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Ange Postecoglou’s trail blazing J-League success finally silences the critics
Former Socceroo manager Ange Postecoglou stands just 90 minutes away from potentially the most significant achievement by an Australian football coach.
For the past two seasons, the 54-year-old has been at the helm of J-League club Yokohama F Marinos. With a three point lead on the ladder heading into the final round of play and a comfortable seven goal advantage in the tie-breaking for and against column, Postecoglou’s men appear sure things; a done deal and J-League champions.
Barring some sort of bizarre final day flake out or the most stunning of all victories by their opponent this weekend and second placed FC Tokyo, an Australian manager will for the first time, have his hands on one of the most valuable pieces of silverware in Asian football.
The club is emerging as a potential Japanese powerhouse, with the City Football Group investing in a minority share in 2014. It had an obvious eye towards leading the club back to J-League success after what had been a ten year stretch of disappointment.
Not that the club could ever have been described as a minnow of Japanese football. Three league championships and a J-League Cup in 2001 are testament to its success. However, aside from a second place finish in the league in 2013, Yokohama has recently done little more than sniff around the fringes of the top rungs.
It’s most proud achievement is quite probably the fact they have played in the top flight of Japanese football since its inception. Never suffering relegation and always being competitive.
The involvement of the City Football Group usually signifies immediate change, thanks the increased investment and resourcing undertaken at the clubs with which they become involved. There are now eight such clubs across the globe, with trophies and more trophies a clear motivation for the owners.
A key part of the new investment in Yokohama and a potential change in fortune was to find the right mentor and Postecoglou, after successfully qualifying Australia for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, accepted the challenge laid out before him. He would follow in the footsteps of the now Melbourne City manager Erick Mombaerts in Japan, who was unable to produce the results which City Football Group demanded.
For the Aussie, it required a forgoing of another trip to the world’s biggest football tournament, something for which Postecoglou took much criticism. Many believed there was a sense of desertion. However, the manager had been explicit that his term was to only ever cover the four year period for which he had signed. When family ramifications, an attempt to sure up his long term future and his continued development as a manger were also considered, Postecoglou had a simple choice to make.
Yokohama it was to be and after moments of promise in 2018, his first season saw the club finish in 12th place on the J-League ladder. In truth, there were moments late in the season where they appeared a far better team than that result indicated.
Consistent with his past, Postecoglou was content to experience two steps backwards to eventually take a commanding three forward. It has long been his approach. Postecoglou has a plan, vision and philosophy about football. The chances of him stepping into a role and continuing with the style and methodologies of the previous boss are slim and none.
It was the approach he took with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory in the A-League. It brought about multiple championships. At the helm of the Socceroos he took the same approach, starting from scratch and trialling a vast number of players before settling on the men he knew had completely bought into his way of thinking and could best execute his plan on the big stage.
Such an approach will potentially be the greatest legacy he leaves when the clip board is eventually shelved and his career is done and dusted. An Australian with the confidence to back his own systems and without the need to replicate the approaches of managers at the helm of some of the biggest European and South American clubs, is a new phenomenon.
Postecoglou never sought the tick of approval from those whose methods are supposedly the ‘right’ and ‘tested’ way to approach the game. He always had a clear plan and had the courage to back it no matter the outcome, fallout or any personal criticism that may come his way because of it.
Even Postecoglou’s critics, and there were many at times, would applaud him for having the courage of his convictions.
Now the Greek born manager will have a rather impressive J-League title to add to his resume. In a week where Soccerscene’s own Philip Panas’ interview with Phil Moss as Australian football coaches deserve better explored some of the challenges faced by domestic coaches, Postecoglou’s success is timely.
With Moss correctly identifying the limited opportunities presented to Australian coaches and the need for a solid support network to aid them in their development and growth, Ange Postecoglou has once again set the bar, broken the glass ceiling and pioneered the way forward.
It is a success most Australian football fans will celebrate, whilst a few doubters may be forced to eat a rather large piece of humble pie.
Soccerscene is committed to promoting, enhancing and growing the soccer industry in Australia. We believe soccer news has captured the attention of grassroots soccer clubs, apparel and equipment suppliers – which extends to governing bodies, club administrators and industry decision makers. Many of the auxiliary products and services support the growth of the soccer industry in Australia and Asia, a passion we also share and want to express through our work.
Carlos Salvachúa was Victory assistant coach under Kevin Muscat, before taking over as caretaker manager. He has coached professionally in Spain and Belgium, including six years at the Real Madrid academy, overseeing the development of the club’s rising stars.
He spoke to Soccerscene from Spain about his impressions of the A-League, where it could be improved, and how Australian youth need to play more football to reach their potential.
What were your first impressions of the A-League?
Salvachúa: Sometimes the big issue is knowing if it’s a professional league or not – and definitely the A-League was professional. I’m talking about games, organisation, talking about flights or hotels, and training. I was lucky to arrive to Melbourne Victory – one of the biggest clubs there is – and everything in the club was like in Europe and in Spain. Good facilities, good organisation, and a lots of staff in the office. For me the first impression was really professional.
What was the level of professionalism like compared to other leagues you have coached in?
Salvachúa: Belgium is a hard competition. I’m talking about the games, not about organisation – it’s similar to the A-League or in Spain in the La Liga. The competition is tough in Belgium if we compare the level of the players, the games and the competition.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while coaching in Australia?
Salvachúa: One of the biggest for me was the distance to play a game. It was funny because here with Atlético versus Real Madrid they travel 15 minutes to go to sleep at home, and for Victory we spend three days away to play a game, for me this was really hard. In the Champions League we spent five days away to play a game in China or in Japan. For me and and European players as well this was hard, because it was not easy. I remember the long pre-season because the schedule of FFA Cup was really hard for us. We trained two to three months before the first game in the A-League, just to play one round in the FFA Cup.
How do you think the league could be improved?
Salvachúa: For me, playing without promotion and relegation, is a problem, a big one in my opinion for the league. You need to improve the league from the basement – you cannot start the building of the house from the roof, you must start building the house from the ground up. I’m talking about the NPL. They are tough competitions, and you need to give promotion to the A-League, and I think that the competition will be better with this system like in Europe. I think a competition without promotion and relegation is only working with the MLS in USA. In Australia I think that it would be great to create another kind of competition to improve the league.
Another thing for me that is one of the biggest issues was that sometimes the players were receptive – they are professionals about training and have a good attitude to learn, but for me as a coach sometimes the players don’t know how important it is to win – compared to a draw or a loss. Without promotion and relegation, in some games as a coach, in the second half the players don’t understand how important it is to get a win over one point. I think that is probably one of the solutions to change the model of the competition.
How would you rate the level of young talent being developed in Australia?
Salvachúa: Like in other countries, you have good players with talent at 14, 15, and 16 years of age, but in my opinion they need more games. Some players arrive to A-League at 19 years old – playing 18 to 25 games – and it’s not easiest time for the coaches to start these young players in the first 11. If they are not playing every Sunday, they need another tough competition. You need competitive games with a second team like here in Spain or with the under 18s or under 19s – it depends. I think that they need more games here. A 14 or 15 year old kid normally finishes the competition in Spain with 45 official games. 45 games is more than the professionals in the A-League. I think one of the big issues is they do not have enough games and training sessions to develop the players. But the talent is there like in other countries.
John Didulica’s insight into Australian football is entrenched in a broad and intimate exposure to the game from all areas of the pitch and beyond across many years of playing and working in the game.
His long-standing involvement in football has seen him take on a variety of roles including helping to usher in the Melbourne Heart in their inaugural years as Director of Football Operations, leading Professional Footballers Australia as their Chief Executive Officer and now as Director of Football for a Melbourne Victory side looking to rebuild in the A-League.
His chat with Soccerscene saw a whole range of topics covered, namely his efforts to help push the Victory into a new era, his impactful learnings from his time at the Heart and his recent efforts in helping to produce the ‘Football Belongs’ series with Optus Sport.
Obviously, it’s been a very challenging few years for Melbourne Victory’s A-League side with underwhelming performances on the pitch and difficulties off it, how was it for you coming into a club off the back of some difficult seasons?
John Didulica: I think it’s been an exciting time for me personally to be back involved with football. Melbourne Victory has had such a proud history in its own right, but equally the club has played such a big role in shaping modern Australian football. To be given an opportunity to work here is a great honour and privilege, like anybody who gets to work in football.
The fact that they’ve had a couple of lean years on the pitch doesn’t detract from all the great things they’ve done over the best part of two decades. Coming into the club, with that in mind, it’s not about re-engineering everything or discarding a couple of decades of history. It’s just about trying to more deeply understand what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and where we need to get better to ensure that we’ve got the right standards across not only the team but also all the other areas of the club.
And making sure that we start, day-by-day through our actions, showing that we want to be better. There’s nobody in the world who can come in with a magic wand and say “If you do ‘A, B and C’, you’re going to get a better performance on the park”. The key thing for us is, through our actions, to everyday try and be a little bit better. That’s certainly led by Tony Popovic – that’s the way he approaches his preparation of the team and I think as a staff that’s what we’re adopting.
Hopefully the results on the pitch will in-time reflect that, and restore the confidence of the team, the members and the club which has been tested in recent seasons and we need to show them that we can be trusted with their club.
For you, was it about coming into the club knowing exactly what needed changing or was it about listening and learning?
John Didulica: I think it always has to be about listening and learning. Absolutely that has to be the starting point. I’ve got some models and framework which I like to operate within, but populating that and identifying what needs to be done sequentially is very much about listening and learning.
It’s about seeing where we’re at now, what the acute areas that required immediate attention were, and in our case, it was pretty obvious. We had a brand-new coaching team that we needed to bed down; we had a lot of squad reconstruction that needed to happen; we had to reboot the entire medical department, so, there were a whole of things facing us right from the outset.
Counterintuitively, that’s helped us to build a lot of momentum as it’s forced us to get things done pretty quickly and in a really decisive way. And with a lot of new people on board there’s a lot of really good ideas being shared and I think overtime we’ll start bedding those things down.
But it’s certainly not about disregarding what’s happened over the best part of two decades just because of a couple of lean seasons. I think if anything, the lessons from 3-5 years ago are a lot louder because Victory’s lost its way in the last couple of seasons.
We’re still lucky to have people like Carl Valeri around who has been a great servant at the club for many years and who works in the role of Player Operations Manager. It can just remind us of what we’ve done well in the past and can ensure that we’re continuing to bottle the great things that Victory has done in the past rather than reinvent the wheel.
With the acquisitions of Tony Popovic and numerous proven A-League talents, what are Victory’s objectives for the coming season on the pitch?
John Didulica: Our aspirations are absolutely to challenge for trophies, that’s our expectations internally and I’m sure they’re shared by the members as well. They want to see a team that’s challenging for Honours – that’s certainly Tony’s mindset.
We’re strategically focused on bringing elite Australian talent into the squad and that’s been our absolute priority. Chris Ikonomidis, Josh Brillante, Jason Davidson, Jason Geria, to name a few, are all highly regarded elite proven international level players. So, to have those guys come in it’s a really powerful core and foundation for the club.
And, we might not get everything right in season one because we have so much to do, but I’m really confident that we’ve got a super strong core that will ensure we have a successful season and will only get better in the years to come.
There’s a seduction to going for a couple of big-name players and bringing them in and hoping that they can be a sugar hit, but I just don’t think that’s sustainable and I don’t think that’s what we need at the moment. Because we’re going through so many changes, we need to be able to make as many sure bets as possible. I think with a lot of the players and coaching staff we know exactly what we’re going to get, and we know their history is decorated.
There has been a drive at the club to re-engage the Victory faithful who have ridden through the tough recent history. For Victory fans, what do you believe are the key values off the pitch that need to be reflected on the pitch?
John Didulica: The number one thing I think is for the administration team to match the ambition that the fans have for their club. Our fans at Melbourne Victory are hugely ambitious for what Melbourne Victory can be. Games like we had against Liverpool, that was a magical moment for a lot of people.
Building AAMI Park, something like that doesn’t happen without Melbourne Victory being a success. There’s huge moments and huge steps forward for the sport that are a consequence of Victory doing well. So, the fans see that and are proud to be associated with this club.
Where we need to get back to now is matching the ambition that the fans have for this club. And that’s what we’re committed to doing and I think the board’s demonstrated that by signing Tony Popovic, who’s one of the best Australian coaches and players that are very ambitious, so we know we’re going to get people who are just as ambitious as we want to be.
And I think that sits at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve – matching the fans’ ambition and energy for our club. And if we do that, I know we’re going to be successful. Because we’ve got fans who live and breathe the club and if we reciprocate that then I know we’ll be successful.
You’re now coming into an A-League side that has been around since the beginning of the league’s creation, but taking it back over 10 years ago you spent a few years at the Melbourne Heart from their inauguration. What did you learn from your time at the side in their early years?
John Didulica: One of the things I’ve often learnt on a personal level is to be resourceful and resilient. We didn’t have huge budgets and we ran incredibly lean. We were up against Melbourne Victory who had had such great success as a club.
From my perspective it was great to add to the tapestry of football in Melbourne. The pressure of the Melbourne Derby was, for me, one of the real highlights in A-League history. Those nights have been fantastic regardless of whether you were on the red side of the fence or the dark blue side of the fence, they were great nights.
In terms of that experience [at Melbourne Heart], resourcefulness and resilience were key. What resonated with me during that period was getting a more acute understanding of what the implication taking shortcuts were. When you’re at a club that’s resource-poor, sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not sustainable.
So, very much coming into Victory it’s key that we’re not going to take shortcuts. We’re going to make sure, to the extent possible, remove as much risk from what we do. That means bringing in high calibre people, servicing them effectively and having the right support around people. Even in those days at Heart we still managed to produce some incredible players; Aziz Behich, Eli Babalj, Curtis Good – these guys were all capped because of the opportunity they were given.
There’s a lot of lessons that I’ve taken with me about the capacity to run youth effectively and hopefully that can be something we can continue to build on here at Victory.
A challenge for Australian football throughout its history has been its search for an identity in the midst of such a diverse sporting landscape. From doing such a deep dive with ‘Football Belongs’, what was confirmed about Australian football for you and what surprised you?
John Didulica: Ultimately, what I was investigating through that series was why is it that we’re not comfortable in our own skin. As football fans we’re always looking for some sort of external validation for who we are. And the more you unwrap football the more you understand the way Australia’s evolved, and therefore the role played by football in shaping modern day Australia and how deeply embedded football is in all of these key themes of Australian life.
And that’s something to be so proud of as a code. We don’t need external validation for what we are as football supporters, I think we should be incredibly proud of what we’ve done. Projecting that forward, I think football has the power to help Australia become a far more progressive nation in the decades ahead.
In the same way football helped Australia navigate the influx of migrants has shown, with the likes of John Moriarty and Charles Perkins, it showed a genuine way of respecting Indigenous footballers. There’s a lot football can do about helping Australia navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation in the generations ahead.
As a sport, we need to take a leadership role in those areas. Anyone who is passionate about football knows it is more than just a sport. Nobody follows football for the ninety minutes on the pitch, as beautiful as that is, we’re all in it because it touches us far deeper. It’s about connecting to your ancestry and the broader community and being able to explore the broader world.
How many football fans would know the capital cities and flags of the world by virtue of their passion for football? Football is an incredible portal to the world and we need to celebrate that more. And it’s about having confidence in celebrating.
A club like Victory is a great segue in regards to ‘Football Belongs’, because Victory’s got a lot of opportunity to lead in a lot of those areas. We’re the biggest football club in the sporting capital of the world in the world’s biggest sport. If you bring those three things together, Victory is uniquely positioned to lead in an incredibly compelling and exciting way.