prize, the A-League Premiership. The club's fourth in total, it moves them to equal top of the all-time premier's list alongside Melbourne Croatia/Knights, Perth Glory and, depending upon one's definition of the term, Sydney City.
While Sydney has always been one of the competition's biggest and wealthiest sides since its inception, only the most one-eyed of hostile fans would argue at this point that the Sky Blues haven't broken away to establish themselves as the A-League's measuring stick; the club winning three premierships, two championships and an FFA Cup in the past five years.
Sitting alongside these accomplishments is one of the strongest women's setups in the country -- the Harboursider's W-League side have never missed the finals throughout their 12-year history -- and a youth program that recently sent prospects Cameron Peupion and Ryan Teague to Europe. Heck, Sydney FC are even multiple-time E-League champions.
Nevertheless, much like the 2019-20 run of Steve Corica's side -- with previous games against the Nix and Newcastle Jets demonstrating areas in which they are susceptible -- there are no guarantees the good times will last. The uncertain outlook of the future A-League's financial health means that no club can afford to be complacent.
But the success of Sydney suggests they'd be better placed to weather the storm than most. One doesn't reach this level of success across multiple levels of a club without sustained competence and clarity of purpose at an organisational level.
Bravo to everyone at the Sky Blues.
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The presence of a winner, of course, requires a loser, and the Sky Blue's seizing the mantle of A-League supremacy will be a bitter pill to swallow for rivals Melbourne Victory.
The club and Kevin Muscat's conscious uncoupling following the 2018-19 season appeared the best move for both parties, with seemingly little value remaining for either side to extract from the other. But while Muscat landed on his feet -- now at Sint-Truiden in the Belgian top flight -- Victory's handling of the transition seemingly doomed their 2019-20 campaign before it even began. It presents a good study in contrasts with their rivals.
When Graham Arnold, having laid down the template for ongoing A-League success, departed Sydney for the Socceroos job, he was replaced by longtime assistant Corica and the results continued. Conversely, despite Victory's internal perception as an exciting, dynamic and glamorous A-League force, a "worldwide search" for Muscat's replacement eventually landed on the pragmatism and off-field reservedness of "proven A-League performer" Marco Kurz.
Muscat's understanding of Victory's dynamics and the requirements the club has on and off the field, as Corica possesses at Sydney, enabled him to embed certain behaviours and expectations in both himself and his teams that helped minimize limitations, create harmony and win trophies. In comparison, after a player recruitment process in which the extent of his involvement remains unclear, an early string of poor results under Kurz arrived without the safety net that comes from trust forged when coach and club philosophies work in synergy.
Though it's inevitable that there's some layer of friction between a coach and club administrators, the Victory's 2019-20 season, which seems certain to end with their worst ever end-of-season finish after their 2-1 loss against Brisbane Roar on Wednesday, provides an excellent example of how untenable levels of this can manifest in on-field malaise.
Victory's task of finding their next perfect fit appears to be a challenging one, with a source telling ESPN in recent days that Wellington Phoenix boss Ufuk Talay had rejected their overtures to take over in 2020-21.
Scott McDonald proved a vital early cog in Western United's early-season performances and, though his role has adjusted given the changes in personnel alongside him, his falling out at the expansion club and subsequent move to Brisbane has now seemingly served to invigorate the Queenslanders' season.
Brisbane had won just three games in 12 and displayed a thoroughly uninspiring and attritional brand of football before McDonald's arrival and, admittedly, these attritional aspects have since continued. However, the veteran's ability to facilitate his teammates through his work both with and without the ball and recognise the ebbs and flows of the game have given Roar a much needed edge going forward.
Entering Wednesday evening's contest against the Victory with just three losses and a single draw since he arrived, McDonald's fifth Roar goal in the 56th minute served to steady his side's ship after their foes had threatened in transition throughout the first half -- winning them their seventh game since his arrival and all-but booking their place in finals football.
Max Burgess has always been a bit different from your average footballer; when the midfielder was first plucked out NPL NSW by Mark Rudan ahead of the 2018-19 season it wasn't a PS4 that was packed into the Bondi-native's bag when as he headed off to Phoenix training camp, but a chessboard. Flash forward to the present and, with McDonald, Dario Jertec and Panagiotis Kone having all departed Western United, that individuality is now on show.
The 25-year-old's ability to see the game unfolding and pick his moments, as a chess player would do in waiting for the perfect moment to spring a carefully laid trap, takes on elevated importance when he is given the freedom to roam alongside the irrepressible Alessandro Diamanti -- as was the case in his club's 2-1 win over Melbourne Victory.
Though a joy to watch when everything clicks into place, the carefree and improvisational nature of the Italy international's game, by necessity, requires players of intelligence around him. When Diamanti freelances, his teammates need to know what areas of the field to occupy to keep play moving along. Signature pinpoint cross-field left-footed bombs can't land if Connor Pain and Josh Risdon aren't busting a gut to get down the flanks to meet them, and inch-perfect through balls can't be met unless Burgess or Besart Berisha -- who despite his age remains one of the league's most potent finishers of the ball -- is making a move to meet it.
Against the Victory, as Steven Lustica and Seb Pasquali ably screened his and Diamanti's efforts, it all clicked into place for Burgess: scoring his fifth goal in three games, recognising the movements of both his teammates and the game and proving a constant threat thanks to his willingness to break lines with passes or runs forward.
Alou Kuol is an incredibly raw prospect. Indeed, if the 19-year-old Central Coast Mariners attacker, who started his first A-League game against the Newcastle Jets last Friday, was a piece of steak he would still be mooing. Nonetheless, despite the significant growth he still needs to undertake on the football field, the former Goulburn Valley Suns prodigy's post-match interview with Fox Sports quickly turned him into the latest A-League sensation -- dominating the post-game narrative of what was 90 minutes of existential pain watching F3 Derby's latest 0-0 draw.
But is Australian football interested in having actual, un-sanitised characters? Or just those that can deliver sharable soundbites? Gertjan Verbeek certainly didn't have any reservations about sharing his thoughts and opinions and, while it certainly seemed like it may have gone some way to losing him the Adelaide United dressing room, it's also drawn him the ire of the Australian football zeitgeist.
The problem with authenticity is that it often can fly in the face of safe, corporate, and family-friendly (whatever that means) messaging. Yet, with the game seemingly bleeding mainstream interest despite its previous attempts to put its blandest foot forward, maybe a few rough or against the grain voices isn't the worst thing in the world.
And speaking of voices...
Those that work within the game frequently posit on how to turn Australia into a so-called "football nation," with the discussions often pivoting back to the implementation of a particular hobby horse they claim will serve as the proverbial silver bullet for all its ills. But just as it is for almost every societal transformation, a critical component of any process of turning the country into a nation of footballers is education.
If the biggest talking point after a fixture isn't something that happened on the pitch but, instead, the coverage around it -- something's gone wrong.
Of course, despite Alan Durban's declaration that if one wants entertainment one should go and watch a bunch of clowns, there is an important space for brevity, humour and drama -- people can't learn if they can't be engaged to begin with. But these aspects should supplement, enhance and partner with content that aids the public in the absorption and comprehension of the core product: the game.
As the A-League has begun to settle into some sort of rhythm post-resumption, it's pleasing to see teenagers continue to not merely see the field but do so in a manner in which they can play a consequential role in determining the result.
Teens Lachlan Brook and Taras Gomulka, in particular, impressed for Adelaide in their 5-3 win over Perth Glory -- a contest that was decided at an absolute perfect tempo for the Reds and the worst possible pace for Glory. Though just over the teenage threshold, Pacifique Niyongabire was then on hand to deliver a devastating coup de grace in the second half.
Kids getting minutes is good. More of it, please.