The Big Blue is on tonight – Australia Day – the two biggest teams in Australia with two of the biggest personalities in charge. Arnold v Muscat. What is it that drives these two? And where are they likely to be in 12 months time?
Goal a Game Arnie was his nickname back in his playing days, even if the numbers don’t quite stack up (161 goals in 453 games) but at his peak he was a lethal striker, getting 19 in 54 games for Australia also. He played overseas in Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan before coming back to be captain coach of Northern Spirit.
He didn’t have a lot of success as a coach before finding his way into the national set up under Frank Farina, and he didn’t have a lot of success there either – with the low point being the 2007 Asian Cup. On the one hand, Arnie was on a hiding to nothing there, leading a reluctant team into an anticlimactic tournament hot on the heels of our first World Cup appearance in 32 years. On the other hand, Arnie himself was seen as the main problem in that tournament by 78% of fans responding to a FourFourTwo poll.
But what would we fans know?
As I’ve written before, I was spitting chips when Arnie was appointed Mariners coach back in 2010. “Jobs for the boys!” and “Nepotistic old boys network!” were expressions I used on several furious occasions, but it only took him two games to turn me around. The Mariners played amazing football under Arnie and several fabulous players blossomed under his tutelage including Trent Sainsbury (now married to his daughter…more bloody nepotism), Mat Ryan, Tom Rogic and Mustafa Amini.
He then went (via a short and mistaken detour to Vegalta Sendai) to Sydney FC whose achievements under Arnie have continued to set new records. Arnie’s teams play a sophisticated possession based style – squeezing the life out of other teams and forcing them to run without the ball. Arnie’s teams (take a bow Andrew Clark) are fit enough to outrun the other team and are rock solid in defence with the sort of artistry up front you would expect from an ex-striker.
Arnie has also shown himself to be tactically astute and adaptable both to the players he has at his advantage (and what shape and system would best suit them), and also to what shape and system the enemy are using. In short, he has learnt from his successes AND his failures, to become the best coach of the A-League era and arguably the best Australian born coach ever. It is no surprise that he is regarded by most to be the next Socceroos coach after Van Marwijk.
Kevin Muscat’s journey has been very different. A few years younger than Arnie, he had the opportunity to go overseas earlier and played for some higher profile clubs, including Crystal Palace in the Premier League and Glasgow Rangers when they were a truly dominant team in the SPL.
With a reputation for violence going beyond the accepted contact norms of the game he was described as the most hated man in football while playing for Wolves. He was sued for a wild tackle on Matty Holmes (Charlton) that was so bad there were fears the leg might need to be amputated, and his career at Melbourne Victory was finished after a tackle on Adrian Zahra (Melbourne Heart) that has been described by some as the worst tackle in the history of football. A Spanish website in 2013 described Muscat as football’s dirtiest ever player.
Having said all that, non-Victory fans tend to forget what a seriously good footballer he was. Combative? Yes. Recklessly indifferent to the health of fellow professionals? Perhaps. But he played with a passion that terrified the enemy and galvanised team mates. Not only that, he could actually play. Obviously he excelled at the defender’s arts (tackling, heading and chasing runners), but he also had exceptional vision and a brilliant short and long passing game. If he’d been just slightly less irresponsible with his off-the-ball behaviour he probably would have played higher for longer, as his talent warranted.
So what does Musky bring to the coaching table?
Unlike Arnie, he’s not had much opportunity to learn from failure (with the possible exception of Victory’s lack of progress under Durakovic and Magilton). He had success as a Victory player and then inherited Ange Postecoglou’s Victory team after it had been set up to excel. In his first full year in charge he won the Premiership/Championship double and followed that up the next year with the FFA Cup.
Victory are always there or there-abouts at the pointy end of the season and are shaping once again this year, after a poor start, to figure in the important finals matches. Musky’s teams play a fast counter attacking game – absorbing pressure and then dazzling teams with their multiple runs and pace up front. He managed to tempt Berisha to the club, probably inspiring his departure from Brisbane via a meeting of souls. Berisha is a similarly passionate player, just as Musky’s on-field homunculus (Leigh Broxham) galvanises the defence and midfield.
Musky also is regarded by many as a future Socceroos coach. He may not have the pedigree but he would certainly turn our players into a team.
So tonight, we have the lethal striker coach up against the passionate defender. Both of them schooled in Europe but one forged by failure and the other accustomed to success. Both of them bearing the high expectations of the two biggest fan groups in the league.
It is NOT okay to lose.
Sydney are definitely the better footballing team but they do not have Victory’s passion – a passion derived from terror of what their coach might say or do if they lose. If Victory can stop Sydney from playing tonight, then they certainly have the quality up front to nick it. Sydney also have been wobbling a little in recent weeks – not quite finding their usual ruthlessness up front. If Victory can play on Sydney's doubts it might just be their night.
In any case, enjoy it while you can because I doubt we will see Arnold v Muscat for quite some years once this season is concluded.
Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.