Certain points in the history of the A-League Men can be seen as seminal moments that have forever altered the competition’s young landscape. Brisbane Roar turning to a manager whose most recent gig had resulted in relegation from the Victorian Premier League is one example. The bitter congress wars of the late 2010s and resulting independence of the leagues from Football Australia is another.
The decision by Sydney FC in 2014 to appoint Graham Arnold as their manager is yet another. For all the notoriety gained from Alessandro Del Piero’s two-year stint at Moore Park, the double-winning campaign of 2009-10 was a fading memory – Sydney had not recorded a single finals win in the four seasons since. Exacerbating matters, Western Sydney Wanderers were increasingly ascendant; the crosstown rivals had made back-to-back grand final appearances and were widely credited with supercharging the competition.
Yet Arnold’s bombastic arrival augured a shift in the balance of power. The city of Sydney subtly shifted from red and black, back to sky blue.
Sydney FC established a dynasty in the years that followed, winning three championships, three premierships, and an FFA Cup. They became a team of killbots, mercilessly grinding down teams and taking points from games they had no right to. Arnold’s departure to take over the Socceroos prior to the 2018–19 season resulted in nary a speed bump as Steve Corica, well-versed in the ways of Arnieball, continued in his mentor’s stead.
But all good things must come to an end. All empires eventually fall.
On Monday evening, Corica watched on as Yokohama F. Marinos put three past his side, dealing a hefty blow to their hopes of progression to the Asian Champions League’s knockout stages. When they return to Australia for the last two games of their ALM campaign, Sydney will be staring down the barrel of missing the finals for the first time in over half a decade; sixth-placed Central Coast Mariners are two points clear with a game in hand.
At the same time that the limitations of Arnold’s approach are being exposed at international level, Corica has also hit a wall. His commitment to maintaining the principles that underlined so much of Sydney’s dynasty has begun to wear thin. Purpose and commitment have slowly metamorphosed into inflexibility and conservatism. Though it was successful enough at its peak to completely alter the entire league’s approach to possession and how to attack, a lack of evolution is increasingly being zeroed in on by the opposition. As a result, it is reaching a point of diminishing returns.
An extensive injury list and the short turnarounds do go some way towards explaining their struggles, yet at the same time, the club is hardly the only ALM team to have faced challenges on this front. An inability to foster sufficient depth at a club that isn’t exactly cash shy, and the utilisation of available talent, can’t be hand-waved away by the pandemic.
The 49-year-old has put his own spin on things and recruited more widely than given credit for, but the shadow of Arnold still looms large over this team. As do the obvious foibles of Arnieball: dead possession, players not being utilised as effectively as they could be, and a lack of a back-up plan against better sides. Even if the fates smile upon them and Sydney FC do sneak into finals, the likelihood of this team being able to do damage once there is questionable, and would not obscure the obvious need for rejuvenation.
Yet as a club legend, Corica will likely return. Arnold also missed finals once in his Sydney tenure and, short of José Mourinho or Marcelo Bielsa developing a sudden desire to live in Bondi, he has produced sufficient silverware and carries enough institutional respect to prove 2021-22 an aberration. But how many members of the squad will remain? A significant cohort of the club’s squad is off-contract and several key contributors are on the wrong side of 30. Some, such as Miloš Ninković are closer to 40 than 30.
Significant change is already guaranteed off the field. The club will return to Moore Park as tenants of the newly constructed Sydney Football Stadium for the 2022-23 campaign and will welcome in a new CEO after Danny Townsend – who played a key role in developing a club that at one point was the reigning men’s, women’s, youth, and even E-League champions – finally completes his transition to the Australian Professional Leagues. Whether or not this is a good thing – a spirit of regeneration and innovation permeating the club – or a bad thing – instability and paralysis seeping in – remains to be seen.
With this sudden vicissitude in mind, perhaps it was fitting that former Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat was on the sidelines as the boss of Yokohama on Monday. His last game in ALM was a 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Corica in the 2017-18 semi-final, a result that ushered in another turning point for the league as the Victorian powerhouses fell into two years of misery. Victory represent a true anti role model for Sydney: years of hubris and the resultant institutional lethargy led to a fall that resulted in the keys to the castle being handed to Tony Popovic. Further, the Sky Blues only need to look across town at the Wanderers to know that moving into a shiny new stadium is not a panacea.
Sydney is a club at an existential crossroads. Forewarned of the dangers, it is highly unlikely they will fall into a similar mire as Victory or embrace the insidious, creeping apathy that is Wanderers’ ALM side. But such incidents serve as reminders that they can happen to anyone.