Heading into the 2020/21 A-League season there were seven rookie managers about to embark on their managerial quest. Some were tasked with reviving clubs to their past greatness, while others were just trying to keep their club in a competitive position in the league.
Each one of our seven rookie managers – Warren Moon, Ante Milicic, Carl Veart, Patrick Kisnorbo, Craig Deans, Richard Garcia and Grant Brebner – have each faced a different set of challenges across the first eight games of the season. Some have risen to the challenge that is football management, while others have struggled to produce so far.
Each rookie manager, whether their club is flying or not, is deserving of an early grading. So, without further ado, here are the official Reserve Team rookie manager grades.
Warren Moon – Brisbane Roar – A:
The task of dragging the Roar out of the mess created by the club’s previous manager, Robbie Fowler, would be no easy feat for any manager, let alone a rookie coach. But Warren Moon has done a fantastic job thus far.
Moon has the Roar planted in second place on the ladder with no signs of slowing down. Under Moon the Roar have amassed 14 points after eight games, having won four, drawn two and lost two.
It has been a more than impressive start to the season for the Roar. They play some exciting football, expertly utilising the pace of the likes of Dylan Wenzel-Halls as well as the dazzling footwork and playmaking ability of Scott McDonald and Riku Danzaki.
Moon has adapted his system well as the season has progressed, with the Roar altering from a 4-4-2, such as the one in their opening fixture against Melbourne City, to a 3-4-2-1 in their most recent matches.
It has been this shift in formation that has signified not only Moon’s excellent understanding of his players and the system needed to best utilise their gifts, but also his willingness to make changes and admit his set-up was wrong early on. It takes a lot of courage for a manager to alter their system, but Moon’s alterations have proved critical to the Roar’s success.
The Warren Moon revolution in Redcliffe has seen a drastic improvement in the side’s results in comparison to this stage last year, when the Roar sat sixth on the ladder with two wins, two draws and three losses.
One of the primary reasons behind the Roar’s results has been their attacking output. Brisbane have scored 13 goals this season, the third most in the league behind only the Mariners (16) and Perth (15). Moon’s systems have allowed for the Roar’s attacking talents to flourish. The 3-4-2-1 system has brought the best out of Wenzel-Halls, allowing him to use his pace to attack the channels, drift wide to receive the ball or link-up with either McDonald or Danzaki, both of whom operate in the spaces behind Wenzel-Halls.
Brisbane’s best performance this season came in round five against the Victory, when all three of their front three, McDonald, Danzaki and Wenzel-Halls, got on the score-sheet. This match highlighted why Moon’s start to coaching life has been such a success. It showcased the success of his tactical changes, his understanding of his players and their skills and most importantly, shone the spotlight on the positive, attacking football that he wants his Roar team to play with.
Ante Milicic – Macarthur FC – B+:
Ante Milicic is not a coaching rookie, having taken over from Alen Stajcic as head coach of the Matildas in 2019. But in terms of A-League coaching, Milicic is very much considered a rookie.
Amongst all the current rookie coaches in the A-League, Milicic is performing the best, with his Macarthur sitting third after nine games. And it has been a truly impressive start to life in the A-League for Milicic.
Blessed with a tremendously experienced squad, Milicic has Macarthur playing some of the A-League’s most beautiful football. A possession-based approach to the beautiful game is paramount for Milicic’s system, and with Macarthur leading the league in average possession per game, with 56.6%, his players are buying into this philosophy.
At the heart of the side’s success is a mixture of not just controlling the ball, but moving it with speed and precision, aiming to break-down opposition defences with quick, successional passing that opens up spaces both in behind and out-wide for Macarthur’s players.
This attitude to playing is best highlighted by Mark Milligan’s goal against Adelaide in round eight, where a quick link-up between Milligan, who was bringing the ball out from the back, and striker Matt Derbyshire opened up acres of space behind Adelaide’s defence for the skipper to easily slot home for Macarthur’s third.
Although it did take time for Milicic’s footballing philosophy to be imprinted on his side, the insistence of him to stick to his preferred philosophy is starting to show fruition. Marquees Markel Susaeta and Benat Etxebarria, both of whom come from the Spanish school of possession, are beginning to find their feet in the league, while other key players such as Milligan and Tommy Oar will always offer the consistency and commitment needed for Milicic and Macarthur to be successful.
But with many fans and pundits tipping a trip to the finals for Macarthur come season’s end, could the weight of expectation prove to be a burden too heavy for Milicic’s young managerial shoulders?
Only time will tell, but for now, Milicic has proven that he has the tactical nous and man-management ability to handle life in the A-League, and as he has grown into his role, so too has the team, which has only improved as the season has aged.
The only issue to be raised for Milicic and Macarthur is their defence, which has shipped 13 goals so far this season, the second worst defensive record for any side so far this season. If their defensive issues can be resolved, which may come over time as the defensive unit gets used to the high-intensity style of football Macarthur plays, then there is no limit to what the Bulls can achieve this season.
Craig Deans – Newcastle Jets – B:
Craig Deans’ start to managerial life has been difficult to say the least. Off-field dramas have dominated the narrative around the Jets start to the season, and consequently, Deans’ primary focus has been on blocking the external noise out and steering his side away from the calamitous mess that has been created by Newcastle’s ownership crisis. And hasn’t he performed admirably under these circumstances.
After four losses to start the season, you could forgive many people for writing off the Jets’ finals hopes then and there, especially given the off-field drama that had seemingly impacted the sides on-field performances.
But Newcastle currently sit sixth on the table, which is a vast improvement to their record at the same stage last season, where they sat 10th. This is an incredibly impressive record for a side that lost their head-coach and their great attacking threat during the off-season. And it has been fundamental solidity, rather than flamboyance, that has got Newcastle their results this season.
This was always going to be the case for the Jets, especially after losing Dimi Petratos, their attacking spearhead, during the off-season. But Newcastle’s strong defensive base, led by Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Nigel Boogard at the back and Steven Ugarkovic in midfield, has allowed them to grind out their results rather than set their opponents alight with dominant goalscoring displays.
If Newcastle’s defense, which has kept three clean sheets this season, are able to perform at a consistent level throughout the whole season, then there is no reason why Deans couldn’t have the Jets playing final football at the end of his debut managerial season.
Carl Veart – Adelaide United– C+:
Carl Veart’s youth revolution at Adelaide United has gotten off to a shaky start. The Reds sit seventh on the ladder having collected 10 points from their first eight games this season.
Inconsistency has been the big problem for Adelaide this season as they have struggled to string together a consistent run of results. But inconsistency is the price you pay when giving youth an opportunity, which appears to be one the key philosophies of both Veart and Adelaide United.
Adelaide had six under-23s start in their last outing, a controversial 3-2 victory over league leaders the Central Coast Mariners, and while the youth of both players and manager has its advantages, it’s one big disadvantage is the lack of consistency.
However, inconsistency is not just the story of Adelaide’s season. Offensively they have really struggled to create chances. The Reds are ranked 11th in the league for both shots on target per game (3.6) and big chances created (eight), and they sit 10th in the league for big chances missed, with five.
This creative barren spell is proving incredibly costly for the Reds, especially considering three of striker Tomi Juric’s four goals this season came from the penalty spot. It is an issue that needs to be addressed by Veart and his players.
The arrival of fan favourite Craig Goodwin could signal a shift in fortunes for Veart and his side. Goodwin could be the missing link in this United side, adding both a goal threat and experience – two factors that the Reds have been missing massively to start the season.
Another issue which has caused Adelaide and Veart headaches has been the manager’s substitutions. Substitutions have perhaps been one of Veart’s weakest points, particularly during their 2-1 loss to Perth in round six.
During the match, with Adelaide leading 2-1, Veart decided to take both Stefan Mauk and Louis D’Arrigo off for Mohammed Toure and Nathan Konstandopolous. It was these changes that clearly signalled the inexperience of Veart, as he decided to bring on two attacking-minded players for two midfielders, and it was a move that proved costly for the Reds, who lacked the control in midfield and consequently allowed Perth to wrestle their way back into the game and eventually win the match.
It has been an above average start to managerial life for Veart. On one hand he has the Reds playing some beautiful football and he is blooding high quality youth footballers into the side, but on the other hand the team is struggling to find that final killer ball and score goals. But the signs are good early on for Veart, without being great.
Richard Garcia – Perth Glory – C:
Of all the rookie managers this season, Richard Garcia is the one with the smallest amount of matches to judge his performance on. Garcia’s Perth Glory have only played five games this season, in comparison to the eight or nine matches his other rookie coaching counterparts have played.
But my word, haven’t they been an exhilarating five games. 15 goals scored and 12 conceded in just five matches indicates the high energy, exciting style of football that Garcia is trying to implement over on the West coast.
Perth has without a doubt one of the most exciting attacking units in the A-League with Bruno Fornaroli, Andy Keogh, Nick D’Agostino, Diego Castro and young Carlo Armiento. All five of these players offer their own specialised skill set to the side, and in Neil Kilenny, the league leader in assists with five, they have a midfielder who is exceptional at controlling the tempo of a match and picking a killer ball for one of his attackers.
For every good win the Glory have, like their 5-3 comeback victory over Adelaide, they have a very poor loss, such as their 2-1 loss to Victory in their third match. And those results perhaps characterise the Glory and Garcia well – inconsistent but entertaining, not aiming to control possession and suffocate their opponents to death, averaging only 48.3% possession (ninth in the League), but rather they aim to attack quickly and relentlessly, mobilising into the available spaces.
Although they are fantastic to watch, Garcia needs to have the Glory playing better for longer and winning the matches they should, especially given the fact that their two losses came against Western United, who sit 10th on the ladder, and Melbourne Victory, who are 11th. Given the attacking threats they have available, and with Chris Ikonomidis still to return from an ACL injury, there is every chance of Perth firing their way into finals football.
Patrick Kisnorbo – Melbourne City – D:
Their recent 3-2 victory over champions Sydney FC signifies the quality of this City side, but it is unable to paper over the cracks that have shown throughout much of the start of the season.
Taking over the reins at last year’s runners-up was never going to be an easy task for Patrick Kisnorbo in his first season as City’s manager, and the role has proved its difficulty. Discipline and defence have proven to be the Achilles heel of a City side that is stacked with extraordinary talent.
City’s only clean sheet this season came in the opening round of the season, in a 1-0 victory over the Brisbane Roar, and since that day, their defence has allowed 12 goals in six matches.
This defensive record is simply not up to standard for a side like City, and for a coach like Kisnorbo, who spent his whole career playing as a defender. Moreover, City’s three red cards means they lead the League in that statistical category.
But it is not all doom and gloom for Kisnorbo and Melbourne City, and their aforementioned recent victory over Sydney FC proved that. In that match City showcased all the talents that make them a great side and one of the favourites to win the competition at the start of the season.
City pressed well, escaped Sydney’s press superbly, moved the ball at speed and created and finished their chances. However, conversely, this match also showcased their big issue – defence.
It was the City defence that opened up and allowed Sydney to grab two second-half goals and almost escape Melbourne with a point. Luckily for Kisnorbo and his side, this was not the case.
Much like the sides sitting at the bottom of the League this season, City’s inconsistency has been their big issue, but they have the talent to turn their season around and push for a finals run, but it is all up to the players and their rookie coach to make this dream a reality.
Grant Brebner – Melbourne Victory – F:
It is hard to give Grant Brebner any other grade, especially considering his Melbourne Victory side are firmly planted near the bottom of the ladder and don’t look in any rush to climb up it.
Taking over arguably the biggest club in the league as your debut managerial role is a difficult task, and it appears to be proving too daunting for Brebner, who appears out of his depth in the Victory role.
Defensively, Victory have not been up too standard, having only kept one clean sheet so far this season – a 0-0 draw with Western United – and averaging 1.9 goals conceded per game, the 10th-best record in the League.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Victory have been slow and sluggish. Their new signings have failed to make any consistent contributions. Defender Ryan Shotton has seen his side concede 10 goals in his first six games for the club, and while Rudy Gestede scored twice against the Wellington Phoenix, prior to that he had only played 94 minutes and in that time had only registered three shots, nowhere near good enough for the starting striker at a club like Victory.
Moreover, Victory’s three key creative players – Marco Rojas, Robbie Kruse and new signing Callum McManaman – have only registered one goal between the three of them and have failed to create many clear-cut chances for both Gestede and Ben Folami.
And while some onus for Victory’s poor start to the season needs to be placed on the players, who have been nowhere near good enough throughout the season, it is up the manager to create the systems and tactics that will allow for his players skills and talents to shine the most, and Brebner has clearly been unable to create such a tactical environment in these first few matches.
Brebner has proved so far this season that he has been unable to get the best out of his players, and a result, has not been able to get the results, and given the brutality of the footballing industry, it would come as no surprise if Brebner loses his job by the end of the season, should he be unable to turn losses into wins.