The first week of the A-League season brought with it positives and negatives; laying the groundwork for the narratives that will come to define the A-League across the 2019-20 season.
In Sydney’s west, 17,091 fans poured into the newly constructed Bankwest Stadium for Western Sydney Wanderers’ first competitive fixture in ‘The New Wanderland’ – a marked increase from the 5364 and 8163 that watched the Wanderers host the Mariners in two games last year.
The atmosphere on show on Saturday – both pre-game and during the match – provided a loud and atmospheric opening to the season in a manner that only football can.
— The Ladies League (@LadiesALeague) October 12, 2019
Sydney FC, its attack reinforced in the off-season, demonstrated it will be lethal in transition in its win over Adelaide United and the Mariners flashed enough potential under now-permanent head coach Alen Stajčić to show that they won’t be the easy beats of a season ago.
Across the ditch, Western United made its entrance to the A-League a successful one, exhibiting an attractive brand of football as it downed Wellington Phoenix.
Perhaps most exciting for the footballing purist, teenagers such as Al Hassan Toure, Sam Silvera, Connor Metcalfe, Louis D’Arrigo, Connor Metcalfe, Daniel Wilmering and Joel King all saw significant minutes in the opening round of the campaign.
This can only be a positive sign for a league that has previously struggled to offer young Australian players playing opportunities – surely one of its main purposes.
6th October 2012 – Daniel Wilmering is ball boy as Western Sydney Wanderers play their first ever A-League game.
12th October 2019 – Seven years later, the 18-year-old comes off the bench to make his second appearance, as the Wanderers return to Parramata.
— A-League Hub (@AleagueHub) October 12, 2019
Nevertheless, a pause is required before backslapping on the A-League’s new-found appreciation for youth can begin.
With the international break soon to end and new signings to regain more fitness after pre-season layoffs, an instinct to go with veterans over the risk of youth – as was likely the case when Melbourne City coach Erick Mombaerts started Javier Cabrera over Ramy Najjarine in the Melbourne derby – will only increase for A-League head coaches.
Should youngsters’ roles devolve into that of a human victory cigar thrown into the fray when the result is already secured – as Sydney FC teen Luke Ivanovic was against Adelaide United – then Round 1 will serve as nothing more than a false dawn.
Minutes are important, but more important for the development of young players are consequential minutes; opportunities where they are provided not just a chance to play, but the responsibility of impacting the game when the result still remains in doubt.
Alhassan Toure 👏
— Adelaide United (@AdelaideUnited) October 11, 2019
Nevertheless, one of the biggest stories, much as it seemingly is everywhere in world football, was the baleful presence of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
Frequently called into action as Sydney FC defeated the Reds in the season opener, VAR also loomed large in the Wanderers being awarded the winning penalty against the Mariners and disallowing Elvis Kamsoba’s go-ahead goal in the derby.
On Sunday, it failed to save Perth Glory after Roy O’Donovan’s late equalising header was correctly deemed onside.
A quick glance across social media would tell you that those for and against VAR frequently fall back onto two main talking points.
Those eager to see VAR consigned to the dustbin decry what they see as a corrupting force that drains romance, passion and spontaneity from the game.
How, they argue, can one be excited about a perfectly weighted ball behind the defence, a desperate block of an otherwise certain goal or the ball being fired into the back of the net if every observer knows that it only truly counts when an official, seconded away in a separate location, observes it in minute detail on a monitor before giving it a tick?
Conversely, those in favour of VAR argue that while there are growing pains associated with its implementation, the use of technology to aid referees in officiating games simply ensures accuracy and fairness.
For what earthly reason, they claim, should a game of football – which careers depend on, fans pay their hard-earned money to watch, while millions of dollars are spent on sponsorship, broadcasting and advertising – be decided thanks to error, when the technology exists to prevent it?
Listen to the VAR process that saw the goal overturned for offside.
— Hyundai A-League (@ALeague) October 12, 2019
Regardless of which side of the debate one falls upon, the reality is that VAR is here to stay.
Embraced by FIFA, VAR is now deployed across all the top leagues and major international tournaments; the howls of protestations are mothered by the grim, relentless march of progress.
Its proponents have already won. VAR is now a part of the game.
Now, they just need to win the PR war.
A-LEAGUE – ROUND 2
Friday: Melbourne Victory v Western Sydney Wanderers, Marvel Stadium, 7.30pm
Saturday: Western United v Perth Glory, GMHBA Stadium, 5pm; Central Coast Mariners v Newcastle Jets, Central Coast Stadium, 7.30pm.
Sunday: Melbourne City v Adelaide United, AAMI Park, 4pm;
Sydney FC v Wellington Phoenix, Leichhardt Oval, 6pm.
Bye: Perth Glory