‘It hurt’ – The pain driving Western Sydney & Sydney’s blueprint to catch them

Sydney FC v Western Sydney Wanderers FC - Highlights | Isuzu UTE A-League 2023-24 | Round 05

The Wanderers drew blood in the first derby of the season but Ufuk Talay is already sketching out how to rejuvenate Sydney

All night long there were gestures and waved arms, displeasure and delight communicated from the sidelines with physical theatre.

As Ufuk Talay and Marko Rudan lived out every minute of the Sydney derby from their technical areas, the two close friends and rival head coaches could see the state of their teams distilled down to one result.

After what one player described as a “cat and mouse” encounter, Western Sydney went top and Sydney FC stayed in 10th place. For all the sound and fury, the table confirms what both men knew about their teams right now; the question is how much that may change over the next few months.

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Despite the sugar hit of a 5-1 win in his first game, Talay isn’t a miracle worker – just a fine coach with a mandate to make Sydney FC younger, more vibrant, more dynamic. It’s a task he will tackle over weeks and months on the training ground, and progress will be gradual; as he pores over the video of this defeat, it’s evidence of a side that doesn’t really know how it wants to play.

The Wanderers, by contrast, know precisely what their plan is. Combinations sprout all over the pitch like spring flowers and they have the execution to target perceived weaknesses in the opposition.

Yet it’s paradoxical to compare the line-ups for this first Sydney derby of the season with Western Sydney’s 4-0 win on the same turf back in March. Only four of that winning team started here, while six of Sydney’s starting XI from that night began this game; and yet it was the Wanderers who played here with the greater fluency and cohesion.

Once again Rudan rang the changes in the off season, not all of them voluntarily; some players wanted too much money to be retained within the salary cap. But his is a team that plays with an identity and a style, fashioned over the long months of waiting for the new season to start and built out of the hurt of losing a final at home to Sydney FC.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into that time, a lot of work,” Rudan said as the dust settled on this victory for his team. “We were very clear at the start of the year, I reflected a lot in the off season about what went wrong.

“It hurt for a long time, losing in that first finals game, and for us to be better I thought we needed to change our style a bit and the way we played.

“Then you’ve got to find the right players in a salary-cap league which is never easy. So there’s a lot of work goes into that. We’re very clear on what that style is and we’ve got principles, there’s only about five or six of them, but we work always on that.

“I’ve seen a real big buy in from the players right from the start.”

It helps when you find players with obvious class. The Dutchman Jorrit Hendrix arrived very late on in that pre-season program, but was at the heart of things as Western Sydney played forward at Allianz.

“Jorrit didn’t even have a preseason, but we overloaded him with a lot of videos, a lot of patterns and, and a lot of things that he had had to understand in his role as well,” Rudan added.

Sydney have class players too – Joe Lolley marries Premier League pedigree with a constant drive to influence a game, Robert Mak is still playing in European Championship qualifiers for Slovakia. The issue for Talay is designing a hymn sheet that will allow all his leading lights to sing in harmony.

“We’re still building something in the way that we want to play, we want to play at high intensity in games,” Talay said after the game.

“So we need to get the players fitter and stronger and the more the opportunities we get at training to build them up, we’ll see it more within the game.

“We don’t want players cramping up. We want players getting through the 90 minutes and the more that we do that at training (we can) get them to that point where we should overrun teams within the games.”

The hints are not really hidden about the kind of player Talay needs to make all that happen. The warnings are also there for the older players who can’t adapt.

“We want to give opportunities to young players – obviously, they need to be good players, we won’t just throw them in there for the sake of it, but you know that the players will get their opportunity,” Talay said.

“We have a lot of players coming up and training with the first team and (they will) get that opportunity to be in that environment.

“The way we want to play it’s a young man’s game anyway. You need to run, you need to be able to transition up and down within the game and that’s the direction that we’re trying to head.”

With only six games played, there is plenty of time for Talay to work on that direction. For now, Western Sydney are that much further ahead of the curve, but Rudan knows that his close friend is likely to narrow that gap in the month ahead.