The A-League's chicken or egg question: where are the young Australian playmakers? | Richard Parkin

Diego Castro. Miloš Ninković. Alessandro Diamanti. Ulises Dávila. They’re the entertainers that delight A-League fans – the players that elevate games that, as the summer heat sets in, could otherwise tend towards battles of attrition.

In its infancy, it was names like Fred, Marcos Flores, Carlos Hernández that gave the A-League its pizzazz, its touch of showbiz necessary to penetrate a crowded domestic sports scene. But fifteen years on, the overwhelming percentage of playmakers, goal-creators, X-factors in Australian football’s top men’s competition remain foreign. Which begs the question: where are Australia’s emerging playmakers?

17 rounds in to the 2019-20 season, seven of the top ten goalscorers are foreign players, as are six of the top ten assist-providers, seven of the top ten shot-takers, and six of the top ten chance-creators.

In a league context in which clubs are allowed five visa signings, given the relative global talent supply there’s little surprise that clubs look to prioritise the pointy end – strikers, wide forwards, attacking midfielders; in a game of fine margins these players normally prove your match winners.

But it creates a fundamental tension. As the chief revenue driver for the Australian football ecosystem it is imperative that the A-League flourishes. But what happens when what’s good for the league clashes with what’s good for Australian football?

As fans debate weighty topics like player development pathways and the creation of a national second division, it’s important to remember that it is the A-League clubs now holding the whip handle at a governmental level; thus ideas like potentially expanding the number of visa slots per team or parachuting the youth teams of existing A-League clubs into a mooted second division show where the loyalties of Australian football’s new overseers lie.

Of the eleven clubs, eight have predominately operated this season with a visa-player pulling the strings. It would have been ten had Newcastle Jet’s Wes Hoolahan not succumbed to a major injury layoff, or import signing Kristijan Dobras not failed miserably at Melbourne Victory.

Of the Australians operating in the role of a No 10, all have been capped at Socceroos level. James Troisi, Robbie Kruse, Dimi Petratos, even Tommy Oar. With several of those having built their careers overseas, the inference is either that Australia isn’t producing young playmakers, or that emerging Australians simply aren’t good enough or can’t be trusted in such critical positions within the team.

While not all tactical formations utilise a playmaker or No 10, Australia’s Olyroos recently took on the cream of Asia with twin No 10s operating within a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation, with players like Reno Piscopo, Denis Genreau and Ramy Najjarine looking to thread telling final-third passes for their strikers.

Are these guys good enough players? On the basis of their showing in Asia, you’d say yes. But how have they been utilised in the A-League? As understudies, as stop-gaps, in a word: sparingly. Piscopo has seen 488 minutes game-time in the league, Genreau 317, Najjarine 183.

Ironically, Olyroos selection helped curtail their development at club level through games missed, but for other emerging talents across the league the story is the same. Sam Silvera has played 635 minutes, Max Burgess 534, Wanderers’ Nick Sullivan just 427 minutes – and the majority of these not in the role of a No 10. Could any of these become the next Tom Rogic? It’s hard to say without sustained game-time.

As Olyroos coach Graham Arnold famously noted whilst coaching in the A-League, the competition is not a development league. As Sydney FC coach his priority was silverware and on-pitch performance – there’s no reward for minutes given to promising kids.

Coaches like Paul Okon have historically paid the price for daring to gamble on youth, while whether through ethos or simply finances, it is only Central Coast, Adelaide United and Wellington Phoenix that have consistently blooded young talent this season. Melbourne City’s business model is predicated upon unearthing the next Daniel Arzani, but only Lachlan Wales has benefited from this approach, with Connor Metcalfe, Genreau and Najjarine in and out of the starting eleven.

The great playmakers of course don’t emerge fully-formed, pulling the strings from day one as precocious teenagers. Even stars like Castro learned his trade as a wide forward first before taking on more responsibility centrally.

But as Wellington Phoenix’s Sarpreet Singh demonstrated – from an A-League debut to a first Bundesliga appearance for Bayern Munich in under two years – the trajectory can be meteoric if the initial trust and support is shown.

Given the scarcity of full-time head coaching roles in Australian football, risk-aversion remains the default setting – only seven players under the age of 23 have been regular starters this season. But if Australia wants to produce its own Castros, Diamantis or Baumjohanns any time soon that trend will have to dramatically change. Or in fifteen years’ time we’ll be asking the same questions.


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