There is a familiar narrative to many A-League sides this year: a manager returning to his previous club for a second chance and attempting to implement a more positive playing style. Sydney hired former youth coach Ian Crook, Adelaide handed John Kosmina a new contract, and the Newcastle Jets are also putting in faith in a previous incumbent.
Gary van Egmond’s return to Newcastle in the wake of Branko Culina’s acrimonious departure saw the Championship-winning manager attempt to transition Newcastle away from reactivity towards a more proactive style of play. Given that van Egmond had not had the benefit of a full pre-season to assimilate his squad towards his preferred system, it was always going to be difficult, and while Newcastle showed flashes of what they could do, they were inconsistent, and eventually missed out on the finals after a 3-2 defeat against Sydney FC in the final match of the regular season. They missed proper ball-playing defenders and lacked pace up front, despite Jeremy Brockie’s impressive goalscoring return. The New Zealanders transfer to the Wellington Phoenix was just one of a staggering eleven transfers out of the Hunter Valley, with thirteen players signing in the off season. Inevitably, there is a very different feel to Newcastle this year, a change perhaps necessary following years of underachievement after their extraordinary Grand Final win.
“You need to change the culture, as far as the training atmosphere is concerned,” says Van Egmond. “You need to get people to understand what they need to bring to a training session and how to prepare for the training session.” The introduction of the Emerging Jets program is a crucial step to youth development in Newcastle, and a focus on youth is the theme of Newcastle’s winter business. Their new signings have an average age of 21.7 (including an outlier in marquee signing Emile Heskey).
Focus on youth
Heskey is also the outlier when it comes to the nature of Newcastle’s acquisitions. All of them are quick, technical players, with the overarching focus on youth ensuring plenty of mobility and enthusiasm. Van Egmond’s time at the AIS indicates he likes working with young players, and he will be relishing the opportunity to implement his philosophy upon a squad that is now firmly his.
“We’re pretty close to having the largest clean-out from last year’s squad to this year’s in A-League terms,” said van Egmond. “That reflects the type of football we are trying to play – based on possession, mobility, targeting age groups that can be effective. But also, we have one eye on three to five years down the line, when these younger players are going to be very good indeed.”
There are two major downsides to this refreshing focus on youth. Firstly, Newcastle run the risk of losing their best talents to the lure of stronger clubs, as was the case with Curtis Good and his transfer to Newcastle United. Secondly, a common theme with young players is a lack of maturity and experience, and that is where the presence of players like Ryan Griffiths and Jobe Wheelhouse is critical. The latter is the club captain: versatile and tactically astute, he displays a strong understanding of what is required in van Egmond’s system. This clarity is crucial. Last season Newcastle played a variety of systems and lacked a cohesive identity. Now they have a coach who wants a specific style of play, and has signed players specifically to function within it.
That said, Heskey’s presence seems contradictory. Yet, as van Egmond explains, “midfielders and wide players know he’ll be able to hold it up, link the play, and they can make their runs more confidently.” There’s no denying Heskey’s physical presence is formidable, and he should act as an effective foil for the wide attackers. As Beau Busch explains in his column for FourFourTwo, “his frame makes it almost impossible to get the ball off him when he has it under control and defenders will be drawn out creating space for the wide players to come inside into or midfielders to burst forward past him.” In a system that will focus on short passing play and fluidity, Heskey offers a different dimension. Teams who may have elected to sit deep against Newcastle now have to grapple with a combination of pace and height, making it much more difficult to get the defensive line correct. On paper, it certainly does seem like Heskey will be, as van Egmond effusively claimed, “the last piece of the jigsaw.”
The former England international wasn’t the only other foreign signing this winter. The arrival of Dominik Ritter provides van Egmond with an attacking outlet on the left of what pre-season indicates will be a preferred 3-4-3 formation. With three centre backs, energy and width from wing-back is crucial. Ruben Zadkovich could potentially play the same role on the opposite flank, although it seems more likely he will be restored to a midfield position, fighting for positions against Jacob Pepper, whose composure on the ball was impressive at the tail-end of last season, and the other new foreign signing, Bernando Riberio. “Bernardo is a touch player, he can change the game very quickly,” says Van Egmond, “but he’s still getting used to the way we play though – more so without the ball.” That would be a reference to Newcastle’s high pressing game, which will be a huge dimension to their play this year. Pressuring high up the pitch in order to win back possession requires great effort and organisation, and the Jets will need to ensure they aren’t caught too high up the pitch for opponents to exploit the space in behind.
The youthful nature of the squad means Newcastle probably won’t be amongst the title challengers this season, but they should be well equipped to reach their stated goal of finals football. Van Egmond’s emphasis on young players, epitomised by the new Emerging Jets program, is admirable, but the question is whether it will come at the cost of progression on the pitch. To quote the manager and the obvious cliche: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”