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While the loss of Tony Popovic to Europe a week out from the Western Sydney Wanderers opening game of the A-League season might not have been the greatest timing, it should by no means be considered the end for a club that has only known one manager.

Make no mistake, Popovic will be a hard act to follow. Setting and driving the technical template since he helped establish the club throughout 2012, he has held the ultimate control over technical proceedings at the club since, and had some amazing success along the way.

But no coach or person should be considered bigger than a club, and there’s an argument that Popovic was given too much reign out at Blacktown Football Park. For that reason, his move mustn’t be seen as terminal for a club that was built on the foundations of being a unifying force for the people of western Sydney.

Still, it would have been a jolting decision to cop at the end of an impressive pre-season that saw the Wanderers heading into the new season with a good shot at pushing the top contenders based on the strength of squad build and some dominant performances.

Certainly the look on the face of CEO John Tsatsimas at Sunday afternoon’s press conference to discuss Popovic’s sudden move to Turkish club Karabukspor was that of a pretty shattered man, and there’s little doubt that would have been the mood throughout the club yesterday, from owner Paul Lederer and his board down.

The owner, upon extending his contract in 2015 to make him one of the best-paid managers in Australian sport, had this to say: “Make no mistake. Tony Popovic is the only man for the job, he is an ideal fit for our culture and suits the ambitious plans we have for this club.”

Tsatsimas, who was part of the initial club-build with Popovic, spoke often about the very strong relationship with his manager. The club were always happy to defend him when questions started to be raised about some failed recruitment and performance in the past couple of years. It often felt like Popovic had a position for as long as he wanted, and this isn’t always the healthiest position for a football club to take.

Popovic, though, deserved some of the support. While two of the past three seasons have been a failure domestically in terms of recruitment and meeting the standards expected, these were offset by successes in winning the Asian Champions League in 2014 and making a third grand final in 2016.

Little doubt the club would have been au fait with Popovic’s aspirations to coach in Europe. While offers have been made in past seasons to coach in Asia, they have invariably been swept aside under the guise of ‘waiting for the right opportunity at the right time’.

That opportunity, it seems, was always in an entry-level environment in Europe. While many had suggested he might again end up at Crystal Palace whenever that seat became vacant, it seems his plan all along was to get his foot in the door in an environment perhaps with a lower profile.

Turkey, though, an environment not always known to be the most stable for coaches, with high-pressure scrutiny from a passionate fan-base, was perhaps not the most obvious choice.

But other boxes have been ticked by his move, including taking on a team struggling towards the foot of the table. And in his words, coaching against a Champions League coaches such as Senol Gunes (Besiktas), and others such as Igor Tudor (Galatasaray). If he can keep Karabukspor up, and take a few scalps along the way, he will start to get noticed in Europe.

Whether he takes the likes of assistants Andres Carrusco, Hayden Foxe and Zeljko Kalac with him remains to be seen. That’s certainly what’s being reported. If so, it would rip the technical base out of the club, but it might just be the best thing to allow the club to move forward.

I understand whole coaching staff going with Poppa. Kalac, Carrasco, Foxe

— Ray Gatt (@Gatty54) October 1, 2017

This is standard play in the coaching merry-go-round. When a manager moves he often takes his staff with him. Look at Graham Arnold over at Sydney FC, who now has ex-Mariners Andrew Clarke, John Crawley and Phil Moss involved.

It allows the club that’s left behind the opportunity to bring in a manager who can bring in his own staff, and build his own model. 

The question here is how quickly the Wanderers squad, who have spent the past 15 weeks honing and refining Popovic’s famed 4-2-3-1 tactical template to take into the season, will be able to adjust to any new blueprint that comes in from outside.

This isn’t just a question of formation. After all, Popovic drove everything at Western Sydney Wanderers, introducing arguably the strictest level of professionalism and discipline the game has seen here. You only have to look at players’ skin-folds over the past five years to see that.

Perhaps, when the dust settles, the players and the club will feel a little liberated, able to relax and breathe a little more.

Certainly, there have been questioned raised among the fan-base over the past few years about the way Popovic went about business, especially his continued preparedness to give second, third or fourth chances to players who had been found not up to standard other clubs.

While finding and motivating players was certainly a big recipe behind the incredible inaugural season success, as the years went on many of his choices were far less successful and questions started to be asked whether the club had a defined strategy for recruitment.

While Popovic certainly backed himself to get the best out of every player, many failed to make the cut. The manager had a ruthless streak and no sooner had many arrived than they were surplus to requirements.

As attractive as it was for footballers to work under the professional environment Popovic created, they knew that one step out of line could be the end.

The churn and turnover of players became the norm out at Wanderland. This went against the initial pledge by the club that they would make themselves the place to promote loyalty to western Sydney footballers.

This mentality extended beyond the first team, too. One only has to look at the turnover of players in the first couple of years of the Academy, which plays in the under 18s, 20s and first grade competition of the Football NSW NPL 2 competition, and the under 13 to 16s in the state’s top youth league, to see this churn-and-burn in full flight.

While the ultimate goal is to try and find and create players for the A-League, players are in and out of the club at a rapid rate and the place often has a feeling of being a factory rather than a place that nurtures and looks after footballers, and gets it right in the first place.

The word is that Popovic set that technical blueprint, and so his departure gives the club an opportunity to rethink and revisit the way it wants to be perceived.

There is also the question now of how it wants to play football. While Popovic’s system has run right through the academy, the feeling among some is that it has been too rigid and structured, with players shaped into a hole even if they don’t naturally fit.

The club has to grapple with all this. The issue, of course, is the timing. A week out from the season proper means this isn’t the perfect time for a radical rethink of the technical template.

As much continuity in the formula as possible is the most sensible move, for now. And then, gradually, the club can move forward in style.

Who knows, when the dust settles, the Wanderers may ultimately look back on Popovic’s move to Europe as blessing. Having invested so much energy in him, there’s no doubt it’s a big jolt. But ultimately one they have to take, and learn from.

Categories: Analysis | A-League

western sydney wanderers, tony popovic, a-league

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