Right from the opening minutes of the opening game, between the Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Heart, there were two things in particular that caught the eye in the opening round of the A-League season.
The first was the intensity, perhaps not surprising given that the players were coming off such a drawn-out pre-season.
There’s no doubt about it, players across the league were absolutely up for the opening exchanges of this much talked about and anticipated season.
As much could be told by the tempo with which the Jets and Heart 11s went about their early work, pressing, pouncing and springing into forward transition.
Right across the five venues it was notable just how many players were going down with cramp.
Even early in the first half of their respective games, the cameras caught a glimpse of Jamie Coyne and Daniel Mullen sucking in the deep ones, such was the working over Archie Thompson and Andrezinho, respectively, were giving them.
Coyne and Mullen weren’t the only ones looking for oxygen.
The pace was breathtaking, no where more than at Etihad Stadium, where the Kewell-Emerton show-down produced not only a typically feisty Big Blue, but one played at a lightning tempo.
Brett Emerton, in the post match press conference, noted how difficult the A-League will be if the intensity is that high ever week.
While you can do all the training and play all the trial games, nothing quite simulates an actual game, with points at stake.
Of course, as the season progresses, expect the conditioning to improve rapidly.
What this enhanced conditioning should provide is an opportunity for teams to sustain their defensive press for longer periods.
This was the other feature of the opening game, the ability of the Jets and Heart to press the opposition high and place pressure on the defences to play out.
While there was a fair bit of criticism of the defences at Ausgrid Stadium, the reality is that most of the errors were a result of the effective high pressing game employed by Craig Deans and John van ‘t Schip.
In the early going it was the Heart’s very attacking front five setting the tempo, with Mate Dugandzic on the right, David Williams on the left and Jason Hoffman and Fred, both playing behind Maycon, all aggressive in their appetite to win the ball early.
While it only reaped the one early goal, on another day it may have lead to two or three.
The Jets, at home and pumped after a week of drama, also employed a high-octane high press, placing significant pressure on central defenders Matt Thompson and Curtis Good, and goalkeeper Nikola Roganovic, to play out.
It proved fruitful, with Good especially struggling with the attention.
It was a trait we also saw, at times, in a couple of the other games.
In a league where the technical level continues to evolve, year after year, this growing tactical sophistication appears a natural step.
Another team to achieve success with this higher press was the Perth Glory, who squeezed up and applied pressure on Adelaide’s defenders, forcing them, particularly in the first half, to play out via the long option to the head of Sergio van Dijk.
In the second period, it was Adelaide who turned things around somewhat, coming out with a higher line and applying pressure on the Glory further up the park.
The one team I thought might employ this high press tactic in the opening round, but didn’t, was the Central Coast Mariners.
After all, it was a tactic I thought served them well throughout last season’s finals, and against a team featuring a bevy of new players, getting amongst them might prove fruitful.
Instead though they appeared to come to Suncorp with a plan to sit back and counter attack, and while Graham Arnold’s tactic threatened to reap rewards at times, the Mariners were constantly on the back foot.
While much of this was down to the quality of Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar, who seemed to seamlessly take off from where they left last season, with import Issey Nakajima-Farran in particular catching the eye, in part I felt the Mariners invited the pressure by not employing enough of their own, higher up the pitch.
While they defended stubbornly and always looked a threat on the break, a tactic for which Bernie Ibini-Isei should have been employed, one wonders what might have been had the Mariners pressured Erik Paartalu and the Roar back four higher.
Maybe Arnold felt his team wasn’t yet in the condition to be pressing the Roar high, or maybe he felt sitting back was the best bet at this early stage of the season, when surely the Roar wouldn’t be flowing.
It is a tactic which not only requires supreme organisation and conditioning, but conviction.
On Saturday it was the Roar who were able to settle into their pattern, Paartalu pulling the strings as the ball and his teammates fizzed around ahead of him, both constantly on the move. It seemed inevitable they would eventually score and stretch the unbeaten run to 29.
As the season unfolds, one of the most fascinating things will be to see just how teams set up to try and stop Postecoglou’s men.
Apart from the Mariners last season, the team which arguably had the most success was the Melbourne Victory, who did it by applying a very physical high press. Luke DeVere, you might remember, was caught out in an early epic at AAMI Park.
This season the spotlight is on managers right across the league, starting with Sydney FC’s Vitezslav Lavicka on Saturday night, to see who can come up with a high press plan to disrupt the Roar.