The A-League story of the season has been the astonishing demise of Western Sydney Wanderers, at least domestically.
As I write, the most consistent winning team over the previous two seasons has still only won one match and sits dead last on the table - albeit with two games in hand.
Even if it won both those spare games it would still be in ninth position, and a whopping 11 points outside the top six.
Some are saying it would take a minor miracle for the Wanderers to make the finals series. I disagree. I think it would take a major miracle of biblical proportions.
The slide of the Wanderers is not just the story of the season. It is the mystery of the A-League’s 10 year history.
So what happened? And why?
I have a diagnosis and I’m afraid at the heart of the causes are some bad judgments made by Tony Popovic, correctly hailed after his first two seasons at the helm as our most gifted, young, home-bred coach.
The crowded early season match schedule, the tiring travel, the need for player rotation, all caused by the run to the final of the AFC Champions League no doubt had something to do with it.
However, that cannot explain how after the ACL had been won, on 1 November last year, the Wanderers lost 10 games of the ensuing 19 in the A-League and could only win once.
I believe the primary cause is more simple: bad transfer choices by Popovic. That is, too many good players were allowed to leave and were not adequately replaced.
Of the players that left, the most missed are Shinji Ono, Youssouf Hersi and Aaron Mooy. All three were integral to the Wanderers' previous successes, all key players and potential match-winners. They left gaping holes on the team’s playing roster.
Vitor Saba, who replaced Ono as the team’s creative number 10, has already been jettisoned. As has Seyi Adeleke who came in for the released Adam D’Apuzzo. It is clear that Romeo Castelen is no Hersi. He neither has the speed nor the trickery. And Mateo Poljak, who moved into the midfield anchor alongside Iacopo La Rocca is no Mooy either. He lacks Mooy’s repertoire of passes or his shooting ability, especially with the dead ball.
Until Yojiro Takahagi arrived in mid-season the Wanderers’ attack had no creative force. Everyone up front was a runner and a worker. For weeks on end the Wanderers could find no way to break down opposing defences, which tightened up when facing the Asian champion.
The problem created was that Popovic’s penchant for rotating players became a serious liability. He simply had too many mediocre players to rotate. He needed the match-winners and he didn’t have them.
The story of Saba is especially interesting. We, the public, still don’t know exactly why he was shown the door and can only assume it had something to do with his attitude rather than his ability. A question mark must hover as to how his case was handled.
Saba was a creative creature, signed to unlock defences with his skill, brain and capacity to surprise. Players of this type are nearly always high maintenance. They tend to have a mindset that tells them they don’t need to run as much or work as hard as the others because they compensate with their touch and invention.
This is common. Do you think Andrea Pirlo runs laps in training at Juventus? I doubt it.
Managing players of this type, and bringing the best out of them for the benefit of the team, is not easy. It’s hard.
Yet getting rid of them is not always the best solution. Often it’s better to keep them, somehow make them work and harness their talents for the collective. A coach who can do that is a bloody good coach.
It pains me to say this stuff because I admire Tony Popovic and genuinely believe in his enormous gifts as a coach. His record otherwise speaks for itself.
I just believe he made some errors in how he handled transfer management in the last off-season and maybe in the Saba case.
Since all that, some good players have been recruited: Nikita Rukavytsya, Kerem Bulut, Nick Kalmar and the two Japanese players, Takahagi and Yusuke Tanaka.
But I fear, for this season it may be too late.
I believe this is now a transition year for the Wanderers. Popa is best advised to concentrate on building for next season.