A-League or ACL: Competing in both guarantees failure in one

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    Fixture congestion is a global issue in football, and a debate most frequently raised around the turn of the year in the English Premier League, when all 20 teams play multiple times over the holiday week.

    This year was no exception, with the fixture schedulers coming under heavy fire from clubs forced to play, in some extreme cases, up to three times in six days.

    On the opposite side of the world, the A-League has its own fixture congestion dilemma. However, the issue here does not rear its head until the Asian Champions League begins each year in February.

    With two automatic qualifiers, and a third depending on the result of a qualifying round, the A-League clubs involved face significant disruption to their usually consistent schedule of one game a week.

    That generally has negative ramifications for the teams involved. Recent history suggests ACL involvement will harm an A-League team’s performances and results in one competition or the other. It has proven very difficult to compete on both fronts.

    The effect of fixture congestion on performance is a recurring theme in academic research. Former Western Sydney Wanderers strength and conditioning coach Adam Waterson recently wrote in-depth on the club’s preparation, training planning and player loading when competing in the Asian Champions League in the 2014-15 season.

    Waterson highlighted the decision by the coaching staff to significantly decrease the intensity of training during the congested periods of the season (when the team was playing midweek ACL fixtures). Training load, measured by subjective measures of perceived exertion by the players, along with GPS and heart-rate monitoring, was always reduced during these busy periods, in an attempt to keep the players fresh and healthy for the increased number of games.

    Despite this, Waterson’s research illustrated the impact of accumulated fatigue in the players as a result of the additional games played, and the sizeable travel demands that also increased as a result. The Wanderers travelled 44,064 kilometres during a 36-day period of congestion. This, in turn, leads to increased likelihood of jet lag, again affecting performance.

    Jet lag, and accumulated fatigue, are potential risk factors for injury and illness. These factors all combined demonstrate the negative effect of ACL fixtures on player performance.

    Consequently, team performance suffers. The season that was the subject of Waterson’s research saw the Wanderers lose every A-League match following an ACL group stage game.

    This is a recurring theme for teams competing on two fronts, as it becomes difficult to balance between the need to keep players fresh and healthy, while also continuing to field your best team. Match preparation is also hamstrung by the reduced time between games, as the focus on recovery and recuperation limits the training time available for coaches to work on specific tactical plans.

    Even in cases where teams do have time between games, the distance to travel, and resulting difficulties in planning direct connections (particularly for teams not based in major cities), has a major impact. Furthermore, overseas facilities are not always up to scratch, or do not meet the specific needs of a large and varied playing group.

    For last season’s Asian campaign, Sydney FC sent staff over early to the countries they were competing. This, however, points towards another issue – potential splits within the club resulting from coaches and players being prioritised and pulled in different directions. Graham Arnold touched on this in a revealing interview with Fox Sports.

    “That team was not as one last year – for whatever reason, the Champions League where you had to leave six or seven behind who couldn’t travel,” he said.

    “Two foreigners were out of the squad. We weren’t as one. You look at middle of last January, we were sitting in second spot.

    “Once I had to announce the Champions league squad, it segregated the foreigners and it was hard to bring them back. We’d travel with 25-26 players, eight stayed behind and they didn’t train properly.”

    Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold

    What do these lessons from the past mean for this year’s travellers – the Wanderers, Adelaide and Brisbane? Beyond the necessary preparation in advance of the forthcoming hectic schedules, coaches of all three clubs have clearly begun to plan ahead in their current management of their squads.

    Over the last two weeks, Roar coach John Aloisi has rotated his attacking players, most notably using Jamie Maclaren from the bench, as well as leaving Thomas Broich out altogether for the trip to Wellington, with the gaffer indicating he wanted to keep the German playmaker fresh for the match against the Wanderers.

    “We’ve got a busy period coming up, and I always said that we have to rotate players,” Aloisi said. “Especially the front players, because they do a lot of high-end speed running, so you can’t start them every game.”

    Elsewhere, Wanderers coach Tony Popovic added Terry Antonis to his roster. While Western Sydney already have depth in centre midfield – with Dimas, Kearyn Baccus, Bruno Pinatores, Steven Lustica and Jacob Melling competing for two spots – the addition of Antonis, as well as being theoretically an upgrade on the aforementioned, represents another option for Popovic as the congested February-March period looms.

    Adelaide, meanwhile, are in trouble. Already struggling hugely in the league, they may lose regular starter Sergio Guardiola back to Spain, having already released James Holland to China, with no replacements secured as yet. An already threadbare squad will surely struggle even more with the intense demands of the ACL.

    The Asian Champions League is an exciting opportunity for A-League clubs to challenge themselves against Asia’s best, in a premium international club competition. However, it can prove very difficult to juggle two balls at once, and it is hard to see any of this year’s Australian representatives succeeding on both fronts.

    Tim Palmer
    Tim Palmer

    Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He has worked with the Socceroos in an analysis role, has completed the FFA B Licence, is currently a player in the Australian Deaf Football Team and coaches in the NSW NPL. You can follow him on Twitter @timpalmerftbl.

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    The Crowd Says (18)

    • January 25th 2017 @ 7:01am
      Waz said | January 25th 2017 @ 7:01am | ! Report

      No argument here, it just does mess with your season one way or another; it also has the possibility to ruin the ffa Cup as well – in previous years sides qualifying for the acl were guaranteed to avoid playing another HAL side in the first round proper but this year (in another example of the BS that comes out of the FFA) the rules were inexplicably changed after the previous season had finished and Roar found themselves drawn to face Glory, at the time the game took place Roar had been back in pre-season training for less than 3 weeks while Glory had been back for 6 and you’ve got to wonder how much the ffa wants to help sides qualifying for the ACL?

    • Roar Guru

      January 25th 2017 @ 7:24am
      Ben of Phnom Penh said | January 25th 2017 @ 7:24am | ! Report

      It isn’t an easy undertaking at all, though jet lag should be considerably reduced by the East-West division that is maintained until the final.

    • January 25th 2017 @ 7:38am
      AZ_RBB said | January 25th 2017 @ 7:38am | ! Report

      Been done before

      Adelaide topped the table the year they made the final

      CCM made the knock out stage the year they won the grand final

      WSW made the grand final the year they made the quarters (won it the next season)

      It can be done. It’s tough and getting tougher. The FFA doesn’t seem at all interested in doing anything for the participant clubs so it’ll keep getting harder.

      Personally really excited about WSW playing in Asia again. It’s always an awesome experience watching teams from the continent play.

      • January 25th 2017 @ 8:17am
        Waz said | January 25th 2017 @ 8:17am | ! Report

        Agreed. Even though Roar have to go through a preliminary prelim game, next weeks ACL home game will be one of the highlights of the season and failure to make it through to this years group stage would be a real blow.

    • January 25th 2017 @ 8:25am
      SVB said | January 25th 2017 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      I remember Nikolai Topor Stanley mentioning during one of WSW’s campaigns about how the other Asian teams don’t like the travel here. That is one massive advantage that Australian teams have. If you take advantage of your home matches, then you can very easily progress through to the knock out stage.

      Saying that, travelling over there is very difficult for Australian teams. Especially the humidity you can experience in some parts. But if you prepare well and a few things go your way, then there is a good chance of progressing.

      • January 25th 2017 @ 8:31am
        Waz said | January 25th 2017 @ 8:31am | ! Report

        Part of the travel problem is the reliance on the scheduled airline network – I don’t image Aresenal arrival at Heathrow and check available flights but get on a specially charted flight which leaves when they want it to and not when the airlines schedules it. To get to an away game Roar will often have to fly south to Sydney and wait a couple of hours for an international flight, then travel for a further 12-14 hours to arrive at their destination.

        • January 25th 2017 @ 10:41am
          pauly said | January 25th 2017 @ 10:41am | ! Report

          I don’t know about that, there are direct flights from BNE to Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

          • January 25th 2017 @ 11:25am
            Waz said | January 25th 2017 @ 11:25am | ! Report

            I know that’s been the actual case from talking to the players. But you miss the point, even for a Sydney team they are at the mercy of airline schedules rather than a charter flight.

            • January 25th 2017 @ 12:01pm
              pauly said | January 25th 2017 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

              That’s correct. Unfortunately our little clubs are yet to be able to afford that kind of largesse. Maybe if they asked Mr Lowy nicely…

      • January 25th 2017 @ 1:18pm
        AZ_RBB said | January 25th 2017 @ 1:18pm | ! Report

        Still can’t believe that in our second campaign we won 7 points on the road and only managed to get 1 at home. Made no sense at all haha

        The other thing about travelling for ACL is that a lot of the teams aren’t based in major cities. You often need to land in the major city then wait to travel to the actual destination. I remember WSW saying home to hotel would sometimes take over 20hrs.

    • January 25th 2017 @ 9:29am
      Mark said | January 25th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

      I’m not entirely convinced. I think the performances of Australian sides in Asia are more a factor of the long time (almost a full year) between a team winning the A-League and playing in the ACL and the amount of player turnover in that time.

      Victory and Sydney FC didn’t struggle in the A-League last season because of their ACL commitments. They weren’t playing very well long before the ACL started. Both lost a number of players from their previous Grand Final seasons.

      Adelaide and WSW are certainly not struggling in the A-League this year because of ACL commitments…they haven’t played yet. They are just not as good sides as those that played in the Grand Final last year. They will probably struggle in the ACL as well.

      The problem we have is that our teams generally aren’t peaking during their ACL campaigns. They have peaked to win the A-League, and by the time they play in the ACL they are on the way down.

      • January 25th 2017 @ 10:44am
        pauly said | January 25th 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

        That would still likely be an issue even if the ACL began in October and ran in tandem with our season.

        Keep in mind that even some of the other Asian teams also struggle – the number of times you see a Japanese pponent that qualified as a result of a cup win but is presently 9th in the J-League.

        West Asian teams would also have the same dilemma as us, though they don’t have to live with a salary cap. This could explain why East Asian teams (Wanderers notwithstanding) have been dominating the ACL of late.

        • January 25th 2017 @ 1:00pm
          Mark said | January 25th 2017 @ 1:00pm | ! Report

          It may not be quite as bad.

          Under current arrangements, if a Grand Final winning player wants to be sure to see his team’s ACL campaign through to completion, he has to be signed on for two more A-League seasons. He has to play 2/3 of another season before the ACL campaign even begins.

          That is too long to encourage players to hang around for a chance at ACL success.

          To be fair, though, I don’t have any suitable suggestions for fixing the problem. We are much better off with a summer season than a winter season.

          • January 25th 2017 @ 3:03pm
            pauly said | January 25th 2017 @ 3:03pm | ! Report

            We can thank the SARS outbreak in 2003 for the fact that it isn’t.
            The first edition of the current ACL (2002/03) did run in tandem with the UCL but the outbreak of SARS caused the postponing of the semis which involved a Chinese team. After this, it was decided to run the ACL in a calendar year.

    • Roar Guru

      January 25th 2017 @ 9:59am
      Mister Football said | January 25th 2017 @ 9:59am | ! Report

      It’s very tough to balance the competing priorities.

      The bigger clubs in Europe have greater depth and can do it, but if anyone is familiar with how some of the smaller clubs go, you’ll see that they come up with issues when they don’t have that same depth.

      I can recall the first time Palermo made the Euro Cup about 12 years ago. They did ok, and just missed out on progressing from the group stages, but it completely messed with their Serie A season, culminating in a 5-0 loss at home to Udinese who were not travelling too well themselves at the time.

      • January 25th 2017 @ 7:58pm
        gaga said | January 25th 2017 @ 7:58pm | ! Report

        what greater depth? Most European teams have about 25 players. They have a longer season and play more games. How many players do the A-League clubs have?

        • Roar Guru

          January 26th 2017 @ 4:00pm
          Mister Football said | January 26th 2017 @ 4:00pm | ! Report

          25 pretty good players, wouldn’t you say?

          The 24th best player can step in, and it’s not a drop in quality.

          On top of that, there are rules which allow youth players to fill in, the better clubs are likely to carry a few top-notch under-age players who are excellent back-ups.

          All in all, yes, greater depth.

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