The A-League's regular season is in the books and, with finals football now on the horizon, it's the perfect time to sit back and take stock of the state of play in the league and the game at large.
End of Days
If one was to base judgment entirely upon post-resumption form, Sydney FC could almost be classified as rank outsiders in this year's finals: Steve Corica's side have picked up just a single win from six games and even that triumph, a 3-1 win over Wellington Phoenix, relied on some fortuitous refereeing decisions and two late, late goals. Defeats to the Newcastle Jets and Melbourne City, in particular, demonstrated two different, yet effective, strategies to deny Sydney any comfort.
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But though it may pain many a hot-take artist, football is a game of nuance and the Sky Blues' barnstorming commencement to the season and previous history cannot be ignored. Sydney has continuously shown themselves to be a class above their foes in recent years, building juggernaut-like success upon an ability to capitalize on their opponent's errors and, if they're up against it, grind out results in a manner that the rest of the league has been unable consistently deny them.
Yet, conversely, an argument can be made that perhaps the 2019-20 season marks the occasion where the chasing pack, led by Melbourne City but also featuring Wellington Phoenix and Western United, have gained sufficient ground to deny this strategy -- finally figuring out how to take down the big blue beast. The next week should be fascinating.
The Running Man
But if Sydney are vulnerable, who is best placed to wrest the Toilet Seat-shaped crown from their clutches? City is the most obvious answer; Erick Mombaerts' side having comfortably downed them and undefeated in their other two fixtures.
The Citizens bring a different look to the finals compared to the back fives of Western United, Brisbane Roar and Perth Glory or the Graham Arnold inspired 4-2-2-2's of Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix. Deploying centre-back Harrison Delbridge on the right of his side's back four, Mombaerts has been able to, in turn, shift to a three-man defensive front when his side has the ball by moving his left-back into the midfield -- creating a numerical superiority for his side. The strategy clearly served its purpose against the Harboursiders, with City running out comfortable 2-0 winners with captain Scott Jamieson serving as the inverted full-back.
The strategy helps to mitigate -- but not eliminate -- one of City's biggest weaknesses on the ball: Current left-back Nathaniel Atkinson, now that Jamieson has returned home to Victoria, is one of the most successful dribblers on a team lacking in them. Indeed, heading into the post-COVID restart, Jamieson had executed more successful dribbles than Adrian Luna, Jamie Maclaren and Lachlan Wales combined.
If City can press high, force turnovers, get out in space and run hard, there are very few teams in the A-League capable of going with them even on a good day, but they've also displayed frustrating inertia in possession when faced with low-blocks throughout the season. That was typified by their round nine loss to Perth Glory when an early goal allowed Tony Popovic's side to sit back, allow their foes the ball, soak up pressure and hit on the break.
The Last Stand
The national technical director's chair, one of the most important in the game, has sat empty at FFA headquarters since March, when Rob Sherman, frustrated with the barriers he felt he was facing, tendered his resignation. FFA CEO James Johnson later told ESPN he felt the Welshman left "too early." But on Wednesday, the chair was finally filled following the announcement that Trevor Morgan had been named as the nation's new interim TD, with former AIS coach Ron Smith tapped as a technical consultant.
The remit handed to Morgan, who guided the Joeys to the knockout stages of the 2019 Under-17 World Cup, was an extensive one; the FFA touting the establishment of a national football calendar, a review of pathways, competitions, coach development and participation amongst his responsibilities. He will also be tasked with helping to usher in the reforms touted by the FFA's recently released XI Principles document which, amongst other things, identified a need to define the "characteristics of a style of play which are authentic and resonate with Australian society."
It's a relatively simple sentence, but one that carries with it gigantic implications for the future of Australia's national teams -- the style with which they play at the heart of what kind of players the country will seek to develop and the philosophies and values that will be absorbed into the greater game via osmosis.
"I've got a plan for that," Morgan told ESPN. "I think the clearest one is that you have a head coach of the Socceroos and, we don't have a head coach of the Matildas, but we would want that coach to be involved in helping define that.
"We have a full technical department here in terms of the analysts who work with the national teams, we have the junior national team coaches and I think the important thing is that we have within us, a lot of similar language, but we have the opportunity to define a DNA: How teams look and what type of players we're looking to develop.
"The very simple one on that is that we have some documents that we can collaborate on until we've banged our heads on the desks enough and agreed with the simple explanation of what we're looking for and then it will be for the analysts to pull video examples of that.
"And then those video examples become available to all levels, whether it's coach education, whether it's through social media or whatever. If people are curious about the Australian style of play, we will eventually have clips of all that and a simple definition of all that where we will know what that is."
Also included in the subjects for Morgan to review was one that's always good for sending the Australian zeitgeist into the grips of frothing rage: The National Football Curriculum.
The document is one of the most misunderstood in Australian football and, in recent years, has become Australian football's black sheep -- especially when its junior sides lose a game.
"I think we've got to look at the gaps between the good work we've done and the level we need to get to to achieve," Morgan said on the curriculum.
"Right across the XI principles; things like producing players of the highest level, or coaches of the highest level or our teams being more successful in Asia, and our team being more successful in the world rankings.
"To achieve all of that, we need to measure the shortfall on things within the department here, and I have a huge resource with having the commitment of Ron Smith as an advisor there.
"We'll take a serious look at how we can look to, not throw out the National Curriculum, but look to build upon it and build another layer atop of it so the game has growth and increases its depth of substance to what it means."
We have today written to members to let them know of a meeting to be held next Tuesday, 25 August, to discuss the criteria for a national second division with a public statement to be issued after that meeting. We are forging ahead with a view to commencing a NSD in 2022.— AAFC (@AAFClubs) August 17, 2020
When the AAFC announced on Monday that it was set to meet on Aug. 25 to "discuss the criteria for a national second division, with a public statement to be issued after that meeting," and that it was "forging ahead with a view to commencing a NSD in 2022," Australian football was sent into a tizzy.
But the organisation, a collective group of National Premier League sides, has explained to ESPN that the coming meeting doesn't indicate a breakaway from the FFA and auger a move to set up a rebel competition but, instead, is designed to lay the groundwork that will enable all stakeholders to put in place a second tier sooner rather than later.
Comparing it to the plans to seek out informal EOIs that FFA CEO that Johnson revealed to the Sydney Morning Herald in March, the AAFC intends to take stock of the interest levels of its clubs in participating in a NSD and their capabilities to do so, as well as check in to see how they've been affected by the pandemic.
"We haven't decided, I want to make clear, that the 'FFA isn't doing this, so we're doing this on our own,'" AAFC president Nick Galatas told ESPN.
"We're out there canvassing interest against a couple of [NSD] models to go to the FFA with. I think that's the clear takeaway. It's been misconstrued that we've severed the relationship with the FFA and gone our own way, that's not true."
The information they gather, the AAFC believes, will then enable proper planning for the launch of a NSD division by 2022 to swing into action -- although they emphasised it will ultimately be guided by their members as to when they will be best placed to take part in a newly launched competition.
"Unless you work towards it, you don't get there," Galatas said. "You can always think of problems. If you actively pursue something, you can come up with 1000 reasons why it won't work, but you've got to do it. We know there are issues, doesn't mean they're insurmountable."
Victory, for now, remain coachless, with it looking increasingly likely that a final announcement will have to wait until next week.
Nonetheless, they're is some good news for Victory fans, with club sources indicating to ESPN that they're quietly confident that out-of-contract teenage sensation Birkan Kirdar will re-commit to the club for the coming season.