Tennis is in town, but good football apparently isn't. This week, ESPN explores why the bottom four rungs on the A-League table feature three Melbourne sides, the Jets' appointment of Craig Deans, good football and social media things, and a potential lesson for junior coaches. It's the wrap!
Visions of Victory
"... at Melbourne Victory, our members expect an entertaining brand of football and that's what will bring us the results that we want."
Those were the words of Anthony Di Pietro as he decisively ended Marco Kurz's time in charge of Melbourne Victory just 13 games into the 2019-20 season -- the third-shortest stint in A-League history. The German's departure was also accompanied by a rare mea culpa from the Victory chairman, admitting that the processes involved in identifying the club's next coach following Kevin Muscat had let fans down.
Yet as ESPN's Ante Jukic explored in the wake of that move, a significant factor behind Victory's "angst" under the German wasn't just style but also his inability to replicate Muscat's propensity to manage his squad, embed certain behaviours on and off the field, and manage and guide expectations for the club internally and externally.
When it became apparent that his tenure had reached its expiration date, for example, Muscat's cultural capital at AAMI Park allowed for an unbloody, conscious uncoupling. He then left for Europe, while Victory discovered the limits that a mutual desire to win can have when faced with deeper underlying issues of fit and accountability. "... we said from the outset, we would take the necessary time to find the right person who aligned with both the club's football and cultural philosophy. Grant is clear in the style of football Melbourne Victory want to play, and most importantly he has already started building the foundations and culture he believes will help us return to delivering the on-field results expected at our club."
These were the words of Di Pietro last August as he made the announcement that Grant Brebner had been named as Victory's full-time boss for 2020-21 just over a month removed from declaring himself out of the hunt for the role.
Culture. It's a big word at Melbourne Victory. One that runs deeper than style.
Victory is the second-most successful club in A-League history, and those there will be quick to tell you that it's a special club that offers exciting football, big-time players, and where swagger and trophies are an expectation not motivation.
Yet whereas Kurz has come to be widely accepted as having been a poor fit for said culture, that narrative will not wash as reasoning for poor results should Victory's poor early-season form continue under Brebner -- an individual literally said to "bleed blue" by Di Pietro in the statement announcing his appointment.
The 43-year-old is an absolute cultural fit at Victory. How can he not be? He was there for the laying of its foundation.
So as the season progresses, it's inevitable, or should be inevitable, that his successes or failures take on a greater scope than just a personal one. For if results fail to turnaround and Victory, unthinkable in years past, finish near the foot of the A-League table again, there is an existential dilemma facing the four-time A-League champions should they move on Brebner.
Did decision-makers appoint an individual who wasn't ready for the role simply because he presented, in economic headwinds, the path of least resistance? Thus, at the second (or third, if one counts Carlos Salvachua) time of asking, did they fail to properly find a long-term successor to Muscat? If so, is there a question of if they're suitably equipped to find one?
Alternatively, does an inability of one of the club's favourite sons to turn it around mean that Victory's legendary, long-standing culture is no longer a winning one in the contemporary A-League? Has it decayed under their noses? Was it ever what they thought it was?
Inevitably, of course, here's where disclaimers come.
Victory's season is only six-games old and Brebner is yet to be able to deploy his fully integrated and fit preferred starting XI. There will also likely be little distance between the foot and head of the table come season's end. Things can get better.
"We are battered and bruised," Brebner said after Wednesday's defeat by Western Sydney Wanderers. "I'm not going to pull the wool over anybody's eyes; we're in a position now where we've got five at home games coming up, we've got players returning -- Callum McManaman will be back -- and we've got players getting fitter."
Anyone calling for Brebner's head at this early stage is being reactionary in the extreme -- or looking for clicks -- and club sources, echoing reporting by The Age, have told ESPN that there presently exists no appetite for moves against Brebner.
That's not surprising, because a move to oust him in the same lethal manner that the outsider Kurz was represents more than just a dismissal. It's an acknowledgement of failure by decision-makers and, possibly, culture.
That word again.
Victory aren't unique in their early-season wobbles.
A perusal of the A-League table with a minimum of at least five games now completed sees its Melbourne-based teams in three of the bottom four rungs: Melbourne City (ninth), Western United (10th) and Victory (12th) sandwiched around Wellington Phoenix (11th).
It may be tempting to blame Melbourne's COVID-19 lockdowns and the effect they had on pre-seasons for the malaise -- which would also account for Wellington's poor form -- but such reasoning would likely fall on unsympathetic ears at sixth-placed Perth Glory after their early-season exodus and multiple quarantines.
Of the three, Western United appear to have the least-bad outlook. The new boys on the Melbourne block have only lost two games compared with City's and Victory's four, a mostly healthy and settled squad, and don't carry the same level of expectations that City's 2019-20 Grand Final appearance or Victory's historical status beseech them.
Playing with that CFG style
City, despite their pre-season label as title-contenders, have experienced a stuttering start to life under newly elevated coach Patrick Kisnorbo -- part of the chaos that has marked the A-League's opening exchanges.
Kisnorbo was positioned as a continuity candidate when it was revealed that former coach Erick Mombaerts was returning to France; he was groomed through stints across the club's men's, women's and youth departments so he could continue to implement a 'CFG-style' -- which carries the inherent implication of Pep Guardiola-style dominance of possession and beautiful football.
Pep Guardiola has a better win ratio at Man City (73%) than he did at Barcelona (72%) 🤯 pic.twitter.com/i4eG9l0eVp— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 10, 2021
But perceptions don't always match reality in a league where a coach will declare, despite losing 2-0 and having just a single shot on target, that his side dominated as they had 72% of possession.
Instead, City, as was the case in 2019-20, have been at their best this campaign when they don't have the ball but when they are pressing hard and high, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. When they do, they're among the most lethal sides in the league; but when those chances aren't converted their major bluntness in more sustained period of possession can bite.
In their 1-0 loss to Newcastle Jets, City's two best moments --- breakaway one-on-ones with Jets goalkeeper Jack Duncan for Jamie Maclaren and Adrian Luna in the 8th and 73rd minutes respectively -- weren't taken. City, despite not being as woefully ineffectual in attack as they were against Central Coast Mariners a few days earlier, were then unable to take advantage of any of their other half-chances and fell to defeat. Three losses in seven days.
"It's more about mentality," City keeper Tom Glover said on Thursday. "We know the football side is there; I think it's just the mental state, staying in games, not giving away cheap goals, and punishing them down the other end."
Expectations, and therefore standards, are high for City this season. But mentality or no, there appears to be conflict in City's attack between their inherent physical gifts and stated desire - or culture, perhaps - to play through sides that bears watching moving forward.
The Jets made it official on Wednesday, finally putting a ring on it and naming long-time servant Craig Deans as permanent A-League coach. In the context of 2020-21 and the reported candidates up for consideration, it was the right call to appoint the former youth boss.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Jets have an expected goals (xG) total of 13.63 this season -- the highest of any A-League team -- compared with their actual total of seven. With recruiting reinforcements on the way, Ramy Najjarine and Matthew Millar set to return to the lineup in current weeks, and systemic continuity under Deans now assured, one would expect the Hunter-based club to start converting more chances in games ahead.
They are also tied for worst in the A-League for the average number of passes per possession with 4.4 -- opponents have intercepted 99 Newcastle passes, the third most given up by any team this season.
This, however, doesn't necessarily have to represent a complete failure on the part of Deans' side as combined with their foibles in the final third; the Jets also possess players in Steven Ugarkovic, the newly re-signed Angus Thurgate and Najjarine who are willing to embrace risk and attempt to beat their man or play a penetrative but risky pass.
Clearly, Deans' side still has holes on its roster and approach even with their new recruits, and their ownership situation remains weighted around their necks like an anchor.
But a look under the Jets' wings reveals there's some reason for optimism in the Hunter.
Fun and Games
Slowly but surely across Australia, boys and girls at all levels are returning to their clubs for another season of football. One of the best times of the year.
Almost all of them will grow up to be something other than footballers -- it is the responsibility of their club and coaches in the coming years to instil within them lifelong lessons, skills and a love of the game -- but for a very small cohort, the coming months represent another step on their long road to being a professional.
These youngsters will no doubt be taking inspiration from the increasing numbers of standout young players seeing the field this A-League and W-League season, but, based on interviews with some of the most standout prospects, there also might be something for coaches to learn.
"I was speaking to Ante [Milicic] and the coaching staff, they said to me: 'Look, you're coming in as a starting player and it's up to you to keep your spot. We'll give you a chance and it's up to you to put in the performances to keep that spot.' For me that's a change, I've never had that before" -- Denis Genreau to ESPN.
"For the most part, it's the chats [Warren Moon and I have] and the belief and the confidence he gives me. He tells me that he believes in me. He literally tells me these things." -- Dylan Wenzel-Halls.
"The gaffer has a lot of belief in me to go out there and score some goals and that's my job, being an attacker." -- Nicholas D'Agostino to The World Game.
"Our assistant coach Tom always tells us to express ourselves and I'm trying to take that on board a bit." -- Cortnee Vine to The World Game.
Inevitably there is a line to be drawn between coddling and reinforcement but, as the youth across the A-League and W-League are showing in 2020-21, there's something to be said for empowerment and encouragement over regimentation and fear -- especially the younger you go.
Football, after all, is meant to be fun.