The rigid walls of the A-League salary cap makes half the job of coaching in Australia seem like accounting. Not all have navigated the maze of rules, regulations, expenses and salaries and fewer have flourished in it. But within the constraints aimed to level the playing field, Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold has found a way to streak ahead of the rest. They set new records, won every trophy in 2017 and are on track to claim the premiership once more. Within these supposed equalising restrictions, Sydney FC are showing little sign of slowing down.
Operating within the boundaries of the strict A-League squad regulations can seem half the job of coaches. "We're looking. I've got my video analysis team working hard to find what's available," Arnold said last month of their approach to the upcoming January transfer window.
Before Arnold arrived at Sydney FC, there weren't any video analysts. Today, they are among the hardest workers inside the football department's offices at Macquarie University. It's not just tactical information dissected and distributed by chief analyst Doug Kors, but detailed criteria of every potential transfer target of the club.
"We've come up with a system that's a multiple check system so we can start to shorten down the list of players we've sent through and we can give the coaches key information alongside video to make a judgment on the players," Kors told Fairfax Media in November 2016.
Kors and the club's football manager, Terry McFlynn, categorised players by criteria set out by the club, refined for each position and type of player then handpicked from shortlists by the Sydney FC coach. Much of this includes information of what happens off the park. Character references make up a big part of their criteria. It's why current marquee Bobo stood out as Sydney FC's preferred striker from a list of 180 applicants.
Now in their 13th year, Sydney FC are starting to develop an impressive network of contacts in world football, and they're using them regularly for the purpose of recruitment. Former coach Vitezslav Lavicka was sought for assistance in signing Filip Holosko. Director Han Berger recommended Arnold look at Jordy Buijs, having spent a year with the Dutch defender while working for De Graafschap. McFlynn reached out to Brazilian international and former teammate, Juninho, for a background check on Bobo while trusted intermediaries from Serbia delivered Sydney FC repeat success with the likes of Milos Ninkovic, Nikola Petkovic and Milos Dimitrijevic. That's all before Arnold opens his phone book.
In a rare triumph for an A-League, team, all four of Sydney's foreigners are firing. Buijs is a stalwart in defence, Bobo the league's top scorer, Ninkovic the reigning Johnny Warren medallist and Adrian Mierzejewski a strong chance to become the next.
Managing the cap
However important, recruitment is still only half the task. Making so many quality players work within a rigid salary cap now of $2.928 million is another job altogether and experience has made Arnold an expert at this delicate balancing act.
Generally, A-League clubs have operated on a "rule of sevens": Seven players earning in the highest bracket ($200,000 or more), seven in the middle tier (between $100,000 and $150,00) and then seven players hovering just above the minimum salary ($61,287). At Sydney FC, Arnold appears to have bucked this trend, largely because of the club's physios and strength and conditioning department.
In the seasons before Arnold took over, Sydney FC led the league for the most amount of games missed by players due to injury, according to the Australian players' union, the PFA. Last season, Sydney FC shared the fewest absences through injury alongside Western Sydney Wanderers with only 19 games missed by players. Veteran defender Alex Wilkinson started all 29 games for the Sky Blues in their A-League campaign.
Since Rhyan Grant suffered a ruptured ACL in a freak training ground incident in the first week of pre-season, the Sky Blues have managed their squad more conservatively this season but have still avoided long-term injuries. Those are the results of fitness guru, Andrew Clark,
"From day one, him and Arnie came in and started changing things," former Sydney FC defender Matt Jurman said in 2015. "It was hard at first. Clarkey led some training work that, if I'm honest, most of us weren't used to. We all had to adapt. But look at us now, this is the fittest we've ever been as a club."
As Clark says, most injuries can be avoided.
"There's a certain percentage [of injuries] that come with fatigue, poor decision and positioning that puts you at risk where an unpreventable injury can occur," Clark told Fairfax Media in March.
With a high availability of players, Sydney FC have little need for rotation. Last year, only 12 Sydney FC players started in 10 games or more and just 18 players featured in more than two games during their 29-game campaign, including finals. By comparison, 25 Adelaide United players played in two games or more in a season the club finished in ninth place and played only 27 domestic games.
What does this mean for their salary cap? The "rule of sevens" doesn't apply at Moore Park. Squad depth is not as pressing a need for Sydney FC as it is at other clubs and they can afford to allocate a larger proportion of their salary cap for their first 11. This has allowed Sydney FC to sign 40-time Poland international, Mierzejewski, inside the salary cap despite earning a salary previously reserved for marquee players.
Nothing drives-up a player's value more than success and keeping a winning team together is no easy task. That's where Arnold's emphasis on team culture comes in. Creating a tight bond and family atmosphere within the dressing room has more benefits than just on-field morale, it makes it more difficult for a player to uproot and leave. They have access to one of the best fitness and physio teams in Australian sport, performances have propelled the likes of Danny Vukovic and Grant into national teams, meals are provided by a team chef and most recently, trophies have been delivered.
"Players here want for nothing," Arnold said last month. "Why would anyone leave this for an extra $5000?"
In more tangible terms, it is why captain Alex Brosque offered to play for the minimum salary this season if it meant Sydney FC could keep the bulk of their title-winning team together. However, the club refused to pay him so little.
Experience has taught Arnold many lessons about managing the cap. Sydney's coach learned early in his career to save foreign signings until late in pre-season, offering the same funds for shorter contracts, landing better quality signings with a higher proportionate weekly wages.
Some clubs looked for bargains in foreigners in the past, but it is understood Arnold refuses to entertain a foreign signing worth less than $200,000 a season. If he's going to bring in a player from overseas, it needs to be better than what's available domestically and worth the investment. He now doesn't spend the total at the start of the season, leaving room to manoeuvre in the January transfer window and uses injury replacement regulations effectively, bringing in the likes of experienced Socceroo Luke Wilkshire as a replacement for Grant at no further expense to the cap.
Then there is Arnold's creativity. He has already flagged the idea of signing an Asian visa-player outside of the salary cap in February, reserved specifically for the continental competition. It means the club's football budget may swell, but without affecting their A-League salary cap. This ingenuity stems from the riches on offer at Sydney FC never before afforded to Arnold when coaching Central Coast Mariners. Since taking the reigns of the Sky Blues, Arnold has never spent less than $1.5 million per season on marquee players outside of the salary cap.
This season began with the the loudest calls from clubs to scrap the A-League salary cap. Having found the clearest path through the maze of regulations, removing them could be how others catch-up to the Sky Blues.