The Hyundai A-League’s famous Round 9 is out of the way.
It means we’re one third of the way through the home-and-away rounds. And here in Adelaide, recent seasons have shown that it’s the next few weeks that will help to define United’s campaign.
That was certainly the case during the Reds’ Spanish era. After Josep Gombau’s first nine A-League matches at the helm returned five losses, three draws and just one win, United had a fine run which saw it lose just three of its next 17. Unfortunately, when a home final was there for the taking, the Reds were beaten 2-0 by Newcastle in the final round.
The following season saw a near reversal. Hopes of a championship were high after the first nine games produced six victories, two draws and only one defeat but after that United lost as many matches as it won.
It’s possible that you know the story of the 2015-16 season under Guillermo Amor: no wins until Round 9 and then the Reds were all but unbeatable on their way to the title.
United’s 2016-17 campaign was the odd one out. The first nine rounds were hideous; the only difference in the remaining 18 was seeing the odd glimmer of home (generally extinguished fairly quickly).
There has been cause for optimism in recent months: some refreshing of the playing list with a few quality signings; a fine run in the FFA Cup; and new coach Marco Kurz has brought a fresh approach which has helped lift the team out of last season’s doldrums.
But there’s no getting around the Reds’ current woes; there have been five losses in their last seven competitive matches.
Sure, there are reasons. Two of those (including the FFA Cup final) have been against rampant Sydney FC; two of the other three have been against top three teams (Melbourne City and Newcastle).
Some players have been injured too. While that’s often seen as more of an excuse than a reason, A-League lists are thin and most clubs would have a few bad results with several first teamers sidelined.
The bigger problem is the GF (or F) column; the Reds have scored just 10 in those nine games. Only Western Sydney Wanderers have fewer goals and they have a game in hand.
And I’ll mention it because someone is bound to remember – yes, the 2015-16 title winners only scored eight in their first nine matches.
But when you break things down further the stat gets even more concerning. Two of those goals came when United had a one player advantage, three were long-range strikes, and three resulted from the Reds piling on pressure in games’ dying minutes.
Nothing wrong with any of those things, especially the ability to find late goals that draw or win matches, but there is a dearth of what I’d call bread-and-butter goals. The only two (against eleven players) this season have been Johan Absalonsen’s in Round One – a header from a Nikola Mileusnic cross – and, against Newcastle, Mileusnic finished a one-on-one with the goalkeeper after running on to a perfect ball from Ryan Kitto.
Despite his scoring involvements, many fans see Mileusnic as the main problem. And he’s certainly had some decent chances which he hasn’t converted. But there’s more to the Reds’ difficulties up front. A lot more.
Neither number nine has scored in the A-League this season, though George Blackwood was unlucky on a few occasions in the early rounds. Baba Diawara hasn’t looked as sharp as he did towards the end of the 2016-17 campaign. He may need more time to hit full fitness and get back into his stride but, if that doesn’t happen soon, the Reds’ routes to goal will continue to be limited.
Not helping matters is the imminent departure of Karim Matmour, a player signed in the off season because of his ability to create – and take – opportunities.
All of which might mean an increased dependence on Absalonsen who was so good in the first three rounds (and the FFA Cup) that he was already being talked about as a possible winner of an individual honour at the end of the season. The Dane has been sidelined by injury since then.
At the other end, United has conceded just 11 goals, despite injuries to Taylor Regan and (for three rounds) Ersan Gülüm. If Jordan Elsey and Ben Warland are third and fourth-choice centre backs, they’re great ones to have.
And given that the Reds have conceded some preventable goals, including the one Sydney FC scored on Friday night which caught the back four napping, you can still conclude that, despite the difficulties of these first nine rounds, there are many things the team does well.
Indeed, the match against the Sky Blues was quite representative of the season so far. Against the best team in the country, United struggled to make chances (and couldn’t take the ones that came); defended well but let in one avoidable goal; and its general play between both ends was pretty good.
So the season could still go two ways. The shortcomings/mistakes at both ends of the pitch could derail it.
But if the general play can be better converted into chances and goals, a high finish leading into the finals beckons.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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