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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.

Stuart Thomas is a trusted Journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on macro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions.

Katholos and Spanoudakis – Players who know best

In this age of uncertainty, Australian football faces great challenges to maintain prosperity in the professional sporting environment.

The decision makers would assure the football fraternity,  the right decisions are being made by the  people who are responsible for the governance of the game.

However, the history of the game is highlighted by the failure to provide former players the opportunity to contribute  in their life after football.

Many of these players have succeeded in the business world but have never been sighted by the hierarchy.

In 1992, the former Socceroo great, Marshall Soper, commented the game was all about administrators, not players.

Two former players who have succeeded in the business world are former Sydney Olympic team-mates, Peter Katholos and Manny Spanoudakis.

Katholos commenced a business in the manufacture and supply of football equipment while still playing professionally, has applied his electronics background in telecommunications and pursued extensive property and development interests.

Spanoudakis’s specialty was in electronic engineering with Unisys and is now General Manager of Sales for global technology company, Cisco Systems, in the Asia Pacific region.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Katholos and Spanoudakis provide their insights into Australian football.

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

With the restart of the A- League, what are your views on the current state of the game?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

Like all fans, I’ve missed the game and it wasn’t before time that the League was recommenced.

Ironically, the pandemic is an inflexion point for the stakeholders to reassess the existing status of the key areas of operational, technical and administrative procedures, and to implement necessary change.

PETER KATHOLOS

The restart was critical because if the League wasn’t to be completed, it could’ve potentially led to its premature demise.

Some players and coaches haven’t returned and without a competition, there was no publicity and the League became a distant memory.

However, the game probably required a reset so it could come out stronger at the other end.

ROGER SLEEMAN

What was your opinion of the playing standard before the halt?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

Watching overseas football with no crowds over the last few months has given me the opportunity to reflect and compare against the standard of the A League. Whilst the tempo, skill and intensity overseas is more advanced than the A League, turnover of possession and defensive frailties even at the most elite level are still there to be seen. That said, the standard of the A League still has significant scope for improvement in order to be compared with most European leagues.

PETER KATHOLOS

There are a couple of good teams in the League but it’s far from exciting as there is an absence of creative players.

I watched Leeds United v Stoke City a few weeks ago in the English Championship and it was breathtaking.

It highlighted the speed, technique and intensity which is lacking in our game and the bottom line is broadcasters woudn’t be pulling out of A-League coverage ,and subscriptions wouldn’t have been declining so consistently in the last few seasons if the product was better.

ROGER SLEEMAN

What is your view on the XI Principles for the future of Australian football, recently released?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

The document is voluminous so it’s better to consider the main points.

Point number 1 refers to the requirement for a strong brand and identity. I believe the Socceroos and Matildas already have a strong affinity with even the most casual sports fan across Australia. However, at the domestic level, promotion and marketing of the A League is almost non existant.

The awarding of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will certainly increase awareness of our sport across all demographics and we should look to leverage this great event to amplify the A League at every opportunity.

PETER KATHOLOS

To improve the identity of the game, there has to be consistent marketing for the benefit of the sporting public.

People are aware we qualified for the last four World Cups which we should continually market to the masses.

Personally, I was pretty disturbed by the total lack of coverage when the A-League and NPL competitions ceased at the start of the Pandemic.

ROGER SLEEMAN

On that note, what are your thoughts about the viewing audience last Saturday for Central Coast v Perth of 9,000 compared to NRL of 804,000 and AFL 978,000.

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

Before their seasons recommenced, the other codes launched their publicity machines and people knew what was happening.

Honestly,  I wasn’t aware that Sydney FC played Wellington in the first match of A- league until I saw the score the day after.

Also, I didn’t know about the Central Coast match so the message is, there has to be some money spent on promotion because I didn’t see any advertising for the A-League.

PETER KATHOLOS

The figures don’t lie which suggests the A-League isn’t exactly capturing the imagination of the sporting public.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Point 3 of the Principles highlights payments in the transfer system.

Your thoughts about player transfer payments.

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

In order to stimulate the football economy, the most immediate focus should be for the establishment of a transfer system across all levels of football in Australia.

For example, I remember in 1989, Zlatko Arambasic was an up and coming striker playing for Canterbury Marrickville Olympic in the NSW Super League. Blacktown City was in the NSL and paid a $50,000 transfer fee to secure his services.

If NPL clubs can generate revenue from developing players, they can reinvest in better facilities and coaching which sustains the football economy.

PETER KATHOLOS

We need a vibrant and sustainable development system so the NPL clubs can be rewarded via a transfer system which provides the resources for them to continue to churn out quality players for the A- League and the national teams.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Point 5 in the Principles refers to creating a world class environment for youth development.

Your take on this.

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

The whole youth development system needs to be revamped and a funding structure established.

In order to improve the end product, we need a 5-10 year plan which entails developing better youth coaches and investing more in player education.

Parent education also has a key role to play in assisting youth development because up to 80% of the player’s available time during the week is at home.

Consequently, nutrition, fitness levels and private practice of technique and drills have to be of the highest order.

PETER KATHOLOS

Our major objective should be to develop better players who can boost attendances and bring more money into the game with the help of companies and the government.

In the 80’s, when I played at Sydney Olympic, our star local players attracted crowds of 10-15,000 without much promotion.

If you raise standards, more money will naturally flow into the game and also players can be sold overseas providing another substantial revenue stream.

ROGER SLEEMAN

There is a severe absence of past players involved in the game.

How can this change?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

As a corporate manager, I believe you need football people in the key positions of financial,  operations and marketing.

Historically, the CEO role was awarded to a non-football industry candidate but times have changed and James Johnson’s appointment was a positive one and quite timely.

The previous CEO’S had a lack of emotional connection to the game so at least giant strides have been made here.

PETER KATHOLOS

There are enough football people and former players available to be involved in all areas of the game like in Europe.

When the FFA started, their executives didn’t know who we were.

The skill set of former players should be utilized in coaching, mentoring, marketing and administration.

I applaud the selection of the first eleven but the key issue is, some of these current and former players may have little business experience.

Undoubtedly, there are many former players who have succeeded in business and willing to make a contribution to the progress of the game.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Is the administration hanging its hat on the success of the Women’s World Cup bid?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

This is a fantastic victory for the sport as it promotes gender equality and it should be an amazing tournament.

During the difficult times, a better good news story couldn’t have happened to the sport.

PETER KATHOLOS

This was a real success after the failure of the Men’s World Cup bid and hopefully it will encourage a large commitment to building better infrastructure for the sport.

Frankly, I didn’t follow the women’s game closely until the Stajic saga prompted me to take interest.

However, I believe the players like our men, have to improve the technical side of their game if they’re going to be a threat in the tournament.

Heidelberg United: Modernising youth development with SoccerPLAY

At all levels of the game technology is having a profound impact on football. While spectators focus largely on tools like VAR and goal-line technology, coaches and administrators are increasingly turning to sports science and innovation to seek a competitive advantage.

It was searching for this competitive edge that led Chris Theodorou, Football Programs Manager at Heidelberg FC to SoccerPLAY, an online management system which is revolutionising the club’s youth development.

“SoccerPLAY does more than just support coaches, it allows clubs to create a structure and a style. It’s a methodology,” Theodorou says.

SoccerPLAY is currently being used by more than 100 clubs and football federations around the world, including AC Milan and the Dutch Football Association.

The system gives users access to more than 800 exercises and training drills which can use to create training programs, improve specific skills, and track player development.

“The structure is phenomenal. It allows a football department to put together a program that can be accessed on a phone, tablet or computer,” he adds.

“It helps to keep training fresh and there are different formats for each exercise, so it provides coaches with all the tools they need to feel supported,” he adds.

Coaches can also create their own exercises which they can upload onto the system and form training schedules in weekly, fortnightly, or monthly blocks.

“If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Sporting organisations love to see their coaches turning up well prepared and with this system they will never run out of ideas,” Theodorou says.

“There are different objectives listed, so a coach or technical director can search specifically to find relevant exercises. From basics like first touch, passing, and movement to more advanced things such as building from the back and possession play, there are different formats of drills for everything.”

Each of SoccerPLAY’s  training exercises comes with a detailed guide on how to execute the drill correctly. This includes information on what equipment is needed, an animation providing an overview of the movements, and a real-life instructional video designed to demonstrate correct technique.

Theodorou highlights the video depicting technique as a particularly valuable tool for Australian coaches.

“The instructional videos are technique-focused because in Europe if you can’t pass, you can’t play. Whereas here in Australia we emphasise going hard and fast,” he says.

As SoccerPLAY is designed to incorporate youth development for all ages, there are exercises that are suitable for players in the under-6 age bracket through to under-19’s.

Many of the drills have variations which provide coaches the option to simplify them or make them more challenging, depending on the age group and skill level of the players.

“You don’t want to give five or six-year-old players too much information, so the drills are simple in order not to overcomplicate things. It’s also recommended that you don’t change what they are doing too often, whereas with older groups you can be more creative,” Theodorou says.

In addition to assisting coaches with an overarching training program, SoccerPLAY allows football departments an unprecedented ability to track individual player development.

“The player tracking is awesome. You can record a player’s results in agility tests, beep tests, sprint tests and so forth then track how they improve over the course of the year. At Heidelberg we aim to do these three or four times over the year to measure their developments,” Theodorou says.

“You can also track how players are performing in matches by uploading statistics and video snippets to their profile. For example, you can upload clips of a player doing something really well or if they’ve made a mistake, then you can show them the footage in order to identify learning opportunities.”

The key to SoccerPLAY’s effectiveness is the calibre of its designers, Dutch football experts Patrick Ladru, Bram Meurs and David Zonneveld. All three have all had distinguished careers within football, specifically youth development and education.

Among their many achievements, Ladru was a youth manager and then scout at AFC Ajax, Meurs played at PSV Eindhoven and now operates as a sports psychologist, and Zonneveld served as a youth coach at FC Volendam and now specialises in motorised learning for children.

“Ladru has worked with Johan Cruyff and the likes, he creates many of the exercises himself. Bram focuses more on the mental components of the system and what sort of actions players need to do off the ball and then there’s David, who specialises in teaching players behaviours and habits,” Theodorou says.

In Australia, SoccerPLAY is just beginning to gain traction with Heidelberg United being one of the first clubs to adopt the system.

As an active user of the program, Theodorou believes Australian football should be more open to stepping away from traditional practices and embracing new ideas.

“This is where FFA and FFV are missing the mark. Our national youth teams are not making World Cups so how are our seniors going to make World Cups in the future?” he says.

“The coaches that have embraced SoccerPLAY here think it’s unbelievable, its designed to be simple and effective.”

AFC announces new competition dates

The Asian Football Confederation has released updated schedules for the restart of the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has released updated schedules for the restart of the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup.

Group stage matches for Groups A-D in the Champions League will be played on September 14-24. Groups E-H will play their matches in October and finish before November 1. The Final of the Champions League is now scheduled for December 5.

AFC Cup group stage matches will start from September 23 and will be finished by November 4. The Final is set for December 12 – the winner will qualify for the Champions League in 2021.

Both the Champions League and AFC Cup will be played in hubs. The locations of the centralised groups will be confirmed by the AFC at a later date.

Group stage matches for both tournaments will be played in full, however finals matches will now be single match ties instead of home and away fixtures.

“The AFC Administration has been in constant dialogue with our Mas (Member Associations), Leagues and Clubs in recent weeks so that we can establish a clear picture of the opportunities that exist in each MA,” Dato’ Windsor John, the AFC General Secretary said.

“I would like to thank all our stakeholders, including our MAs, the Leagues and Clubs as well as our Commercial and Broadcast Partners, once again for their understanding and patience as well as loyalty and commitment to Asian football during what continues to be a difficult and uncertain time in the history of our game.

“Notwithstanding the challenging times, I am delighted that we are seeing more encouraging progress on the return of many domestic Leagues to the field and with them comes an expectation that we can conclude both the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup in the coming months.”

There are three Australian teams competing in the 2020 AFC Champions League. Melbourne Victory is third in Group E with one win and one loss. Perth Glory is last in Group F with one loss, while Sydney FC sits in third place of Group H with a draw and a loss.

The AFC also announced dates for national team and Futsal tournaments. The U-19 Championship will be played in Uzbekistan between October 14 to 31. The AFC Futsal Championship will be played in Turkmenistan from November 4 to 15.

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