Sydney FC’s throat is exposed. A-League opposition needs to step on it

Stuart Thomas Columnist

By Stuart Thomas, Stuart Thomas is a Roar Expert

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    After almost two seasons with an air of invincibility surrounding Sydney FC, the cracks are finally appearing.

    The fans can see it and Graham Arnold knows it. The approach of rival clubs should be to throw the rig in gear and drive through the space available before it is too late. Following the ‘foot on the throat’ mentality, A-League contenders need to realise that Sydney is wounded, even if not fatally, and that now is the time to strike.

    Without doubt, the boys in blue will still have something significant to say come finals time, and the premiers plate is probably already theirs, but a window of opportunity has opened.

    With five weeks remaining in the A-League home-and-away season and with Sydney midway through a rather humbling Asian Champions League campaign, Arnold’s men are wavering. While the manager begins planning for a succession process that will see his replacement take on one of the most pressurised gigs in Australian football, his team looks somewhat exposed.

    Despite the effectiveness of their play and their ability to maintain a high level of performance for over 50 A-League matches, much commentary has hypothesised that there are cracks and weaknesses to be exposed in the right set of circumstances. There are five clear lines of thinking that question the invincibility of the Champions.

    Luke Wilkshire

    (Jack Thomas/Getty Images)

    1. Sydney has been fortunate with injuries and if they had had their fair share, things would be different
    The staff and medical professionals at sporting clubs deserve nothing but credit when teams stay healthy and avoid losing players for extended periods. Sydney FC has experienced a golden run.

    Aside from the long-term ACL issue to Rhyan Grant, the Sky Blues have avoided major disaster and the more irritating bumps and bruises that also affect continuity.

    All of a sudden, with niggles to Milos Ninkovic, Michael Zullo, Bobo and Luke Wilkshire, things have looked far less stable, particularly at the back.

    Aaron Calver and Paulo Retre have stepped in admirably, yet combining the long-term omission of Grant, the recent injuries, as well as Jordi Buijs’ omission from the ACL squad, it is no wonder the dam has looked less impregnable.

    Sydney FC's Michael Zullo

    (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

    2. The ACL is having a negative impact on confidence
    Stating the bleeding obvious and citing the impact of two games in a week with a short turnaround, the travel implications and the subsequent physical impact on players is one thing. What is more relevant is the downturn in confidence and the scarring that a club may carry back to their local competition.

    No matter how talented or expensive the opposition, losses are humbling, and Sydney have been forced to lick their wounds frequently over the last month.

    This presents an opportunity for upcoming A-League opponents Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne Victory, all in finals contention. Newcastle provided the blueprint a fortnight back, now they must follow.

    3. Sydney’s lack of depth can be exposed
    Graham Arnold appears a loyal man, and once his trust is gained, a solid relationship is built. He seems something of a ‘pick and stick’ guy to me. Alex Wilkinson is one of those players, as are David Carney and Michael Zullo, men with whom Arnold has been in the trenches and guys that he wants by his side in times of crisis.

    While Wilkinson and Zullo haven’t let anyone down, whenever the names David Carney, Aaron Calver and Matt Simon appear in the starting 11, opposition fears are somewhat allayed.

    Playing Matt Simon in any role other than his normal 20 minutes of violence and mayhem is stretching things a bit.

    While Simon does a job for Arnold, there are also football realities that need to be faced. One of those realities revolves around salary cap pressure, and in assembling what many are calling the best team in A-League history, your second stringers will indeed be just that.

    Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    4. Adrian Mierzejewski is keeping Sydney’s head above water
    The Polish star will win the Johnny Warren medal in a canter this season, and rightfully so. Since his first appearance in the FFA Cup match against Bankstown Berries when Graham Arnold assessed his performance as somewhere around 30 per cent he has done nothing but improve.

    Match-hardened and now with a firm grasp on the subtleties of the Australian game, Mierzejewski is flying and a joy to watch. However, if ‘muscles’ does have an off night, as we saw recently in the ACL, Sydney are vulnerable. With Milos Ninkovic in the picture you would think not, yet the Pole has been the fulcrum this season.

    Adrian Mierzejewski Sydney FC

    (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

    5. The Sydney fans’ faces say it all
    Born of a sustained period of excellence, Sydney fans have now assumed a permanent state of Arnold-like grumpiness as they fear the toppling of their empire. Social media is on fire with criticism, some warranted and some not, of both individual and tactical ineptitude.

    Sydney FC fans had forgotten how to lose, probably something all managers wish they could instil in their players’ minds, yet now they are undertaking a crash course in the art and not enjoying it one little bit.

    It is an admission of weakness, as the fans themselves see the cracks and frailties that they hope the other A-League teams are too blind to notice or are incapable of exposing.

    The reality for Sydney is that with only one win in all competitions over the last month – a 3-1 derby success against the Wanderers – things are on the slide.

    Is Sydney good enough to reverse that slide? Probably. Will they do it? Who knows. But there are other teams with finals aspirations that should play the bully right now and step on Sydney’s throat.

    Stuart Thomas
    Stuart Thomas

    Stuart Thomas is a sports writer and educator who made the jump from Roar Guru to Expert in 2017. An ex-trainee professional golfer, his sporting passions are broad with particular interests in football, AFL and rugby league. His love of sport is only matched by his passion for gardening and self-sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @stuartthomas72.

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    The Crowd Says (67)

    • March 13th 2018 @ 8:03am
      Fadida said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:03am | ! Report

      A good read Stuart.

      Agree Sydney have an alarming lack of depth; the Axe, Calvert, Retre wouldn’t be starters at any club. Amazing that a team so far ahead plays the same team every game. You build depth by playing young guys, eg Champness at the Jets, and they had the luxury of doing this many times, but choose Simon and Carney every time.

      With regards injuries I’d prefer to give credit to what must be an excellent sports medicine team.

      Where they have been lucky is a lack of suspensions. They should have had many more.

      Being such an old team there are signs of tiredness startIng to appear, an throughout the season the teams that have pushed Sydney have been those with pace; Jets and CCM particularly.

      You need to take the game to Sydney, outrun them, and be able to do it for 90 minutes. MV can’t, WSW can’t, Roar definitely can’t. MC can’t. All have good technical players but lack enough athleticism.

      I still think Sydney will win it all, Nabbout is a loss for the Jets. The south Americans don’t have his athleticism.

      Next year though? Even with Arnold they’d struggle to get near this year’s dominance. It’s an old side that needs an urgent refresh. If only they’d tried a few younger players in the dead rubber last 20 minutes of games.

      • March 13th 2018 @ 8:33am
        Kangajets said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:33am | ! Report

        Mierzejewski elbow to the back of Rhys Williams head should have been a 4 week suspension if the scale of O’Donovan 2 week suspension is used .

        The good refereeing in the Acl has definitely hindered Sydney vigilantes , O’Neill and brilliante in the midfield.
        Can we have referees from Asia for all of Sydney FC gsmes .

        • March 13th 2018 @ 9:03am
          j,binnie said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:03am | ! Report

          Kanga – Strange that you mention O’Neill and Brillante for it is on these 2 players Sydney have built a lot of their success over the last 2 seasons.
          Many will tell you that the “success” has emanated from the likes of Nincovic and Mierzejewski, both clever play-makers no doubt,but neither of whom could be described as outstanding ball winners.
          Play-makers can only perform when they have the ball and it is in this area that up till now the Sydney mid four have excelled,but in games lately it has been obvious that the ball winners do not perform nearly as well when put under pressure by opponents who are just as big and strong in the tackle and have been “programmed” to cut down the supply of “ball” to the play-makers, with the result those two players have to forsake their probing and work at trying to win the ball, as well as creating.
          The Sydney squad is “thin”,there is no doubt, and one has to imagine that is caused by the salary cap being stretched to the limit in keeping their better players happy,but that is a problem for all HAL identities.
          Cheers jb.

          • March 13th 2018 @ 10:16am
            Kangajets said | March 13th 2018 @ 10:16am | ! Report

            j b
            Not just brillante and O’Neill at sfc …also Newcastle Jets like to use kantarovski And Ugarkovic in similar roles . The jets have struggled when kantarovski has been injured.

            In the epl Mourinho employed Matic and mctominey in the screening role to good effect with man united to negate Liverpool as well as directing some long balls at lukaku to good effect .

            • March 13th 2018 @ 11:57am
              j,binnie said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:57am | ! Report

              Kanga – As I watch most HAL games ,on reading this comment my mind went back to a Jet’s game when,to my eyes they played with a rather curious formation inasmuch they had the players you mention plus Hoffman playing more as a midfield trio, allowing Petratos to excel in a role he loves, probing and attacking from a position just behind the strikers,and allowing him total relief from doing “defensive” work, which is not Dimi’s strong point.
              I thought then that Ernie had clicked on to a very workable set-up and was a little disappointed when in their next game Hoffman appeared to have been pushed forward into a winger role, and Dimi’s “weakness” was once again on show,,throwing more pressure on the other two midfielders you mention.
              Injuries haven’t helped Ernie get a settled 11 of course but in that particular game I thought he had hit upon something worth building upon. Cheers jb.

      • Roar Guru

        March 13th 2018 @ 12:44pm
        Griffo said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

        I think it a good point on the medical staff. Assuming the contrast is Brisbane who appeared to not have had such a good setup.

        Ninkovic may be around for another 2 seasons so some of the key personnel may well be on the decline over the coming seasons.

        It will be interesting to see what Arnold’s successor does. Expect perhaps a year of keeping the same team afloat if it gets another Premiership and Championship.

        Both the Jets South Americans are coming back from injury, with Vargas on the bench this weekend vs Wellington.

        I think there will be some lowering of performance given these players are coming back in.

        Agree Nabbout is a big loss. It will be interesting to see how Champness fills in the No. 9 role first up.

        • March 13th 2018 @ 12:51pm
          Kangajets said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:51pm | ! Report

          Is petratos out against Wellington also ?

        • Roar Guru

          March 13th 2018 @ 1:05pm
          Griffo said | March 13th 2018 @ 1:05pm | ! Report

          Not that I know of Kanga, Dimi is probably in his usual role.

          McKinna has said Dimi isn’t going anywhere, mainly because he doesn’t have a release clause in his contract like Nabbout.

          • March 13th 2018 @ 2:27pm
            Lionheart said | March 13th 2018 @ 2:27pm | ! Report

            money money money
            I’m sure they’d release him at the right price, but when you consider that he struggled for game time in the K League, how would he go in the J League?

          • Roar Guru

            March 13th 2018 @ 11:51pm
            Griffo said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:51pm | ! Report

            From memory Lionheart Dimi was deemed to not distribute the ball quick enough in the K-League onced received.

            Why they wouldn’t have known this before hand is one question.

            Another is what are they after in the J-League?

            If he goes hopefully not until after the finals.

            Certainly the right transfer offer will help. As will the funds I’m sure.

            Jets with some recruiting to do next season…

    • March 13th 2018 @ 8:13am
      Buddy said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:13am | ! Report

      I get the feeling that had anyone other than an SFC fan written this, the feedback would be all along the lines of “tall poppy syndrome” and the discussion would move from the core subject to GA, lack of crowds and other topics that fall under the anti SFC headings.
      It is a bit of a negative spin on the club’s current status and I am fairly sure Nemesis is in print under various headlines as having maintained that the team is nowhere near as solid or as good as their lofty position suggests. In a piece I wrote relating to the ACL I posed the question as to whether the A League right now is really poor – outside of the top two? Or has the ACL gained momentum and grown into a much stronger competition? I have watched quite fascinated as to how easily SFC have come undone in the tournament and personally I haven’t seen teams in that group with really high profile overseas players being paid millions to perform in what is really a fledgling league but one that has cash to throw around to attract players and fans alike.

      GA’s side has just got away from the pack locally and in my opinion GA is struggling with motivation and getting the team much beyond second gear. Listening to commentators on the MU v LIV game at the weekend, their opening greeting was along the line that the clubs have a traditional rivalry but they are only playing to prove who is second best this year. There is little interest in MC being so far ahead of the pack and Like it or not, albeit on a different scale, the A League is in a similar position. Had GA taken his side to Newcastle two weekends ago and come away with a win, the lead would have been 14 points and provided more reasons for fans not to turn up to remaining games – what’s the point?
      In spite of their poor showing in the ACL – and does the manager or the club or the fans really care? I believe we will see them come to life once the end of season silly bit kicks in. Motivation will become a factor and the blood and adrenalin will get pumping. They will thump their semi final opponent and be hosting one last final at the current Allianz stadium so that they leave a lasting impression before having to move to more humble abodes for the rebuild and GA moves on to the national scene.
      I can hear GA humming along to Starships “nothings gonna stop us now”.

      • Roar Rookie

        March 13th 2018 @ 8:26am
        Waz said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:26am | ! Report

        “They will thump their semi final opponent and be hosting one last final at the current Allianz stadium” … I agree with that. The only thing that will stop them is a string of injuries. Zhullo looks to have been brought back too early and now seems gone for the season, and if other key players follow that exposes Sydney but it’s a big “if” as SFC have a remarkable record in managing injuries

        • March 13th 2018 @ 8:40am
          Kangajets said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:40am | ! Report

          Sydney FC main asset is Graeme Arnold predicting the score and writing it on the whiteboard pre match for his players .

          It’s obvious that Ernie Merrick snuck in undetected and rubbed out the Arnold score prediction last week .

          Will John Aloisi use the same tactic this week against Sydney?

        • March 13th 2018 @ 9:05am
          Buddy said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:05am | ! Report

          Waz, you know what I like about this site and the regular contributors is that we can have club loyalties and loves and hates but they generally don’t get in the way of healthy discussion on most football related topics. I don’t engage in any of the code war type of discussions as it burns too much energy! But there are some excellent talking points here and a fairly mature type of readership?

          • Columnist

            March 13th 2018 @ 9:10am
            Stuart Thomas said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:10am | ! Report

            Well said Buddy. Club loyalty is the best way to kill a conversation bout football. Sometimes a spade is a spade. I live Sydney, but if I managing elsewhere I would be seeing a few chinks.

      • March 13th 2018 @ 8:30am
        Fadida said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:30am | ! Report

        I tend to agree that outside the top 2 it’s not great. Inconsistency reigns.

        To the tune of that Starship song I can imagine Arnold half humming, half growling “Matty Simon’s gonna get a goal”

        • March 13th 2018 @ 8:54am
          Buddy said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:54am | ! Report

          Yes thanks for that image!……just remember though, he does a job that he’s asked to do….go,out and make a nuisance of yourself, bully the opposition, don’t worry about scoring goals…that’s for others!

      • Roar Guru

        March 13th 2018 @ 12:49pm
        Griffo said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

        Agree with the competition’s consistency has not been that great this season, imo at least.

        Also it’s worth noting that it is extremely difficult to manage both ACL and domestic comps. Even J-League and K-League teams can find it difficult from season to season.

        I think that relying on the same team has its benefits, but the ACL is a game and competition too far, even with a brilliant sports department behind Sydney FC.

      • March 13th 2018 @ 1:01pm
        Melange said | March 13th 2018 @ 1:01pm | ! Report

        Hmmm, doesn’t your final paragraph provide the perfect argument for why the “end of season silly” isn’t so silly?

        • March 13th 2018 @ 2:36pm
          Buddy said | March 13th 2018 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

          Totally accept it isn’t silly for most but I switch off and say goodbye at the completion of round 27 and that’s the way I like it to end. Makes no difference which team is where.

    • March 13th 2018 @ 8:24am
      Kangajets said | March 13th 2018 @ 8:24am | ! Report


      Your above comments are the thoughts of myself and a few others , especially re the injury management at Sydney, which has been terrific or incredibly lucky .
      No doubt that Mierzejewski has been the driving force and opponents need to harass him on the ball and close his space like the jets did .

      As for squad depth and rotation, well Graeme Arnold made his bed and now he has to lie in it .

      Let’s spice this up a bit Stuart .
      Can Sydney win 2 more games to wrap up the title or will this be the greatest choke since Keven Keegan’s Newcastle ( England) back in the 90s

      Sydney run in is
      Brisbane (h)
      Mariners (a)
      Adelaide (h)
      Victory (h)

      Now Newcastle Jets have suspensions , season ending injuries and players leaving for japan and Socceroos duty .
      Can Ernie Merrick manage these player loss, as he done all season and win all there remaining 5 games and win the most unlikely premiership. Certainly Merrick is czpable of making his players believe , but firstly to get over the bogie team of Wellington.

      Would love to see it come down to round 27 to see who takes the title .

      • Roar Guru

        March 13th 2018 @ 12:53pm
        Griffo said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:53pm | ! Report

        That round 27 would be ideal and an easy promo opportunity for FFA leading into the finals.

        I think we were relatively successful against Wellington last time around, so a good showing away means the ship is sailing in the right direction 😎

      • March 13th 2018 @ 1:38pm
        mad monk said | March 13th 2018 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

        Umm no.

        Jets have 2 goals for next 5 weeks, finish 2nd and get Pato, Vargas and O’Donovan fit and firing for the finals. I doubt they see catching Sydney as realistic.

    • Columnist

      March 13th 2018 @ 9:12am
      Stuart Thomas said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:12am | ! Report

      Three tough games coming home. The Plate should be theirs however there is the potential for a spicy finals series, particularly if further injury or suspension occur.

    • March 13th 2018 @ 10:23am
      Nemesis said | March 13th 2018 @ 10:23am | ! Report

      I’ve maintained all the time, Sydney FC were not that good. Rather, the opposition in the ALeague were making them look good.

      Syd are a superb team at doing 1 thing – pouncing on the mistakes made by opponents; particularly when opponents have the ball in the middle 1/3rd of the park, on either side of half way line. In those areas, Brillante & O’Neill are tasked with either fouling the opposition, which ruins the potential attack & refs do nothing to stop the persistent fouls; or they win the ball, lay it off to Ninkovic or Adrian, who then create swift clinical attacks whilst the opposition is out of position.

      Those of us who watch ACL for many years knew that Asian opponents would not give the ball away a cheaply.

      Additionally, ACL opponents would be clinical in punishing Syd for their mistakes. Many games in ALeague this season, Syd have not been dominant, but the opposition has failed to score and put Sydney away.

      ACL opponents are not as profligate.

      Syd will win the ALeague Premiership. They are by far the most consistent team in the competition.

      But, the knock out Championship? I wouldn’t be surprised if Sydney FC is out after one match.

      • March 13th 2018 @ 3:23pm
        chris said | March 13th 2018 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

        Nem some element of truth in what you say. But not entirely.
        When Sydney have their best 11 on the park they are a very good side. A side that could/should be doing better than what they are so far in the ACL. They were awful in their first game, good in their second and poor in the 3rd match.
        In the 3rd match they were without Ninko through injury and obviously Bujis due to 3 foreigner rule. Bobo came on as a sub but its been pretty obvious he doesn’t have the legs to go 2 games in a week.
        They have a very skinny bench and take one of the best 11 out of their starting line up and they seem very ordinary indeed.

        • March 13th 2018 @ 4:06pm
          Nemesis said | March 13th 2018 @ 4:06pm | ! Report

          Don’t get me wrong. SydFC, the most consistently good team in the ALeague.

          But, if – and it’s a big IF – each team were to play to its very best?..
          Be interesting to see which team is the best.

    • March 13th 2018 @ 10:27am
      Worried said | March 13th 2018 @ 10:27am | ! Report

      Sydney FC have had far more than their share of Favorable decisions from Referees in the last couple of seasons.
      It has become so obvious that the tide is starting to turn as the A-League Refs were embarrassing themselves.
      The difference is obvious in the ACL where better referees work.
      It will be interesting to see how Syd perform without the extra help!

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