For the A-Leagues to be successful, clubs must understand where the Leagues are placed in the greater context of world football. The Leagues must work to their strengths to give young players a consistent platform to develop their talents.
Food chain (noun). Definition: The chain from a food source to the ultimate consumer.
It may sound pessimistic but for the good of of our country’s footballing fortune, it is time to recognise that the A-Leagues, and Australian football in general, are near the bottom of the world football food chain.
Even more importantly, it is time to start acting like it.
Is that a bad thing? Well, it boils down to perspective.
The gazelle does not spend its days in the African savannah laying around and accepting it’s inevitable demise at the hands of a lion or another predator. It accepts its predicament and works to its strengths in order to thrive and survive.
Australian football finds itself in a situation where it must play to its strengths to thrive in the long term. The proverbial lion being the English Premier League and leagues around the world stacking up underneath it until you reach Australia.
Closer to our backyard, football in Asia is continuing to grow. If Australia does not change and grow with it, it risks being left behind. Growth comes in many forms, but it must start from the grassroots level, with Japan being a great example of that the past few decades.
Despite Australia having many issues in grassroots development, the issues do not disappear once a young football player has navigated themselves onto an A-Leagues club’s list.
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Getting an opportunity at an A-Leagues club’s senior squad means that as a young player you have been judged as one of the brightest talents in your state by multiple coaches. The club’s management believes you have something to offer to the team in the short and long term.
Unfortunately, the treatment of such young talent does not always reflect that.
As a code, we celebrate when the 15 or 16-year-old makes their debut on the big stage. We are even quicker at pulling up the statistic about where they rank when compared to other talented youngsters who broke into senior football at a similar age.
What happens then?
That depends on a combination of coaching, culture, squads, fitness, attitude and the all around situation each young player finds themselves in. Importantly though, a lack of purposeful, consistent integration to first team football can hamper their development.
Exposing young players to the game is an important first step, but if there is no commitment to consistently challenge and trust those young players in important times of the game, that step becomes meaningless.
The most poignant example of a young player getting exposure but no meaningful minutes was the case of Marco Tilio at Sydney FC.
Tilio caught people’s attention debuting in the A-League Men for Sydney FC against the Central Coast Mariners. Coach Steven Corica subbed Tilio on at the 88th minute mark to use his energy to close out a 1-0 victory for the Sky Blues.
But he did more than that. In his seven minutes on the pitch, he netted himself a goal and an assist to put an exclamation mark on Sydney’s victory in Gosford. A talented youngster had just grabbed Australian football’s attention with a scintillating cameo.
Unfortunately, what followed was underwhelming, as Tilio only featured in two more games that season for a total of 14 minutes.
Sydney FC and Corica would make a strong argument, saying their judgement was right because, after all, they did win the championship that season, exclusively trusting senior players like Adam Le Fondre, Kosta Barbarouses, Milos Ninkovic and Alexander Baumjohann with any and all important minutes.
In the Australian football landscape, is this really how you want to win though?
The ‘experience’ dilemma
Experienced players are a must for A-Leagues clubs, no one will deny this. Sydney FC has been the standard of high quality recruitment.
When recruiting in the A-Leagues, it is important not only to look at the quality of the incoming player, but at what young assets a club has available and ready to contribute in the first team. This ensures an experienced signing does not block the pathway of capable young player.
A balance must be found for the good of the Australian game’s future, both in quality and finances.
Melbourne City fortunately viewed Tilio as an underappreciated asset and picked him up. He had a strong first season as a valuable impact substitute for wingers Andrew Nabbout and Craig Noone in City’s charge for the title.
Despite the fact that he only started half of his games, manager Patrick Kisnorbo trusted Tilio in important moments of matches, while also using him in 22 of City’s games. This was certainly a step up for Tilio’s development.
With Noone leaving City for Macarthur, many would have hoped Tilio would have finally received an opportunity to to make a spot for himself in City’s starting XI. That hope did not last long, with City signing Socceroo Matthew Leckie.
Despite the fact that Leckie has had a mixed start to his life as a City player, it is not an easy decision for a manager to drop his prized signing for a youngster who is still building his game.
Encouragingly, Tilio is receiving important minutes for Melbourne City and he is also being challenged as a player to learn playing a central midfield role, which supports his development. City now have a track record of giving opportunities for young players to succeed, and Tilio’s time to star should come.
If all goes as expected, Tilio’s contributions will get stronger and he will eventually pocket City a healthy fee from his eventual move overseas. At that stage, City must ensure they have the next young star ready to go to continue the cycle of life in the A Leagues.
An opportunity missed for Sydney FC turned into a chance to pounce for Melbourne City.
Sydney FC players who also got a lucky breaks include Cam Devlin, picked up by the Wellington Phoenix and Joel King, who only saw first team football at Sydney because of Michael Zullo’s long term injuries. Both players plie their trades overseas now.
The Sky Blues exposed these players to A-League football, but the only one of the three to get any serious minutes was Joel King, who ended up being a big success story.
For players to develop, exposure alone does not do the trick, to grow and learn, youngers must be exposed to serious football situations instead of empty minutes.
Encouragingly, over the past year, Sydney FC has started giving important minutes to some of its youngsters, which is paying dividends for them on and off the pitch.
Even though his situation was at times frustrating, Tilio is one of the lucky players who earned a move because of external admiration. Not all young players are as fortunate.
The case of Louis D’Arrigo
Adelaide United is one of the competitions top producers of young talent. The Reds expose talent at an A-Leagues leading rate, and are usually exemplary in their handling of that talent, with many players using the club as an avenue to an overseas move.
Louis D’Arrigo was one of Adelaide United’s brightest youngsters, so it was not a surprise that with Reds icon Isaias exiting the club at the end of the 2018/19 season, D’Arrigo was installed as the side’s new starting defensive midfielder.
The position holds a huge responsibility in the functionality of the midfield, but the youngster was supported by fellow midfield partners in James Troisi and Riley McGree. Both provided an attacking threat, but also held defensive responsibilities to support D’Arrigo.
Life as the anchor to United’s midfield was going well for the youngster, who intercepted the ball well and recycled it to his fellow midfielders.
D’Arrigo’s second season was not as smooth. It all started with the exits of Troisi and McGree, with replacements that did not compliment the youngster’s game.
Joe Caletti’s signing was a smart one for depth, but lacking experience and flexibility. When starting together, the youngsters were solid defensively, but did not offer much of an attacking threat. The result was a disjointed midfield, a far cry from the previous trio.
Stefan Mauk’s return provided some experience, but playing as an attacking midfielder, Mauk had his work cut out for him trying to get used to his new role.
D’Arrigo actually looked at his best in season 2020/21, when the Reds signed midfielder Josh Cavallo. In a box to box role, he offered something different from D’Arrigo, creating a dynamic, functional midfield combination alongside him and Mauk.
With Cavallo needing to deputise in fullback, the Reds once again had an incomplete midfield. In the coming months they signed experienced Spanish midfield duo Juande and Isaias to compensate.
On the surface level and looking at them individually, both Spaniards are superb signings. Unfortunately for the Reds, both those midfielders currently occupy the spot that D’Arrigo is best at in defensive midfield.
2021/22 has seen D’Arrigo spend most of his time on the bench behind the two, which is obviously not ideal for his continued development.
Balancing the squad
A-Leagues clubs must understand their position in world football when assembling their squads. Stacking your squad with highly experienced players can be tempting, but how far will that get you in the long term?
The question to ask is what are you trying to achieve? All clubs strive to win titles, but are you doing it in conjunction with giving your community a chance to succeed at a local, national, and international levels?
A club has a responsibility not just to its members, but also the community it represents. Being the representative of a region, your responsibility is to cultivate a relationship with grassroots football and to give the top talent an opportunity at a football career.
A balance must be found between young players and the appropriate experienced player with the correct character and position to complement what you already have. Titles are the pinnacle, but the reality of the A-Leagues is that that can fall away quiet quickly with no long term planning.
Exposure alone does not cut it. Giving young players important minutes is crucial for all clubs to ensure they can keep running a profitable business by cashing in on them when an overseas opportunity comes knocking.
Along with that, when a player leaves, a club can feel assured it has done its duty of care to best prepare the player for the next step of their career and potential opportunities with the national team.
Assembling a professional football side is not easy, nor should it be. Each club must think deeper than just the on field success a few months down the line.
One thing each A-Leagues club must do, is understand their own squads and best up and coming players. When signing foreign, experienced players, it is crucial to ensure that they do not block the path for young players who are the future of the club, league and country.
Our players will be tested physically and mentally in the next step of their journey when they are no longer the talented young local everyone adores, but an outsider who must prove that they belong.
Putting them in situations where they learn how to overcome challenges and thrive in serious stanzas of games is what clubs must be aiming to do, and should be the ultimate goal of exposing them to senior football.
Young players will eventually move on, it is the reality of our place in the world football food chain. What follows that is up to the clubs; they are the ones that must ensure the money they receive gets reinvested to the next generation.
At the end of the day, when a lucrative offer comes knocking, Australian football has done its job, the circle of life restarts. All A-Leagues clubs can do is wish their players the best, confident they have done their best to develop their own, but at the same time also having the next young talent ready to go.
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