Sydney FC headed into 2015-16 on the back of a Grand Final appearance and with another long off-season of preparation under Graham Arnold’s belt.
The campaign promised much, but once the slide began, the confident and confrontational manager had no answers to arrest it.
For the Sky Blues faithful, the signs began to emerge that the club were making poor decisions and heading in a direction that was only going to end one way. Making stop-gap signings like Zac Anderson and Matt Simon illustrated that the coach preferred the familiar over the inventive or ambitious and regular mistakes meant that any step forward the side made on the pitch were matched by two or three heading backwards immediately.
Some hope has been salvaged through the Asian Champions League, though. Fans will head out to Moore Park for the last 16 knockout phase anticipating a full-blooded effort across the 180 minutes, but every one of them will ponder recommitting their hard-earned if strides are not made over the five long months between now and when 2016-17 commences. New ideas are needed at the football club as much as new faces, to take stock of a season consigned to the history books.
The early showings were promising. Wins over the Newcastle Jets and a smash-and-grab result at home to the Western Sydney Wanderers had the club undefeated in five, until the Melbourne Victory came to town. That 4-2 defeat exposed a defence that was not up to task, with injuries starting to take a toll and new players making no impact. Second season blues set in by the turn of November.
The draw had papered over the large cracks opened up by better opposition. Sydney recorded convincing wins over the Mariners and Jets, including another remarkable stoppage-time winner at Wanderland. As for results outside clubs from NSW? Zero wins, making the 1-0 loss on Australia Day away to the Victory a better gauge of where the team was heading. Not only was the defeat hard to take, but the football left a lot to be desired.
Arnold’s first season used the Asian Cup January break as the circuit breaker to start fresh and go again. For this campaign, January was the beginning of the end. Defeats to the Brisbane Roar, Perth Glory, Melbourne City, Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United meant that the Sky Blues went a record 11 games without a win in the league. Shocking everyone by topping their ACL group amid the carnage was a welcomed distraction, if only the squad showed anything close to that level of resolve a few months earlier.
Key Player – Milos Ninkovic
A strong case could well be made for Matthew Jurman, a defender who finally found his voice and developed into a leader at the back despite the chaos surrounding him. For all his endeavour though, goals were conceded with ease and new recruit Milos Ninkovic overcame injury and fluctuations in form to pop-up at crucial times in the league and on the continent. Capped-off with a derby-winning goal on home soil, the Cove will be hoping the Serbian midfielder can have a healthy 2016-17 in the event that he’s kept on next campaign.
Whatever goodwill Graham Arnold won in his first season at the helm seems to have evaporated. ‘Arnie’ has not become a poor manager overnight, but only a deep run in the Champions League will save face and the tough-talking no-nonsense coach will have his most important off season of his career coming up. A bizarre on-air feud with Adam Peacock demonstrated that the control freak was starting fights he could not finish as it became abundantly clear that the ‘backs-against-the-wall’ mentality had runs it’s course. Next season has to be all about the football and the quality of the playing stocks, because mind games are useless when they aren’t followed by action.
Where to begin? Many supporters are racking their brains over who they want to keep on rather than let go, such was the pitiful display put on in 2015-16. Fan favourite Ali Abbas has been let go to Korea, while Jacques Faty and cousin Mikael Tavares, two players whose stocks plummeted dramatically, have already turned up 50 minutes drive away at Gosford. Melbourne City’s Alex Wilkinson has signed on the dotted line, yet Arnold has to do a lot more than get the Mariners band back together. Sydney FC cannot and should not look like a glorified Central Coast outfit, pure and simple.
All eyes will be on Milos Ninkovic and Filip Holosko with the crucial marquee slot needing an overhaul. The Slovakian winger is good enough to stay, but has not shown enough on or off the park to be considered the highest paid player on the roster. When it is all said and done, the club needs an injection of star power and consistent match-winning ability in a single package, qualities Holosko does not possess.
Rumours of interest in Reds defender Dylan McGowan are welcome, yet the clean out has to be number one priority. Names like Shane Smeltz, Matt Simon and Zac Anderson should be heading out the turnstiles while Chris Naumoff, Andrew Hoole, Rhyan Grant and David Carney would join Vedran Janjetovic and consider themselves incredibly fortunate if the club is willing to pay their wages. A fit Alex Brosque will be a sight for sore eyes, however, the coach should not be using the fitness status of a soon-to-be 33-year-old as the reason behind a lack of goals.
Grade – F
To finish four points ahead of the maligned Newcastle Jets and drop out of a sixth placed finals position out of 10 clubs is an out and out failure. Not only were results desperately poor, but the quality of the football was of such dire proportions that the experience felt more akin to a chore than anything resembling entertainment. As much as Sydney fans will not enjoy making the comparison, Tony Popovic is a case study at the Wanderers that proves how a bit of planning and execution can change a team’s fortunes around in the space of one season. Without a similar type of turnaround, Arnold’s days on the Harbour City will be numbered.