Friday, 21 November 2014

3+1 and the way forward for Import Restrictions in the A-League.

Recently, the question of import limits has once again come to the fore ahead of an A-League club owners meeting to be held in Abu Dhabi later this month.
Chris Fong, the Brisbane Roar chairman came out in defence of the quota after murmurs that the FFA were looking to restrict the signing of foreign players further by lowering the quota from 5 to 4. Fong's argument was essentially that the status quo is fine and that any tampering with the current system would possible undermine possible success. Fong cited the success of Brisbane idols, Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha as great examples of foreign player making a great impact on the competition. To restrict the possibility of such great players to come to the league would be an affront to clubs and the fairness of the competition.

I am of course paraphrasing, you can view the article on The World Game here.

Ideas of foreign quotas are not foreign across the world and certainly not in Asia. Between 2009 and 2012 Malaysia had an all out ban on foreign players in an ill though out attempt to rise the quality of professional football in the country. The FFA is certainly not proposing an all out ban on foreign players but it is important that this issue is once again revisited.

As it stands, A-League clubs are allowed 5 foreign players from any federation in the world. Here are the teams, and the foreign players on their books:

Adelaide United: Isaias Sanchez, Sergio Cirio, Pablo Sanchez (Spain), Marcelo Carrusca (Argentina), and Fabio Ferreira (Portugal)

Brisbane Roar: Henrique de Silva (Brazil), Jean Carlos Solorzano (Costa Rica), Mensur Kurtishi (FYR Macedonia), Thomas Broich (Germany)

Central Coast: Malick Mane (Senegal), Richard Vernes (Hungary), Nick Montgomery (Scotland) and Kim Seung-Yong (Republic of Korea)

Melbourne City: Damien Duff, Liam Miller (Republic of Ireland), Robert Koren (Slovenia), Robert Wielaert (Netherlands) and Jonatan Germano (Argentina)

Melbourne Victory: Besart Berisha (Albania), Mathieu Delpierre (France), Fahid Ben Khalfallah (Tunisia) and Gui Finkler (Brazil)

Newcastle Jets: Kew Jaliens (Netherlands), Edson Montano (Ecuador), Marcos Flores and Geronimo Neumann  (Argentina)

Perth Glory: Youssuf Hersi (Netherland), Andy Keogh (Rebublic of Ireland), Nebojsa Marinkovic (Serbia) and Sidnei Sciola (Brazil)

Sydney FC: Marc Janko (Austria), Nikola Petkovic and Milos Dimitrijevic (Serbia)

Wellington Phoenix: Alberto Riera, Alex Rodriguez (Spain), Kenny Cunningham (Costa Rica), Roly Bonevacia (Netherlands) and Roy Krishna (Fiji)

West Sydney Wanderers: Mateo Poljak (Croatia), Iacopo La Rocca (Italy), Seyi Adeleke (Nigeria), Vitor Saba (Brazil) and Romeo Castelen (Netherlands)

As you can tell, their is a vast variety of nationalities playing in the A-League which in turn, creates a very diverse competition. I am not going to argue how important each players is to each team exactly, but lets first look at who is using the foreign spots to the potential and how many would currently be affected by a change to an import quota reduction.

Only the Wanderers, City, Adelaide and Wellington would suffer from a reduction to 4 foreign players as the rest of the sides play under the quota. Whether this is in preparation for a possible change, one can only guess but it is worth noting that Brisbane and Newcastle have released two players since the beginning of the season which has opened up a spot for each side. So, on the surface, less than half of the sides in the League would potentially suffer if new regulations were introduced today.

What I personally hope to see is an introduction that puts Australia in tune with the rest of the Asian Football confederation by introducing a 3+1 ruling. For those unfamiliar with the ruling, this allows teams to recruit three foreigners from anywhere in the world plus one from within the Asian confederation. The K-League and J-League already adhere to this standard. It only makes sense. The AFC Champions League has this requirement and if A-League teams wish to participate in their current form, they would need to drop one if not two of their foreign imports from the squad which hardly seems fair on the players who helped get them their in the first place.

In the Wanderers successful tilt in the 2014 Champions League, for the group stages Mateo Poljak had to miss out on helping the team. Thanks to having Shinji Ono on the books they were able to register 4 foreign players for the group stage (Hersi, Ono, La Rocca and Polenz). However in the latter stages of the competition, they were restricted to the use of only La Rocca, Poljak and Saba. New signings Adeleke and Castelen were unfortunately unable to play for the team. Thankfully for the Wanderers this did not affect their ability to win the competition, but that then brings into question how good the imports brought in are compared to the Australian players that took their place.

A bigger flop than the Legend of Chun-Li,
 Jorge Drovandi
That is another question that perhaps can't quantify as well, but it seems that the big issue with foreign spots is that they are not being used effectively. As Chris Fong said, foreigners can bring in great quality, but those kinds of players are incredibly hard to find. For every Broich and Berisha you find their are 2 Jorge Drovandis and 3 Joe Keenans. Often imports that have been signed in previous seasons simply haven't cut the mustard which brings into question how serious A-League teams are about bringing in quality players from overseas. They way I see it, there are far too many foreigners sitting on the bench or not making a contribution than an Australian player could otherwise make in the same position. Consider Brisbane Roar. Both Mensur Kurtishi and Jean Carlos Solorzano featured heavily on the bench with only Henrique proving to be capable of making a difference. While we can still cite growing pains with new signings or re-signings as it were, surely the players being brought in from overseas need to be quality enough to take first-team spots without much competition. At present it isn't that younger players have pushed them for spots, they simply haven't performed to expectation. Young Brandon Borello has already pipped Kurtishi for a starting spot after scoring against Melbourne City off the bench.

If you were to ask many supporters in the A-League, I am sure most would rather see a young player trying to find his feet at A-League level than seeing a supposed seasoned pro from overseas struggling to make the grade.

This makes me thing we in Australian football are merely not looking far enough a field for our players. Whilst I understand the realities of signing foreign players of high quality is incredibly difficult, surely if there is no one of any decent value available they should be looking in their own youth teams or at the NPL.

My belief is that a further restriction of foreign spots might actually force teams to scout more wisely. I am very glad that we have moved beyond signing players based on Youtube or DVD footage (ala Reinaldo and countless others) but we still have a long way to go to sign players that will really make a difference.

Qu was a sensation in the first season of the A-League
One thing that I really hope gets done is the allocation of a AFC players spot. While I think the
ultimate aim should be 3+1, at least a 4+1 system like what is being done in China would be an intermediate step. This way you restrict they players that teams are going to look at and encourage recruitment from Asia. I think it is a sad indictment on the league that Central Coast are the only team to have a played from Asia. Even over the league's history, Asian players have been few and far between; particularly successful ones. Shinji Ono, Kazuyoshi Miura, Seo Hyuk-Su and Qu Shengqing are the only players I can think of off the top of my head that have made a significant impact on the A-League and that is far too few when you consider the success our players have in Korea, Japan and the Middle East. Surely we need to catch up and show that we belong in Asia by at least taking recruitment seriously. Clubs need to be building strong relationships with clubs in Asia and assert the fact that Australian football is a part of the Asian landscape. The Wanderers success has certainly earned Aussie football fans all across Asia, but there is still much work to do.

Chris Fong is happy with status quo and that's fine but if we really want to see progression and efficiency in the A-League, we need to get in line with the rest of the AFC and get 3+1 in the Australian equation for success.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Trent Sainsbury is off the Zwolle

Long time since I have written anything in my blog, but I thought that given my interest in Dutch football and the A-League, this little cross-over that has hit the news is a perfect time to add a little of my knowledge to the pool of news going around.

Trent Sainsbury: A New Hope

Sainsbury is quite simply the A-League's most promising central-defender. A nippy defender who can play out of the back, Sainsbury has proven to be one of the best in his home country with continued plaudits.

The Western Australian native was brought to the Central Coast Mariners by now Vegalta Sendai coach, Graham Arnold from the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport). Sainsbury had previously spent time with Perth Glory before his scholarship to Canberra, but it was the Mariners who secured his signature. His senior debut came in the 2010 season where he featured mostly as a right-back.  By the 2012-13 season, Saisbury had solidified his position as a first-choice centre-back alongside former NAC Breda and FC Utrecht stalwart , Patrick Zwaanswijk. Together they formed a formidable partnership on the way to the A-League Premiership, winning the grand final against Western Sydney Wanderers in a 2-0 victory. Sainsbury then capped off his season with a call-up to the Socceroos squad for the East Asia Football Federation (EAFF) Cup. However, after some rumoured tensions with then Socceroos boss, Holger Osieck, Sainsbury remained the only player of the squad not to appear during the tournament.

This season, partnered with either Marcel Seip (of VVV Venlo and Plymouth Argyle fame) or Zac Anderson, Sainsbury has been one of the most consistent players on the pitch for the Mariners and has been the first name on the team sheet.

Off to the Low Lands

Today it was confirmed that young Sainsbury would be off to PEC Zwolle in the Eredivisie on a two and a half year contract. With the likelihood of Zwolle stalwart, Darryl Lachman likely to be heading to greener pastures in the Summer, Zwolle will be looking for another quick defender to add to their ranks. Obviously as we get more information from Zwolle about the confirmation of the signing, we will know a bit more about it. If you follow me on twitter, I will try and keep you up to date with the information as I get it and what the Zwolle manager and fans think about the signing of Sainsbury.

PEC Zwolle is a team of modest history. Home to 120,000 people, the city of Zwolle is located in the northeastern province of Overijssel of which Zwolle is the capital. Overijssel is also home to Enschede, the largest city of the province which houses one of the Netherlands more successful clubs in recent years, FC Twente. Needless to say PEC and FC Twente have a bit of a regional rivalry.

The club was founded in 1910 but has since gone under several transformations following near or total bankruptcy. Traditionally a club for the middle class, PEC has changed names 3 times. Firstly as PEC Zwolle, then to PEC Zwolle '82, then changed to FC Zwolle following bankruptcy in 1990, and finally returned to PEC Zwolle in the 2012-2013 season.

PEC were promoted to the Eredivisie two seasons ago after winning the Eerste Divisie title and duly finished 11th in the first season back in the top flight since the 2003-2004 season. The last deluge into the top flight only lasted two seasons. as an 18th placing sent them back down after only scoring 26 goals.  Zwolle's highest finish in the Eredivisie so far was in 1978-79 when they finished 8th. Apart from a Eerste Divisie trophies in 1978, 2002 and 2012, Zwolle lack silverware. However the club has been runner-up in the KNVB Beker twice but too far removed from recent history to really mention.

So far this season, PEC are sitting in 9th place with a goal difference of +1. On opening day they
accounted for giants Feyenoord 2-1 at the Ijsseldeltastadion and even maintained 1st spot for 3 weeks early in the season before succumbing to consecutive defeats against Ajax Amsterdam (2-1) and Vitesse Arnhem (3-0). Two draws followed those defeats, but Zwolle were back on the horse again after thrashing ADO Den Haag 6-1 at home marking their biggest win of the campaign.

The manager, Ron Jans has been a big part of Zwolle's success since taking over in March last year. Now there seems to be a great self-belief amongst a group of largely young, talented players that they can take on the big teams and at least give them a run for their money. Jans did very well with his previous Eredivisie charges, SC Heerenveen whom also had a very young team with the likes of Ousama Assaidi, Bas Dost and Luciano Narsingh playing large roles in the attacking prowess of the team. After a failed stint at Standard Liege, Jans has come back to the Eredivisie with Zwolle with a point to prove and has done well so far.

Given Jans' belief in young players, it is very possible, especially with the departure of Lachman expected, that Sainsbury will be given a fairly extended run in the first-team. Will it be a baptism of fire for the Socceroos hopeful? Only time will tell. But the fact that this move has happened in a World Cup year gives the young Aussie plenty of motivation to show what he can do to be a bolter for Rio.

Australian and Zwolle fans will now be looking one with great interest as to how the 22-year old from WA will go, but the young Aussie will not be alone as he can look forward to ANZAC connection with New Zealand's Ryan Thomas (so far 1 goal in 12 appearances) also on the books for Zwolle.

Needless to say, everyone is wishing for Trent's every success in the future.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Socceroos: For god's sake don't panic!

It has been decided

The FFA has spoken. The new man to lead Australia to glory is homegrown wonder-coach, Ange Postecoglu. The Melbourne Victory manager was picked to lead the national team after the FFA matched up the man's credentials with what they wanted for the national team, and it was good.

Before I go ahead and make any more value judgements, I want to say that this is a very pro-Ange piece. I am once again not really living up to my name here, but I really want people to know that just because we have an Australian coach doesn't mean we should immediately dismiss the whole idea or panic. KEEP CALM. Hiring an Australian coach on a five year contract is a good move and if you look at the Australian candidates for the job there are very few better suited to being given a go at national team level other than Postecoglu. The current state of the team is a perfect situation for an Angified-regneration. But it won't be without cost. If we want regeneration, we are going to have to step very far away from the Osieck method to more uncharted and for some, undesirable waters.

I will now present my argument for what we should be expecting, what is realistic, what Ange brings to the table and a case study to support my argument for regeneration with the example of Louis Van Gaal. I will go into more detail on this later in this piece.

What Ange brings to the table

I have seen a multitude of Eurosnobs on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms deriding the choice of an Australian coach over a European one. Just because you have an EU
passport doesn't make you any better a coach for a particular environment. Osieck and Verbeek, whilst getting us to the World Cup, were largely derided for their negative style, at times baffling selections, and overall just simply their personalities. I get the cynicism over Australian coaches. I get it particularly when you look at Graham Arnold's sojourn through the Socceroos first Asian Cup. Furthermore, the Frank Farina experience was not without its controversy either, not quailfying for the the World Cup certainly didn't help things, but Terry Venables before him didn't either and Venables was, shock horror, a European coach. Guus Hiddink will forever be held in the limelight as the one that brought significant change to the way Australians thought about football and he rightly keeps a place in most Socceroos' fans hearts, but we have to move on. We need something sustainable, not a band-aid solution.

Many in the fallout of Osieck's sacking were suggesting a big name foreign coach to get us playing decent football in time for Rio next year so that we could be competitive. Whilst this idea was not without merit, it certainly doesn't fix the endemic problems in the team. The sooner the revolution starts, the better and if that means poor results in Brazil then so be it. Going in with Osieck was no guarantee of good results and forking over a million bananas to a foreign coach for 6 months doesn't really make much sense in terms of growth for the national game. Whilst there is the possibility that the fair-weather fans will drop off after the World Cup given a poor performance this in only a short-term issue. However I would say that a football mad nation prior to a continental tournament would only do wonders for the game, hiring a foreign coach like Hiddink, Marcelo Bielsa or Bert Van Maarwijk is no guarantee of success. The gamble on an Australian coach needs to be taken.

Ange is one of the most successful club coaches in Australian history and is certainly the most successful in the A-League era. His two title wins with Brisbane Roar put him head and shoulders above the rest of the league. His successful combination of style and success won him many plaudits and few would argue that, given the resources, Ange can win you a title. Add to this the two titles he won in the NSL with South Melbourne and  there is even more fodder for the argument that he has a gifted, tactical mind. Postecoglu has even won the Oceanian Federation Cup, if that really means much, to add to his cabinet of trophies.

Ange is a manager that is willing to make difficult decisions. In his first season at Brisbane Roar he came in mid-season and saw the team finish 9th. Hardly an impressive start, but it was what he did to the playing personnel and his signal toward a particular style that impressed the most. Out went Craig Moore, Danny Tiatto and Charlie Miller only to be replaced by Adam Sarota, Tommy Oar and Pieter Collen in the starting line-up. Craig Moore's departure in particular was made all the more significant when the defender apparently made a "me or the manager" statement that ultimately saw him ousted by the Roar administration. From the outset, Ange showed what he wanted to do. He wanted fit, technical players that could play the way he wants to play. Ange even helped the transition of Michael Zullo to left-back with Oar ahead of him that has since helped Zullo find his niche on the outskirts of the national team. Whilst the Collen experiment didn't last long, Postecoglu quickly started reshaping his squad. Whilst the young talents of Zullo, Oar and Sarota were sold on to FC Utrecht, Ange otherwise was able to keep what he felt useful and cut what wasn't necessary. Out of the grand-final starting eleven the following year, only Matt McKay, Mitch Nichols and Ivan Franjic were the left-over relics from the Farina era. Ange successfully transformed a team of underperformers into a championship team in one year. 14 players went out and 14 came in.

This is one point that I must stress when looking at the long term objectives of the national team. We need to rebuild. Ange has done it at Brisbane and was on his way to completing his rebuild at Melbourne Victory before he was plucked for the national team job. Considering the aging nature of the national team, and the politics that seems to be infecting the team. (One only has to look at Lucas Neill and his comments to have a fairly good guess at this) and the same old revamp is in order. The regeneration of the team hasn't happened and the average age of the squad is still a little on the high side. If you look again the Brisbane Roar grand-final eleven, only Shane Steffanutto was over 30. Ange evolves teams. He includes experience alongside youth and that ability to meld the two together as well as sort out the egos will in exchange create a much better environment for the players as well as a better platform for the future. One could argue that Osieck was starting this melding, but he was far from successful to that end.

Some will point out that Ange's systems are only club based. If you look at this mass exodus of players it is obvious that Ange was bringing in players that he knew could fulfill certain roles. This is a luxury that will be seldom afforded. Ange will either have to call-up players already familiar with his system, press the system on his players and train them hard when he does have them or adapt his system to fit his players. Now, this argument about tactics is fairly sound. Ange is a good club coach and has a specific system he wants his team to play. This argument falls apart when you consider that Ange might well just change the way he plays with the Socceroos. It is utterly ridiculous to think that he would be so inflexible to change. The national job is a different one, Ange know that and I am sure that he is well aware of the challenges he faces but he has proven again and again that he is a capable tactician. He is well spoken, he is firm when he needs to be and brings the confidence of several title wins to his name. What we might see for the Socceroos might be different to what Ange brings at club level. It will probably have to be. He is a smart enough guy to realise his limits. He has taken on national team duties before with the Joeys, and I'm sure he has learnt much from that experience.

That brings me to another point, many will finger this spectacular inverview as to the many reasons why Ange has been tried and why he has failed at national level. Again, this argument assumes too much. This assumes that Ange has learned nothing in 6 years. This assumes that his achievements at club level to not transfer to international level. This also assumes that a coach, new to Asia, was infallible at a time when Australian football was emerging in a new landscape. It ultimately assumes far too much. To think that Postecoglu has learned nothing from self-reflection or from club management is just unbelievably narrow minded. For a manager, Ange, at 48 is still on the young side, and having led the Joeys in his late thirties to early forties there would have been a very hard learning curve that even the most talented coach would have failed at. I would even go as far to say that any other Australian coach in the same position would have run into the same circumstances. This was also at a time when Australian football was being reinvented and the Dutch way was being introduced to Australia's international youth sides. Whether or not you believe he was unsuitable or a victim of circumstance, it is unfair to judge him by the yardstick of the past.

Now before I get into my case study, I want to say that it really is not all fans that are pessimistic about this appointment. By all accounts, A-League fans are either very positive, cautiously guarded or bitter (I'm looking at you Victory fans). On the other side however are those that either do not watch the A-League or look down their Euro snobby noses at it. The vocal Eurosnobs have been the most critical of this appointment and they themselves are probably the one's that least watch the A-League. Nevertheless, I feel this following part of my article will give some historical correlation to what will likely happen with the Socceroos and draw some parallels between the Louis Van Gaal and Postecoglu experiences.

Blood Oranje

The reason I chose Louis Van Gaal as my case study will become more apparent as I discuss his career ups and downs. There are many differing factors that of course separate he and
Postecoglu, but I feel there are enough parallels and similarities that we can learn something.

Firstly, I will say that van Gaal is significantly older than Postecoglu and as such has had a much more extensive career as a coach. Also, given his stature in Europe, it is really hard to argue how similar these two are, but there are some situations both have struggled with.

At the start of his managerial career, van Gaal started off as an assistant at AZ Alkmaar. Later, he would make the move to Amsterdam to become Leo Beenhakker's assistant. Under the eye of the experience Dutch coach, van Gaal learned his trade in one of the most fruitful environments in world football.
Following the departure of Beenhakker in 1991, van Gaal become head coach of the Amsterdam giants but few would predict what would come next. In his six years as Ajax coach, he won all that was possibly available including the famous Champions League victory over AC Milan in the 1995-95 season. How was it that van Gaal achieved this? He trusted in youth. Danny Blind, Ajax's captain and Frank Rijkaard were the only players over 30 in the starting line-up against Milan in the final. Sound familiar?

With all this success with Ajax, it wasn't long until van Gaal was brought to an even higher calling with Barcelona with whom he enjoyed moderate success taking home two league titles in his three years at the club. His tenure was not without controversy however with many well publicised spats with Barcelona star Rivaldo not helping his cause. Similarly, his injection of many Dutch players into the Barcelona team was not accepted by all despite the success it brought.

Van Gaal then went to the Dutch national team with, despite their talent, he failed utterly. Qualifying Holland for the world cup is generally a fairly easy task for most managers, but van Gaal found a way to fail with the Dutch missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Here is where I would like to highlight a manager that failed with the national set up. This is something Postecoglu has also done but granted, his fall was much harder than that of van Gaal.
He once again returned to Barcelona only to put them close to relegation before Radomir Antic took the reigns.

Van Gaal is no stranger to conflict. His publicised rows with the press and his players has earned him a reputation of someone that has either his way or the highway. Van Gaal subsequently has further issues with a return to Ajax as a technical director and during his management at Bayern Munich where he was largely criticised, however his triumphant return to football was marked at AZ Alkmaar. After two year away from management, van Gaal was able to wrest the Eredivisie title from the traditional top 3 to give the Alkmaar side it's first title in 28 years. His cosmopolitan blending of youthful players from home and abroad helped build a very competitive side with a good philosophy. Largely reliant on youth, van Gaal showed his magic once again.

His time at Bayern Munich, whilst at times controversial, was marked by the introduction of Thomas Muller, Holger Badstuber to the first team as well as the rise to prominence of Bastian Schweinsteiger in his new defensive midfield role.

Now at the helm of the Dutch national team, van Gaal has been quick to discard older unwanted players and introduce a wave of youth. With the exceptions of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt and Rafael Van Der Vaart, van Gaal has been quick to refresh the squad. Players in the ilk of Jetro Willems, Kevin Strootman, Jordie Clasie and Bruno Martins Indi have come to the forefront of the team in a regeneration that was needed following the abject failure of Euro 2011. Losing all three games in a major tournament does that to a team. So far, van Gaal has been very successful with his new team having not lost since taking over. Four draws are the only results that tarnish his record.

Overall, van Gaal has had similar ups and down to Postecoglu, albeit on another level. Failure at the national level, time out of the game to reflect, a triumphant return followed by a move into the national team once more. This connections are vague but they illustrate a point. Van Gaal has been successful at winning with youth at international level as well as domestically. Van Gaal's desire to bring through young players has been much to the delight of fans everywhere. This is how talent is unlocked, managers throw the dice and sometimes it works. Postecoglu did this with the Roar, he threw the dice with some players who he felt worked with his system, and it came off.

What van Gaal is doing with the Dutch national team now is what we need to expect to happen with the Australian national team under Postecoglu. Complete rehabilitation. The squad needs to be rebuilt and youth needs to be injected. However we need to be careful not to place too high an expectation on the team. I feel there would be few Dutch supporters right now that would be confident of their team doing well at the 2014 World Cup. It would take an audacious supporter to even assume that a run at the semi-finals was on the cards due to the inexperience of the side.

Van Gaal has even gambled with players that aren't even regulars with their clubs. When calling up Ricardo van Rhijn for his first few games, the Ajax defender was behind the pecking order to Gregory van der Wiel, but van Gaal saw enough in him to have a good look at the player. Similarly in the most recent squad with Mike van der Hoorn, the young centre-back is behind Niklas Moisander and Stefano Denswil but still manages to get a call-up.

The Dutch showed that with experience they could be a force and much of the 2010 finalists
were players that were introduced wholesale by Marco Van Basten in the 2006 campaign. Robben, Van Perise, Kuyt, Sneijder, Heitinga, etc were all introduced by Van Basten 4 years before. They had plenty of experience by the time they got to the World Cup in 2010 but it took the experience of a first-round knock out to Portugal in 2006 that turned them into such a team.

Postecoglu needs the same time afforded to him. He has a five year contract that will take him all the way to Russia in 2018. This has to be the national teams goal. Being flailed in Brazil is a distinct possibility, but we need to see it as a platform toward the next world cup. Had we had Osieck leading the squad, we would have late-20s and 30 something year olds masquerading as the national team getting pummeled rather than early 20 something that have the next World Cup to look forward to who will learn from the experience and bond with their teammates as a result. I know what I would rather. We're going to get licked anyway, we may as well use the opportunity to prepare for the Asia Cup in 2015 and Russia in 2018.

What van Gaal is doing now will benefit the Dutch in Russia. What Postecoglu does now will benefit the team in Russia as well. These are not stop-gap solutions. These are realistic views where talented young players are targeted with a view to many years down the track. We need to have this long sighted view if we are to have any chance of being competitive come the next World Cup. And who knows? One of our young lads might get picked up by a better club as a result if he were to appear in the world cup which would only help our chances in the future.

In summary, we don't know what Ange can do with the national team as he hasn't done it yet but I believe there is plenty of reasons for optimism. While there are concerns over how transferable Ange's tactics are to the national set-up, we don't even know if they will be the same. The best thing supporters can give Ange at the moment is time, judge him at the Asian Cup in 2015 or better yet the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup. It's a long time, but this sort of thing can't be rushed and we don't want the same thing happening with Ange as with what happened with Verbeek and Osieck. The pressure on them to qualify meant sacrificing development. Let's hope that Postecoglu's mandate from the FFA is far from too scrutinising at this early stage.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Socceroos a mess; the managerial circus begins

#HolgerOut but who's next?

I have taken a break from my previews mostly because I got inundated with social engagements and essentially to write everything up in time for round 1, but I thought I would make a post directly in relation to current news about the appointment of a new national team coach.

The Socceroos latest 6-0 debacle has ended with heads rolling. Holger Osieck has been turfed and the search for a new mentor has begun. Osieck was warned after Australia's 6-0 loss to Brazil in the Maracana, that if he was unable to get a more positive result against France, his job would be threatened. It was more than that however with the FFA tearing up the German's contract within hours of the defeat to Les Bleus.

Within the day, reports were rolling in of interested coaches looking at pursuing Australian football's top job with the names of former mentor Guus Hiddink and former Irish national team coach, Giovanni Trappatoni. However the offer is probably less tantalising than one would imagine for a high profile coach to lead a team to the World Cup. The FFA has offered a $700,000 net contract to a coach who can lead the team to the Asian Cup in 2015 with a view to appointing a local coach after that in preparation for Russia 2018. The lack of job security for these international applicants along with a relatively meager renumeration (just consider what Hiddink was probably on at Anzhi) has more or less turned away the more high profile applicants. Australia, if they are to go international for this short-term are likely to really only be able to attract managers that fit into the same level as previous coaches Pim Verbeek and Osieck. Both had good international experience but neither really were that successful. (Apart from Osieck's Champions League win with Urawa Red Diamonds).

However, the question now is, with so many turning down the job, is now the time to go for a local coach? The realistic targets would likely be new boy on the block Tony Popovic whom won the league with West Sydney last season, Graham Arnold, whom won the grand final and has been the most consistent coach in the A-League, or golden boy, Ange Postecoglu who not only has brought success to his clubs, but an attractive style as well.

But before I look into the pros and cons of each candidate, let's first have a look at what their objectives will need to be.

Beating a dead horse

The people want regeneration. I think this has basically been the them song for most supporters for the last 6 years. After the 2006 World Cup, Australia lost many of its stars, or at least should have. The likes of Scott Chipperfield, Mark Viduka, Tony Popovic, Tony Vidmar and Josip Skoko were all on their way out of the team and on their way to retirement. Whilst most of these players were replaced by younger up and comers, there are still some 9 of those 23 players still involved in the international squad today. Mark Milligan is the youngest of the 9 at only 28 now, but with the exception of Josh Kennedy at 31, the remaining players are well and truly into their thirties. Mark Schwarzer is the oldest at 41 and Luke Wilkshire the youngest at 32. Whilst the main problem is not so much their age, it is the fact that even those these players have been getting older, younger players have not been getting a run.  Now at the start of preparations for the new World Cup, older players have not shown up against bigger teams and younger players have not been given ample experience to replace them. Osieck's reluctance to use youth, particularly in defensive areas, has severely damaged Australia's ability to compete beyond the qualifying phase. It is a sad state of affairs if we have to trot out a 35 year old Lucas Neill, a 34 year old Sasa Ognenovski and a 32 year old Luke Wilkshire to defend against teams with pace and penetration. This formula has been found out on the world stage. This is all the more baffling when you consider the selections made at the East Asian Federation Cup. Ryan McGowan, a starting centre-back in the Chinese Super League for the 2nd placed Shandong Luneng, made some terrific performances to keep Australia in games. Australia's best defensive talent at home too, Trent Sainsbury was left on the pine for the entire tournament despite every other player taking part at some stage over the 3 games. The particularly odd thing about this was that Robert Cornthwaite, someone tried and tested again and again, was selected ahead of him.

Just to touch on Lucas Neill as well, if we are to judge him upon recent performances and comments, his attitude of invulnerability needs to be ejected from the national team. Whilst a good performer at times, particularly when he was 28-32, the time has come to let the captain go. The next manager will need to coax or talk him down from his high horse and re-assign captaincy to someone likely to wear it with pride rather than as a given. The captaincy has been with Neill for 7 years now, it is time to pass it on to stop the arm band from going stale. As for a contender for the armband, there are few that immediately spring to mind, but Tim Cahill as a leader at the World Cup would not be a terrible idea. A much more daring selection would be Rhys Williams, but I can't see there being too dramatic a change so close to the World Cup

Defence is something that needs to be sorted our quickly. David Carney is playing regularly at club level, but is an incredibly average left-back and with the aging back-line there is really only Wilkshire with his accurate free-kicks and decent age that deserves to stay in contention. The likes of McGowan, Sainsbury, Rhys Williams, Bailey Wright, Jason Davidson and even Ivan Franjic need to be given as much time on the park to show their worth to the national team. All are playing regularly, and Williams in particular has been criminally under-utilised in the national team despite being the captain of his club side and otherwise putting in decent performances when called upon.

Whilst the rest of the team will need an overhaul post-Rio, the likes of Bresciano, Cahill and Kennedy have all proven their use to the team with important goals and positional play. Kennedy in particular has an incredible record at international level. Kennedy added the 17th goal of his international career when he helped the Socceroos to a 3-0 win over Canada on the weekend at Craven Cottage. Cahill as well has proven that he is a prolific scorer, but mostly from midfield and mostly behind a striker with technical ability.

The dilemma for most coaches, is how can you play these two together? Both will get you goals and both will offer you something in the air. The answer is, you can't. Cahill and Kennedy cannot play together. They are in the end too similar and do not compliment each other. You could argue that Cahill is the better player, few would go against you, and given Australia's other midfield options you might be keen to play him at centre-forward, Osieck, Verbeek and even Cahill's former club manager, David Moyes tried this. Unfortunately, this has had very limited success. Cahill's best attributes come to the fore when the opposition defence are busy with a striker in the box. Cahill is able to come into good positions when strikers draw players away from him. He plays best behind the strikers. I wish I could cite this with evidence but I cannot find any real data on goals scored played as striker vs midfielder. As far as my memory serves, Cahill scored maybe a single goal for Everton as a lone striker and zero for Australia. The only way you can really play Cahill is if you play him in midfield.

Now, in Josh Kennedy you have a prolific forward with great presence in the air. He averages half a goal per game at international level and otherwise gets into good positions and causes problems for defenders. Against Asian opposition Kennedy has been great. His towering frame generally dwarfs most of the continent's defenders making it easier for him to score goals. Against quality opposition however his only goals have come against Denmark and the Netherlands. 15 of his goals would be considered against weaker teams. Apart from worries over his ability to stand up in bigger games, Kennedy is still an effective striker but he cannot play with Cahill. They are not compatible. With two aerial players, team play is focused on hoofing the ball up for flick ons. There is a minor problem with this however, if Kennedy was to flick on to Cahill, he would be too slow to capitalise on it and vice versa. The introduction of Oar and Kruse on the wings with their pace however has helped things, but I still harbor cynicism about the effectiveness of both of them up front together. I feel that with Scott McDonald as a striker and Cahill behind him, the combinations were much more effective. Hopeless long balls diminished and Cahill becomes more prolific as McDonald can draw defenders.

This is a personal battle, but I certainly hope that at the World Cup the next coach is able to fix this minor dilemma. The fact remains that this will likely not remain a dilemma for too long as Cahill is likely to retire from international football either after the World Cup or after the Asian Cup in 2015. Kennedy still has legs for a few more years however, but the likes of Tom Rogic, Tommy Oar or Dario Vidosic will likely suit Australia's  style a bit better playing in the hole.

The Candidates

Alright, enough ranting about selections and tactics. There are three local coaches in the running for the top job. Frank Lowy and the FFA have expressed a preference for a local candidate and are only willing to fork out a modest sum for a short-term international one. The idea however would be to allow the Australian candidates to finish their respective domestic seasons and allow them to grow more as coaches. Furthermore, with knowledge that the FFA is scrutinising these managers for the top job over the course of the season, these coaches will be under added pressure to succeed to show off their credentials.

Anyway, the coaches are Ange Postecoglu, Graham Arnold and Tony Popovic. I will list pros and cons where I see fit and we'll see how we go.

Ange Postecoglu

The current Melbourne Victory manager is arguably one of the most successful domestic
coaches in Australia's history. Ange started his managerial career by winning league twice with South Melbourne in the NSL, taking them to the Club World Championships. Following his success, Postecoglu was promoted into the international youth set-up where he managed Australia's future talents for a good 7 years before being acrimoniously sacked following some less than flattering interviews culminating in an on-air argument with World Game pundit and former Socceroo, Craig Foster. Postecoglu then worked as a football pundit and advisor to the Football Federation of Victoria as well as having a short stint with Greek club Panachaiki.
Following the sacking of Frank Farina at Brisbane Roar in 2009, Postecoglu took the helm and revolutionised his playing staff turning them from cellar dwellers to League and Grand Final champions in the space of a season. Ange then followed this up with an amazing 36 game unbeaten run on the way to winning the 2011-2012 grand-final. Not only was the result amazing, but Postecoglu turned on the style as well. Brisbane became the envy of the A-League playing a successful, attacking brand of football that was near impossible to break down. His departure from the Roar following that season coincided with a significant slump in Brisbane's fortune with former apprentice Rado Vidosic failing to replicate what the Victorian master had achieved.
Ange continued his desire for revolution at Melbourne Victory turning the mediocre Victory team into a force to be reckoned with once more. The rise to prominence of young Marcos Rojas helped the team on its way to a third place finish in the league and a semi-final appearance. This season recruitment has once again been superb and Ange has proven that he is not afraid to make the big decisions when called upon.

Pros: For the national team job it is obvious Australia needs a philosophy, a firm hand and someone who can encourage youth. Ange has all these qualities. He brings with him a wealth of experience in club coaching as well as 7 years with the national team set-up. He will be familiar with many of the players already, and his success will have guaranteed him some respect with older more established players in the national set up.

Cons: Ange is very good at constructing a team to play his system, but at international level, with the playing pool much smaller, Ange won't have that luxury. Add to the fact that some of Australia's best players may not fit into that system adds another dimension of doubt. Adding to this, Postecoglu's stint with the U-20 squad is not remembered fondly by most, and there is certainly doubt as to whether he can perform at the international level.

Verdict: Ange is the obvious choice and given his track record he probably should get the job, but I am concerned over whether or not he can construct a competitive team given little hands on training and a variety of players that may not suit his system.

Graham Arnold

Graham Arnold is very good at getting mediocre players playing at a good level. One only has to look at his work at the Central Coast Mariners with the players at his disposal to realise this. He is Mr Consistent. Regardless of the amount of important personnel that the Central Coat loses, they are always competitive and always in the final spots. Arnold has turned the small club at Gosford into an Australian and future Asian powerhouse.

Arnold started his career proper at Northern Spirit in the NSL bringing them to the finals in their debut season. The following season Arnold was whisked away to the international set-up and remained the assistant coach from 2000 until 2007. Working under the likes of Frank Farina and most notably, Guus Hiddink, Arnold gained a lot of experience in the international set up before being handed the reign at the 2007 Asian Cup. Whether a victim of circumstance given Australia's inexperience or simply caught in the headlights, Arnold failed to impress as the Socceroos managed a draw, a loss and a win on the way to being knocked out on penalties by Japan in the next round. The job was a difficult one for any coach given Australia's unfamiliarity with Asian opposition, but the results spoke for themselves and Arnold was demoted to Olympic duty while Pim Verbeek took over. Arnold got the Olyroos to the Olympics but they ended up being knocked out in the first round.

His managerial prowess at the Mariners however is what has gotten him his fame. Arnold has managed 2 grand final appearances, a top 2 finishes in every season he has coached them. Arnold amassed a grand final win and a minor premiership win on a very meager budget to endear himself to the Mariners faithful and send out a warning shot to other A-League teams that might underestimate his side.

Pros: Arnold can grind blood out of a stone. If it is true that Australia has a very mediocre team, then Arnold will be the man to get the most out of them. Whilst not downplaying the abilities of his past and present playing staff, Arnold has managed to get the best out of them as a team time and time again. Arnold's familiarity with the national set-up will also stand in his favour. Furthermore as one of the few Australian coaches in recent memory to have fielded or at least applied for foreign coaching jobs, Arnold certainly has ambition and is a winner.

Cons: His football is not that entertaining. While the Mariners are incredibly consistent, they're not really that easy on the eye. That's one of the few unfortunate traits of the team. Arnold doesn't favour too many overly technically players and his rigid style may not be the best suited to the Socceroos. Add to this his lamentable spell with the national team once already, there are doubts over whether he can lead the Socceroos to a 4th consecutive World Cup.

Tony Popovic

Popovic is the dark horse for the top job. Having risen very quickly to prominence by winning the league with newcomers West Sydney in his first season as a senior coach, Popovic quickly raised eyebrows. The team at his disposal was nothing special, with a collection of up and down A-League performers and a smattering of foreign talent. Somehow though, the 58 capped former Socceroo managed to turn them into a title winning team. Although falling over in the grand final to Graham Arnold's Central Coast, the Wanderers proved what could be done with a bit of grit and a will drilled defence. Popovic's career as a left-sided stopper certainly helped his charges get to grips with being disciplined in defence. One only has to look at Nikolai Topor-Stanley, a left-sided stopper himself, to notice the effect that Popovic has had. Topor-Stanley went from a consistentish performer with Newcastle Jets to an absolute impenetrable rock for West Sydney. Considering the weaknesses the Socceroos have shown defensively, a former defender as a mentor might not be the worst of ideas.

Popovic's real managerial career started with West Sydney, but the Sydney native already had several stints in the background. Following his retirement from football, Popovic was interned as a coach at Sydney FC where he learned the ropes, even having a short stint as caretaker manager after John Kosmina was dismissed in 2009. Deeming himself unready for the top job, Popovic returned to England with his old club Crystal Palace to learn more about the managerial trade only to return to Australia to coach the Wanderers last season. Popovic has managed a great deal of good solid experience and is the only candidate to have experience coaching overseas which will certainly hold him in good stead.

Pros: After looking at the Wanderers season last year you have to admire the discipline and determination instilled in the players. Popovic's stylistically resembles Graham Arnold in many ways and the ability to get the best out of Mark Bridge, Topor-Stanley, Michael Beauchamp and many others considered past it or just as useful squad players. This is an important tool for managing a smaller team on the world stage. Australia is a team that used to punch above it's weight because of the self-belief in the team and Popovic with his national team experience and somewhat legendlike status in Australian football will certainly help in the top job.

Cons: He's only been coaching for one season. It is incredibly hard to judge at present whether or not Popovic's first season was a fluke. Whilst the Wanderers have recruited impressively once more and still look much the team they were last season, whether or not Popovic can keep pushing them is still yet to be seen. Unlike Arnold who has shown his consistency, Popovic is still largely untested and it will be interesting to see how he and his team reacts if the Wanderers find themselves in strife.


I am a big fan of all these coaches for different reasons but they all unfortunately have telling flaws. Ange has his system, but I don't think he'll have the players to execute it, not the time on the training park. Arnold can do wonders with mediocre players but he has shown that he may not be able to handle the larger egos in the national team after failing once. Popovic looks the best candidate in a lot of ways, but his inexperience counts against him.

Whoever gets the call-up, I'm sure will do a half-decent job and will at least be passionate enough about the national team to oversee the regeneration the team desperately needs. It is difficult to compare how good a club coach will do in transitioning to a national team job. Many have done it successfully and find their niche in international management, but there are also many that fall by the wayside.

Whatever the case may be, the change will be a breath of fresh air into a stale and turgid national team.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A-League Season Preview 2013-2014 - Melbourne Heart

Your Heart's a Mess

Melbourne Heart are a club big on ideas and low on substance. From Day 1, the ambitious project was to integrate with the community, develop an attractive footballing side and attract the kind of players that could execute that style. Unfortunately, like every A-League side at inception, they were forced to feed on dregs. Their first season was not exactly something one could call successful and although John Van't Schip was seemingly an apt tactician, it never really all fell into place despite some impressive young talents including the likes of Aziz Behich, Eli Babalj and Michael Marrone.

"See you at the SFS, lads! Sorry!"
Last season was definitely one to forget for Heart fans. A disappointing 9th place finish was the only reward for a team with an inexperienced coach and a host of injuries, chopping and changing finally culminating in a great big muddle. Poor recruiting meant that 8 of the 14 players brought in last season were quickly sold, turfed, lost or retired. Richard Garcia, Heart's best player last season (by a country mile I might add) ended up moving on to Sydney FC after a supposed spat over wage demands, which the player himself denied.

The Melbourne Heart circus of last season looks to be at an end with John Aloisi recruiting a very impressive roster this season. A wholesale clean out has lead to the signing of some truly interesting looking players with some good experience.

The Heart's philosophy however has been under scrutiny. Whilst Scott Munn and the management at AAMI Park have frequently stated that the club is one that encourages youth development, the signings of Michael Misfud, Orlando Engelaar and Harry Kewell, all over 30, does indeed throw that into question. In fact, out of the 10 players signed this season to the professional roster, only 3 could really be considered 'youth players.'

Heart do have a mixed message at the moment, but they have continued to interact with their community extremely well yet again in the off-season. The Heart management however will be hoping this puts more bottoms on seats when the season commences as previous years' attendance records look fairly bleak.

Unbreak my Heart

I'm quite enjoying these silly song titles as headings. Anway...

The red and white half of Melbourne have been very impressive in the off season with transfers. 12 players have left the club whilst 13 have joined (one on an injury replacement contract). With half the squad replaced, Aloisi has arguably vastly improved the quality on the pitch.

Goals against were a true killer last season with 40 goals shipped from the Heart's 27 games. Conceding 1.4 goals per game is not going to win you anything, so, the defence has been revamped. Aziz Behich returns at left-back with the very experience Dutch defender, Rob Wielaert joining to fill the centre-back position vacated by Simon Colosimo. The former FC Twente man is likely to be joined by former-Socceroo Paddie Kisnorbo whom also carries a wealth of experience. The only question will be over who will play at right-back. Young Jeremy Walker the first-choice last season after Marrone's departure but during the pre-season Jason Hoffman appears to have been reinvented to possibly fill that position. This will create a very new-looking defence. However, the more you look at the squad list, the more you wonder how well these players will gel just after pre-season.

Perhaps the biggest blow to these new signings however is the long-term injury to Orlando Engelaar. Brought in as a marquee, the former PSV Eindhoven captain fractured his right leg in the pre-season clash with Brisbane Roar. Whilst looking very innocuous at first, his clash with Thomas Broich left him off the worse and unfortunately for the Heart faithful, he is likely to miss the season.

Pre-season has been mixed. 5 wins against State League level opposition has been mixed with 3 defeats and a draw to A-League opposition. This is unlikely to be the start Aloisi had in mind. A loss to Brisbane first up will probably not have worried too many but consequent losses to Perth Glory (plus a draw) and to Adelaide United certainly don't paint a healthy picture for the future.

Ins and Outs

Will Michael Mal-tease the
Heart faithful?
As previously states, the Heart have made massive changes. Whether these changes will do the job is yet to be seen. Often there have been times when mass changes have been made that sides have won titles (see Brisbane 2011-12) but there have also been just as many failures. However, given the quality of these reinforcements, it is really hard to say that the quality isn't there to improve on last year.

Attacking options have been improved with the addition of Socceroo legend Harry Kewell as well as Maltese footballing god, Michael Misfud. If you factor in the return of Mate Dugandzic from injury, you have a fairly imposing looking attack.

In midfield, options have been bolstered with Massimo Murdocca, Andrea Migliorini and Iain Ramsay. Heart's midfield options are probably the worst of the three. After losing Orlando Engelaar to injury, a player Aloisi was building the team around, the options are looking fairly bare. Nick Kalmar and Patrick Gerhardt are the only other two experienced central-midfielders in the squad. The only problem is that there is not a whole lot of creativity. Murdocca is a great scurrier, good at winning the ball and helping with transitioning from defence to attack, but he is not going to create goals. Ramsay is likely to play wide either at left-back or left-wing and the other players are not known for their creation either. One wonders how they will create anything.

Defence looks to have been fairly successfully plugged. Kisnorbo, Wielaert, Walker, Behich, Gerhardt and Ramsay all add to the depth and quality of that position. Provided there are no major injuries they should perform well.

Transfers In

Jeremy Walker (DF) (Melbourne Heart Youth)
Sam Mitchinson (DF) (Melbourne Heart Youth)
Steven Mauk (MF) (Melbourne Heart Youth)
Iain Ramsay (MF) (Adelaide United)
Massimo Murdocca (MF) (Brisbane Roar)
Harry Kewell (FW) (Al-Gharafa)
Rob Wielaert (DF) (Roda JC Kerkrade)
Aziz Behich (DF) (Bursaspor - Loan)
Tando Velaphi (GK) (Melbourne Victory)
Orlando Engelaar (MF) (PSV Eindhoven)
Michael Misfud (FW) (FC Valletta)
Patrick Kisnorbo (DF) (Leeds United)
Andrea Migliorini (MF) (Koper - 3 month injury replacement)

Transfers Out

Vince Grella (MF) (Retired)
Clint Bolton (GK) (Retired)
Matt Thompson (MF) (Free Agent - Linked with Sydney FC)
Fred (MF) (Free Agent)
Jamie Coyne (DF) (Free Agent)
Steven Gray (DF) (Oakleigh Cannons)
Simon Colosimo (DF) (Dempo)
Cameron Edwards (MF) (Perth Glory)
Marcel Meeuwis (MF) (FC Eindhoven)
Josip Tadic (FW) (HNK Rijeka)
Eli Babalj (FW) (AZ Alkmaar)
Richard Garcia (MF) (Sydney FC)

Key Player and Hottest Prospect

Harry Kewell: 
Orlando Engelaar, before his injury would have been the heart (scoff) of the team. However, the next most likely has to be Harry Kewell. Kewell oozes class and whilst many A-League and Socceroos fans have derided him over the last few years, he still has the quality and guile to be a real force in the competition. After a slow start at Melbourne Victory, Kewell steeled himself into a potent attacking weapon even at a time when management was poor. It is however is meander after the Victory that worries people. Having played 4 games last season with Al-Gharafa many will be worried about his fitness, but they needn't. By all accounts the new skipper is ready to take on the A-League by storm and his desire to get to Brazil with the Socceroos will certainly give him the personal motivation he needs to change games. Watch out for Harry, he has something to prove.

Ben Garuccio:
You might want to argue with me on this one, but Ben Garuccio seems to be the brightest star in the current Melbourne Heart squad. Whilst you could suggest players like Jeremy Walker or Steven Mauk could be future stars, Garuccio has been recognised as a star in the making. Joining the Heart at age 17, Garuccio was one of the most sort after young wingers in Australia. With a strong left foot and some pace to boot, Garuccio should see more game time this year. With Kewell likely to need a rest, or being needed to play in other roles, Garuccio could well step on to be his replacement. In any case he will certainly learn from Kewell and this apprenticeship could be very important for his future development. Still only 18 the Adelaide native has a long way to go, but he certainly could make a surprising impact this season given the chance to do so.

Final Verdict

Heart have certainly recruited much better than last season but there are still large questions over certain positions. Midfield creativity is going to be lacking. There is no one in the middle of the park that can provide key passes. Kewell and Dugandzic on the wings are going to have to be the ones to bomb it in to Misfud or Mehbrahtu. Few balls through the centre means limited options, but there could yet be a tactical surprise or two. Defense is going to be one of Heart's strengths this season and they should concede far fewer goals provided Wielaert, Kisnorbo and Gerhadt gel.

I personally am still not convinced by John Aloisi as head coach either. He is still learning the ropes with limited backroom experience. Tony Popovic at West Sydney, Graham Arnold at the Mariners and even Aurelio Vidmar (when he was at Adelaide) all had more than a couple of seasons of assistant management or coaching experience, something Aloisi does not have. A small stint as youth coach at the club really doesn't count.

The future looks better than last year but still bleak. Don't get your hopes up too high Heart Fans.

Tentative prediction: 8th

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A-League Season Preview 2013-2014 - Central Coast Mariners

Don't be afraid of change

Writing off the Central Coast Mariners every year has been an A-League past-time since the inception of the league. With a small fan base and remote location, the Gosford based club has come in for a shellacking every time they lose an influential player, coach or just generally look like they haven't been recruiting well, yet every season they exceed expectation. Under Lawrie McKinna, the Mariners were a consistent force with a modest squad. Now under Graham Arnold, the Mariners have been a squad that is consistently contesting the title, now with a sprinkling of star quality.The off-season however has been less than kind to the club however as they have had to cope with the loss of some very key personnel. No less than 6 first-team quality players were lost in the most recent window. 

Perhaps the most telling of these losses with be the departure of the evergreen Patrick Zwaanswijk. The ever youthful defender decided at the ripe age of 38 to finish his footballing career. Although the Dutchman still contributed greatly to his side it was to be decided that he would take a back-room role for the 2013-14 season. Now coaching the Mariners youth side, Zwaanswijk will still be in the room, but the former NAC Breda regular's influence on the pitch will unfortunately not be quite as strong. 

To add to the loss of Zwaanswijk, the Mariners have also lost former Australia U-23 captain, Oliver Bozanic, speedster Bernie Ibini, keeper Mat Ryan and right-back Pedj Bojic. Top scorer, Daniel McBreen, now on loan with Shanghai SIPG, will also miss the beginning of the A-League season, but will likely be available from round 4 or so.

Pre-season has not been the greatest in terms of results for the Mariners, but a tour of Indonesia has certainly helped raise their profile. The Gosford club managed to reach the final of the Menpoura Cup, a pre-season trophy, only to fall down to Arema Indonesia after being punished by two controversial penalties. Against A-League opposition, Arnold's men have only pulled off one win, against Adelaide, with losses to Newcastle Jets and Brisbane Roar. 

The Revolution Continues

Graham Arnold remains with the club for a 4th season running; also signing an extension until the 2015-16 season. The former Socceroos care-taker coach has been one of the most consistent since the A-League's inception. Whilst not necessarily playing the most attractive football in the league, it is by far one of the most disciplined and well drilled. Players know their roles and play to their strengths. It is because of a coach like Arnold, that teaches this ethos, that personnel changes have largely not affected the way they play. After the loss of Mustafa Amini in the 2011-12 season, questions were raised as to whether he could be replaced, fortunately Tom Rogic, now of Celtic, was able to fill that role. When Rogic then moved on in the Summer of 2013, Michael McGlinchey took on the playmaking role to great success. Whilst the Mariners have been blessed with talent, this trio all had different attributes, however, they all succeeded in the system.

New stars in the form of Nick Fitzgerald and Mitchell Duke look to be the answers going forward with experienced heads like Nick Montgomery and captain, John Hutchinson leading the way through the centre of the park. There is a good mixture of experience and youth that certainly is a positive.

The Mariners did extremely well last season. Although overshadowed by the inaugural success of the West Sydney Wanderers, it was the boys in yellow that ended up taking home the A-League's most prized trophy in the grand final. A 2-0 win against a similarly well drilled side is a testament to how good the Mariners can be. 

The loss of players this year may well have made a massive dent in any title challenge this year, but one should only write-off the Mariners at their peril. Some strong recruiting has certainly put them is a good position with old experienced heads leading the lines.

Ins and Outs

This remains the key. There are many good quality players that have been shipped out this season and it is doubtful that those replacing them are of equal quality. Perhaps the biggest miss will be that of the retiring Zwaanswijk, but the signing of countryman Marcel Seip seems to have filled that gap. With Seip likely to partner Trent Sainsbury in defence, that is hardly something to laugh at. 

Other key signings include former Melbourne Victory and Adelaide attacker, Marco Flores as well as the return of the prodigal son, Matt Simon from his ill-fated stint with Chunnam Dragons in the Korea Republic. This plugs two holes. Simon can come in to replace McBreen who will not only be out for the first 4 or so rounds, but who will also be likely to play less of a role as he gets older. Flores too comes in as cover for the departed Tom Rogic. The Argentine is likely to the first-choice for the playmaking role with Michael McGlinchey likely to take a slightly more withdrawn role on the right-side of a midfield diamond.

The biggest concern however is likely to be with right-back. The departure of Pedj Bojic to Sydney FC has left a big gap in an otherwise stoic defence. Former Perth Glory youth product, Storm Roux appears to be the current solution, but with only one appearance for his former employer it is hard to see whether or not his will have the quality to maintain his spot. The only other solution would be that of Hayden Morton, a Central Coast youth product, whom also has little first-team experience.

The loss of Mat Ryan too, now knocking on the door as the successor to Mark Schwarzer at international level will certainly have repercussions. Justin Pasfield is a competent keeper, but he may not be able to pull of quite the same heroics as the current Club Brugge custodian.

On paper the transfers have not been as impressive as other clubs. Other clubs looked to have improved on last season whereas the Mariners appear to have gone backwards, at least in terms of personnel lost and gained. However, they will still probably end up in the top 6 come season's end.

Transfers In

Hayden Morton (DF) (Central Coast Youth)
Michael Neill (DF) (Central Coast Youth)
Tom Slater (FW) (Sydney FC Youth)
Marcel Seip (DF) (VVV-Venlo)
Marcos Flores (MF) (Melbourne Victory)
Storm Roux (DF) (Perth Glory)
Matt Simon (FW) (Chunnam Dragons)
Liam Reddy (GK) (Sydney United)

Transfers Out

Mat Ryan (GK) (Club Brugge)
Bernie Ibini-Isei (FW) (Shanghai SIPG)
Daniel McBreen (FW) (Shanghai SIPG - Loan until October)
Pedj Bojic (DF) (Sydney FC)
Oliver Bozanic (MF) (FC Luzern)
Patrick Zwaanswijk (DF) (Retired)
Adriano Pellegrino (MF) (Central Coast Mariners Academy)
Brad McDonald (DF) (Central Coast Mariners Academy)

Key Players and Best Youth Prospect

Marcos Flores: 
The Argentine has a lot to prove this season. To say that Flores' stint at Melbourne Victory was a disappointment would be to be completely understating the situation. The playmaker's performances for Adelaide United at times were at time breath-taking, taking home the the 2010-2011 Johnny Warren medal over the title-winning exploits of Brisbane' Roar's Thomas Broich, no mean feat. Since his ill-fated journey to China with Henan Jiaye, he has yet to find his feet again. 
The number 10 position at the Mariners is certainly an important one. The likes of Mustafa Amini, Tom Rogic, Michael McGlinchey and even Daniel McBreen have filled this role over the years and all of them have blossomed in that role. The stage is set for Flores to have a big season. He is a known quantity that is low on confidence, but his performances will likely separate the Mariners from a top 4 finish or a top 6 finish. 

Nicholas Fitzgerald:
Released from Brisbane Roar mid-season last year, Fitzgerald returned to his old stomping ground on the Central Coast in search of first-team football. The pacey attacker was widely appreciated at the Roar but after falling out with Mike Mulvey, it was decided he would relink with his old club. The prospects are bright for the 21 year old. If given the same amount of game time as previous youth players before him, he could blossom into one of the most potent attacking weapons in the A-League. A good dribbler of the ball, blessed with impeccable control, the Waroonga native has all the ingredients to set the A-League on fire next season, and given the loss of Bernie Ibini and the possible unpredictability of Marco Flores' form, he could see a lot of football this season.

Final Verdict

The ingredients are there for a finals side. The Mariners have been far too consistent since the beginning of the A-League to write them off completely. The personnel losses will make it extremely hard to replicate the success of last season, but there is no reason to doubt they can make the 6. In saying that however, if certain key-players fail to fire, then they could just miss out. The quality of the league has definitely lifted since last year but only time will tell if the Mariners have kept up.

Tentative prediction: 5th

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A-League Season Preview 2013-2014 - Brisbane Roar

Roaring to go

The Roar had a disappointing start to last season. With long time assistant Rado Vidosic taking over from 2-time championship winner, Ange Postecoglu as manager, many were optimistic about "the brains" finally taking on the main job. However, the experiment was not as long lived as one might have hoped with Vidosic only lasting until December before a management reshuffle saw former Gold Coast United care-taker, Mike Mulvey take the reigns. Mulvey was able to take an underperforming Roar team into the semi-finals before falling over to league champions, West Sydney Wanderers 2-0.

Mulvey has since gone on to refresh the squad with some youth players and a few new additions. The mercurial Thomas Broich remains as the talisman of the team with star striker Besart Berisha is looking to maintain his title as the league's most prolific goalscorer after getting a return of 14 goals despite playing in an underperforming team. The only concern for Roar fans will be, if the Albanian gets injured, who will score goals for the team? Even in pre-season so far, Berisha has scored a lion's share of Brisbane's goals.

Brisbane looked lost at times under Vidosic, and Mulvey's revolution has taken some time to take affect. When he took charge, some underwhelming results, including being knocked out on penalties from the Asian Champions League qualifying stage, many were already calling for his head, but such was the same when Postecoglu took charge 4 seasons ago, and we know what happened then.

So far so good

After a loss to minnows Lions FC in the opening match of their pre-season, the Roar have gone on to win 11 games in a row, including 4 wins against A-League opposition. By all reports, these victories have been much in the attractive, attacking-style that fans are used to seeing in Suncorp Stadium. A 1-0 win over Melbourne Victory and a 4-1 trouncing of Sydney have shown that the Roar may well be a grand threat to the A-League with now arguably the best first-eleven midfield in the league. The addition of Liam Miller and Roar legend Matt McKay looks to boost an already stocked midfield that included Thomas Broich and Luke Brattan. Chance creation may not be an issue, but if Berisha goes off the boil, gets injured or endured a lengthy suspension, there are not many other goal scorers in the side. With Mitch Nichols now departed for Melbourne Victory, that is a possible 10 goals from midfield gone. It will be up to the likes of Broich, McKay and Miller to start putting away more chances. However a newly fit Henrique and a sprite youngster by the name of Kwame Yeboah could well add a few more important goals where necessary. Depth will be an issue however, with mostly youth players or younger players coming off the bench.

The major change for the Roar tactically has been with Ivan Franjic moving to right-wing and Jack Hingert playing behind him. Both Hingert and Franjic are quality full-backs and to not play one of them would be wasteful. This way the Roar can utilize both players to the fullest with Franjic and Hingert able to interchange on the right-hand side.

Mulvey looks to have his team on track for the new season with some very effective and attractive football in pre-season. T

Ins and Outs

Brisbane have been lucky in terms of players leaving. The only real major losses in the off-season were that of Ben Halloran and the long-serving Mitch Nichols. Halloran was not at his best last season, but that is not to say he wasn't an important player to have for Brisbane. Similarly, Nichols is the epitome of inconsistent, but he does consistently score important goals from midfield.

The additions of Liam Miller and Matt McKay however will probably erase any doubt from the
Roar faithful's minds about the loss of quality. Irish international Miller has been a very important player for Perth Glory over the past two seasons and although on the wrong side of 30, he still has plenty of pedigree and ability to help Brisbane this season. The home-coming of Brisbane-boy Matt McKay too will have many excited at the prospect of the current Socceroo returning to the form he had in his championship winning season as captain. McKay will have to take the backseat on captaincy this year with Matt Smith retaining the arm-band, but the influential McKay is a quality player that will likely add greatly to the dynamism of the Roar's midfield. Particularly after the loss of Massimo Murdocca, McKay's running and ability to work in small places will certainly help fill that role and more.

Defence has also been revamped since last season with Matt Jurman being shown the door. Young James Donachie and Jade North are likely to be the partners for Matt Smith in defence on a regular basis.

Former Sydney FC attacker Dimitr Petratos joins the team from Kelantan after looking fairly good for the Malaysian Premier League side. He joins Diogo Ferreira from Melbourne Victory after he was perhaps a little unfairly released from the team after filling in at right-back. The two players add to the squad depth in midfield and on the wing with Ferreira also reinforcing right-back.

Transfers in

Kwame Yeboah (FW) (Brisbane Roar Youth Squad)
Ben Liftin (MF) (Brisbane Roar Youth Squad)
Matt McKay (MF) (Chanchung Yatai)
Liam Miller (MF) (Perth Glory)
Diogo Ferreira (MF) (Melbourne Victory)
Dimitri Petratos (FW) (Kelantan)

Transfers out

Stef Nijland (MF) (Loan Return - Now at PEC Zwolle)
Ben Halloran (MF) (Fortuna Dusseldorf)
Mitch Nichols (MF) (Melbourne Victory)
Massimo Murdocca (MF) (Melbourne Heart)
Matt Jurman (DF) (Sydney FC)
Steve Lustica (Loan Return - Now at Adelaide United)
Do Dong-Hyun (MF) (FC Gifu)
James Meyer (FW) (Pune FC)

Key Player and Hottest Prospect

Thomas Broich:
One could easily make the case that Matt McKay or Besart Berisha would be the Roar's key
player, but few are as consistent as the German playmaker. Broich has been pivotal for the Roar's success over the last 3 years and it has been when he has performed poorly that the team has also played below par. His experiment in the middle at the beginning of last season ended with him being played out on the left once more and this proved to be the better position for the former FC Koln midfielder. 11 assists last season went a long way to helping the Roar up the table and his ability to draw defenders created many more goal-scoring chances. Whilst Broich is getting older, his wile certainly hasn't faded.

James Donachie:
Donachie is already known to A-League fans, but at 20 years old he has plenty of potential and time to grow. The centre-back played very impressively for the Roar when called upon despite his tender age as he often filled in for Matt Smith or Matt Jurman. A tall defender with decent touch, Donachie is the first in-line to take on a central defensive spot if his captain or former Socceroo Jade North lose their position. Donachie grew as a player last season and will only get better this year. The fact that Mulvey has not signed another centre-back as cover is testament to the belief that the Roar staff have in him to shine when needed. As North and Smith age, Donachie will be ready to pounce and make that starting position his.

Final Verdict

The Roar have strengthened their positions with experienced campaigners and a sprinkling of youth. Whilst depth in centre defence and in the striking positions is lacking, the Roar will likely mount a very strong challenge on the title this season. Out are the frustratingly inconsistent player of Nichols and Jurman and in come the experience of Matt McKay and Liam Miller. This is music to the ears of Roar fans, and there will certainly be the expectation that Suncorp Stadium will become home to yet another final.

Mike Mulvey is set to start his only full-season in charge of a professional club and early signs are showing that he know what he's doing. The young coach certainly has his work cut out for him with the competition of the A-League increasing, but with the players at his disposal he will be confident of a strong showing this year with and eye on continental qualification.

Brisbane look like champions elect to me, but this is possible my personal bias setting in. I will however reign in my prediction and suggest they will finish in the top 3 come the end of the season.

Tentative (biased) prediction: 1st.