What's the plan for Popa at Victory? How important is having one at all? What's gone wrong with Western Sydney's? Why does Milos Ninkovic always look like he has one? Did the European Super League even try to have one? If you want to find out, plan on reading the ESPN Australia and New Zealand Football Wrap.
The Popovic mandate
It turns out that when your preferred candidate is out in the open holding a big sign saying "hire me," there's little reason to undertake the A-League patented Worldwide Search™.
Less than a week after the departure of Grant Brebner, Melbourne Victory announced on Thursday the appointment of former Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory coach Tony Popovic on a three-year deal to commence at the end of the 2020-21 season.
The process evolved rapidly and with utmost secrecy, with most at AAMI Park first hearing of the hire just hours, if that, before its announcement and Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro one of a select few that actually spoke to Popovic in sealing the deal.
"We went straight to [Popovic]," Di Pietro told ESPN. "He was there and we were there and both looking so it worked for both of us.
"We've had a historical relationship of mutual respect and we thought the day might come that we would come together -- you never know with these things.
"I think [the three-year deal] was a mutual show of faith and a commitment to the job ahead and what we want to achieve together.
"We're treating this as a big project in which we want to achieve some really exciting things together and we've got a lot of work to do."
Last week, this column philosophized on what the exit of Brebner meant for Victory going forward, and if his exit meant that the used by date on its much-vaunted culture had arrived.
Ultimately, the appointment of Popovic doesn't represent a complete abandonment of the spirit the club had sought to salvage through their favourite son, but perhaps is a signal that, while the club would no doubt insist that all of its ethos are equal, some are more equal than others.
For as defensively minded and pragmatic as it may be, "Popa-ball" gets results and it gets them quickly. And when you're a club whose golden edifice has been shattered, sometimes results have to be prioritized above all else.
"They are the biggest club in the land and to nail someone like Popa, [he's] probably the only Aussie coach I would think would be able to turn that club around," Western United coach Mark Rudan said.
Victory's chairman confirmed to ESPN that the 58-time Socceroo -- who is currently in Croatia as his sons Gabriel and Kristian trial with local clubs -- would be given a wide-ranging remit to shape the club's A-League operations as he sees fit.
"Absolutely yes," he said. "He's heading up the department and will head the whole A-League program.
"Tony will come in and assess, he'll review and then we'll talk to all the people and we'll work out who fits best where. But I don't want to make commitments because he's not here yet."
With Popovic's history of previously departing the Wanderers on the eve of the 2017-18 season to take up a deal with Turkish Super Lig side Karabukspor, concerns had been raised amongst the Victory faithful that another European sojourn may materialize for their new leader midway through his rehabilitation of the club.
He took leave of Perth Glory at the end of the 2019-20 season to commence what turned out to be an ill-fated tenure in the Greek second-tier with Xanthi FC and, at the time of his exit, Glory owner Tony Sage revealed that his former-coach possessed a clause in his contract that allowed him to exit should an offer from Europe materialize.
"No," Di Pietro said when asked if the three-year deal the 47-year-old had signed with Victory possessed a similar, early-European exit clause.
"Obviously contracts are commercial and in confidence but, no, we've made a commitment to each other. And we're excited to work together over that journey. So, no."
That there is a three-year commitment between coach and club at Victory is important for both parties. Secure in the knowledge that he has a remit to shape the A-League program as he sees fit, Popovic can go now about instituting a plan that can not only deliver results in the short-term, but also in 2022-23 and 2023-24.
Such a phenomena is currently underway across Melbourne's Westgate Bridge, where Popovic's former Sydney United teammate Rudan -- both coming through the club's junior ranks during the famous tenure of Vedran Rozic -- is guiding sophomore A-League side Western United.
Seeking to secure short-term results, seven of Rudan's starters in Western's first game in 2019-20 were over 30 -- Ersan Gulum, Andrew Durante, Panagiotis Kone, Besart Berisha, Dario Jertec, Alessandro Diamanti and Scott McDonald -- representing a veritable Dad's Army of a starting XI.
This season, however, developing talent such as Luke Duzel, Dylan Pierias, Lachlan Wales and Ryan Scott have taken on greater roles. The club recently signed teenage left-back Dalibor Markovic from Victory, and has also launched its first academy sides.
"It is [a plan]," Rudan told ESPN. "As soon as I came to the club there was a plan.
"I've got a three-year contract and I communicated with the board and explained to them my decision making and what the strategy and the plan is moving forward: what was required and then moving forward into year two and year three and beyond."
Good Football Thing of the Week
Stay tuned for more Ninkovic appreciation.
Red and Black traffic cones
Something that isn't going to plan is Western Sydney Wanderers' season.
First-year coaches habitually receive more leeway than their counterparts when it comes to implementing systems and bedding down culture but, even then, the shambolic set piece defending on display from Carl Robinson's side on Friday isn't something that should be happening over halfway into a season.
The Red and Black conceded from three corners in their 5-4 loss to Melbourne Victory -- the Wanderers' defence showing all the defensive awareness of a sloth suffering from concussion as Storm Roux headed home unmarked for Victory's second.
"Everything [went wrong] defensively," Robinson explained. "I think you have to be honest and analyse every little segment of the game. Defensively, we weren't good enough. We lost our battles.
"From the moment we conceded the first goal, which is probably their first attack, one or two heads dropped -- which is not good. Which is something I need to figure out."
While the compact nature of the A-League table and the chaotic nature of play this season means fortunes can rapidly be reversed, Wanderers' continuously disjointed nature is making the task of qualifying for finals a lot harder than it should be given the talent assembled at Wanderland.
Robinson's side are winless in their last six and despite playing the equal most games in the A-League in 2020-21, sit outside of the top six following Wellington Phoenix's 2-1 win over Adelaide United on Sunday evening.
"I've got full belief in this team," said Robinson. "I still think we can play finals.
"We need to get out of this funk pretty quickly."
Gosford and Ninko
Played in front of the the biggest crowd in Gosford since the opening game of 2017-18, Saturday evening's 2-2 draw between Central Coast Mariners and Sydney FC quickly established itself as an A-League barnstormer in a season full of them -- even if Sky Blues boss Steve Corica is probably still fuming over having two goals ruled out by VAR.
The atmosphere electric, the stakes high, and the action frantic, a spectacle was truly on display at Central Coast Stadium; Mariners' boss Alen Stajcic declaring that "The A-League felt alive tonight. It's the most alive I've felt inside a ground in a couple of years."
There were a number of notable performers in the fixture -- young Mariner defender Dan Hall shaming nobody in his first ever A-League start -- but Sydney's Serbia international Ninkovic was effervescent. His sublimely taken volley just before half-time seized the headlines and was a vital steadier that ensured his side were well-placed to chase the game in the second half.
The 36-year-old's close control, vision, passing range, movement, and, perhaps most of all, imperturbable nature remain a vital pressure release valve for his side, especially when games devolve into frenzied displays of thrust and counterthrust.
His resulting pass may have been snuffed out by rising star Josh Nisbet, but Ninkovic's reposeful nature was demonstrated in the 92nd minute of Saturday's contest when he received the ball on the left flank, turned to face goal and, with three Mariners bearing down on him, simply put his foot on the ball.
The brief intermission, taken as the game was descending into anarchic transition around him, bought time for Trent Buhagiar to make a darting run in behind the Mariners defence, with the resulting pass only snuffed due to excellent awareness from Nisbet.
On another occasion, such a move easily results in a winning goal.
Good Social Media Thing of the Week
In light of recent events, #GTFC have launched a shirt amnesty for those with @ManUtd, @ManCity, @LFC, @Arsenal, @ChelseaFC or @SpursOfficial shirts.— Grimsby Town F.C. (@officialgtfc) April 19, 2021
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Super League Lessons
The rise and rapid fall of the European Super League (ESL) offered numerous lessons.
The most obvious is that if you plan on stabbing UEFA, hundreds of years of established footballing order, and your own fans in the back you should first have a plan in place that accounts for the bayoneted turning around and striking back.
Putting a communications plan in place that doesn't just pour gasoline on the fire you've set off is a good one, as is not relying on a frontman in Florentino Perez who comes across as a perplexing mix of disingenuous snake-oil salesman and the "how do you do, fellow kids?" meme.
But the disastrous attempt to launch the ESL also revealed that, despite the best efforts of tycoons, oligarchs, and autocrats, modern football still clings to notions of community, fair competition and romance.
Without significant action being taken to punish the "Dirty Dozen" of conspiratorial clubs and reset the parameters of football in favour of these principles, of course, the defeat of the ESL doesn't really represent a triumph for those concepts, so much as a stay of execution.
An un-chastised cabal will likely try again -- and next time will do a better job of it.
Also worth considering CFG's role in shaping our domestic future. We are already living this model, and if the last couple of days have told us anything, it's that football is more than 12 owners making the rules for their own ends. Open it up.— Stuart Randall (@StuartRandall) April 20, 2021
In Australia, the powers that be in Australian football would do well to observe how powerful the pull of community, open competition and romance remain in 2021 and seek to harness it.
After 100 years of getting that right maybe then they can try and set up an Asian Super League.