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  • Writer's pictureChristian Marchetti

Continuity and holistic performances shaping Adelaide United's incredible 2023/24 start

In the off-season, fans and critics alike were concerned about Adelaide United. They expected a drop-off from their 2022/23 performances. Even this publication questioned the approach the Reds had taken in shaping their squad for the new season. After two convincing wins to start the campaign, and perhaps the most impressive of the Carl Veart era against reigning premiers Melbourne City, Adelaide United's strategy of doubling down on their youth focus may pay even more dividends in 2023/24.

Nestory Irankunda's celebrates a marvellous free-kick which opened Adelaide United's scoring against Melbourne City. (Courtney Pedlar)


After a 2022/23 season that saw Adelaide United fall short at the Semi-Final stage of the A-League Men's Finals Series, Carl Veart and his side would have undoubtedly had their sights on going further heading into the new campaign. But concerns grew in the off-season as the Reds only added one external signing in the form of English midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe, instead opting to trust a talented crop of young talent coming through their NPL ranks.


Last week, Veart's side went some way to proving doubters wrong, with their 3-0 triumph over the reigning champion Central Coast Mariners punctuated by the performances of a selection of the aforementioned young core. The likes of Jonny Yull, Alex Popovic, Panashe Madanha, and, of course, Nestory Irankunda were all impressive.


But heading into another grudge match against reigning premier Melbourne City, few would have expected Adelaide to top their opening result and dismantle Rado Vidosic's side. Yet they did, and in a fashion that was simply devastating. One might even label it the most impressive win of the Veart era.


Adelaide, as Veart pointed out post-game, has indeed had some impressive wins during the manager's tenure. However, dismantling a side with the quality and consistency of Melbourne City to the tune of six goals will take some beating. Add the significant cloud of Craig Goodwin's absence hanging over this team when they stepped onto the pitch against the Mariners; it has to be particularly sweet for the Reds.

Let's focus on that point for the moment. When a team loses its best, most reliable, and most influential leader, it often will have a drop-off in performance. Many critics held Goodwin's departure in such high regard they predicted Veart's side would miss the Finals Series this term.


There are still 24 rounds to be played. This outcome could still transpire. But the level of contribution Adelaide is receiving from several different areas of the pitch seemingly points to the shackles of the entire squad being completely unleashed by Goodwin's exit.


One man whose shackles didn't need Goodwin leaving to come off is Nestory Irankunda. The nonchalant way the winger stepped up from a fair distance and struck the ball perfectly into Jamie Young's top right corner last night was breathtaking. Ten minutes later, we saw Irankunda try his luck from what might have been close to 35 yards, and a deflection almost looped the ball in. There were so many other moments. I deep-dived into his game last week, so I won't continue waxing similar lyrical about him, but my goodness, what a talent.


Crucially, though, it's not as if the Irankunda show has replaced the Goodwin show. What became evident by the end of the 6-0 thrashing was the holistic contribution of the team. Alex Popovic and Nick Ansell are forming a reliable defensive partnership - something Adelaide severely lacked in recent seasons - and their last-ditch defending and crucial interventions give this team a credible backbone.


Popovic's injury was the only negative on the night, with the young centre-back looking well and truly back to his early 2022/23 best against City. He was throwing himself in front of shots, comfortably dealing with aerial balls; there was even a sequence in the 40th minute where Popovic individually thwarted an attack twice in a matter of seconds.


Veart said post-game it was nothing more than a tweak to his knee. Alou Kuol and Brian Kaltak picked up similar injuries in Adelaide. They returned immediately, so the hope would be Popovic is back for Round 3 action.


We now move to the midfield, where one of the eye-catching traits of Adelaide's win against the Mariners was their new-look trio, consisting of clever ball-players in Isaias, Jonny Yull, and Zach Clough. The midfield three were well on top again last night, helping to expose the disjointed pressing of Vidosic's side.


The absence of Tolgay Arslan was undoubtedly impactful for City. But even so, Adelaide's midfield seemed much more fluid than their counterparts, which may be understood given it was also Terry Antonis' first start for the away side.


Behind Adelaide's midfield and defence is who Veart dubbed pre-game the best goalkeeper in Australia at the moment, and you know what, he's probably right. Joe Gauci's 53rd-minute penalty save on Jamie Maclaren's powerful hit was perhaps the most critical intervention on the night for Adelaide. His excellent decision-making, supreme confidence in his area, and authority in dealing with high balls perfectly tie into the increased leadership role Gauci now has in the team.


Eugene Galekovic is Gauci's mentor and goalkeeping coach; on the evidence we keep seeing, he's slowly but surely replicating himself within the young custodian.

Elsewhere, Ben Halloran is having a renaissance. The winger had a season to forget last time around. But his link-up with Bernardo on Adelaide's fifth and sixth goals was evidence of another player perhaps unintentionally unleashed by Goodwin's departure. Many viewed Halloran as one of the players who had to step up, and he is answering that call.


In general, and this element was touched on by Vidosic post-game, Adelaide has a plethora of powerful dribblers and players who are comfortable attacking space. Halloran, Irankunda, Yull, Panashe Madanha, and others are playing with forward-thinking freedom, which is a significant problem for any side, particularly in transitional phases.

Many players mentioned have made their fair share of significant contributions to the club in games gone by. But against City, we also saw new and returning players seamlessly integrate with their teammates and make a difference right away.


Ryan Tunnicliffe, that one external signing, rolled in his first goal for the club by finishing off a move he started on the left-hand side. After finding Ryan Kitto inside, the midfielder followed the play and met the left-back's cutback with a solid finish.


Despite only appearing in his second substitute appearance, Tunnicliffe was at it again for Musa Toure's goal, kick-starting another superb sequence with a great pass into Bernardo's feet, who expertly flicked the ball towards Toure. The young striker's movement to allow the ball to roll to his right foot and find the bottom left corner was sublime.


Tunnicliffe later slipped Toure through one-on-one with Young but the City goalkeeper saved. The midfielder's total minutes as a Red haven't equated to an entire half of football. Yet, he was finding his teammates as if he had played alongside them for years.


Better yet, Tunnicliffe, Toure, and Bernardo had barely played with each other. Though Toure and Bernardo would have featured alongside each other many times at NPL level, seeing a raw young duo understand each other's games almost immediately at A-Leagues level is rare.


Veart now has a new emerging talent in Toure, a returning prodigy in Bernardo who is looking as good as he ever has in a Reds shirt, and his one new signing in Tunnicliffe might be a savvy get.


Based on two games, Adelaide seems a well-oiled machine. It's a term we would never have thought of using to describe them in the off-season, yet here we are. Two rounds, yes, but when significant contributions are coming from places where you least expect it, that is telling.

Though Adelaide has been great, there certainly is some context to both victories that should temper the expectations of their fans.


Two main counterarguments spring to mind: They have faced two sides who were depleted in the off-season, and they have yet to play away.


Both the Mariners and City experienced significant turnover following their Grand Final meeting last season, and should we learn anything from Adelaide's opening two games, continuity is critical to success. Veart addressed this aspect post-game.


“I suppose that’s one advantage of not having to bring a lot of players in. A lot of the players that we’ve got at the moment have worked with me for two to three years, so they know exactly what we need and what we want," the Adelaide manager said.


“City, they’ve [got] a lot of new players this year, so it’s going to take them a little while to gel."


The lack of continuity is accurate for City and Round 1 opponent Central Coast. Their trip to Coopers Stadium was Mark Jackson's first league game in charge, whilst the cumulative losses of Jason Cummings, Nectarios Triantis, Samuel Silvera, Béni Nkololo, and James McGarry, all crucial players in a championship-winning side, arguably outweigh Adelaide's sole significant loss of Goodwin. It can be argued departures such as Juande and Louis D'Arrigo have already been replaced in Adelaide.


Jackson's side was also wasteful in the final third, particularly in the second half. Additionally, though it is not necessarily an argument against Adelaide, being given two home night-time matches helped them create a daunting atmosphere against both opponents. The Reds are historically better at home than on the road due to the unique atmosphere Coopers Stadium provides, with a solid 10,000+ turning out for the City victory. Had one or both been away, we may be looking at a different body of work.


But one aspect Adelaide has no control over is how their opponents approached both matches. Melbourne City's sluggish and, at times, dumbfounded game plan would have been punished by most opposition across the league.

Due to AFC commitments, Vidosic made a few changes to his side. However, City's structure in and out of possession seemed unsuitable for the personnel on the pitch.

Callum Talbot came in with Curtis Good rested on the bench, prompting Vidosic to shift Nuno Reis to his natural role as a centre-back. On paper, it made sense, yet Talbot's attacking capabilities were rarely used as the fullback moved inside to form a back three when City played out.


Conversely, when Aziz Behich could venture forward, the Socceroo effortlessly created 2v1 situations against Madanha with Marin Jakoliš, as Irankunda's lack of defensive awareness is still too easy to exploit for opposition sides. Yet we didn't see City utilise their fullbacks in possession enough when overloads in wide areas could have been created regularly.


Additionally, utilising Antonis as an advanced number eight did not seem suitable for his skillset, and unlike Aiden O'Neill last season, Steven Ugarkovic is not at the same level technically to hold the fort as a lone number six in possession. A simple change would have been instructing Antonis to form a pivot alongside Ugarkovic whilst pushing both fullbacks high and wide.

A rebuttal to this move would be the quick turnaround City had from their Asian Champions League trip to Thailand. Perhaps Vidosic was uncomfortable instructing both fullbacks to go up and down all day, even though Talbot was fresh, having played only 20 minutes against Buriram United.


Fatigue, both mental and physical, was notable in City's display. Against a young and hungry Adelaide side, it would constantly be exposed. The Reds were allowed way too much space between the lines, and the very fluid movement of their front four caused all sorts of issues. Again, City gave a helping hand with a passive press being applied. Ansell and Popovic were allowed too much time on the ball in the build-up. There were too many occasions where Vidosic's obscure 4-1-3-2 pressing structure was broken down by Adelaide, who easily bypassed the press through their fullbacks.


Again, Adelaide has no control over what is going on with their opponents. But this City side is certainly not the same one of seasons prior. The remonstrating and frustration were also notable from a team that usually stays calm. Young, in particular, displayed anger at teammates throughout, launching tirades at his team after Talbot's own goal. When Yull found an acre of space in the 70th minute in the build-up, Young came out to the halfway line once the ball went out for a goal-kick to criticise teammates and seemingly give instructions about the team's press.


Vidosic is usually a calmer character on the sidelines. But frustration from his end was particularly rife at Coopers, whether it be at his players or the officials. One of his assistants even picked up a booking in the 67th minute for dissent.


Adelaide was great, and even a good City might still have lost. But the result also spoke to the significant problems facing the premiers at the moment.

 

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When asked whether the heavy defeat was solely down to his team's defensive errors or Adelaide being too good on the night, Vidosic praised the Reds but also seemed to criticise his players for not turning up.


“When you make mistakes, and here, [the] opponent looks like they’re on a different planet. The first goal was from a different planet, 100%, that was just unstoppable," he said.


“I think we had talent as well on the field [and] maybe we did not showcase our talent enough; that was our problem maybe.”

City undoubtedly has the talent, and Vidosic has a lot of work to do to maximise it on the pitch. In Adelaide, Veart seems to be already getting the best out of his squad only two games into what appeared to be a season full of unknowns for the Reds.


The new unknown is how this young side reacts to their first defeat, which will inevitably come. But right now, they can be pleased with themselves, and the club might be proving a point to fans and critics alike in trusting continuity and their young talent over shiny new additions.


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