Roar's opportunity for greatness
The foremost story of the first two months of the latest Australian A-League season has reached the conclusion many had hoped for. Last Saturday, reigning champions Brisbane Roar comfortably overcame Perth Glory 4-0 to extend their unbeaten run to 36 matches. The win broke a 74-year-old record held by Sydney-based rugby league club Eastern Suburbs for the longest unbeaten streak across all football codes in Australia.
Brisbane's dominance hasn't caused resentment. In fact, fans of all clubs have enjoyed watching the Roar. Brisbane's playing style has never been seen in the A-League before.
Brisbane manager Ange Postecoglou doesn't rely on dull defensive tactics - the Roar dominate possession and prefer to attack with the ball on the floor. Cheekily dubbed 'Roarcelona', Brisbane have scored in every match of their unbeaten run and drawn only ten times. Despite the Barcelona-inspired moniker, Postecoglou credits his football style revolution to Arsene Wenger's Arsenal more than the Catalan giants.
Journalists and fans alike have appreciated Brisbane's free-flowing football. But now that the record is broken, there are two questions being asked by those involved in Australian football. Will the Roar lose this season? And how will they fare in the Asian Champions League?
It may seem ridiculous to talk about an undefeated season only a third of the way through but the way Brisbane have dominated in the past year is hard to ignore. The Roar have frequently embarrassed teams - not least in their 7-1 win over Adelaide a month ago - and their superior endurance means they often score in the last ten minutes to snag points. Brisbane have an aura of invincibility.
Brisbane play a fluid 4-2-3-1, which is more of a 2-1-4-3 in attack with the full backs pushing up and just one midfielder shielding the central defenders. In defence, the Roar press all over the pitch and work together to win the ball back. In attack, the full backs create extra options and use their speed to overlap. Brisbane pull opposition defences apart with constant movement and quick, accurate passing.
Nevertheless, Postecoglou's side are beatable. The Roar have been threatened twice this season: in a 2-2 draw against nine-man Melbourne Victory and a 2-1 win over Newcastle Jets. These games provide the answers on how to defeat Brisbane. A team need swift and ruthless attacking players, a well-drilled defensive structure and incredible endurance.
Because Brisbane are so focused on going forward, they are vulnerable to counter attacks. Victory exploited this mercilessly, scoring two goals from just four shots on target. But if you miss your chances, like Newcastle did two weeks ago (one goal from seven shots on target), Brisbane will make you pay. The fact that counter attacks can be carried out by just two or three skilful, quick players is also advantageous because the rest of the team can maintain its structure and preserve energy.
A well-drilled defence is critical. Melbourne held on in the second half of their 2-2 stalemate, despite having only nine players. The Victory's defence worked as a unit, closed down the space around their penalty area and, crucially, smothered Brisbane's full backs when they pushed forward.
Finally, teams must be in peak physical condition to close Brisbane down all game. Brisbane are the fittest team in the A-League. The Jets tried to go toe-to-toe with the Roar and were on top for around 60 minutes. After that, Newcastle ran out of legs and the league leaders came from behind to win.
In the end, the main threat to Brisbane notching an undefeated season may be injuries. Three players have played every game in the record-breaking run - central defender Matt Smith, defensive midfielder Erik Paartalu and goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos. All three are crucial to thwarting counter attacks, while Paartalu is a vital linkman in midfield. Injuries to one or more of this trio could be disastrous.
Otherwise, Postecoglou's league leaders may only be challenged again when they begin their 2012 Asian Champions League (ACL) campaign in March. Since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2005, A-League clubs have struggled in the ACL. The exception was Adelaide United in 2008. Adelaide reached the final thanks to a miserly defence and goals from set pieces. But Postecoglou has made it clear Brisbane won't play that way in Asia.
Australian teams that have tried to play attacking football in the ACL have failed. Too often A-League teams lose possession and then get burnt on the counter attack by fast, technically gifted Japanese or Korean players. Plus the big spending Asian clubs can buy attackers who are a level above those in the salary-capped A-League.
Postecoglou's scouting ability may have negated that economic disparity. The 46-year-old has signed a handful of players, with top-level experience, at bargain prices. Brisbane's attack is built around two such examples: German attacking midfielder Thomas Broich and Albanian striker Besart Berisha. Both have experience in the Bundesliga. Broich, nicknamed 'Mozart', directs Brisbane in the front third, while Berisha is a classic poacher and has scored nine goals in eight games since joining the Roar before this season.
Australian failure in the ACL has mainly been down to a lack of polish in the final third and being careless with possession. These are problems not associated with Brisbane. The Roar regularly chalk up over 60% possession and have averaged almost three goals a game this season. Anything less than a place in the quarter-finals would be disappointing, especially considering Postecoglou has an ace up his sleeve.
The Roar don't have a marquee player - one who under A-League rules can be paid outside the salary cap. The family that owns Bakrie & Brothers, one of Indonesia's richest corporations, bought Brisbane in October. Postecoglou wants to fill that marquee spot, so a major transfer in January should be expected, just in time for the A-League finals and the ACL.
Brisbane are already in the record books after last weekend's win over Perth. But if the Roar can manage to be the first A-League team to remain undefeated for an entire season, win back-to-back titles and the ACL, they'll be considered the greatest team in Australian football history for many years to come.