Changing faces: Fabio Alves on the run against the Wanderers last season. Photo: Brendan Esposito
When Milos Dimitrijevic made his debut for Sydney FC as a substitute against Central Coast Mariners last week, many thought the experienced midfielder would add some much needed distribution to their play. He didn't and, if anything, the Sky Blues' passing got worse.
That's not an indictment on the player himself, rather the system he walked into when he became the 51st player used by the club over the last 70 competitive games.
Fluid football doesn't happen over night, it requires chemistry and collective understanding. It takes time to persist with the same squad, until they play the ball out of the back, and transitions into the final third rely on near instinctive knowledge of movement and position. It's telling that Sydney FC's poor displays coincide with the influx of more than 50 players in less than three seasons. They have played just one finals game.
Juho Makela in action in 2011. Photo: Anthony Johnson
Mariners coach Phil Moss may not have been talking about Sydney FC specifically, but he stressed how even a few changes can destabilise a team.
''I think it's as if we sailed into some stormy waters but we can see some calmer waters ahead and I think the performances have shown that, the players are more settled now and I've had time to settle in the role,'' Moss said.
''There was a big transition, a big upheaval but certainly we've tried to steady the ship as quick as we can and get back to the football that we're capable of.''
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The reigning champions have been arguably the most consistent performers in the history of the competition. They were the most tactically well-drilled team last year and are showing glimpses of returning to that level under their third coach in nine years. It also helps that they have used just 38 players since September 2011 despite having to also play A-League finals series and two Asian Champions League campaigns.
The other best performers over that period, Brisbane Roar, handed a debut to 18-year-old Devante Clut against Wellington Phoenix on Friday night but their tally is also 38 players over the past three seasons, which also includes two Asian Champions League campaigns.
To anyone who watched the Roar dismantle Melbourne Victory 3-0 a fortnight ago, it was evident how the continuity of playing staff was essential to their superb passing game.
By contrast, Sydney FC appear just as disjointed as they did years ago, perhaps more so. They've brought players in from all over the world but none have been part of a long-term plan. Finland's Juho Makela, Fabio from Brazil, Hirofumi Moriyasu from Japan, Panama's Yairo Yau, Pascal Bosschaart from Holland and Croatian forward Kruno Lovrek all came and went without leaving too great a footprint on the league. There have been plenty of local short-term solutions; Jamie Coyne, Michael Beauchamp, Trent McClenahan and Paul Reid, though none stayed for more than a season.
Youth has been tried, but for the most part rookies have been used as stop-gaps and not eased into the senior squad. Aaron Calver, Alec Urosevski, Mitch Mallia and Nathan Sherlock landed on team sheets from near-obscurity but faded back just as quickly.
Keys can now be heard jingling at home games, coinciding with calls from fans for a change. Another clean-out is expected to follow the end of this season with the bulk of the squad off contract, but it's not the change many are hoping for. Nearly three seasons of Band-Aid solutions have failed to repair the club's wounds. With no evident long-term vision in sight, they will struggle to stem the bleeding.