It’s been a whirlwind half year for Michael Valkanis.
In May he was part of the management team which brought Adelaide United its first ever championship in their grand final triumph over Western Sydney Wanderers.
Now he is the man in the hot seat at Melbourne City, hoping to do the same thing, but this time as head coach of the league’s richest and best resourced club.
Valkanis got the first game of the rest of his life off to a satisfactory start when City beat – co-incidentally – Western Sydney Wanderers 1-0 at AAMI Park on Friday night.
In the circumstances – City had not won a match for more than five weeks and their head coach, John van ‘t Schip, had departed to be with his ailing father in The Netherlands on Tuesday – the result probably mattered more than the performance.
But the outcome will have done plenty to calm nerves at City’s Bundoora base, both of the players, who were becoming increasingly frustrated by their inability to hold on to leads and drop points, and a rookie coach hoping to make a statement in his first match.
City dominated possession and should really have put away the 10-man Wanderers – who were at a numerical disadvantage for an hour after Aritz Borda’s 30th minute dismissal following a clash with City captain Bruno Fornaroli – more comfortably.
But Valkanis can at least enjoy a 100 per cent record for a few days, until he returns to his old stomping ground in South Australia for next Thursday night’s clash with Adelaide, and work more closely with the players who are now under his direction alone.
At 42 the former central defender, who played in Greece and in the NSL and earned one cap for the national team, has waited for his chance and will feel he has the experience and football knowledge to be given an opportunity.
But few, at this stage, at any rate, would expect him to make the post his own in the long term given City’s wealth and their ability to promote people from within the Manchester-based City Football Group or hire well-known names from outside.
Still, Valkanis can do no more than achieve what is asked of him. At the very least he will want to keep on winning and present his employers with a compelling reason to stick with him rather than opt for the big name coach from Europe or South America that many expect them to seek.
Can he do so?
Well, there is no doubt that City have players of the highest quality with the ability to be serious title challengers.
Were it not for their December slip ups – dropping points to Central Coast and Brisbane, only drawing when leading against Sydney and Perth Glory and losing to Melbourne Victory having gone in front – they would be far closer to runaway leaders Sydney than they are at the moment.
A coach can be a tactical genius but if he has no luck it will count for nothing.
Its too early to make any judgement about Valkanis’ tactical acumen, but he certainly enjoyed one big slice of luck in his debut game – the return of experienced Danish central defender Michael Jakobsen.
The centre half had been missing for the past few weeks and City looked far more porous without him than they had earlier in the season.
He brings experience and stability to the rearguard, particularly when deployed alongside raw centre back partner Ruon Tongyik, and it showed on Friday night against the Wanderers where City kept their first A-League clean sheet since the opening match of the season when they won 1-0 in Wellington.
Valkanis, as perhaps befits a former hard-nosed centre half, will look to make City tighter in defence.
His first tactical ploy was to ditch the three at the back structure favoured more recently by van ‘t Schip, preferring to play with a more traditional flat back four utilising the in-form Ivan Franjic on the right, Josh Rose on the left and Jakobsen and Tongyik in the centre.
The strategy gave them more solidity in the centre and against opposition who sat back like Western Sydney it gave the full backs the chance to push on into threatening positions on the flanks, backing up wide men Bruce Kamau and Nicolas Colazo or going wider and allowing the other pair to cut in to support Bruno Fornaroli and Tim Cahill.
The set up also allowed Neil Kilkenny, who is a metronomic presence in the City midfield, to play a bit further forward than in recent games where his ability to hold and recirculate the ball and play linking passes was used to good effect in this match.
If Sydney can beat second bottom Central Coast on Sunday then City will still be 13 points adrift of the leaders at the half way mark of the season. Its not impossible for them to catch Sydney – if Graham Arnold’s side had a serious form slump – but even then City under their new boss would need to keep winning.
A more realistic option might be to ensure they pip Victory and Brisbane for the coveted second spot, which would all but guarantee them an Asian Champions League berth, even if it was only a spot in the qualifying round.
Should City look to cast their net further wide and leave Valkanis in charge only on a temporary basis, then they would have an enormous amount of choice.
They could go after an established Premier League or European boss who is at the beginning or latter end of his career and offer him an interesting challenge in what might be considered an exotic and attractive location. The notion that Australia is a football backwater could be countered by the fact that anyone coming here to manage City would be working for the broader City Football Group, and have potential opportunities with them.
They could look to raid their New York City franchise, where coaches do have experience of salary-capped competitions and finals series, which most European or British coaches don’t, or they may choose to redeploy one of their Manchester based staff.
The other alternative to Valkanis would be to look local on the basis that the A-League is a rather unique beast, with its salary cap, strictures on foreign signings, mandated number of youth players that need to be carried in the squad and the sheer scale and unusual nature of playing in a country with such temperature extremes and distances between matches.
The most successful coaches in recent times have been title winners Guillermo Amor (Adelaide United), Asian Champions League winning boss Tony Popovic, (West Sydney) Kevin Muscat at Melbourne Victory, Mike Mulvey and Ange Postecoglou (who won titles with Brisbane) and Graham Arnold, successful with Central Coast.
Amor, who has strong links with several key City figures with a Barcelona background, like himself, is currently still in charge of the Reds but having a difficult time as they struggle to recapture last season’s spark.
Popovic’s Wanderers are in a transition phase and were beaten by City on Friday night. Muscat is far too associated with Victory to be a consideration, while Postecoglou is now in charge of the Socceroos, and if tempted back to club football is thought far more likely to be interested in a move to Europe or perhaps Asia.
Arnold has just signed a contract extension with Sydney, who are still unbeaten this season, while Mulvey is coaching in Thailand and has rarely been mentioned as a candidate for any A-League jobs that come up since he parted company with the Roar six months after he led them to the championship. Josep Gombau, the former Adelaide coach is another with a Barcelona background and has also been touted as a possibility, although City have said little.
It should be a fascinating few weeks at Bundora, with the first choice the CFG have to make being whether to leave Valkanis in charge for the rest of the season or parachute a permanent coach in as soon as possible.
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