Written by Michael Safro (@Safrossydney)
After years of stagnation, 2014/15 was a breath of fresh air.
The Sky Blues thrilled their fans and only the team’s occasional naivety cost it the premiership. The fans moved on from the club’s Grand Final defeat, looking to go one better in 2015/16. Instead, what transpired in the A-League was an unmitigated disaster.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Just as Sydney FC made fundamental mistakes following its last title win in 2010 and compounded the problems two years later, history repeated itself in 2015. The club made errors in the wake of its Grand Final loss and these were enough to cost the Sky Blues an entire A-League season.
Playing Style Errors – if Graham Arnold is to be taken at his word, he wanted a “fluid formation” where his forwards could pressure the opposition’s defenders. To that end, Sydney FC let go of A-League top scorer Marc Janko despite his sixteen goals.
An odd way of looking at things and one that ultimately destroyed Sydney’s A-League campaign, scoring just 36 times in 27 matches. In Graham Arnold’s distinguished coaching career, dumping Janko must rank among his greatest blunders.
The Austrian’s place was given to ageing Kiwi striker Shane Smeltz. The 34 year old worked his socks off to fit in with the new system but, exhausted from the chasing, had nothing in the tank when presented with chances in front of goal.
Meanwhile, Sydney left behind its thrill-a-minute incarnation of the previous season to adopt an overwrought, elaborate style that brought scant reward but bored the fans.
Despite the stodgy football, Sydney were still in with a chance at Christmas. But with Sydney FC labelled as “boring” by the media, Arnie appeared spooked and his team lurched from one playing style to another, no longer sure of themselves.
More than one A-League coach would have had a quiet chuckle. The mind games worked.
Meanwhile, Alex Brosque’s injury, Faty’s erratic form and Smeltz’s loss of confidence robbed the side of quality and leadership and in January the wheels finally fell off. The Sky Blues went eleven rounds without an A-League win and what began with so much promise saw the club dumped from the Top 6 altogether.
The Asian Champions League campaign was largely blamed for Sydney’s domestic failure. However, the team was on a downward spiral long before its first game in Asia so the excuse doesn’t wash.
Personnel errors – everyone understand the departures of Bernie Ibini, Terry Antonis and Nikola Petkovic while the appointment of Jacques Faty as backline leader and team vice-captain seemed a good idea. And the Frenchman began well, carrying on his good form from the previous season.
Did the Paris bombings affect him more than we’ll know? Whatever the reason, Faty was not the same man after returning from his brief Paris soujourn, becoming a backline liability.
Meanwhile, Alex Gersbach was allowed a January move to Rosenborg that significantly weakened the side.
Attacking signing Andrew Hoole proved a flop while Ibini’s direct replacement, Slovakian marquee winger Filip Holosko, underwhelmed. Scoring ten goals was a good outcome but a marquee is expected to display more individual quality. Instead, Holosko admirably tracked back time and again to help his fullback – but is that really the best way to utilise a million dollar attacker?
With Grant and Ryall butchering crosses, Faty conceding goal after comical goal, strikers missing sitters, Tavares not tracking his man and keeper Vedran Janjetovic having far from his best season, the club’s A-League campaign imploded.
Asian Champions League campaign – the balm on the wounds
After some bizarre tactics in Japan, Arnie and his team got it right at Allianz Stadium to produce a memorable 2-1 defeat of last season’s champions, moneybags Guangzhou Evergrande. The win gave the side momentum for their home and away wins against Pohang Steelers, catapulting Sydney FC to the top of the table.
Finally sure of their playing style and largely mistake-free at the back, Sydney took their chances and rode their luck in their best-ever ACL display. It was an wonderful campaign, one of which Arnie and the team can be proud. The fans – the ones who showed up at any rate – certainly are.
One thing though – if Arnie was happy to tear up Tavares’ contract, why did he name him in the ACL squad in place of Holosko? And would the presence of Tavares and Abbas, let alone Gersbach, made all the difference against Shandong Luneng on that fateful Wednesday night? And so, who should be held accountable?
It makes for unpalatable reading that while Melbourne Victory have remained comfortable with their playing style and strongly linked with their fan base despite an equally mediocre season, Sydney FC appear to have gone backwards. On the park, Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United are streets ahead of the Sky Blues while Perth Glory’s recruitment displays ominous signs for next season.
Meanwhile, the Western Sydney Wanderers have finished well above the Sky Blues three seasons out of four, although the head-to-head edge that Sydney have enjoyed over their crosstown rivals has been a source of great enjoyment for the Sky Blue faithful.
Off the park, it appears that the club is in the middle of something of an identity crisis. Unsure of what it stands for, Sydney FC has few connection points with the football community beyond online marketing, which largely preaches to the choir anyway, and appears to have little idea how to win over new fans. One would expect that after eleven seasons, Sydney FC would have entrenched itself in the hearts and minds of the football community, at least this side of Homebush.
If it has, then nowhere near enough.
Sydney’s average home crowd this season was semi-respectable 16,000 fans. Take out the two WSW games at home, however, and the number drops to just over 10,000.
Besides Sydney’s excellent Asian adventure, Matthew Jurman, Brandon O’Neill and Milos Ninkovic kept their standards consistently high while Mikael Tavares played some decent matches. Fan favourite Milos Dimitrijevic came good in the latter half of the season, the Sky Blue midfield still among the best in the country.
Meanwhile, the club won the NYL title and the youth team is performing well in state league competition. To which end, the owners deserve thanks for backing Sydney’s NPL entry, an investment that will bear fruit in seasons to come.
Abbas, Faty and Tavares have signed for other clubs while eight players, none of them first team regulars, have been shown the door. More on that in coming weeks but the fifteen who remain are the ones who performed so admirably in the ACL.
The Sky Blues are not a million miles from being an A-League force once again. The additions of Alex Wilkinson and Michael Zullo will strengthen the side, with more new signings on the way. But goalscoring centre forward is an absolute must.
If Sydney FC and Graham Arnold deserved some grace after a largely successful 2014/15, they have no such luxury this time round.
The club needs to get it right – in its recruitment, playing style and marketing.
The time for excuses – at every level of the organisation – is over.