Scott McDonald silencing his critics one A-League game at a time
Early in September, Western United didn't have the most convincing of preseason hitouts. The new A-League franchise defeated North Geelong 2-0 in Caroline Springs, but things were not really clicking that night in possession.
It was preseason, but United coach Mark Rudan was visibly agitated. Nevertheless, an observation from North Geelong centre-back Anthony Banovac seemed to resonate. One of the more perceptive defenders in the Victorian game, it was a small but nevertheless pertinent point. Nor was it surprising, considering the subject.
"[Valentino] Yuel is rapid but [Scott] McDonald is so hard to pick up, man," Banovac said after the game. "You know what movements some players will make but he's always moving and scanning.
"[He] loves to play on the blindside of the defender, too. You just don't know where and how he's going to receive."
Fast forward to last Saturday night and it was that very quality -- McDonald's unpredictability -- that dragged Western United off the canvas after going 2-0 down to Melbourne Victory in the opening seven minutes.
Underlining themselves as a competent and confident passing team, United visibly grew into the match and, by the end the 3-2 win, looked like they were out on the pitch for the fun of it all. Until he was taken off for Max Burgess in the 80th minute, none more so than McDonald.
"Two-nil down after 10 minutes and you think, Jesus," McDonald told ESPN. "But we seem to find our feet in games, gain confidence and we keep the ball really, really well.
"The manager's big on building a culture and I'm just really enjoying the process of it. It's been great getting to know new people, and everyone's really bought into the process. It's coming together nicely. Obviously when you have nights like last Saturday, it can help build a winning mentality."
It was a similar story this Saturday in Western United's 2-1 win over the Wanderers. After an early concession, Rudan's side assumed control of the match upon gaining a rhythm and it seemed inevitable that United would eventually take the lead.
McDonald, once again, was key. The 36-year-old is by no means a conventional forward -- a point lost on many while he played with the Australian national team, especially in the post-Mark Viduka era. The former Motherwell and Celtic star was arguably a victim of trying to replace the irreplaceable but, more importantly, he never seemed compatible with the players around him in the Socceroos setup.
In contrast to his tall-and-small duo up front with Josh Kennedy, where he was borne with the burden of having to carry the conservative Australian midfield, McDonald has perfectly fit in within a very short period of time at Western United. An astonishing 20 years and 178 days since last playing in the Australian top flight, McDonald has returned Down Under to record three wins and one loss in his opening five A-League games -- and that does not even tell the whole story.
The manner in which McDonald helps move the ball so methodically and intelligently has both kept Western United in games, and eventually put them in winning positions. Alessandro Diamanti's technical quality receives deserved plaudits yet, underpinning everything, McDonald and Dario Jertec have been the team's true barometers in possession. If the latter two are seeing more of the ball, Western United will inevitably get closer to goal and create a substantial threat.
Arguably, McDonald has been the best player on the pitch in United's matches against Wellington, Perth, Victory and Western Sydney, when the game was in the balance. It seems somewhat fitting McDonald has achieved that MVP tag despite scoring just one goal in five games, especially given that his tally of two goals in 26 Socceroos appearances is the statistic his critics most often reach for.
It's a small sample size of course, but heading into round five, McDonald led the team in goals and assists per 90 minutes (0.54) and was fouled the most, winning 12 free kicks. The ability to break up play, for a notably older team, is an important quality to have. It was no different in the first half against the Wanderers at Kardinia Park, despite Panagiotis Kone's early substitution. Though seemingly small in isolation, McDonald was a pressure valve when the four first-half fouls he won on Saturday were put into the context of the game's overall complexion to that point.
Compatibility and the ability to impact tempo is particularly key given Rudan's tactical implementation, and the team has -- to this point at least -- maximised its collective strengths and hidden weaknesses. They are compact not only defensively but in attack, and that is built upon intelligent movement and tidy feet like McDonald's.
Rudan singled him out following that performance against the Victory, and paid particular attention to his international past.
"There's been a lot of Socceroos who have come back and perhaps haven't performed as well as they wanted to," Rudan pointed out. "This is a country -- believe it or not -- that is similar to Europe in some regards, that can be extremely negative if things don't work out that way/
"I think it's good to question and keep asking questions of ourselves and the league ... but [McDonald] has come on a really modest wage and I take my hat off to him."
McDonald, for his part, is thriving playing alongside the likes of Jertec and Diamanti and the quality in possession that they provide. Most importantly, he's also having fun in the meantime.
"It's been so enjoyable. Fantastic. These guys are quality players so to be able to play with them is a privilege, especially late on in your career," McDonald said.
"To have players you believe in, where you know when they get the ball good things are going to happen -- especially as an attacking player -- is amazing. You have full belief when you make those runs, and I can't say I've always done that within my career."
Even at earlier stages of his career, McDonald was not the type of player to burst past defenders. He would wriggle clear, and in the lead-up to the two goals that drew Western United level against Melbourne Victory, it was on display against Leigh Broxham. His movement and ability to create the tiniest of separations has been a key attribute in all five of United's matches, beginning with that man of the match turn in Wellington.
On a primary level, there seems to be an immediate sense of trust among Western United's reference points. Which is critical when the ball is doing the majority of work for a team. Little surprise, following the Wanderers' win, Jertec was glowing of his teammate.
"We have to play in possession with a greater number of passes, with patience and the idea to throw the opponent out of balance, in order to open spaces for a good shot on goal," Jertec said.
"I feel as though the majority of times we open teams up, it comes from our left side. Scott can take care of the ball. We have others, of course, but Scott can play with a defender on his back and he has an extraordinary quality. Not every player is like that.
"Of course, that kind of thing suits us. We're not the fastest team. Scott can create for himself and creates time for us to get into dangerous spaces on the pitch. We can rely on him."
According to McDonald, in the end, it is borne of the compatible collective. It has also been a departure from what he preferred earlier in his career, as the game itself changed dramatically.
"Players give you and allow you space, and that is what this team does," he said. "Early on you probably could have said I preferred to play with a big striker, because they took all that attention away, so I could pick up the pieces around the ball.
"As it's gone on, that became few and far between. A lot of teams have gone with one up top, and I enjoyed playing in different roles, be it on the left of a three, as a No. 10, or even deeper in midfield at Millwall. I enjoyed all those challenges and it made me a better footballer."
Ultimately, despite the public stigma of his time and questions of incompatibility with the Socceroos, McDonald is trying to focus on the present. For the observant of football watchers, his return has been a welcome one -- as well as a happy one on a personal level for him.
"I learnt a lot about the game playing in these positions and it made me a better footballer. Even with the national team, though, that's all gone and past. I'm focusing on the here and now, and you can't really change the past.
"I'm just really enjoying playing here and helping build Western United, and show people what they haven't seen in 20 years."