Tony’s plan B-arcelona?

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What the signing of Andrés Carrasco means for Popovic and the Wanderers.

It’s hard to believe that only eight months on from masterminding the Wanderers’ historic AFC Champions League title, Tony Popovic’s stock is at a career low.

Once the chief navigator of a smooth-sailing vessel, the manager, approaching his fourth term with Western Sydney, now resides over something of a sinking ship.

The club’s continental exploits left a heavy toll on the players who, at the back end of last A-League season, appeared to lose faith in the Popovic system and consequently the man himself.

A mass exodus of the squad ensued and with several key players departing the club in the off-season – including main marksman Tomi Juric and now Socceroo Matthew Spiranovic – Popovic now faces the greatest challenge of his short managerial tenure.

For the first time in their brief history, the Wanderers head into pre-season with more lingering question marks than viable answers. In search of solutions, Popovic has begun his own Spanish inquisition – principally the signing of former Barcelona youth coach Andrés Carrasco.

Opposites attract

The Parramatta-bound Catalan, who also plied his trade at Malaga and Dinamo Tbilisi, has wasted no time in making his intentions clear.

“My goal in this new stage is to help the team to play in the way that all the fans can be proud of,” said Carrasco.

“Personally I love this sport and because of my training and awareness, I love the offensive, attacking football. I firmly believe that football is a show and I like to feel the victory from this standpoint.”

His arrival signals an interesting period of transformation at Western Sydney. It’s not the first time someone with famed Barcelona DNA has entered the A-League but it places the Wanderers, still an infantile club mostly carved in Popovic’s image but still searching for a footballing identity, in uncharted waters.

What makes the acquisition of the Spanish assistant coach more intriguing is that at a glance he appears to be quintessentially anti-Popovic, both in ideas and mentality.

A clash in ideologies could be on the cards. The image of Barcelona resonates from Carrasco and naturally, a predisposition for controlled, attacking football – perhaps even classical tiki-taka – can be expected. It’s the complete antithesis of the more pragmatic Popovic, who at his time at the Wanderers has chiseled out a deeply conservative identity.

Popovic’s philosophy began to draw vociferous criticism from all quarters last season despite the ACL success and the disjointed schedule that had a large impact on the mental and physical well-being of his players.

In bringing Carrasco to his side, Popovic has acknowledged first-hand that opposition think-tanks have acclimatised to the Wanderers’ machine-like organisation that has seen them achieve so much in next to no time. His defensively-orientated mentality can stifle creativity (see the absence of a traditional number ten after Shinji Ono), and when the collective team grind is not conducive to gaining a result, his team misses an element of opportunism and ruthlessness.

Historically, Popovic and the Wanderers have been criticised for a dearth in structural flexibility. Complacency was allowed to germinate throughout the squad last season and the Wanderers ended their campaign mired in conservatism. We can only guess how much of an influence Carrasco will be in reshaping the team’s identity but we do know that he represents a big part of Popovic’s rebuilding mission.

More importantly though, it symbolizes a significant moment for Popovic himself.

The disappointment of last season left the Wanderers custodian at a managerial crossroads. The acquisition of Carrasco is an overwhelmingly positive and proactive move and one that is largely out of character for the Wanderers boss.

Popovic, in his time at Parramatta, has epitomised the modern-day authoritarian: he holds an unwavering trust in his ranks to immerse themselves in his regimented structure but has little patience for reluctant compliers.

In recruiting a polar opposite as his assistant we are beginning to see Popovic re-invent himself as a manager. It will be interesting to see how his new Spanish no. 2 further progresses Popovic’s ideological tweaks in the coming months.

It’s easy – fanciful even – for fans of the Red & Black to fetishize Carrasco’s Barcelona roots; he won’t transform Kearyn Baccus into Andres Iniesta. But all evidence suggests that Popovic aims to take the club in a fresh, new direction. At the very least we should anticipate the Wanderers to play with more control and less cynicism in the upcoming season.

Carrasco’s influence could mean a greater emphasis on intelligent use of possession and technical prowess rather than a reactive, soak-and-counter style. Perhaps we will see the Wanderers try to impose themselves upon the opposition rather than basing their approach on limiting the opposition and strangling them out of the game.

A lot of course will depend on the players Popovic will have at his disposal.

Signings hold the key

If we should expect alterations in playing style of the Wanderers, then logically, they will need one or two different players to fit the bill.

The signings of Mitch Nichols and Andreu already indicate a modification in the balance of the midfield, and suggest an emergence of technical proficiency. In Nichols, Popovic has the most versatile attacking component in the Wanderers’ history at his disposal and the governing Andreu should ensure a more cultured use of possession than the often-erratic Iacopo La Rocca.

However, outside these two midfield reinforcements, the squad looks bare and bereft of the players required to overhaul the Wanderers current malaise.

The loss of Matthew Spiranovic comes as a cruel blow, leaving the inexperienced Jonathan Aspro as the only ball-playing central defender available. Meanwhile, the need for an out-and-out goal scorer represents perhaps the biggest task of the transfer period for the Wanderers hierarchy.

Popovic and his new understudy have their work cut out in reviving the Wanderers. It will likely be another tricky season of adjustment for the club as the pair wrestle with their ideas and map out a new way forward. But the Wanderers boss has surely earned the right to take the club in whatever direction he desires and his latest recruit may play a big role in shaping Western Sydney’s foreseeable future.

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