In May Perth Glory were moments away from lifting the A-League trophy when they fell to Sydney FC in penalty kicks.
Now, less than seven months later, last season’s premiers are languishing at the bottom of the table with only one win from seven fixtures.
Glory have gone from heroes to zeroes.
A closer look at some of Perth’s results from a tactical and statistical perspective show that while things are definitely not going to plan for Tony Popovic, they might not be as poor as the table reflects at the moment.
There are both good and bad things going for last season’s runners-up, so let’s start off with the good news for the Glory fans looking for some hope to cling onto.
The good: Glory are not the worst team in the league
Before getting into this, it’s important to understand what exactly expected goals (xG) is. Here’s an in-depth definition from the BBC:
“Put simply, it is a way of assigning a ‘quality’ value (xG) to every attempt based on what we know about it. The higher the xG – with one being the maximum – the more likelihood of the opportunity being taken.”
I understand that expected goals might be a confusing concept to get your head around, so please feel free to comment if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer.
Glory have created chances worth an xG of 10.55 yet have scored only seven so far in the season. On the other end of the pitch they are underperforming the numbers, though not by as large a disparity, conceding 10 goals from an xG of 9.43.
This leaves Glory with an xG difference of +1.12 when their actual goal difference is -3. This has come from a combination of poor finishing, quality goalkeeping and sometimes downright unluckiness.
This means there is a good chance that if Tony Popovic’s teams continue creating the same opportunities, they should pick up some wins and crucial points before too long.
The bad: They have still dropped considerably
Tony Popovic’s men might not be the worst team in the league, but they certainly aren’t close to playing like they’re best either. It’s quite surprising to see that last season’s premiers have gone from the best squad to an average one given most preseason expectations.
Perth’s xG difference of 1.12 might be better than their reality, but it still has them firmly as a middle-tiered team in the league. Here’s the full table for reference.
So even if Glory (and the rest of the league) were playing to expectations, they would be hovering around fifth or sixth, which is still disappointing for a team that was comfortably the best team throughout the regular season.
Perth’s results might improve, but if they want to retain their throne this season, they will need to play a whole lot better than they are now.
The good: Perth still have a quality front line
And performing to those standards should not be too difficult seeing as Perth retained most of their best players from last season.
Diego Castro continues to age like fine wine and is at the fulcrum of the team, while Chris Ikonomidis looks destined for bigger things and it’s a minor miracle he’s even still in Australia.
The team even added Bruno Fornaroli to replace Andy Keogh, though this might not be as good a move as was expected previously. Although Fornaroli has not been terrible, he offers a similar skill set Joel Chianese and Ikonomidis provide, whereas Keogh gave a more physical target.
The front line is still one of the best in the league, and if they can find the rhythm of last season, they will surely start scoring goals regularly.
The bad: Unusual lapses in concentration for a Popovic side
Defensively, though, there looks to be an unusually high number of lapses in concentration, especially for a coach like Popovic who has become renowned for defensive stability.
Glory are not being beaten for a common weakness in one or two specific areas; it’s just the fact their players are losing focus at crucial times. Here are just two examples: first, when Jacob Tratt was easily pickpocketed by Samuel Silvera and scored a quality goal and, second, the captain’s unnecessary tug at Milos Ninkovic’s shirt to give Sydney FC the lead very early into the game, meaning Glory was chasing from the first moments.
It’s great to see Castro track back all the way into that area, but there was absolutely no need to pull Ninkovic’s shirt and it cost them dearly.
These defensive issues might be coming from the fact the Perth defence has been fully renovated and is now missing the leadership and composure of Shane Lowry, Jason Davidson and Matthew Spiranovic, but there should still be enough talent in the current crop that this should not be an issue.
The good: Perth have more than enough time to come back
Since the A-League was formed in 2005, only once has six points been enough for bottom place after seven matches. The gap between Perth and sixth spot is only two points.
This season could be the most competitive year ever for the league, with arguably all the teams looking evenly matched and little to no freebies like the Mariners and Phoenix of years gone by.
So although Glory are last, it would take only a few wins on the trot to see them reach the top six and possibly perhaps as high as fourth. Given that xG numbers show that they might have been unlucky with results so far, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to say that with a bit more good fortune they will be back in the mix before long.
The bad: Popovic changing last season’s winning formation and the change in how opponents play against them
Last season Popovic’s men became masters of transition, with Ikonomidis, Castro and Chianese all making the most the ample space provided by the opposition when winning possession.
Things are very different this year, with teams now comfortable to surrender the ball to the premiers and look to hit them on the counterattack. Glory now average 55 per cent possession this season, up from 51.9 per cent last year. The initiative is now with them to attack.
The change has meant Popovic has switched to a 4-3-3 formation rather than the successful 3-4-3 last season. It shows that the Asian Champions League-winning coach is looking for answers, but it’s still not entirely clear whether this change will be the solution.
Overall it’s clear that if they continue to perform like they do, Perth will eventually rise up the table. Though issues in their defence and being forced to change their style from last season might mean that they’re not the dominant of last team, their lethal attack should be enough for them to at least reach the top six.