This is Kevin Muscat’s next evolution & why he’s not trying to replicate past success

Melbourne Victory legend Kevin Muscat speaks to about life in charge of Chinese champions Shanghai Port, the challenges of a coach, planning a session and the importance of his translator.

As Kevin Muscat says; No two things are exactly the same.

The A-Leagues legend is at the helm of Chinese champions Shanghai Port after success with Yokohama F.Marinos in Japan, where he delivered silverware while playing an attacking and high-octane style of football.

Muscat left his mark on F.Marinos; winning a J1 League title and two runners-up finishes to go with a first ever Japanese Super Cup trophy.

But the former Socceroos defender is not trying to replicate what he achieved in Japan with Shanghai Port.

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“Replicate is the wrong word because no two things are exactly the same,” Muscat told about his work so far in China, where Shanghai Port are unbeaten through four rounds. “The canvases are completely different but it’s football along that path.

“It’s the methodology and the philosophy that I like. I’m enjoying the process of trying to embody a style of football, an attacking brand of football. So far, I’ve been pleasantly warmed by it.

“There’s been a huge buy in. From all the locals, to the Chinese staff and Aussie boys here. There’s a buzz building in the stadium, particularly at home. It’s obviously something you are always going to try and evolve. The start has been fairly solid.

“We’ve been really encouraged by the way the players have embraced it. It’s taken the players back to maybe when they were younger. Playing a certain style of football – everything is with the ball. When you’re a youngster growing up, that’s what it was like. Of course there’s a structural discipline within it.”

During his two-and-a-half years in charge in Yokohama, Muscat saw his team rank first for pass percentage in the attacking final third, passes into the penalty area and forward pass completions per matches. Under his guidance, F.Marinos averaged 2.2 goals in home matches (92 in total) – more than any other manager in the history of the competition.

F.Marinos scored 176 goals and conceded 94 times in the J1 League, with that goal difference (+82) the best in the competition for the period when Muscat was working in Japan’s top flight. It is the same for goals, shots, shot conversion and possession in J1 from August 6 up until the end of his tenure – the team had the best per game ratio.

This, however, is not a copy and paste job in Shanghai.

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Muscat – boasting the highest winning rate (57%) in J1 among F.Marinos managers to have overseen more than 50 games, replaced Spaniard Javier Pereira, who ended Shanghai Port’s five-year wait for a Chinese Super League trophy in 2023 but departed after just nine months.

Shanghai Port, formerly known as Shanghai SIPG where Sven-Goran Eriksson and Andre Villas-Boas previously coached, are headlined by former Chelsea and Brazil star Oscar.

But this is an ageing team. Oscar is 32 and he is one of 16 players aged 30 or above this season.

“This is the danger if we just copy and paste what we did previously because everything is different,” Muscat explained. “The age demographic of this team is very different. The history of the physical loads is completely different.

“It’s trying to find a balance while not compromising your beliefs. That’s what we’re doing and that’s taking up quite a bit of time because you want to get it right because of the football you play. Underneath that is many contributing factors. Physical demands are one.

“If we try to gain that too quickly it’s going to be catastrophic. We’re not compromising on the football we want to play. But the challenge of bringing that to life in an environment where it’s going to be safe to do so has been challenging but that’s the exciting part of it.”

Muscat is surrounded by three Australians on his coaching staff, with one new face.

Former Brisbane Roar head coach Ross Aloisi is an assistant, having worked with him previously at F.Marinos, while Greg King also followed him from Yokohama in his role as Head of High Performance.

Ex-Western United assistant coach Vincenzo Ierardo is also part of Muscat’s staff in the vibrant Chinese city.

“First and foremost, there’s not a high relevance on where they’re from,” Muscat said. “The highest relevance firstly is on what they stand for as people then after that their competencies in their roles.

“Of course it’s nice to give opportunities to Australians as was afforded to me. That’s, I suppose, a bit of a bonus. Where possible I like to do that.

“It’s strange, we spend a lot of time together in the office and you just think we’re spending every every night having dinner and going out for a scotch or a wine here and there, but to be honest there’s not too much of that. We get through a day and everyone wants their own space. Then you’re getting home and you’re planning to be back together first thing in the morning again but there is a good bond between us.”

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Then, there is the role of the translator.

Working in Asia, one of the challenges has been the language yet Muscat overcame that in Japan thanks to the work of his translator Yutaka Matsuzaki.

Now in China, is benefiting from the work of interpreter Vincent.

“It’s funny because Melbourne Victory, we played against SIPG. It was strange because the first time I met Vincent the translator it was like I already knew him because we’d played them four times,” Muscat recalled. “He was a young fella back then. He’s worked with some really good managers and been here a long time.

“It’s a key, vital role. Without a translator, with a video and their understanding, although it’s limited, of English we could probably get by in a one-off. But going the other way, I’d have no idea.

“Vincent, it’s important that you connect with the person. The calibre of the person. He’s a great guy and a family man. His enthusiasm for what he does is second to none and we’ve struck up a relationship.

“He is involved in every strategic meeting, just understanding our football and terminologies. He has the bug. He is fully invested.”

During this 30-minute interview, Muscat provides an insight into life as a coach.

The hours are long. For the Isuzu UTE A-League-winning boss, his mind is always ticking and he is always watching football.

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“Most jobs are constrained to the office, so work from 9-5,” he said. “But the one constant that a professional coach will say is that work goes beyond when you’re in the office. You’re thinking methodically about many things.

“If you’re honest with yourself, and I’m certainly under no illusions, if you haven’t got capable and competent staff with you, you can’t do the job… well I certainly couldn’t do the job the way I wanted to do without the competence of the staff. It’s just not possible.

“I’m certainly one of those, if there’s a game on – regardless of who it is – I’ve got to find it and tune in. But then there’s the constant thinking of training sessions, upcoming games, what needs to be done, what can help you in a game, the physical loads and then there’s the man management side of things that can’t be overlooked which is time-consuming too.

“But that’s why I suppose they say it’s a young man’s game because you have to surround yourself with people who are good and can trust, and believe in the football you want to play. It’s not easy to find.”

Muscat added: “I’m thinking constantly. You’re thinking constantly because then it goes beyond that.

“If I ticked it off and went through it all, there’s so much that goes through preparing a training session let alone a whole week.”

So how much goes into a training session?

“Huge, huge (amounts),” Muscat replied. “There’s things that come into it that you probably wouldn’t think about until it happens.

“For example, we played on Saturday and then there’s a 23-man squad. There’s a lot of boys that don’t play so by the next training session, we gave everyone a day off and then you bring everyone in and you almost have three groups at training.

“The timing of who’s doing what, how much, how little, who is doing more? It’s quite a science and that’s why you need capable people because you can’t do the job I want to do on your own. Greg, Ross and Vince are contributing heavily here.”