Second-best Wanderers under the microscope after slow start to ALM season

Like many modern idioms, the phenomenon of “being in the hot seat” carries a diverse, and not altogether pleasant, etymology. Modern usage of the phrase, though, holds a more benign meaning: to indicate that an individual or entity is the subject of intense scrutiny for poor performance. Or to provide a real-world example, the current position of Western Sydney’s Carl Robinson.

The Wanderers coach and his players were booed by their own supporters following 2-0 defeat to Macarthur FC on Saturday, after Robinson was snookered by the rope-a-dope tactics of counterpart Ante Miličić that afforded the hosts two-thirds of the ball in anticipation that the opposition would be devoid of inspiration in the final third.

It came after a mid-week defeat to semi-professional and out-of-season NPL NSW side APIA Leichhardt that put the Wanderers out of the FFA Cup. Robinson, just days after declaring it a fixture “we’ve got to take seriously” and discounting “wholesale changes” sent out a lethargic, second-string side and was promptly made to pay for what was either a deliberate strategy of load management – ostensibly for the Macarthur game – or hubris.

If there was any doubt beforehand, smoke is now billowing from beneath his perch in the dugout.

“Supporters have got every right to be disappointed. I’m disappointed, the players are disappointed,” Robinson said after Saturday’s loss. “Don’t blame the players, if you want to blame anyone, blame me. I am thick-skinned enough to do that. I understand football is a results-driven business.”

Given the apoplectic mood amongst the Wanderers faithful (#RobinsonOut got a good workout across social media over the past week), it was the right thing to say in that situation. Australian football is not an environment that readily welcomes toxic blame-shifting à la José Mourinho – generally, excuses are given in a more subtle manner. But even if it was, the Welshman simply lacks a legacy of success that would afford him licence to go full scorched earth.

Given that no ALM coach has been given stronger backing or a wider remit to recruit, taking aim at his players would also have effectively replaced one rod in his back for another – if the players aren’t good enough then that’s on him as well.

That Robinson found the right tone should not be surprising though, given one of the defining characteristics since his arrival in Parramatta has been his ability to find the right words – He had instilled hope the club would ascend to become the biggest club in the land and, when reality bit, shifted the conversation elsewhere or forwards.

The problem in Sydney’s west, though, is that this ability to dazzle off the pitch is in stark contrast to a continued inability to get things right on it – or even hint at an overarching approach that could eventually deliver the club to the promised land. Fourteen months into the latest attempt to find success in the post-Tony Popovic era, the Wanderers lack a discernible identity in their play and continue to be placed behind the eight-ball when their opposition makes the decision to simply let them have the ball. To provide some contrast, it has taken just four games for Arthur Papas to instil a clear – albeit madcap – direction at the Newcastle Jets.

Despite having what on paper is possibly the strongest team in ALM, the Wanderers have looked second best in every game this season and the officiating in their lone win was of sufficient quality to reportedly earn the vanquished Wellington Phoenix an apology from Football Australia. Given the institutional advantages the club holds, it should be an unacceptable predicament.

Admittedly, being on the hot-seat early on in the season doesn’t have to spell disaster. Patrick Kisnorbo cut a strained figure early on in 2020-21 only for Melbourne City to promptly find their feet and run away with the league. And until the axe falls, there is always a chance for a turnaround – and this squad is talented enough to compete.

But when ambitious ownership meets an uncertain direction, things can also move quickly, as Marco Kurz found out after 11 games at Melbourne Victory in 2019-20. The issue that then arises, as Victory found out, is what comes next.