As most A-League fans could tell you, each club can sign up to five visa players. A reasonable expectation then is that if you’re going to go to the trouble of scouting and relocating a chap from another country, he really ought to be one of the first names on the team sheet.
Two and a half years ago, Adelaide United released Pablo Sánchez, which seemed an odd decision. Days earlier, the Spanish forward had scored the goal that sealed the Reds’ 2015/16 championship. He was also one of the league’s most efficient strikers; a high percentage of his shots were on target and he had an excellent ratio of goals per minutes played.
Given that, I asked Ante Kovacevic, Adelaide United’s General Manager of Football, why Sánchez was cut.
His answer – and this isn’t quite verbatim – was that a visa player should be in the starting team and not be someone who regularly came off the bench.
Ante is a straight shooter. When you ask him a question, he either gives you an honest answer or simply tells you that he can’t give you the information you want. And what he said to me in 2016 about Sánchez went some way to changing the way I saw visa signings. Sure, I still thought the Spaniard could continue to play a valuable role for the Reds but it was hard to fault Kovacevic’s logic.
With that context, however, you have to question United coach Marco Kurz either choosing to start his German compatriot Mirko Boland in midfield, or Danish import Ken Ilsø, but never both, in the four A-League matches the Reds have played this season.
Indeed, had it not been for injury, Ilsø may still be waiting for his first league start. Thus far, the preferred midfield trio appears to be Isaías, Vince Lia and Boland.
With Lia being a defensive midfielder and Ilsø more the type who operates behind forwards, selecting the Dane at the expense of the veteran number six might suddenly seem like a bold attacking move.
But what else could the club have had in mind? There are three strikers in the squad – Ilsø wasn’t brought here to lead the line.
No, the self-styled Viking was signed to be a number 10. And, I would suggest, from the first minute of every match, not as a sub.
So why is Kurz persisting with a line up that: a) is unlikely to have been the original plan; and b) gives him fewer attacking options?
Certainly, it has had some success so far – yesterday’s loss was United’s first this season. And it can blunt opponents’ threats as we saw twice against Sydney FC, in round one and in the FFA Cup Final.
Nevertheless, the Reds needed more creativity against a Perth side which deploys three unyielding centre-backs. United isn’t completely predictable but its style of play, understandably, gives the team’s quick and skilful wingers – Craig Goodwin and Ben Halloran – crucial roles.
Ken Ilsø is the kind of player that can exasperate or excite. He often wants to take opponents on in heavy traffic, something fans love when it’s successful but find frustrating when it isn’t.
Either way, it provides another point of attack. When the Dane finally entered the fray against Perth yesterday, he had an impact. Ilsø demanded the ball and opened up another route forward as he buzzed around the Glory’s imposing defenders who, to that point, had mostly only needed to keep the Reds at bay through winning the ball in the air and getting their bodies between it and the goal they were protecting.
Perth has moved to the top of the ladder and may be the team to beat this season. That won’t be the last time Glory defeats a tough opponent on the road.
But it also won’t be the last time that United needs to find more avenues to goal. No disrespect to Vince Lia who continues to be an outstanding pro in a career that began in the National Soccer League, but a midfield trio of Isaías, Boland and Ilsø should be able to strengthen the Reds’ attacking play while still providing enough defensive cover.
And, as we know, you sign a visa player for your starting team, not the bench.
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