There is no need for Sydney FC fans to worry. Not yet, anyway. But the weekend’s trip to Wellington provided a taste of what’s to come. At home, and especially away, the Sky Blues will be marked men.
The target on Sydney’s back has been there since season one but the red dot has swollen dramatically since the arrival of Alessandro Del Piero. To take them down with him in the ranks is a scalp the opposition crave.
That’s the inescapable reality of every Sydney match this season. Without fail, the opposition will emerge from the tunnel with a supreme motivation.
Some argue that professional footballers do not, or should not, require emotional urges, that they must perform to a high level regardless. That wrongly assumes players are robotic. Make no mistake: Sydney’s rivals will attack like hungry dogs.
The challenge for coach Ian Crook is not to gear his team to match the drive of the opposition but to give them a superior battle plan. They need a better strategy, one that overrides the red-blooded energy of the opposition.
Wellington had them covered for both strategy and desire on Saturday night. Ricki Herbert plays a simple game but it remains highly effective. Last season they finished fourth largely by retaining the best shape in the A-League.
Organisation was their forte then and on the evidence of this latest performance, little has changed. Throw in the yearning to humble Del Piero and company and the three points were hardly in doubt.
They got on top early, stripping Sydney not only of possession but belief. Doubt visibly crept in.
Then came the cold, the wet and, of course, the bone-chilling wind, conditions the Phoenix revel in, as do their fans. The Yellow Fever might be the only supporters anywhere who prefer rain to sunshine. Their loud, pointed jeering and mocking of every missed pass was unsettling. At full-time, Sydney couldn’t get off the field quick enough.
The Sky Blues’ sloppy passing will be most annoying for Crook. The cornerstone of his new philosophy is all about possession. Evidence of that was here but only in patches and attempts to play out from the back were rarely successful.
The transition through the midfield was, at times, woeful. What must have been going through Del Piero’s head when such simple passes couldn’t find their target? A few months back he was receiving balls from the great Andrea Pirlo.
But Sydney, even in the days of Dwight Yorke and Juninho, have never been an exceptional passing team. It’s going to take a cultural shift and it won’t be painless.
Crook has the right long-term approach for the club and that’s a positive. But for those expecting the addition of a new coach and a new marquee to equal an instant championship, think again.
It’s the rest of Sydney’s squad that will dictate their level of success. How quickly they can adapt will determine whether they are a contender this season. Adapting to Del Piero, too, is going to take some time. To the naked eye, he fulfils a similar position to Nicky Carle: behind the strikers or ”in the hole”. However, they are markedly different.
Carle was a runner, sometimes to his own detriment, especially in his first season, when his determination to be involved sometimes sucked him into central midfield. Del Piero is the opposite. He doesn’t run when he doesn’t need to. He walks, or has a light shuffle, when the ball isn’t close.
That’s not a criticism. At 37, he’s hardly going to be a sprinter. Instead of him collecting the ball, as Carle tried to do, his teammates will have to find him.
If they can, his true value will emerge. If opponents try to close him down, his canny feet and low centre of gravity will find a way past. Standing off him, however, is fraught with its own danger, for that gives him time to execute a defence-splitting pass.
Getting used to Crook’s plan and Del Piero’s poise will take time. As far as initiations go, this was a tough one.
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