His side’s first regular season will end against Melbourne City tomorrow evening - and Western United coach Mark Rudan can't wait to unlock his local rivals' unique tactical challenges.
Whilst it may have already been a fait accompli, Western defeated Sydney FC 2-1 to seal finals football in the first year of the club’s existence on Saturday evening, with their fourth win in five-games post-restart, and six wins in their past seven.
Should they down City on Wednesday, the club will finish their inaugural A-League season in third position and in the box-seat for a place in next year’s Asian Champions League play-offs.
Little wonder Rudan claims his team is the one nobody wants to play in the finals.
But before the expansion side can put their money where their manager’s mouth is, they will first face their City Blue rivals in the A-League’s final regular-season game.
City have defeated Western in both their previous meetings this season: winning 2-1 at Kardinia Park back in round three and 3-2 in a bushfire smoke affected game at AAMI Park in round 13. Both games, coincidentally, also featured Harrison Delbridge red cards.
Rudan has previously noted the similarities between the Graham Arnold-inspired approaches of Steve Corica’s Sydney FC and Ufuk Talay’s Wellington Phoenix and the back-fives deployed by Perth Glory and Brisbane Roar.
The Citizens, though, present a different challenge.
In Erick Mombaerts's first season at City, the Bundoora-based club is set for their best ladder finish in second spot and secured their longstanding goal of Asian Champions League qualification.
Having comfortably defeated Harboursiders in their opening game of the post-COVID period, City are also shaping as a serious threat to break the recent Sydney FC/Melbourne Victory grip on the A-League Championship.
“They’re probably different to any other team in terms of their setup,” said Rudan today.
“They play a 4-3-3 and they’ve got a very clear way of trying to play out – getting one of their fullbacks into a defensive midfield position so they end up with a back three and two sixes.
“They’re a good team, a very good team. They’ll be at full strength is the word we’ve got and rightly so because they’ve only played three games post-COVID and they’ve got a week until the next game now they’ve secured second position.
“They try to get an overload in that midfield and they’ve got pace out wide. They keep their wingers wide and high and Maclaren’s someone that’s always between defenders and making runs in behind as well.
“Maclaren is great in the box; his movement is one of the best in the league.
“We’ve given the players enough information in terms of what we expect from them, but we have to play our game and play within our system and find ways to break that.”
Though running out his now-familiar attacking trio of Besart Berisha, Alessandro Diamanti and Max Burgess in his side’s 2-1 win over Sydney, Western swung a number of changes in defence, resting Josh Risdon (who is fully fit after receiving a knock in training) and Connor Pain, replaced by Dylan Pierias and Josh Cavallo, and starting Oskar Dillon in the back three.
Rudan leaned heavily on his veteran starters in their first post-COVID fixtures but is expected to again rotate his squad against City, while the first-choice players that do start will be managed to stay fit for finals football.
And he admitted the squad were facing big challenges during their Sydney hub-based isolation, particularly the veterans with families.
“It’s tough, it’s not all fun and games,” he said.
“It’s hard work, particularly those with families to look after. They care for them deeply and so do we.
“We try to comfort them any way we can, we try to comfort them in any way that we can and we try to provide their family’s back home with any kind of support they require. It’s a challenge that we need to stay on top of to get the best out of them.
“We don’t have just a young team, with these young buccaneers who don’t really care about anyone but themselves. We’ve got a mix here.
“But we’ve got a great group of guys here – that makes things easier.”