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Manton St Tales

That's Amor, eh?

Manton St Tales

You might have heard the news: Adelaide United are Premiers. For the first time in a decade.

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They are two games from being A-League champions for the first time ever. And I wouldn’t bet against them doing it.

The Reds pulled off the most improbable of feats in two acts. First, they travelled to Melbourne to face a City side led by the best player in the competition, Aaron Mooy, and made them look like kittens.

Adelaide United captain Eugene Galekovic on Friday's final whistle after defeating Melbourne City. Photo: Julian Smith, AAP.

Adelaide United captain Eugene Galekovic on Friday’s final whistle after defeating Melbourne City. Photo: Julian Smith, AAP.

Adelaide had played their part. But that was only act one of a dramatic weekend set-piece. The second, in a plot twist so brazen to make soap-opera writers blush, relied on Adelaide’s arch-rivals, Melbourne Victory—coached of course by Kevin Muscat—taking points from Brisbane Roar (led by Adelaide boy John Aloisi). If Brisbane won, they were Premiers, not Adelaide.

Brisbane coach John Aloisi walks onto the ground following the Round 27 A-League match between the Melbourne Victory and the Brisbane Roar at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Saturday, April 9, 2016. (AAP Image/Joe Castro) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Brisbane coach John Aloisi after the draw. Photo: Joe Castro, AAP.

 

How did this all happen? How did Adelaide go from winless and bottom of the table after eight games?

Cheesy? Of course. But it happened. The most white-knuckle nil-all draw in A-League history meant that the Reds, improbably, bottom of the pile after eight games, finished on top of the ladder. They are the team to beat in the finals series.

But how did this all happen? How did Adelaide go from winless and bottom of the table after eight games, almost a full third of the season, to top in such spectacular fashion?

https://twitter.com/Tim_Cahill/status/718793467250417664

Clench your jaw and travel back to the beginning of the season with me. A meek exit to Victory in the FFA Cup was backed up by a pair of unconvincing home draws to open the A-League campaign. And that was good as it got for a while. It was never meant to be easy after Josep Gombau’s departure, but this?

Many suspect there was always a champion team in that dressing room, and that it just took two months of the season for them to find their feet. Look at Chelo Carrusca, stricken fans would say; the slickest playmaker in the league! Sergio Cirio, el tanque! Craig Goodwin, Isaias Sanchez, Eugene Galekovic, Tarek Elrich; all players good enough to conquer the Australian game.

But I think that theory is missing something. Even the best players need a catalyst. Without them, great players don’t become great teams. They need to be managed. Cajoled. Instructed.

We’ve written about Guillermo Amor and his legacy in these pages before. So let’s not repeat ourselves. His background gave Reds fans cause for cautious optimism, but one question mark lingered: he’d never been a senior coach.

It wasn’t that clear what the tactical vision was in the first 8 weeks. The Reds were in transition between two identities and would often cling to the possession-at-all-costs game inherited from Gombau (which, so no one forgets, was one of considerable panache and success).

Josep Gombau during his successful stint as Adelaide United mentor.

“Panache and success”: Josep Gombau.

Turning points are hard to identify. Some have pointed to the galvanising effect of Carrusca’s penalty in a 2-1 defeat to Melbourne Victory at the Etihad Stadium. Others to Stefan Mauk, signed in January from Melbourne City, who’s been a revelation (and on Friday night gave Reds fans their most iconic image of the season so far, that impudent little “2-0” gesture to the City bench.

For what it’s worth Bruce Djite, when he appeared on our program a few weeks ago, was adamant: Amor and the players always believed they were doing the right thing, and that with enough time and application, the results would come. Clearly there’s been an enormous collective effort from everyone involved with the club.

United under Gombau had the reputation of playing “the best football in the A-League”. I loved that team but loathed hearing that about them

But I think that the story of Adelaide United post-round eight, more than anything, is a coach who’s provided the ideal tactical foundation for success in this season’s A-League combined with near-perfect execution of specific plans to stop the league’s best.

Adelaide United under Josep Gombau had the reputation of playing “the best football in the A-League”. I loved that team but loathed hearing that about them. Because of the implication. It meant that the Reds didn’t win the games they really needed to. That when the going got tough, they couldn’t quite mix it with the league’s toughest teams. That—maybe—they were a bit soft.

Although it took some time to bear fruit, Amor forensically identified the team’s deficiencies—over-reliance on a single style, tendency to commit silly mistakes at the back, and lack of pragmatic edge—and fixed them while retaining what made Gombau’s team so good.

In short, Adelaide under Guilermo Amor adapt their own game to nullify the strengths and attack the weaknesses of the opposition. The Reds can still be easy on the eye, and there’s no way their new counter-attacking game would work without the rat-tat-tat quick passing patterns inherited from Gombau. But gone is the keep-ball mantra. In its place, greater willingness to analyse the situation and play in a way that’s required to win the 3 points.

Melbourne City have scored the most goals in any A-League season and Mooy, Harry Novillo and Bruno Fornaroli will feature heavily in the end-of-season highlights. Adelaide gave them no space, no time and no respite. For sure, the game was conditioned by the perfect timing of two set-piece goals. But Adelaide created the superior chances throughout. Don’t let the stats (possession, corners, etc) fool you: Adelaide gave City a hiding.

This was no coincidence. The way the Reds suffocated City, then broke at speed in orchestrated patterns, is much too ornate to have emerged by chance. It was signature Amor: the magnum opus of his short coaching career.

Melbourne City player Nick Fitzgerald (right) and Adelaide United players Isaias (left) and Stefan Mauk contest in round 27 of the A-League at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Friday, April 8, 2016. (AAP Image/Julian Smith) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Isaias and Stefan Mauk take on Melbourne City’s Nick Fitzgerald. Photo: Julian Smith, AAP.

Friday’s game also confirmed something I’ve been thinking for a few weeks. Adelaide, once a team who were a little too easy to knock out of their stride, are now the league’s best game managers. They commit pragmatic fouls when required, keep the ball if they need a breather, crank up the tempo when they have to. Since Round eight, the Reds have written the script of every A-League game they’ve played.

Some numbers to drive home the point I’m making. Since being bottom with three points from eight games, Adelaide United have:

By a very narratively convenient coincidence, 19 games is exactly half of the length of a typical 20-team league season, as played in England, Italy and Spain. Extrapolating Adelaide’s statistics to a complete 38-game schedule—which isn’t completely honest but it’s a better indication than, say, a single game—would give the Reds 92 points. To put this in perspective, of the 23 complete English Premier League seasons, the eventual winners have finished with more than 92 points once.

Adelaide United players Isaias (left) and Bruce Djite react after scoring a goal against Melbourne City in round 27 of the A-League at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Friday, April 8, 2016. (AAP Image/Julian Smith) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Isaias and Bruce Djite celebrate a goal. Photo: Julian Smith, AAP.

There’s a lot more I could write about the Reds, their extraordinary resurgence, and what’s been the driving force. But sometimes trying to deconstruct it misses the bigger picture. This has been an extraordinary season, one that’s felt more like a journey than any other. I hope it has two more episodes left.

This week, as you Adelaide fans bask in the most unlikely season in the club’s nascent history, pay homage to the players, their spirit and gumption and ability. Pat yourselves on the back too. But spare a thought for the man from Benidorm with the enigmatic, knowing half-smile.

Oh, one more thing. Friday night’s coverage dropped a quiet bombshell. Amor was a single game—a scrappy 1-0 win at home to Perth, Pablo Sanchez the scorer—from getting the boot. Stick with your man, football fans.

Mateo Szlapek-Sewillo is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program, which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays. His fellow presenter Paul Marcuccitti will return next week.

 

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