In football, there's a useful way to gauge an individual's importance to a collective -- assess how things do or don't function when they are absent.
Where in the last regular season for Sydney FC, Milos Ninkovic only missed one game and was substituted before the 80th minute only once, there's been more evidence in that regard this term. The 35-year-old is undoubtedly important for Sydney -- that's common knowledge -- and remains the best player in the A-League, but when he hasn't played has highlighted this reality just as much. This is particularly important, when taking into consideration just how defined the roles are on the pitch with the reigning champions.
Within a particularly automated style of play under Steve Corica -- and Graham Arnold before him -- Ninkovic's improvisational sense is a necessary counterpoint. For an attacker, his relatively low output of goals and assists -- four and two respectively from 14 games -- belies his overall input Sydney's reliance on him in phases of possession. It is illuminating to watch Sydney, both when the former Serbian international is and is not on the pitch. With set movements in early phases, Sydney are susceptible to targeted pressing, meaning he can be a walking pressure valve for the Sky Blues.
There is a trade-off to his current physical condition, for at times, the likes of Paulo Retre and Joel King have needed to sprint to the ball when defending up the pitch, opening otherwise occupied spaces. When weighed up against the contribution to Sydney's attacking phases, the trade-off becomes necessary.
For Ninkovic, though, it is in those pressurised moments where he takes on responsibility - rather, where he needs to take on responsibility.
"I take on a lot of risk, and sometimes it looks good, sometimes it doesn't. You know, the ball can be lost and you can silly. But that's how I am, and I'll continue playing that way," he told ESPN. "Whenever it does become difficult, a team needs someone to take on that risk.
That is when it is most important, when it is difficult. When the air is thick, let's say, and the result is in question. In those moments, who's going to stand on the ball and drag players out of position to decide the match?" It seems fitting Ninkovic would have the term "stand on the ball" in his footballing vocabulary, because he really could not look like an ageing Balkan playmaker any more. He is a player of the street and would look no different on a futsal court, to what he would on a football pitch.
The act of sprinting looks like a monumental struggle for him, but with almost instant processing of scenarios and refined technical quality, sprinting is not always necessary. Especially in the A-League, where spatial awareness and inclination to risk tends to differentiate certain individuals from the majority. Take for example, Sydney's 3-0 win away to Melbourne Victory in January. It was scoreless after 25 minutes and Victory generated the most threatening openings to that point. Sydney not only needed the ball for momentum, but needed to change the pace of the game.
Now, he might not have registered an assist in this action, but the two instances where Ninkovic altered Victory's defensive shape and received the ball to enter the opposition half -- with a defender pressuring his first touch on both occasions - before Adam le Fondre's opening goal were of sizeable importance. Because the Serbian was able to keep the ball in his distinct style -- the soles of his boots caressing the ball, as he glides across the pitch -- and withstand pressure, meaning Sydney could dictate the game's tempo.
Following the goal, as is usually the case for whoever scores first in football nowadays, the game is played on their terms. In an opposite scenario, one can look at how Sydney fared without Ninkovic against Yokohama F Marinos in their AFC Champions League opener, earlier in February. Without the oxygen Ninkovic provides when Sydney have the ball, Luke Brattan and Paulo Retre's movement in early phases became more important. But Sydney suffocated under high pressing. In the opening 30 minutes, Yokohama gained the ball within three passes 26 times out of Sydney's 33 total possessions. By the time Terahito Nakagawa scored his first of the night, it was game over. This all comes back to the otherwise automated sense of movement Sydney players make when they have the ball, within the 4-2-2-2 shape.
The players for whom responsibility fell upon to break defensive lines, Brattan and Retre, were the same players required to maintain the highest positional discipline -- or rigidity, but that's a matter of perspective. The question, in that case: does Ninkovic's positional sense and quality allow for that automation or is it the other way around? As noted, in pressurised moments, the ball gravitates to him.
According to the Sydney playmaker, his teammates do tend to look for him when -- as he put -- the air becomes thick.
"We have good players across the pitch, so we can lean on guys like Alex (Baumjohann), Adam (Le Fondre) and Kosta (Barbarouses)," he said. "I do not really think it's by design, though. It is not like we can practice that, when the team's under pressure and they just give me the ball. It just happens that way."
With Sydney FC set to face cross-town rivals Western Sydney Wanderers tonight, Ninkovic will allow his teammates a relative comfort if the game is in the balance. Comfort helps build an assuredness the reigning champions have displayed domestically this season, where their margin at the top of the table has extended to 13 points, with this game in hand. This, despite performances not being as convincing. In Ninkovic's opinion, that comfort and consistency has helped cultivate a collective psychological strength.
"Our performances have not been like..."wow" but the most important thing is the result. I think we have probably seen that over the past couple of years, we know how to win," he said. "There have been a lot of tough games, and the players who have come in this season have quickly adjusted. We are psychologically very strong because we are comfortable and know our quality at this level. Because in some games, we really only exert how much is necessary.
"That strength comes from winning, and from that confidence builds. We have a very high confidence, both individually and collectively. The thing about playing against us -- and you see it -- opponents put in that 20% more against us, and we have to be ready for that. Every week is like a grand final."