"The greater the risk, the greater the opportunity" - How Ange's philosophy can spark the A-League
Australia, Japan, Scotland. Wherever Ange Postecoglou has gone, success has followed. That is no coincidence. Despite Postecoglou moving on to bigger and better things, the competition he made his name in, the A-League, can learn an invaluable lesson from its highly successful alumnus.
Ange Postecoglou's assertive style of football has earned him success at every turn, and Scotland has been no different. (Celtic FC)
No single club has encapsulated the demise of the A-League Men in recent years more than Ange Postecoglou's former club Brisbane Roar. At its peak, Postecoglou's Brisbane side, affectionately nicknamed "Roarcelona" for its attractive football, was untouchable, going 36 games unbeaten and winning silverware for fun.
Let's put aside Brisbane's off-field issues in 2022 for a moment. It is a struggle even to recognise the once great side on the field, its recent Australia Cup Semi-Final exit being a perfect example of its lack of identity. Despite being the favourite against Sydney United, the Roar showed no adventure, being ultra-conservative in possession while relying on hopeful crosses and individual brilliance to score.
Brisbane is not the only problem with Australian football. But its cup exit is a microcosm of the more significant issues.
If you asked most A-League Men fans what style of football their club played, most would not be able to answer. If you asked them if they were excited about the type of football their club plays, the answer would likely be a negative one.
The issue with the Australian domestic league is not that the talent is poor. The problem is centred around a culture of organisations and their on-field leaders fearing the loss of three points on any given match day. As a result, they deprive their sides of the opportunity to claim them with confidence.
Safety is not a bad thing. But in a formative football competition, when you foster an environment where risk-taking is discouraged or even punished, you hardwire a risk-averse mentality for the next generation of players. Therefore, it places a solid glass ceiling above their heads for the rest of their careers.
The eye test can tell you that most A-League sides do not show up at their games confident in taking the game to its opposition. Instead, they are comfortable feeling the other side out and hoping that moment of brilliance, or a mistake makes the difference.
That fact is evident when you look at the competition's reigning champions Western United, who won its title while claiming the nickname "1-0 FC" for its affinity to that result. No one disparages John Aloisi and his side for finding an opening goal and shutting up shop. But pundits and fans alike must ask why opposing sides could not take the game to them and make them suffer when it was surrendering possession for large chunks of matches.
It all comes down to mentality. Do you, as a football side, want the ball? What will you do with it to trouble the opposition when you get it?
John Aloisi's Western United won the championship by letting other A-League Men sides beat themselves. (Western United)
The frustration only amplifies when you realise that sides in Australia's premier competition do not get punished for losing, outside of the opposition getting three points. The Central Coast Mariners were the worst side in the competition for half a decade and have rebounded to be one of the better-coached sides, despite budget limitations. Overseas, a side like the Mariners would have dropped one or several divisions in that period.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Australian football's favourite son, Ange Postecoglou. On the eve of his UEFA Champions League debut, Celtic boss Postecoglou was asked if he would consider a more pragmatic approach when taking on European champions Real Madrid.
To no one's surprise, he shut down any talk of a mentality shift. Postecoglou was never going to waver from the style of football that won him silverware in three continents and internationally. It also has Celtic fans bewitched when watching their side go about its business.
"There's no point playing football a certain way, but when you get an opportunity to measure it against the very best, you shy away from it and kind of go, 'you know what, let's just try and limit any sort of damage," Postecoglou said in his pre-match press conference recently.
"Any system you play, any approach you take, there’s inherent risk. But there’s also, sometimes, the greater the risk, the greater the opportunity."
The Champions League is anything but a risk-free zone. For clubs like Celtic that dominate domestically, these nights excite their fans even more than usual. But when many see a risk that needs to be averted, Postecoglou sees a chance to be taken.
"What a great opportunity to play our football, though," Postecoglou further remarked.
"If we're not successful, fair enough. But let's go down swinging, rather than deferring to someone because they're a good team."
For reference, Postecoglou's Celtic, as expected, took the game to Real Madrid and even found itself unlucky not to be ahead at the break. Despite Madrid clinically killing the game in the second half, during the match's conclusion, Celtic fans were on their feet singing their coach's name. It was a rousing tick of approval that sounds far-fetched in Australia.
Football fans in Australia are not silly; they differentiate winning and playing poorly from winning and playing well. Results are one thing, but an attractive style of play benefits fans who enjoy it and players who develop a sense of freedom in it. Meanwhile, it also holds opposing clubs accountable for how they are going about their business.
An example of a side that went through such a story in Australia was Josep Gombau's Adelaide United in 2013/14. Gombau's tenure started with only one win in his first nine games. But his style caught the imagination of Reds fans, which produced an overwhelming show of support for their team's Round 10 matchup against the Central Coast Mariners.
Adelaide United trounced the Mariners by four goals in a watershed moment for the club. The Reds have since won a premiership, a championship, and three Australia Cup crowns. It is not an overstatement to say Gombau's influence is still felt at the club to this very day.
The Red Army with a banner of support for under-fire coach Josep Gombau on the 14th December 2013. (MyFootball.com.au)
When debating the Australian game, it is always essential to consider the country's position in the global football ecosystem. Teams down under are not scrapping for enormous bonuses for finishing in specific ladder positions. A-League Men clubs are locked in their league regardless of whether they are over or under-performing, so why not have fun?
The A-League Men is a young, primarily development league. The sooner clubs and their coaches understand and embrace this tag, the better off the game will be. Coaches and administrators need to stop letting perfect be the enemy of good regarding how their sides go about their football. Fans do not expect their clubs to be faultless, but they hope their hard-earned money contributes to something watchable.
Australian clubs should encourage their players to take risks that will only aid their development. Postecoglou has made Celtic fans fall in love with their club again. Australian football can also begin to capture the imagination of the average supporter currently fatigued at the monotony on display in recent seasons.
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