A pragmatic Stubbins, Romeo Castelen, a monster midfield showdown, David Villa and a battle for the ball are the five things to watch in the opening round. (Click the logos to see the archives for that club!)
Newcastle’s massive squad overhaul, and their extensive injury list throughout pre-season, means it’s been difficult to ascertain exactly how new coach Phil Stubbins want them to play. While the former Adelaide United assistant coach has been involved in top-flight coaching since 1994, we don’t know what to expect from his Newcastle side this season.
Alongside all the usual noises about playing “attacking, entertaining football for the fans” Stubbins has been keen to point out he has a pragmatic side. “My philosophy statement is to be entertaining, organised and effective,’’ he says, “but I’m also pragmatic. I recognise if we are playing Manchester United tomorrow, we are going to have to play in a way that gives us the best opportunity to win the game.”
‘‘I won’t be trying to smash a square peg into a round hole.”
It shouldn’t be any surprise that a coach might have a balanced, adaptable approach, but it will be fascinating to see ‘how’ pragmatic Stubbins can be. The major theme of their pre-season has been a struggle to get a cohesive starting eleven together on the pitch, and as that experimentation continues in the opening rounds, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him adopt more cautious, counter-attacking tactics against the Central Coast Mariners. Newcastle have a very difficult start to the season with four away matches, and Stubbins might consider playing defensively to ensure the side doesn’t get off to a horror start.
Comparisons between Youssouf Hersi and Romeo Castelen feel awfully cheap. However, it’s hard to label him anything than the ‘new Hersi’ when he shares the same nationality, position and attributes. Hersi was the player that epitomised Tony Popovic’s approach in their first two seasons, and perhaps their important player, too – working tremendously hard without the ball to lead the press and make the side compact, before acting as the outlet for counter-attacks from a wide position on the right. The Wanderers always looked to counter down that side, using Hersi’s explosiveness to break forward quickly.
The major question mark over Castelen, a former Dutch international who has largely spent his career at Eredivisie clubs, is his knee injuries – there was a period where he played just seventeen games over five years. Knee injuries are notorious for reducing a player’s speed and acceleration, and these are attributes Popovic will require from Castelen if he is to prove a like-for-like replacement for Hersi. If he is anything like his compatriot, tactically, he’ll be absolutely crucial to their chances of success – they desperately need a player to lead their transitions, or else simply become a defensive team.
Both Wellington and Perth tinkered with their formation throughout last season, but go into the new campaign having settled on a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond respectively. That means their clash in New Zealand this weekend will be one of the more unorthodox formation battles, with a particularly competitive numbers battle in midfield.
On paper, the diamond has a numerical advantage – 4v3 – over the 4-3-3, but the caveat is that Michael McGlinchey will play from higher up on the left wing, but with a licence to drift inside as he did for the Central Coast Mariners. That means Wellington might end up having four players in this zone, creating a very complicated formation battle, especially as both sides will look to gain a foothold in the overall possession battle. Wellington, in particular, will try to play out from the back of midfield, using Albert Riera as the fulcrum for their passing game – but Nebojsa Marinkovic, the #10 at the point of Perth’s diamond, will look to stick tight to him and prevent him from passing forwards.
This could be a tremendous showdown between two sides eager to get off to a good start, and a fascinating opportunity to see which midfield can assert their superiority.
There’s no getting away from the main talking point of the Saturday night fixture – Spanish superstar David Villa, who has arrived this week ready to play for the ‘new’ Melbourne City side.
However, John Van’t Schip has indicated the guest player might not start, depending on his fitness. It’ll be Sunday’s big ‘will he/won’t he’ question, but the likelihood, especially from a marketing point of view, is that he will feature from the start.
With such limited time in Australia, then, will Villa be in tune with his teammates? The striker has said that teammate Jonaton Germano has helped explain City’s tactics, but there’s a difference between theory and practice. Furthermore, City’s tendency in pre-season has been to base their attacking around crossing, with Damien Duff’s delivery from either flank always dangerous. That might suit marquee Robert Koren, who specialises in making late runs into the penalty area, but Villa has never been particularly strong in the air. Crosses don’t really play to his strengths, and while his sheer quality will probably quash these fears, there is the slight concern City may play in a way that doesn’t get the best out of their big name.
Even though the two sides met a couple of weeks ago in the FFA Cup, Adelaide v Brisbane is probably the most intriguing game of the round, primarily because of the intriguing possession showdown.
Both these sides like to dominate the ball, but in this fixture last season, the Roar took a more pragmatic approach than expected, defending in a medium block and sticking very tight in midfield, preventing Adelaide from playing through this zone – before hitting them quickly at transitions, in a more direct approach than is the usual ‘Brisbane way’. This is a recurring theme of the Mike Mulvey era, who has kept with the Ange Postecoglou template but been happy to make cautious adjustments to tactics when necessary.
Having been defeated – and by all accounts, dominated – by Adelaide in the FFA Cup, though, he may take a more aggressive approach this time round. There’ll be no surprise with Josep Gombau’s tactics, of course. His whole tenure has been about establishing their new ‘Barcelona’ identity. Therefore, if Mulvey actively encourages his side to try and win the ball high up the pitch, thus meaning the competition’s two ball-hoarding sides go literally head to head in the possession battle, we could be in for a cracker.