Thursday, February 15, 2007

TRBA TEAM OF THE SEASON

A-League version 2

JUST over of a year ago I posted my first article on The Round Ball Analyst, the A-League team of season for version one, as well as a reserve team of the season just to acknowledge the contributions of those players who had handy seasons but couldn't quite crack it into the first team. Enjoyed the adventure so much I thought I'd have another crack at trying to fit all the quality we've seen throughout the regular season of version 2 into two 11s. The reserve team of the regular season as well as the A-League team of the finals will follow soon, but for now here's the 2006/07 TRBA Team of the Season, set out in 4-4-2, with the added touch of a manager;

Michael Theoklitos, MV, keeper; thought long and hard about this one and whether to promote Danny Vukovic from last season's reserve team, but in the end I went for the Victory custodian after a remarkable improvement in his game from last season. Back then, splitting duties with Eugene Galekovic, he looked hesitant, particularly in coming out for the cross or long ball. Indeed, like so many keepers that struggle develop from a shot-stopper to a box commander, he was often seen rooted to his spot. This season he has been commanding his area, relieving pressure whenever his defensive unit has been under the pump. Vukovic made many more saves (91 to 52), but Theoklitos's improvement was a vital cog in the Melbourne minor premiership march. Special note to Tommi Tomich and Mark Paston, both outstanding after coming into their respective teams midway through, while Robert Bajic, like Theoklitos, showed marked improvement on last season, before a silly send off at the Dome in round 15. His replacement, Daniel Beltrame, never gave him a look in after that.

Greg Owens, AU, right back; last season I also picked a make-shift right back, Hyuk-Su Seo, which I guess sums up the lack of quality coming through in that area. Owens only played a couple of games in that role earlier in the season, when Richie Alagich was out, but what an almighty job he did. Indeed, I felt Adelaide lost some of its mid-season momentum when Alagich came back in. While he mightn't have been the greatest defensively, what Owens provided going forward more than made up for it. Indeed, his driving work throughout the season, whether at the back or in midfield, was eye-catching, and he scored some wonderful and vital goals to boot, like the one at Telstra Dome in round 8 and the one against Newcastle in round 17. Blessed with wonderful ability on the ball and pace, his adaptability should attract Graham Arnold's attention some time soon. Simon Storey was less flashy for Melbourne, but showed a keen positional sense, Steve Eagleton made a marked improvement under Gary van Egmond, while Ben Griffin showed a bit of promise under Frank Farina.

Mark Milligan, SFC, central defender; after bolting into the world cup squad at the end of last season, started this one as the gap filler, playing almost everywhere but striker and keeper. On a couple of occasions he even popped up on the right side of midfield. While he was generally strong as a defensive central midfielder (his and Steve Corica's injuries just before half time turned the crucial round 9 clash against Melbourne in the visitors favour), his best work eventually came when he slotted into central defence alongside Mark Rudan in the round 13 home win against Adelaide. Between then and the finals, FC didn't concede any more than one goal a game and even had a record run of five clean sheets, despite all their off field dramas. As Milligan proved when he played centrally in a few games last season, this appears his best position, and his work at covering the backline, whether from behind or in front, is his greatest strength. It was no more evident than at Newcastle a fortnight ago, when Sydney, defending high, missing his covering pace and were exposed on more than the odd occasion. Still has much to learn, but an excellent second season.

Rodrigo Vargas, MV, central defender; the former NSL defender was one of Ernie Merrick's key off season signings, stepping in alongside Adrian Leijer and Daniel Piorkowski, his former Melbourne Knights teammates, and immediately controlling the defence. A great reader of the game, Vargas often stepped out of defence, intercepted an opposition pass, got the ball on the deck, and started Melbourne's potent transition game. Last season Melbourne lacked any real ability to withstand constant pressure, but Vargas, ever the organiser, provided guidance and calm in abundance, while his potent passing game allowed the Victory to build momentum from the back. The only other stopper consistent enough to even be considered for the first 11 this season was his teammate Adrian Leijer.

Matt Thompson, AU, left back; Nick Theodorakopoulos started the season with one major problem area, left back. He didn't know what to do, trying the likes of Shane Webb, Adam D'Apuzzo and Labinot Haliti. Nothing was working. It wasn't till van Egmond took over and shifted Thompson, hitherto a midfielder, into the role that the Jets defence finally looked to have some balance. Always a willing worker, here Thompson was able to utilise his strengths - sound technique, wonderful fitness and good ability to read the game - and become a pivotal part of the Jets jigsaw, offering drive out of the back and sound judgment when he reached the final third. Scored a cracker in Adelaide in round 17 and contributed to many other wonderful Newcastle goals. Mr. Consistent, I can only really remember him having one below-average game in the run-in to the finals, and that was in the extreme heat at Perth. It's a good thing for the Jets they've been able to re-sign him. While he didn't bag as man goals as Dean Heffernan, seven assists from left back is not a bad effort at all. Wonderful season.

Fred, MV, right midfield; spotted by Merrick's Brazilian liaison Steve Panapoulos, he become one of the Victory's 'trio from Rio', set to turn Melbourne into a samba machine. While the other two, Alessandro and Claudinho, struggled to fit in, Fred was quickly into the swing of things, catching the eye in his first game. While a defensive elbow threatened to derail him the following week, Fred was soon back in the groove, forming a wonderful attacking partnership with Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson which plundered chance after chance, goal after the goal. Blessed with wonderful feet and awareness in an around the box, it was his willingness to track back in defence which endeared him to not only the Victory masses, but neutrals around the country. While he generally started on the right, he drifted all over the place, making him almost impossible to track and complementing the defensive work of Kevin Muscat and Grant Brebner. Went off the boil after the premiership was won, and Melbourne's play has suffered as a result. Loved the work of Leo Bertos early in the season and Joel Griffiths throughout, while rookie Dario Vidosic started and finished the season in spectacular style, clearly one for the future.

Kevin Muscat, MV, defensive central midfield; recognising that his young midfield was often over-run last season and that Muscat's experience was wasted out at right back, Merrick made the call of shifting his 'boss' into the key role in the centre of the park. Suddenly, the man know as much for his rugged and combative tackling had been transformed into the most cultured of footballers, dictating Melbourne's control with his strong personality, neat use of the ball and wise football brain. For Merrick and Melbourne, it was like having a manager on the field. Indeed, Muscat could often be seen barking instructions at his teammates, even in the dressing room, clearly the work of man with aspirations to be a manager. While he was involved in his fair share of border-line incidents, most notably with John Kosmina and Jamie McMaster, Musact's value to the team was crucial. He gave Melbourne belief, and his A-League record from the spot is impeccable. And what's even more amazing? Muscat topped the effective tackles list for the season, some transformation. The work of Stuart Musalik shouldn't go unnoticed (coming up in the reserve team of the season), Sydney's Ufuk Talay produced patches of his former best, Simon Colosimo showed signs he was again enjoying his football while Muscat's Melbourne teammate Grant Brebner was consistently good.

Nick Carle, NJ, attacking central midfield; the toughest decision of the lot, the choice between Carle and Sydney's influential number 10 Steve Corica. Both playmakers were exceptional and vital cogs in their team's progress to the finals. In the end I went for Carle mainly because he was on the ball a fair bit more than 'Bimby'. That was essentially down to the styles of the two teams. Corica saw less of it but was excellent when he had it, involved in most of Sydney's best moments through his drive, positional sense and ability to find space. With David Carney having such an ineffective season, no doubt Sydney looked at its best whenever Corica had the ball. Carle, meanwhile, was always on the ball, always Newcastle's go-to man, even when he was man-marked for much of the back-half of the season. Even then you could count on him to keep the ball, jink away from his man, and find a telling pass to one of his front trio with his wonderful left peg. Second on the list for assists (eight compared to Leo Bertos's nine) and completed passes (880 to Musalik's 996), he also topped the list for shots on target, was third in shots off target and third in fouls won. Accused in the past of being lazy, he dispelled that myth with a massive workrate every week, even ending up second on the list of most fouls conceded and fourth for the number of cards, stats you'd expect from a Muscat, not a Carle. There was nothing he didn't do, expect score the goals his play deserved. Even then he got the best one of the season, against Adelaide in round 10. Finally finding the consistency he lacked in his youth, this keep-ball merchant might still have his best days ahead of him.

Jason Spagnuolo, AU, left midfield; drafted into the Adelaide squad on the eve of the semi finals last season, he arrived from local club Metro Stars with huge wraps from John Kosmina, but we only saw a brief 12 or so minutes off the bench in the prelim final loss to the Mariners. With Lucas Pantelis out for the season, Spagnuolo was back and soon showing plenty of promise both with the ball at his feet and his willingness to work up and down the left flank. Indeed, with Travis Dodd struggling on the other flank and Bobby Petta taking time to get fit, Spagnuolo was often the most potent wide threat for United, such a vital part of their game-plan. Seven assists, the highest return for Adelaide, showed how vital a contributor he was. As for the other lefties in the comp, Adrian Caceres invariably looked good on the ball but showed deficiencies going the other way, Stan Lazaridis was excellent when he wasn't injured, Petta looked like he had forever on the ball despite an injury-interrupted campaign, Middleby at least got some game time, Stewart Petrie was one of the Mariners's better players while Leilei Gao impressed in the final rounds.

Archie Thompson, MV, striker; back on board both physically and mentally after the small distraction of a European contract at PSV and a spot in the world cup squad, it wasn't long before Thompson was reminding everyone just how brilliant he had been at the start of A-League version one. Forging a telepathic understanding with Fred and Danny Allsopp, he was soon doing what he does best - getting the ball on the floor and running at defenders, jinking, tricking and pick-pocketing his way past them on his way to 10 goals and five assists. The most slippery striker going around, the number of times he dropped the shoulder, dinked the ball past a defender with his deft touch and created a shot, opening or penalty, one lost count. One of the most remarkable aspects of Melbourne's form this season was the way the front two worked back. The sight of Thompson working as hard as anyone summed up Melbourne's campaign.

Danny Allsopp, MV, striker; if Thompson's workrate was a surprise, Allsopp's wasn't. Always known for his self-less play, many thought Allsopp was lucky to see a second season after his first was littered with missed chances. Shown faith by Ernie Merrick and working incredibly hard in the off-season, it all came together early, six goals in the opening seven games silencing last season's 'boo-boys'. Showing electric pace, wonderful strength and immense workrate, he was proving a hand-full for every A-League defender. Those that liked it physical were burnt for pace. Those quick on the ground were being easily shrugged off. Like Carle he was high up in all the attacking stats (assists, shots on and off target and fouls won) but topped the one that mattered most, with 11 regular season goals. What more could you want? Others to impress up front included the evergreen Damien Mori, Newcastle young gun Mark Bridge and his Colombian teammate Milton Rodriguez and United's star in the making Nathan Burns.

Ernie Merrick, MV, manager; like Allsopp, considered by many lucky to survive season one. Back then he had his excuses, building his squad later than all but the Knights. It left him with no choice but to go with youth, and after an enthusiastic start, the season fell away once Thompson left. So the pressure was on and Merrick got straight to work, programming the longest pre-season of any of the teams (over 200 sessions) and meticulously rebuilding his squad through some key positional signings (Vargas, Caceres, Brebner) and adjustments (Muscat to central midfield) and the daring scoop of three Brazilians, one of whom, Fred, became a star of the league. Yes he's had his fair share of luck with injuries but Melbourne have played an enterprising brand of attacking football, mixing an ability to absorb pressure lethal intent going forward. Little wonder the crowds have flocked. For his work in the off-season and throughout the regular campaign, he gets the gig ahead of van Egmond, so brilliant since taking the helm in round 8, as detailed here. Special mention to Ricki Herbert who was only around for the last month or so but made the Knights play.

So there you have it, the players and manager that stood out in my mind throughout the regular season. Do let me know your thoughts, who you felt may have been unlucky to miss, via a comment. And do visit again soon for the reserve team of the year, team of the finals and plenty more analysis of the finals and A-League season 2.

12 Comments:

Anonymous colin said...

Tony, are you a closet Victory fan? I've been trying to work out which team you follow...now we know.
Still think Adelaide will get up though.

Fri. Feb. 16, 10:12:00 am AEDT  
Anonymous Colo Trifti said...

Owens! Did he play in the A-league this year? You might as well pick Pasfield or Carbone as a defender. What about moving North to right back. He can play anywhere in the back and has had a good year! The rest is O.K. with me.

Fri. Feb. 16, 10:23:00 am AEDT  
Anonymous george said...

amazing stats! did you count them yourself? george

Fri. Feb. 16, 10:52:00 am AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Colin, thanks for your comment and ongoing interest...

Nowhere near a Victory fan, just very much admire the way they've gone about things this season, and remember, this toty was based on the regular season, so I think it's very hard to argue with their record having finished 12 points ahead of the rest and having wrapped up the minor premiership with weeks to go. All that in a 21 round comp. Remarkable work, and little wonder they featured so prominently in a team which aims to reward consistency.

Having watched every game, Melbourne and Newcastle were the two teams that I thought sustained their excellence throughout the season (take out Newcastle's start and Melbourne's end). The rest, I thought, were very up and down.

And if you think my admiration for MV's players ends there, there's more to come in my reserve team of the season, with Brebner and Leijer right in the mix.

The only teams you'll find me supporting are our national teams and the reds of Liverpool

Fri. Feb. 16, 10:53:00 am AEDT  
Anonymous sir alex said...

dont get me started about liverpool!

Fri. Feb. 16, 11:27:00 am AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Colo, thanks for the comment....

Just to fill you in re Owens, he actually played 18 of the 21 regular season games.

Although 7 were off the bench, I remember him having a massive influence when he shaped up at right back in rounds 3, 4 and 5. Adelaide had lost its first two with Alagich struggling at right back. As soon as Owens came in they won impressively and played some lovely stuff going forward.

Then, when he was moved out from right back, they were thumped 4-1 by Syd.

....amazing stats! did you count them yourself?...

yes George, counted every one of Stewy Musalik's 996 completed passes.

Fri. Feb. 16, 11:30:00 am AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

sir alex, don't get ME started on Liverpool.

Fri. Feb. 16, 12:09:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger Mike Salter said...

Hi Tony,

Nothing I'd change in that list at all apart from choosing Steve Eagleton at right-back instead of Owens, and possibly Costanzo ahead of Vargas (who I thought lost form as the season wore on) at CB.

Fri. Feb. 16, 07:26:00 pm AEDT  
Anonymous shaun said...

any A-League team of the year HAS to have costanzo in it!

Sat. Feb. 17, 01:28:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Mike/Shaun, thanks for the comments guys, enjoy the gf...

Have to disagree though about Costanzo.

Remember, my team only looks at the 21 rounds and measures consistency throughout that period.

No doubt Costanzo was strong in the last month of the regular season and has been a monster in the finals, but I'm sure he'd even be disappointed with his overall regular season.

Much to my horror, he started it on the bench and out of favour and then when he did come in Kosmina couldnt decide whether to use him at the back or in the holding role (he went with the Rees-Valkanis combo for some time despite the evidence that Adelaide were best when Costanbzo was in d).

For me Costanzo struggled whenever he played in the holding role this season.

Later in the season he spent some more time on the bench after a shocker against Melb in rd 15 and only really got going once he came back into the 1st 11 in round 18. Since then he's looked hungry.

For me, I can't have him ahead of Vargas or Milligan on rds 1-21, but since then no doubt he's been the no.1 defender going around.

Sun. Feb. 18, 11:00:00 am AEDT  
Blogger john said...

No roar at all? Matt Mckay or Dario Vadosic.

Milton R made the difference for the jets

Sun. Feb. 18, 04:51:00 pm AEDT  
Anonymous shaun said...

fair call bout costanzo

although i still think much of his inconsistent form during the season was due to kossie's love affair with aloisi which reportedly led to a few bust ups between ange and kossie

(hence why he started the season on the bench)

Tue. Feb. 20, 05:14:00 pm AEDT  

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