Are Sydney FC getting too much respect from the opposition?

Gary Andrews Roar Rookie

By , Gary Andrews is a Roar Rookie

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    Respect, as the old saying goes, is earned and not given. Try telling that to Sydney FC’s opponents over the past weeks.

    They’re sitting atop the table yet again but, as head coach Graham Arnold has admitted, they have yet to truly hit the heights of last season – however, they haven’t met an opponent that has truly gone toe-to-toe with them.

    It’s a curious situation. Here is a side that were miserly in defence during their championship season, giving away just 12 goals all season, but have already conceded four while Jordy Buijs and Alex Wilkinson look like a newly-moved in couple still trying to work out who takes control of the TV remote. At the other end of the pitch, last season’s scintillating attack has taken a breather.

    Instead of the dynamic, fast moving, swashbuckling champions, the opening rounds have seen an extra step of caution and even sluggishness in Sydney’s play. Whereas last season the ball was swiftly moved from defence to attack, this season midfielders Josh Brillante, Brandon O’Neill and Alex Brosque have all been guilty of taking an extra touch during build up, while the devastating use of fullbacks has been replaced with a tendency to play through the middle of the park.

    Part of this can be attributed to the loss of Rhyan Grant pre-season. The fullback’s second cruciate ligament injury was a cruel blow, coming off the best season of his career. While the likes of Brosque, Bobo and playmaker Milos Ninkovic caught the plaudits, it was often Grant’s lung-busting runs from fullback that created the extra space for the front three to exploit.

    Yet Grant’s injury alone shouldn’t account for the occasional laboured attacks. Luke Wilkshire has been finding more than enough space on the flank, even accounting for the fact at 36 he’s a little less of an attacker than Grant.

    Against Perth, Wilkshire could have easily bagged a brace, while seeing the veteran net his first goal in nine years against Melbourne City last weekend was one of those moments to bring a smile to the face of all Socceroos fans.

    But City and Perth, like the Wanderers and Melbourne Victory before them, set their stall out to frustrate the reigning A League champions, sitting deep and looking to stifle the supply to Bobo and Ninkovic. And so far, it hasn’t worked.

    Kevin Muscat clearly hadn’t read the definition of insanity, when he tried to repeat the same tactics from last season’s grand final in the Victory’s opener against the Sky Blues. What followed was a turgid game that took an own goal to settle, where neither side remotely looked like scoring.

    For a side that boasts Besart Berisha, Leroy George and James Troisi, that sends a very clear message to the opposition and Muscat’s side have arguably struggled since.

    The Wanderers did a slightly better job a couple of weeks later, when interim coach Hayden Foxe’s setup forced the Sky Blues in-field, cutting the supply to the flanks and crowding out Sydney in the final third. Granted, Western Sydney were helped by some very generous defending by their cross-city rivals for their two goals, but it was a slightly more positive defensive setup than Victory’s opening round display.

    Had it not been a derby match and the Wanderers not conceded a soft, brainless penalty just before half time, then we could have been looking at Sydney’s first loss of the season. As it was, Arnold rallied the team for what has probably been their performance of the season.

    The less said about Perth’s listless, toothless display a week later the better, while Melbourne City have built their season on defensive solidity, and Warren Joyce was unlikely to deviate from his chosen setup that had served City so well all season.

    Josh Brilliante

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    In fact the only side who have really taken the game to the defending champions are Wellington Phoenix, who are the very definition of inconsistency this season and are just as likely to score three as concede three, as we saw against Brisbane Roar a couple of weeks ago.

    Which brings us back to respect. Phoenix, and perhaps to a lesser extent the Wanderers, haven’t tried to adjust their game to stifle Sydney. The Sky Blues are still, on paper and on the ladder, the best side in the competition, but there are frailties.

    Perhaps mindful of some of last season’s attacking masterclasses, their opponents have tried to sit back and invite Sydney to find a way through, which they invariably do, even if the games themselves won’t stick long in the memory.

    It’s why the next two games against the Mariners and the Jets promise to be a fascinating benchmark of Sydney’s season, which are not words anybody would have anticipated writing last season.

    Paul Okon’s Central Coast have been an enjoyable work in progress this season. They may only have three points to show for it, but it’s not been for lack of trying. They’re unlikely to have enough to beat the league leaders, but they also don’t have the personnel or the system to attempt to smother the game.

    Then a week later, Newcastle travel to the Allianz. Ernie Merrick’s Jets have been a joy to watch this season with some blistering attacking play and lightness of movement that left Wellington looking punch-drunk. While Sydney have toiled their way to the top and Melbourne City have challenged the opposition to break them down, Newcastle have been this season’s entertainers and are unlikely to sit back and invite Bobo and co to break them down.

    Merrick may fail, and indeed fail spectacularly if Sydney click into gear and find their mojo, but the Jets have already earned plenty of respect this season. The Sky Blues, regardless of their league position, still have some way to go in that regard.