‘Super-coach’ Popa has achieved so much for the Wanderers in such a short time. Recently fans are seemingly becoming more and more frustrated with results, performances and recruitment. It also seems that every time criticism is directed at the man in charge the response is aggressive and dismissive, followed by a #PopaOut vs #PopaIn battle. This begs the question, is it ok to question Popa? And if not, will it ever be?
Tony Popovic is the greatest and only coach the Western Sydney Wanderers have ever had. With only a short amount of time, he put together a ‘rag-tag’ group of players and made a brand new team. At the time, all of the fans in the West were happy to just have a team and would have settled for getting at least a single win in their maiden campaign. As we all know, they got so much more.
The Wanderers, under the guidance of Popa, managed to win the Premier’s Plate in that maiden season, qualifying for the Asian Champion League as a result. They then went on to win the ACL title in this first attempt and are still the only Australian team to do so. They have also made it to the A-League Grand Final on 3 separate occasions, losing as underdogs each time. There is no doubting these amazing achievements, or that Tony Popovic had a major part in all of them.
However, there have also been down times. The notorious Season 3 campaign, following the ACL triumph, where the Wanderers narrowly escaped the dreaded wooden spoon was one. Although this can largely be written off as a consequence of the ACL campaign and poor scheduling from the FFA (to put it lightly) there were also a number of other issues. One of these was certainly the clean out of players and poor recruitment following it. This could be forgiven if it was a once-off thing. However, the clean-out and slow underwhelming replacement of players has become an annual tradition at WSW.
It appears that every season we are plagued with the same problems. The players are still gelling; we are getting unlucky; we are playing the better football but not taking our chances; on another day we’d win 4-0 but today we lost. All the while, Popa assures us all is fine and that the results will turn. To a large extent this has been true. We had the same problems last season as we do now and we ended up finishing 2nd, qualifying for ACL and making another Grand Final. However, there were obvious issues, like our finishing and sloppy defence (sound familiar?) that obviously cost us actually winning the title.
These issues have not been corrected; in fact they appear worse, or at least more obvious. With the constant turn-over of players, we can hardly blame the current squad for these issues as most of them were not in the team when the same problems started. The only constant is Popovic. So why is it taboo to consider if he is the real problem?
When the defence is terrible, the fans blame the keeper (most often Redmayne) or the back 4.
When the attack is off and the team always try to walk the ball in, the fans blame the striker, the wingers and occasionally the midfielders.
When the passing is off, the fans claim that players simply don’t have the skill to play a possession based style.
However, as I said earlier, these are always different players. The only constant is the coach. If the players really are always at fault then why don’t we ask questions of the recruitment? If Popa wants to play a certain style and won’t change from it, then why does he continue to recruit players that don’t fit that style? At this point it is important to remember that we have not even filled both marquee spots this season.
Further, on tactics, no matter how obvious it becomes that the attack minded possession based style is not working and that the Wanderers actually look their best on the counter, Popa won’t change his style. Nor will he adjust formation or tactics to counteract an opponent or make in-game adjustments. A perfect example came in the 3-0 loss to Melbourne Victory on Saturday night. The Wanderers persisted with their possession based game, failing to create many real opportunities and were punished for simple mistakes. However, a less commented on reason for the loss was the reactive tactical change made by Victory coach, Kevin Muscat, which was not responded to by Popa.
Part way through the first half, Muscat realised that his playmaking winger Ben Khalfallah was not being effective on the right. He switch Khalfallah to the left, the Wanderers right, and the impact was immediate. For the rest of the game Khalfallah was a constant threat, creating numerous opportunities and was involved in all 3 goals. While Hamill should have done better defending against him, it was also clear that Popovic should have noticed this dramatic shift and attempted to do something about it.
It is alarmingly clear that, as in this case, Popa has plan A and if plan A doesn’t work then just try plan A harder. This is made even clearer by the post-match press conference where Popa refuses to concede that his side aren’t playing well. Even Muscat, who won the match, admitted he wasn’t happy with how his team played. Popa just keeps saying I’m happy with how my team is playing and the results will follow; signalling more of the same to come.
This is particularly worrying as the Wanderers prepare to face Melbourne City of Friday night. Melbourne City is a dangerous attacking team with an obvious weakness. As has been shown, most notably by Brisbane, if the opposition sits off City and closes them down, they become toothless and their defensive frailties can be exploited (sound familiar again?). However, allow an open style game and they shine. Popa is unlikely to take note of this and will pursue an open style game, which is exactly what City will be hoping for. He will likely refuse to sit back and nullify their attack and hit them on the counter, which is what the Wanderers actually do best.
Now with all of that said, I want to clarify that I am absolutely not calling for #PopaOut or anything of the sort; far from it. Rather, I think the time has come that we remove our ACL and Season 1 coloured glasses and start pointing out what Popa gets wrong. Yes, he has done a lot for the club but he is not perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, including Popa and those mistakes deserve to be commented on just as much as any of the players’ mistakes.