Hearing the word ‘preseason’ is more than enough to make even the best athletes shake their heads in disbelief.
On Sunday afternoon, accompanied by the informative tones of Simon Hill, we caught a glimpse of a second A-League side on Channel Ten in the form of Adelaide United who were taking on the current WA State Cup holders, Floreat Athena.
In contrast to the Roar game, this was not an easy ride for the professional team as they were unable to beat the semi-pros in 90 minutes and needed to dip into their bench to win the game. Although it should be said, that was not a Reds team at full strength.
Nevertheless, they were facing an out of form Floreat Athena team. After romping the first 12 games of the WA State League season, where they sat top of the table in mid-June with a ten-point lead, they subsequently won only three of their final ten league games, and shipped a colossal ten goals against Perth Azzurri across two post-season finals fixtures.
One cannot help think if it was the Floreat from mid-June, then the outcome could have been different.
New signing Nick Ansell, captain Stefan Mauk and regular first teamers Michael Jakobsen, Craig Goodwin, Juande, Joe Caletti and Nathan Konstandopoulos were all missing from the squad that travelled to Perth.
Club legend Carl Veart starts his second season in charge and holds the keys to possibly most exciting array of youthful potential in the league, with a lot of this talent on show at the E&D Litis Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Based on what we saw last season and at this subsequent FFA Cup tie, this is how the squad is shaping up:
Last year it was a two-way battle between two 20-year-olds in James Delianov and Joe Gauci. Delianov started and finished the season with the No.1 spot, with an impressive three clean sheets in the first four games.
However, he would concede in each of the next six and his understudy Gauci had an opportunity mid-season achieving three clean sheets in the ten games that he played, including a man of the match performance against Sydney FC where Mark Bosnich selected one of his stops for ‘save of the week’.
By the time finals had come around, Delianov was back between the sticks, and against Floreat, he started. He had some nervy moments, specifically when he gave the ball away with barely two minutes of the second half played, although he was sparred his blushes on this occasion.
He did eventually concede against the NPL side, but it was not a shot that he would have been expected to save. Nonetheless, you would expect him to face stiff competition from Gauci over the coming months and so expect a battle for the goalkeeping gloves throughout the 2021-22 season.
After a relatively unchanged defence over the past five years, club stalwarts Ryan Strain, Jordan Elsey and Michael Marrone, who have amassed over 400 games between them, all left the club over the past few months. Michael Jakobsen takes over as the club’s defensive leader.
Ryan Kitto and Javi Lopez extended their contracts and in came Nick Ansell as a replacement for Elsey while Jacob Tratt was recruited to add some depth as a utility defender.
The starting line-up of former Espanyol captain Javi Lopez at right back, the young left-back Josh Cavallo and central defensive partnership of Tratt and George Timotheou was playing together for the first time in Perth, and looked far from accomplished.
Cavallo was the only player who impressed against Floreat as his long balls forward could replace those of Ryan Strain, whose diagonal arrows to Tomi Juric were a feature of Adelaide’s play last year, particularly highlighted by the goal against Brisbane Roar in the finals. Cavallo set up two goals in his debut season for the Reds and showed signs against Athena that he will continue in 21-22.
Despite the Floreat goal being scored from a move on Cavallo’s side of the pitch, it wasn’t an area that Floreat had much joy from. Although the goal came when Ryan Kitto was sold a dummy by the adventurous fullback Saldidis on the Adelaide left, the bulk of the side’s defensive lapses came on the right side of the backline.
As early as the fourth minute, the semi-professional side broke through and mustered a shot. Another incident happened on ten minutes, and then in the 41st, a mistake by Jacob Tratt presented a chance to Ludovic Boi that was not taken. Similarly, the previously mentioned mistake by Delianov also occurred on the right of the Adelaide defence.
One would imagine that the first-choice partnership will be Jakobsen and Ansell when both are fit, because Tratt and Timotheou looked shaky at times.
The more significant worry was the rustiness shown by the experienced right-back Lopez, who couldn’t organise his side of the pitch to prevent errors. Against a better side (or even Floreat with the early season form) they may well have been punished. A man of his experience would be expected to give more solidarity at the back.
Despite this, though, his leadership, alongside Jakobsen will be crucial in forming this new-look Adelaide defence.
The transfer shock of the season was without a doubt, the return of former Joe Marston Medallist and previous club captain, Isiais, who along with Craig Goodwin is arguably the club’s greatest ever player.
Retaining Goodwin himself is an asset as after his return last year, Adelaide experienced a marked improvement in results going on a run of five straight wins, and the fans from the City of Churches will be hoping that the Spaniard has the same effect.
With the addition of Isiais, they have now accumulated one of the best collections of defensive midfielders in the league with Juande, Joe Calcetti, Nathan Konstandoplous and of course the mainstay from midfield last season, and the man who opened the scoring against Floreat, Louis D’Arrigo.
D’Arrigo played in 26 of the 27 A-League games last year, and is key for not only controlling the midfield, but also to create chances, and as he showed against Floreat has a lot of potential to improve in his attacking contributions.
D’Arrigo is still only 20, but will benefit greatly from playing next to the 35-year-old Juande and 34-year-old Isiais. During the first half of last season, he formed a great relationship with Calcetti, which Reds fans will be hoping is the base of the midfield for beyond the end of this season.
Aside from D’Arrigo improving his goalscoring, the Reds still have captain Stefan Mauk, who will contribute and be the fulcrum of the Adelaides creativity in a central role.
The signing of George Blackwood is an interesting one, as he may play in the middle behind the striker, in Mauk’s usual position, as he did when he came on as a substitute, but is extremely versatile featuring as both a winger and as a striker in the past.
When he entered the fray, he moved into an attacking midfielder role with a licence to roam, which had previously been that of Halloran’s, while Halloran moved to his more natural position as a right-sided attacker and it was from here where he won the penalty, which Blackwood scored.
Halloran will generally be used in this position where he ended the game and is probably at his best, but can do a job as a third midfielder, as he did at times against Floreat highlighting his versatility.
One of the assets of this squad is that almost half of the players can play in at least two different positions, if not three or four.
On the one hand, the club have lost a big game player in Tomi Juric, who scored at a rate of a goal every two games, and almost single-handedly knocked out the Brisbane Roar with two early goals in last year’s finals. On the other hand, they have lost an injury-prone forward and can make space the the vast amount of talent they have in the forward position.
Mohamed Toure and his brother Al Hassan, Kusini Yengi, Blackwood and even Halloran can play as the focal point in attack. But it was Mo Toure who spearheaded the side in WA and gave a good account of himself, heading against the bar as well as assisting the third before being substituted for his older brother.
Both brothers have the talent to break into the Socceroos squad, and could be outside shouts for Qatar if they were to have a good season at Hindmarsh Stadium.
The three positions behind the striker will most likely be Goodwin, Halloran and in the centre, Mauk when fit. But the cameo by the 18-year-old Yaya Dukuly against Athena was one of the biggest talking points of the game as he came on and caused problems for the tired Athena right-back.
Expect him to initially be used as an impact player from the bench as he was in this game, but if he excels, and given Goodwin’s injury record, he may break into the starting line-up.
Craig Goodwin, ‘the Aussie Gareth Bale’, is crucial for the Reds’ chances, as generally when he is fit, he gives the side an X-factor. A lot of the season will hang on how much he can keep himself fit.
Ryan Kitto started as a left forward against Athena, but could just as easily be used as a left-back. The starting right forward, the debutant Bernardo showed glimpses of promise, having the most shots in the first half, with four in total, two of these hitting the target.
Overall, while we didn’t see the side who will start against Perth in two months, we did see this year Adelaide will be an attacking side, but quite leaky at the back. Despite having great protection in front of the defence, the defence itself doesn’t compare well against the rest of the league. Nonetheless, the attacking talent Veart has at his disposal could cause the other A-League teams a headache.
I think that the Reds may fall just short of finals this year, but be involved in some of the most entertaining games. But if they do sneak into the finals, with a front four of Goodwin, Halloran, Mauk and Blackwood, they could beat any side on their day, and that’s not accounting for one of the Toure brothers hitting top form.
There is no reason this side cannot go on to cement their reputation as cup specialists and win a record fourth FFA Cup.