Western Sydney emerge as unlikely title contenders with Antonis pulling strings | Jonathan Howcroft

Jonathan Howcroft
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Western Sydney Wanderers are in excellent form having won four and drawn one of their last six A-League outings. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Ashley Feder/Getty Images</span>
Western Sydney Wanderers are in excellent form having won four and drawn one of their last six A-League outings. Photograph: Ashley Feder/Getty Images

Only Sydney FC have picked up more A-League points than Western Sydney Wanderers since Terry Antonis first appeared on one of Tony Popovic’s teamsheets. The three points earned in Newcastle on Saturday keep the Wanderers in the hunt for an Asian Champions League qualification spot, a remarkable turnaround after winning only two of their opening 15 matches.

The Bankstown-born Antonis, on loan from Greek Superleague side PAOK, is not the only variable to factor into the Wanderers’ upturn in fortunes. The anguine Vedran Janjetović has corrected a glaring pre-season oversight in goal, while Brendon Santalab’s finishing has deserved the many headlines. But it’s Antonis’s role greasing the wheels in between that has provided the platform for the Wanderers to emerge as an unlikely championship contender.

Antonis has operated in one of the two No6 roles Popovic favours. Last season this dual pivot at the base of midfield was executed superbly by Spaniards Dimas and Andreu, but the latter’s offseason departure unbalanced that fulcrum with Bruno Piñatares an inferior replacement. Kearyn Baccus quickly proved an option with greater upside than the Uruguayan but it wasn’t until the arrival of Antonis that he began to reveal the kind of quality that saw him move to Europe as a teenager.

Their partnership highlights Antonis’s greatest asset, his football intelligence. He occupies impactful areas of the pitch, providing both defensive solidity and attacking flow, both with the minimum of fuss. In so doing he makes it easy for team-mates to fulfil their roles around him. With Baccus, when one drifts forward the other covers. When one pushes wide the other patrols the middle. During rearguard actions both hover just in front of their back four shielding their centre halves and offering support to their full-backs. In attack they rarely overreach, looking to feed their more creative team-mates as early as possible.

Antonis has an enviable range of passing but his judicious use of the ball makes him a coach’s dream. Against Melbourne City last week his neat interplays with Baccus drew the visitors away from their marks creating space for more ambitions crossfield switches and through-balls. The lofted releases to Scott Neville and Jack Clisby caught the eye but they were predicated on the technique shown under pressure in congested areas.

It’s not only Baccus who has improved since Antonis’s introduction. The now stable centre-half pairing of Robbie Cornthwaite and Jonathan Aspropotamitis has the security of knowing it won’t be targeted at speed through the middle of the ground. Both full-backs are thriving as auxiliary wingers, confident their defensive duties will be covered and forward runs honoured by accurate long passes. All of which enables the marquee man Nicolás Martínez the freedom to express himself. At first glance the Argentinian looked a player with the potential to carve open A-League defences at will, but as is often the case with such mercurial talents, establishing a complementary formation can prove problematic. With Antonis and Baccus securing the midfield, Martínez is flourishing as the most advanced point of an attacking triangle, drifting in from the right onto his favoured left foot, creating space for the overlapping Neville on his outside while looking further forward to the likes of Santalab and Mitch Nichols.

Not everything is in full working order for the Wanderers – the reliance on Santalab for goals for example – but after a torrid few months Popovic’s method is finally becoming clearer and more successful by the week. Heading into the finals, the Wanderers are the only team with both the current form and the head-to-head record to suggest they could disrupt Sydney FC’s championship procession.

At the end of the season Antonis is keen to return to PAOK and try once more to make it in Europe. Few Australians attempting to forge careers overseas have endured such misfortune. His experience in Greece has so far been waylaid by politics, injury and a change of coach. Before that, moves to Parma and Everton both failed to materialise for a prodigy singled out aged just 10 as a future star.

But even acknowledging those circumstances, Antonis’s experience is becoming increasingly familiar. Luke Brattan, Josh Brillante, James Troisi and Adam Taggart have all prospered in the A-League this season after failing to make their mark in bigger leagues. Figuring out the right time to graduate from the domestic competition, and which club to move to, is a challenge that’s not getting any easier.

It’s a compound problem for Ange Postecoglou. Not only is he handicapped by being unable to select international calibre players who are failing to get game time, but the lack of action for young players in turn stunts their development. Antonis, for example, is 23 but hasn’t yet made 90 first team appearances despite debuting seven years ago. Between April 2014 and October 2016 Taggart made only nine club appearances. These should be the years players use to turbocharge their careers and blossom from promising youngsters into polished professionals. Too often that link in the chain is breaking down with players having to return to Australia to prove themselves all over again.

It’s a problem not unique to Australia as money exerts a gravitational pull on global talent. In his recent book Ruud Gullit laments a similar situation in the Netherlands where youngsters are plucked from the Eredivisie to the bigger European leagues only to languish in the reserves or disappear into the Bermuda Triangle loan system.

Antonis earned his three international caps back in 2012. Two years ago he was the youngest member of Australia’s Asian Cup-winning squad. On current form and with consistent game time he will return to Postecoglou’s plans. Hopefully opportunities at club level don’t curtail those ambitions once more.

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