The resurgence of the Newcastle Jets this season has seen them cement a spot in the top six as they look for a first A-League finals appearance since the 2009-10 season.
Although the success has come from all around the park, including Gary van Egmond’s trust in youth and tactics – despite the early season critics – it is their midfield trio that makes the Jets’ engine tick.
Captain Ruben Zadkovich is at the heart of that trio, with support from youngsters Ben Kantarovski and Joshua Brillante. With all three playing alongside each other this season, Newcastle have a record of four wins, three draws and a single loss, compared to the sole point in three games when they have not all started.
This midfield trio is one of the most underrated combinations in the league.
On Friday night against Brisbane that could not have been any clearer. After beginning the match in a 4-4-2 formation, van Egmond returned to the 4-3-3 formation, allowing for Zadkovich, Kantarovski and Brillante to resume their alliance.
The result was a 2-0 victory against the league leaders as Kantarovski launched the attack for the Jets’ opener, before Brillante set up Newcastle’s second.
The midfield combination has rejuvenated all three players but no more so than 21-year-old Ben Kantarovski.
Playing in a traditional number six at the centre of that trio, Kantarovski has recaptured the form that earned him a trial with reigning European Champions Bayern Munich four years ago.
Kantarovski’s solid protection in front of Kew Jaliens and Taylor Regan saw him record an A-League round eleven high of six interceptions in midfield, making his average over four a game this season.
His work rate has been able to release Zadkovich in more of a free flowing position in the middle of the park, allowing the captain to influence the attack.
However, Zadkovich’s biggest asset to Newcastle is not his tremendous work rate nor freer role in midfield – it is his leadership.
With experienced attacking duo Emile Heskey and Michael Bridges in and out of the side through injury, Zadkovich has taken his leadership to another level, much to the delight of many in the stands, including the squadron.
This has seen him in contention for a possible Socceroos trial, something youngster Joshua Brillante might also get.
After impressing for the Young Socceroos at the FIFA Under 20 World Cup in Turkey earlier this year, Brillante has brought his form to the A-League to be the final piece of Newcastle’s midfield trio.
Brillante, traditionally a defensive midfielder like Kantarovski, has had a more attacking role in the midfield this season.
Speaking after the win on Friday night, van Egmond was quick to praise Brillante’s new role.
“He’s been doing very well this season, we’ve been very happy with him and very happy with his development,” van Egmond said. “As with all six and eights, they do relish the opportunity of playing a bit further forward, and that is a good part of his development as well.”
The midfield trio is set to be split after Newcastle’s January 4 clash, with Brillante to go away on Olyroo duty along with teammates Andrew Hoole and Connor Chapman, in a what will be a stern test for the Jets in the heat of January.