The biggest change in the off-season was undoubtedly Graham Arnold leaving to be replaced by his assistant Steve Corica. Corica has already shown that he is a very different manager, much more soft-spoken and not baiting the other managers like Arnie pretty regularly did. It remains to be seen if this style will allow him to deal with some of the big names in the squad, but it seems that the club has kept with the family atmosphere we cultivated under Arnie which may mitigate the problem somewhat.
One of Corica’s big problems is the departure of some key backroom staff, who have joined Arnie in the Socceroos. The loss of our strength and conditioning coach Andrew Clark, who was so crucial to how we dominated the last two seasons, will be a huge blow in particular. Corica will also have to deal with the fact that we will be a travelling circus for the whole year. It remains to be seen how this will affect the whole club, let alone the team on the pitch. This will definitely be one of the key narratives to watch all season.
The Overall Tactics
Early indications are that our game will look fairly similar to how it did under Arnie. Corica has played more of a flat 4-4-2 or even a 4-2-4 throughout the Cup games as opposed to Arnie’s modified 4-2-3-1 and it is already clear that this squad will be even more focused on the counter, given the far greater speed we have up front. However, we haven’t seen any particular tactical revolution compared to the last two seasons.
We have also been playing a little bit narrower, with neither Grant nor Zullo stretching play as much as they did under Arnie. This may be a reflection of the fact that we have only seen pre-season and Cup games where the squad isn’t fully fit, but it might be something to keep an eye on. Given that we are playing more narrowly, a lot more of the play seems to be going through Ninkovic and, against Wanderers, De Jong, who may both drift into the ten hole.
Starting with defence, there has been a good mix of stability and fresh faces compared to last season’s squad. Alex Wilkinson remains in the heart of defence with Andrew Redmayne our custodian in the net. Pairing Wilkinson is Jop van der Linden, the Dutch import and Jordy Buijs replacement. Their partnership still isn’t completely bedded down so they may take a few games to really get used to each other’s style.
Michael Zullo remains the first-choice left back and is still arguably the best crosser in the squad. Rhyan Grant returns in the right back position which he was forced out from last season due to injury. Early indications are that Zullo will play a very similar role to last season, linking up with Ninkovic on the left wing and providing cover to the two centre backs, neither of whom is particularly fast. Grant is still clearly getting back to his best and doesn’t yet have the engine which he possessed at the end of the 2016/17 season but the early indications are positive.
The club has some decent cover in the centre back positions on the bench with Aaron Calver and Ben Warland, who will start the season out with injury. Paulo Retre is also likely to get plenty of time off the bench and in games where we rotate the squad. Most of the time he will be acting as cover for Grant but it is also likely that he will be our second-choice left back. This may pose a problem as a right-footed left back limits our ability to stretch play. Joel King was signed from the academy and he is a very competent left back; he may get a look-in if something happens to Zullo or if Corica wants to rotate the squad a lot during the ACL campaign.
The last two seasons have seen the amazing pair of Brandon O’Neill and Joshua Brillante grind teams down, breaking up play and dictating the tempo in midfield. Already we saw this continue against Wanderers with both of them calmly dominating the centre of the park. In many ways, keeping hold of these two was some of the best business the club did and it is remarkable that no European clubs came in for them.
The big new signing in midfield is Siem De Jong, on loan from Ajax. It is incredible that we have a player of his calibre here at the age of 29. He comes in to replace Adrian, but it is clear that their gameplay styles are quite different. De Jong seems to build his game around his technique more and isn’t as mobile as Adrian. He has been willing to play at ten or to drop deeper to support the two holding midfielders.
Chris Zuvela is likely to see some game time this season as we juggle ACL commitments and most of the time when he has played he has looked more than capable. The club have really fleshed out the squad numbers with a whole raft of academy graduates. Cameron Devlin already got a look-in during the FFA Cup derby game. The 20-year-old is an immensely good prospect who will hopefully see a few more games this season. Jerry Skotadis (18) and Ryan Teague (16) are both likely a year or two away from breaking into first teams and were most likely given contracts to give them the chance to train with the first team for the season. Teague has reportedly been quite impressive while on Australian youth team duty over the last month.
Once again, this is where the club truly shines. Bobo and Adrian are the big misses in attack, however the club has replaced them with Adam Le Fondre and Siem De Jong (discussed above). Not only that, but some of the attacking depth which we lacked last season is provided by Daniel De Silva, on loan from CCM. Le Fondre has been on fire in pre-season and in the early Cup games and if he continues scoring like he has been there is no reason that we should miss Bobo.
Milos Ninkovic is likely to start in the left side of attack, dropping into the centre as needed. Early indications are that he has lost no ability during the off season. Alex Brosque, so crucial to our pressing last season, is quite likely to play more of a role off the bench this year, providing the same impact that Carney did for us. Instead, Trent Buhagiar has come in from CCM with his fast pace and new-found ability to finish. If the club can polish off his rough edges, Buhagiar could cause problems for defences all season. The club has so many great options up front that it is hard to see how Corica will fit them all into a system.
Charles Lokoli-Ngoy is the club’s other striking option and he really needs to impress this season. If he can find that first goal, I am hopeful that the rest will follow. Marco Tilio has been brought in as a youth player, though as with some of the midfielders, it is likely only so that he can have an opportunity to train with the first team. I’d love to see him get a run because his explosive pace and dribbling ability is quite a sight, but there is enough depth up front that I just can’t see it happening.
The Final Verdict
We are clearly a very good squad again this season and we should be fighting for the title this season again, however there are enough things that should give us pause and make us realise that we aren’t going to be anywhere near as dominant as we were for the last two seasons. The rotating home grounds and a reliance on youth if there are too many injuries could both take a toll.
Overall, however, I am still seeing us as a top two side. We probably have more technical ability in this squad than any other team, which may help to see us play our way out of tough games. If this team clicks and Corica can organise this attack successfully, then we are going to be a serious force to be reckoned with.