“When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in The Black Swan, “you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.”
It is a pertinent idea and quote with respect to the Western Sydney Wanderers, especially following Markus Babbel’s dismissal as coach.
Because the narrative on the Wanderers’ capabilities shifted, and quickly, taking into account their results in the FFA Cup and at the start of this A-League season.
Five months after handing Sydney United a 7-1 defeat in the FFA Cup’s Round of 16, Babbel was sacked, with Wanderers chairman Paul Lederer citing an underperforming squad. Results, in the opinion of the club, were not reflective of the squad’s abilities.
In reality, at least from a standpoint of results, the regression the Wanderers experienced under Babbel from the start of this season — however dramatic, with only one win in 11 games since defeating Sydney FC in late October — was inevitable.
In a performative sense, their level remained similar. It was only a month ago, before Fox Sports’ broadcast of their home match against Western United, it was put forth Babbel and his side could turn it all around.
Yet, there was no real evidence they could or would. With this all in mind, that language suddenly became so critical by the same panel before and after the Wanderers’ 1-0 defeat at home to Perth Glory on Sunday night — with Babbel’s dismissal reportedly a fait accompli — was peculiar. Because ultimately, the Wanderers have had neither the individual capacity or direction to create any sustainable threat this season.
It was evident even in that win against Sydney United, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald as a performance that “sent them into the FFA Cup quarter-finals in style, while also providing plenty of optimism for the A-League season ahead.”
Two goals coming upon United losses of possession helped put WSW 3-0 up at the break, and a Daniel Lopar double save stopped the NPL side from coming back within a goal.
The game opened up after United went a man down. Against Melbourne City the next month, Western Sydney showed the same level of inertia on the ball but at AAMI Park, transitional opportunities were largely denied. With this is mind, it’s hard to argue Radoslaw Majewski would have actually made a material difference, had he not gone down with a season-ending knee injury.
Squad makeup is relevant in this sense. On top of a midfield that continually tries to avoid risk — something that manifests both via conditioning and the individual’s situational sense — composition closer to goal has not showed any balance. Effort becomes irrelevant when incompatible player attributes are married with isolation on the ball.
As such, it is of little surprise Kwame Yeboah is Western Sydney’s highest ranked and 10th in the competition for successful dribbles at 27, but maintains a relatively low dribble success rate at 53%. Though Western Sydney are fifth in the league for shots in total, they simply have not created opportunities of any substance, as an extension of their lifeless phases of possession under Babbel. So far this season, the Wanderers have only two players in the A-League’s top 50 for xG per shot.
Shot quality is impactful, when considering Western Sydney also have the lowest shot on target rate in the A-League this season, at 26.9%. This has been the fundamental problem with the Wanderers, and flies in the face of any narrative Babbel attempted to put forth to the media, that his side dominated games. Quite simply, there was no such domination, even in the games they were in the opposition half. Because there was rarely ever any danger to what the Wanderers did on the ball under Babbel, on top of the rudimentary errors they continued to make in defensive phases.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Wanderers did not work hard under Babbel. This season, for example, Western Sydney are ranked fourth in the competition for passes per defensive action, at 5.8. They just didn’t work smartly, and that is down to coaching. The amount of ball watching that happens in both the midfield and defensive lines, not to mention the impact of poor defensive body shape, allows one pass to cut through. Both in transition and in more compact phases. The ferocity and volume of tackles and challenges says just as much about bad positioning necessitating commitment.
Although Western Sydney’s individual and collective inability to improve during Babbel’s tenure should not go ignored, this scenario says just as much about how the game is perceived by the media overall, with particular focus on how the game is packaged by the A-League’s rights holder.
Babbel’s evident affability and warmth plays into this. It’s not his fault, in that sense. That his famed sartorial choices made for the first topic of discussion as he joined the panel pre-match against Perth Glory, with his and his team’s struggles in mind, both said nothing and everything.
Considering how much time Babbel was given, it all underlines that fundamentally in Australian football, perception is reality and substance is of little importance. Being a good bloke is more important than actually being competent.