It was a match that started with such promise with Dimitri Petratos forcing Thomas Glover into a very early save, yet it ended with a chorus of boo’s and that all too familiar sinking feeling.
Western Sydney’s 3-1 loss to Melbourne City leaves them in 9th in the table – though having played more games than all of the teams below them – and with new head coach Mark Rudan plenty to ponder as his first three games in charge saw one win and back to back losses.
Friday’s defeat was a microcosm of how the team has performed in the hectic two-week period since Rudan replaced the much maligned Carl Robinson.
Going forward – especially in the first 30 minutes – they played with impetus and purpose, with Petratos, James Troisi and Keijiro Ogawa playing with a confidence and fluidity very rarely seen this season. They looked especially good when attacking in transition, and Melbourne City’s defence initially were stretched to deal with the threat posed.
However, bar their early chance, they struggled to test Glover, and City’s defence evolved to the task at hand and slowly halted the Wanderers advance. And, as champion sides do, they then exposed the Wanderers achilles heel twice in the space of seven minutes.
Matthew Leckie is not renowned for his heading ability, but he was able to take advantage of two huge lapses in concentration from the Wanderers defence. Steven Ugarkovic and Mark Natta let him ghost past them after the ball had initially been cleared for the first goal, before Ziggy Gordon failed to track a late run to the near post for the second.
Defending set-pieces was a huge problem under Robinson, and so far Rudan has been unable to amend it. The coach said in the post-match press conference that it is something both coaching staff and players need to work on.
“We collectively need to get better at that as a coaching staff, and I’ll look at us first and I always will.”
“It’s as much a mindset as anything else when you’re defending and attacking corners, along with placing certain players in the right areas that can actually do the job that’s asked of them, whether it be marking space or whether you have someone on the near post, far post, they are all individual qualities you have to asses and then match it up against the individual opposition.”
The goals deflated the Wanderers charge on the pitch and the atmosphere off of it, and City were now in full control of the game. They added a third on 64 minutes through some Florin Berenguer magic; and if it weren’t for Jamie Maclaren horribly scuffing a penalty and for Petratos netting a consolation, the scoreline would have been much more embarrassing for a home side that at times was thoroughly outplayed.
There were some mitigating factors. Let’s remember that Melbourne City are arguably the best team in the league, with Matthew Leckie and their attack beginning to fire and featuring a well rounded midfield and defence. Rudan was also without the service of two key players, with Jack Rodwell and Tomer Hemed both failing late fitness tests after picking up knocks in the last game.
Judging off of the previous two games, Rodwell is set to feature heavily in Rudan’s plans. The Englishman has assumed the captain’s armband in the wake of Rhys Williams season-ending injury, and acted as a key lynchpin in the middle of the park, acting as a motivator and dictating the play and tempo.
And with Hemed’s absence, they lacked a focal point up top to help stretch the Melbourne City defence, hold up the ball, win aerial duels or act as a target for any crosses, especially when City’s defence narrowed and constricted the space that the Wanderers crafty players could operate in. Petratos was operating in that role, but failed to fulfil the requirements adequately and was smothered by Curtis Good and Rostyn Griffiths.
However, it is clear to see that there is much work to be done if this Wanderers side is going to make any sort of challenge for the finals. And after three games in charge, Rudan is beginning to become more aware of the challenges that he faces. He admitted that he is focusing on changing certain negative behaviours and mindsets at the club.
“We are changing certain behaviours and habits that we do have and we have been working on certain things… [there is a] little bit of naivety…”
Rudan is also going to have to do this under a backdrop of a fanbase that is turning increasingly hostile at those in the boardroom, with chants calling for the club’s CEO, John Tsatsimas to “get out of our club” reverberating from the RBB in the second half, whom some hold responsible for the club’s decline.
It is an environment that is much harder for a coach to try and turn the tide, as every negative result and interaction is magnified and adds fuel to the fire. Certainly, Rudan’s assertion that the game was “their best performance” of his tenure so far did not go down well on social media.
Indeed, there is no rest for the weary, as the Wanderers face FFA Cup winners Melbourne Victory on Wednesday, another massive test for a club floundering to save its season. And while Rudan won’t have much time on the training pitch to right the wrong’s of Friday night, he will have to conjure up some magic if he is to ensure that his spell as coach will last beyond the end of the season.