Adelaide United’s transfer activity in preseason this year revolved around incoming coach Josep Gombau’s Spanish signings, with Isaias & Sergio Cirio acquired to assist the new boss in adapting the side to his preferred style. Domestic signings, more the remit of Director of Football Michael Petrillo, provided depth to key positions through Michael Zullo, Tarek Elrich & Steven Lustica. A lot of emphasis was placed upon the coach assessing the current playing stock prior to sweeping changes. Such swings and roundabouts had often typified past recruitment policies at United, with players both local and international signed and sent packing merely months apart in the Rini Coolen and John Kosmina eras.
Now approaching the end of Gombau’s first full transfer window, and as the club continues to evolve a playing style based around attacking possession based football, the look of United’s squad is changing to further compliment that progression, in line with a coherent plan for the Reds future first eleven.
The most recent news of Michael Marrone returning to the Reds will have an immediate impact on the strength of United’s back four. Right-back has been the Achilles heel for Adelaide for quite some time, with Daniel Bowles failing to kick on from the potential of his Gold Coast United days, and Cameron Watson better utilised in midfield. At 27, the Adelaide-born defender is contracted until the completion of next season and provides confidence on the ball as well as cover at centre back, if required.
The central back pairing of veterans Jon McKain and Nigel Boogaard seems to be preferred by Gombau again yet neither have their long term future secure at the Reds. South Australian Osama Malik, often highlighted for his adaptability having appeared at centre back, midfield and right-back, is still to cement a specific spot in the team. Not likely to attract the attentions of an overseas club without a stellar run in the side Malik’s versatility may instead be in demand across the league due to the squad size restrictions here.
Elsewhere in defence the contracts of full-backs Zullo and Bowles are up at the season’s end. Hopefully (for Reds supporters) regular football can convince Zullo to stay in SA rather than return to Europe, while fans still await club legend Cassio’s recovery from injury with trepidation. Finally the adaptable Tarek Elrich is in the first of a two-year deal this season and has enjoyed a better run of games than at the Wanderers last year. He is another versatile player offering great depth to the squad.
United’s midfield is the heartbeat of Gombau’s Spanish style, fueled by the intelligence of Isaias and the guile of Marcelo Carrusca this seems the most stable section of the Adelaide eleven. The defection of Lustica to Brisbane sees the Reds lose one of Gombau’s preferred options in support for the aforementioned Isaias and Carrusca as the coach seeks balance from his midfield trio, however the manager is not short on alternatives here. Cameron Watson has adjusted to the new philosophy well in recent outings, perhaps securing his future at United, while Marrone and Malik both provide cover for the deepest midfield slot if required.
Further afield too little has been seen of Jake Barker-Daish this season, while Jacob Melling is yet to appear for United’s senior team in 2013/14. Both youngsters are at an age where first team football is critical for them to progress in the professional game and it wouldn’t be a surprise for either to seek pastures new. The mitigating factor in those contract decisions for the Reds may be the status of Carrusca’s future. The Argentine has been linked with a number of other A-League clubs, notably Sydney FC, and should the United hierarchy fail to convince the number ten to stay in South Australia the club will need to respond accordingly. This may mean they hold onto either Barker-Daish or Melling, which would fit within Gombau’s aim of developing players in house, or address the hole in the transfer market.
The forward third of the United squad is both the most diverse and the most secure, with only short-term signing Ryan Griffiths coming out of contract at the season’s end. Key to the Reds forward structure is Bruce Djite, a veteran by Adelaide standards, who has enjoyed a great recent run as the central striker, offering a physical presence focused on hold up play and disciplined pressing. Jeronimo, who began the season in this spot, albeit in a completely different style, has been pushed out to the flanks lately accompanied by a rotating cast of Fabio Ferreira, Sergio Cirio, Awer Mabil and even Michael Zullo.
A heavy injury toll to this group has meant a fairly equatable spread of playing time with Jeronimo and Ferreira leading the scoring charts with six and five respectively. To roughly typecast these options available to Pep Gombau, Ferreira and the promising Mabil seem to play traditional ‘winger’ roles, stretching the playing space, offering a ball over the defensive line, and taking players on in one-v-one situations. On the other hand Sergio Cirio is more adept at possession play, cutting inside to link with others, even deputising as a number ten earlier in the season, while Jeronimo’s single-minded drive into the box and towards goal seems unabated wherever he is positioned. Griffiths, an experienced A-League player, is flexible to play centrally, wide or at the top of United’s formation, but at this stage he seems unlikely to remain in Red beyond the close of this season.
As the home stretch of the 2013/14 Season approaches Adelaide United look to secure their finals participation with a foreign philosophy and culture barely six months old. While club coach Josep Gombau takes every opportunity to downplay the importance of results in his footballing mission one of his overlooked achievements is the development of a balanced squad which, in great contrast to other A-League sides. This looks likely to continue and progress in season 2014/15 without major need of rescue or repair.
Like some of the league’s most successful sides before them Adelaide, in prioritising a culture change over a quick fix, have in a short space of time built foundations not only yielding decent results of late but a platform for future growth. There will no doubt be changes to the Reds lineup between now and the beginning of next season, however more so than ever before the club looks secure in the Gombau-led project.