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  • Writer's pictureCaydn Foley

Why the A-League Men's salary-capped nature could condemn Sydney FC to more mediocrity

It was another night to forget for recently appointed Sydney manager Ufuk Talay, who has only overseen two wins since taking over from Steve Corica, leaving the Sky Blues tenth on the A-League Men table. At a hostile AAMI Park in front of a healthy crowd and packed-out North Terrace, Sydney was under the pump from the opening seconds as Melbourne Victory took their place atop the ladder.

Melbourne Victory winger Daniel Arzani opened the scoring with his first goal in navy blue. The night went from bad to worse for Sydney FC when, four minutes later, Zinédine Machach doubled the lead.

Sydney’s defence looked out of sorts attempting to deal with Victory’s fast transition-based gameplan, which saw Tony Popovic's side attempt to win back the ball quickly out of possession and immediately find either Machach or Bruno Fornaroli, who would then create chances by supplying Victory's dynamic and pacey wingers.

However, after the second goal, Sydney was able to take the sting out of the game by controlling possession and preventing dangerous counterattacks. They created multiple chances after that but failed to convert any, besides one chance from Fábio Gomes, which was disallowed for offside by the VAR. Overall, Sydney finished the second Big Blue of the season only registering three of their 20 shots on target while having nearly 70% possession over the 90 minutes.

“I don't think we were at our best tonight, to be honest,” Talay said post-match.

“I think there were moments when we pressed, we let them out too easily at times. There were times when we did press, and we should have won the ball but it just popped out, and one thing that they (Victory) did well was sit back and counter.

“We had 20 shots, I believe, and three were on target all up, and you know we have a lot of possession, but possession means nothing if you're not effective with it, and I don’t think we were effective with it tonight.”

Sydney's loss to Victory demonstrated their need for a dedicated goalscorer and more defensive options. But when asked whether the club would look to the January transfer window for reinforcements, Talay said he would always like more players to select from, but the league's salary-capped nature means he does not feel it will be possible.

“Coaches will always love more players,” Talay said.

“But the reality is, obviously, working in a salary cap competition, it's not as easy to just jump into the market and pick players out, where the reality is if we want to go into the market, that means we have to offload players for that to happen.”

So, would Sydney consider releasing players to allow themselves to participate actively in the upcoming window?

“We've just got a few more games leading into that, and we'll make a decision closer to those dates,” Talay responded when pressed.

When asked about January transfer activity following Sydney's 3-0 Big Blue defeat, Talay addressed the difficulties of managing in a salary-capped league. (Sydney FC)

The Sky Blues' current situation raises an interesting question for A-League Men teams. What can you do when you're having a poor season? Do you sit and hope something changes or take a risk in releasing players for a minor squad rebuild in January?

Should Sydney choose to sign a player or two next month, assuming they are in a position to do so, they should consider acquiring a right-back to replace the ageing Rhyan Grant. Grant has been liable for multiple defensive errors leading to Sydney conceding goals. Whilst they have a promising young prospect in Zac De Jesus, he is still only 17 and does not quite look ready to start regularly for the club yet.

They could also bring in a proven goalscorer, possibly ending Gomes' loan stint early. Their highest scorer right now, Joe Lolley, only has three goals across the opening eight rounds, making him the second-lowest leading club goal scorer in the A-League Men.

Unfortunately for Talay, taking over at a club mid-season in the A-League Men is a difficult task due to the salary cap, as he is hampered in attempting to bring in players that suit his philosophy and style of play. Thus, throughout the season, Sydney could constantly be playing catch up as they attempt to learn fresh ideas from the new boss while simultaneously trying to avoid a disastrous finish at the latter end of the table.

The remainder of the season will test Talay’s coaching ability as we see whether he is up to the challenge of rebuilding a fallen giant. Sydney FC is one of the most significant clubs in the league, with one of the biggest fan bases, a fan base deserving of seeing their club constantly fight at the top for trophies, not languishing in bottom-six mediocrity.



But at this point, clubs are not required to show such ambition on a recruitment front and make potentially rash decisions. But when relegation is eventually introduced into the football pyramid, which will likely happen at some stage, given a National Second Tier is commencing in 2025, two primary discussions will occur. Firstly, the APL must seriously examine the A-League Men's salary cap rules. Secondly, clubs may need to prepare to engage in more January transfer activity should they be in danger of relegation.

Currently, the A-League Men’s salary cap is $2.6 million, and all clubs must spend a minimum of $2.25 million, 90% of the cap. Clubs can also exceed the salary cap by signing up to two “marquee players”, where an unlimited salary can be paid. One “designated player” can also be signed, with their salary sitting outside the cap, and it must be between $300,000 and $600,000.

Most first divisions with relegation worldwide do not have a salary cap, allowing teams who are struggling to continue to spend money in an attempt to avoid dropping out of the league. But clubs must release players in the A-League Men if they want to sign replacements.

Should the APL abolish the salary cap, it would most likely result in Melbourne City being highly successful, given they have the wealthiest owners by far and will be able to consistently sign the best players, as we have seen with sister club Manchester City in the English Premier League.

There are questions about whether clubs can survive relegation financially in a promotion-relegation landscape. They will want to do whatever it takes to avoid the possibility if it transpires.

Hopefully, Football Australia and the APL are committed to working together to find solutions to ensure these issues will be tackled when promotion and relegation are likely introduced sometime soon. The APL has little material benefit in seeing the National Second Tier succeed, as they are not a stakeholder. But ideally, egos can be pushed aside so football can evolve in this country.

Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of the A-Leagues!


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