As Melbourne City seek to resume their interrupted season on Saturday against Sydney FC, in the first of their three matches remaining, head coach Erick Mombaerts faces an almighty managerial challenge – to keep the form of his high-flying A-League club intact coming out of the league’s COVID-19 pandemic-mandated hiatus.
The 65-year-old Frenchman – who has coached five French Ligue 1 clubs in his 33-year coaching career, in addition to the French Under-18 and Under-21 national teams, plus a brief J-League stint with Yokohama Flugels Marinos – had taken Melbourne City up to second place in the A-League prior to the league suspending play in late March.
The interruption of the season also put on hold what was shaping up as an impressive debut for Mombaerts in his first season in charge of any A-League team.
But he is looking only as far as Melbourne City’s first match back against league leaders Sydney FC.
Whether Mombaerts thinks that his side can go toe-to-toe with the league’s pacesetters remains anyone’s guess, as he is looking at the meeting with a guarded optimism.
But he is not faulting the team’s mental preparation, even after a break of nearly four months off.
“We have to prepare and we have to adapt for our next game against Sydney FC. Every day we are very busy, with training and team meetings, we try and spend all day every day to prepare well,” Mombaerts said from the team’s Sydney hotel, where they remain quarantined until Saturday after receiving special permission to join the A-League’s central hub following multiple aborted attempts to leave Melbourne with closures to Melburnians on the New South Wales-Victoria border earlier this month.
The late quarantine itself has presented Melbourne City with its own sets of difficulties and challenges, which Mombaerts acknowledges.
“This feels more like a preseason cup,” he said.
“But it might be more different for the players rather than for me, because they’re all concentrating on the job and thinking about their football. Maybe it’s more difficult for them because of being away from their families,” added Mombaerts.
Melbourne City will look to consolidate second spot on the A-League ladder, and with certain advantages with their remaining three fixtures before the finals start on August 22.
City head coach, Erick Mombaerts. Source: A-League.
Mombaerts’s side also enjoys the luxury of having longer gaps in between games – already with over a week to play before that first match back against Sydney FC, Melbourne City have a ten-day gap before playing Adelaide United, and then an eight-day break before finishing up the regular season against Melbourne rivals Western United.
And Melbourne City would have to feel encouraged if Sydney FC have been beset with any apparent loss of momentum from being in the Sydney hub, after a shock 2-1 defeat against Newcastle on Tuesday night.
But Mombaerts has downplayed those alleged advantages.
“Where we have to adapt to some things, there are others that we cannot control. The fixture is among them,” he admitted.
So in Mombaerts’s view, it all comes down to how well his team has prepared for the match against Sydney FC, as the first step in maintaining a fine season’s form.
“If we prepare well, we’ll be fine. We cannot have practice games or friendlies at the moment, so to adapt we have to have our own practice [intra-squad] games and assess the players that way,” he said.
Mombaerts has also paid tribute to the way that his players have addressed the challenge of staying ready and willing to face any challenges facing them, all the way down to their fitness and match preparations.
“There hasn’t been a big difference between when we stopped [for the pandemic] and now. Even with the long break, this has been easy to assess for us,” he said.
“We don’t really have many injuries, because our players have been able to train well after looking after themselves during the break,” added Mombaerts.
And the seasoned coach has also been around the traps of his role in leadership often enough to know that if something works, not to tinker with it too much – even in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.
Mombaerts expects Melbourne City to continue to play with a free-flowing style around striker Jamie Maclaren’s goalscoring prowess and the midfield play of Adrian Luna and Josh Brillante.
“I don’t think we’re going to change too much. The quarantine has hurt us because we cannot go outside, but I don’t think we’ll change too much,” Mombaerts has admitted.
Yet he has kept his sense of humor about the position his club is in, even with all the challenges facing every member of his squad.
“We’ll see what happens when we’re allowed to go outside the hotel,” said Mombaerts with a hearty laugh.