Melbourne Victory suffered the worst defeat in their history when they lost 6-1 to Sydney FC last May – but was the game just a defeat or a stain on the club that will remain over the next season?
Engrossed as we all are in UEFAs Nations League – there’s nothing like extremely confusing competitive architecture to liven up mid-season friendlies – we’ve nonetheless still time to wonder gleefully about the upcoming A-League season.
There’s still a month-long trudge across barren badlands to go, but the sweet smells of the impending campaign have wafted over to us, and are inspiring wild dreamy thoughts of the feast to come.
Most delicious among these varied waftings are those coming from Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory, two of the league’s biggest and proudest. The recruitment by both clubs has been stellar; having lost key marquee players, there was real threat that one – if not both – of these teams would limp into 2018-19 with a much shabbier roster than the team with which they finished the season prior.
When the Johnny Warren medallist, last season’s Golden Boot winner, and the A-League’s all-time leading goalscorer all trot off at once, the deficit of talent that is left can feel gaping.
But – with all final judgement reserved for, you know, actually seeing the replacements play – it feels as though both teams have more than restocked adequately and are now poised to build on last seasons’ successful campaigns.
If we let the aroma dwell in the nose a little longer, we can arrive at this tasty question: will next season’s Big Blue stage a meeting of the two best squads in A-League history?
Sydney needed to replace Bobo, Adrian Mierzejewski and Jordy Buijs, most principally. David Carney, Matt Simon and Luke Wilkshire all left as well, individually less important, but their cumulative absence will be felt. The supplementary attacking Simon and Carney provided has been filled by Daniel De Silva and Trent Buhagiar, two young Australian flyers pinched from the Mariners.
Bobo has been replaced with Siem de Jong, a Dutch striker who – if he can stay fit – ought really to tear up the league considering he’s only 29 and if not for his injury proneness would probably be playing regularly for Ajax.
Last season de Jong was used almost exclusively as a substitute, and yet still managed to score four league goals, at a respectable minutes-per-goal rate of one every 139 minutes played, a better strike rate than, for cherry-picked example, Romelu Lukaku had for Manchester United last season. If his body allows for it, regular playing time should result in a productive season – Bobo’s last term was the A-League’s most productive ever for goals, no small shoes to fill.
Sydney haven’t really replaced Mierzejewski; they have more added to the attacking wealth generally, and are hoping the slack can be taken up by committee. Adam Le Fondre has been brought in, a striker with vast experience in England’s lower leagues. The acme of his career was in 2012-13, when he became something of a novelty in the Premier League with Reading, a kind of specialist super-sub, scoring off the bench in a string of games, including two late goals in a 2-2 draw with Chelsea. His poaching instincts are excellent, even if his scoring tally has tapered off since the dizzy heights of 2013.
Jop van der Linden is coming off a season with Willem II Tillberg half of which he was a regular Eredivisie starter, the other half of which he was benched or injured. Still, he’s only 28, and he managed four assists over all competitions last season, perhaps a sign that Buijs’s rather unique ball-playing duties will be ably filled.
Then, of course, there are the players Sydney still have, who form the bulk of the team that has dominated the league for the past two years. Most important, of course, is Milos Ninkovic, who it’s assumed will be allowed the take up the chief playmaking role again now that Mierzejewski is gone. Ninkovic’s quiet effectiveness last season, greasing the midfield, expertly knitting the sections of the team together, was a treat for the purists – less flashy than Mierzejewski’s Medal-winning efforts, but just as important.
Rhyan Grant – a burgeoning Socceroo before his knee injury – Alex Brosque, Michael Zullo, Alex Wilkinson, the midfield pair of Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill – they’re all still here too.
Now, to Melbourne, undoubted winners of the transfer season. I can’t remember – probably because it’s never happened – the last time an A-League team signed two new internationals coming off World Cup appearances, but in Keisuke Honda and Ola Toivonen, Kevin Muscat has done just that. Toivonen started every one of Sweden’s games in Russia, and scored against Germany.
At 32 and 6’2, he has the right blend of wily veteran nous and hulking stature to impose himself on A-League defences. Berisha’s role in the Victory team – outside of scoring – was to provide link-up play with his back to goal, using every fibrous sinew and gnarled limb to hold off centre backs, lay off passes, and wheel away to collect a return ball.
Berisha was an expert focal point; how often would we see James Troisi spear a rocket of a pass into Berisha, and for the striker to deaden the ball, lever away a defender before softly activating a runner haring through the line of defence? Toivonen has all the physical skills to do the same, as well as be an improved aerial threat.
And of course, there’s Honda who, although less involved for Japan at Russia than Toivonen was for Sweden, is the most talented marquee the Victory – perhaps any A-League team – have signed. His ball-striking is immaculate, which means his long-range shooting will be a potent element of the Victory attack.
He is a goal-scorer as well as a provider; he chips in almost every season with goals from midfield, and his scoring record for Japan – 37 goals in 98 games – is superb. Honda tends to time and aim his runs well, whether streaking into the box, or drifting into a shooting position just outside of it.
Leroy George was one of the A-League’s most productive attackers last season, and was an especially potent crosser and set-piece specialist; Honda is all of these things and more, and will likely operate more centrally that George did.
The Victory have also added German defender Georg Neidermeier, a centre back with more than 150 Bundesliga appearances, and Raul Baena, a Spaniard with over 150 La Liga appearances. Baena, Neidermeier and Toivonen are all apparently under the cap; if this is an indication of the A-League’s progress, that players of this quality and pedigree can be brought in to fill standard squads spots, it’s an encouraging sign indeed.
Again, in Troisi, Kosta Barbarouses, Terry Antonis, Lawrence Thomas, Leigh Broxham and others, the Victory have a well established foundation of capable A-League contributors. If there was one thing to be slightly trepidatious about, it would be the fairly fresh-looking back line; new arrivals Corey Brown and Storm Roux are probably the starting full backs, with Thomas Deng and Neidermeier the centre backs.
Nick Ansell is an option in the middle too, but regardless, it’s a group that aren’t hugely familiar playing with one another. It may take some time to bed in.
So, on November 2, when Honda, Toivonen, and Troisi line up against de Jong, Le Fondre and Ninkovic, they may well be headlining the most impressive set of 22 players to meet in anger on an A-League field.
The derbies can lose their spice as the season rolls on, but if these Big Blues are contested with vigour, and the players involved live up to the billing, no extra seasoning will be necessary.