Lacklustre A-League Grand Final crystallizes myriad challenges facing the game in Australia

Football

There was a truly evocative sequence in Sunday night’s A-League Grand Final. As penalties loomed in the 99th minute, a series events occurred that underscores the state of the game in Australia both for better and for worse.

Numbers desperately waited in the Sydney FC penalty area, Diego Castro sends in a hopeful cross. Despite not needing to retreat and then head away without the full force of his body, Alex Wilkinson’s intended clearance pops up in the air. Castro quickly anticipates, bursts into the penalty area and towards the ball, creating a duel with Brandon O’Neill. The ball pops up again. Aaron Calver and Andy Keogh duel in the air this time. The ball spills, and Calver makes a second effort, surging to create another duel. Despite Neil Kilkenny’s lunge towards the ball, Calver gets his boot onto it. The ball pops up again, almost directly up and above the two. It all matters, but what came next was the kicker.

Instead of contesting again and possibly creating an opening for a teammate, Kilkenny simply returns to his position deep in Perth’s midfield and allows Sydney to gain possession.

Now, there’s a logical explanation for that decision. Numbers were committed for Perth and retreating denied a potential opportunity for Sydney to transition into attack. There’s also the possibility that Kilkenny might have suffered a nosebleed from being in such an advanced position on the pitch, and needed to retreat. Rational.

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Specifics on his reasoning aside, it was a decision and sequence that encapsulated something about Sydney FC’s penalty shootout Grand Final win on Sunday. Both teams had a clear and obvious desire to win, but it was subordinate to the desire not to lose.

That passage was, despite nauseating usage of the term on Twitter, “peak A-League.” It was devoid of any strategic assertiveness and understanding of risk. It was also chaotic, committed and ultimately entertaining, but in the same way it’s entertaining to watch people chase cheese rolling down a hill.

There were large portions of the match that were less so. As highlighted before the match, Tony Popovic and Steve Corica are naturally pragmatic in approach, which extends to collective and how that manifests on the pitch. In terms of attacking patterns of play, Perth and Sydney are mirrors of each other. This was not a cagey final, but a natural end to a cagey season.

The first goal in the match looked critical but it never came, thanks to another match-changing VAR decision. Despite plausible arguments on the goal’s legitimacy, and the inability of VAR to act upon that, it was fitting Adam Le Fondre’s disallowed finish came from a Castro loss of possession in the Glory half.

Sydney FC won the penalty shootout after the A-League Grand Final finished 0-0 after 120 minutes.

Without that ability to defend a lead and counter-attack, Perth and Sydney grew increasingly bereft of ideas, and grew respectively reliant on Chris Ikonomidis and Milos Ninkovic in isolation. They were in isolation though and as such, the tangibility of threat becomes at best sporadic. This, because of teammates unwilling to create off the ball against an opposition doing their utmost to disrupt tempo and compact the pitch.

As a result, between the two teams, there were a total of 52 crosses (26 each) for a total of two shots on target (two to Perth) in 120 minutes. The question one must ask, was that number of crosses impacted by attacking preference or consequence? Tellingly, Andrew Redmayne’s crucial denial of Castro in the 51st minute came from a rare scenario of interplay.

In the previous attacking phase for Perth, Joel Chianese angled into the box, leaving Ivan Franjic to cross from a deeper position. Before Castro’s saved header, Chianese and Franjic combined in a two-on-two situation to play through Ninkovic and Michael Zullo. It created a domino effect of sorts, eventually allowing space for Castro to exploit, only to be denied by Redmayne.

Ultimately, Sydney FC won the showpiece of Australian club football with three total shots in two hours of playing. One of those shots, it must be noted, was Rhyan Grant’s 44th minute attempt. Closer to the halfway line than Liam Reddy’s goal, his scuffed first-time effort tamely rolled off-target. It was the first attempt from either side after Le Fondre’s goal was disallowed in the 26th minute.

For Sydney and their fans — or anyone in that position, for that matter — that is absolutely fine. They return home with their winner’s medals and the Toilet Seat. Memories are made, bonds and relationships strengthened. Beautiful.

However, there is a similarly beautiful kind of symmetry in an A-League season that starts with the Whacky Football Adventures of Usain Bolt, World’s Greatest Sprinter and ends with such a biblical struggle in possession for the two best teams in the competition. The game of chicken to end all games of chicken. Well, for this season at least.

The crowd of 56,371 at Optus Stadium was a record figure, and that’s something to be celebrated. Something that can point to the status of the game in this country. But they were subjected to that.

There lies the fundamental dilemma with watching and enjoying the A-League as a competition, while wanting Australian football as a whole to prosper on the pitch. From things like the Bolt trial, to Sunday night, the current decline of Australian clubs in Asian competition, the sparse presence of Australian players in Europe’s top five leagues — though a changing football climate must be taken into consideration, here — what has happened and what lies ahead for the Socceroos under Graham Arnold, the standard of play and framing of football itself is incompatible to such prosperity.

Given such fractious elements within the game, making rational discourse almost impossible, will there ever be a right time to objectively discuss this elephant in the room?

Such overwhelming pragmatism and homogeneity is sustainable within these parts for coaches and players, but on a larger scale, what do we as a public want from Australian football? This dilemma is ultimately a shame, because the A-League is fun and Australian football overall can be even better.

Embracing the competition’s passion and — as evidenced again last night — penchant for drama is enriching, just as long as one turns their brain off before deciding to watch.

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