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.
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.
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.