Western United coach Mark Rudan has revealed the advance thinking that saw his side swing into pandemic mode early to became one of the form teams of the A-League.
One of the hottest in the competition prior to the shutdown, Western have been able to continue that momentum despite moving into a NSW-based hub since the restart, defeating Melbourne Victory, Western Sydney Wanderers and finals-bound Perth Glory in recent weeks.
The sole blemish came against a red-hot Newcastle Jets, whose 1-0 Western scalp combined with wins over Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix to give Carl Robinson’s side a solid foundation heading into the 2020/21 season.
Thanks to that Jets’ victory over the ‘Nix, Rudan’s side could finish as high as third on the table if they pick up wins over Sydney FC and Melbourne City, moving them into pole position to secure the last Asian Champions League place – a spot in the playoffs – on offer this season.
Today Rudan explained how, soon after the league’s suspension, he and his staff had identified the potential benefits of playing in hubs, and how they moved swiftly to turn that theory into reality.
“As soon as we went into lockdown, [figuring out how to play out of a hub] was my first thought,” he said.
“When the talks started about playing the rest of the games in a hub, we took a lead form other codes – the NRL and the AFL started it. From that moment, the plan started.
“We got straight onto familiarising ourselves with what that would look like, what kind of environment we needed to create, how to go about managing the players and everyone involved when everyone was back in their own houses training on their own.
“And I thought we managed that extremely well.
“We knew that would be an advantage for us if we did this really well and we perfected the management, our plans and our programs. Through managing that situation by communicating with everyone involved at the club, we were able to get more of a buy-in from players in terms of their individual programs.
“Knowing that they’re going to be doing their programs properly allowed us, when we came back to do that mini pre-season, to be at a really good level.
"Then we were able to push on and work through the next five weeks as a really tight unit and we continued the message every day: how can we be different? How can we get the upper hand? How can we get an advantage?
“We thought that by doing that, having a really good solid plan in place, by managing everyone extremely well, all the individual staff members and players, and getting them up to a good level mentally and physically, that we’d be able to outperform teams.”
With finals football now secured, Rudan and his staff’s plans have taken on another dimension heading into this Saturday’s game and the following Wednesday evening’s meeting with Melbourne City.
Although the carrot of a higher ladder position remains, it must be balanced with the need to prepare the squad for up to three games of finals football in a week; meaning that rarely sighted squad members Valentino Yuel, Dylan Pierias, Josh Cavallo, Luke Duzel, Jonathan Aspropotamitis, Patrick Antelmi, and Apostolos Stamatelopoulos could all see minutes.
The Sky Blues, in contrast, cannot improve their ladder position regardless of the result on Saturday night.
Nonetheless, with their shaky form since the restart only recently beginning to show some signs of abating, Rudan said he expected Steve Corica to field a strong side as they looked to sharpen themselves ahead of the finals.
“We’re not going to pick and choose, we’re going to go into the game wanting to win,” Rudan said of his own team. “But there will be opportunities for some of the other players.
“My main focus is for the first finals game, I’ve got to put a team together for tomorrow and for Wednesday that’s going to allow that starting team for the first finals game to get enough minutes into their bodies and continue that rhythm without overdoing them.
“We want to be competitive and win, albeit I’ve got to look at the bigger picture – which is the first finals game.
“I think people are smart enough to read between the lines and understand what I’m saying [when it comes to team selection].
“I’ve got to be smart: it’s a short turnaround. Most of our players played all four [previous] games and got almost 100% of minutes into them in them, so I’ve got to do the right thing.
“It’s more than likely you’ll see some fresh faces.”