Much has been made of the Western Sydney Wanderers disastrous A-League season following their famous Asian Champions League triumph only five months ago.
Coming off two hugely successful seasons which included a debut season Premiers Plate, a second placed finish in 2013/14 and two grand final appearances, the A-League’s newest club currently sits in lowly 9th place, recording just four wins in 26 matches.
Only one game remains and ending up with the dreaded wooden spoon is still a possibility.
Most observers have blamed a brutal schedule for the Wanderers demise, with many A-League games rescheduled due to Asian Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup commitments in recent months.
Notwithstanding the legitimate issue of questionable scheduling and some odd decisions by Football Federation Australia (FFA), the Wanderers demise over the past year is arguably more of a result of poor recruitment than poor scheduling.
Four key players that made the Wanderers attack tick in 2012/13 and 2013/14 were not effectively replaced, or in some cases, were not replaced at all.
Aaron Mooy, Jerome Polenz, Shinji Ono and Youssouf Hersi were a huge part of Tony Popovic’s team in the first two A-League seasons.
Mooy provided creativity from deep in midfield, and paired with the more defensive minded Matteo Poljak, the pair quickly became one of the most effective midfield pairings in the league.
Poljak provided bucketloads of energy and defensive steel, Mooy pulled the strings and distributed the ball quickly and effectively. His set pieces were also a constant threat.
Jerome Polenz established himself as one of the best right backs in the league. Often lambasted for cynical tackles, he combined defensive solidarity with a constant willingness to push forward and create attacking opportunities.
His combination with Youssouf Hersi on the right flank was arguably the best and most important attacking weapon for the Wanderers in their first two seasons.
Hersi’s energetic work rate was infectious and more importantly, hugely effective. Popovic built his team to counterattack and Hersi was his number one weapon of choice.
Finally, Shinji Ono provided the class and creativity that unlocked so many games. Where Hersi ran like an Energizer bunny, Ono calmly caressed the ball like it was his most valuable companion, teeing up his teammates with countless assists, and chipping in with plenty of important goals himself.
While there will always be good players leaving in a salary cap based competition, the failure to adequately replace these four players was Popovic’s biggest blunder.
Aaron Mooy was initially not replaced at all. In the January transfer window, he was finally replaced by Kearyn Baccus, a NSW National Premier League (NPL) player.
Jerome Polenz was replaced by Daniel Mullen, a player notably more suited to a central defensive position. Mullen was released in the January transfer window.
Youssouf Hersi was replaced by Romeo Castelen, arguably the only key player that was adequately replaced. While more skilful than Hersi, he lacks the former’s work-rate and strength and has been hampered by injury.
Shinji Ono was replaced by Vitor Saba, a player Popovic apparently chased for two years. Six months later, he was released without a whisper, rumours of a falling out between player and coach rife.
Saba was then replaced by Nick Kalmar, a player who never held down a regular starting position at Melbourne City, nee Heart.
Other players departed and arrived as well. Inaugural captain Michael Beauchamp was replaced by Brendan Hamill, and Dean Bouzanis was brought in to replace fan favourite Jerrad Tyson.
Left-back Seyi Adeleke was another out the door in January, just months after Popovic recruited him from Italian Serie A club Lazio. He remains a free agent, unable to secure a contract elsewhere.
Hyped recruit Nikita Rukavytsya has also completely failed to make an impact, scoring just three goals in 22 games and frustrating fans with his consistent lack of end product.
Admittedly, not every signing has been a failure. Kerem Bulut has been a revelation since initially signing an ACL contract. However, there’s speculation his stay will be a short-lived one thanks offers from both rival A-League clubs and overseas outfits.
Japanese duo Yojiro Takahagi and Yusuke Tanaka have added spark, though neither has consistently proved their worth.
It remains to be seen whether Tanaka is good enough to command a foreign roster spot, and Takahagi has been deployed as a deep lying playmaker instead of his natural position as a number 10.
Recruitment is often a gamble and every coach will make mistakes. Not every signing will work out, and not every decision made will be the correct one.
However, in a salary capped league with a specific allocation of foreign player squad positions, recruitment is everything in the A-League.
A couple of good signings will go a long way towards a successful season. A couple of bad ones can easily end in disaster.
Just ask Tony Popovic.