Last night’s 2-1 loss in extra time of the 2013-14 Hyundai A-League Grand Final will have left Western Sydney Wanderers fans with a desperately hollow feeling, as the club has now suffered losses at this stage of the tournament for the last two seasons.
As an (almost) impartial viewer yesterday, it was hard not to feel bad for them as well. Despite finishing 10 points behind their grand final opponents, the Brisbane Roar in the 2013-14 regular season, there was a real sense of optimism amongst Wanderers supporters, who most likely saw their failure the previous year as the last piece of the puzzle needed in attaining this season’s A-League Championship. The old adage of needing to lose one before you win one.
While not wanting to duplicate the abundance of grand final team and individual coverage that has flooded the internet today, it would be remiss not to mention the strong performance of the Wanderers (notably their first-half dominance) and settle on the fact that any sensible A-League fan could hardly accuse Western Sydney of having choked on the big stage. Still, it will be of little consequence for Wanderers supporters today.
Fortunately for the club, they appear to have to be at least a few things on their plate that might help to stem the disappointment of yesterday, and draw focus to next year’s competition.
AFC Champions League football
Firstly, as was identified throughout the coverage yesterday, and in its lead up, Western Sydney are still a part of the AFC Asian Champions League currently underway, and as I write this, the team are most likely in preparation mode for Wednesday night’s clash with Sanfrecce Hiroshima. It represents just the sixth time in eight years of competition that an Australian team has progressed beyond the group stages. They are also Australia’s last club still in the running for the 2014 Asian Champions League.
I think the storyline of this Hyundai A-League season, as well as the timing of the ACL will see a higher than ever interest in the ACL from A-League fans, which will naturally assist the Western Sydney Wanderers.
They will need it too. Their round of 16 opponent, Hiroshima has some impressive results of late. They are consecutive Premiers in the J-League competitions of 2012 and 2013. They have also experienced ACL football twice previously. However encouragingly for Wanderers, they have never progressed past the group stage in the Champions League, and their form in the J-League Cup and Emperor’s Cup (both knockout competitions) has been less than stellar for a team with such an impressive domestic league record.
Also, should they progress, they any of a number of potential opponents who have claimed ACL Championships in the past, such as Pohang Steelers, Guangzhou Evergrande and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. It will not be an easy ride.
However, as I mentioned earlier, the buoyant and optimistic mood of Australian football supporters in 2014 will only help their cause.
The Wanderers, as like every other A-League club, will also be looking forward to the inaugural season of the FFA Cup. Joining the Round of 32 on 29 July 2014, will not be forced into waiting long for another shot at domestic silverware thanks to the new competition brought in by the FFA. The Quarter and Semi Finals, as well as the Grand-Final will all be carried during the first few rounds of the 2014-15 A-League competition in OCtober and November 2014.
On a personal level, it is a fantastic thing to see the FAA bring in a competition to match English football’s FA Cup. It provides greater depth to Australian football, and an opportunity for lower-grade teams to compete with the premier clubs. I think the underdog element that these competitions bring will also be well-accepted by the Australian public.
Necessary squad changes
So, the Wanderers do have a few distractions to take their mind, as well as carry the momentum Australian football has generated this year so far. However in doing so, I believe they will need to address a few issues.
While statistics will highlight the supreme defensive effort of Western Sydney in the 2013-14 competition – after all, they recorded the second lowest number of goals against at 31 and the highest number of clean sheets (11) – they were only able to rank fifth in their goals for. I believe it is this discrepancy that was highlighted in their grand-final loss, and will serve as their biggest concern heading into future competitions, namely that they lack the prolific striker necessary to succeed in modern day football.
A quick peruse of the A-League top scorers list will find you needing to scroll to 12th place to find Tomi Juric, the Wanderers top scorer this year and a player utilised from the bench for a majority of his games this year. The club’s preferred striker, Brendan Santalab could only manage five in regular competition. As we witnessed throughout the year, the goals from the Western Sydney team were shared by forwards and midfielders alike – Mark Bridge (5), Hersi (3), Mooy (3), and Ono (2). It was good enough to get results and paint over the fact that the Wanderer’s were failing to convert their huge midfield dominance into goals.
You need only to look at past Champions too see the need for a 15+ goals a year striker. In 2012-13 the Mariners had Daniel McBreen, worth 19 goals in the season and one in the final. In 2011-12 Brisbane Roar had the league’s golden-boot Besart Berisha give them 21 goals and two in the Grand Final (admittedly, one of those perhaps being undeserving).
For next season, the Wanderers will need to find a striker that can give them that amount of goals in a series. While Santalab has proven himself as a talented attacking midfielder, he is not an out-and-out striker. He needs a true number 9 to work off in attack and it was likely a mistake on Popovic’s part to attempt to play him as an almost lone striker.
Juric, for his part played it better, however was often only utilised as a bench player. I would tend to agree that he will still need time to develop into the squad’s striker, with maybe another season of experience and greater game-time needed.
With the upcoming transfer of Shinji Ono and Youssouf Hersi, the Wanderers will also need to put some time into finding quality attacking midfield replacements. For much of the season, these two ran the Western Sydney engine in the attacking two-thirds of the pitch, and while Aaron Mooy and others have shown themselves capable at times, it still represents a drop in quality if these two losses go unreplaced.
If the Wanderers can make the necessary adjustments to the squad to ensure improvement in the final third, then there is no reason to rule them out from a third successive Championship final, or perhaps even breaking their grand final hoodoo. They have strong defence and relatively young defence in Cole, D’Apuzzo, Topor-Stanley and Polenz, a midfield that was arguably the most impressive of all teams this year and a coach that despite the slip-up in his two grand-finals, appears to get the most from his squad on a consistent basis. It is now only a matter of retaining the talent during this transfer period, and making maybe three strong purchases of their own in the midfield and attacking areas.
The sting of this defeat will last awhile, but Wanderers fans should continue to feel optimistic about their opportunities for the future.