Melbourne City’s 2020/21 A-League double marks the first time in four years that Sydney FC has not won silverware. Sydney coach Steve Corica has been able to build upon the foundations laid by his predecessor, Graham Arnold, continuing to dominate the competition, with the club winning three Premierships, three Championships and an FFA Cup in the last five seasons. But after failing to win anything this past season, Sydney now finds itself at a pivotal point in its era of dominance. With an ageing squad, youth players receiving little minutes and Corica potentially on the move, could this be the end of the Arnold/Corica era of success for the club?
When Graham Arnold was announced as Sydney FC manager for the 2014/15 A-League season, a new era began at the club. After four years of managerial changes and failure on the field, Arnold brought almost immediate success with a second-place finish and a place in the Grand Final in his first season. Although his second year in charge saw Sydney miss out completely on the finals series, what followed was a period of unprecedented success in the A-League. Arnold cleared out players who were no longer up to standard, recruited well, and implemented a strong family culture within the team. Arnold blended overseas talent, experienced A-League stars and a handful of youngsters to form a core group of players who went on to win the 2016/17 Premiership and Championship, while earning the nickname ‘The Record Breakers’. The records broken that year included:
- Most competition points: 66
- Longest undefeated streak to start a season: 19 games
- Most goals scored without conceding to start a season: 11 goals
- First team to record 20 wins in a season
- Biggest ever winning margin for a Premier: +17 points
- Fewest goals conceded: 12
- Most clean sheets: 16
- Fewest games conceding multiple goals: 1
- Best goal difference: +43
After the 2017/18 season, Graham Arnold moved on to the Australian National Team job, and the reins were handed to his assistant coach Steve Corica. With Corica at the helm Sydney continued to perform and the silverware kept coming. However, this continued pursuit of success by the club has had two major consequences.
Lack of minutes for youth
The first has been the impact the club’s winning culture has had on the minutes given to its youth players. It goes without saying that sport and winning are intrinsically linked, but as Corica and Sydney win more silverware, the pressure to continue to deliver grows. This has resulted in Sydney often overlooking youth for more experienced players to guarantee success. This has meant that players who could have developed into first-team regulars, such as Cameron Devlin and Marco Tilio have been forced to leave to seek more minutes and continue their development. These two cases specifically have shown the adverse effect of Sydney’s success, as the two youngsters have shone for Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne City respectively.
In his first season with the Phoenix, Devlin won A-League player of the month and Young Player of the Month awards and was a key member in his side’s third place finish. He represented his side 44 times across two seasons with the club, starting on 34 occasions – while at Sydney he only managed 7 appearances in the league, all being off the bench.
Marco Tilio moved to Melbourne City at the beginning of this season and has been an important player for his side, especially with the absence of star man Jamie Maclaren towards the end of the season. The 19-year-old notched up 21 appearances, starting 10 times, and was key to his side’s semi-final win over Macarthur FC chipping in with a goal and an assist. While at Sydney he only managed three appearances off the bench in the league, totalling nine minutes.
Sydney is blessed with a strong academy, but missing out on these two young guns is a massive loss. Although we have seen Joel King claim the first team left back role and be named Young Footballer of The Year this season, one of the reasons his minutes saw an increase was the recurring injuries suffered by Michael Zullo – one of the core members of the ageing squad. Calem Nieuwenhof and Patrick Wood are two who could also turn into first team regulars, but if not given minutes may seek an exit for more regular football.
The second consequence of Sydney’s success is the turnover of players, and recruitment to fill voids left by key player departures. As the team has performed well year after year, overseas clubs who are not hampered by a salary cap can offer more lucrative and exciting contracts to A-League players – as we have seen with many departures to leagues across Asia in the past year.
Players such as Brandon O’Neill, one of the most important to Sydney’s success, moved on to experience football overseas and likely earn more than he would have with the Sky Blues. Although Bobo has recently returned to the club, he left after a record-breaking goal scoring season to Turkey. Josh Brillante and Jordy Buijs could no longer fit under the cap and so moved on. In times like these, Sydney could have turned to players such as Cameron Devlin and Marco Tilio and allowed them to gain valuable game time. But as constant success is always demanded, the club instead recruited established and experienced talent in Adam Le Fondre, Kosta Barbarouses, Luke Brattan and Ryan McGowan. Players of such a high quality have meant that Sydney have continued their dominance, but at the expense of the younger players.
The recruitment of these established stars has meant that the majority of first team players for the Sky Blues are now over 30. Of players who have appeared more than 13 times this past season (half the regular season), only five were under the age of 30: Joel King, Paulo Retre, Anthony Cáceres, Patrick Wood and Luke Ivanovic – with the last two used mainly as substitutes. Players such as Trent Buhagiar and Calem Nieuwenhof may have received more games if not for injuries, but most of the game time goes to players who are edging closer to 30 or over. The age of Sydney’s squad is further put into perspective when compared with the other clubs in the league, as Sydney have the oldest – sitting at an average age of 29.5, while the Premiers and Champions Melbourne City have an average age of 26.3.
Players such as the maestro Miloš Ninković and captain Alex Wilkinson are hugely important to the club’s success but are now both 36. With other key players such as Adam Le Fondre (34) and Luke Brattan (31), Sydney could now find it hard to begin to replace such influential players in the coming years.
What happens if Corica leaves?
With the news that manager Steve Corica could be leaving the Sky Blues for Japan, the club could be in for a period of change and transition. What Graham Arnold and Steve Corica have been able to establish is unprecedented in the A-League and has created one of the best sides the competition has seen. When players have moved on, recruitment has always been exceptional, as new signings have been able to hit the ground running.
Corica is in contention with Kevin Muscat for the role, and although there are conflicting reports of whether Corica was ever actually considered, if he was to depart there could be plenty of change at the club.
Players may move on, and some could see a change in game time. A new manager may see players differently to Corica, the 4-2-2-2 formation may be abandoned, and ultimately the era of dominance for Sydney could come to an end.
Right now, there are not many coaches more experienced or successful than Corica available to come in and coach the side, which could see the club go through a similar transition period seen between the 2010/11 and 2013/14 seasons.
Where to from here?
Although Corica may end up staying with the club, Sydney does find itself in an interesting position. With the oldest squad in the competition and key players yet to re-sign, could the club be in for a period of change? Is it now time to let the talented youngsters at the club prove themselves? Do the Sky Blues risk missing out on trophies and give themselves time to reset and transition the squad? Or is the lure of success and silverware all too much?