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A-League Grand Final: 50-50 challenge

Australian A-League
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A-League elimination finals review: A glimpse at Australian football's potential

While writing about decision making and life as a whole, Nassim Nicholas Taleb shaped a fundamentally transferable idea to football.

"No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will always have the last word," he wrote.

That variable of volatility is inescapable in football, and it was once again proved over this first weekend of the A-League finals series.

Aside from the aesthetic grace football holds, its beauty also lies in its ability to reflect human perspective. Because the game's essence is in the decisions one makes, both in conceptual and situational terms.

In football and life, the potential outcomes of those decisions in search for a result dictate an estimation of risk. What helps make the game so passionate and nebulous, is how individuals respond.

Randomness shaped the respective elimination finals on Friday and Sunday night: A heavy David Williams touch before Georg Niedermeier's opening goal for Melbourne Victory and Richie de Laet's mistimed clearance, setting up Ben Halloran's 119th minute winner for Adelaide United.

Yet, what these two games also helped underline, randomness in football doesn't render any ideological framing of the game meaningless. It was what made for such a tremendous disparity in quality between them.

Despite his side's elimination, Wellington coach Mark Rudan must receive credit. It was his approach that set the terms for Friday's thrilling contest, from the lineups heading into the match, to tactical adjustments during the 90 minutes and the match's overall complexion.

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Victory coach Kevin Muscat should not go without recognition here either, but Friday's match was football at its purest, primarily because of his counterpart.

As highlighted before the match, Rudan and Wellington embraced the risk involved in pressing Victory during the regular season, proving to be a viable ploy.

Muscat certainly adjusted to that formational susceptibility, moving Raul Baena to the base of Victory's midfield diamond in possession and deploying Elvis Kamsoba on the left, while Carl Valeri and Corey Brown were left out of the starting lineup. In Brown's place, Leigh Broxham started at left-back.

Although Muscat avoided specifics on his own adjustments, they were at least acknowledged.

"Without going into too much detail, naturally, we made some changes to personnel," he said post-match. "Based on how we wanted to play and analysing both ourselves and the opposition, we felt it was the right game and moment for him [Kamsoba]."

With Max Burgess starting for the Phoenix, however, Sarpreet Singh's potential replenishment of energy and technical ability to decide a match loomed large as a second-half substitution.

Wellington's reactive plan was working, too, with good chances for Roy Krishna and Ryan Lowry coming upon winning possession in the first half. Meanwhile, Victory still faced difficulty in getting out of their half, and chances primarily came from similarly transitional scenarios.

In other words, it was chess with humans and it was truly riveting.

Kevin Muscat and Keisuke Honda
Melbourne Victory boss Kevin Muscat, left, masterminded a 3-1 win over the impressive Wellington Phoenix on Friday.

Randomness had its inevitable say, though, and changed the match's complexion. Williams heavy touch in the 42nd minute leads to a committed challenge, and despite getting the ball first, creates a situation where referee Shaun Evans can call for a foul.

This leads to Niedermeier's goal from a set piece on the stroke of half-time, enabling Muscat's formation change at half-time to the 4-2-3-1 he knows and trusts in finals football. It was pragmatic and arguably more in line with the A-League's tactical orthodoxy, but given the circumstances, justifiable.

Following Mandi's cheap loss of possession, allowing the exceptional Ola Toivonen to assist Kosta Barbarouses for 2-0 in the 53rd minute, Rudan adjusted even further. Singh came on for the defensively-minded Mandi and shifted Burgess to deeper in midfield, creating a positive and necessary change in tempo for the Phoenix.

Despite Victory's formation change, that variation of tempo in Phoenix possession was impactful, leading to Krishna pulling a goal back in the 64th minute. Toivonen's class shone through on the counter, with a sublime chip over Filip Kurto in the 71st minute, eliminating any momentum the Phoenix gained.

It was another finals game where Victory's individual quality took advantage in transition, but Muscat was arguably made to work much harder for it from a coaching standpoint. Even so, Rudan's approach and adjustments put the Phoenix in best possible position to win the game and within varying complexions.

Blunt in comparison to Muscat, Rudan was not exactly inaccurate in his assessment.

"It took them [Victory] time to adjust and find a solution, but then we were able to find another solution," he said. "Our ball speed was good. Certain moments in the game cost us, and that's finals football. Victory are a good side and they'll punish you for your mistakes.

"It wasn't any well worked move or they created anything out of their quality for their goals. It was from our naivety and our mistakes."

Although Victory's progression looked certain following Toivonen's wonderful sealer, the initial assertiveness from both coaches was highly refreshing.

Because if Friday night was chess, with its moves and counter moves both before and during the match, Sunday night was the game of chicken Australian football has grown accustomed to. What's worse, and this reference is intended, it was expected.

Both Adelaide United and Melbourne City have largely displayed a passivity and consequent asphyxiation of play on the ball if the quickest pass possible is not on. Given the naturally prosaic approaches of both United boss Marco Kurz and City's Warren Joyce, similarity created incompatibility at Hindmarsh Stadium on Sunday.

Although Kurz and his players will have no issue with this, given their advancement to face Perth Glory this Friday, Adelaide were no less devoid of plan than City in the event their attacking transition was thwarted.

Extra-time was seemingly inevitable, so too a mistake that would lead to the match being decided. De Laet's 119th minute error, creating the space for Craig Goodwin to exploit before Halloran's eventual winner, proved another win for randomness.

Desire and commitment is obviously essential in football. However, Joyce's continued demand for his side to win second balls was a grim accompaniment to overall dead possession over 120 minutes. Watching was a footballing equivalent to the Ludovico Treatment.

Discussions on enjoyment of the game, relating to aesthetic, can at times be irrelevant in a professional environment. What is pertinent, though, is the question of sustainability by playing such football.

The four total shots in the first 45 minutes -- all from outside the penalty area, an aspect even more inattentive in this era of xG -- did not just highlight a lethargy in possession. In a match between two teams that are theoretically among the best in the A-League, the four shots and how they were generated further reflected the competition's overall allergy to risk.

Looking at the game in isolation, the natural response would be to view it as a cautious knockout game, but that's hard given what came before it.

With Australian football's developmental malaise on the park in context, the two elimination finals painted two vastly different pictures from a standpoint of play. Friday's match was what the A-League and Australian football could potentially be, while Sunday's was what the A-League and Australian football currently is.

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