A-LEAGUE PREVIEW: Can Western United complete the journey?

In its pandemic-interrupted debut 2019-20 season marked by more delays as the season wound its way through the finals, Western United exceeded any experts’ prognostications with a fifth-place regular-season finish on the A-League ladder, good enough for a finals place.

That ensuing finals run ended in a 2-0 loss in the semifinals to eventual runners-up Melbourne City.

Now a little over a year later, Western United coach Mark Rudan revealed that the club now has expectations, with getting one step further en route to an appearance in the A-League grand final being set as the minimum goal.

“That’s what happens with a bit of success,” says Rudan.

“One of our core values is about improvement, always has been. It comes with our striving for growth, and that hasn’t changed. And we want to get better in every department,” he adds.

With offseason attacking-minded acquisitions in the way of midfield Lachlan Wales from Victorian rival Melbourne City and former Espanyol captain Victor Sanchez, to complement an already-potent attacking trinity in Besart Berisha, Alessandro Diamanti and Max Burgess through the middle and Connor Pain occupying one of the wings, Rudan feels that the gulfs in improvement can be easily met.

And in providing updates from preseason training – ahead of and during a preseason friendly against locally-based National Premier League side North Geelong – Rudan revealed that it’s not just the added players, but Western United’s performance in training camp drills which has him excited and optimistic that improvements are going to work out.

“With the ball, without the ball, in our own half, in the attacking half, there’s been lots of improvement,” says Rudan.

“We always believe we can improve – nothing is ever perfect, and there’s never a perfect game plan. It always gets played out in the way you prepare,” he added.

In particular, Rudan sees his starting eleven only as strong as its spine, and the quality it represents.

“It’s exciting for us – we want to get the backbone right, and what we have in [goalkeeper Filip] Kurto, [defender Andrew] Durante, Besart Berisha, and now Sanchez, I think that puts us in pretty good starting point,” says Rudan.

Which is not to under-estimate areas where Western United’s key strengths are seen to lie, in midfield and on the wings.

Those areas were on full display in the club’s 8-0 thumping of North Geelong on Saturday afternoon at GMHBA Stadium in Geelong, with the likes of Pain and Wales creating chances from the flanks, and Wales and reserve forward Apostolos Stamatelopoulos scoring two goals apiece to lead the way.

“It is very encouraging to see what we’ve been trying to do is working out so far, in game situations,” Rudan said after this win.

“We play with three in the back, so that means that our wingers, as wing-backs, will get plenty of the ball moving forward.

“We will take advantage of the width of the pitch every chance we can,” he added.

Western United also took apart the local NPL opposition with ease – leading 5-0 at halftime – with Rudan essentially fielding a reserve-laden side of his own.

Of the eleven players kicking off against North Geelong, only Kurto in goal and Pain and Wales on the wings can be counted upon as certain starters when Western United open the A-League season in Geelong against Adelaide United on December 28.

And that improvement in the depth of places has not gone unnoticed by Rudan.

“The improvement of our whole squad from a year ago is phenomenal,” he says.

“Especially with the players we have – like with [Alessandro] Diamanti, he is such a creative player. Connor Pain has improved so much. And Bess [Besart Berisha], he’s made a career out of getting into the right positions to score goals.

“But what we want to do is to share the load, and work on getting some more set pieces down in the attacking end of the pitch,” adds Rudan.

Rudan has hinted that he will not be afraid to use his squad’s depth in a condensed season which aims to be finished by the end of June.

And with the likes of Steven Lustica, Josh Cavallo and Jerry Skotadis singled out as being particularly impressive against North Geelong, one can see why.

“It’s very important to keep in mind in what is going to be a very compressed A-League this year that we can cover for any liabilities in players which may occur,” says Rudan.

On paper, the additions of Sanchez – whom Rudan sees as “our anchor, our conductor, our communicator” as a defensive midfielder – and Wales as a difference that may put them over the top towards a run at the A-League title.

But Western United will go into the 2020-21 season the way they progressed through its first season: with an attacking-first mentality, at any and all costs.

“That’s a style that wins you games and it’s what the fans want to see,” Rudan says.

“Fans want to see goals. It’s entertainment. And as a fan of the game myself, that’s what I want to see as well.

“We give a lot of our players freedom to express themselves, especially in the attacking third, and that’s what comes naturally.

“No good ever comes from applying the shackles,” says Rudan.

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