On the field it’s been an outstanding A-League season, perhaps the best yet, as I wrote two months ago.
One of the things I’ve most enjoyed from a technical angle has been the influence the Spanish armada at both Adelaide United and the Western Sydney Wanderers have had on their respective clubs and the league.
How fitting that it will be on full display for all of us to appreciate at Sunday’s engrossing grand final in Adelaide.
Mentality is an often undervalued and under-analysed component in football, but in a world of ever-increasing education and tactical equilibrium, having smart, tactically astute players who can read and dictate a game as it unfolds, and take ownership of the tactical plans, is a godsend for any coach.
Players who are not only experienced but have the game-smarts to be able to control a game through their every decision, be that their defensive positioning and pressing or ball-movement have become part of the allure of the A-League in recent years.
It’s no coincidence that both grand finalists have these types in abundance, particularly at the base of their midfields.
In Isaias, Andreu and Dimas, Adelaide and the Wanderers have ready-made managers on the pitch, leaders who can dictate both the passing and pressing tempos of their sides.
All three, like Corona at Brisbane Roar, are extremely smart footballers, invariably delivering tactical control both with and without the ball. They are tough but in control, rarely, if ever, losing their emotions.
It’s beautiful to watch.
Isaias is the deepest of Adelaide’s three-man midfield and is clever at stopping the opposition either through a well-timed tackle, intercept or a sneaky tactical foul designed to protect his defence.
As the season has gone on he has had the ever-willing and impressive Stefan Mauk playing advanced of him as the number eight.
Mauk is slightly more offensive in disposition than the Wanderers’ eight, Dimas, who works more in tandem with Andreu to suffocate opponents and then starve them of possession, working together to ambush opponents, sustain the ball, attract the defence and shift it forward quickly to an attacker facing forward in space, usually Mitch Nichols.
By virtue of the fact I get to watch most of the Wanderers home games up close at Wanderland, watching Dimas and Andreu control games has been among my highlights of the season.
Indeed, amid all the helter-skelter of Sunday’s remarkable semi-final 5-4 come-from-behind win over Brisbane, I was fascinated watching Andreu recover from an awful opening 24 minutes as if it didn’t even happen.
And then, to see the way Dimas played with a yellow card for much of the game was the stuff of finals legend. While sitting on the edge of a red card catastrophe, he remained calm but aggressive, delivering a clinic in game control.
Even Alberto, who like Andreu had a horrid start against Jamie Maclaren, recovered to have an influence on the comeback.
This calm is the characteristic that stands out most among the Spaniards that have infiltrated the A-League in recent times. Even go back to Albert Riera’s arrival at Wellington as a then part-timer and this mentality was obvious.
I uttered similar sentiments when assessing the Wanderers’ Spanish connection earlier in the season, and while I reserved significant praise for assistant Andres Carrasco at the time, credit also goes to Tony Popovic for swallowing his pride and recognising that he needed some assistance with getting the Wanderers more proactive, controlling opponents with the ball.
Like Carrasco, Gui Amor and his assistant Pau Marti both came to Australia having lived and worked in the winning culture that is FC Barcelona, even if it was in the youth ranks in recent times.
What they have brought here is a winning mentality and the knowledge to know that if you know your stuff, and follow the process, it will invariably deliver success.
If you assess both Popovic and Amor, and their assistants, you rarely see or hear mind games. Instead, it’s about attention to detail, and a process, and a belief that this brings results and success.
Throughout the season, I have marvelled at the aura of calm that surrounds Amor and the way he has been able to get the best out of his men.
He comes across as much less intense than Popovic, but equally as detailed in that he has his men perfectly primed to deliver a high-octane brand of football built on incredible defensive effort and quality in rebound.
Adelaide’s is a template of immense defensive detail, the springboard to their pacey transition game.
Watching the way his front three pressed Melbourne City into submission and restricted both Aaron Mooy and Bruno Fornaroli last Friday at Hindmarsh was to marvel at the way Amor has got his men working. Always cool, delivering great advice, man management appears his strength.
That much has been evident via his increasingly more confident pre and post match mutterings and the way he’s been able to develop and encourage the likes of Bruce Kamau, Craig Goodwin, Mauk and Jordan Elsey.
Indeed, when you see the likes of Dylan McGowan, Bruce Djite and Michael Marrone in career-best form you understand the influence Amor is having.
The same could be said of the way Popovic is getting great service out of Romeo Castelen, Scott Jamieson, Mitch Nichols, Brendan Santalab, Mark Bridge and Scott Neville.
These are two teams delivering high-end tactical, physical and mental detail, and there is very little separating them.
Indeed, when they last met at Wanderland in March it finished 0-0, but I thought the Wanderers had the ascendency then, if not the finishing. But Adelaide were missing Marcelo Carrusca that night, with Amor taking the conservative option of playing George Mells alongside Isaias, with Mauk advanced.
While Carrusca is back, the Wanderers finishing is also stronger with Santalab now a starter and Jaushua Sotirio, a starter than night, now on the outer.
Three games between them this season for three draws, two scoreless, the other a 1-1, and with so many wise heads on and off the pitch thanks largely to the Spanish influence, it would almost be a shock if this game was decided in the 90 minutes.