Round 1 of the A-League was most interesting, confirming some thoughts we had and raising other questions for future reference. Here are a few that stood out:
- The Premier, Central Coast Mariners, has made tactical adjustments in the off-season. It appears that Graham Arnold has altered his midfield to give greater options when building from the back, with both John Hutchinson and Adriano Pellegrino providing support centrally and laterally.
The protection and circulation of the ball looked very impressive - albeit against a counter-attacking Wanderers side - perhaps in response to an incapacity to maintain possession against Brisbane Roar during the past two seasons.
Tom Rogic looked good moving ahead in the next line but would benefit from a number nine to play with, but it's always good to see young players being given an opportunity.
- Brisbane Roar has changed subtly, with less of a reliance on running its lateral rotations and more flexibility for Erik Paartalu, Mitch Nichols and Thomas Broich to find passing lines centrally. This means the decision-making of the players is more varied and complex and it appeared they may take some time to adapt to the changes.
When pressed, Roar struggled at times in recent years to play through. It will be interesting to see how it is able to do so with new mechanisms that require a greater reading of the game by the players.
- Pressing was, as expected, a feature of week one and will be this season. The first team to ask the question of opponents’ build-ups, Roar, was always going to find success in the approach, since most teams weren't focused on playing from the back two years ago. Now, almost every team understands if it can't build from defence it will sacrifice possession and likely concede territory and chances, if not the match.
I love this evolution, as it forces coaches to work on a difficult and necessary part of the game previously lacking here and has already altered the type of defender teams are using, such as Michael Thwaite's signing in Perth.
Well done to everyone on this angle.
- John Aloisi showed, in my view, immense philosophical courage to send his team to press high against Melbourne Victory in his debut professional match.
John organized his team to press aggressively and capitalise on forced mistakes, and took a justifiable reward. There was less emphasis on possessing the ball, however for a first ever match as head coach, it was an outstanding start. His team was not just aggressive, of course, it was extremely well prepared and organised and this is the fundamental change in the A-League in recent seasons. It will be interesting to see what the Heart have to offer with the ball against other teams that play a reactive style.
- I saw Western Sydney Wanderers play Heart a month ago in Lismore, and knew they'd be highly competitive because Tony Popovic has the side very well prepared tactically, compact and difficult to break down and always ready to counter at speed.
When done proficiently, this style of game is extremely difficult to play against, and if they can take the chances they will create, the Wanderers will be pushing top six.
Tony's head coaching debut was equally as impressive as that of John, and I am ecstatic that a new generation of young coaching talent has been given their opportunity and have quickly proven their credentials in this league. A long and arduous journey is ahead of them both, but each has the foundational tools for success.
- The mix of styles is also highly commendable. We now have teams playing a possession game, counter-attack and more direct in Wellington. We have teams with key creative players, 4-3-3s, 4-2-3-1s and 4-4-2s. The key progression has been precise player roles and defined objectives in each moment of the game, irrespective of the system. Each coach, therefore, will be tested against a variety of styles and systems, an ideal developmental environment.
- Of all the young players on display, Aaron Mooy was a joy to watch because he plays forward, a key component to relieve pressure in midfield.
I enjoyed Lawrence Thomas's distribution very much for Victory, particularly to his wide players, bypassing the first line or two, and Tom Rogic has us all excited.
- For all the controversy of last year about poor decisions on imported coaches at Victory, it is already better; a plan from the back, albeit not yet fully implemented, and good speed in wide areas to capitalize on Marcos Flores's creative ability. Marco Rojas has already improved with a precise tactical role to play and Marcos has a defined role, which gives him freedom to drop deeper, from where he can use his passing range. All very good signs and there is much to look forward to for the suffering Victory faithful.
- Perth Glory was better organized than I've ever seen it. Ian Ferguson has evolved and therefore so has his team, and the defensive organization in midfield against Roar was very good.
The players threw the ball long when pressed, so playing from the back is a work in progress, but they are aiming to do so and this is extremely good news.
- Adelaide United has become the master of sit and counter, with Dario Vidosic impressing equally in the AFC Champions League and A-League. The question will be how the side performs at home: will it play more open and how, and will it maintain that approach. It can only work if results continue. The problem comes when points are needed, at which time it will have to attack, and that will be very interesting indeed.
- The jury is out on some of the new foreign imports, with Krunoslav Lovrek not having his best game for Sydney FC and Dino Kresinger also showing intermittent pieces of quality for the Wanderers. Shinji Ono showed immediate class and Alessandro Del Piero was superb, but we all know the team failed to operate effectively around him, something Ian Crook will need to fix sooner rather than later.
Playing Ale at number nine dilutes the opportunity to play a pressing game, something I thought we would see from Sydney, though in a deeper role a more dominant stance could be taken. With fast, young players like Mitchell Malia and Joel Chianese to run off his tremendous vision, there should be plenty to look forward from the Italian master.
- I expected to see more with the ball from Newcastle Jets, who need to improve.
The issue of Emile Heskey, though, is not a straightforward one. From what I know of the player, and I rarely watched his teams I must admit, he is a target man who is strong in the air and plays in a direct manner.
Hold up the ball, get it wide and deliver crosses into the box is what I understand he would be used to. However, the Jets have been working on a possession-based style of game in which they aim to control the ball and territory, a style I thought demands a more technical type of player, used to playing or receiving diagonal passes behind the defence, fairly close to goal.
It seems to be something of a mismatch, and how Gary van Egmond makes use of his talents will be a real feature of this season.
- There were quite a few missed passes and a lack ball control in Week 1 and I wonder whether we can expect this to be the case for a little while.
As organization increases, time decreases, placing greater pressure on technical execution and ability to see options before reception, and I wouldn't be surprised if it takes players some time to adapt.
This is a positive, at any rate, because it is a sign of the league taking another step forward as players and coaches again have to adapt and progress.
It should mean a different type of player will be sought, whether foreign or from our youth ranks, one who is comfortable playing at high speed in tight spaces, something we need to improve as a nation.
- More than 10,000 Sydney fans turned out for the Wanderers match, with over 30,000 expected for Ale's first home game, but the challenge of season eight has to be for Sydney fans to accept the challenge from Melbourne and get into the stadia in bigger numbers. We've regularly had more than 40,000 down south and surely Sydney can muster 20,000-plus average for both clubs.
Sydney Croatia, Northern Spirit, Olympic and Marconi used to get 18,000-plus. My hope is that season eight proves to be one that Sydney grew up as a football town and responded to the tremendous challenge of our southern counterparts.
Enjoy Round 2. As the trends of each team become more apparent, it is going to be absolutely fascinating.
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Philip Micallef is a football writer with almost 40 years of experience. He has worked for News Limited and now SBS. He is a long-time follower of AC Milan.
A journalist with decades of experience on TV and radio, Tony is an expert on all things Italian - including football.