Ian Crook’s resignation following Sydney’s 3-2 loss to the Melbourne Victory ended a tumultuous chapter for the Sky Blues.
Graham Arnold was Sydney’s first choice after Vítězslav Lavicka’s departure at the end of last season, but they were turned down as Arnold chose to stay in the comfort of the Central Coast. This meant that the club turned to Crook, formerly a youth coach, to take the job, and with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps against the wishes of Crook himself.
Immediately, Crook set about installing his vision for the Sky Blues, promising a high-tempo brand of football centred around possession. After the pragmatic years under Lavicka, who had been at his most successful playing reactively and on the break, the Sydney fans were yearning for a more entertaining style, something Crook was keen to encourage. “We want to pass the ball and move, with a little bit of pace in front third,” he said to Fox Sports. “You can see we’ve brought in technical players, and I want us to play out from the back, but I also want us to play smart football”
With his vision in place, Crook set about instigating his changes by overhauling the squad with eleven new signings, who shared common attributes of pace and technical ability. Perhaps Crook’s biggest move, however, came internally, with the decision to move Nick Carle to a deeper midfield position, a perennial problem position for Sydney. The playmaker was generally preferred at the tip of Lavicka’s diamond system but towards the end of the season was used in a more central midfield role of a flat 4-4-2, and Crook simply made the change permanent.
Carle was outstanding in pre-season, orchestrating play from deep and allowing Sydney to utilise their pace down the flanks. But then Carle was loaned to Emirates side Baniyas SC, and the wheels were set in motion for Alessandro Del Piero’s arrival.
The Italian is unarguably a fine player, but his role is different to Carle’s: he plays higher up the pitch, between the lines of the opposition’s defence in a position Italians would term the ‘trequartista’. Both players offer creativity, but in slightly different zones, meaning the structure Crook had established had been disrupted, as Joe Gorman points out.
With little time to implement a new system – in fact, Sydney only played one single pre-season friendly after Del Piero’s transfer – Crook kept the same formation for the opening game against the Wellington Phoenix: a 4-2-3-1, with Kruno Louvrek pushed up into the central striker position and the marquee positioned in behind. Terry Antonis partnered Terry McFlynn in midfield, but the result was…’terryble’, with Sydney struggling to transition defence into attack. Basic body positioning errors and a stark absence of rehearsed moves at goalkicks meant any plans to control the game through possession were essentially futile.
Crook persisted with the 4-2-3-1 system but altered the makeup of his midfield by thrusting Ali Abbas into an unusual central position, and later, dropping McFlynn for new signing Paul Reid, but the very fact that Reid couldn’t start the season for Sydney as he wasn’t signed until later betrays how much Crook’s plans had been disrupted, and similarly with the Jason Culina situation. Granted, plans were limited by fitness concerns, but it emphasises the impact that effectively swapping Carle for Del Piero had on Crook’s tenure. In all of Sydney’s games this season, they’ve struggled to control midfield – the 7-2 loss to the Mariners is the best illustration of this – and a failure to do so against the Victory was the catalyst for Crook’s departure.
The new coach will have the benefit of Reid, Culina and Terry Antonis (who is also capable of playing in a deeper midfield role) all being available for selection, and if the new manager intends to carry on Crook’s intention of ‘bums on seats’ football, then those players will be key.
To understand this statement, it’s important to recognise the evolution of the midfielder in modern football. The central figure is Claude Makelele, a diminutive but aggressive and unspectacular player who became central to Jose Mourinho’s successful Chelsea side, despite being sold from Real Madrid without even a pause for thought from the Spanish giants. As president Florentino Perez infamously said, “we will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres”
Yet Makelele went on to become the fulcrum of the Chelsea midfield, playing the deepest role of a three man midfield and tasked with shielding the back four. His function was deceptively simple, yet crucial, and it sparked a craze for similarly destructive players, which of course lead to years of reactive, defensive football.
But then Pep Guardiola came along, and with his unprecedented success at Barcelona, established a new theme in world football, one centred around short, intricate passing in the final third. Never before has football been focused on passing, a trend which extends itself to the normally destructive holding midfielder. That position has become more refined, more about short distribution and reading of the play rather than ‘physical’ work, a fact epitomised by Manchester United midfielder, Michael Carrick.
To play a possession game, as Crook desired, he needed midfielders comfortable on the ball, ones able to control the tempo of a game. That explains why McFlynn was so uncomfortable within his side, and Crook suggested as much: ”We’ve given Terry one thing in particular to work on and I told him that to work himself back into the first team, it’s about can you get yourself facing forward and playing forward,” he said. ”That’s where we need his passes to be heading. If he can do that, it will give him every chance of pushing his way back into the team.”
Arsene Wenger recently discussed the changing role of the deeper midfielder. “They are not destroyers anymore, they are players that the game starts from and the quality of their passing has become very important,” he said. “That’s why you don’t really see purely destructive players in these positions anymore.” Indeed, the Frenchman’s decision to effectively replace Alex Song with Mikel Arteta in the Arsenal midfield (albeit, with a few other extenuating tactical factors) sums up the role of the deep-lying midfielder not only in possession-based systems, but in modern football. Carle’s departure, coupled with the late arrivals of Reid and Culina, consigned Crook to his unfortunate fate.