Edgeworth, Cevaps and the FFA Cup

So, how good is the FFA Cup?

Admittedly when it comes to the Wanderers, there will always be that caveat added by all and sundry regarding our first venture in this most recent iteration of a national football knock out cup competition. That shock loss to Adelaide City back in 2014 was arguably a presage of what became our ‘tempus horribilis’, although barely two months later the Wanderers were ACL champions. Since that 1-0 loss away any coverage of  the FFA Cup, most particularly when it comes to the context of any NPL level club upsetting a more fancied A-League opponent, will at some time or another include that result.

Our 2015 campaign was marginally better, thanks to a good win against Brisbane at Penrith, followed by a 0-2 away win over Mitch Nichols’ home club, the Palm Beach Sharks. The quarter final loss to Perth Glory was controversial, with one specific omen of the coming season, vis-a-vis the failure of then marquee Federico Piovaccari to slot home one of the required penalty shots. However to have progressed to the final eight was a marked improvement on our first foray into the FFA Cup, and one that has been matched in the 2016 edition.

Now before I get into the guts of this blog entry on the Round of 16 match between the Edgeworth Eagles and the Wanderers, let me take a diversion and make some personal observations on how I perceive the FFA Cup. In a nutshell, this is possibly the best addition to the domestic football environment since at least the entry of the Wanderers, with a strong argument for the FFA Cup being a partial redress of the errors and omissions made when the A-League was established. The fact that lower tier football clubs across Australia, many with a proud and long history (including perhaps NSL participation) can now play in a cup where they may beat the more fancied A-League clubs has re-engaged many fans of the code with its history and its community. It has also given the so-called ‘new dawners’ a chance to look at the clubs that were crucial to the history of the sport in this country pre-2004. Of course there are still fierce rivalries and some degree of suspicion or anger felt by some, left over from the split between ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’. Having said that there are many A-League fans who revel in the opportunity to watch NPL teams compete either against their latter day clubs, or against each other. I have seen in person how vibrant and enjoyable the NPL experience of the FFA Cup can be, such as when I watched Sydney United take on South Hobart FC last year. Played at Edensor Park, this match saw the 58 year old Croatian based club take on the 106 year old Tasmanian visitors, with the result only going to SU58FC after a 3-3 regular time scoreline and a 3-1 penalty shoot out.

This FFA Cup tournament we have already seen two A-League clubs dumped out of the tournament by NPL teams, with last season’s premiers and Grand Final winners Adelaide United stunned by Redlands United 2-1 at home in Brisbane, and the Central Coast Mariners losing with the exact same scoreline against the Victorian NPL club Green Gully. Here’s just a tiny sample of the reaction to the Redlands’ victory on Twitter:

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This video shows how important such a result can be for the lower tier club, not just in terms of the on field reaction, but also for the community of fans and members who often put in the hard yards without anywhere near the support and glory that the A-League clubs can provide:

Watching the match from home I was unashamedly barracking for Redlands, though to be honest I have no knowledge of their club’s history, current playing roster or position in their local NPL competition. To cheer on an underdog in such a match, sensing how important football history and community is, recognising the value of the more recent football culture as vivified by the Lowy era FFA in engaging with soccer as it was and still is in Australia, well this is where I believe the FFA Cup delivers in spades.

Focusing again on the Wanderers, this current FFA Cup tournament has mirrored (so far) our last. Entering the mix in the Round of 32, the club took on our perennial bête noire, the Wellington Phoenix, at a cold, wet and miserable Campbelltown International Sports Ground. To be honest the initial performance of the team was underwhelming, and the 0-2 scoreline after 31 minutes seemed to indicate the Wanderers were going to lose again in a pre-season match against the Kiwis. Thankfully the balance was more than redressed by match’s end, thanks to two goals by exciting young striker Lachlan Scott, and a long range pearler from Mitch ‘Butters’ Nichols. Thankfully we had evaded an early exit from the FFA Cup, and possibly even more importantly, we had booked a rendezvous with Northern NSW Football’s Edgeworth Eagles.

Taking yet another diversion (I know, get to the point Manfred!) Wanderers fans generally love heading up the M1/F3 to Newy and watching our team play the locals. This has meant, until last Tuesday week’s match, a rendezvous with the Newcastle Jets. There are a host of good memories for a host of us, such as the final regular season round match in our debut season, with the 3-0 win over the Jets confirming our first piece of silverware. Then there is the Round Five game at Hunter Stadium last season, when Mitch Nichols won it for us near the death with a 86 minute goal. I would also argue that there is a healthy modicum of respect for the Jets and for the football culture in the Hunter given by many Wanderers’ fans, and vice versa from the Newcastle folk.

In my opinion, and within that context, there were plenty of WSW fans who schlepped up to Magic Park last Tuesday week who were both looking forward to bringing back some red and black love to the Hunter, and engaging with the smaller, yet vigorous, passionate supporters of the Eagles. Perhaps I’m drawing a far too long bow, but even the complimentary nature of the two clubs’ colours validates this willingness for the A-League club to engage with their NPL competitor. Throw in the (arguably unconscious) hope that the local club would benefit financially from a solid turn out of the Wanderers fans, and the attention given to them and NPL football in Newcastle, then the rendezvous at Broadmeadow for away fans such as I was most attractive.

I made my journey up to Newcastle with these thoughts in mind, accompanied by two boon companions from my Wanderers’ fraternity. One was my mate Mick, who was the poor bastard lumbered with driving duties. Mick has been a great mate of recent years, and provided one the guts of one of the best episodes of my ‘One on Wanderers’ podcast. The second member of our trio was renowned Socceroo supporter Pablo Bateson, who has seen more air miles following the green and gold than possibly anyone else in this country. We three set off early on the day, endeavouring to make it a real long term sojourn up north. As done by thousands of traveling fans over decades and decades, we were looking to enjoy some of the local delights pre-match (i.e. have a drink and feed in Hamilton), meet some of the locals (in this case catch up with the legendary ‘Nobody From Newcastle‘ Todd Blackwell, and then make our way to the game. It was a most convivial afternoon, fueled by plenty of football talk, some beverages at the Kent Hotel, and even a catch up with those friends of the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Public Order and Riot Squad from the NSW Police:

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From there it was a reasonable easy and short drive to Magic Park, the home ground for the Broadmeadow Magic. Competitors to the Edgeworth Eagles in the local Northern NSW NPL, this very attractive if small venue was allocated the FFA Cup match for the night.

The atmosphere on arriving at the venue was wonderful, thanks in no small part to the number of local fans who were there for a night to barrack for the ‘minnows’ versus the Wanderers. Whilst the Eagles faithful were out in force, including plenty of kids, there were other Hunter football devotees in evidence, some sporting Jets colours, others partisans for Magic, Adamstown, Hamilton Olympic etc. The volunteers were selling raffle tickets and Eagles merchandise, the stand on the eastern side of the ground chockers, the beers and barbecued meats flying out of the tents dotted around the perimeter of the ground.

Mick, Pablo and myself made sure to touch base with several fellow Wanderers fans who had made the trip up, chatting about the day, the match, our lads, the oppo…basically engaging in the usual chit-chat and socialisiation one does before a game. However the immediacy of the community environment for this FFA match was dare I say more fun, more carnival like. Yes, it was a serious game with a definitive expectation that the Wanderers should win. However standing around on the western hill, taking in the sights and sounds of perhaps an intimation of what football has been like for decades in this country, where the dogged band of committed soccer lovers get behind their local club and bugger the bigger, more fashionable rivals; it was pure FFA Cup goodness.

The match itself was a fairly hard fought one, with the Eagles being unwilling to concede early goals. They were unable to break the shackles of their own deep defending except for a brief foray here and there when the Wanderers lost their (dominant) possession due to an errant pass. Some of the Eagles tackles were exactly what one would expect; hard with little respect for the far more well paid professional Wanderers player they flew at. There was a particularly brutal challenge put in on Dimas which the Spaniard was not happy with. This however gave cause for much chiacking and derision from the Eagles faithful. I’ll happily admit it was both infuriating to see such practices from the ‘home’ team, but great to see their supporters giving our ‘stars’ a real old rev up.

As the game progressed the goals began to flow, with ex-Jet Scott Neville snaring the first and the third, with the latter coming after the half time break. Brendan Hamill grabbed a goal between those two, giving the plentiful of Wanderers fans something to cheer for. An old acquaintance of the Wanderers, ex-Mariner Daniel McBreen was the go to man for the Eagles when it came to responding, and he had already provided some entertaining resistance earlier in the match when he gave one of the Wanderers fans a bit of handbags after a contretemp near the RBB. However his more important contribution was scoring a well taken goal after Wanderers’ new Uruguayan import Bruno Pinatares, giving Edgeworth a small sniff of a comeback. Their supporters were keen to vocally do what they could, fueled by pride, piss and cevaps, however two late goals from Brendan Santalab killed off the match. The 1-5 win for the Wanderers was certainly a fair result.

However what was a far more significant result was it was yet another instalment of what makes the FFA Cup such a worthy and enjoyable addition to the football environment in Australia. Two clubs with many disparate attributes were brought together, and alongside that meeting came the chance for people like myself to engage with a community and a history of the sport that sometimes we forget. In the A-League era it is all to easy to be hyped about big derbies between say the Wanderers and the Smurfs, or the two Melbourne clubs. A lot of attention this impending season is already being given to the advent of Tim Cahill as the league’s biggest name since del Piero. Many people in the huge amorphous pool of football fans in Australia see problems, division, challenges that no one can easily solve.

Yet on a chilly night in Broadmeadow, all of that was put aside by those who came to watch this FFA Cup match, and we all came away better for the experience.

Thanks Edgeworth!

 

P.S. The cevap rolls were good, but where was the avjar?

The Wanderers and the Evolution Revolution (Or From Windy Wellington to Protesting Parra in Four Seasons)

On last Saturday night the Western Sydney Wanderers secured their sixth win on the trot during the current 2015/16 A-League season, thanks in no small part to a wonder goal scored by the latest example of a Tony Popovic rescue mission, Mitch Nichols. His floating, curling, smart bomb of a strike flashed past the Brisbane Roar goal keeper Jamie Young, hitting the top left of the goal’s netting with all the elliptical power of a Supermarine Spitfire. That superlative effort sealed a 2-1 win at home for the Wanderers, thus placing them at the top of the current A-League table for the first time since the halcyon days of that season, the season when the Wanderers came into the competition as debutantes, newbies, new kids on the block.

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Considering the tumultuous changes and experiences since the securing of the A-League premier’s plate back in March 2013, including the narrow loss to Brisbane Roar in the 2013/14 Grand Final and the sensational victory in the 2014 ACL campaign, to the debacle of last season’s domestic season and the mass turn over in staff before the beginning of the current competition, it seems appropriate to review where the Wanderers were back in December 2012, and compare and contrast that situation with the current iteration of the team and staff.

The first and most obvious comparative element is the continuance of Tony Popovic in the coaching role. He was there at Westpac Stadium in windy Wellington for the Round 9 2012/13 loss against the Phoenix, and he was still wielding the black note book three years later at home against Brisbane. However the Popa of Season One is not the Popa of Season Four when it comes to tactical systems. The Wanderers version 1.0 was a team that held to three precepts, undoubtedly stipulated by the coach and his staff. Firstly there was a dogged and solid defensive back four. Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Michael Beauchamp would serve as the core of this wall, whilst on either side Jerome Polenz, Adam D’Apuzzo, Tarek Elrich or maybe Shannon Cole would be vigorous in both protecting the flanks, or transitioning with the appropriate flanking midfielder to create a counter attack. This was all aimed at giving the heroic Ante Covic as much cover as possible, and when he was challenged he almost always came up with quality saves.

The second tactical structure employed by Popa in that first season was the use of the midfield in two separate phases or areas of the pitch. In defence La Rocca, Poljak and Mooy were charged with adding an extra level of shielding to the Wanderers back four, whilst in the offensive Ono prowled in a fairly central position for either passes from his team mates, or spills from tackles effected on the opposition, to prime a forward attack. The right and left backs and their similarly sided forwards (Hersi and Bridge) would often interpose into this phase of midfield play, either by (as previously mention) by linking up with said backs or moving centrally closer to the midfielders. It was very much a system of swamping and pressing the opposition whilst keeping the back and central thirds compact for either absorbing the other team’s attack or readying the counter.

The final Popa ploy when it came to tactical systems was the use of the second man attack, or as I like to think of it, ‘Kick it to or around Dino and see if Bridge, Hersi or Shinji can score off the big Croat”. It wasn’t crude route one football, however with Kresinger hardly banging in the goals it made perfectly acceptable sense for Popovic to look to those beside or immediately behind him to feed off his work. With Kresinger imposing his impressive bulk in the box or near by, the more fleet-footed attacking trio combined to either collect the ball from or within the melee around Dino, or to profit from the crosses and passes put through by (most particularly) Jerome Polenz. Goals came from these counter punches and from the opportunistic chances created by this system, with an additional slab of Shinji Ono brilliance every now and again.

The bottom line? Tony Popovic in season one was a coach who did the absolute best with is hastily recruited player stocks to match them to a playing system that would deny the opposition goals, create pressures both defensively and offensively in the midfield and on the flanks, whilst up front goals were scored by second men. It was a remarkably successful system, considering (aside from the ladder position) it was the most miserly for conceding goals (21) for the 2012/13 season and the equal second most productive in scoring (41).

Coming forward to Wanderers Version 4.0, we have seen in the first nine rounds of this season a far more possession back transitional system of play that has put paid to almost all the specific elements identified above in Popa’s first tactical systems. The Leopold Method analysis of what has become the modus operandi of Popovic’s direction for the players succinctly describes it as:

Shifting to a new possession-based game has been a long-term project for Popovic, one delayed by the demanding schedule that saw them lift the Asian Champions League trophy twelve months ago. This season with a new and fresher squad he has managed to progress this evolution.

The Wanderers are completing more passes than they ever have before. They’ve gone from completing the fewest or second fewest in their first three seasons to the fourth most this season, but importantly they have also increased their passes and open play touches in the final third – they aren’t simply rotating the ball around in defence for the sake of it. In the final third they are completing passes at the highest rate in their short history – indicative of how they are trying to build attacks in the final third rather than attack quickly and more directly.

The wholesale personnel changes wrought by Popa and the club at the beginning of season four have undoubtedly played a role in this change, and perhaps one of the most telling examples of this development has been the departure of Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca, replaced by the two Spaniards Dimas and Andreu. Unlike in season one where La Rocca and Poljak served as that additional defensive screen, now we see Andreu and Dimas tracking back, transitioning, moving the ball around far more creatively so they can link with Mitch Nichols.

Dimas, Nichols & Andreu: The Current Key Wanderers Midfielders

 As coach Tony Popovic has also directed the evolution of another key element of the first season team, current captain and central defender Nikolai Topor Stanley. It was not uncommon to see NTS rely on some physical challenges and booming long drop kicks as the leitmotifs of his play in 2012/13. Come forward to 2015/16 and he is far more willing to take the ball up either in company with Andreu and/or Dimas, or even…quelle surprise…run up to and over the half way, interposing himself into an extra attacking role. Whereas in the Wanderers first season Nikolai worked with Beauchamp like a Siamese twin, and in seasons two and three he let Spiranovic or another central partner be the transitional player at the back, NTS in 2015/16 looks to becoming a much taller, swarthier version of Philip Lahm.

So when one considers what changes have been wrought by Popovic tactically between now and the Round 9 match against Wellington Phoenix back in December 2012, the Western Sydney Wanderers have become less dependent upon the back and middle thirds holding strong defensively, whilst using some counter-punches thrown somewhat opportunistically in the final offensive third to score goals. In the first nine matches of this season Popovic has given every indication he has the goal of using a more technical, passing-based transitional system both defensively and when attacking, and so far it would be hard to deny that his aims are being met.

 One thing that does not appear to have changed since the debut season of the Wanderers in the A-League is the intensity of training and fitness requirements under Popovic. The same training regime that was recognised by the football media when reviewing the lead up to the 2014 ACL championship win, focused on an authoritarian, highly physically demanding system has not undergone revision (if these comments from current left back Scott Jamieson are to be believed):

The Wanderers are the hottest team in the competition right now. And the club’s left-back Scott Jamieson feels the success is due to the “brutal” approach of coach Tony Popovic and his staff.

“We’re in a good frame of mind but we’re also realistic, we can’t just turn up and not work hard at training,” Jamieson told reporters on Tuesday.

“Just because we’ve won six doesn’t mean we just turn up and have a joke and a laugh.

“This coaching staff is pretty brutal, and if you do that you will be sitting out training and have a few days in the gym by yourself.”

There is also some similarities between the supporting coaching staff from 2012/13 and 2015/16. Original assistant coach Ante Milicic and goal keeping coach Ron Corry were instrumental in working with Popovic, in the former’s case often being responsible reinforcing the overall philosophy of the head coach with training drills etc, whilst the latter engaged with his charges (Covic and Tyson) to try and maintain excellence whilst looking for developing skill sets. Come forward to their replacements, Andres Carrasco and Zeljko Kalac and we are seeing similar responsibilities, similar aims. Carrasco’s influence and role has been articulated this:

It’s a philosophy Carrasco held when recommended by his then-university lecturer to Barcelona and refined through the jobs as a scout and coach from their juniors up to their under-16s. 

But ideology alone doesn’t translate to the final product, that much relies on the players. 

“The smart coach knows how to take the best from the players he has. If you have players with one profile, more defensive for example with a capacity to work, maybe you have to play matches different. If you have more talented players you can work more with the ball,” Carrasco said.

A key component to the squad renovations during the off-season was bringing in those who were up to the tasks of carrying out such specific orders. Carrasco calls them “Peloteros,” the typically Spanish style of ball player who controls play almost effortlessly. 

“I think it is maybe easier if you have the players and all of them are with a similar style,” Carrasco said. (Source: Wanderers coach Andres Carrasco turned down Paris Saint Germain for Parramatta, SMH 20/11/15)

As for Kalac, there is undoubtedly a marked effect on his charges, with current no.1 goalie Andrew Redmayne returning more clean sheets for the Wanderers so far this season than his form at Melbourne City/Heart indicated possible. Plus, as ‘Redders’ himself says:

“[Before the season] he said I had a good base level but there were a lot of technical things that needed to be tweaked, and completely changed in some forms, so we worked really hard in pre-season and I’m continuing to learn and really enjoying the path that I’m on,” (‘Wanderers’ Redmayne benefitting from Spider’s touch’ HAL News 4/12/15)

Whilst tactical systems have evolved, ideologies refined, personnel moved on or brought in, one part of the Wanderers’ make up this season which does not look to have changed is their mental strength and motivation to succeed. Obviously all clubs and all players have the drive to win, however there is (in my opinion) unique circumstances around the Wanderers this season that mirror their psychology from 2012/13.

Obviously back before season one the mission for Lyall Gorman, Tony Popovic and other staff and players was to establish the Wanderers after a fairly short build up period. For example, here is a quote from inaugural skipper Michael Beauchamp prior to the first round of the 2012/13 season:

”We’re putting pressure on ourselves to do well and, in saying that, we’ve left no stone unturned and the boss has done everything right. We’re not here to make up the numbers, we’re here to perform, we’re here to be competitive every week.” (Write off Wanderers at your peril, warns Beauchamp, SMH 6/10/12)

After the disastrous 2014/15 campaign and the resultant shedding of so many squad members, the Wanderers have the hallmarks of almost starting from scratch, as if it was stunde null again. Yet the players both old and new are maintaining their own internal motivations, striving to achieve results through performance standards they believe they can meet, as if it was first season again, as indicated by Scott Jamieson after the Wanderers win over Melbourne City:

“We didn’t get the results at the start of the season, but we always believed in what we were doing was important,” he said. “Three wins in a row is good, but we’re only early on in the season so we won’t get carried away.”
Jamieson added: “We feel we’re a very strong team and we’ll go deep into this competition regardless of whether we’d won three in a row,” he said. “We believe in what we’re doing.” (Jamieson Backs Piovaccari, FourFourTwo Australia, 16/11/15)

There will always be the desire to promote oneself and one’s club as having such self-belief, having such a rock solid motivation. However the manner in which the Wanderers have had to develop their team spirit, their elan, has come through most dramatically as a result of either having just been formed or having been almost utterly dismantled and then re-formed. It’s well and good to mouth platitudes about team spirit when the bulk of your squad is the same as what you had last season, or when your club has years of history to draw on. The Wanderers of 2015/16 are much like that squad that rolled up as the newest club in the A-League three years ago, in that they have a belief that comes organically from a need to prove themselves in the most challenging of circumstances. The squad demonstrate a definitive psychological continuity when it comes to how they approach playing under Tony Popovic.

Perhaps the other considerable element in the Western Sydney Wanderers environment that has not changed between 2012/13 and 2015/16 is that of the relationship between the players and the fans. Foundation captain Michael Beauchamp said on retiring, after his final match in the red and black:

“We’ve shown in two years the level that we can take football to here in ­Australia, not only on the park but off the park with the community work, with the fans, with the RBB,” (source 27/5/14)

Additonally here are the thoughts of Jerrad Tyson, when asked to talk about the RBB back in February 2013:

The Red and Black Bloc have taken active support to a new level. I’ve said it a number of times but without question the RBB have been directly responsible for a number of vital points claimed in our rise up the ladder. Whether it was inspiring us to go harder in the last 5 mins against Roar and get the winner, or dominate Melbourne Heart with 10 men for almost the whole game and win. They inspire us to do the things that no other club is doing. (From The Stands, 18/2/13)

Come forward to the recent RBB led walk out of the match against Central Coast Mariners and the boycott of the Brisbane Roar home match, and the Wanderers current players offer their support, as per Scott Jamieson’s comments:

“All the fans that did come (last week) made it as good as they can, but that RBB feel is like no other,” Jamieson said on Tuesday.

“We really do need them, but we also understand that they haven’t been treated right and they deserve to stand up and speak up.

“But hopefully, this meeting tomorrow can really try and mend a few things.” (SBS – The World Game: 8/12/15)

Then there was one of the very few survivors from the first season Wanderers’ squad, current Captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley, and his thoughts regarding the club’s fans:

“We want our fans there – they’re the best fans in the league by a country mile,” a diplomatic Topor-Stanley said ahead of Sunday’s away clash with the Mariners.

“But we understand the issues that they have and we’re all in this together,”  (SBS – The World Game: 27/11/15)

The RBB and less active fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers have formed such a strong bond with the players, and the players (both past and present) that it is most satisfying to see these bonds retained from 2012/13 to the current A-League season.

In closing, perhaps the best way to sum up how things have changed at Wanderland between that first, miraculously successful season and the current 2015/16 campaign is that the changes are almost all tactical, on the field, with personnel and names altered from our inaugural A-League adventure. However the soul of the club, the psychology, the motivation and the commitment is still very much the same. The Wanderers have experienced unbelievable highs and some savage lows, yet for all these variations in fate their answer has been to try and get better on the pitch whilst staying true to their principles and community off it.