Culture Kings: How Popovic and Aloisi are looking to mould their team’s ethos

Building a winning football team, especially a sustainable one, is not something that happens overnight. On and off the field, both tangible and intangible factors must be brought together in harmony to put a club in a position to succeed and, while many hands are involved, the principal figure in this construction is the coach. 

At Melbourne Victory and Western United, that task now falls to the newly installed Tony Popovic and John Aloisi respectively. 

See Also: Sturridge, City slickers and a race for the spoon: your A-League Men guide

Seeking to turn around their respective side’s flagging fortunes and keep pace with resident heavyweights Melbourne City, their simultaneous arrival in Melbourne is serendipitous as, divergent as they may be in footballing philosophy and public persona, the newly named Victory and United coaches’ career paths carry a number of striking parallels.

Both had successful playing careers that took them to Europe’s biggest leagues (Popovic playing over 100 games for Crystal Palace in the Championship and Premier League and Aloisi spending time with Osasuna and Deportivo Alavés in Spain), were teammates in the Socceroos’ Golden Generation (Popovic 58 caps to Aloisi’s 55), began their senior A-League Men coaching careers in 2012 (Popovic at Western Sydney Wanderers and Aloisi at Melbourne Heart), and are now onto their third coaching jobs in the Australian top flight. 

Further, the pair’s arrival at their respective clubs augured the commencement of a rebuild: Victory coming off the back of a first-ever wooden spoon in the club’s history and United mutually agreeing to part ways with inaugural coach Mark Rudan after a late-season collapse and ninth-place finish in 2020-21. 

Though it has been quite difficult to properly get a handle on how Victory is shaping, the most obvious changes that the pair have implemented in their new domains can be seen on the teamsheet: Victory signing the likes of Chris Ikonomidis, Jason Davidson, and Josh Brillante and Western bringing in a stable of veteran performers such as Jamie Young, Leo Lacroix, and Aleksandar Prijovic.

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The internal shift in the club’s cultures, however, are more difficult to measure — and given that the hallmarks of a successful and sustainable culture cannot be said to be truly visible until a number of years post-establishment it might not even be possible to do so at such an early juncture in their tenures. 

But every structure needs a foundation to be laid.

Socceroo Chris Ikonomidis is one of the new arrivals at Melbourne Victory
Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

Arriving alongside new Victory Director of Football John Didulica, Popovic is widely expected — in keeping with his previous demands at other A-League Men clubs — to have a wide remit to mould the club’s ethos as he sees fit; holding all the bargaining power against a club brass that had overseen one of the worst collapses the A-League Men had ever seen and that possessed no real means of pushing back without further alienating the club’s fanbase. 

To begin with, the 48-year-old has adopted a principles-focused approach.

“I think first you’ve got to identify the values that you want everyone to adhere to at the club,” he said on Friday. 

“This football club has got three great values that they’ve always lived by and I believe in those as well. We’ve made sure that everyone understands them, build the belief and confidence in everyone at this club that we can achieve great things but it takes time, it’s a process, we’re building and we’re just excited about what’s to come. 

“[The three values are] hard work, discipline and respect. That’s something that Victory had well before I got here and they’ve had that since day one. Since the Chairman’s been here. And anyone that’s worked with me knows that I believe in those values. That’s just a starting point and we’re building from there.”

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Aloisi, having spent three years out of management and not possessing the same levels of domestic success as Popovic, doesn’t possess quite the same levels of cache when it comes to ruling by edict at his new club.

Nonetheless, the new United boss has had his own priorities as he seeks to bed down his own philosophy in Melbourne’s west. 

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“[The focus has been working on] the togetherness of the group — that we’re in it together,” he said. “That was so important from day one. 

“[Emphasising] that the players were working for each other. Because if you don’t have that, especially within a team sport, you’re not going to sustain success. And the players are driving that themselves as well. 

“But culture is something you have to drive every day. You can have words on the wall but if you’re not driving it every day and making sure the players respect each other, respect the game and respect the environment [it won’t work].

“That’s something that we drive and that means they’re putting their effort in every day in training, on the pitch, off the pitch and the players are doing that. The culture at the moment is very good and we have to keep on building that.”

See Also: A-League Men set to start ‘new era,’ but will this one stick?

Aloisi’s musing about having words on the wall, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps take on a bit of extra rivalry meaning with The Age’s report that, upon becoming Victory’s Managing Director, one of Caroline Carnegie’s first actions was to paint the dressing room and make sure the club’s logo was predominantly displayed. 

Of course, the easiest way to ensure that everyone at a club is pulling in the same direction — be it players, coaches, administrators, or supporters — is to win football games: it’s always easier to sing when you’re winning. 

Both Victory and United will get their first chance to record three points on the 2021-22 campaign this evening when they meet at Kardnia Park in the latest ‘Battle of the Bridge’ — Victory finally having gotten their first win in the fixture on their sixth attempt towards the conclusion of the last campaign. 

See Also: Aloisi turns to the grapevine to prepare for Popa’s mystery Victory

“Everyone is excited [about what’s to come], Popovic said. “It’s not what I’ve created; it starts from the top, from the chairman first and then it trickles down. We all have our leadership roles to make sure we can implement what we want this club to be. 

“We want it to be the best club in Australia. It’s got a proud history, we know the number of members we have at this football club, we want to fill AAMI Park again. We’ve done a lot of good work in the short period of time off the field to try and build some foundations for now and for the future. 

“This is the next step. The next step now is to start a season, to build on what we’ve done so far and keep growing as a club and a team.” 

“It’s exciting, it just feels different,” added Aloisi. “With Ten and Paramount+ coming on board, the APL breaking away from Football Australia, the new players that have come in, new coaches that have come in; there’s a lot of excitement around the place. 

“And as a coach or someone working within a club in the A-Leagues you feel the excitement.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory/Western United

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