If there was one thing we can take from the opening round of this much anticipated A-League season, it was that two of the new managers, former Socceroos John Aloisi and Tony Popovic, are more than ready to develop their work on this stage.
While it’s far too early to cast an absolute judgment, you couldn’t help but be impressed by their debuts as managers.
If first impressions count for anything, then we’re set for more fascinating work from both.
Remember, these are two guys who haven’t previously coached their own first 11, at any level.
Only three seasons ago they were teammates at Sydney FC before Popovic took his first step into the assistant role under Vitezslav Lavicka.
Aloisi, meanwhile, retired at the end of the 2010/11 season and has only had one season as an assistant.
Here they were up against two of the most experienced and successful coaches in the A-League, Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold, and were able to come away with tactical wins.
It was more than impressive, a statement of belief in their own ability and that of their players.
In truth, it shouldn’t come as huge surprise to find two football students, that have played under various managers in many leagues around the world, do well here.
The A-League, especially in its first few years, was crying out for an uplift in the quality of its coaches as most clubs made mistake after mistake, recycling an older generation or spending too much on imports.
The new breed, too often, couldn’t get a look-in.
Sydney FC, in hiring Lavicka, led the way in instilling a more professional European set-up, only for the likes of Postecoglou and Arnold to go well beyond him in the past two seasons.
Their success against more expensive foreign managers has shown clubs across Australia that their is a future for educated local managers.
FFA’s technical director Han Berger has certainly helped spread the gospel about the importance of coaching education and ensuring managers are suitably accredited.
This is now starting to reap rewards with a greater level of tactical and technical sophistication, adding quality to the standard of the competition.
This was on evidence right across the first round, with many teams setting up to press their opponents high, and doing it in an organised and structured way.
Aloisi and Popovic’s work was certainly among the most impressive, using differing but effective tactical templates to control their respective opponents.
Aloisi was up first in a pulsating Melbourne Derby on Friday night and used a high pressing game to put pressure on Postecoglou’s Victory.
They were hoping to play through the lines but really struggled to get the ball consistently out of the first defensive line.
What was so impressive about Aloisi’s pressing game was not only how organised and sustained it was, but the way he used his personnel to instil the plan.
To my mind, in playing mobile, hard-working types like Dylan Macallister, Mate Dugandzic, David Williams, Richard Garcia, Fred and Matt Thompson in the front six, you have the ability to execute the plan.
It proves that any plan needs to have the right troops, and I’m not quite convinced either Sydney FC or the Victory have the cattle to execute the passing games they want to play.
Aloisi and Popovic’s work appears more detailed, about choosing the right player for the job.
Take Macallister. He is not a classic goal-scoring number nine and his attributes are more about hard work and physicality.
Here his pressing on Adrian Leijer and Mark Milligan really set the tone for the Heart’s control.
Leijer, in particular, had a night to forget, and might not fancy similar pressing from Besart Berisha on the weekend.
Meanwhile, another tactical success in the Derby was the use of Richard Garcia in a three-man midfield as part of a 4-3-3.
It’s not a position we’re used to seeing Garcia in. His career has been notable more for his wing play, and often in a 4-4-2.
But again, by playing him in midfield, you get to use one of Garcia’s best attributes, his pace, as part of the pressing process, and he gave the likes of Jonathan Bru and Leigh Broxham a torrid time here.
The other feature of Aloisi’s pressing system was the fact it involved the entire team, and involved central defenders Simon Colosimo and Patrick Gerhardt defending high up the pitch.
This might be a risky option, as goalkeeper Clint Bolton hinted in the build-up, but it’s also one that can bring rewards if executed well, and Aloisi is to be commended for taking such a proactive approach.
Meanwhile, at Parramatta on Saturday, in a great debut night for the Western Sydney Wanderers, Popovic used a slightly different approach but was still able to stifle his opponent.
Letting the Mariners have the ball in their own half, the Wanderers weren’t too interested in pressing high.
Instead they stayed compact and waited for the Mariners to make it into their half. When Arnold’s men did, the Wanderers swarmed around the man on the ball, dispossessing him and launching quick counters into the space left up front, usually in behind the fullbacks.
Even Tom Rogic, the Mariners’ talented number 10, struggled to consistently create anything as the supply into strikers Mitchell Duke and Mile Sterjovski was stopped at the source.
Rarely were the Mariners able to get in behind, happy to venture back up the F3 with a point.
The Wanderers basically suffocated the Mariners, controlling the game through their organisation, defensive structure and swift transition.
It was clever, calculated stuff from Popovic. One of the impressive facets was that the defensive line wasn’t sitting on the 18 yard box, or “parking the bus” as it’s otherwise known. It was a high line.
It meant the team was in touch, and when they won the ball and looked to spring forward, usually through the wonderful technique of Aaron Mooy, there were attackers in touch.
On this night Popovic’s front third were wasteful, but the fact he has got them understanding their job in such a short space of time speaks highly to his knowledge.
It’s this type of detailed tactical preparation that should help these two rookie managers compete this season and continue to propel the A-League standard forward.