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A-League: The football trends that made Josh Brillante Sydney FC’s unsung hero

Sydney’s water carrier: Josh Brillante is excelling after two years in Italy. Photo: Steven SiewertLike fashion and music, football swings in trends. Tactical crazes can be more vogue than dogmatic, replicated from the most stylish and successful clubs in Europe and that’s certainly the case for Sydney FC. Their systematic march to the top of the A-League table is hinged on imitation. That much is by their own admission, as hours have been spent this season analysing samples of the best performers in Europe, whether it’s Chelsea’s press or RB Leipzig’s counter-attacks.
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As a lot of what’s old becomes new again in football, few positions become as susceptible to the winds of fashion than defensive midfield. From the 60-40 parings before the turn of the century, styles were set by the most successful. Claude Makelele and Gennaro Gattuso had clubs around the world scrambling for ball winners in the early 2000s. Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez inspired deep-lying ball players from 2006 onwards, but in a period where football is harking back to the Italian-inspired wing-back systems of the 90s, players such as N’Golo Kante have made the “water carrier” in-demand once more.

In a team that unashamedly follows the trends, it’s no wonder Josh Brillante is emerging as their unsung hero.

“He’s my Kante. He does exactly what we want,” Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold said. “The way he breaks up play, the way he reads the game, his effort in tracking in defence is excellent.”

Initially used as a back-handed compliment for former Juventus and France captain, Didier Deschamps, the term became famed for the hard-working, silent achievers in the midfield engine room. They don’t make the highlight reels, only the most tactically astute fans have their surnames on the back of jerseys, yet they’re the players coaches will fight tooth and nail to sign and keep. So highly does Arnold regard Brillante that he’s spent the season teaching him to emulate water carries such as Kante, Tottenham’s Vincent Wanyama and German starlet Julian Weigl.

“In general, [we’re taught to follow] how the sixes play at Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, Tottenham at one stage and Chelsea as well. The way they play sometimes no team can touch them,” Brillante said.

It’s not so much the art of making a tackle, but the ability to read the play and break up attacks before they form. Though, for all Sydney’s quest to imitate Europe’s elite, Brillante’s rise this season stemmed from his own experience in the continent that appeared to be a dark period in his young career. A two-year spell in Italy with Serie A giants Fiorentina didn’t provide him with regular game time, but it gave him an education he could never obtain in .

“We are very physical here, we do lot of running and transition where as it’s more tactical in Italy … I had to be smarter, when to press, when to go, when to stay,” he said.

Brillante’s biggest lesson came at Roma’s Stadio Olimpico, where he started in round one but was substituted at half-time. He appeared just once more for La Viola before going on loan to Empoli and Como where he underwent crash courses in the the tactical side of football.

“That was the start of my learning. Pre-season went so well and the first game obviously didn’t. To be able to deal with that, work on myself and how I was able to come back helped me a lot,” Brillante said. “Some people saw it as a waste of time but I saw it as a big learning curve for my development.”

His education in Italy not only hardened him for the ruthless nature of European football, but made it easier to execute the style of football the Sky Blues have been ambitiously trying to replicate.

“It was all about tactical defence. They base everything on defence and work up from there. It’s about not consuming your energy on pressing and working as a team – similar to Sydney FC,” he said.

Sydney’s success is a style impersonated from the best abroad, then that trend is set by a player whose understanding of it has become second nature.

“Tactically, how he gets the game now, it’s just a huge credit to the kid,” Arnold said.

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