After twists, turns and a few surprises, the A-League's regular season is finally coming to an end. Finals football, and a topsy-turvy offseason, will soon arrive but, before then, it's time for another A-League recap.
JUMP TO: Victory need to make right decision | In praise of Jeff Hopkins | Young players need meaningful minutes | How good is Alessandro Diamanti | Western United 'only going to get better' | Sad to see Reds miss out | 'Some of the best football we've seen from any side'
With their 2-0 defeat by Western Sydney Wanderers on Wednesday night, the calamitous 2019-20 season can now officially be recorded as Melbourne Victory's worst. A black mark against a club that styles itself as the nation's biggest, the chaos that has surrounded both their head coaching role and playing list this season, combined with Melbourne-based rivals Melbourne City and Western United both making the playoffs, means it's no surprise the immediate sentiment of Victory fans seems to be "let us never speak of this again."
But this is a campaign that should not be forgotten, because it serves as a wakeup call for the four-time A-League champions -- a reminder that they have no God-given right to success.
While off seasons are a time for hyperbole, interim coach Grant Brebner's declaration post Wanderers-defeat that the rebuild the club now faces is its biggest ever isn't off the mark. And after the disastrous decision that was bringing in Marco Kurz, which led to confusion surrounding recruitment, a poor tactical fit and a cultural clash, the next decision the club makes in said rebuild is critically important: Who is their new head coach?
Multiple sources have indicated to ESPN that a final decision has not been made, with John Aloisi and Brebner, previously reported as outsiders to the candidacy of Arthur Papas, looking less like longshots for the job with every passing moment. Rumours have abounded that Yokohama F. Marinos coach Papas has gone so far to withdraw his name from consideration, but those within the Victory camp would not be drawn on that speculation.
The favourite, Aloisi, would enter the job with significant A-League experience and, importantly for a club with the internal perceptions Victory has, would be just as comfortable fulfilling his duties off the pitch as well as on it. Conversely, detractors would point to those same A-League postings and their messy endings, one of which came at Melbourne City/Heart, as evidence of his unsuitability.
Brebner is a dyed-in-the-wool Victory man and thus carries the same sentiment of goodwill from the fanbase that helped carry Kevin Muscat through lean periods of form. He would also bring a familiarity with Victory's academy that would bolster efforts to rejuvenate the squad and build depth. But how the Scot would respond when tasked not with playing kids as he carried the carcass of a failed season over the line but, instead, returning Victory to the Promised Land remains unknown.
Victory is a big A-League club which carries itself as simply a big club, and the next decision must be right if it has any intention of turning that facade into a reality.
A new coach, however, will not be the only shake-up in the Victory setup.
Victory W-League head coach In praise of Jeff Hopkins was pressed into service as Brebner's No. 2 during the post-pandemic period, and the former Fulham and Reading hardman -- one of the most universally liked people in all of Australian football, which is no mean feat -- is set to be further integrated into the club's academy setup in coming months.
With Victory keen to once and for all shed its reputation as a club that doesn't develop talent, Hopkins will take on a key role in helping forge links between youth sides and the first team, as well as supporting and mentoring young players.
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Thankfully, though, Victory is also aware of the importance that he holds to their W-League program, and it is reluctant to divert too much of Hopkins' attention away from the women's side of the game -- pointing to Rado Vidosic's role as both a W-League coach and academy mentor at City as an example of how the duties can be juggled.
"He's been fantastic for me and for the players because the players really like Jeff," Brebner said. "He's got a wealth of knowledge and he's been a great shoulder for me -- he's very calm. Jeff's been in the coaching game for a long time and his value to me is... words do not speak highly enough."
All the Young Dudes
"Serious cramp that was. Obviously, he hasn't played many games."
Speaking to Fox Sports as he prepared to watch the second half of his side's 1-1 draw with Brisbane Roar, Sydney FC coach Steve Corica's explanation for the withdrawal of Luke Ivanovic spoke to far more than the youngster's health. For while the commentary was quick to express incredulity that a 20-year-old -- who scored a magnificent goal in that contest -- was suffering from cramp, the reality is that training can't hope to replicate the rigours of an actual football match -- no matter how intense it is.
Some finish that by @lukeeivanovic ⚽️👏— Sydney FC (@SydneyFC) August 10, 2020
It's the reason we're level at the break, second 45 coming up on @FOXFOOTBALL 507 and streamed on @kayosports & the My Football Live app...#SydneyIsSkyBlue #Premi4rs #OneDown #BRIvSYD pic.twitter.com/oRnWbAZWnT
While Ivanovic's battles with injury admittedly haven't helped him press his case for minutes, how much of that brittleness can be down to him recording just 254 minutes of senior football since he made his maiden A-League start against Melbourne City in 2018-19? That's 254 minutes supplemented by just 11 appearances at senior NPL NSW level and 75 minutes (in which he scored a hat trick) at a Y-League level? Looking beyond match fitness, how is that dearth of action aiding his development?
It highlights a structural issue facing the game; youngsters on the periphery of A-League football, as observed by Socceroos and Olyroos boss Graham Arnold, too often travelling with senior teams in case they are needed, only to end up watching from the stands. This, in turn, prevents them from registering minutes in an already woefully inadequate Y-League or in the NPL.
Much has been made of the youngsters receiving extended looks following the A-League's resumption, but the bar for success mustn't be set so low that clubs effectively forced to play youth due to a contested fixture and numerous player absences is held up as a triumph of youth development.
With the state of the professional game in a state of flux, efforts need to be maintained to ensure that developing players can, in some shape or form, engage in the most effective means of development: playing games.
Time Will Crawl
The A-League is, for the most part, played at a furious pace, making those rare moments when players are willing to stop and take a moment all the more enjoyable.
Following a turnover in the 19th minute of play in Western United's 5-3 win over Western Sydney Wanderers, Besart Berisha headed the ball down to Alessandro Diamanti and, with Berisha and right-back Josh Risdon steaming upfield ahead of him, the Italian began to move forward before, suddenly, pausing. The moment of hesitation set off a chain reaction.
Jordan O'Doherty and Matthew Jurman, after being briefly wrong-footed, collapsed on Diamanti and were then immediately neutralised when his pass was knocked in behind them. Daniel Georgievski, briefly slowed to check Diamanti, was now a step behind Risdon when the ball got played through. Dylan McGowan, having momentarily checked his run in a fleeting attempt to catch the advancing Risdon offside, was unable to close down the angle of the Socceroos right-back's cross as Berisha snuck in behind him.
Wild is the Wind
Short of a bottle job in their coming games against Sydney and Melbourne City that would put Spurs to shame, Western United's 2-0 win over Perth Glory on Wednesday secured Mark Rudan's side finals football in their debut campaign.
"We're only going to get better, but I think it's a huge achievement for a new club," Rudan said. "We didn't have a training field [at the start of the season]; we've had to move around all season from Geelong to Ballarat. So, it's been tough."
Indeed, the cavernous confines of Kardinia Park were far too large for Western's 5,653 average crowds (which peaked at 10,128 against Melbourne), while Ballarat's Mars Stadium, though providing an improvement in ambience, presented enough logistical challenges for Rudan to call fixtures staged at the venue away games.
That, though, is likely to change next season, with a senior club source indicating to ESPN that, though still likely to play some games in Geelong and Ballarat as part of their push to be the "team of Victoria's West," discussions with the operators of Knights Stadium, Whitten Oval and AAMI Park are underway to find a more permanent base of operations for the coming season.
Of course, with it serving as a centrepiece as their entry into the league, a time frame on the delivery of Western's proposed single-use football stadium in Tarneit remains the most pressing stadia issue facing the club.
Ben Halloran might look like he would be more suited to instructing a politics tutorial at university than playing football, but don't be mistaken; the 28-year-old has been key to what makes Adelaide United tick going forward in attack.
In a team full of boundless energy that loves nothing more than getting out and running, Halloran serves as a lighthouse in a crimson hurricane. Combine this calm demeanour with a skillful touch that allowed him to fire home the equaliser as the Reds staged a furious comeback to salvage a point against Melbourne City, and his value as a player should be obvious.
In the end, it's unfortunate that the Reds won't be playing finals football in 2019-20. Under Carl Veart, the club has been able to turn around its woeful pre-pandemic form and it's always fun to watch a torrent of local youngsters, that love the city and love the club, come through. United would have been welcome additions to the finals.
The side from the Hunter have looked a new outfit under Carl Robinson -- winning three games from three against finals-bound opponents post restart, and playing some of the best football we've seen from any side all season.
Angus Thurgate and Steven Ugarkovic, in particular, look to be an excellent midfield pairing to build around, and Bernie Ibini has, albeit in a brief sample size, flashed potential of being a more than adequate replacement for the reportedly departing Dimi Petratos.
A few smart reinforcements during the offseason, and things bode well for the season to come at McDonald Jones Stadium -- should the Jets get their ownership situation sorted out.