Wednesday, February 28, 2007


The 4-3-3: Some Thoughts, Part 3

The 4-3-3 is generally considered, these days, a system that depends on a front-man and two wide wingers. But it wasn’t always so.

I recently had the chance to download a recording of the 1962 World Cup final, between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. A very fine game, incidentally, with a few good goals, and lots of eye-catching interplay from both sides.

That Brazil side of 1962 were considered the originators of 4-3-3. In Keir Radnedge’s Encyclopedia of Soccer, the overview of the 1962 tournament begins thus:

“Brazil retained their world crown as Garrincha took centre stage, and 4-3-3 became the subtle change.”

Yet, on viewing the match, anyone can tell that Brazil are playing with two central strikers – Vavà and Amarildo (deputizing most effectively for the injured Pelé). So what’s all this about 4-3-3?

It was an asymmetrical formation. The incomparable Garrincha, tormenting the Czech left-back Ladislav Novak as he had the Swedish defence four years earlier, was playing as an out-and-out winger. But Mario Zagallo, the “false” left-winger, played much deeper, giving support to the ageing midfield of Zito and Didì.

One genuine wide outlet, then, and a double spearhead maintained. It’s a perfectly workable system – as shown, among others, by newly-crowned A-League Coach of the Year Ernie Merrick this season.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


The Fake Break - another brief update

Best of luck to Rob Baan and the Olyroos in their qualification match against Iran tomorrow. With some of our European Under 23s unavailable, and Stuart Musialik suffering an eleventh-hour injury, it will be a tough test indeed.

Baan has commented unfavourably on the refereeing that the Olyroos are likely to encounter in Asian competition, and I share his concern. The match against Bahrain in October clearly demonstrated that some Asian teams are quite likely to resort to drama against the "physical" Australians, and that some referees are weak and cowardly enough to let them get away with it.

The injury to Musialik, who cut such a calm, shrewd figure during the latter stages of the A-League, is a serious blow. The team that David Davutovic has proposed in his article looks worryingly soft in the midfield area; I would be tempted to push Mark Milligan into midfield, which would allow Nikolai Topor-Stanley to play in the middle (where he is far more comfortable).

Monday, February 26, 2007


Welcome to the Coalface

The NSW Premier League – no longer sponsored by Vodafone, sadly – kicked off this weekend.

The state leagues can, in many ways, be considered the coalface of Australian football. It’s where the younger players (including several young A-Leaguers) get to test themselves in a semi-professional environment. Much of the football is of a good standard, there are plenty of scouts in the crowds, and there are many old stagers with distinguished records in the Australian game, still plying their trade.

Last night I caught the Sydney Olympic v. APIA Leichhardt game at Belmore. Olympic won 4-0, and already looked a far more cohesive unit than they did last season. APIA, for their part, were diminished by the absence of several key players through injury.

Shannon Cole, a youngster who has recently returned to his native country after spells in the USA and New Zealand, caught the eye especially. Involved in most of Olympic’s better attacking moves, he scored two goals and played important roles in the other two. Olympic’s fourth goal would have done credit to any level of football; Cole played a marvellously cheeky one-two with the talented Lisandro Berbis on the edge of the APIA area, before firing sweetly home.

I would encourage any Sydneysiders with an interest in the game to support the local league. The gap in standard between the A-League and the NSWPL is not nearly as great as you might think, and plenty of the players on show – particularly the younger ones – will be gracing the national competition before long. Shannon Cole may be one of them.

Incidentally, on a personal note, I had a brief encounter with the astral body whose idiosyncrasies I commented on a little while ago. It was heartening to discover that he has taken my recent criticisms in good part, and recognizes the distinction between a difference of opinion and a personal antipathy (which I certainly do not feel).

Respect, Mr. Murray.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


The 4-3-3: Some Thoughts, Part 2

The system with which Graham Arnold has become enamoured is sometimes considered a Dutch invention. Not entirely true (more on that in Part 3), but it’s worth a look at how the Dutch utilized it at the recent World Cup.

In many ways, Marco van Basten possessed the perfect front three for this particular system. Ruud van Nistelrooy is the sort of forward who can hold the ball up, bring others into play, and turn his man successfully. Another Samuel Eto’o, in other words.

Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie both possess the speed and skill to beat their fullbacks, or draw two or more defenders towards them so as to create space for the other attackers. Ideal wide men for the 4-3-3 (or 3-4-3), although van Persie ended up playing on his “wrong” side.

Although the Dutch didn’t exactly thrill the spectators in the first round, they did enough to suggest that they would be contenders. The opening stage of their exciting game against the Ivory Coast saw the front three looking particularly dangerous. Yet van Basten’s preference for untried (malleable, perhaps?) newcomers in midfield meant that the Dutch lacked some grit and nous in that area…a factor which was exploited by the Ivorians in the second half, when they completely dominated the game.

Then there was the second round against Portugal. 4-3-3 again, but…with Dirk Kuyt up front instead of van Nistelrooy.

It never looked likely to work, and it didn’t. Kuyt had a frustrating evening, often drifting out wide in search of meaningful action, and the lack of discipline from both sides made the game a dismal spectacle in any case. The Dutch went out.

Ironically, Kuyt was one of those involved in Liverpool’s winning goal at the Nou Camp on Thursday; although Rafa Benitez’s strategy for the game was unashamedly defensive, he had the sense to pair Kuyt with the quick Craig Bellamy, ensuring that Liverpool would have at least some bite on the break.

But back to Australia.

We don’t have a van Nistelrooy. We don’t even have a Robben, or a van Persie, at the moment. Harry Kewell appears unlikely to ever recapture the form of his early days at Leeds, while the European career of our great white hope on the wing, Ahmad Elrich, has stalled.

What we do have at present is several good, combative midfielders, two fine wide players (not genuine wingers) in Scott Chipperfield and Brett Emerton, both capable of going from by-line to by-line, and a useful supporting striker in Brett Holman.

The signs are fairly clear: for the moment, the 4-3-3 is not for us. As always, the choice of system must suit the personnel (especially at international level).

In Part 3, some historical background on Graham Arnold’s favourite system…and a different interpretation of it.

Friday, February 23, 2007


The 4-3-3: Some Thoughts, Part 1

Watching Barcelona as they struggled against a compact, doggedly organised Liverpool side in the Champions' League on Thursday morning, I was forcibly reminded of the World Club Championship final last December.

In that match, of course, Barcelona failed to penetrate the well-organised defence of Internacional of Brazil, and succumbed to a late goal on the break.

The similarity between the two matches consisted of Frank Rijkaard's persistence with his favoured 4-3-3 system...even when it wasn't likely to work.

Barcelona's success over the last few years has owed much to the brilliance of Ronaldinho, the subtlety of Deco, and, just as importantly, the powerful displays of Samuel Eto'o up front.

In both the games I referred to above, Eto'o was absent. Yet Rijkaard chose to replace the Cameroon striker, on both occasions, with players who are far from suited to the pivotal (in all senses of the word) frontman role.

Eto'o is a striker with few peers in world football. Strong, fast, good in the air, and a superb finisher, he is pretty close to the complete package. He is, in other words, capable of operating alone up front, with support coming chiefly from the wide areas.

Eidur Gudjohnsen, who played the lone ranger role against Internacional, is a fine player. But he is a supporting striker; it is where he was most effective at Bolton and Chelsea, and where he would surely be best deployed at Barca.

Similarly, Javier Saviola, who led the line against Liverpool on Thursday, works best behind a genuine front-liner (as he did against Australia in the 2005 Confederations Cup, when Luciano Figueroa played off the last defender). He faltered alone up front against Liverpool, not least when he finally carved himself a palpable chance late in the game.

And then, another game comes to mind. That's right, Australia's recent friendly against Denmark, when Graham Arnold's stubborn insistence on using a nominal 4-3-3 system meant that Brett Holman was forced out to the left, where he doesn't belong. Surprise surprise, the Danes were able to cut Australia to pieces down the right, with Holman (and Josip Skoko) absent in the middle.

For some reason, Arnold seems to have become slavishly addicted to the plan, which, in so many ways, just does not suit Australia's current playing roster.

More anon.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Red End

John Kosmina's resignation this afternoon leaves Ernie Merrick and Lawrie McKinna as the last remaining coaches to have survived the first two seasons of the A-League.

There are plenty of Terry Butcher parallels in Kosmina's exit. Adelaide's erstwhile coach, too, had problems with his senior players (Angelo Costanzo in particular); he, too, presided over a team that suffered from disciplinary problems. Butcher's position had clearly become untenable by the end of the season; was the same true for Kosmina?

I think so, although it was certainly not the quality of Adelaide's football that told against him. Rather, it was his relentless propensity to pick unnecessary fights with officials and opposing managers, and his apparent tolerance of some extremely unprofessional comments from his captain and his most senior player, in the wake of Adelaide's grand final loss.

Ross Aloisi, let it be said without reservation, was a disgrace on Sunday.

Not only did he foolishly get himself sent off, but he besmirched the entire occasion with his tactless, arrogant remarks afterwards; yes, perhaps Kevin Muscat's early challenge on Diego was worthy of a caution, but for Aloisi to argue that his second yellow card was soft is simply absurd. From many referees, that sort of challenge would produce a straight red.

The fact that Aloisi has now been relieved of the captaincy is a good sign for the club. But back to Kosmina.

Had he not gained good results with his side - many of whom remained from the last NSL Adelaide United team, a factor which aided stability in the A-League's first season - he would surely have gone much earlier. His crass, self-pitying comments at press conferences, and his running battles with opposition players and managers, were often appallingly unprofessional. The "universe" regularly conspired against him. He always sought to blame anyone bar himself and his players.

Yet his team prospered.

He has certainly shown a knack of getting the most out of younger players. Nathan Burns, Jason Spagnuolo and Bruce Djite have all flourished under Kosmina's stewardship. But his attachment to some less deserving older stagers has cost Adelaide dear at times this season.

It's a pity, from an Australian point of view, that both the teams competing in the Asian Champions League are going into the event in a state of relative disarray. Although Branko Culina has been getting plenty of positive press, and his players appear delighted at his appointment, the fact is that Sydney FC are very much in a state of transition.

And now Adelaide face the tough challenge of the ACL without their cantankerous, charismatic boss, not to mention Greg Owens, who will be difficult to replace satisfactorily. It will be a wild ride for both clubs.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Who's Afraid? - brief update #4

Just when you thought the football refusers couldn't get any more ridiculous, following Michael Duffy's interesting theories on our evolutionary unsuitability for football, a rather breathless and incoherent pundit on the Crikey website has come up with this.

Sadly (mercifully?), the full text is available only to subscribers (I only saw it while browsing one of my usual football forum haunts), but the précis is roughly as follows: the grand final was boring because Melbourne scored so many goals without reply, the chants were "uneducated", calling the game "football" is an affront to Australian history...oh, and there was a flare, don't you know. Tsk tsk.

Mr. Maher's fatuous rubbish deserves no reply, but the eternal question remains: why does drivel like this get past the sub-editor's desk?

Having said that, most reviews of the atmosphere (let alone the football on show) at Telstra Dome on Sunday have been glowing. Save for the booing of the Adelaide United players at the close, which was indeed distasteful.

Monday, February 19, 2007


A-League 2006/07 - The Alternative Awards

The pages of newspapers and blogs everywhere have been awash with end-of-season award lists, and rightly so. There is generally a Player of the Season, Team of the Season, Manager of the Season and so on.

Rather than add my voice to the chorus (since my choices for the “major” awards would be very similar to those enumerated more cogently elsewhere), I present below a few offbeat gongs for the A-League’s second season.

Substitution of the Season

Although it was in the very first round, Miron Bleiberg’s substitution of Dario Vidosic for Chad Gibson is hard to beat.

Queensland, fielding three out-and-out strikers, lacked that link-man in attack, and Vidosic played the role to perfection, taking part in all of Queensland’s three subsequent goals. Gibson, for that matter, was struggling, as he would all season.

It was unfortunate that Bleiberg often used Vidosic unwisely thereafter, forcing him out to the left, or giving him indeterminate roles in midfield. He is a young player of great promise, but one hopes he will have a chance to cement himself in an appropriate position next year.

Honourable mentions for the award: John Kosmina’s well-judged switch in the preliminary final, substituting an ineffectual Nathan Burns for Bruce Djite, and Terry Butcher’s unexpected hooking of David Carney for Ruben Zadkovich against Perth in Round 17.

Assist of the Season

Nick Carle very nearly took this out with his exquisite back-heel to Mark Bridge late in the preliminary final, but Daniel Beltrame’s fine save made the matter academic.

Fred is a multiple nominee, not least for his deadly crosses in the final (not to mention his well-weighted through-ball for the fourth goal, even if Thompson was probably offside). Jason Spagnuolo’s sinuous run and shot, which resulted in Romario’s goal in Round 17, is also worth a mention.

But the award goes to Benito Carbone, for his unbelievable back flick for Saso Petrovski in Round 6 against Adelaide. It was a moment of pure, brilliant improvisation, the like of which we see so rarely in modern football.

Most Improved Player (over the course of the season)

This one’s hard. Most of the season’s “stars” were stars from the outset.

Jason Spagnuolo, Nathan Burns and Mark Bridge were perhaps the three young revelations of the season, but they were influential right from the beginning. So was Fred, far and away the season’s best import.

An honourable mention goes to Mile Jedinak, who took some time to find his feet in the A-League, but finished the season as perhaps the Mariners’ most consistent player.

Ben Kennedy, too, grew in confidence as the season progressed, although he was barely sighted in the second half of the competition.

The winner is Kennedy’s clubmate Stuart Musialik.

A victim of the general malaise at Newcastle early in the season, Musialik ended the season as one of the best midfielders in the league. A capable tackler and a superb distributor, very comfortable on the ball, he must be a prime candidate to fill Vince Grella’s shoes in the Socceroo engine room, in the fullness of time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Lessons Unlearnt

John Kosmina has a good deal of egg on his face right now. And he deserves every dripping bit of it.

He manifestly set himself up with his smug sniping at Miron Bleiberg in the lead-up to the game. A smart cookie, Mr. Kosmina? Not when you repeat exactly the same mistakes that lost you the previous game against the same opponents.

1. Ross Aloisi once again left to cope alone with Melbourne's thrusts through the centre, when he was so plainly incapable of doing so two weeks earlier. Once again, Melbourne very quickly gained complete dominance in the central midfield area, and were thereby able to exploit Adelaide's shaky left side of defence.

2. Nathan Burns yet again used on the left, where he has been consistently anonymous. Again, Adelaide posed little threat on that wing; on this occasion, Travis Dodd, too, found himself diligently marked by Steve Pantelidis, and he never got into the game.

Once Burns moved into the middle in the second half, his influence increased exponentially. But by that time, of course, it was much too late.

3. Bruce Djite, who proved such a handful for Melbourne in the major semi-final second leg (almost making up for Melbourne's absolute control of the midfield, for a time), only brought on when the game was all but over. The Burns-Djite combination is clearly Adelaide's most potent strikeforce at the moment (so much was made abundantly clear in the final game of the regular season, against the Mariners), but it has been given so little time in which to operate.

I shouldn't criticise Kosmina too much for his choice of Greg Owens at left-back, since it was one of the options I canvassed in my preview. It was rather the combination of a lack of penetration on the left, an impotent midfield, and a makeshift left-back that largely contributed to Melbourne's first two goals.

And now, having said all that:

Hearty, thoroughly deserved congratulations, Ernie Merrick and Melbourne Victory.

You have dominated this season from the start, and the recovery from your loss of momentum in the closing weeks of the regular season has been most impressive.

Archie Thompson was the most obvious star of the grand final, but Fred was perhaps even more deserving of acclaim. His service, both from behind the forward line and from out wide, was absolutely outstanding.

Enjoy your triumph, gentlemen.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Grand Final Preview

You couldn’t ask for a better grand final match-up. The two teams which produced that superb game in Round 8 meet up again, at the same venue.

In their previous meeting, the major semi-final second leg, Adelaide simply allowed Ernie Merrick’s men to boss the midfield, particularly towards the close. Significantly, Adelaide were not able to use the wide avenues as much as they would have liked, due to the absence of Spagnuolo and Petta; as a result, Melbourne were able to make all the running.

It must be clear by now that playing Nathan Burns on the left simply does not work. If neither Spagnuolo nor Petta are fit to play tomorrow afternoon, John Kosmina should, in my view, look to stiffen the centre of midfield (perhaps by moving Costanzo up from the back, and slotting Kristian Rees in alongside Michael Valkanis), while keeping Travis Dodd as his wide outlet.

This would leave the left side empty, but it can probably be covered by a full-back as nimble as Matthew Ke…oh, wait a minute…

That’s right, Kemp is suspended. Possibly the chief cause of Kosmina’s colourful blast at Matthew Breeze last week, although there were surely other factors.

Who to play at left-back, then? Aaron Goulding is the obvious choice, but he has seen very little game time this season, and it’s far from certain that he would be up to a byline-to-byline role. Adam van Dommele, too, has been a cipher this season.

One other option might be to play the versatile Greg Owens there. It is far from his natural position, but he has occupied just about every position bar goalkeeper for Adelaide over the past year and made a reasonable fist of it. Alternatively, Owens could once again fill the right-back slot, with Richie Alagich switching wings.

Then there’s the question of Bruce Djite. He has proved a menace to opposition defences in his cameo appearances over the last couple of months; not a natural finisher by any means, he nevertheless uses his physical strength to commendable effect.

Is he, perhaps, worth a start? Melbourne possess strength at the back, of course, but Djite’s bullocking style has proved difficult for even some powerful centre-halves to handle. However, on such a big stage, Kosmina is likely to opt for experience once again.

Melbourne face few selection problems. It is likely that Merrick will start with the formation that has served him so well throughout, with Muscat and Brebner (if he can make it) shielding the back four and Fred drifting dangerously behind the front line.

If Brebner is unfit to start, Mark Byrnes could fill the breach, or even Kristian Sarkies, if he has recovered from his Olyroo knocks.

Around halfway through the season I was telling most of my friends that Adelaide were my pick for the title.

Well, they’ve made the grand final. But to be honest, I don’t think they’ll get there.

Melbourne will have a more settled team, massive home support, and the psychological edge, having defeated Adelaide the last time the two teams met.

In my opinion, it should be enough to see them over the line.

Friday, February 16, 2007


On the Raedar

Nice to see the A-League grand final getting a comprehensive preview on a major media website, thanks to the affable, knowledgeable Derek Rae.

I had the good fortune to meet Rae in Stuttgart in June, following the Australia v. Croatia game. As well as being a fine commentator (surely one of the best English-language callers in the world at the moment) and a thoughtful pundit, he has a keen interest in, and considerable knowledge of, Australian football.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Danny Boy

Well done Queensland Roar for securing the signature of Danny Tiatto.

A player whose international career never quite took off, partly because his period with the Socceroos coincided with an era of sparse matches and underachievement, Tiatto surely has plenty still to offer on the pitch.

He is the ideal player for Queensland, too, whose lack of a specialist left-sider was starkly apparent this season. Dario Vidosic never looked suited to the left midfield role, and although Matt McKay is of course largely left-footed, he is a versatile enough player to be better suited to the middle (in fact, I feel McKay has the potential to become one of our most complete central midfielders, in the fullness of time).

Tiatto, though, is not short of versatility. In one of the best Socceroo performances of the last ten years, our win over Scotland in late 2000, the then-Manchester City man forsook his usual role on the touchline and shifted to an inside-left position, to make way for the scything left-wing runs of Stan Lazaridis. The combination between these two - now both ensconced in the A-League - was one of the more impressive features of Australia's performance that night.

Just on the matter of Lazaridis, incidentally, it was a pity that his first season back in domestic football was so badly affected by injuries. When fit, he was regularly Perth's most creative player, and his chronic absence had its inevitable effect on Perth's ultimately miserable season.

Tiatto can score goals, too, although he has never been renowned for it. One of my striking memories of him (if you'll pardon the pun) is of a stunning solo "goal" he scored for Manchester City against Middlesbrough in the Premiership some years ago, in which he surged through a crowd of defenders and finished powerfully. Unfortunately, it was ruled out - quite ludicrously, as it happened - for offside.

The other feature of Tiatto's play that comes to mind is his, erm, "physicality". During the Frank Farina era, he was considered second only to Kevin Muscat in the mongrel stakes.

Yet Muscat has not been as crude in his play as some had feared, and he seems to have even added some subtlety to his game now that he's back home. Perhaps the player of the current season, Melbourne's veteran captain has shown that there's life in some of the old Socceroo dogs yet.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Breezing Through

Never far from trouble, John Kosmina.

Another altercation, this time with referee Matthew Breeze, could well lead to a touchline ban for Sunday’s grand final; Kosmina has suggested that, even if the ban is enforced, it will have little effect on his team’s morale – and he is probably right. Still, it was a foolish thing to do.

But there’s a question that needs asking:

Why was Matthew Breeze refereeing the game at all, after his atrocious performance in the minor semi-final second leg?

Mark Shield and Matthew Breeze have been allotted all the “important” games in both seasons of the A-League so far. Yet both have often fallen well below the standard expected of a referee in a professional league.

That night in Newcastle, Breeze simply lost control of the game. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that he abrogated control of the game. How else can one explain the fact that he allowed Jade North to head-butt Iain Fyfe right in front of him, without producing a card?

North should already have been the recipient of a yellow (at least) for a last-man challenge on Robbie Middleby some minutes earlier. Paul Okon, too, should definitely have received some sanction for his retaliation against Alex Brosque, following the foul which saw the Sydney man sent off.

And in case anyone feels this is just a case of a Sydney fan grumbling, Newcastle were denied one of the most obvious penalties you are ever likely to see in the second half, when Fyfe upended Nick Carle in the box. The two Newcastle penalty shouts in the first half were both marginal, but the third was plainly legitimate. Again, Breeze was right on the spot. Again, he did nothing.

After a night like that, there is no way that a referee should be permitted to preside over the season’s second most important game. The league bosses need to ensure that incompetence is not rewarded (although, it must be said, this does tend to happen in most leagues with “favoured” referees).

Although Breeze did a little better at Hindmarsh, he still produced that ridiculous card for Matthew Kemp, which will now keep Adelaide’s impressive left-back out of the final.

Kosmina may have been unwise in his remarks. But – if he said what most people believe he did – he had a point. Steve Corica would surely agree, in any case…

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


The Sarkies Situation

The proximity of the preliminary Olympic qualifiers to the A-League finals series was bound to cause some problems. With Kristian Sarkies picking up an injury in training in Taipei yesterday, the critics are off the leash.

Rob Baan, in fairness, has been given licence to take his full-strength Olyroo side to the second leg despite the 11-0 drubbing of Chinese Taipei at Hindmarsh; given the limited preparation time he has before the “serious” matches begin, one can understand his insistence on taking the whole crew.

But the match in Taipei, let it be said at once, does not occur on an international date, and therefore the clubs are not under any legal obligation to release the players (so far as I know).

In the past, Australian football fans have often railed at the “selfishness” of European clubs and managers refusing to release players for internationals, when their ire should really have been directed at the administrators for devising such a ridiculous schedule for the national side (do Caracas 2004 and Bogotá 2001 ring any bells?).

Now, with the A-League up and running and Asian commitments filling up the international schedule, the boot is on the other foot now and then.

Sydney FC, for one, suffered earlier this season when Mark Milligan and Alex Brosque were called up for the two matches against Paraguay and Bahrain. Terry Butcher, I feel, had a right to be somewhat aggrieved at the fact that neither played any significant part in either match (Milligan was a late, meaningless substitute against Paraguay; Brosque didn’t get on the pitch at all). In the meantime, Sydney were deprived of their services for two league games.

But given that the A-League schedule was not drawn up with the international calendar in mind, something of the kind was bound to happen.

Now it’s Ernie Merrick on the receiving end, and one can sympathize with him.

For my money, it comes down to priorities. Yes, Olyroo preparation is important. But does a training game (let’s be honest here) for the qualifying stage of a tournament whose importance is greatly overstated really take precedence over the A-League finals series?

After all, it is surely the FFA’s decision. And the problem will inevitably arise again some time.

Monday, February 12, 2007


Preliminary Review

It was enthralling. Absolutely bloody enthralling.

A pity, in the end, that it had to be resolved on penalties. But for the two hours of the Adelaide v. Newcastle preliminary final, we saw just how far the A-League has come in its second year (in almost every department bar the eternal Australian shibboleth – the finishing). The comparison to last year’s indifferent preliminary final between Adelaide and the Mariners is striking.

Let us hope that the grand final, too, will be a good deal better than the dull affair of 2005/06.

Daniel Beltrame, as you would expect, rejected Simon Hill’s suggestion that he was the hero of the afternoon. Yet he was certainly one of them; time and again, in that frantic extra-time period, he came to Adelaide’s rescue. There were plenty of tired men in red shirts out there, and they were extremely fortunate to have a goalkeeper in outstanding form behind them.

Adelaide’s other hero, of course, was the magnificent Angelo Costanzo, who proved once again that he is one of the finest players in the competition. Although his distribution was not always up to its usual standard, his tackling, positioning and anticipation were simply exemplary.

Tactically, I felt that both managers missed a trick in their initial deployments, and in the same area of the park. Nathan Burns has never looked comfortable on the left, and had perhaps his poorest game of the competition so far, often looking uncertain of how to continue when he received the ball. Adelaide, needless to say, improved immeasurably when Burns was replaced by his flatmate Bruce Djite, and Travis Dodd moved over to the left.

As for Gary van Egmond’s decision to leave Steve Eagleton on the bench for the entire game, it might just have been the mistake that has cost him a place in the grand final. It was not that Andrew Durante had a bad game, but with Burns ineffectual on the Adelaide left, the right was Newcastle’s obvious avenue for attack throughout; Joel Griffiths did indeed make significant inroads, but he largely lacked the support on the overlap that he has had from Eagleton so often this season.

And it should be added that Dodd, once he moved left, gave Durante a torrid time – even when the Adelaide winger was looking virtually out of puff.

John Kosmina, after two consecutive preliminary final chokes, almost did it again with his craven substitution of Owens for Veart. It might have worked had Burns shifted into a forward role, but instead Fernando was left alone up front, and Newcastle took control.

Two of Adelaide’s deficiencies were demonstrated perfectly when Newcastle equalised, too. First Ross Aloisi (who was given some undeserved adulation from the Fox commentators afterwards) gave away possession cheaply; Newcastle broke upfield, and Nick Carle was able to pick a precise pass through to Vaughan Coveny, as Michael Valkanis played him onside (as he has done with opposition forwards so, so often).

Shades of Newcastle’s first goal in the semi-final second leg, when Mark Rudan’s similar carelessness compounded Ruben Zadkovich’s misjudgement.

Yet Kosmina redeemed himself with his reshuffle thereafter. Djite proved difficult for the Newcastle back-line to handle, and with Dodd, curiously, looking more lively on the left than he had on the right, Adelaide grabbed the initiative back.

Even in extra time, when Adelaide were clearly dead on their feet, Dodd and Djite kept the defence busy; crucially, they were able to limit Paul Okon’s excursions into midfield as well.

Well done Adelaide United. Reaching the grand final without your most influential attacking player is a fine achievement.

Commiserations to Newcastle, who have provided some wonderful entertainment this season. It’s particularly unfortunate that the penalty curse ultimately descended upon Stuart Musialik, who has had such an excellent season.

And finally, I would like to announce that Mike Cockerill and Andy Harper were successful in their attempt to break the world cliché record during the extra time period. Congratulations, gentlemen.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Preliminary Preview

It is fitting that the A-League’s three best sides remain in the competition.

Now it’s Adelaide against Newcastle for a Grand Final berth, and a place in the 2008 Asian Champions’ League.

Incidentally, a small point: have the A-League bosses made the right decision in reserving an ACL place for the Grand Final losers, rather than the second-placed side in the league, should the minor premiers also secure the “toilet seat”?

Personally, I don’t think so. If the side that gains second place in the league finishes streets ahead of the other finalists, it doesn’t seem fair to deprive it of participation in the ACL based on a few playoff games.

In this case, though, Adelaide were not well clear of the pack. And if the Jets win on Sunday, at least John Kosmina’s side can take comfort from the fact that they will be competing in Asia this year.

But back to the match.

It’s a very hard one to pick. Newcastle have the momentum, Adelaide have home advantage. Yet home advantage wasn’t much use to Adelaide last year, when they went down fairly meekly to the Mariners.

Jade North’s suspension, in my view, is a blessing in disguise. Although North has shown form in fits and starts this season, he is not at his best in central defence, as both Melbourne and Sydney have shown in recent months.

Paul Okon and Andrew Durante will now presumably undertake the central defensive responsibilities, with Steve Eagleton deservedly returning to the first eleven.

Mark Bridge and Stuart Musialik are reportedly carrying knocks from Olyroo exertions, but if such problems were likely to keep them out of the game, we would doubtless have heard more by now. Both players have been absolutely crucial to Newcastle’s fine run, and Gary van Egmond would be loath to leave either of them out.

As for Adelaide, Jason Spagnuolo is supposedly close to fit now…but we’ll see. He has looked much diminished in recent weeks, and up against one of the most mobile full-backs in the competition, he will have his work cut out. He is unlikely to start, which will probably mean Nathan Burns being pushed out to the left once more.

Another influential player in Greg Owens will surely play his part (if only as a substitute), but he looked somewhat match-shy against Melbourne. As Kosmina has pointed out, Owens has been out of full training for some time, and starting him against Newcastle would be a considerable risk.

I’m plumping for Newcastle. Their tails are up, their coach has been lauded from all quarters (and deservedly so, it must be said), and they have looked, if anything, the better footballing side of the two in the latter stage of the competition.

In any event, it should be a good one.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Sydney FC - The Report Card, Part 6

15. Terry McFlynn

A grafter, and another of Terry Butcher’s favourites, McFlynn had a fairly similar season to his first in Sydney’s colours.

That is, he had the odd good game, thriving particularly when he had a specific man-marking job to do, but several mediocre ones. And he rarely did anything to suggest he possessed the creative qualities that Ian Crook ascribed to him.

McFlynn certainly likes playing against Nick Carle. His dogged marking was the cornerstone of Sydney’s success at Energy Australia Stadium on New Year’s Day, and of their first-half dominance in the semi-final first leg. Whatever his detractors (and there are plenty of them) might say, the turning-point of the tie was McFlynn’s injury shortly before half-time that night.

He’s likeable, honest and diligent. But he is, essentially, a limited player. 6/10.

16. Mark Milligan

Arguably Sydney’s player of the season, despite his occasional fits of hot-headedness and his heart-stopping “cultured defender” moments, when he seemed determined to gift possession to an opposing striker (this is commonly known as the Foxe syndrome).

He started his season in central midfield, where he was influential and energetic but often somewhat reckless (and his passing, incidentally, was far less precise than some seemed to believe after his promising Socceroo outing in August).

Once he moved to central defence – where he had already showed his quality against Melbourne in Round 2 – he looked very much the part. Complementing Mark Rudan’s aerial prowess with good control and sound positional judgement, he was one of the major contributors to Sydney’s impressive unbeaten run.

Restored to midfield for the semi-final tie, he did not have the best of times. He was run ragged by Carle in the first leg, and failed to take command in the second.

Yet there’s no doubting his promise, or his pleasing adaptability. 8/10.

17. Jacob Timpano

Had his season wrecked by injury, and was only able to manage a single half of football against New Zealand, in which he was a long way from full fitness. It would be unfair to give him a rating.

21. Nikolai Topor-Stanley

He can head the ball. Oh yes.

He can man-mark. Oh yes.

He can’t do much else. Oh no.

Having said that, he is young, seems to have a good temperament, and there may be plenty of improvement to come.


22. Matthew Bingley

An Aunt Sally for plenty of Sydney FC fans early in the season, he didn’t, in fact, do all that badly according to his lights. Central defence is not his ideal position, and yet he was forced to operate there almost exclusively.

The highlight of his brief stay was the match against Adelaide at Hindmarsh, in which he made a number of crucial interceptions and clearances. Sadly, two weeks later against the Central Coast, he had a true horror game.

The last we saw of “the Pirate” was the Round 11 game against Newcastle, in which he was harshly sent off. It was a pity that some fans lambasted him for this, when he had, in fact, done quite well again, on the whole.

Much better than he was given credit for. 6/10.

23. Benito Carbone

Seen as a messiah after his brilliant debut against Adelaide, he was rarely sighted in the following couple of games, that free-kick against the Mariners aside. But this had far more to do with the lack of service from his team-mates, and the obtuse tactics of his coach, than any lack of effort or quality on his part.

A fine player of whom we saw regrettably little. 7.5/10.

Just on the new coaching situation, I for one would be delighted to see Branko Culina at Sydney FC, having often watched his bright, entertaining Olympic side during the final days of the NSL. Although he has a reputation for being "difficult" at times, I think it's fair to say that the players will at least be happy to have a manager who knows many of them well, and does not need the sort of adaptation to the Australian ethos that bedevilled both Littbarski and Butcher.

As for Gianfranco Zola, he was one of my all-time favourite players, and he is a true gentleman of the game. But would he struggle to adapt, as his two predecessors did?

Friday, February 09, 2007


Planet Murray

Now that readers are familiar with the peculiarities of Planet Foster, I thought I might perform another public service and introduce readers to the mysteries of its neighbour, Planet Murray. The latest missive from this planet can be found here.

This planet has glowed largely white since a certain match in Scotland in 1960, but not exclusively so. Previously it glowed red, but the dimming of the red light, which began after the 1954 World Cup, has continued to this day.

On Planet Murray, most football matters are judged with reference to that wonderful white light it reflects (the Bernabeu star). Sadly, this does lead to some curious episodes of blindness.

For instance, the inhabitants of Planet Murray consider that a club playing roster assembled under a $1.5 million salary cap constitutes one of "glitz, name and glamour".

A further theory holds sway on Planet Murray; that even in a salary cap league, at a club whose finances are a wreck, Bernabeu-style panache is just around the corner.

On this planet, such impecunious clubs could always simply run themselves into massive debt, Bernabeu-style, have the city council bail them out on countless occasions, and then sell their training facilities for an obscene sum so as to fund the purchase of several overpriced stars from Europe's top clubs. Not beyond an A-League club, surely?

Incidentally, coaches on Planet Murray can be pre-judged as to their suitability for a coaching position on the basis of their statements and decisions after they have actually been appointed (the inhabitants of Planet Murray are equipped with advanced clairvoyant abilities, you see).

And at clubs on Planet Murray, players are considered absolved of all responsibility for a season of relative failure.

Another land of fantasy?

Yep. Sure is.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Friendly Fire - update

Although the result was a little disappointing, it was good to see the Socceroos once again adopt a positive approach to a European friendly in their game against Denmark. As they did against Ghana, Graham Arnold's side got forward in numbers and created a pleasing number of chances.

It was clear again, though, that the 4-3-3 system is fraught with problems unless you have players who are suited to it. Brett Holman was used on the left wing this time (an improvement on the Kuwait game, where he started as right wing-back), but he regularly sought to move infield; this, along with Josip Skoko's apparent positional uncertainty and Scott Chipperfield's attack-minded approach, allowed the Danes to penetrate down our left flank worryingly often. Holman's drifts towards the centre allowed the Danish right-back, Jacobsen, to overlap frequently to good effect.

Salient, too, was the finishing ability of Jon Dahl Tomasson. Long have Australian football fans prayed for the sort of player who can bang them in with such precision and regularity. John Aloisi, at the other end, had a night he would rather forget.

It was interesting to see Jacob Burns in the green and gold once again. A somewhat forlorn figure during his brief spell with Leeds, the word is that he has regained some form and confidence with Wisla Krakow; in his brief period on the park, he didn't do anything special, but did look a bit more calm and confident than the Burns of 2001.

The Danes, incidentally, are (and have been for many years) a much better side than they are given credit for. Positive, technically accomplished and physically imposing, they are lucky to possess three quality wingers in Jorgensen, Gronkjær and Rommedahl, around whom Morten Olsen bases much of their attacking play. At the 2002 World Cup, I felt they were perhaps the best team of the first round (even including Brazil), and considered them unlucky to go out in the second, after conceding a soft, demoralising early goal against England - who continued their recent poor run with a 1-0 home loss to Spain overnight.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Sydney FC - The Report Card, Part 5

11. Saso Petrovski

Saso Petrovski’s season could probably be described in the following terms: a dull beginning, a bright spot towards the middle, and a forgettable end.

Almost immediately, he appeared less committed than he had been in 2005/06. A lacklustre performance in Sydney’s opening game meant that he was in and out of the side during the opening stage of the competition.

Interestingly, Petrovski’s best performance of the season was in Round 12 against New Zealand, a game in which he occupied a playmaker role, behind David Zdrilic. He scored two goals, and provided plenty of clever promptings for the likes of Zdrilic and Brosque.

With the return of Steve Corica, however, Petrovski could only hope for a start up front, and he didn’t often get one. His ill-advised blurtings in the media did little to endear him to the fans, or his coach.

Petrovski’s cameo appearances towards the end of the season tended to indicate that his mind was already elsewhere. Although he scored a clever opportunist’s goal in the New Year’s Day encounter with Newcastle, he rarely looked interested most of the time.

Not the best of seasons for Big Sash. 5.5/10.

12. David Carney

This is a hard one.

Carney’s position towards the end of the season might be described as “on the right, but drifting infield most of the time”. It certainly looked more effective than his anonymous right-wing efforts soon after his return from that shoulder operation, but there was still no real sign of the Carney of 2005/06.

A tendency to freeze in the final third, a complete inability to use his right foot remotely effectively, and (let’s be honest here) a serious lack of fitness all contributed to Carney’s failure to make a sufficient impact this season. Having said that, he still looked like the Sydney FC player most likely to create something at times, but there was a sad inevitability to the blunting of many Carney-initiated moves.

Will we ever see Carney used on the left, a deployment which seems so much more appropriate?

Perhaps. Perhaps he’s now gotten used to the right side. Perhaps, subconsciously, his questionable position has become a convenient excuse for him.

In any case, the Carney bubble of 2005/06 has burst. 5.5/10.

13. Jeremy Brockie

Put in a number of lousy performances towards the beginning of the season, and was not sighted thereafter. 3.5/10.

14. Alex Brosque

The debate over Alex Brosque’s ideal position continues, but one thing is certain. A lone striker he is not.

Not physically imposing or particularly strong in the air, Brosque is fundamentally unsuited to the role. And yet that is where he was used for so long by Terry Butcher.

For that reason alone, he deserves some sympathy. As it happened, Brosque made a modest success of the deployment, scoring some crucial goals.

Early in the season, he seemed short of form and confidence; Terry Butcher’s highly questionable decision to keep him on the field for the whole ninety minutes in the Round 4 game against Newcastle, when he was clearly still struggling for fitness, was not helpful in this regard.

At the beginning, he played mainly on the left wing, but proved incapable of beating his full-back with any regularity. He was tried behind the striker against Perth in Round 10, and did a little better. Yet he still seemed pitifully hesitant in front of goal.

Once he broke the drought against Perth in Round 17, things started to go right for him, even in his uncongenial target-man role. In the first half of the minor semi-final first leg, he was a torment to the Newcastle defence, finding space, running confidently at defenders, and bringing his comrades into play well.

Sadly, he rather spoiled his return to form with two moments of rank stupidity in the second leg.
A young player with plenty of promise, probably as a second striker. 6.5/10.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Sydney FC - The Report Card, Part 4

I'm breaking the sequence here, which I hadn't intended to do; but since Terry Butcher's days at the helm appear to be numbered, now is probably the right time to assess his time in charge.

So, the next under the spotlight:

Coach: Terry Butcher

My thoughts on the early part of the season, and Butcher's role in the successes and failures therein, can be found here.

There's little I feel inclined to alter in that assessment. His use of Alex Brosque in a lone striker role as the season drew to a close was puzzling and far from ideal, but Butcher appeared to be of the "fit your best players in somehow" school of coaching.

A few of the things he tried late in the season paid off, more or less. Ruben Zadkovich's run at right-back was a qualified success, until his horror evening in Newcastle. The completely unexpected switch to a back three against Queensland did the trick in the end, although Sydney were caught out on the flanks (the left in particular) many times in the course of the evening.

The team shape upon which Butcher settled for so long was fairly good. Neither Ufuk Talay nor Terry McFlynn were really up to the sole anchor role (how Sydney would have killed for a Seo or a Colosimo), but the two did well in concert.

Yet there was no reason for him to persist with David Carney on the right when it was so obviously an inappropriate deployment. Nor, ultimately, did the Brosque experiment really work, despite his late-season goals.

Then there were the two Achilles' heels of Sydney's season: fitness and discipline. The loss of momentum in the second half was an endless source of frustration for the fans, particularly towards the latter half of the season; it was clear that something wasn't quite right on the training ground.

And the cards piled up. Ultimately, Butcher must take some responsibility for that.

In that grim, desperate second half in Newcastle, Butcher, in my view, finally dropped his bundle. David Carney was left to thrash around helplessly in a lone striker role for far too long; the switch to a back three was, on this occasion, a disaster; and then there were the substitutions.

With Sydney clearly impotent in midfield, the only chance of a goal was likely to come from a set-piece. Butcher, therefore, saw fit to jettison both Sydney's set-piece taker in Talay, and the man most likely to exploit a well-flighted free kick in Mark Rudan.

And it is this latter substitution that has probably lost Butcher the dressing-room for good. It's hardly a secret that there were plenty of disgruntled players even before February 2; with his captain off-side, and his team pointedly snubbed after the final whistle in favour of the travelling Cove, it's hard to see how Butcher will regain the players' respect.

The pressure on Butcher has, admittedly, been huge. He has had to deal with the expectations of a champion club (there are some pundits who really need to acquaint themselves with the concept of a salary cap, incidentally), a crippling run of injuries, a three-point deduction, regular off-field dramas, the pig-ignorant criticism of Craig Foster, and the arrogance of Anthony La Paglia.

What we saw at Energy Australia Stadium was simply a release of the valves, in my opinion. It wasn't pretty.

Until then, Butcher had managed to maintain a sense of humour and a reasonably level-headed demeanour; he had clearly made an effort to tone down his early-season touchline rants, much to the fans' approval. And he hardly deserves to be judged solely on the basis of some poor decisions on one inordinately difficult night.

It was a turbulent, turbulent season, and Butcher coped as best he could.

But in the end, he has won more enemies than friends among his players - and it has probably made his position untenable.


Monday, February 05, 2007


Sydney FC - The Report Card, Part 3

8. Ruben Zadkovich

Always willing. Enthusiastic. Energetic.

Ultimately, it must be admitted, pretty average.

Seeing plenty of action in midfield early in the season as Sydney’s injury list piled up, he showed that he wasn’t quite the talisman he was believed to be after last season’s bright beginning. His passing was dismal, his shooting ordinary. Yet he moved off the ball somewhat more purposefully than some of his comrades, and did occasionally take part in genuinely incisive moves. His best game of the season was the 4-1 win over Adelaide at Hindmarsh, in which he combined well with the day’s hero, Benito Carbone.

Later in the season, he found employment at right-back, and the position appeared to suit him, to some extent. More mobile than Iain Fyfe, and much better going forward, one simply wondered what would happen when his defensive capacities were truly tested.

Well, we got the answer on Friday, when Zadkovich simply floundered. Three fearful defensive errors, two of which cost goals, left a bad taste in the mouths of Sydney FC fans.

Yet he’s still young, and there is room for improvement. Right-back may yet prove a good home for the ebullient youngster. 6/10.

9. David Zdrilic

In some ways, Zdrilic can consider himself the unlucky man this season. In the middle rounds, he was producing the sort of form Sydney FC fans had been hoping for from him for some time; his fine goal against New Zealand in November was indicative of his play in the weeks leading up to the game.

Yet Butcher eventually settled on Alex Brosque as his lone striker, and Zdrilic was relegated to the sidelines again. Zdrilic often takes a while to get into a game, and so it was hardly a surprise that his substitute appearances thereafter were less than influential.

It should be remembered, though, that the mid-season spell followed a fairly ordinary run of performances from Zdrilic early in the piece. He, like many others, suffered from the second-half slumps that affected the team throughout the season.

Strong, good in the air, a capable finisher and reasonably good at holding the ball up, his touch continued to disappoint at times. As most Sydney fans would tell you, he’s not as bad as he’s made out to be, but perhaps not worth what he’s being paid. 6.5/10.

10. Steve Corica


Although he has clearly slowed down, Corica was once again the main creative spark – indeed, often the only creative spark – in a largely prosaic side.

Architect of Sydney’s two goals against Newcastle in the minor semi-final first leg. Provider for that crucial goal against Perth in Round 17. Scorer of another vital goal against Perth, which was absurdly ruled out for offside, in Round 3.

During his period on the outer towards the middle of the season, Sydney missed him badly (especially after Carbone, Sydney’s other creative force, had departed the scene). When Corica came back into the team, in Round 14, his impact was immediate; he laid on the winner for Mark Rudan, and had a typically influential afternoon.

Sydney’s final game of the season, the ill-fated minor semi-final second leg, was typical of their season in many ways, but particularly so in that Corica, along with Clint Bolton, was the only player in blue who could truly hold his head high after the game. 8/10.


Hollow Reds - update

Just as Sydney FC deserved to lose the minor semi-final after an inept display on Friday, Adelaide United emphatically deserved their major semi-final loss at Telstra Dome, even if the eventual circumstances were heart-breaking.

After Travis Dodd’s early goal, the game became strangely reminiscent of Australia’s game against Croatia at the World Cup; one side scores the early goal they’ve been hoping for, and then sits back and completely cedes the initiative to the opposition. Croatia were punished for their passivity, and so were John Kosmina’s side.

It was unfortunate for Kosmina that he was denied good options on the left wing due to the absence of both Jason Spagnuolo and Bobby Petta. But to shift Nathan Burns out to a wide position, where he has never looked effective or comfortable, defied common sense.

Even very early in the game, Fox’s commentators had perceived the obvious problem, from which Adelaide have suffered so often this season: a hollow core in midfield. Ross Aloisi was plainly incapable of coping on his own with Melbourne’s thrusts through the centre. Diego Walsh, nominally Aloisi’s companion in the middle, gave him scant help, particularly in the second half.

But worse still was the fact that, by sitting back uncharacteristically deep in defence, Adelaide allowed Melbourne a hectare of space in which to operate behind the forward line. Add to that the fact that they utterly failed to pressure the Melbourne back four in the second half, and it’s easy to see why the final forty-five minutes of the game were so one-sided.

With Spagnuolo and Petta out, this was surely the time for Kosmina to compress the midfield, keeping Travis Dodd as a genuine winger and allowing the speedy Matthew Kemp to provide width on the left (especially given Fred’s propensity to drift inside), while bringing another body into the centre to counter Melbourne’s strength in that area.

Yet Nathan Burns stayed near the touchline for most of the game, and Adelaide were simply overwhelmed in the middle of the park.

John Kosmina and his team will have to do much, much better against a confident Newcastle side next week.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Cliché Central - yet another brief update

I think the Fox team are out to spite me.

Simon Hill, after a wayward shot on goal from David Zdrilic late in the Newcastle v. Sydney game on Friday, trundled out his old favourite: "that just about sums up Sydney's night". And tonight, after James Robinson came on for Fred on 88 minutes, we all knew what Mike Cockerill's reaction would be: "last throw of the dice from Ernie Merrick...".

On this occasion, Merrick rolled a double six.

In all seriousness, congratulations to Melbourne for securing a home Grand Final. They thoroughly deserved their victory over a passive and lacklustre Adelaide side tonight.


Sydney FC - The Report Card, Part 2

4. Mark Rudan

Shunned for so long by Pierre Littbarski, Sydney FC’s “big blue man” nevertheless stepped up to become the club’s bulwark in the latter third of the 2005/06 season, and was far and away the player of last year’s finals series.

It was a mixed bag for him in 2006/07. And in the final analysis, a somewhat disappointing season for such a fine player.

One of the most disquieting aspects of Rudan’s performance in 2006/07 was that he failed to control his fiery temperament, and set a poor example for his team. A piece of pure petulance against Melbourne in Round 2 and a needless foul against Perth later in the season resulted in two red cards, and he picked up another yellow on Friday in quite unnecessary fashion.

From a football point of view, he continued to be dominant in the air, shrewd in his positioning and forceful in the tackle. Yet he did not play the ball out of defence with anything like his usual thoughtfulness, preferring to loft the ball in search of the strikers on most occasions. His upfield runs, too, were at a premium this season; in late 2005/06, Rudan strode confidently forward with the ball to make the extra man in midfield on many occasions.

Still the key man in defence, but could do significantly better, and may have forfeited his right to a leadership role. 6.5/10.

6. Ufuk Talay

There was a period towards the beginning of the season when one believed that Terry Butcher would rather walk over hot coals than start Talay. Yet, by the end of the term, Butcher himself would admit that he’d misjudged the stocky midfielder.

When Talay became a fixture in the starting eleven, Sydney’s passing and ability to switch the play improved immeasurably. It was a pity, though, that Talay, who is not at his best in the final third, was not capable of fulfilling the sole anchor role in midfield. His tackling is mediocre, and in the final half-hour of the Newcastle game in Round 11, his defensive deficiencies were plain to see.

Saso Petrovski and others may have grumbled that the McFlynn-Talay axis in midfield prevented Sydney from playing two up front, but on the whole, Butcher’s central midfield pairing complemented each other fairly well.

Talay’s vision could be priceless – witness his sublime pass through to David Carney for the fourth goal against New Zealand in Round 12 – but there were days when his passing simply went out the window, and it could be painful to watch.

Nevertheless, one of Sydney’s better players this season. 7/10.

7. Robbie Middleby

Terry Butcher’s favourite.

A Sydney FC fan with whom I watched many of the home games this season once dismissed Middleby as “nothing but engine”. One could argue that a player with a solid engine was priceless in a season in which the team so regularly ran out of steam in the second half, and looked underdone as a whole.

It’s true, though, that Middleby, despite his admirable workrate, offered deceptively little by way of genuine penetration. Although the A-League assists list is subjective and misleading in some ways, it’s perhaps significant that Middleby got onto the list only once.

Yet he offered a great deal to the side. One particular aspect of his play which was often ignored was his success in preventing opposition right-backs from becoming involved in attacks. Tracking back was second nature for Middleby…if only that had been the case for David Carney on the opposite wing.

His crossing, too, was fairly good, and (again unlike Carney) he could swing it in with either foot. Yet he rarely hit the by-line, and in truth, his delivery from the wings did not often pose genuine danger. By contrast, when Steve Corica was primed for a cross, you always expected something to happen.

An archetypal “honest” player, who did his best according to his lights. 7/10.

Incidentally, in these posts I'm trying to provide a reasonably objective assessment of the performances of Sydney FC's personnel (including, eventually, the coach), based on having seen practically every second they played.

But if a blinkered, disingenuous, agenda-obsessed "analysis", based on having seen very little of them at all, is more to your liking, you could do worse than this.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


Sydney FC - The Report Card, Part 1

No honest Sydney FC fan can have too many complaints after last night. Although Alex Brosque's dismissal and - a factor most have ignored - Terry McFlynn's absence had their inevitable effect, Newcastle were clearly the better side over the two legs, both individually and collectively.

Time, then, to assess the individual performances of Sydney FC's personnel over the course of the season. And it's probably simplest to go through the list by squad number rather than position, given the constant interchange that occurred during the season.

1. Clint Bolton

In 2005/06, the ex-Olympic and Brisbane Strikers gloveman was easily the best goalkeeper in the competition. In 2006/07, it wasn't quite so clear-cut. Although he made some fine saves and impressed with his handling and distribution once again, he was caught out in his positioning at times (most embarrassingly against Perth in Round 3), and just didn't quite cut as commanding a figure as he had in Sydney's first season.

It was rumoured that Bolton, along with Saso Petrovski and Alvin Ceccoli, formed the core of a group of (mainly senior) players dissatisfied with Terry Butcher's coaching and tactics. It must be said, though, that Bolton's form did not dip as badly as that of his two fellow recalcitrants.

Any A-League team would surely be overjoyed to have Bolton on their books. In pressure situations, he often lifts his game; witness the outstanding save he made from Damian Mori in the final regular season match, and the string of brave stops last night, when Sydney needed to keep the scoring to two if they were to have a chance of nicking a goal and taking the tie to extra time. Not to mention his sterling performance in Sydney's first game of the season, in which Bolton's efforts helped Sydney to begin the season with a morale-boosting win which they scarcely deserved. 7.5/10.

2. Iain Fyfe

Used as a right-back for most of the season by Terry Butcher, Iain Fyfe found the position hard to adapt to. Although he could never be faulted for effort, it was pretty clear even early in the piece that he was not a natural full-back; wily old Stewart Petrie, for one, had Fyfe for breakfast in the Round 8 game against the Central Coast, and other wingers tormented him in similar fashion.

His passing out of defence provided plenty of frustrating moments for Sydney FC's supporters throughout. From his right-back position, he would constantly attempt to send diagonal balls into the midfield; with monotonous regularity, they would be intercepted by quick-witted opponents. It was, indeed, Sydney's inability throughout the season to build their play through the full-backs that contributed more than anything else to their two-dimensional style.

Fyfe is at his best in central defence, and it was good to see him getting his chance there late in the season. Against Queensland in Round 21 he was outstanding, and in other games in which he was used in the middle, he looked far more comfortable. One of Sydney's personnel problems has been that they possess too many central defenders by inclination - Rudan, Fyfe, Timpano, Topor-Stanley, Milligan, possibly even Alvin Ceccoli - and no true full-backs.

Yet even at right-back, Fyfe had his moments. He nullified the dangerous Jason Spagnuolo surprisingly well in the crucial Round 13 encounter, and got to grips with the tricky Alessandro after experiencing some initial difficulties in Round 2. 6/10.

3. Alvin Ceccoli

One of the season's great disappointments. After a 2005/06 in which he had been combative, energetic and effective, Ceccoli was clearly angling for a move to Europe. It didn't eventuate, he fell out with Sydney FC's new coach early on, and disappointment surely played a major part in what was a hugely sub-par season for the burly left-back.

Because of Pierre Littbarski's contant refusal to play a naturally left-footed player on the left side of midfield last term, Ceccoli was often called upon to provide the width on that side, and this he did superbly well. Getting to the by-line on numerous occasions, drawing two men towards him to create space for the attackers, making sure opposition right-wingers had to think about defence as all happened in 2005/06.

None of the above in 2006/07. Ceccoli rarely got forward, and his delivery when he did so was often abysmal.

He continued to be a force defensively under Butcher, but the opportunities presented to an adventurous left-back by sides employing a more compact midfield were simply not exploited by Ceccoli to any great degree this season. 4.5/10.

Lots more to come later this week, folks.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Quiet Window

Very little excitement in the January transfer window this year (the Beckham circus aside), as the top European clubs continue their long-overdue retreat into relative conservatism. The most interest seems to have been generated by Ronaldo's move back to Italy, but it's an interesting reflection of the current confused state of the transfer market that Ronaldo - a three-time World Player of the Year - was sold for a fraction of what desperate West Ham were offering for Darren Bent.

Ronaldo is hardly the most popular figure in world football these days, and in Italy, his move away from Inter following the 2002 World Cup still rankles. Milan's fans seem to have reacted to his arrival with some cynicism, and it's hard to blame them. He was clearly overweight and living on his reputation at the World Cup, and Fabio Capello had little time for him in Madrid.

All the best back at the San Siro, Ronnie, but be prepared for plenty of jeers everywhere you go.

Lucas Neill's lucrative move from Blackburn to West Ham engendered much gnashing of teeth, no doubt from punters who would never dream of accepting a more generous salary package from a less glamorous and respected company. In truth, it doesn't look like a good move in football terms, as Neill is unlikely to get an extended run in his ideal central defensive position. West Ham is crawling with centre-backs at the moment, with Matthew Upson now arrived from Birmingham as well.

It's another move by an Australian which perhaps provides the most salutary message of the current transfer merry-go-round.

Nick Ward followed his superb season for Perth Glory in 2005/06 with a move to English Championship (insert laugh here) side Queens Park Rangers. QPR are currently struggling in the English second tier. Ward found it hard to get regular game time.

He's now gone on loan to Brighton and Hove Albion, who are struggling in...the third tier.

Once again, the choice of a lower-league English club over a continental outfit has probably been detrimental for the career of a young Australian player. By contrast, Luke Wilkshire, who moved from Ward's new stamping ground to the Dutch Eredivisie after the World Cup, has enjoyed a continued run in the first team at a club competing against the likes of Ajax and PSV.

Food for thought.


Notice re: Comments

My apologies to regular anonymous commenters who actually have something thoughtful and relevant to add (Subby, TFO, and the rest), but I've reluctantly decided to disable anonymous comments on the blog. Sadly, TFT has been inundated with spam of late.

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