Who Should Sydney FC Take to Asia?
With the A League season more than half way gone and Sydney FC on track to win the league for the second straight season, people are beginning to wonder just how well the Sky Blues can do in Asia in this rich vein of form. It is a fair question to ponder too, when you consider just how poorly the Australian teams fared in the Asian Champions League last season (Brisbane and Western Sydney finished bottom of their groups while Adelaide finished second from the bottom with only 1 win. A combined 4 wins, 2 draws and 12 losses).
For Sydney FC, there is some unfinished business. In 2016, they finished on top of a group that featured Asian heavyweights (and current champions) Urawa Red Diamonds, the reigning Asian Champions at the time Guangzhou Evergrande, and 3 time Asian Champions Pohang Steelers. In the round of 16 they drew Shandong Luneng and in spite of not losing either match found themselves knocked out of the competition on the away goals rule thanks to an injury time strike from Chinese midfielder Hao Junmin.
If Sydney FC fans had known that after losing the opening game away to Urawa, this ACL run was just the beginning of a run of 62 competitive fixtures with only 4 losses to their name, it may not have hurt so much. The truth is that the Asian Champions League is the only competition that the club has failed to make an impression on, and it hurts.
I wrote last year about the fact that in spite of Australia’s arrogance, we still have a lot to prove in Asia, and nobody is more aware of it than Sydney FC.
With bold proclamations many moons ago of becoming the biggest club in Asia early in their existence, Sydney have never been able to make the impact that clubs like Adelaide and Western Sydney have had in their isolated runs through the ACL, and it is something that they finally want to fix.
If they are to do so, they will be looking to do it in a very different manner to how both Western Sydney and Adelaide before them went about their runs to the final. They will be looking to do it with attacking football.
In both of the previous A League success stories, the gameplan was almost entirely built around defence, and while Sydney go into this coming campaign on the back of (currently) a second successive season of averaging less than a goal against per game – a feat no team has achieved in the league’s short history – the story of Sydney FC is much more about their attack.
Last year Sydney FC became just the third club to finish a season averaging more than 2 goals per game* and this season they are currently on track to break the record for most goals per game from any team in the history of the league (2.28 by Melbourne City in the 15-16 season). The Sydney attack is what strikes fear into the hearts of the opposition far more than their defence, but it remains to be seen if it will be enough to get them results at the next level.
The real question that Sydney FC need to ask themselves is which foreigner is going to miss out on (at least) the group stage of the Asian Champions League. Under ACL rules, each team is only allowed to have 4 “foreigners” in their squad – however 1 of the 4 needs to be from an Asian Confederation country.
Sydney FC currently have 4 of the best foreigners in the entire competition, but none of them are from Asia. So very soon, a tough decision needs to be made and it is not as easy as it may seem.
First thing first, the one player who absolutely cannot miss out is Bobo. This may not be the name that you expected to see in this spot, but it is absolutely the right one.
Without Bobo, Sydney FC are left with 2 strikers to fill the void. The first is Matt Simon and the less said about his ability at this stage of his career the better, and the second in Charles Lokolingoy – who is only 20 years old, with a sum total of 36 minutes played (across 5 games) in his A-League career.
Sure you could put Brosque or some others in there in a pinch, but that is not a way to plan out a campaign, and would only create a further imbalance in the middle of the field** so without even getting to the fact that he is leading the league in goals and has the third most assists in the league Bobo is the first named in the squad as far as I am concerned.
Which brings us to the 2 midfielders.
First up is Ninkovic. The reigning Johnny Warren Medalist and architect of the most successful season in HAL history has not been as world beating this season as he was last season, which comes down to a few different things. First of all, he has a target on his back this year. Melbourne Victory tried to push him (literally) out of the Grand Final last year and while ultimately unsuccessful, it did show that stopping Ninkovic (by whatever means) is half the job when it comes to beating Sydney. Another reason Ninkovic has not had quite the same impact this year as he did last year is the addition of another creative midfield star, meaning that last year’s tactic of “when in doubt give it to Ninko” is now “when is doubt give it to Ninko or Adrian”
Which of course brings us to Sydney’s newest foreign star, Adrian Mierzejewski. By most measures, Adrian is having a better season than Ninko. He has 8 goals to Milos’ 2, he has more assists, and they have created the same amount of chances. Adrian is playing so well at the moment that the Fox Sports commentators are talking about his chances of playing for Poland in the upcoming World Cup*** and on top of that, he has experience playing in Asia (albeit in West Asia, but still).
It would be crazy for Sydney to leave their Marquee signing (Ninkovic) behind given what he has done for this team and that he has just been made the marquee, and Adrian has more than proven his worth so far this season.
Which leaves us with Jordy Buijs. A stalwart of Sydney’s title winning defence. A fan favourite. The player with the second best winning percentage in the history of the A League^. The player who provides so much of the forward thrust from the centre of defence when the opposition decides to park the bus. The player who takes a lot of the Sydney corners.
It looks like he has to be left out.
In Seb Ryall and Aaron Calver he has players that can cover the position with some top level playing experience which is not something that can be said about the others, and this is a major factor, and one of the deciding ones here.
Complicating things is the fact that he is currently in the midst of a contract negotiation with the club. If handled correctly the club may be able to use this as an opportunity to have the conversation with him and sweeten his new deal to soften the blow. Looking at it from the other end though, Buijs may dig his heels in and refuse to sign if he isn’t able to play in Asia. Either way, what looks like the only option, becomes a little more difficult.
Whichever way it all plays out, this Sydney team will ultimately be judged by how they perform in this ACL campaign, because the majority of their A League competition have not been up to the challenge so far.
*The others were Melbourne Victory twice (06-07 and 14-15) and Melbourne City (15-16)
**A quick tangent – Graham Arnold’s insistence on using the same 2 substitutions in almost every game will likely be his undoing in this crossover between the A-League and ACL seasons. There will be a lot of games, and the following players (none of whom have played a full 90 minute game this season) will need to be called on to contribute in bigger ways –
Lokolingoy – who has never played more than 20 minutes in an A-League game
Ryall – who has played only 128 minutes this season
Kalik – who has played 52 minutes this season
Retre – who has played 177 minutes this season
Calver – who hasn’t played since last season
I am not sure if these players are capable of playing at the level that this Sydney team plays at, but one thing I am sure of is that asking them to do so after sitting on the bench all season is unfair.
***Let me just say here, that without a huge run of injuries he has no chance of going to this World Cup. Poland went through their Qualifying campaign with 8 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss to top their group. They are not hard enough up for players that they are watching the A-League.
^The player in first? Bobo. Like I said, he needs to be first picked.