While it’s been widely acclaimed that playing standards this season are on the up, and you only have to look to quality of the imports, goalkeepers and youngsters for confirmation of that, one area where this hasn’t yet been evidenced is in the conditioning of teams to handle three games in a week.
In a developing league, it will eventually come, and perhaps it will come some time this season given the amount of mid-week games, but the reality so far is that the four teams that have played three games in a week have all struggled in the final leg of their heavy period.
Heavy legs and heavy minds leading to some tired displays.
The first two teams to face the three games in a week were the Melbourne Victory and the Wellington Phoenix, who backed up a mid-week scoreless draw at AAMI Park in week six with a draw and a loss respectively in week seven.
The Victory, outclassed by the Phoenix on the Wednesday, were also second best away to the North Queensland Fury on the following Saturday, and had to rely on some good work from Michael Petkovic and a slice of luck to come away with a pair of scoreless draws after an impressive 3-0 home win to Brisbane Roar in the opener in week six.
In that respect, the fact Ernie Merrick’s men picked up five points from their three games was decent return indeed, especially considering the likes of Rody Vargas, Grant Brebner and Tom Pondeljak aren’t exactly on the younger side of 30, not to mention the fact Kevin Muscat was missing for the two scoreless draws after limping off late against the Roar.
Like the Victory, the Phoenix also kicked off their three-game-week with a home win, 2-1 over Sydney FC. After the impressive showing against the Victory, in which a motivated Nick Ward was a stand-out, came a lacklustre 2-1 loss away to the other Melbourne, the Heart.
While the games against the Victory and Heart were only four days apart, the fact Ricki Herbert’s men were able to stay in Melbourne between the games might have suggested they would cope with the workload. But clearly they were struggling against the Heart, and rarely has Paul Ifill been so quiet.
Last week it was the turn of the Gold Coast United and Newcastle Jets. They picked up five and four points respectively.
United kicked off their schedule with a scoreless draw at home to the Central Coast Mariners, then had a late John Curtis bomb to thank for ensuring the home mid-week clash with the Jets didn’t finish the same way, before procuring a fortunate point on the road to Sydney on Sunday.
There’s little doubt Miron Bleiberg’s men struggled in the most recent match, given the run-around by the mercurial Alex Brosque for much of it. Little wonder he was named by Holger Osieck yesterday.
If United were fortunate to escape with a point, it was the same story for the Jets a day earlier, who had to rely on a couple of timely interventions from Ben Kennedy and some out-of-character wastefulness from Carlos Hernandez to kick-off the Nathan Tinkler era with a home draw.
After a very up-tempo home showing against the Perth Glory a week earlier and the last-minute loss in Robina, it was little wonder Branko Culina was so delighted to come away from the Victory match with a point after such a tired display.
Given the heavy schedules of those involved, it perhaps comes as no surprise we’ve seen a few draws, many of them scoreless.
If anything, it suggests managers are happy enough coming out of these intense weeks without too much damage, and while this might lead to some conservative, attritional football, it’s perhaps another sign of the growing tactical maturity across the competition.
The fact these A-League teams have hitherto struggled to see out the three games shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given that the norm, for most of the players in the competition, has been a game a week.
On top of that, squads aren’t exactly as deep here as they are in Europe, where managers have the luxury of rotating players across the respective competitions, meaning most players only need to front up for two out of three games.
Here there is no such luxury, especially with players being called up for the youth, under 23s and senior national teams, further depleting resources.
Meanwhile, the travel remains a factor, although the FFA have down their best to look after clubs by scheduling back-to-back games in the same city, cutting down on travelling.
The Victory and Gold Coast, for example, had two home games before travelling away for the final game, while Wellington were home before travelling to Melbourne for two games.
Only the Jets, who started at home to Perth, went away to the Gold Coast four days later, then finished back at home had to travel twice in the week. Little wonder Culina was delighted with Saturday’s point.
This week it’s the turn of Sydney and the Fury, who play in a crucial match at the SFS tonight. Rooted to the bottom of the table, you would hardly know it based on their respective performances over the weekend.
While the Fury made two howlers early to gift goals to Wellington, they were their usual dominant self thereafter, controlling much of the match, even without strikers Chris Payne, Eugene Sseppuya, Dyron Daal and Isaka Cernak.
Franz Straka’s luck will turn.
Sydney, meanwhile, dished up their best effort yet, with some lively early combination between Brosque, Mark Bridge and Bruno Cazarine.
But, with points crucial, the three games are a tough ask for both club, especially the Fury, who have drawn the short straw, with all three on the road. After the 2-1 loss in windy Wellington on Friday, at least Straka is able to base his team in Sydney, from where they can shuttle up to Gosford for the clash with the Mariners on Saturday.
Sydney, meanwhile, have the luxury of three home games, the third against table-toppers Adelaide United on the public holiday Monday, all on the back of the rest in week seven.
Whether the fact Sydney don’t have to travel during their heavy period has an impact on their overall performances and results will be interesting to observe.
Indeed, watching how clubs, managers and players adjust to coping with the increased workload throughout this season will make for fascinating viewing. While the early signs have been mixed, I’d suggest we might soon see them coping well.