Central Coast Mariners continue chugging along in a manner that was wholly unexpected before the A-League season kicked off. Discussions about the proposed second division also continue -- but perhaps in the expected manner -- and we have a new fixture to look forward to. Good football and social media things, too. It's the wrap!
The Second Division Landscape
Last Friday, Football Australia CEO James Johnson released the latest in his take on FDR's Fireside Chats: Fronting a social media video breaking down a series of topics and issues in the Australian game. Among these was the fraught, ongoing process of introducing a national second-tier in Australian football.
🔊 𝙐𝙥𝙙𝙖𝙩𝙚 𝙛𝙧𝙤𝙢 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝘾𝙀𝙊— Football Australia (@FootballAUS) February 12, 2021
James Johnson reviews the news & developments in Aus football:
🔹 @KatrinaGorry's news
🔹 Play Football
🔹 National Second Tier Framework
🔹 @OzDay Honours
🔹 @CarpenterEllie AFC recognition
🔹 @ALeague, @WLeague + Durante 400
Declaring it a matter of "when and how", Johnson raised the importance of moving the second-tier discourse from theoretical to practical, and emphasised the need for collaboration among the game's various stakeholders. Acknowledging the delivery of the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) report on its preferred model -- which remains the only costings and model in the public domain for analysis and debate -- the CEO said that Football Australia was conducting its own financial and competition modelling, and flagged the coming months as a period in which consultations would occur with various stakeholders -- particularly member federations.
These coming consultations, ESPN understands, will encompass not just the introduction of a second tier but also how it intertwines with a planned implementation of a domestic transfer system, club licensing framework that will scale across the various tiers of Australian football, and the ongoing process of aligning the nation's footballing calendar; Football Australia is keen for the FFA Cup final to serve as a capstone to each domestic season.
With Johnson highlighting the importance of member federations, ESPN reached out to all nine scattered across Australia to source their views on a national second tier; asking if the bodies had positions on timing and models, or other concerns around the implementation of a second tier.
"Football West supports the concept of a second division for football in Australia and will engage through Football Australia's current review and planning processes," West Australia's federation told ESPN. "A second division must form part of a practical framework for improving football opportunities and the sustainability of all levels of the game in Australia."
Northern NSW Football referred ESPN to Football Australia's statements on the matter, while a Capital Football spokesperson said: "Capital Football supports Football Australia's approach to move the discussion regarding a national second division competition from the conceptual level to the practical level. We look forward to engaging with relevant stakeholders and contributing to the discussion".
Australia's largest Member Federation, Football New South Wales, acknowledged the ambition of its clubs.
"Football NSW is aware that Football Australia is currently undertaking work to examine various competition models, formats and timelines," it said. "It is important the necessary time is taken, and consideration given, to competition models including the financial modelling at both competition administrator and club level.
"We appreciate that many of our clubs are ambitious and want to see a second division come to fruition. At Football NSW our aim is to help equip our clubs to develop so that when the time comes, they will be as best prepared as they can to take the step up."
Football Queensland declined to comment, while Football South Australia, Football Victoria, Football Tasmania and Football Northern Territory had not provided a formal response at time of publication.
Central Coast Mariners, the A-League's little engine that could, kept on rolling last Sunday, defeating Wellington Phoenix 2-0 to go four points clear atop the A-League table and equal their points total from last season just eight-games into 2020-21.
After a cagey opening -- expected given the systemic similarities between the two teams -- the tide turned in the 27th minute when a straight red card to Phoenix's David Ball shifted the balance of power to the Mariners. Goals to Matt Simon and Oliver Bozanic subsequently propelled Cinderella Coast to a comfortable win.
Though the foundations are very different, there may be a sense of deja vu for observers of the Mariners strong form, capacity to grind out results and ability to punish sides this season -- something also hinted at by the similarities between their and Wellington's structure. Western United coach Mark Rudan observed it when asked how preparation for his side's (ultimately postponed) match with Sydney FC was shaping.
"[It's] somewhat easier by the fact the Mariners [who beat his side 3-2] shape up exactly the same as Sydney," Rudan said. "It's almost extremely identical."
"Everyone looks at ways to improve themselves and there are templates that are successful in the A-League, and Sydney FC has shown that their template has been successful. Wellington Phoenix [coached by former Sydney FC assistant Ufuk Talay] decided to use that same template and it looks to me like the Mariners are doing the same.
"There's a lot of similarities there.
" However, individuals are different. And that's where you need to get the microscope out and say 'OK, [Kosta Barbarouses] is this type of player as opposed to Matt Simon'."
As far as archetypes go, there are few better to emulate and put one's twist on in Australian football than Sydney's. Since 2016-17, no club in the country has won as much silverware as the Sky Blues, and their A-League's side's success is unmatched.
'Arnieball' as the Graham Arnold-inspired system has come to be known, has its limitations -- especially with sustained control of the ball -- but there's no reason for it to fall out of vogue until other A-League sides can demonstrate they're capable of stopping it.
Simon, Gianni Stensness (who is unfortunately set for a stint on the sidelines), Ruon Tongyik and Daniel de Silva look to be thriving under the approach, the latter flourishing as a creative fulcrum in a manner that, if you squint, could remind you of a certain maestro in Sky Blue.
Rise like a Phoenix?
Yet systems don't guarantee success. Just ask 11th-placed Wellington Phoenix.
The Kiwi's side's decisive attacking thrust of last season has been only hinted at thus far in 2020-21; a full integration of Reno Piscopo can perhaps go some ways to address this, but the spine of the midfield will ultimately have to lift the side from its nadir if something is to be salvaged from the campaign.
The side is still getting forward but they are increasingly wasteful with their chances and/or shooting from poor positions. Per FbRef, nobody has let fly more but at 26.8% only the tortuously wasteful Newcastle Jets have a worse shot-on-target ratio this campaign. When the Phoenix do get a shot on target, it's often not falling: 0.19 of Wellington's on-target efforts find the net compared with the league mark of 0.29%.
While the law of averages would ostensibly mean an improvement on these figures as the season progresses, they're an area that will still need addressing should aspirations of salvaging the season remain.
Talay's side was in a similar position after six games last season and went on to play finals football, but those circumstances carried the qualifier that they were breaking in a new coach, a new system, and a host of new players -- although with Tomer Hemed, Luke DeVere, Jaushua Sotirio, David Ball and possibly Joshua Laws all out for various lengths of time thanks to injury, it might feel similar this season.
Phoenix also had the luxury of several home fixtures in New Zealand -- as opposed to WIN Stadium -- in their back pocket in 2019-20. Last season, Phoenix recorded two-thirds of their wins and just two of their nine losses at home, where they had a +10 goal difference compared with -5 on the road.
"They try to wear you down with a lot of possession and drag you out of position," Rudan said of the Bulls
"[It's] not too different from the way that Ange Postecoglou coached as well. [Macarthur coach Ante Milicic] is clearly a disciple of Ange's and believes in the same values and philosophies.
"We know that quite well and we're not going to get sucked into them trying to wear the opponent down with the ball -- particularly when it's not affecting you or hurting you and there's no need to be pulled out of shape."
Both clubs were tapped to enter the league at the end of 2018 after a long expansion process, with the unusual caveat that Macarthur would enter a year after Western -- reportedly to give Western Sydney Wanderers clear air in their new stadium.
In 2020-21, Macarthur sit second on the table after recording four wins, two draws and two defeats their first eight games. In 2019-20 Western United sat fifth on the A-League table after their first eight games, having recorded three wins, one draw and four losses in their opening run.
While the changed landscape of the A-League means the comparison isn't of a simple apple-to-apple nature, a dive into the performances of the two sides suggests the difference in starts may be down to the two's ability and that of their foes to be clinical in front of goal. Another caveat is that the Bulls' numbers owe a significant debt to their 4-0 destruction of Adelaide United after their early games were marked by possession for possession's sake.
Per ESPN Stats and Information, the Bulls have recorded an expected goals (xG) figure of 12.1 across their first eight games in existence -- bang on with their actual tally of 12 -- against a 13.9 expected goals against (xGA) figure compared with an actual nine goals conceded. Going forward, Milicic's side has a 9.7 % shot conversion rate and is averaging exactly an hour per goal.
Ok, we couldn't leave out the one that secured Matty with the club's first hat-trick!— Macarthur FC (@mfcbulls) February 13, 2021
Derbyshire was on 🔥 last night! 5 goals from 8 games!
🎥@FOXFOOTBALL #MFCBulls #RunWithTheHerd pic.twitter.com/AArRBAnEJ7
Western recorded a 13.78 xG figure from their opening eight games in 2019-20 against an actual total of eight, and an 7.8 xGA figure compared with an actual total of 10. The side had a conversion rate of 6.2% on their shots.
Western went on to reach a semifinal in 2019-20, despite Panagiotis Kone, Dario Jertec, Ersan Gulum, Scott McDonald, Connor Chapman and assistant coach John Hutchinson all leaving mid-season, something the Bulls are hoping to match or better.
Their ability to do so may come down to their ability to keep outperforming defensive expectations -- so no pressure Adam Federici.
Inside the Mind of a Keeper
The mind of a goalkeeper is... an interesting place.
A striker, ostensibly, can produce a series of stinkers and still maintain their place in the side, but rare is the coach who will remain patient with a goalkeeper amid a sustained form slump.
"The goalkeeper is more of an individualized position; you have to deal with pressure, you have to deal with your team relying on you, and you have to be able to kind of keep your concentration for a full 90 minutes and be able to perform for that one moment that you're called upon. That's what I like about it. I like that if I succeed it's usually down to my work and if I fail it's my fault and I like that individual aspect of the goalkeeping role."
"The reality of being a goalkeeper is that if you do make a mistake you're generally going to cop a goal for it. You have to learn from it so you don't keep making the same mistakes over and over, but you can't dwell on it; you have to move onto the next action and make sure that's a positive one."
Good Football Thing of the Week
Good Social Media Thing of the Week
The mullet is dead, and it couldn't have been sacrificed for a more worthy cause.
It's gone 😱@RhyanGrant has smashed his fund-raising target of $10,000 by more than double, shedding his iconic mullet today, ahead of our home clash with Brisbane Roar on Saturday night!#SydneyIsSkyBlue #Premi4rs #Champion5— Sydney FC (@SydneyFC) February 18, 2021