Greater than their parts, why Perth Glory are a real A-League threat

Fortune favoured Glory against Phoenix but a deep and balanced squad has Perth fans daring to dream of silverware

With a draw against Wellington Phoenix in round six, Perth Glory have made their best ever start to an A-League campaign, their 4-2-0 record surpassing previous mark, the 2010/11 season.

Eight years ago, in the corresponding round David Mitchell’s high flying side lost to Gold Coast United, sparking a run of seven straight losses and, ultimately, the Glasgow-born Socceroo’s sacking. The beauty of the A-League, you never know what’s round the corner. Just ask Ryan Lowry.

Make no mistake – the result in Wellington was a travesty, with an understandably frustrated Phoenix head coach, Mark Rudan, condemning the inexplicable VAR decision to hand substitute Lowry a straight red card in the 75th minute, just four minutes after coming on.

Worse than a self-contained injustice, it robbed a fascinating contest of its fitting resolution, and a chess battle that gets to the heart of why Perth Glory have been so successful this season.

In a capped-squad league, every player has a role to play across a minimum 27-game season, and while the plaudits often go to the goalscorers, the flair players, the virtuosos, it’s the unsung heroes that determine who finishes in finals contention.

Andy Keogh is in terrific form – a surprise to nobody familiar with the hard-working striker, whose 100th game typified the qualities he’s demonstrated amply across five seasons. But how has the pace and willing pressing of Joel Chianese added to the Irishman’s potency?

Chris Ikonomidis is scoring for fun. But what about Perth’s system enables this? How do passing patterns or speed of ball movement from the base of midfield – from Juande, Neil Kilkenny or Brandon Wilson – assist in putting the flying former Lazio man into such dangerous positions?

Injuries and suspensions may change the personnel, but from I to XI, this is a Perth team that has already demonstrated its ability to perform in composite far above the level of its individuals.

In 2018/19 the Glory are a mix of power and pace. Of brute strength and finesse. At 35, Dino Djulbic is a defender with obvious limitations. But beside the organisation of Shane Lowry and the pace of Ivan Franjic he was one of the side’s better performers against Wellington, with Tony Popovic utilising his fifth-choice centre back as a ready threat at set pieces.

The wide men have tremendous engines – Jason Davidson and Franjic shuttle all day. But both Ikonomidis and Chianese (or Fabio Ferreira, when selected) work tirelessly ahead of them to help protect the wingbacks.

And over all of this hovers the forensic detail and meticulous planning of coach Popovic. Yes, he and his staff recruited brilliantly over the off-season – no surprise that the reputation of the man who masterminded the Wanderers’ 2012/13 A-League premiership fairytale and that Asian Champions League campaign would lure top quality players to the West.

The season’s defensive plans would have been built around Matthew Spiranovic or even Alex Grant. And yet the set piece detail surrounding Djulbic hinted at a specific tactical plan against Wellington, and told of hours of additional work on the training ground.

At half-time against the Phoenix, Keogh and Ikonomidis switched positions. A minor shift, but another hint at the hidden workings. Was it to encourage the Irishman’s nuisance factor against Steven Taylor, who’d already picked up a booking, or to expose veteran defender Andrew Durante to the pace of Ikonomidis? Either way, it was an immediate and evident marginal gain as Perth increasingly grew into a contest they’d largely trailed to that point.

Returning from injury, Diego Castro was always going to loom large over this fixture – as an impact player off the bench, menacing tiring defenders. Yet playing through the centre as a kind of false nine – pressing without possession but dropping deeper into pockets of space with it – the Spaniard posed a fresh headache for Rudan’s Phoenix.

The former Sydney FC teammate of Popovic responded within minutes of Castro’s introduction with a tactical play of his own: a defender, Lowry, on for a holding midfielder, Alex Rufer, and the role of man-marking the 2015-16 Johnny Warren medalist. It could have been the decisive match up of the contest; but we’ll never know which of the coaches would have won that particular dual, after referee Adam Kersey’s intervention, off the recommendation of the VAR.

And yet, there was an inevitability to Perth’s late push – just ask the Victory or Mariners who have both already succumbed to injury time winners this season.

Castro’s return from injury should prove a fillip for the Glory – as the chief creator in Perth’s ranks he will add yet another dimension to a team that thus far has got by on those hallmarks of a Popovic side – graft, determination and resilience.

On Saturday night we saw just how lethal Melbourne Victory can be with their full complement of marquee players, as the fit-again Ola Toivonen combined with Keisuke Honda, Kosta Barbarouses and Terry Antonis to put Western Sydney Wanderers to the sword. And while the Glory are built more firmly around the collective and the defensive unit, it’s an ominous thought that with Castro back, this Perth side too could yet find an even more ruthless dimension.


Richard Parkin

The GuardianTramp

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