As the silly season approaches, Josep Gombau’s pondering over a mutiny in Wanderland.
“The boys look flat, it looked slow, there’s no intensity, it was terrible.”
If these were the words of a disgruntled fan, critical pundit or disappointed coach, you could pass it off as raw emotion. But when it’s the captain – the player’s leader – only six games into a new coach’s tenure, it poses some significant questions.
It’s hard to tell whether the Wanderers’ Mark Bridge was angry or just wearied following his side’s dismal display against Newcastle Jets on Friday night, but his tone seemed vitriolic, and when a captain sets out to take no prisoners, there’s a serious problem.
When asked if the players understood Gombau’s tactics, Bridge was blunt.
“You can see, it’s a bit all over the shop at the moment,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time this team conceded nine goals in three weeks.
“It’s very hard to lift the team (as captain), but it comes down to the individuals as well.”
The Wanderers now have one win in their first six matches under Gombau, and have conceded 14 goals. Equally troubling is the manner of the defeats – a 5-0 loss to Sydney FC, and a 4-0 defeat to Newcastle Jets, without threatening to display fluidity.
But while Bridge fell short of blaming Gombau’s approach, Wanderers’ assistant coach Hayden Foxe left few doubts over the backroom’s outlook with his instant resignation following the loss.
Foxe now joins Tony Popovic, the former Wanderers boss and recently sacked Karabukspor coach, lurking in the wings of the A-League club, mounting pressure – intentionally or not – on Gombau and Wanderers’ CEO John Tsatsimas.
Tsatsimas will know that if Western Sydney wait too long to move on Gombau’s future, their spiritual leader and prized coaching staff may find greener pastures.
To his credit – for the time being – Tsatsimas is throwing his full support behind Gombau.
"There's a lot of speculation about Josep,” Tsatsimas told AAP. “We're not entertaining any thoughts other than Josep is our coach.
"We've just appointed him. It would be folly for us, in the midst of where we're at, to make another change."
So is there actually a crisis evolving in Western Sydney, or are people unfairly rushing to judge Gombau?
Gombau’s track record
Gombau’s history speaks for itself. The former Barcelona youth coach only won one of his first nine games at Adelaide United, placing him in an almost identical situation to the one he’s in at Western Sydney.
Gombau joined Adelaide in 2014, when the club had finished fourth the previous year. The Reds had departed at the elimination final stage, just as the sixth placed Wanderers did last season under Popovic.
Unlike Western Sydney, Gombau was appointed at the beginning of the Reds' season, allowing him pre-season opportunities to formulate a squad and make his own key signings – players like Isaias and Sergio Cirio.
His possession-based style was slow to take effect in Adelaide, and the media was quick to call for his sacking. It’s true that under pressure, Gombau reverted to a more pragmatic approach, which lead to instant results, yet throughout his time in the City of Churches, the Spaniard slowly reinvigorated the club’s culture, leading to a fluid, attractive style and an FFA Cup victory in his first year.
When he left United in 2015, the man he had appointed Technical Director, former Barcelona legend Guillermo Amor, similarly struggled in his first eight games in charge, before winning 13 of his next 18 matches to lift the Championship: as one of the most cohesive, dynamic units the A-League has ever seen.
There is a clear pattern emerging among followers of Gombau’s style. Even Popovic had previously attempted to transition the Wanderers towards a more attacking approach, with similarly mixed results.
Gombau’s philosophy is yet another adjustment required from the established players in Western Sydney, and if Bridge’s comments are anything to go by, it’s going to take a substatial shift in mentality.
Changing the old guard
There is one wound festering beneath the surface in Western Sydney, that time may not heal. This is a side featuring many older, established A-League players, who seem predictably set in their ways.
With many pundits framing Western Sydney for a title-challenge at the beginning of this season, convincing this group it needs evolution is arguably the hardest task Gombau’s faced so far.
Hayden Foxe is by all accounts very popular with the Wanderers players – just as Popovic is – and the assistant coach’s sudden departure casts an ominous pall over the team’s relationship with Gombau.
His future looks increasingly reliant on the players’ willingness to follow his lead, and it’s unclear how long they’re eager to give him.
Touchline spats with Oriol Riera, the disconnect between his calm response and the emotion of his players following the derby thumping, and his lack of acknowledgement towards travelling Wanderers fans after the Newcastle loss are all creating an eerie feeling in Western Sydney.
Gombau’s future may already be out of his own hands, and in those of a CEO who has never had his patience tested before, but more importantly, a group of players who are already loyal to another.
What happens at the Wanderers could say a lot about the security of coaches in this country.