Newcastle Jets, by and large, have underachieved in the A-League. While they did win the Championship in 2008, they haven’t qualified in the past four years. That Championship was a flash in the pan success rather than being indicative of consistent performance.
Furthermore, they feel like they’re in constant turmoil due to ongoing ownership sagas (and they’re currently looking for another owner), and constant managerial change hasn’t helped either. Therefore, yet again, they approach another A-League season having completed another overhaul.
The last overhaul came in Gary Van Egmond’s second spell, when he used his first full pre-season (having taken over weeks into the previous season after the Branko Culina debacle) to clean out the squad and start afresh with a group of young, local-based players. The concept was sound, but the whole project seemed somewhat undermined by both the arrival of marquee Emile Heskey, who didn’t seem to fit at all into the new style, and Van Egmond’s constant tinkering with the starting eleven. Throughout the next two seasons there was clearly a struggle between what he wanted to achieve, and what was actually happening on the pitch.
Fifteen games into last season, Van Egmond was sacked. His replacement, assistant Clayton Zane, switched formation to a 4-4-2 and encouraged direct, Route One-like football that played to the strengths of Emile Heskey. Finally, Newcastle were actually playing to the strengths of their marquee (even if that was opposite to the ‘possession’ style most clubs look to play), which in turn benefitted Adam Taggart, who thrived in the space created by Heskey occupying defenders.
All that feels rather irrelevant now, though, because Zane, Heskey and Taggart have all moved on (with the former returning to his previous role as assistant) as part of a squad overhaul that has seen 12 players leave, and 9 come in. Yet again, the Jets go into another season having reassembled their squad, and this combined with an extensive injury crisis will have a big impact on their cohesion in the first few weeks of the season. Stubbins hasn’t settled on a starting XI, and seems to still be developing the style as well.
One area of the squad relatively familiar, however, is the defence. Mark Birighitti will continue in goals, with Ben Kennedy as backup. Ahead of them, Stubbins likes a back four, so Kew Jailiens will partner new signing Adrian Madaschi in the middle. Both are strong, athletic defenders, with the experienced Madaschi playing to the left. Jailiens was a good pickup last season and hits long diagonals towards the left flank off his right foot.
Other options at the back include newly signed Sam Gallagher (who has played there in the final pre-season matches), veteran Taylor Regan, and another newcomer, Allan Welsh, who Stubbins describes as “a tall, imposing central defender who can also do a job in the midfield if required.”
In the full-back positions, Scott Neville is the nailed on right-back, and gets forward purposefully. He’s strong in 1v1s and is one of the strongest players in the league in his position. The opposite side is more problematic – Sam Gallaway is inconsistent and poor on the ball, so Carney has sometimes played there in pre-season.
In a friendly against the Young Socceroos, the former Socceroo constantly bombed forward and whipped balls in, providing an assist with a smart cut-back from the by-line. It’s not these qualities that are the worry, but rather whether his attacking intent might leave that flank exposed. However, with a number of attackers to fit in further forward, it might be the only way to fit him in the side.
Although a midfield diamond was originally touted, Stubbins seems to have settled on a double pivot in midfield. This has been the biggest headache of pre-season, with a number of injuries in this position. New signings Billy Celeski and Jonny Steele are both out for the opening rounds, while Ben Kantarovski is still recovering from his, and Josh Barresi won’t play this season due to a knee injury.
That has lead to some experimentation throughout pre-season, with Regan surprisingly pushed forward into a #6 position in a friendly against the Central Coast Mariners. He held his position well and played some decent balls forward, but feels like a stop-gap rather than a genuine long-term possibility for this role.
Rather, Celeski and Steele should form the first-choice pairing when they return, taking turns to shuttle forward and support the attack. Both are energetic, tidy players and are happy to move forward to support the high press, leaving gaps in behind – there’s the risk Newcastle will lack a solid holding player in front of the defence (which explains the Jets’ pursuit of Erik Paartalu).
Theoretically, Kantarovski could play this role, while Jacob Pepper is another option – though the latter’s versatility means it is hard to see him locking down a first-choice spot, but instead will probably be used to fill in gaps where needed. In the opening rounds of the season, though, Pepper will play in what he says is his preferred position, central midfield.
Just a week out from the season, Stubbins has also moved to re-sign Zenon Caravella, which illustrates the current paucity in midfield. Caravella is inconsistent but capable of linking play into the final third nicely, and will probably play as the slightly more advanced of the midfield two in pre-season.
Further forward in the #10 position will be Marcos Flores. He, too, is another member of the squad recovering from a long-term injury. ACL ruptures are horrifically damaging and this will no doubt affect his performances, but at his peak, he’s a superb ‘classical’ playmaker, focusing primarily on drifting around to find pockets of space and playing clever through-balls in behind the defence. As Stubbins has pointed out throughout pre-season, he’s the first “no.10” the Jets have had for a couple of years.
“He’s a genuine playmaker,” he says, “so we’re looking forward to using what he brings to the table in terms of his strengths.”
With Flores recovering, though, Griffiths has been used just tucked in behind Edson Montano as something of a “nine and a half” role, not quite making the formation 4-4-2 because he drops into positions between the lines, but also darts forward alongside the Colombian to provide an extra goal threat. Griffiths is a fine, all-round player who scores goals, but his reputation appears to have been sullied by his constant switches of club. He can also play wide and helps stretch defences with his intelligent movement from outside-to-in, but also capable of sending in crosses from the touchline.
Montano, though, seems to be the preferred option as the out and out centre-forward. In Newcastle on loan, he’s a powerful, explosive runner who holds the ball up well, and invites runners in behind. He also attacks crosses at the near post, but seems to tire quickly and might need time to find full fitness.
The other option at striker is the inconsistent but exciting Jeronimo Neumann, who has predominantly played wide in pre-season. In a central role, Jeronimo drops deep, receives passes into feet and then spins in behind, and on the flank, he starts wide but darts into typical centre-forward positions when the ball is in the final third.
Out wide, James Virgili and Andrew Hoole are both traditional right wingers that will take defenders on 1v1 and whip in crosses. Virgili is frustratingly inconsistent with his end product and tends to only perform in spurts. Hoole is less ambitious, but helps the side retain the ball more solidly, which can be useful. He can also fill in at right-back, and should be a useful squad player.
On the left could be Carney or Steele, who can play higher up. Relative to the rest of the squad, Stubbins actually a few different options in the final third, and will probably experiment in the first few weeks of the season to find the right combination. Steele tucks in quite narrow from the left, which can provide a good balance by allowing the right-winger, normally a forward (Griffiths or Jeronimo), to play slightly higher up.
That is the personnel, but what of approach? Stubbins himself has suggested “we want to play a good, vibrant brand of football. We want to get the ball down on the deck and play.”
“But at the end of the day it’s all about results, so I think we need to be slightly pragmatic at times and be able to adjust our game plan according to who we’re playing.”
That’s not particularly revealing, but it’s fair to predict Newcastle will likely look to play out through the defence and work the ball forward patiently into the final third, as is the general trend in the competition this season. The days of playing long, direct balls from the back seem in the past, especially with Heskey moving on.
It’s also worth considering Stubbins was the assistant to Aurelio Vidmar in 2008 – the year Adelaide took a very cautious counter-attacking (and successful) approach to the Asian Champions League, which suggests Stubbins is happy to play defensively when necessary.
A particularly interesting element of pre-season has been their high pressing. Sporadically in pre-season, they have closed down high up the pitch, pushing up onto on the opposition back four – the two central players, Montano and Griffiths, taking turns to press the ball carrier, with the other dropping in behind slightly to prevent passes into deep midfielders.
According to what side the ball was on, the nearest winger also pushed in very narrow, helping squeeze the pitch and make it very narrow. Furthermore, this press was complemented by the two central midfielders following their direct opponents high up the pitch. If Stubbins can get this structure working cohesively, it could be very effective – a good comparison would be the Wanderers with a similar tactic during their debut season.
Otherwise, though, Newcastle remain unconvincing. The finals should be the minimum expectation, but at this point in time even that seems slightly beyond them.