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Popovic is human, but was he mistaken?

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The saying describes, “hindsight is 20/20”, but I prefer to look at it like test cricket – a beautiful, though agonizing, thing.

Unfortunately, having had our Postecoglous, our Merricks and indeed, our Popovics, we are yet to see a coach who can utilise hindsight to win a game.

Since the Wanderers’ loss on Sunday, Popovic has been criticised for what is described as a “fatal error”.

The Wanderers were ahead and victory within reach, until key defender Topor Stanley, who had been having a superb game, was forced off with injury.

As he was slowly escorted towards treatment on the sidelines, Wanderers fans quickly realised: they had no one to replace him on the bench.

Meanwhile, Iacopo La Rocca was having a superb game in midfield, disrupting Brisbane’s flowing football more than effectively – in fact, he would later be awarded man of the match on this very basis.

However, with Topor Stanley injured, the imposing Italian was forced into the back four. Aaron Mooy came off the bench to occupy the void in midfield.

In one blow, the Wanderers had effectively lost one of their best defenders and one of their best midfielders. It was a clear turning point.

Understandably, fans have since asked, “Why was experienced centreback, Michael Beauchamp, not even on the bench?”

This would have enabled a like-for-like switch with Topor Stanley, allowing La Rocca to continue his good work in midfield; meanwhile, Beauchamp is a strong defender who might have defended against Berisha’s eventual equaliser more effectively. Indeed, La Rocca’s ability in central defence is not quite as well developed.

Having Beauchamp on the bench could have won the Wanderers their first Grand Final. But does that mean it was stupid for Popovic to leave him out?

The short answer is: no.

The derived metaphor is: if bashing your head against the wall miraculously did no damage and instead resulted in you suddenly being able to speak Spanish and do complex algebra, was it a good idea to bash your head against the wall?

The long answer is:

There is a reason why Popovic values players such as La Rocca – their versatility. Although the Italian is best in midfield, he is able to adapt more defensively if such a need arises. And that’s exactly what happened against Brisbane; Popovic was forced to use his versatile player in a versatile manner.

Having such an option allows a coach, like Popovic, to use his bench more effeciently. Shannon Cole mightn’t be as good as Polenz or Hersi, but he can cover for both of them.

The fact of the matter is, losing a central defender to injury was the one of the least likely situations for which Popovic expected, and should have expected, to have to cover for with his bench design. And even then, he still had a plan.

La Rocca, throughout his career, has played at both holding midfield and centre-half; although he might be less effective at the latter, he was in fact Popovic’s backup plan in the unlikely scenario that Topor Stanley or Spiranovic became injured.

Mike Mulvey didn’t necessarily do anything entirely different. Although Brisbane’s manager had a defender in Donachie on the bench, could anyone really argue that the inexperienced youngster was any better protection for an injured centre-half than La Rocca was?

Meanwhile, this allowed Popovic to use his bench to accomodate more important situations:

Juric, if goals were needed – as they so often are.

Haliti, a versatile player who could have replaced Bridge, Hersi, Santalab and indeed, as eventuated, even Shinji Ono depending on what was most needed.

Cole who could cover for a fullback or winger on any side of the pitch.

Mooy who could slot in centrally, at holding midfield or in a more advanced role.

What if Beauchamp was there instead of Cole, like many have suggested? Then one must wonder what would happen if Polenz too became injured, or picked up a red? The same argument would be had, the same “error” suggested with only a different player “fatally” missing.

In the relatively small allowance made for benches in the A-League, having Beauchamp who could fill only one roll and be useful in only one situation – if a centreback became injured – was simply a luxury that Popovic could not afford.

Unfortunately, despite not being able to afford this luxury, Popovic was still made to pay.

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About Daniel Palmer (50 Articles)
<p>Daniel is a longtime fan of football, and more recently a passionate Western Sydney Wanderers kid and a proud member of the RBB. Hosts FTSAUS Podcast. Has a valid and interesting opinion about Australian Football. His lifelong dream is to be pre-game presenter at Parramatta Stadium.</p> <p>Follow on Twitter: @userlastname</p>
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