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Reshuffled Reds get lucky

Manton St Tales

It doesn’t pay to jump to conclusions about player signings, warns Paul Marcuccitti – but we should also be wary of reading too much into United’s weekend salvation.

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Well, it’s surely time to discuss one of our favourite topics here at Manton Street Tales: the Malaysia Super League.

Oh come on, don’t pretend you’re not following it. I’ve read plenty of expert commentary about it in recent months.

Indeed, to my surprise, I discovered a cohort of South Australians who seemed well-informed about it back in July when Adelaide United signed Danish midfielder/forward Ken Ilsø.

One said, “playing in Malaysia is hardly exciting”. Another added, “when you’ve played for Home United – not expecting much at all” (and before you experts jump on me, yes that’s a Singaporean team). Then there was, “(his) stats look rubbish in rubbish leagues”. Amongst others.

Of course, for some time, we’ve lived with both Wikipedia and simulation games like Football Manager. The former can instantly give you a professional player’s CV; with the latter you can take control of Halifax Town and wheel and deal players on a journey that turns the fifth-tier English club into a UEFA Champions League winner.

But while we have these wonderful things that provide quick information or convince us that we could easily run a club ourselves if given the chance, a real recruiter is making phone calls to overseas contacts about someone, analysing footage, trying to learn about the player’s attitude (both on and off the pitch), working out whether he or she will fit in with the team’s style, whether there’s enough budget for the likely salary, etcetera.

All of this is not intended to tell fans that they shouldn’t have an opinion on a new signing. But I wouldn’t be too hasty to make assumptions based on the player’s most recent ports-of-call.

I hadn’t heard of Ilsø before Adelaide United signed him. He played just one season in a league I spend any time following – Germany’s Bundesliga – and, as it was at struggling Fortuna Düsseldorf six years ago, it’s hardly surprising that I never came across him (or did but have since forgotten).

A-League fans knowing little or nothing about new overseas signings is quite normal. Most of us don’t follow leagues outside Europe’s big five (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) unless we have heritage in different countries or peculiar interests.

But these little-known signings often turn out to be top players in the A-League. Among those that have, you can include chaps like Marcelo Carrusca, Sergio Cirio, Pablo Sánchez and Isaías who all helped propel Adelaide United to the 2015-16 A-League title. And how about scoring machine Bobô whose goals were a big part of Sydney FC’s dominance for two seasons?

Mind you, if the experts checked a few more Wikipedia pages they might be less dismissive of Malaysia. It’s currently ranked sixth in the East Region of the Asian Football Confederation’s Club Competitions Ranking (a measure used to determine how many teams each country gets in the Asian Champions League). Australia is ranked fifth – having just slipped below Thailand…

Adelaide United cult hero Taylor Regan played in Malaysia for nearly a year (after being released by Newcastle Jets) before United signed him. It’s also the country in which Andrew Nabbout got his career back on track after Melbourne Victory let him go – earlier this year he was in the Socceroos’ starting team for the World Cup matches against France and Denmark.

On Saturday, Ken Ilsø scored two excellent goals in the Reds’ 3-1 win in Wellington. It doesn’t mean he’ll be a star this season and rushing to such a conclusion, in round five, would almost be as daft as deciding he couldn’t be much good because he last played in Malaysia.

But even before he bulged the net for the first time on Saturday, it shouldn’t have been hard to see why United signed the Dane. The club has been looking for a number 10 since Carrusca was released in mid 2017. Ilsø plays that position and, as we’ve just seen, he can do a job at number nine as well. Try finding a high-level player like that who won’t break the bank the next time you play Football Manager.

It was a welcome three points for the Reds after the disappointing loss to Perth a fortnight ago, however, we need to bear in mind that Wellington will probably resume its yearly battle for the wooden spoon with Central Coast Mariners.

Marco Kurz made four changes to the starting team, two of which were forced: Michael Jakobsen became the latest United player to suffer injury/soreness and Mirko Boland will be sidelined for a while with a torn hamstring. Ryan Strain and Apostolos Stamatelopoulos were omitted.

The replacements were mostly like-for-like. Taylor Regan for Jakobsen; Michael Marrone for Strain; and (to a degree) Ilsø for Stamatelopoulos. But Boland, a central midfielder, was replaced by winger Ryan Kitto.

To accommodate that, Kurz brought Craig Goodwin into midfield. A curious decision given that, from the wing, he’s been United’s best player so far this season.

The result of this shuffling was that the Reds looked out of sorts for most of the first half. Not surprisingly, Goodwin and Kitto were often in similar areas on United’s left.

Sometimes you get lucky. After conceding an early goal, the Reds’ equaliser arrived just before half time with a cross from the left. But it wasn’t from Goodwin or Kitto. Instead it was Ben Halloran – who’s probably currently second to Goodwin in player of the season standings – drifting over from the right and delivering a wicked ball which unfortunate Wellington defender Tom Doyle could only send in to his own net.

The second half was better and that was partly because Goodwin dropped a little deeper. But I fear if this strategy is repeated against better opposition, it might come unstuck.

Despite scoring twice when leading the line, Ilsø would ideally return to an attacking midfield role. Without the right player in that spot, nearly everything has to go down United’s wings. That has plenty of upside: Halloran, Goodwin, Kitto and Nikola Mileusnic are all extremely quick. But the more routes to goal there are, the better.

The only genuine striker available at the moment is young Stamatelopoulos and, while I’d love to see him get more opportunities, he can’t yet be expected to play a full match at centre forward every week.

And if Baba Diawara doesn’t return and a replacement is needed, at least we know we can check out the goalscoring charts in the Malaysia Super League.

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist. 

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